Fascinating butterfly and ant union kept aflutter
nial herb Doll’s Roses or Hermannia depressa, the ants diligently guide the caterpillars above ground at night, where they feed on the herb with its orange-red flowers, then nudge them underground during the day back into the ant colony and repeat the process day after day as they mature. Feeding at night means the caterpillars are protected from being swooped up and eaten by birds.
According to John Leroy, a member of the Butterfly Reserve Association, the ants build a special underground chamber for the caterpillars and, as the caterpillars grow, the ants enlarge the chamber. Finally, in January and February, the miracle happens – the cocoons break open and the butterflies emerge. Soon afterwards they court, mate, lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves, and the cycle of nature begins again.
The butterfly is unique to the Ruimsig Entomological Reserve, a 12ha piece of bushveld caught between luxury homes. It exists nowhere else in the country or the world and there is thus a great need to preserve it. It lives among some of the world’s oldest rocks – ancient greenstone – dating back 3.5-billion years, in one of the few remaining sections of rare Witwatersrand Serpentine Sourveld, a variety of the endangered Egoli Granite grassland, which is so threatened that less than 1 percent has survived.
This precious piece of veld is lush with flowers and grasses and an outcrop of Dombeya rotundifolia or wild pear trees, which are believed to be adapted to the area because they don’t normally grow around greenstone rocks. The reserve was fenced in 1981 and is maintained by Joburg City Parks and Zoo, together with the association.
Back in 1985, the Roodepoort City Council recognised the small reserve’s ecological significance. The butterfly was originally found about 1km from the reserve, but in the late 1960s the Copper’s habitat became overgrown with Acacia karoo and the butterfly was thought to have become extinct, says Leroy.
Then, in 1986, it was discovered in the reserve, where both the ant and the plant it needs to survive live and grow.
The reserve became a project of the Florida Park High School, whose Enviro Club built a small information centre on the eastern edge.
They put up all-weather storyboards and fenced the reserve. In 1999 the Ruimsig Butterfly Reserve Association was formed by Leroy and his wife, Astri, together with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, and the Gauteng Province Agriculture and Rural Development department, to ensure its continued protection.
Bishop Ngobeli, the manager of protected areas at Joburg City Parks and Zoo, says a comprehensive ecological plan is being developed for Ruimsig. “The vegetation assessment has just been finished. We want to manage the area scientifically.” Some 20 grass species have been identified.
Management plans have been compiled for seven of the city’s nature reserves, in terms of the Protected Areas Act. “We will do the study together with the residents’ association. We have a long, long way to go, but we will get there.”
The association plans to build an education centre, auditorium, library and laboratory where researchers and, more importantly, schoolchildren can be introduced to the precious butterfly. Electricity will be supplied by solar power and water will be drawn from the site. The project awaits funding. The reserve is also home to 100 other species, including hedgehogs, rock scorpions, baboon spiders, hares, slender mongoose, and other butterflies. A new, unnamed beetle has been discovered there and is in the process of being verified as a new species.
“We will make the Ruimsig Entomological Reserve a showpiece for sustainable small reserves in Africa,” says Leroy, who, with Astri, will continue to monitor this unique place. It will be “a flagship in pro- moting invertebrate education and conservation”. He quotes one of the world’s most famous entomologists, EO Wilson, as saying: “If all vertebrates were removed, life would continue mostly unaffected, but remove all invertebrates and the world would die in a year or less.”
“The Ruimsig Butterfly Reserve Association and City Parks and Zoo plan to use this rare habitat and the unique life cycle of the butterfly to promote the conservation of threatened insects and other invertebrates and the understanding of our relationship with them,” says Leroy.