15 July 2017

Butterfly of the Month - July 2017

Butterfly of the Month - July 2017
The Baron (Euthalia aconthea gurda)

We have now sped past the halfway mark of the year, and for those of us who are faced with Key Performance Indicators (the dreaded KPIs) in our work or business environment, if we have not hit the 50% mark, then we may have cause to worry more than usual. Although the economic outlook in Singapore showed some spark over the past six months of 2017, predictions by the gurus indicate more challenges ahead in the second half of the year.

A male Baron sunbathing on the top of a leaf and surveying its surroundings

The global scene has not changed much, although new risks continue to appear unexpectedly. Whilst analysts say that the use of military force is highly unlikely, too much power in the hands of certain politicians continue to cause concern in various regions of bilateral tensions and territorial disputes.

A male Baron feeding on organic matter at a sandy footpath

On the technology scene, all the banks in Singapore are now launching the new payment platform, PayNow, which pushes the city state towards a cashless society. For those of us who are already used to internet banking, one cannot miss all the latest messages from the banks, encouraging us to register for the PayNow option. Compared to China where the adoption of technology has taken leaps and bounds in recent years, Singapore could do more to promote cashless payments, in hawker centres, in shops and between people.

Hopefully, our society can benefit from the convenience of consumer-to-consumer payments with a click of an app on your smartphone, and move to the digital world in a more coordinated and systematic manner in keeping with our Smart Nation aspirations. Today, people want a fast, convenient, frictionless, safe, secure service, and do not want to have to remember bank account numbers. But let it be said that Singapore is already lagging behind countries like China.

A female Baron puddling on a tarmac road

Disruptive technologies continue to shake up the world as we know it, and it is only a matter of time when, and not if, things take a change that would affect the way we live, work, learn and play. It has been predicted that Singapore is one likely country that can see automated vehicles plying our roads in the coming decade. Transportation mode share will change rapidly as private vehicle ownership becomes a thing of the past as everyone will be moving around the city in self-driving cars, or even flying drone vehicles? A scene from a science fiction movie that will become reality?

This month, we feature an urban butterfly species, the Baron (Euthalia aconthea gurda). As the caterpillar feeds on the leaves of mango (mangifera indica) and related species, the butterfly is often seen in urban parks and gardens and in the vicinity of where the host plant is cultivated. Like many of its cousins in the genus Euthalia, the Baron has a robust body and is a strong flyer.

The male Baron is dark brown on its upperside, with a broad obscure post-discal band on both wings. There are sub-apical and post-discal white spots on the forewings. The wings show a dark purplish tinge when viewed in a sidelight. The underside is a much paler brown and the typical 'helmet-shaped' markings on the discal areas are more distinct. There is a row of pointed submarginal spots on the hindwing.

A female Baron with the full complement of white post-discal spots

The female is usually larger and a lighter buff brown than the male. The post-discal spots are more distinct and larger than those in the male. The underside is lighter brown as in the male, and the post-discal spots are more prominent. The female Baron's wings lack the purplish tinge compared with the male, and appears more matt and dull.

A male Baron feeding on the ripened fruit of the Straits Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum)

A female Baron with 'missing' white spots on its forewings

It is interesting to note that the Baron is quite variable, and, for example, the white spots on the wings are by no means consistent. In an earlier article on this blog, we discussed the variability of the female Baron's post-discal spots. Comparing several individuals, the white post-discal spots can vary in number and size and some may be obscure which makes the female Baron appear quite different from a typically-marked individual.

A male Baron feeding on rotting mango

The Baron is usually skittish and alert, flying off at great speed if alarmed. However, it is often seen feeding greedily on overripe fruits and tree sap. It is much easier to approach when it is feeding and less likely to fly off in a hurry. At certain times of the day, both the males and females can be seen sunbathing on the tops of leaves with their wings opened flat.

The 'spiny' caterpillar of the Baron resting on the leaf of its host plant, mango

The caterpillar has a yellow dorsal stripe and has long spiny protuberances. Spines on each long greenish protuberance are mostly green with the exception of the distal pair which are black with white/yellow tips. The caterpillar is very well camouflaged when resting on the mid-rib of its host plant.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Goh LC, Khew SK, Koh CH, Horace Tan, Anthony Wong and Mark Wong

17 June 2017

Butterfly of the Month - June 2017

Butterfly of the Month - June 2017
The Common Palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra beatrice)

2017 edges towards the mid-way mark of the year, as some of us may be pondering what we have achieved over the first half of the year. Or how much of our new year resolutions have we accomplished? Time and tide wait for no man, and each of us should just focus on pursuing our own dreams and aspirations, and not judge what goals others chase by our own irrelevant yardsticks. To each his own, and as long as it brings that person happiness, who are we to judge?

The summer months are upon us, and temperatures are hitting uncomfortable highs again. It would not be a surprise if ambient temperatures around the world hit records again this year. It is therefore lamentable when the world's largest economy has decided not to collaborate with the rest of the world on climate change mitigation strategies. Choosing that path will probably set back efforts made in the last few decades, and we can only face the consequences with the rest of the world, as we share the same old mother earth.

The local economy continues to appear weak, as far as the industry that I work with, is concerned. As many companies struggle with costs and business sustainability, governmental agencies are pushing for more collaborative business models and the increased use of technology. For many companies, it is a time for contemplation about the future of the business and how to remain competitive and yet profitable. Change is certainly in the air, and time is of the essence.

In Singapore, it would be difficult for any coffee shop talk to avoid making reference to the current dispute amongst the siblings of a most prominent family. A personal take on this, is that the matter that is being debated heatedly across all portals of social and mainstream media, is a private matter that should be settled amongst themselves and not dragged out in the open as a free show. And like most things on social media, everyone would have their own theories and opinions, whether welcome or not.

Hence back to our world of butterflies where life is probably still more innocent and simpler. This month, we feature a common urban butterfly, the Common Palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra beatrice). This species is rather widespread across Singapore, where it can be seen in urban gardens, parks as well as the forest fringes. As its caterpillars feed on many varieties of ornamental palms this 'boring' looking butterfly is very much a part of our urban biodiversity in Singapore.

A mating pair of Common Palmfly. Male on the left, female on the right.

The Common Palmfly belongs to the subfamily Satyrinae, often referred to by the common English name of "Browns and Arguses". They are typically drab-coloured butterflies, usually ornamented with cryptic patterns and ocelli on the undersides of their wings. Satyrinaes prefer shaded habitats under the tree canopy and normally fly at low level amongst the shrubbery. For a large number of species in this family, their caterpillar host plants tend to be monocotyledons like grasses and palms.

On the upperside, the Common Palmfly has bluish-black forewings with light blue submarginal spots. The hindwing is reddish brown. The underside is speckled with reddish-brown striae that is very variable. The general appearance on the underside of the Common Palmfly can vary quite a bit in terms of the physical features and also the colour. Females tend to be lighter coloured with the submarginal areas on both wings lighter.

The males can be much darker and appears almost a dark purple-blue in some examples. In most examples, there is a white spot on the costa of the hindwing. However, there are some individuals where this white spot is significantly reduced or even totally absent (causing some observers to assume that they are looking at a different species of butterfly).

A Common Palmfly showing a peek at the upperside of the forewing

In my early years of collecting butterflies as a kid, we referred to this species as the "Thumb Print Butterfly". This is because the apical area on the underside of the forewing has a lighter patch with reminds one of a thumb print on the butterfly's wing.

The Common Palmfly is skittish and is difficult to approach when it is alert. It takes short 'hops' amongst the shaded undergrowth and stops with its wings folded upright, all ready to take off again should an intruder enter its circle of fear. A unique behaviour of this species from field observations is how the butterfly occasionally stops on the surface of a leaf, walks on the leaf using its legs, then then flies off to another leaf and repeats this behaviour.

Some local examples of its caterpillar host plants are : Ptychosperma macarthurii (MacArthur Palm), Cocos nucifera (Coconut), Dypsis lutescens (Yellow Cane Palm), Caryota mitis (Fish Tail Palm). Undoubtedly there will be more species of palms that its caterpillars feed on. Many of these species of palms are used in urban landscape design, and this explains why the Common Palmfly can be seen in urban residential gardens, particularly where pesticides are not used regularly.

Cat-like look of the Common Palmfly caterpillar

The caterpillar feeds in a very neat way of making a straight cut across the leaf of the palm making it appear as though someone had cut the leaf with a pair of scissors. The caterpillar has an interesting appearance with 'horns' on its head, giving it a cat-like appearance. The full life history of the Common Palmfly has been successfully recorded here.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Jerome Chua, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Henry Koh, Loke PF, Bobby Mun, Horace Tan and Benjamin Yam.

10 June 2017

Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden
Community Planting Day 

The Bukit Panjang community and volunteers with Mayor Dr Teo Ho Pin at the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Located in the north-west of Singapore, Bukit Panjang, formerly called Zhenghua, is home to about 140,000 residents. Pre-independence, Bukit Panjang consisted of mainly rural settlements and agricultural farming. Over the decades, Bukit Panjang has developed from a largely agricultural and industrial area to a highly urbanised and self-contained town, as kampung folks and farmers were re-housed in new Housing and Development (HDB) flats. Despite these changes, much of the area’s terrain and greenery have been preserved to form a unique blend of urban and rural space. The area retains its strong connection to nature through the neighbouring Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to the south and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to the east, both of which contain rain forests.

Trail of Community Gardens in Bukit Panjang.  The Butterfly Garden is not shown on NParks' map at the moment

In recent years, the National Parks Board's (NParks) Community in Bloom programme worked with the residents to bring back the kampung spirit in the form of community gardens. Residents and volunteers are encouraged to set up gardens where they can bring back their past activities as well as bond with their neighbours and friends living around the precinct. Bukit Panjang constituency is home to more than 11 community gardens specialising in edibles and medicinal herbs. The Bukit Panjang community gardens have a large variety of vegetables and fruits which are grown by community gardeners who work together to keep the kampung and gotong royong spirit alive in modern Singapore.

Sussie Ketit, who started the original Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden in 2013

Tucked in between two of the community gardens along Bukit Panjang Road, a small butterfly garden was set up in 2013. Championed by grassroots activist Sussie Ketit and her team of volunteers, the butterfly garden led a low profile existence with about 10-15 species of butterflies regularly seen at the garden.

Site visit to the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden with Mayor Dr Teo in March 2017

This year, Sussie approached Foo JL of Seletar Country Club Butterfly Group for his assistance to expand the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden (BPBG). A site visit amongst our group of butterfly enthusiasts and the Mayor of North West Community Development Council (CDC), Dr Teo Ho Pin in March this year, initiated plans for the expansion of the original BPBG.

Planter beds all ready for the plants 

The group, ably led by Foo and his volunteers, Sussie and Sebastian Chia, and landscape contractor Tian HM set out to plan BPBG 2.0. The Town Council and a group of volunteer gardeners chipped in to help as well. The plans took shape as the planter beds were constructed and topsoil added. Butterfly host and nectaring plants were prepared and readied for the planting day planned for Jun 2017.

Foo JL and Cheng Khim at the morning briefing and show-and-tell to the volunteers

The Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden 2.0 Community Planting Day started early on Saturday 3 June. Foo JL and Cheng Khim were on hand to brief the community volunteers and gardeners about butterfly plants and the caterpillars of butterflies that feed on them. Cheng Khim helped to brief the non-English speaking participants and everyone enjoyed the show-and-tell session with live caterpillars and information about plants that attract butterflies.

Working hard at planting butterfly plants!

The group then went to the various planting beds that were already prepared with many butterfly host and nectaring plants. A final briefing by Tian on how to properly dig a hole and place the plants gently into the soil, everyone was raring to go. Armed with spades, shovels and changkuls, the volunteers, young and young-at-heart, helped to fill the planters with their selected plants.

Young and the young-at-heart digging and putting in their favourite plants with tender loving care

Despite the hot and humid morning, everyone had a lot of fun digging and planting the various host and nectaring plants. The rather ad-hoc placement of the plants is typical of a natural butterfly garden habitat, where the landscape design allows for a more natural look, rather than a horticultural display of organised and manicured planting.

Mayor Dr Teo Ho Pin joins in the fun

Mayor Dr Teo joined in the planting exercise and he energetically planted a Red Tree Bush (Leea rubra), a butterfly nectaring plant, right in the centre of the "VIP" planter bed. The local gardening community ladies also joined in to help Mayor Teo make sure that the plants were well watered. Foo JL brought some butterflies for Mayor Teo to release, to mark the event.

Making sure the plants are well watered

The morning ended with a nice buffet (like all things Singaporean, there will always be good food at such gatherings), generously sponsored by Sussie. After the hard work, everyone was in high spirits and looking forward excitedly to more butterflies at BPBG in the coming months.

The proximity of Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden to the Nature Reserve and park connectors makes it a potentially good location to attract more species to its location

The BPBG is situated along Bukit Panjang Road next to Block 213/214 Petir Road. The site is quite ideal, as it is linked to the Pang Sua and Zhenghua Park Connector network that links to biodiversity-rich areas like Dairy Farm Nature Park and further south, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Its immediate proximity to the forests of the Central Catchment Nature Reserves is also advantageous, as a concentration of nectaring plants may attract some forest butterflies along the edge of the reserves to fly over to feed.

The next generation.  A bunch of eggs and caterpillars of the Three Spot Grass Yellow (Eurema blanda snelleni) found at the BPBG.  Very soon these pretty yellow butterflies will be fluttering around at the garden!

And so BPBG has been planted and good to go. It has 'pupated', waiting for the plants to grow, and for the flowers to bloom and attract butterflies. Its metamorphosis has started, and we will wait for a couple of months to see the fruits of the community's labour. Hopefully, we can encourage more butterfly enthusiasts to enjoy butterflies and conserve the environment that is conducive for our winged jewels to survive for our future generations to enjoy them.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sebastian Chia, Foo JL, Huang CJ, Sussie Ketit, Khew SK, Or Cheng Khim and Rita Dumais Sim.