03 December 2016

Butterfly of the Month - December 2016

Butterfly of the Month - December 2016
The Common Grass Yellow (Eurema hecabe contubernalis)

It is the final month of 2016 already! The year has sped past and it has been an interesting year of disruptions and unexpected outcomes for many countries around the world. The year started with pessimistic forecasts of a global economic gloom. China took the first hit in January when its stock markets tanked. The outlook for the rest of the year continued to haunt many countries as there was little to cheer about as far as economic growth was concerned.

The Lunar Year of the (Fire) Monkey proved to be as highly unpredictable and impetuous as our little primate friend. It was a year when religious terrorism reared its ugly head yet again, as countless innocent lives were lost in mindless attacks on civilian targets. The Fire Monkey also breathed unprecedented temperatures into our climate, making July and Aug 2016 the hottest month in recorded history!

Then they said that Britain would never leave the European Union. A referendum put paid to that belief when the voting leaned in favour of "Brexit". Unpredictable, unbelievable and shocking, as the British come to terms with what they had decided, and to accept the consequences of their decision. And the world pondered on the impact of Brexit (when it happens) on the global economy. Already the Sterling has suffered a pounding on the forex market.

The 2016 Summer Olympics was particularly significant for our little red dot, in that a "Singapore son" finally brought home our first Olympic gold medal when Joseph Schooling won his 100m Butterfly swimming event. And not to forget the medals won by our Paralympians too.

And the US Elections happened. It seemed impossible for Republican candidate Donald Trump to win the elections. Most of the polls predicted a Clinton win. The signs pointed to a Clinton win. But the impossible happened. In a couple of months' time, the 45th President of the United States of America will be Donald Trump. This is one of the biggest disruptive and unexpected event this year. What will America be like for the next 4 years? What will it mean for the rest of the world?

Someone described these disruptive events as a 'new world order'. A world that respects law and order is making way for an era of warlords? Is the world going to be ruled by those who have the most financial muscle? Or those who possess the most firepower or biggest arsenal? It will certainly be an interesting 2017 to look forward to...

As we end this tumultuous year, let us allow a cheery bright yellow butterfly to lift our spirits and create some optimism for everyone. Our Butterfly of the Month is the ubiquitous and commonly seen Common Grass Yellow (Eurema hecabe contubernalis). Probably the most abundant and common butterfly in Singapore, this conspicuously yellow butterfly is well distributed across Singapore - even in the heart of the city in our Central Business District!

The Common Grass Yellow has bright lemon yellow wings with black borders on the upperside. It is predominantly yellow on the underside, with some brown spots on both the fore- and hindwings. The spots on the underside can be variable. Females are larger and usually a paler yellow with more diffused black borders.

The characteristic two cell spots on the underside of the forewing distinguishes this species from the several lookalike species that are also found in Singapore. However, these distinguishing characteristics can sometimes be variable and there are some individuals with only one cell spot, or where the cell spots are missing.

The Common Grass Yellow can often be observed feeding at various flowering plants in urban parks and gardens as well as the fringes of the nature reserves. They can sometimes be abundant where more than 20 individuals can be seen flying together - occasionally making a hazardous flight across major roads or expressways.

Males of the species can sometimes be observed puddling at damp sandbanks and muddy footpaths in the company of other Papilionidae and Pieridae butterflies. They can also be partial to human perspiration and if conditions are ideal they will even feed on a sweaty finger!

The caterpillars of the Common Grass Yellow feed on a variety of Leguminosae. Some examples are Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Peacock Flower), Cratoxylum cochinchinense (Yellow Cow Wood), Cratoxylum formosum (Pink Mempat), Pithecellobium duice (Madras Thorn), Falcataria moluccana (Albizia), and some Senna spp. This diversity in host plants may explain why this species is so common.

And so we look forward, optimistically, to a new year ahead in 2017, and hope that the world will continue to be a peaceful place to live in!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by James Chia, Sunny Chir, Goh EC, Federick Ho, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Loke PF, Bobby Mun, Jonathan Soong, Anthony Wong, Mark Wong and Benjamin Yam

26 November 2016

Planting For Butterflies

NParks' Parks Festival
Public Talk : Planting for Butterflies

Last weekend, the National Parks Board, Singapore held its Parks Festival : Parks for Everyone at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Featuring a wide range of programmes and activities spread over two days, the festival aimed to get the public outdoors into the park to enjoy themselves. There were exhibitions, workshops, educational talks, artists' handiworks and even a musical concert showcasing local talent!

The activities were grouped into 5 main categories - Entertainment, Guided Tours, Sports and Wellness Activities, Talks and Workshops, and Volunteer Programmes, Courses and Exhibitions. A timetable of the events over the two days was prominently displayed at Bishan-AMK Park so that the public can pick and choose what interests them.

The activities and mini-exhibition stalls were housed under large marquees at the open green areas at Bishan-AMK Park, so that visitors can still enjoy themselves, rain or shine. Despite the not-too-cooperative weather at this time of the year, the weekend crowd was out and about at Bishan-AMK Park and there was reasonably enthusiastic interest in the programmes and activities throughout the day. The plant workshops were well attended, as visitors were treated to a whole range of show-and-tell from wood carving to growing bananas to cultivating air plants.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to support Mr Foo Jit Leang who founded the nature group from Seletar Country Club. He was giving a talk on "Planting for Butterflies" where he was sharing his knowledge on butterflies and planting to attract them. Mr Foo's Butterfly Garden at the Seletar Country Club recently won Platinum for Environment and Biodiversity at the 2016 Community in Bloom Awards. He also went on to offer his advice to several other award-winning butterfly gardens in schools.

A small group of enthusiasts turned up for Mr Foo's talk despite some members of the audience who turned up slightly late because they could not find the venue where the talk was held! After a slight delay, Mr Foo started his talk by introducing butterflies, their biology and ecological features and other interesting anecdotes.

He shared his experience about caterpillars of both butterflies and moths, and how to plant the appropriate species of plants to attract certain species of butterflies. In a cultivated urban garden, it is important to plant the right species of plants to attract the butterflies whose caterpillars feed on those specific plants. Gardeners should be aware that butterfly caterpillars do not eat anything and everything (a common misconception).

Mr Foo's presentation showcased many colourful slides of plants, caterpillars and butterflies that he has managed to attract to the Butterfly Garden at Seletar Country Club. The total number of species that have been spotted at the Butterfly Garden currently stands at 109 - an impressive number for a garden within an "environmentally-unfriendly" golf course in Singapore!

Live caterpillars and pupae always attract the kids and fascinate everyone!

At the end of his talk, Mr Foo brought out the "live stars" of the show - caterpillars of various species of butterflies. The kids at the talk were fascinated by the different shapes and sizes of the caterpillars and pupae that were shown to them. There were also many enthusiasts amongst the audience who were very keen on breeding caterpillars.

Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park

The group then took a walk to the Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-AMK Park. This compact butterfly garden was started some years back by a group of Raffles Institution students and their initial work was continued by a group of community gardeners and enthusiasts, working with NParks to bring this butterfly garden to its current state. The lush plants - both nectaring and host, have attracted a number of butterflies to the garden.

Interpretative signages help to educate members of the public on what they can find at the Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-AMK Park

NParks has also secured an external sponsor to fund additional permanent interpretative signage to introduce visitors to the Butterfly Habitat. The signages depict pictures and information on the plants and butterflies that can be found at the Butterfly Habitat so that visitors can be educated on the biodiversity that they encounter at the garden.

Mr Foo and his team won a Platinum award at the 2016 Community in Bloom Awards for the Butterfly Garden at Seletar Country Club

So if you're planning on starting a butterfly garden in your school or community park, do contact Mr Foo or join his FaceBook Group - Nature @ Seletar Country Club. NParks, ButterflyCircle, Seletar Country Club hope to encourage more enthusiasts to set up butterfly gardens all over Singapore, so that our urban biodiversity can be conserved and enhanced for more residents to appreciate them.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Foo JL and Khew SK

19 November 2016

Favourite Nectaring Plants #8

Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring Plants #8
The Singapore Daisy (Sphagneticola trilobata)

A Rustic (Cupha erymanthis lotis) rests amongst the leaves of the Singapore Daisy

Our 8th instalment of Butterflies' Favourite nectaring plants features another invasive "weed" that is common in disturbed or cleared sites in Singapore. It is used by landscape designers and gardeners as a ground cover or a 'filler' plant in cultivated gardens. The pretty yellow flowers that dot a mat of deep green ground cover give a certain amount of aesthetic appeal in garden settings.

The plant has a number of English common names, but is often referred to as the "Singapore Daisy". That the name "Singapore" is associated with an invasive plant and often unwelcomed weed is indeed curious! This is especially more so, when the plant is not even a native of Singapore nor Southeast Asia, but originated from tropical America, Mexico and the Caribbean!

A female Plain Tiger feeds on the flower of the Singapore Daisy

Sphagneticola trilobata is listed in the IUCN's “List of the world's 100 worst invasive species”. In Queensland, Australia, for example, the Singapore Daisy is a restricted invasive plant under the Biosecurity Act 2014. It must not be given away, sold, or released into the environment without a permit. It is widespread as an invasive species on the Pacific Islands, Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

Plant Biodata :
Family : Asteraceae
Genus : Sphagneticola
Species : trilobata
Recent synonyms : Wedelia trilobata, Complaya trilobata
Country of Origin : Tropical America - native to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, but now grows throughout the Neotropics.
Status : Exotic; Naturalised. Cultivated.
English Common Name : Yellow Creeping Daisy, Singapore Daisy, Creeping Ox-eye, Trailing Daisy, Rabbit's Paw
Other Asian Names : 地锦花, 穿地龙, 三裂蟛蜞菊 (Chinese)

The Singapore Daisy is a perennial herb with a creeping, scrambling or climbing habit, growing up to 30 cm tall and 4 m long. This mat-forming plant is often cultivated as an ornamental dense ground cover. It may also climb a short distance up trees or over other vegetation and is known to crowd out and displace other species of plants in its way.

The three-lobed leaves of the Singapore Daisy

The leaves are simple, opposite, sessile or borne on very short petioles, slightly fleshy, mostly hairless, glossy, 4-9 cm long and 2-5 cm wide. The species name trilobata - three-lobed, referring to the 3-lobed lamina with irregularly toothed margins . Colour of the leaves is dark green above, paler below.

The stems of the Singapore Daisy are rounded, solid, green or pinkish-red and are somewhat hairy to almost hairless. They grow up to 4 m long and regularly develop adventitious roots at their joints. Short, semi-upright flowering branches are produced off these creeping stems.

From bud to full flower - Singapore Daisy

The yellow-orange flower-heads are about 3-4 cm across, and are axillary and terminal, borne singly on an erect stalk ranging from 3-11 cm long. They are composed of 8-13 yellowish petals that are 6-15 mm long with finely toothed tips. In the centre of these flower-heads, there are numerous tiny yellow tubular florets 4-5 mm long. The base of each flower-head is enclosed in a row of narrow green bracts of about 1 cm long.

The fruit is a brown, elongated achene, 3-5 mm long, topped with a crown of short irregular scales. However, viable seeds are rarely produced. The Singapore Daisy reproduces vegetatively by stem fragments. Where the stem nodes touch nutrients, whitish roots will sprout and these will easily grow and spread horizontally across the substrate. It is easily propagated by stem cuttings and stolons.

The Singapore Daisy has a very wide ecological tolerance range and does equally well in both dry and moist sites. Although it prefers full sun, it can also survive well in shady conditions. It is very adaptable to wide range of soil types, including nutrient-poor sand, saline soils, swampy or waterlogged areas, and even bare limestone. It is tolerant of dry periods and periodic innundation as well as high levels of salinity. Its fast growth may smother nearby groundcovers, so the plant should be pruned back regularly.

The plant is also known for several traditional medicinal uses. It is used for hepatitis, indigestion due to sluggish liver, white stools, burning in the urine / stopping of urine, and for infections. A concoction of the plant is used to bathe those suffering from backache, muscle cramps, rheumatism, or swellings, by boiling the fresh stems and leaves in 2 gallons of water for 10 minutes. For painful joints of arthritis, the fresh leaves and stems are mashed and the paste spread on a cloth and applied to area, wrapped securely with a warm covering. The plant extract is also used to clear the placenta after birth.

The Singapore Daisy is a butterfly nectaring plant. It is relatively attractive to certain species of butterflies and they have been observed to feed on the flowers of the Singapore Daisy from time to time. However, in the presence of other more attractive nectaring plants, the Singapore Daisy is usually less preferred by butterflies as a source of nectar.

Amongst the larger butterflies, I have rarely seen the Papilionidae (Swallowtails and Birdwings) feeding on the flowers of the Singapore Daisy locally. Perhaps the physical attributes of the yellow flowers do not lend themselves well to the thicker and longer proboscis of the Papilionidae? The Danainae, however, do not have any problems with these flowers and they have been often photographed feeding on the flower of the Singapore Daisy.

Amongst the Danainae, the Plain Tiger, Common Tiger, Black Veined Tiger, Blue Glassy Tiger have all been seen feeding on the flowers of the Singapore Daisy. However, the flowers of the plant are usually at low level and in open areas, the the butterflies tend to be quite skittish and alert. Unlike other nectaring plants' flowers, the Singapore Daisy is a low creeper and perhaps the flowers tend to leave the feeding butterflies more "exposed" and hence more alert to potential predators swooping down on them as they feed.

Amongst the other species in the Nymphalidae subfamily, I have observed the Blue Pansy, Chocolate Pansy, Peacock Pansy and Great Eggfly visiting the flowers of the Singapore Daisy. The Tawny Coster stops to feed on the flowers of the plant, but not as often as compared to other favourite nectaring plants like the Snakeweed and Spanish Needle flowers. Amongst the Pieridae, I have observed some Grass Yellows (Eurema spp) feeding on the flower.

Lycaenidae feeding on the yellow flower of the Singapore Daisy

There are probably more Lycaenidae that feeds on the Singapore Daisy flowers than have been observed and photographed. Some examples are the Pea Blue, Pale Grass Blue, Silver Forget-Me-Not and Cycad Blue, just to name a few. Again, these butterflies tend to choose other nectaring plants where available, and they only feed on the Singapore Daisy flowers when their other preferred nectaring sources are unavailable.

Skippers on the yellow flower of the Singapore Daisy

The Hesperiidae (Skippers) are also seen on the Singapore Daisy flowers, particularly in the early morning hours. Amongst the Skippers, the Lesser Dart, Yellow Grass Dart, Contiguous Swift, Conjoined Swift and Paintbrush Swift have been seen feeding on the flower of the plant.

As a nectaring plant, the Singapore Daisy can be considered reasonably attractive to certain species of butterflies. However it is not universally a preferred source of nectar for butterflies, even though there are enough photos as evidence that butterflies do feed on the flowers of the plant. As part of the landscaping horticultural palette of plants that make up a butterfly garden, the Singapore Daisy also plays its part to attract butterflies to our butterfly-friendly environments in Singapore.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Bob Cheong, Khew SK and Loke PF