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Home arrow Wildlife and Nature arrow Three Unique Butterflies.
Three Unique Butterflies. Print E-mail
Herbert Otto
 
In the hills north-east of Barberton there are three butterflies that only occur in this area and nowhere else in the world. They are Swanepoel’s Blue, Jeffery’s Blue and Barbara’s Copper. This unique habitat is above Sheba mine, at the ghost town of Eureka City, which came about around 1885. The abode of renown was the Queen of Sheba Hotel, which formed the hub of activity at the time. In 1887 Eureka City had a population of around 700 people. Many people who lived at the hotel worked at Sheba mine 20 minutes’ walk downhill. Later, the hotel changed it’s name to the Central Hotel. It had double tennis courts and was often the setting for dances; with people from as far a-field as Barberton attending. It also hosted sport like; bird-shooting, soccer and billiards. 

 

 
Ruins of Victoria Hotel
Ruins of Victoria Hotel and it’s resident Fig.
The Victoria Hotel, a second hotel at Eureka City, also boasted a race track which, considering the entire community, gave it an ambience of festivity, was quite apt for the prospector who struck it rich. 
After World War I, Sheba mine finally closed down for the first time, which resulted in Eureka City’s heyday being extinguished for good. The remains of Victoria Hotel’s stone walls are still visible today, but its only resident is a straddling Rock Fig. Today the mine is functioning again, but all that remains of Eureka’s glory days are a few stray donkeys – a male braying its heart out to a kicking and unwilling female and the hills are alive again – perhaps not too different from the times of about 100 years ago.

 

Prof Mark Williams
Professor Mark Williams on a ridge near Eureka City where three rare Barberton butterflies can be found.
A permit needs to be obtained from the authorities to enter Eureka City, which is situated on a few grassy knolls that rise above the low-lying plains of the Kaap river, with only exotic Eucalyptus trees that rise higher; disturbing the soil and view from this spectacular place of grandeur. The rolling hills are bisected by a white rocky band of folded chert and the shear zone of the Sheba Fault. On the surface this dissection separates two of the oldest rock formations in the world– older greywacke and a younger conglomerate of quartzite. This forms part of the 3.5 billion year old Greenstone belt. This stone is actually green in colour due to a chrome mineral called fuchsite. This green rock was once also the sea floor lava. The dating of the rocks have mainly been done from Zircon grains. Other layers of Greenstone can be found in other parts of the world, including Hudson Bay and Canada. Yet the Hudson Bay layers could only be found in much smaller portions, due to the massive tectonic workings of the Earth’s lithosphere crumbling the stone to much smaller segments as the vast layers of rock were turned and twisted and separated for eons on end since the beginning of time.
 
One of the earliest forms of life are fossilized bacteria which also carry Barberton’s name – Archaeospheroides barbertonensis and is found in the chert patches in the upper layer of the Onverwacht Group. This is the oldest group and lies at the bottom of the Barberton Supergroup.
 
The portion of Greenstone found surfacing outside Barberton, is a much bigger belt, spread over a larger area on the surface of the planet. It is named the Barberton Greenstone Belt from Barberton through to Badplaas, Swaziland and Malelane, with a protruberance towards Kaapschehoop. Earth formed around 4.6 billion years ago and these rocks were formed 1.1 billion years later between; 3.5 and 3.2 billion years ago. Greenstone is furthermore the Mother-lode that contains the gold of Barberton’s ore. Sheba mine is well known as one of the mines with the richest ore in the world. Although  Agnes mine is now defunct, Consort, Fairview and Sheba mines are still going strong. Mining in the Lowveld and surrounding areas also seems to be an ancient art. The ochre mine at Ngwenya, Swaziland dates back 40 000 years. Ochre is an iron oxide used by local tribes as a form of decoration.Here on these age-old rocks above Sheba mine, we also find another unique part of the local fauna – There are three butterflies that only occur here.

 

 
Swanepoel's Blue
Swanepoel’s Blue (Lepidochrysops swanepoeli)
Swanepoel’s Blue (Lepidochrysops swanepoeli) seems to be the exception in that it was also recorded from Mt Nqevibi (Ngwibi) near Vryheid in Kwa-Zulu Natal in 1915. David Swanepoel (1912 – 1990) was an avid butterfly collector who discovered Swanepoel’s Blue in 1945 (or perhaps rediscovered, as a specimen is known from the Transvaal Museum that was mistaken for another species). The best time to find it is the first week of November, especially if Barberton has had good rains by then. Swanepoel visited this area from 1945 to 1948, lending his name to the new species. Swanepoel’s Blue is only recorded by Swanepoel between October and November of each year, yet rain influences the hatching period and they have been found during December as well.
 
According to Professor Mark Williams, founder of the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa, editor of the journal Metamorphosis, and author of Butterflies of Southern Africa – A Field Guide, they were also  found in August one year after some good rains in July. Swanepoel’s Blue has a darker blue, fused with grey-brown on the upperside of its wings. The unmistakable underside is characterized by a broad white band narrowing from the hindwings to the forewings. This band sets it apart from any other Blue butterflies, except perhaps the Lucerne Blue (Lampides boeticus) which seems like a smaller version of Swanepoel’s Blue when on the wing – adding to much confusion and consternation on wary eyes looking for the rarer species!The Blue butterflies are so named because of the blue upperside of the wings of these butterflies. They are mostly distinguished by their underside markings. The Blues are small to medium sized butterflies and Swanepoel’s Blue measures on average 40mm from wingtip to wingtip, when the wings are spread open.

 

 
Jeffery’s Blue
Jeffery’s Blue (Lepidochrysops jefferyi)
Jeffery’s Blue (Lepidochrysops jefferyi) is another of the rare butterflies only found on the slopes around Barberton – more accurately around Fairview and Sheba mines. Jeffery’s Blue has a dust-brown upperside colour, that changes hue with the changing of the angle of light. When the butterfly’s wing is viewed from an acute angle, a pleasant violet sheen is observed. The underside has a pale, dull brown ground colour with 5 black spots on the hindwing, close to the body. Distally it has whiter circular markings arranged in a line.
This butterfly is considered to be rare due to it’s limited distribution. It is found in grassland with some shrub, preferring hills and slopes.
 
G.W. Jeffery discovered this butterfly in October 1906 at Ulundi Mine near Barberton. Only in 1945 did Swanepoel rediscover it near Sheba mine. They are only known to fly in  October and November. Males of some Blue butterflies, skippers and nymphs participate in an activity named ‘hill-topping’. This is a phenomenon where the males tend to go to the summits of koppies, hillocks or crests of ridges around midday. Some ‘koppies’ may be nothing other than a slight prominence or rocky outcrop, slightly elevated above the surrounding ground. Once here, the butterflies find a prominent perch of their own – this may be a rock, shrub or bush or elevated twig or leaf. From these perches they give chase to any other butterfly, or insect for that matter. More robust species, like the Charaxes or Emperors have even been found to dive-bomb humans! Hence many different species partake in this ‘sport’ named ‘hill-topping’. Some lepidopterists are of the opinion that this phenomenon is merely ‘playing-about’, which is hard to prove or disprove. Others are of the opinion that hill-topping constitutes a mate-finding behaviour. The most prominent or dominant male will ‘own’ the hillock, until he is displaced by another male or becomes part of the food chain. Therefore the ‘strongest’ male gets the best spot. This ensures ‘good’ or ‘strong’ genes are passed into the next generation. A freshly hatched female will fly about the slopes of a hillock. When she is ready to mate, she will approach the crest of the hill, to be pursued by the dominant ‘male of the day’. He follows her to the slopes where mating takes place. After mating she will go in pursuit of the larval foodplant in order to lay her eggs.

 

 
Cat’s Whiskers (Becium obovatum)
Cat’s Whiskers (Becium obovatum)
On these slopes the foodplant of choice, and the only known foodplant is Cat’s Whiskers (Becium obovatum). This plant is so-named due to the flowers’ prominent and protruding white to pink stamens. In fact, it is the only known foodplant. It is not a tall plant, reaching a maximum height of 30cm. Yet it is very visible during the flight periods of Jeffery’s Blue, due to the white flowers. The flowers vary from white to pink to light mauve. Often the colours at the bottom range of the spectrum have ultra violet (UV) characteristics, which are highly visible to butterflies. This coincides with the flowers ability to have it’s nectar guidelines in UV – this assists the butterfly to find the nectar source. The eggs are also laid on the flowers. Yet the female is very selective – the plant must be visited and attended by a specific species of Sugar Ant (genus Camponotus).
Camponotus ants on Becium flower.
Camponotus ants on Becium flower.
This is because there is a very intimate relationship between the butterfly larva and the ant.
When the egg hatches, the emerging larva bores into the ovary of the flower, where it survives on the young seeds until it has reached the third instar. This means the larva has grown and shed it’s ‘skin’ twice. At this stage the larva produces pheromones that make it smell like an ant larva. The Sugar Ants attending the flowers inadvertently find these butterfly larvae and take the ‘lost’ souls into their nests. Here the little rascals literally bite the hand that feeds – by eating the ant larvae. They eventually form a chrysalis or pupa. The butterflies emerge from the pupa in the ant nests, but have now lost their pheromone and they do not smell like an ant brood any more. So they then rush out of the nests with their wet wings still folded up over their backs, trying to avoid detection. Yet some aware ants will catch on quickly enough. To assist the newly hatched butterfly in escaping the nest, it has many scales on its body and when the ants attack them, they come away with a scale, leaving the butterfly free to escape. Once outside, the butterfly crawls up a grass stem or shrub, expands its wings in the sunshine and waits for them to dry. When strong and dry enough, the butterfly takes flight to repeat the cycle of life again. The genus Lepidochrysops, to which Swanepoel’s Blue and Jeffery’s Blue belong, are also known as Ant Blues – due to their association with ants, and not due to some depression caused by ants…

 

 
Barbara’s Copper (Aloeides barbarae)
Barbara’s Copper (Aloeides barbarae)
Barbara’s Copper (Aloeides barbarae) is named after John Joannou’s wife. Joannou is still an active member of the Lepidopterists’ Society. Barbara’s Copper was only discovered by Joannou as recently as 26 November 1989. No larval foodplant has been confirmed for this butterfly. It is a much darker colour than the original orange or ‘copper’ that it was named after. This butterfly is also only known from Eureka City above Sheba mine, where they prefer the prevalent grasslands.
When the scientific names are translated from the original Latin or Greek, we find the following – Lepido = scales and chrysops = gold; thus golden scales. Very apt for two butterflies found on the richest gold ore in the world. Aloeides (Coppers) alludes to resembling an aloe, referring to the colour of the flower. This is because most of the coppers have an orange colour, very similar to the colour of the flower of an aloe, a plant that is quite at home in Barberton and surrounds. Whether it be that these butterflies are attracted to the altitude of the area – hence the perfect conditions for their foodplants, or be it because of the rock foundation which nourishes their larval foodplants, or both. What is certain is that these rare and precious beauties belong to Barberton, just like the precious rock and metal found beneath their feet and golden wings.  Barberton is also a center of endemism with many plants only occurring in the area and thus named after Barberton.
 
Some examples are:
 
Barberton Cycad – Encephelartos paucidentatis
Barberton Dwarf Currant – Rhus pygmaea
Barberton Lowveld Sugarbush – Protea curvata
Barberton Mountain Sugarbush or Barberton Protea – Protea comptonii
Barberton Pavetta – Pavetta barbertonensis
Barberton Resin Tree – Ozoroa barbertonensis 
 
With thanks to:
 
Mr. Hans Bornman’s revised and enlarged – Golden Memories of Barberton by W.D. Curror.
Mr. Chris Rippon – Geologist, Sheba Mine – personal communication, 8 May 2007.
Prof. Mark Williams – Personal communication, 3 November 2007. Scientific and grammatical editor.
Ms. Sharon Plunkett – Article Editor.
 
 
 
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