28 August 2022

Butterfly of the Month - August 2022

Butterfly of the Month - August 2022
The Tree Flitter (Hyarotis adrastus praba)

A Tree Flitter feeding on the flower of Ixora javanica

The last weekend of the month of August 2022 brings some good cheer and optimism in Singapore's handling of the Covid19 pandemic. Over a period of more than 2 years, our island nation has been facing ups and downs of handling a historically unprecedented viral pandemic that turned lives upside down and handed the economy a knockout punch. But in his National Day Rally, the Prime Minister announced that wearing of face masks in the majority of situations will soon be optional as Singapore deals with Covid in its own way of co-existing with the disease in our midst.

August is also known as the Hungry Ghost month in most Asian nations where the the souls of the dead are believed to roam the earth during the festival, and these ghosts can get up to mischief if ignored. Just as the Americans have Halloween, the Chinese have the Hungry Ghost Festival (also known as Zhong Yuan Jie in Chinese), a festival held in honour of the dearly departed. According to traditional customs, all sorts of offerings are made during this period, which is the seventh month in the lunar calendar.

August is also the month when Singapore celebrates its National Day every year.  This year, we celebrated our 57th year of independence. This little island nation has come a long way from its early years of uncertainty and struggle. Today, it is a bustling and successful metropolis that many other countries use as a benchmark to match up to - in areas ranging from public housing, security, urban planning, low corruption and systems that work efficiently.

Globally, the war in eastern Europe continues to rage on, affecting other countries economically as the spectre of food shortages and energy loom ahead of the winter months of 2022. Closer to Asia, the US-China spats have continued and slowly reaching levels that have not been seen for many decades. A China that is growing in confidence, economically and militarily, is beginning to challenge the US position as the world leader and this does not bode well for world peace in the coming years.

Our Butterfly of the Month for August 2022 is a skipper, the Tree Flitter (Hyarotis adrastus praba). The Tree Flitter is moderately rare, but is regularly found at the forest edges of the nature reserves. It is rather widely distributed. It can sometimes be spotted in urban parks and gardens as well as in coastal forests in back-mangrove habitats.

A Tree Flitter sunbathing on the top surface of a leaf with its wings partially opened in the typical skipper fashion

It is a fast flyer, zipping from flower to flower as it feeds on nectar. It is often seen sunbathing with half-open wings in the skipper fashion, or lurking in shady spots with its wings folded upright. It forages amongst low shrubbery and flowering bushes but is alert and often takes off to the sanctuary of the treetops if alarmed.

The Tree Flitter is dark brown above with large hyaline and subapical spots on the forewing.  The underside of the hindwing is crossed by an irregular white discal band from mid-costa to mid-dorsum. The hindwing cilia is chequered and this is more obvious in pristine individuals. The antennae are white banded just below the elbow of the apiculus.

A Tree Flitter feeding on bird dropping on a leaf
Tree Flitters feeding on nectar from a variety of flowers

The species is often seen feeding at flowering Ixora bushes, flowers of the Chinese Violet, and flowering trees like Syzygium spp. It also feeds on bird droppings and can occasionally be seen pudding at muddy footpaths which have been contaminated with animal excretions. The Tree Flitter has been successfully bred on the common rattan, Daemonorops augustifolia.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Gavin Chan, Chng CK, Khew SK, Loh MY, Loke PF, Bobby Mun, Horace Tan and Anthony Wong

31 July 2022

Butterfly of the Month - July 2022

Butterfly of the Month - July 2022
The Julia Heliconian (Dryas iulia)

A male Julia Heliconian sunbathes with open wings on a leaf

We are well into the 2nd half of 2022 with a greater optimism towards the rest of the year. As with anything in life, there are always challenges and risks in our way, as the world continues to evolve in ways that would not have been imagined a decade ago. For example, in the workplace, one would not have anticipated a situation where employees can work from home and not be branded a "skiver"!

A female Julia Heliconian feeding on the flowers of Lantana camara at Tampines Eco Green

Indeed, the "Great Resignation" appears to be a disruption that has affected nearly every industry as staff leave for greener pastures - even in unfamiliar or unrelated industries. Did the pandemic disruption give employees the time and space to re-evaluate their lives and choose paths less trodden? Or was it a simple case of economics that rising costs and inflation caused the working person to take a more practical approach to better manage their daily expenses?

Underside of the Julia Heliconian : Top : Female Bottom : Male

The answer may be "all of the above" as everyone would have heard of examples where staff made the  decision to exit their companies for various reasons ranging from salary, work-life balance, upward mobility, meaningful work, family issues, change of environment and a whole host of other requirements. For companies, particularly in Singapore, the sudden increase in manpower costs have cut bottom lines and profits as each organisation struggles with the prospects of a global talent competition that has not been experienced for many years.

The opening up of the global workforce economy has yet to reach a level comparable to pre-covid times, as potential employees are still reticent to move out of their homelands and comfort zone. Whilst this should normalise in the months to come, the numbers of foreign employees available appear to be still relatively low. This may have added to the woes of companies looking to recruit foreign talent to replace existing employees who are part of the resignation exodus.

Speaking of foreign talents and immigrants, we turn to our Butterfly of the Month for July 2022, the Julia Heliconian (Dryas iulia). A native of the tropical and sub-tropical areas of South America, particularly in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and other countries in that region, it can also be found in the southern states of the US. The species was unknown to this part of tropical Asia until the late 90's when a butterfly farm in Phuket, Thailand imported the species as part of its exhibits for its butterfly aviary.

It was also later discovered that the Julia Heliconian was bred and released during religious ceremonies and weddings. For a species that breeds easily and where large clutches of eggs are laid by the females, the Julia Heliconian began to spread widely in Southern Thailand. That its caterpillar host plants are considered "weeds" - Passiflora suberosa and less often, Passiflora foetida, the species began colonising southwards into Malaysia where it was first spotted on Pulau Langkawi in Sep 2009. Its spread southwards is probably also helped by the fact that it displays aposematic colouration as it is distasteful to predators. 

There were no further observations of this species in Malaysia, until some time six years later when it was spotted breeding at an urban garden in the state of Selangor in May 2015. Whilst it may have already been present in several of the northern states of West Malaysia, there were no reliable sighting reports until 2015. Both adult and early stages of the species were observed.

A mating pair of Julia Heliconian. Left : Male, Right : Female

It was a matter of time before the southward invasion of the Julia Heliconian would end in Singapore. And the theory was proven to be correct when an individual was spotted at Hort Park in the southern part of Singapore in June 2021. A colony emerged at St John's Island thereafter, and more individuals were observed all over Singapore island in 2021 and this year. It became more common and very often several individuals were spotted together, usually flying rapidly around, or feeding on flowers.

A male Julia Heliconian feeding on Lantana camara flowers at St John's Island

The Julia Heliconian is a narrow-winged butterfly with elongated forewings, usually with a wingspan of 82-92 mm. On the upperside, the wings are bright orange in the male and duller orange in the female. There are black borders along the wing margin, with those in the female broader and more extensive. The eyes are translucent and the compound eye details can be seen.

On the underside, the wings for both sexes are paler compared to the upperside, and are adorned with brown markings in the cell, in post-discal area as well as along the wing margins. A small pink red patch occurs in the basal area of both wings.

The butterfly is active and a relatively strong flyer. Even when it is feeding, it tends to move a lot and is not easy to photograph. The caterpillars appear spiky, and are somewhat similar to some of the species in the Nymphalidae family. The life history has been successfully documented on the invasive weed, Passiflora suberosa in Singapore.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Gavin Chan, Khew SK, Loh MY and Horace Tan.

References and Additional Reading :

26 June 2022

Butterfly of the Month - June 2022

Butterfly of the Month - June 2022
The Chestnut Bob (Iambrix salsala salsala)

A mating pair of Chestnut Bob perched on a leaf

The first half of 2022 is almost over, and the world has made good progress to pivot towards a post-pandemic normalcy. Whilst the dark memories of lockdowns and facing the spectre of Covid19 is still fresh in the minds of everyone, over two years of an unprecedented battle against the pandemic seems to be almost over. With only a few countries still adopting a different stance towards managing the virus outbreaks, the rest of the world begins to shift towards a new world of living with it.

Chestnut Bobs feeding on wildflowers - top : Elephant's Foot weed and bottom : Singapore Daisy

Inter-country travel has very much resumed as many countries welcome tourists and a boost to their respective economies. Businesses, battered by over two years of economic slowdown, start to claw their way out and work towards recovery. However, with the Russia-Ukraine war still going on, with no apparent hope of a ceasefire yet, the world braces itself for increased costs, inflation and further economic turmoil.

A Chestnut Bob feeding on the flower of the Bandicoot Berry

Back in Singapore, day-to-day existential issues like rising costs and inflation have begun to pinch at the pockets of the ordinary Singaporean. The Malaysian chicken ban didn't help things as another favourite meat item will be more costly in the near term. It's also the first time for many years that I can remember, that the price of the basic 95 Octane petrol has risen to over S$3.00 per litre! 

A Chestnut Bob feeding on the flower of the White Weed

The weather phenomenon has also been rather erratic, with the prevailing South West monsoons hitting Singapore, with more rainy days in June than normal. This is apparently due to a more prominent La Nina effect, which is supposedly predicted to weaken in the following months. However, from the postings of the diversity of butterfly species on our FaceBook group, the weather did not seem to have an adverse effect on our butterfly activity.

A Chestnut Bob feeding on the flower of the Spanish Needle

Our Butterfly of the Month for June 2022 is the diminutive and rather common Skipper, the Chestnut Bob (Iambrix salsala salsala). It is one of two species from the genus Iambrix to be found in Singapore. A widely distributed species, the Chestnut Bob has been recorded all over Singapore, but is most common in open grassy areas in urban parks and gardens. As its caterpillar host plants are common grasses - Ottochloa nodosa and Axonopus compressus (Common Cow Grass), the butterfly is commonly seen.

Upperside of the Chestnut Bob - Top : Male, Bottom : Female

The Chestnut Bob is dark brown above, with a curved macular post-discal band on the forewing above. This band is replaced by whitish spots in the female of the species. On the underside, the wings are dusted reddish-brown with a series of black-edged white spots on the underside of both wings. The cilia is brownish-black on both wings.

A mating pair of Chestnut Bobs being harassed by another male

The abdomen is banded, whilst the palpi is pale orange-yellow and thick and hairy. The antennae are brown throughout and the apiculus prominent. The eyes are dark chocolate brown throughout. The legs are pale orange-yellow and spiked, as with many skippers. It is a small butterfly, with an average wingspan of about 25mm.

A Chestnut Bob feeding on the flower of the Red Tree Shrub

The Chestnut Bob is skittish and flies rapidly, usually at low level above open grassland and shrubbery. It stops to sunbathe with its wings partially opened in the usual skipper fashion. It is often observed feeding on wildflowers and various other small flowering plants. Occasionally, it is also seen feeding on bird droppings on the top surface of leaves.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by David Chan, Huang CJ,  Khew SK, Loh MY, Loke PF and Horace Tan

29 May 2022

Butterfly of the Month - May 2022

Butterfly of the Month - May 2022
The Malayan Snow Flat (Tagiades calligana)

Once again, another month passes. In Singapore, May 2022 can go down in history as our "Independence Month" - a month where the control measures on Covid19 have been rolled back to such an extent that an almost pre-Covid normalcy is back in our lives. Shopping malls are crowded, restaurants and other food-and-beverage establishments fully booked, workers are back in offices, traffic is back to the normal rush-hour crawls and people walking about in open spaces without face masks.

A sunbathing Malayan Snow Flat with its typical open winged pose

It is a very much needed boost to the economy, although not without certain challenges. Besides the Great Resignation exodus affecting many industries, salaries are rising rapidly and talent attraction is far more difficult than it ever was in the past few years. Business challenges continue in a more competitive and aggressive environment. And the prediction of an impending recession is already in the air.

Globally, it has become accepted that the pandemic is under control, and travel restrictions are lifted in most countries. The Omicron variant of the virus is, whilst more infectious, is also fortunately, less dangerous and is generally less fatal than its predecessors. China, on the other hand, maintains its zero-covid strategy, and continues to lock down its cities the moment infection cases rise. Whether this is the correct strategy when the rest of the world has taken a different stance in accepting the virus as endemic, remains to be seen.

Singapore's 13th edition of the Festival of Biodiversity was held on 21-22 May 2022 at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Despite fewer booths compared to past Festivals, it was good to get out and meet fellow nature enthusiasts in person again. This year, Minister for Education, Chan Chun Sing was the guest of honour, as the theme pointed towards the education of our younger generations in the area of nature conservation.

A Malayan Snow Flat takes refuge on the underside of a leaf

ButterflyCircle also worked with NParks to come out with a simple and very portable field guide to the butterflies of Singapore. Special thanks to the contributors who shared their butterfly photos in the field guide. The guide is not for sale, but given free to volunteers of NParks BioBlitz and Butterfly Watch surveys. Do look out for these events on the NParks social media and official websites.

Our Butterfly of the Month for May 2022 is the Malayan Snow Flat (Tagiades calligana), one of four "Snow Flats" that are found in Singapore. The Snow Flats from the family Tagiades, belong to the subfamily Pyrginae, featuring skippers that typically pose with their wings opened flat on top or below leaf surfaces. Even when feeding at flowers, the wings of the Pyrginae skippers are opened flat as they maneuver themselves to probe their proboscis into the flowers for nectar.

The Malayan Snow Flat is a moderately rare species that inhabits the forested nature reserves. Preferring to forage along the forest edges amongst shrubs and bushes, it is usually active in the earlier hours of the day. In the mornings, it can sometimes be seen sunbathing on the uppersides of leaves. As the day wears on and the weather gets warmer, it typically adopts the behaviour of many of the "Flats" in flying rapidly and settling on the undersides of leaves with its wings spread open flat.

Male, female and underside shots of a Malayan Snow Flat

The Malayan Snow Flat is dark brown above, with the usual hyaline and sub-apical spots on the forewing. On the forewing, there is a white hyaline spot in each of spaces 3,4,5,6,7,8 and 11. The forewing cell features an elongate upper spot, and in some specimens, a smaller lower spot. Additionally, the female has one spot in space 2. On the hindwing, there is a large white tornal area with its inner edge reaching vein 6. In this whitened area, there are black marginal spots at the end of veins 1b, 2 3 and 4, with the one at vein 1b rather faint and even absent in some specimens.

The hindwing tornal area is almost pure white and contrasts with the darker parts of the wings. The submarginal spots on the upperside of the hindwings are large and rounded and usually lacks a spot at vein 1b, which distinguishes this species from its lookalike cousins. The white area on the underside is more extensive and extends to the basal area.

A Malayan Snow Flat feeding at the flowers of the Spicate Eugenia (Syzygium zeylanicum)

The species has been successfully bred in Singapore on the caterpillar host plant Dioscorea pyrifolia (Dioscoreaceae). The adult butterflies are sometimes seen feeding on flowering plant like Syzygium and on bird droppings on the forest floor and on vegetation.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Koh CH, Low JK, Tan BJ, Horace Tan and Jonathan Soong.