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

09 July 2017

ButterflyCircle : Conservation and Education

ButterflyCircle : Conservation and Education
Part 3 : Community Engagement and Citizen Science

ButterflyCircle's poster at the Festival of Biodiversity 2017 © Huang CJ

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we shared ButterflyCircle's contributions to the butterfly conservation and education efforts in Singapore over the years. In the previous articles, ButterflyCircle members' work were featured in journals, research reports, books and publications, and also on interpretative signages at public parks and gardens in Singapore. In this concluding part about ButterflyCircle's contributions, we take a look at some of the public engagement efforts, educational talks and citizen science initiatives in Singapore.

Educational Talks and Sharing Sessions on Butterflies in Singapore

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest amongst the public and nature enthusiasts in Singapore to learn more about our natural heritage and biodiversity in Singapore. Butterflies, being an iconic taxonomic group, have always intrigued and fascinated humans. The variety of shapes, colours and sizes of butterflies has often attracted people to admire them, and want to learn more about them.

Public sharing session at Singapore Botanic Gardens organised by NParks

Butterfly watching and identification outing with the participants

I have often been invited to give talks to various organisations and to the general public. I have lost count of the number of talks on butterflies that I had given to both the public and private sectors in Singapore. Some of these include talks to the National Parks Board, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Centre for Livable Cities, Nature Photographic Society (S), Yale-NUS, Centre for Urban Ecology and Greenery, Town Councils, and many other community sharing sessions - too many to name here.

Butterfly ID Training session for public for BioBlitz

ButterflyCircle member Federick Ho (3rd from left) conducting a field trip with participants

ButterflyCircle member Chng CK (extreme left) with his group of 'students' 

ButterflyCircle members participated in several BioBlitz training sessions at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Members of the public who signed up to learn more about butterflies in a classroom setting also had field outings led by experienced ButterflyCircle members who volunteered their time to help the public learn more about butterfly spotting and identification. This training was useful for those who wanted to participate in the on-going National Parks Board's Bioblitz and Butterfly Watch biodiversity surveys all around Singapore.

Having a discussion about butterflies with Yale-NUS students . A/Prof Monteiro (2nd from right) joining in the discussion

Photography outing with Yale-NUS students

Talks and sharing sessions were also held for students of Yale-NUS, and one such talk was also graced by Assoc Prof Antonia Monteiro who has conducted many research projects on butterflies. Talks were also held for Centre for Urban Ecology and Greenery (CUGE) students to learn about landscaping and plants to attract butterflies and create a more holistic environment for biodiversity in the landscape design industry.

Sharing session at Tampines-Changkat community club

Butterfly watching outing at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio butterfly garden

Community planting at Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Community gardening groups in various HDB towns in Singapore were also keen to set up butterfly gardens and many talks were conducted for the various interest groups who eventually went on to set up local butterfly gardens. Together with Mr Foo and his members from the Seletar Country Club butterfly garden group, ButterflyCircle held talks and gardening sessions at Tampines-Changkat Butterfly Garden, Bishan-AMK Garden and Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden.

With the Green Volunteers Network (GVN) and Grant Pereira at Pasir Ris Park

Grant Pereira (pointing) explaining to members of GVN about his butterfly garden

Over at Pasir Ris Park, ButterflyCircle collaborated with the Green Volunteers Network, under the leadership of Grant Pereira to hold a sharing session for the members and a butterfly walk to spot and identify butterflies in the Pasir Ris Park area. Amongst the photography societies, I did a talk, focusing on the use of Nikon equipment in macro work, for the Nature Photographic Society (S).

Butterfly sharing session with teachers at Deyi Secondary School

Outing at Deyi Secondary School's butterfly garden

A talk for the teachers of the Science Instructional Programme Support Group (IPSG) was held at Deyi Secondary School to help the science teachers expand their knowledge about butterflies. This also coincided with a visit to the Butterfly Garden in the premises of the school that was set up to introduce greater biodiversity in a natural setting for the students and teachers to enjoy.

Dr Laurence Kirton and Prof Horace Tan at a Butterfly Conservation Dialogue organised by ButterflyCircle

ButterflyCircle also hosted a talk by Dr Laurence Kirton and A/P Horace Tan for butterfly enthusiasts in Singapore. The talk focused on butterfly conservation in Southeast Asia, whilst Horace shared his expertise and awesome photos of the early stages of butterflies from his meticulous documentation work on life histories of Singapore's butterflies.

Ministry of National Development newsletter "Happy Hands" featuring volunteers and special topics of interest.  Issue 10 showcases biophilic design and nature conservation

On the professional front, I did several talks for the architects/planners of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, National Parks Board and Centre for Livable Cities focusing on biophilia and biodiversity enhancement in the greening of Singapore. It was also a good opportunity for me to promote biophilic design in our urban and architectural developments in Singapore through these talks and to engage the industry professionals to conserve our biodiversity.

Butterfly Biodiversity Surveys and Ubin Day

ButterflyCircle's survey at Outward Bound Singapore on Pulau Ubin

ButterflyCircle members also participated in many surveys - both at the amateur/citizen science and at a scientific level for the National Parks Board as well as other organisations which were keen to know more about the biodiversity in their respective premises. National level surveys like NParks' Butterfly Watch surveys help to gather useful data on butterflies that can be used eventually for the planning and management of our parks and gardens.

ButterflyCircle's survey at Gardens by the Bay

ButterflyCircle members were also invited to conduct baseline surveys for Gardens by the Bay and the Outward Bound Singapore site on Pulau Ubin. The more senior members were also involved in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve biodiversity survey, representing the butterfly group and gathering data on pre-set transects.

ButterflyCircle and Seletar CC members with Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong and Senior Minister of State Desmond Lee at Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin

Briefing before our butterfly survey during BioBlitz at Ubin

ButterflyCircle members participated at the Ubin Day events and were invited to brief and show VVIP visitors at Butterfly Hill on several occasions. Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin was the result of a collaborative effort between ButterflyCircle and NParks to rehabilitate a previously featureless knoll into a lushly-landscaped hill that is teeming with free-ranging butterflies today.

Biodiversity Roundtable and Festivals of Biodiversity

ButterflyCircle is represented at the multi-agency and multi-society Biodiversity Roundtable. The Biodiversity Roundtable of Singapore is an initiative spearheaded by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and National Parks Board (NParks) under the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plan. The Roundtable comprises members from both the public sector agencies like NParks, NUS, SUTD and non-governmental organisations from the various terrestrial and marine groups.

ButterflyCircle members at FOB 2015

The Festival of Biodiversity is an annual event organised by NParks, in collaboration with the Biodiversity Roundtable. The Festival aims to create awareness and foster a sense of appreciation for Singapore's natural heritage. The festival showcases Singapore’s impressive and unique array of island biodiversity. This event celebrates Singapore’s natural heritage and in doing so, hopes to bring about greater awareness of the rich biodiversity that Singapore has.

ButterflyCircle and Seletar CC members at various Festivals of Biodiversity

Even since it started in 2012, ButterflyCircle has been supporting the Festival of Biodiversity annually. With the help of volunteers from the Seletar CC group, ButterflyCircle has been represented as one of the participants for each of the six FOBs from 2012 to 2017. The FOB is held over two days each year, and the amount of time and effort that the participating members of ButterflyCircle who volunteered at the Festival, is quite substantial. Kudos to our members who volunteered their time to help set up and man ButterflyCircle's booth and share their butterfly passion with members of the public.

ButterflyCircle members with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin

And so I end this 3-part series which highlights a small sample of ButterflyCircle's contributions to butterfly conservation and education efforts in Singapore. It started with an innocuous question about what "I had hoped to achieve by watching and photographing butterflies". No, it is not just about taking pretty pictures and posting them on social media. There is a lot more meaningful and sincere effort in helping to share knowledge with, and educate the community, create awareness of our butterfly biodiversity and promote conservation in Singapore for our future generations to enjoy nature's flying jewels.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by various ButterflyCircle members, collaborators and volunteers.

Special Thanks to ButterflyCircle members who have regularly sacrificed their free time to volunteer for community events, talks and outings with various groups. Also to Mr Foo JL and the members of Seletar CC Butterfly Garden for collaborating with ButterflyCircle on many events.