Bug-watching made easy

2011-11-24 00:00

WHY is bird-watching such a popular pastime? Although it is partly because they are such interesting creatures, showing great variety, and in many instances great beauty, I also think another important factor is the availability of excellent field guides that allow folk to identify their sightings and discover more about the creatures. It is not surprising that bug-watching has been a pursuit of only a few people passionate about creepy crawlies as there are so few field guides — and those we have are far from complete. Fortunately, things are changing and there are an increasing number of useful guides to a variety of different animal groups appearing in our local bookstores.

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), which used to be called the National Botanical Institute (NBI), has taken its extended mandate seriously, and we now have two fine illustrated checklists of indigenous insects that can be found in our national botanical gardens (I’m not sure why they are not now called national biodiversity centres). The first book to appear, in 2010, was devoted to butterflies, while the second, a book on dragonflies and damselflies, collectively called Water Dancers, was published in 2011.

While the focus of these excellent publications is on species recorded from our nine national gardens, they serve well to introduce the general public to these important and attractive insects. Those of us living in KwaZulu-Natal can be proud of the fact that our national botanical garden is home to some 60% of the butterfly species recorded for all the gardens and 67% of the dragonflies and ­damselflies. Clearly we can learn a great deal about these insects by merely visiting the KZN Botanical Gardens with copies of these impressive guides — ­obtainable at the garden.

So why did Sanbi opt for butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies? The answer is simple — because these are the best known insect groups. Butterflies have long been a popular group for collectors, and museums all over the world are filled with ­specimens. It is no wonder that the discovery of a new species is something of a talking point.

The South African butterfly fauna is very well ­documented, and we are fortunate to have some excellent books covering all described species. For reliable identifications of many insects it is usually necessary to catch specimens and examine them, sometimes with a microscope — fortunately this is not often necessary with butterflies as species can be reliably identified by looking at superficial features such as wing patterning. This means that even a quick glance at a butterfly as it feeds on the nectar of a flower is often enough for us to get a good identification.

Although the dragonflies and damselflies (two subgroups of an insect group called Odonata) are not as well known as the butterflies we do know, a great deal about them can be identified on sight. So these groups of insects satisfy the needs of ­bug-watchers in that specimens do not have to be caught in order to be identified. This is a huge ­advantage as permits are always required to sample our fauna. Unfortunately, the majority of insect groups are relatively poorly known and there remains a great need for more specialist research of the kind ­undertaken by our local museums and universities.

I illustrate just two of the insects covered by the Sanbi guides. The butterfly has the common name of Gaudy Commodore (Precis octavia) and the ­dragonfly is known by the name Lucia Widow (Palpopleura lucia); both are known to occur in our ­National Botanical Garden. It is clearly Sanbi’s objective to provide the people of our country with tools to ­obtaining a better knowledge of our natural heritage. This is admirable and should be strongly ­supported by all interested in the conservation of our wildlife.

So, if you have never experienced the delight of discovering for yourself the delights of our insect fauna, why not make a start with our local butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies?


• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at jasonlondt@telkomsa.net

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