Somewhere along the 5km Blue Route, one of the short hikes at Franklyn Park near Kampersrus, we stopped at the edge of a stream to cool down and enjoy the scenery.
We weren’t alone – there were dozens of butterflies flitting over the water, alighting on plants and resting on cool patches of damp soil in displays of gossamer greens, startling reds and earthy streaks of amber and brown. In the air around us there were bevies of smaller butterflies in almost perpetual motion, catching our eyes with tiny flutters of pale blue and yellow, light as blossoms in a breeze.
Everyone loves butterflies, and there is a whole world of them to discover in South Africa – over 660 species to be exact. Just here, alongside this rather innocuous stream on the border of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, you can see many different kinds. We identified mother-of-pearls and chiefs and common bush browns. With butterflies it’s not always easy to tell exactly what they are; for example, with some of the Leptotes blues, the only way to distinguish between them is by genital dissection, and we prefer our butterflies alive and out in nature where they should be.
We weren’t alone – there were dozens of butterflies flitting over the water, alighting on plants and resting on cool patches of damp soil in displays of gossamer greens, startling reds and earthy streaks of amber and brown.
Some butterfly species in South Africa have adapted to the climate and vegetation in specific parts of the country, and a large number are found nowhere else in the world. There is a growing group of people interested in them – it’s like birdwatching, but perhaps more challenging as the specimens can be so small and, sometimes, the differences between them so minute.
The beauty of watching butterflies is that you can do it just about anywhere. From simply registering and enjoying their presence in a garden to actively trying to find them and observing their behaviour, you can spend as much or as little time with them as you like.
If you are interested in learning more about butterflies, it helps to get to know the main butterfly families, their habits and where they’re likely to occur. A great resource is Steve Woodhall's Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa, which tells you all this and more. You'll learn that some butterflies are active all year round, and some for as little as two weeks in a year.
If you’re looking for a specific species, you'll find out that the best way to find them is to get to know what they eat. The high energy demands of flight mean sugary nectar is often a source of food for adults, but some species also feed on carrion and faeces. Another useful tip is that in hot weather butterflies need to drink. This is why you’ll see congregations of then along the banks of rivers and pools. Unlike birdwatching, which favours cooler hours, butterfly activity peaks around midday.
To make it easier to identify butterflies, and to add to available data about the various species, there are also a number of ways you can submit photos of butterflies online, such as LepiMAP, one of the many citizen science projects run out of the University of Cape Town's Animal Demography Unit, in partnership with the Lepidopterists' Society of Africa. They also have an active LepiMAP Facebook group. By using this platform, you’ll get a positive ID on the specimen – and be contributing to science.
You'll also meet other people who are intrigued by the variety of these gorgeous insects, which rely on their colours and patterns to avoid predators.
Their physiology – how they breathe, digest food and reproduce – is as fascinating as their markings. Some are poisonous to predators, like African monarchs, which feed on milkweed that contains heart-muscle toxins. For each one that’s genuinely poisonous, though, there will be another that mimics it because butterflies are also masters of evasion and disguise.
From egg, to caterpillar, pupa and adult specimen, each butterfly is a marvel of nature, and perhaps that’s what we were really appreciating sitting by that gentle stream in Franklyn Park: the ordinary, everyday miracle of metamorphosis; the ordinary, everyday miracle of butterflies.