The study of South Africa’s migrant butterfly 1993 -2015

Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota (female)
Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota (female)

Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota (male)
Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota (male)

Since the early 1700s there was a lot of speculation as to this migration butterfly which over the years have become famous and very little has been known about their migration patterns and why they migrate. Presented here is a study which took place from 1993 to 2015. Please bare in mind that there is always new things to discover about butterflies especially the South African Migratory Butterfly (Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota)

Introduction

Earle Whiteley - 1990Earle Whiteley started a study program on South Africa's migrant butterfly in 1993 which was instigated by the popular demand for information of the general public in the Cape Province.

Since then Earle has travelled throughout South Africa and in the process has found many localized colonies in all the Provinces of South Africa and in Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana and Kenya.

Also having the great opportunity to witness numerous migrations of this butterfly from all parts of South Africa. Not only does the African Migrant butterfly (African Brown Veined White) migrate alone as a species, but it also includes many others, especially grassland butterflies that get caught up in the euphoria and excitement of the moments of this unusual occurrence each year.

Many Experts and some more knowledgeable self-made experts have been befuddled for many years as to why this migration takes place and for what reasons. Earle claims in this statement "I have found a great deal of enthusiasm, dedication and passion from many of these knowledgeable self-made experts, as they are out there in the field collecting and discovering new things, while on the other hand, I have found a great lack of interest from some Experts having degrees and doctorships in entomology. Maybe this is due to them being paid by museums or universities for their input, whereas my knowledgeable self-made experts pay their own way for their self inflicted passion of butterflies………. and they know a lot more about butterflies than some of our Experts".

So, it stands to reason that the majority of this study of our migrant butterfly has been done by our knowledgeable self-made experts, who know what they discovered and seen.

The Discovery Of The Migration Butterfly Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota)


This butterfly first discovered in 1793, was called Papilio aurota. It was recorded in a journal (Papilio aurota Fabricius, 1793.Ent. Syst. 3 (1):197. and described by Hubner in 1819 and recorded as Hubner 1819.Verz.bek.Schmett.(6):93.

In 1950 a butterfly collector called David A Swanepoel gave his experience with this wonderful migrant butterfly. He said: "Collectors up to 1950 chose to remember one of South Africa's commonest Whites as Pieris mesentina, the name first given it by Cramer in 1782. Those readers who now possess G. van Son's Butterflies of Southern Africa, part 1, 1949, may desire to follow his choice of Belenois aurote, the name by which Fabricius subsequently – in 1793 – described the species.
So widely does aurota range that we may well ask "where does it not fly?" But there are places where aurota is rather scarce, particularly in the Cape south-western districts and in parts of the Karroo. In the latter area we may even come across places where the species does not fly at all, or perhaps once, many years hewn copious rainfall occurs. Strangest of all is its comparative scarcity in the warmer wooded areas of South Africa, whilst in the cooler grassland it often swarms. (See DA Swanepoel, pic right – 1953)

Every year, nearly, sometimes in December, but more usually in January or February, or even in March, millions, so to speak, of aurota make their way over the grassland of the Orange Free State, Basutoland, Natal and the bushveld of the Transvaal; always keeping in a north-easterly direction.
Farmers in general associate these migrations with the caterpillars of certain moths that destroy their mealies, though it is known to entomologists that the larvae of aurota do not feed on mealies at all.

Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota (female)I shall always think of aurota as a carefree happy-go-lucky butterfly, flying over South Africa's highest mountain, over its deepest gorges, through its densest forests, over its driest sandy wastes, over its most expansive grassveld; feeding here and there on flowers or sucking at muddy patches in the warmer bushveld of the Transvaal; resting wherever it likes; roosting in hundreds on low bushes for the night; flying during the day almost from sunrise to sunset and even crossing vast stretches of ocean. Almost the whole African continent is in its range. Bad weather usually retards aurota's activity, or brings it to a standstill. (See the male on the right)
I often wonder why the species is scarcer in the bushveld of the Transvaal, Natal, and Cape Province when not migrating, whilst in the lucern fields and gardens of the Orange Free State it is plentiful. In January 1948 while travelling form the northern Transvaal southwards through Swaziland to northern Natal, I observed one of aurota's grandest migrations after nearly two years of severe drought practically throughout South Africa. Not one mile of that 400 mile journey was without aurota, even over the highest grassy peaks of the Wolkberg. In its favourite habitat, the colder areas, aurota flies form about September-October to April-May. In the warmer regions it files throughout the year, differing slightly in the winter brood. The female is slightly scarcer and differs from the male. It flies throughout South Africa".

He published the first ever butterfly book on South African Butterflies at his own cost. The book is called Butterflies of Southern Africa, published in 1953 in Holland.
Belenois (Anaphaeis) aurota (female)And in his final words Swanepoel said "In laying down my pen at the end of what has been to me a pleasure able task, I take occasion to dedicate this book to all naturalists and friends, without whose kindness and ungrudging aid it must inevitable have left much to be desired; and to those naturalists who may one day wander over the numerous paths that have afforded me so many happy, unforgettable hours – these would hardly have been possible without the grace of the Creator of all the beautiful forms described in this book. As mentioned in the introduction, this work is by no means complete, and if one day it is revised by some future observer, may he fulfil my dearest wish by building a great entomological castle upon this small foundation stone." (Epilogue of D.A. Swanepoel's book, page 316)

(See the female above right). These are the words, which have made the challenge, to future collectors, who have the inclination, to pick up the challenge of Mr. D.A. Swanepoel. It is with this challenge, from a great man, that we at Conservation of Butterflies in South Africa, have accepted to carry on the legacy of our South African butterflies, to you and the world.

"A great mans works are never to lie in the dust but are there to be honoured. The teachings of this great work are forever, and will be taught for generations to come". Quote; E. Whiteley 1973.

The Migration

Commonly known as the brown veined white has brought awe to many South Africans who observe this phenomena of white butterflies flying from the west coast of south Africa through to the East Coast, using different flight paths and freeways, continuing their journey northwards, until they amalgamate together in the regions of KwaZulu Natal, Orange free State and head for Gauteng and Mpumalanga forming what seams to be a sea of white flying butterflies, passing through in the hope to reach Mozambique, in the surrounding district near Ponte, then heading directly east into the sea in an attempt to cross the ocean to reach Madagascar and further north into Africa and even further to their unknown destinations. Unfortunately the butterflies die during this last part of the journey because they become so dehydrated and cannot make the long journey. Thus ending up in the sea and becoming fish food. This is only nature's way of culling the herds, so to speak.

Many people wonder how it is possible for the butterfly to complete such a long journey. Well they do not. What really happens is that the migration begins in the land masses of the West Coast on the Atlantic Ocean and start a general flight inland, using three main flight paths. As the numbers increase in butterflies heading inland, there seems to create an urgency to other butterflies to move on with them, creating an euphoria of excitement. One can plainly see the behaviour of the butterflies in this beginning stage of the migration as having changed their behaviour pattern to a more erratic flight pattern from the normal, more relaxed one. All along the coast, similar colonies are acting in the same fashion. Gradually others begin to follow and the migration is born.

Identified Migration Route

The first migration flight path is from Namaqua National Park and surrounding areas through to Augrabee Falls National Park – all the way to Barkley West with its rich grassland and small forested areas – through to the Magaliesburg Nature Reserve areas – continuing through into the Kruger national park – through the Ponte districts of Mozambique and into the sea in the direction of Madagascar and further north into Africa.

The second main migration flight path begins in and around the Marloth Nature Reserve - through to the Karoo National Park – all the way to Kalkfontien Dam Nature Reserve – heading in the general direction of the Kruger National Park – through the Ponte districts of Mozambique and into the sea in the direction of Madagascar and further north into Africa .

Yellow shows the main general flight paths taken by the majority of the migratory butterflies.

Red shows the smaller but general flight paths taken by many thousands of migratory butterflies.

The third main migration flight path begins in and around the Ado Elephant Park through Eastern Cape along the Lusikisiki mountains – then heading east towards the sea and up northwards through KZN, while others head towards the Drakensberg Mountains and nature reserves – then outwards to the eastern coast – through to the Magaliesburg Nature Reserve areas – continuing through into the Kruger National Park – through the Ponte districts of Mozambique and into the sea in the direction of Madagascar and further north into Africa.

This does not mean to say that these are the only migratory butterfly flight paths that exist – there are many smaller ones coinciding with the main ones described above – remember, butterflies know no boundaries.

In these migration flight paths, many females copulate with the males and thereafter as they continue their flight, the females begin to lay eggs en-route. This will allow the next generation of butterflies to begin a new migration at a later date. As these butterflies die off during the flight, others join the migration forming a continuous rhythm of butterflies dying off and other specimens joining in the flight of the migration.

Some of the freeways are just wind passages caused by hot upraising air drafts and cooler airways causing air flow passages – like a vortex in which many migratory butterflies are caught up in – and have been reported to be found up to a kilometre in the air, while others have been reported to be sighted by passing cargo ships, sometimes 120 km off the South African coast line in the Indian Ocean.

It is also encouraging to see just how many people have become interested in our South African butterfly migration. Last year – 2014, we had many people telephoning us from all over South Africa. A number of reports of sightings from the Gauteng province, Botswana, and the Free State Province have shown concern to the observers who reported the migration going the wrong way. They are heading south. While other observations have been made from the Eastern Cape, that the migration is headed north. In the Western Cape the migration is headed in a North-easterly direction. These sightings are in actual fact not confusing but rather the butterflies using these flight paths to join up into the main ones.

The migration is usually from mid November to mid February – not meaning that the migration starts in mid November and ends in February – but rather that it can take place anytime in this depicted space of time. It has been recorded on several year patters as being as late as March to April.
What sets the migration off is the combination of prevailing weather conditions and the need to propagate a new generation of butterflies for the next few years. The massive nationwide migration of butterflies is actually only three percent of the eggs laid that became butterflies that have made it to be part of the migration – the rest fall prey to all kinds of predators throughout the year.

Migration Size

  • 1993 a massive migration following route 1 – a smaller one along route 2 and 3 (December - January)
  • 1994 a big migration following rout 1 – an average one along route 2 and a small one on route 3 (December – January)
  • 1995 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3 (January – February)
  • 1996 a moderate migration following route 1 – an average one along route 2 and a small one on route 3 (December – January)
  • 1997 a massive migration following rout 1 – a smaller one along route 2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1993 (November – December)
  • 1998 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 1999 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3– more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 2000 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3– more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 2001 an average migration following route 1 – a small one on route 2 - no migration along route 3 (February – March)
  • 2002 a massive migration following route 1 – a massive one along route 2 and a massive one from route 3 – the biggest we have seen thus far. (late January – early March)
  • 2003 a massive migration following rout 1 – a smaller one along route 2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1993 (January – February)
  • 2004 an average migration following route 1,2 and no migration along route 3 – more or less the same as 1993 (February – March)
  • 2005 an average migration following route 1 – a small one on route 2 - no migration along route 3 – more or less the same as 1997 (January – February)
  • 2006 no reports of any migration. A few seen at Oribi Gorge,KZN - but not migrating, a larger amount see in Kroonstad, OVS – but not migrating Some at Harties in Gauteng – but not migrating. (January – February)
  • 2007 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 2008 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 2009 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 2010 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 2011 a big migration following rout 1 – an average one along route 2 and a small one on route 3 - more or less the same as 1994 (February – March)
  • 2012 a big migration following rout 1 – an average one along route 2 and a small one on route 3 - more or less the same as 1994 (February – March)
  • 2013 an average migration following route 1,2 and 3 – more or less the same as 1995 (January – February)
  • 2014 a massive migration following route 1 – a massive one along route 2 and a massive one from route 3 – not as big as 2002. (February – March)
  • 2015

Other butterflies species that are known to join into the excitement of the migration

Official Number Scientific Name Common Name
No 1 Danuas (Anosia) chrysippus aegyptius African Monarch
No 5 Amauris (Amaura) ochlea ochlea Novice Friar
No 6 Amauris (Amaura) albimaculata albimaculata Layman Friar
No 7 Amauris (Amaura) echeria echeria Chief Friar
No 90 Bematistes aganice aganice Wanderer
No 110 Hyalitea (Hyalites) eponina Dancing Acraea
No 112 Hyalitea (Hyalites) cabira Yellow Banded Acraea
No 113 Hyalitea (Hyalites) esebria esebria Dusky Acraea
No 115 Hyalitea (Hyalites) encedon encedon Common Mimic Acraea
No 117 Acraea (Stephenia) natalica natalica Natal Acraea
No 122 Acraea (Stephenia) oncaea Widow Acraea
No 136 Acraea (Rubraea) petraea Buettner's Acraea
No 213 Byblia ilithyia ilithyia Spotted Joker
No 219 Hypolimnas misippus Common Diadem
No 220 Hypolimnas deceptor deceptor Deceptive Diadem
No 221 Hypolimnas wahlbergi Variable Diadem
No 222 Protogoniommorpha parhassus Common Mother of Pearl
No 657 Pinacopteryx eriphia eriphia Zebra White
No 658 Colotis electo electo African Clouded Yellow
No 659 Catopsilia florella African Migrant
No 665 Eronia cleodora cleodora Vine-leaf Vagrant
No 666 Eronia leada Autumn-leaf Vagrant
No 679 Colotis (Colotis) auxo auxo Sulphur Orange Tip
No 682 Colotis (Colotis) evippe omphale Smoky Orange Tip
No 689 Belenois (Belenois) thysa thysa False Dotted Border
No 690 Belenois (Belenois) zochalia zochalia Forest White
No 692 Belenois (Anaphaeis) creona severina African Common White
No 693 Belenois (Anaphaeis) gidica African-veined White
No 701 Pontia (pontia) helice helice Meadow White
No 711 Papilio dardanus cenea Mocker Swallowtail
No 715 Papilio demodocus demodocus Citrus Swallowtail

Note; that these are not migrant butterfly species but have been seen and recorded to migrate for short distances along with our migrant butterfly.

What to do when you first witness the migration taking place. Feel free to contact us whenever you do have the opportunity of witnessing this remarkable event. The information you have supplied will help us greatly to see whether the numbers of our migratory butterflies are dwindling or increasing. It also educates us as to which other flight paths they create for the future. Please contact us on cbisa@sabutterflies.co.za. Thank you

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A place for rare butterflies to be and to be protected as they are extremely rare. Only a few have ever been caught - but through our breeding program we have been able to breed over one hundred and have released them back into the wild. Thanks to the dedication of a few who cared for their survival - a very rare butterfly - has been described.