Butterflies In Namibia - Small, But Beautiful

19 May 2023

Namibia offers a huge variety of attractions and tailor made tours are available for geology fans, stargazers, hobby botanists, bird lovers and snake and lizard enthusiasts.

But could you imagine a guided tour through Namibia dedicated to the search for such small and beautiful creatures like butterflies?

Even that is possible - one company offers such a rare opportunity to find some of the 224 different species of these colourful winged beauties in Namibia. Six species are endemic to Namibia. They have exotic and tongue-twisting names like Acraea brainei, Acraea hypoleuca, Alaena brainei, Iolaus obscurus, Kedestes sublineata and Lepidochrysops michella.

Well-known Namibian nature conservation expert Steve Braine is also a butterfly specialist, or lepidopterist. He discovered several unknown species, which are named after him like the Acraea brainei, Alaena brainei, Braine's Zulu, Braine's Straight-line Sapphire, Mimosa Sapphire, Braine's Charaxes and Silvery Copper.


A set of Namibian postage stamps with butterflies.
Graphic: NamPost


The science of butterflies and moths

Lepidopterology is the study of butterflies and moths. A lepidopterist studies and collects butterflies and moths.

Butterflies are insects and scientifically fall under the Lepidoptera order and belong to the Rhopalocera suborder. They have dwelled on our planet since millions of years. Some butterfly fossils found, could be dated to over fifty million years ago. 

The name stems from the ancient Greek language and is a combination of "lepidos" (scale), referring to the tiny scales, their wings are made of and "pteron", meaning wing.

Their life-cycle consists of four stages with a total metamorphosis, from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupation and the fully developed butterfly.

The colourful patterns on the wings of most butterflies are to ward off predators, signalling to them that the butterflies are "toxic". The beautiful colours of the butterflies' wings stem from microscopically small structures called scales (lepidos), each of which have their own pigments.

Butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers, some also feed on pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, animal dung, decaying flesh and dissolved minerals in wet sand.

Interesting facts about butterflies

 Butterflies are important as pollinators for some plant species. They carry less pollen than bees, but they are capable of transporting pollen over greater distances.

Butterflies use their antennae to sense wind direction and for scents. Some species are quite territorial and actually chase others away!

Butterflies are also wonderful photo objects for hobby photographers and professionals and have for centuries fascinated nature lovers, scientists and rich donors who often generously funded expeditions to discover new butterfly species.


The Alaena brainei was discovered not too long ago by Stave Braine.
Photo: Steve Braine


Some butterfly species migrate in their thousands to other areas towards the end of the summer. The Tswalu butterfly research project in Botswana has established that the annual migration starts in the Karoo of South Africa, moving into Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and other parts of South Africa.

Technology has advanced to such a degree that butterflies can be tagged; the tags look like tiny stickers.

The Tswalu project has also researched that butterflies flourish due to the presence of suitable host plant species. "The larvae of many species are highly selective, feeding on only one or a few indigenous host plant species," according to Tswalu.


A monarch butterfly with a tag.
Photo: Derek Ramsay 


"If these specific plants are not present, the larvae will die. Many butterflies would become locally extinct if their host plants were removed or replaced, which emphasises the importance of protected wilderness areas."

Long history of fascination with butterflies 

Observing butterflies in one's garden and their natural habitat is fun, relaxing and a soul-soothing exercise, bringing smiles to a person's face, fascinating all age groups from small children to pensioners.

Their important role for the pollination of flowers and plants in general cannot be emphasised enough - and in Namibia they are among the first and welcome insects to appear after the first rains at the start of the rainy season.


The Charaxes brainei butterfly is endemic to Namibia.
Photo: Steve Braine


Watering one's garden in the dry season in Namibia attracts butterflies within a few minutes and it is a nice gesture to sprinkle a few leaves with water and leave a little puddle of water for them to drink - well, they actually use their trunks, which they unroll gracefully, to suck up the water.

The ancient Romans viewed a butterfly as a symbol for the human soul and a similar belief still exists in Japan today.

The beautiful colours on their wings, which have so many differ rent  shapes, stimulated scientific research, many expeditions, especially in the 18th and 19th century and the writing of many books, richly illustrated with hand painted illustrations. These books themselves are now precious antiquities and museum pieces.

Many butterfly or lepidopterists' societies were established for amateurs and scientists worldwide, with some existing even today for enthusiastic butterfly lovers.

Who knows, maybe you are lucky enough to see one specimen of the six butterfly species endemic to Namibia? Take a photo and post it on the Atlasing Namibia project's website or app where they recently added butterflies.

On the above website all butterfly species occurring in Namibia are listed with short descriptions. The help of the public is needed to upload more butterfly sightings with photos and geographic details, the butterfly atlas project says.

Brigitte Weidlich

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