Bushwise Field Guides

In this series we will look at the various different groups of butterflies, and get an understanding into the fascinating world that is butterflies!

Monarchs are probably the most well known of the butterflies, made famous by their huge migrations from America to Mexico for the winter and back in the spring. Our local Monarchs are very closely related to these, to be more precise they are of the same genus Danaus, but are separated at species level (Danaus Plexipuss in America, Danaus Chryssipuss in South Africa) Furthermore they are subdivided into a few subspecies. Our local Monarchs have not been recorded migrating though, probably due to our far more milder climate.


Males and females can readily be distinguished. The males have four black spots (The last being a pheromone gland) on the hind wing, and the females only have three. Their bright warning colours are a form of aposematic colouring, and it has been proven that they obtain their toxins though their larval stages by feeding on Milkweed (Asclepias) plants. The picture below shows a female, caterpillar and pupa on the Milkweed plant for reference.

For a challenge, there is an ultra rare kind of Monarch, called the Blue Monarch! (Tirumala petiverana) There have been only a few records in South Africa for this butterfly (vagrants from further north where they are more common). These have the same overall shape and size, but look completely different in terms of colour and markings. Be sure to keep a look out, you may be lucky one day to spot or even photograph such a splendour out of range in South Africa!

Now to the rest of the royalties. Should you go wondering in the more forested regions of the escarpment and northern KZN you may spot a huge black and white butterfly slowly floating around, fairy like, in the dappled shade along a pathway or stream. These are the Friar Butterflies! They are truly magnificent and you can’t really miss them. Friars are often found attracted to flowers, and this would be the best bet in getting photos of them! Sometimes, if conditions are perfect their numbers can explode and “swarms” of friars can be seen all in one general spot! A sight not easily forgotten!

Next up we find in the same environment the Laymen and the Novice. These two butterflies may be confused with some others as they are mimicked by a type of swallowtail female, as well as some Diadems. (to be covered later). These are both quite a bit smaller than the Friar, but are also readily attracted to flowers along the forest edges. The layman is the more common of the two, and with some practice, these two can readily be distinguished in the field without much hassle, even though they may appear quite similar.


A third butterfly to add to the group, would be the Chief, which is even more similar in markings to the Layman, however the markings are more creamy to ochre in colour.

Just beware though, these butterflies have many allies that mimic them! Some are masters of disguise, and can resemble our noble folk with such accuracy, that all but the most well trained eyes may easily overlook them for what they are, imposters! This is a great tactic if you do not want to be eaten, but also do not want to put in the effort of making yourself distasteful! Some great mimicry can be found with the Mocker Swallowtail. The Males are sometimes referred to as flying handkerchiefs, as they are big, yellow and black and flutter around in a manner like a piece of cloth being flung, however, the females are far more cunning! They deploy tactics of deception and mimic these above-mentioned butterflies to seem distasteful to predators.

Here for example is a female Mocker Swallowtail that is mimicking one of them!

This False Chief (below) also does a very good job of mimicking these butterflies mentioned above, although the more strongly built body and behaviour will often reveal it’s true identity!

This group of butterflies can most commonly be found in forested areas, except for the Monarch which can be found nearly anywhere in South Africa. Together with Bushwise Field Guide students we get to explore these tropical regions.

Next month we will explore the wonderfully red world of Acraeas! Good luck and happy butterfly watching!

Blog & photos by Vaughan Jessnitz