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.

10 June 2017

Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden
Community Planting Day 

The Bukit Panjang community and volunteers with Mayor Dr Teo Ho Pin at the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Located in the north-west of Singapore, Bukit Panjang, formerly called Zhenghua, is home to about 140,000 residents. Pre-independence, Bukit Panjang consisted of mainly rural settlements and agricultural farming. Over the decades, Bukit Panjang has developed from a largely agricultural and industrial area to a highly urbanised and self-contained town, as kampung folks and farmers were re-housed in new Housing and Development (HDB) flats. Despite these changes, much of the area’s terrain and greenery have been preserved to form a unique blend of urban and rural space. The area retains its strong connection to nature through the neighbouring Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to the south and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to the east, both of which contain rain forests.

Trail of Community Gardens in Bukit Panjang.  The Butterfly Garden is not shown on NParks' map at the moment

In recent years, the National Parks Board's (NParks) Community in Bloom programme worked with the residents to bring back the kampung spirit in the form of community gardens. Residents and volunteers are encouraged to set up gardens where they can bring back their past activities as well as bond with their neighbours and friends living around the precinct. Bukit Panjang constituency is home to more than 11 community gardens specialising in edibles and medicinal herbs. The Bukit Panjang community gardens have a large variety of vegetables and fruits which are grown by community gardeners who work together to keep the kampung and gotong royong spirit alive in modern Singapore.

Sussie Ketit, who started the original Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden in 2013

Tucked in between two of the community gardens along Bukit Panjang Road, a small butterfly garden was set up in 2013. Championed by grassroots activist Sussie Ketit and her team of volunteers, the butterfly garden led a low profile existence with about 10-15 species of butterflies regularly seen at the garden.

Site visit to the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden with Mayor Dr Teo in March 2017

This year, Sussie approached Foo JL of Seletar Country Club Butterfly Group for his assistance to expand the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden (BPBG). A site visit amongst our group of butterfly enthusiasts and the Mayor of North West Community Development Council (CDC), Dr Teo Ho Pin in March this year, initiated plans for the expansion of the original BPBG.

Planter beds all ready for the plants 

The group, ably led by Foo and his volunteers, Sussie and Sebastian Chia, and landscape contractor Tian HM set out to plan BPBG 2.0. The Town Council and a group of volunteer gardeners chipped in to help as well. The plans took shape as the planter beds were constructed and topsoil added. Butterfly host and nectaring plants were prepared and readied for the planting day planned for Jun 2017.

Foo JL and Cheng Khim at the morning briefing and show-and-tell to the volunteers

The Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden 2.0 Community Planting Day started early on Saturday 3 June. Foo JL and Cheng Khim were on hand to brief the community volunteers and gardeners about butterfly plants and the caterpillars of butterflies that feed on them. Cheng Khim helped to brief the non-English speaking participants and everyone enjoyed the show-and-tell session with live caterpillars and information about plants that attract butterflies.

Working hard at planting butterfly plants!

The group then went to the various planting beds that were already prepared with many butterfly host and nectaring plants. A final briefing by Tian on how to properly dig a hole and place the plants gently into the soil, everyone was raring to go. Armed with spades, shovels and changkuls, the volunteers, young and young-at-heart, helped to fill the planters with their selected plants.

Young and the young-at-heart digging and putting in their favourite plants with tender loving care

Despite the hot and humid morning, everyone had a lot of fun digging and planting the various host and nectaring plants. The rather ad-hoc placement of the plants is typical of a natural butterfly garden habitat, where the landscape design allows for a more natural look, rather than a horticultural display of organised and manicured planting.

Mayor Dr Teo Ho Pin joins in the fun

Mayor Dr Teo joined in the planting exercise and he energetically planted a Red Tree Bush (Leea rubra), a butterfly nectaring plant, right in the centre of the "VIP" planter bed. The local gardening community ladies also joined in to help Mayor Teo make sure that the plants were well watered. Foo JL brought some butterflies for Mayor Teo to release, to mark the event.

Making sure the plants are well watered

The morning ended with a nice buffet (like all things Singaporean, there will always be good food at such gatherings), generously sponsored by Sussie. After the hard work, everyone was in high spirits and looking forward excitedly to more butterflies at BPBG in the coming months.

The proximity of Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden to the Nature Reserve and park connectors makes it a potentially good location to attract more species to its location

The BPBG is situated along Bukit Panjang Road next to Block 213/214 Petir Road. The site is quite ideal, as it is linked to the Pang Sua and Zhenghua Park Connector network that links to biodiversity-rich areas like Dairy Farm Nature Park and further south, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Its immediate proximity to the forests of the Central Catchment Nature Reserves is also advantageous, as a concentration of nectaring plants may attract some forest butterflies along the edge of the reserves to fly over to feed.

The next generation.  A bunch of eggs and caterpillars of the Three Spot Grass Yellow (Eurema blanda snelleni) found at the BPBG.  Very soon these pretty yellow butterflies will be fluttering around at the garden!

And so BPBG has been planted and good to go. It has 'pupated', waiting for the plants to grow, and for the flowers to bloom and attract butterflies. Its metamorphosis has started, and we will wait for a couple of months to see the fruits of the community's labour. Hopefully, we can encourage more butterfly enthusiasts to enjoy butterflies and conserve the environment that is conducive for our winged jewels to survive for our future generations to enjoy them.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sebastian Chia, Foo JL, Huang CJ, Sussie Ketit, Khew SK, Or Cheng Khim and Rita Dumais Sim.

03 June 2017

Festival of Biodiversity 2017!

ButterflyCircle @ Festival of Biodiversity 2017!
Nex Mall, Serangoon : 27-28 May 2017

The Festival of Biodiversity is in its 6th run this year. An annual event organised by the National Parks Board (NParks) Singapore, 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.

After taking a break from having the Festival at an urban shopping mall, the FOB 2016 was held at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. This year, 2017, the FOB was moved back to a shopping mall! This time around, Nex Shopping Mall @ Serangoon was selected. The intention of hosting the Festival at shopping malls was to showcase Singapore's awesome biodiversity to the heartlanders and 'unconverted' residents of Singapore who may have otherwise not get the chance to see up-close, Singapore's natural heritage.

Back to a shopping mall again this year!  FOB2017 at NEX Shopping Mall

This year, ButterflyCircle continued to support the FOB for the sixth time. Members from the Nature @ Seletar Butterfly Garden and volunteers from Chung Cheng High School provided the much-needed reinforcements to man the butterfly conservation and education booth at FOB. As with the two previous years, Mr Foo JL brought in his awesome collection of live caterpillars to wow the visitors to the booth.

Mr Foo JL and his caterpillar parade.  Our volunteers checking out the caterpillars

We featured many caterpillar host plants and their respective butterfly species whose caterpillars feed on the plants. As our knowledge of the early stages of butterflies grow over the years, the information that is useful to parks managers and landscape designers has helped to enhance Singapore's butterfly biodiversity in our urban gardens. It is important to augment Singapore's "City in a Garden" reputation with our local fauna that animates our greenery and brings life to our gardens.

ButterflyCircle's booth.  Up and ready!

As with previous FOBs, we started setting up ButterflyCircle's booth early on Saturday morning. We put up the colourful display boards as our booth's backdrop, and fired up the video that featured our butterfly conservation objectives and showcasing butterflies. Mr Foo brought his 'babies' and plants and set them up with tender loving care. The live caterpillars are always a crowd pleaser, particularly with the children, whose curiosity and appetite for knowledge often throw us lots of questions.

Our young 'customers' looking in amazement at the caterpillars and pupae

It was encouraging to see many parents and their children visiting the booths at FOB17 and enjoying a learning journey about our island's flora and fauna. Kids who are keen to learn and enrich themselves with knowledge of our local biodiversity are the future custodians of our environment and the sustainability of our marine and terrestrial life and ecosystems. It is important to arm them with information so that whatever profession that they choose to take up, there is always a love for the environment and the enthusiasm to 'make our planet great again' (to paraphrase the French President in a recent speech)

Minister Desmond Lee explaining to Minister MCCY Grace Fu about Singapore's biodiversity

FOB17 was hosted by Minister Desmond Lee as with many previous FOBs. Minister Desmond is often seen as a champion of biodiversity and the environment. Indeed, he has won the respect and support of the green groups in Singapore for his tireless endeavours to conserve and protect the environment in his signature style of sincere and meaningful dialogue and balanced views. This year, we also had the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Ms Grace Fu, to grace the opening of FOB17.

A group shot with former Cabinet Minister, Mr S. Dhanabalan

Nature groups were also pleasantly surprised by one of our 'pioneer generation Ministers' and one who cared for the conservation of our environment, Mr S Dhanabalan, who joined in this year's FOB festivities. Even after retirement, Mr Dhanabalan continued to lend his weight behind many conservation projects and support biodiversity enhancement projects. It was an honour to meet Mr Dhanabalan at the FOB17.

Minister Desmond Lee, in his speech, shared the initiatives on nature conservation and the discoveries that the volunteer community made during the various Bioblitz surveys in Singapore. He also spoke of the forthcoming projects that the government was implementing, as well as lauded the efforts of the nature community in Singapore.

The crowd at FOB2017

It was interesting to see a different group of visitors at the Nex Shopping Mall this year. The FOB was held at Vivo City Mall for three years in succession from 2013-2015, and it was a good idea to move to a different mall and attracting shoppers from a different part of Singapore to view the FOB exhibits this time.

This year, besides the live caterpillars, we also had some art and craft, creating a flextangle informative gadget 

Over the two days, we were kept busy with many visitors to the booth and entertaining lots of curious questions about butterflies. Our volunteer teachers, students and members of ButterflyCircle and Nature @ Seletar groups helped to answer queries and share our knowledge about butterflies to the visitors. Our balloonist, Cheng Khim, delighted the visitors (particularly kids) with her colourful balloons in the form of flowers and butterflies.

Cheng Khim and her balloon art entertained young and old alike!

It was a tiring (and hot) weekend as the group did our best to educate the visitors about butterflies in Singapore, and what they can do to help with butterfly conservation. But to our volunteers, it was a meaningful time to spend and I could see the boundless enthusiasm and energy with which they shared their passion and love for butterflies to the community.

A wefie with our two Ministers

And so we ask some thought-provoking questions again after the FOB17 ended - what next? Have the six editions of FOB that started back in 2012 achieved its objectives? Is continuing the FOB in the coming years going to be sustainable? Has reaching out to the masses in Singapore changed anything? Or have we reached a point of diminishing returns? Should FOB change its form and refresh itself with a new format of engagement? Some food for thought...

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Huang CJ, KhewSK and Or CK

Special thanks to teachers Jo Teo and Noor Sarah and the students of Chung Cheng (Main) for volunteering their time and effort at the booth, to Rita Dumais Sim, Vina Hermanto, Soh Kam Yung and son, Vanessa Lee, Rachel Lee, Eugene Koh, Mei Hwang, Lydia Davina Yeo and Chen Yimin for helping to engage the crowd. CJ for her design of the panels and producing the ButterflyCircle video, BC members Bob Cheong, Koh CH, Loh MY, Siaomouse and Nikita for their presence, and our balloonist Cheng Khim for her colourful creations. And of course to our guru Mr Foo for bringing caterpillars and plants to entertain the crowd.

Past Festivals of Biodiversity :

FOB 2012 at Singapore Botanic Gardens
FOB 2013 at VivoCity Mall
FOB 2014 at VivoCity Mall
FOB 2015 at VivoCity Mall
FOB 2016 at Singapore Botanic Gardens