22 July 2017

Favourite Nectaring Plants #11

Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring Plants #11
The Buas-Buas / Malbau (Premna serratifolia)

A Common Rose feeds on the flower of the Buas-Buas

In this 11th article of Butterflies' Nectaring Plants series, we feature a medium-sized tree that can grow up to at least 7-9m tall, the Buas-Buas / Malbau (Prema serratifolia). This plant is a native to Southeast Asia, including Singapore, but ranges from East Africa all the way to Australia and the Pacific Islands. The plant has a preference for terrestrial (Coastal Forest), shoreline (Mangrove Forest; Sandy Beach) habitats and can thrive in harsh environments near the sea. It grows along rocky and sandy coasts, in open country, near mangroves and other coastal sites.

A large Buas-Buas bush spreading extensively

The Malbau (locals in Southeast Asia call it Buas-Buas), is a spreading, evergreen multi-branched shrub or small tree with a low crown, with woody trunks when mature. It has green to brown bark which is smooth or scaly. The Malbau has the distinction of being named by the prominent Swedish botanist and 'father of taxonomy' Carl von Linnaeus in 1771.

In Singapore, Buas-Buas can be found in open wastelands, coastal reclaimed sand-filled sites, offshore islands like Semakau, Ubin, Hantu, St John's and Sisters Islands and even at the fringes of our nature reserves. As the plant is considered common and easy to propagate, either by seeds or cuttings, it has begun to find its way into community gardens, butterfly gardens and roadside planting as a butterfly nectaring plant. The Buas-Buas can also be found in the Healing Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where there are occasionally many visiting butterflies at the flowers of the plant.

A pristine bush of the Buas-Buas

Plant Biodata :
Family : Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
Genus : Premna
Species : serratifolia
Synonyms : Premna foetida, Premna obtusifolia var. serratifolia, Premna borneensis, Premna kunstleri
Country/Region of Origin : Eastern Africa, across the Indian Ocean and through tropical Asia to Australia and the Pacific Islands
English Common Names : Malbau, Bastard Guelder
Other Local Names : Buas-Buas, Bangkung Kayu, Sarunai, Singkel, Arani, 伞序臭黄荆

Close-ups of the Buas-Buas leaves - young leaves are glossy and light green

The leaves of the Buas-Buas are opposite, range between 5 to 18 cm long, 3 to 10 cm wide, broadly ovate with a smooth leathery texture. The simple, stalked leaves have leaf blades that are elliptical, glossy dark green above, light green below with prominent veins and the midrib raised on the underside of the leaf. The leaf margins are smooth (or rarely serrated) and hairless, and the crushed leaves apparently smell of cat's urine. The stems on which the leaves are borne are smooth and green when young, turning woody towards the base of an older plant.

Flower buds of the Buas-Buas where the white flowers have yet to bloom

A close up of the white flowers of the Buas-Buas

The numerous flowers are cream-green in colour, with rather an unpleasant odour, borne on spreading terminal panicles about 10–20 cm across. Its greenish-white or white flowers are 2.5 mm wide, and arranged in clusters that are 5–13 cm wide. The white flowers have five corolla lobes. It is interesting to note that despite the flowers' pungent and foetid odour, it may be this smell that attracts a variety of butterflies to feed on the flowers.

Fruits of the Buas-Buas.  Note the black/dark purple ripened berries

The fruits are more or less spherical, 3-8 mm long, 3-5 mm wide and hairless. They are green initially but turn black or dark purple when ripened. There is a single seed in the fruit. As the plant flowers all year round, the ripened fruits may be collected for easy propagation of the plant. The fruits can be found in clusters and are eaten by birds, which probably aid in the natural distribution of the Buas-Buas. The fruits and seeds can apparently be eaten by humans too.

The Buas-Buas has a variety of medicinal uses. The leaves and roots are used in traditional medicine as a diuretic and to treat rheumatic arthritis; colic and flatulence; coughs, headaches and fevers In various parts of Indonesia, an infusion of the leaves and roots is used against fevers and shortness of breath; women also eat the leaves in order to promote breast-milk production. In Australia, aborigines used this plant to treat the stings of stonefish and stingray, as well as spear wounds. Juice squeezed from the berries is used as nose drops to treat sinus headaches. Research is in progress on extracts from the bark and wood that contain alkaloids and iridoid glycoside, as these are believed to prevent cardiovascular disease.

Two Leopards feeding on the flowers of the Buas-Buas

The small pungent white flowers are attractive to butterflies. Due to the size of the flowers and probably the small amount of nectar, butterflies that feed on the flowers move very quickly from flower to flower and stopping for fleeting moments only. This makes photographing the feeding butterflies more challenging compared to those that feed for longer periods on other nectaring plants.

A variety of the fast-flying and larger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilionidae) feeding on the Buas- Buas flowers

Interestingly, despite the size of the flowers, we have seen many of the larger Papilionidae feeding on the flowers of the Buas-Buas. Even the large Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus) has been photographed fluttering and feeding on the flowers of the plant. Amongst the strong flyers, the Common and Lesser Jays, Tailed Jay, Common Bluebottle, Common Rose, Lime Butterfly and Common Mormon have been observed visiting the flowers of the Buas-Buas.

Some Danainae of the flowers of the Buas-Buas

Amongst the Danainae, the large Crows like the Spotted Black, Striped Blue and the King Crow have been seen amongst the flowers of the plant. On Pulau Ubin, where the Dwarf Crow has been reliably and regularly seen, it also feeds on the flowers of the Buas-Buas. The various Tigers also occasionally stop to visit the flowers of the plant for their nutrition.

Striped Albatross and Lemon Emigrants feeding on the Buas-Buas flowers

The larger Pieridae also seem to like the flowers and we have seen the Striped Albatross and Emigrants feeding. The Grass Yellows also flutter amongst the Buas-Buas, but I have not seen a confirmed shot of any of them feeding on the flowers yet, though I am quite sure that they would.

A variety of Nymphalidae butterflies feeding on the Buas-Buas flowers

Other species of the Nymphalidae also feed on the flowers of the plant, and the skittish Leopard, Rustic, Chocolate/Blue/Peacock Pansy and Malayan Eggfly have been observed at the flowers. Even the Ypthima have been spotted at the flower of the Buas-Buas, and there is a also particular bush near Lower Peirce Reservoir Park that is often popular with the Malayan Five Ring.

A Chestnut Bob feeding on a Buas-Buas flower

Some Hesperiidae have also been spotted on the Buas-Buas flowers, and there are likely to be many more that have been missed. A confirmed sighting of a Chestnut Bob feeding on the flowers suggests that other skippers may also find the nectar of this plant's flowers attractive.

Wasps and day-flying moths also enjoy the flowers of the Buas-Buas

Besides butterflies, the Buas-Buas flowers also attract a variety of other flying insects, from day-flying moths to bees and wasps. However, it is curious that at times, the flowers of the plant are totally devoid of any pollinating insects in certain locations. Could it be because there are other, more preferable nectaring sources, or the location of the plant in a particular habitat renders it unattractive to insects due to insufficient production of nectar?

When you are out butterflying, do look out for the Buas-Buas, which usually flowers quite prolifically all year round when the shrub matures. Keep track of the number of species of butterflies that feed on the flowers and send in your feedback on this post.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Ang Wee Foong, Bob Cheong, Huang CJ and Khew SK

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.