Food Garden · Insect · Observations · Wildlife

Little White Butterflies

Where do the white butterflies come from? Where do the white butterflies go?

Brown Veined White Belenois aurota pompoms
Brown Veined White Butterfly on pompoms, Belenois aurota

Every year in South Africa, during December-January, little white butterflies take to the air in their thousands, all flying in the same direction. They visit gardens and flowers along the way. Even though it is a yearly occurrence, many people don’t know why it happens.

Brown Veined White Belenois aurota statice
Brown Veined White Butterfly on statice, Belenois aurota

This is the migratory flight of the Brown Veined White Butterfly, Belenois aurota (AKA Pioneer white, African Caper White and in Afrikaans: Grasveldwitjie). They belong to the Pieridae (the ‘Whites’) family of butterflies and migrate north-east over the interior of South Africa.

Brown Veined White Belenois aurota pompoms

During good rainy seasons, the butterflies’ population is bolstered by the abundance of leaves for caterpillars on host plants (Capparaceae: specific genera include; Boscia, Shepard’s trees; Maerua, endemic trees of Mozambique and Capparis, Caper shrubs). These caterpillars subsequently metamorphose into butterflies.

Brown Veined White Belenois aurota pompoms
Caper Bush Capparis spinosa Botanical Flora von Deutschland Osterreich un der Schweiz (1885) Kurt Stober's Online Library
Caper Bush
Capparis spinosa
Botanical Flora von Deutschland Osterreich un der Schweiz
1885
Kurt Stober’s Online Library

The adults mate and lay eggs on the host species (they breed before they fly). Afterwards they begin their migration. They fly and continue to fly until they succumb to complete exhaustion.  If they get sufficient food along the way, making pit stops in gardens, they can fly as far out to the Mozambique Channel and perish in the Indian Ocean.

Brown Veined White Belenois aurota map migratory route south africa mozambique
Brown Veined White Butterfly, Belenois aurota,
Migratory Route

After a few years of migrating eastwards they will turn around and migrate back again. So the cycle continues and white butterflies take to the sky. I will update this post as soon as the first of the whites appear this year.

Brown Veined White Belenois aurota pompoms

If you want to provide flowers (food) for the travelers’ annual journey or want to attract more butterflies and bees to your garden then see my Insectary post for more information.

Little White Butterfly (LWB) Migratory Observations since Dec/Jan of 2013/14

  • 2013/14: Arrived on 08 Jan 2014. Masses on 11 Jan 2014. The chickens try their best to catch some who flutter to close to the ground, but to no avail – very amusing to watch them race after the little whites. LWB reach Pretoria on the 12th of Jan. Butterfly run ends on 14th of Jan.
  • 2014/15: Butterflies are early on the 27th of November 2014. Smaller LWB run than previous year, ended on the 29th.
  • 2015/16: LWB run on the 9th of January 2016 and apparently a later one in March in Bloemfontein.
  • 2016/17: Very small LWB run this year and arrived late on the 3rd of February 2017.
  • 2017/18: No LWB run… Maybe it is their turn-around year?
  • 2018/19: Butterflies are back on 05 Feb 2019! Was getting a bit worried there… 😉 Drips-and-drabs throughout Feb and Mar.
  • 2019/20: Due to the amazing amounts of rain we have received the butterflies were back in their thousands with a absolutely spectacular migration starting late January and ending early February with smaller migrations earlier in Jan and later in February. Social media was flooded with photos!
  • 2020/21: There have been a few early fliers around the 13th and then again on the 26th of December. Perhaps they’ll pitch again in their thousands for the late Jan show?

Showcase from the 2020 Mass Migrations

Brown Veined White 2020 Belenois aurota single butterfly
Brown Veined White (Belenois aurota) butterfly and Honey bee (Apis mellifera)
Brown Veined White 2020 Belenois aurota group butterflies
Brown Veined White groups butterflies on the basil plants.
Brown Veined White 2020 Belenois aurota sheltering overnight butterfly
Brown Veined White butterflies sheltering overnight in the trees. Great photo to illustrate all the colour variations!

Update 2020: What about all the little white butterflies in fall?

Those are the common dotted border butterflies, Mylothris agathina, who are abundant in March, April and May. They also belong to the same family of butterflies, but are a different species. You would notice that they have a single orange spot on their fore wings (some may have completely orange wings) and they have a single ‘border’ of spots on the ends of their wings (no brown veins).

Common Dotted Border Mylothris agathina
Common Dotted Border, Mylothris agathina

4 thoughts on “Little White Butterflies

  1. Here in the dry North West Province no swarms of migrating Belenois aurota were seen for the past three to four years.
    Now after a few weeks of rain I saw a small swarm – no more than fifteen – on 2020-01-09 in the afternoon.
    It is worth noting that they found sustenance on grasses.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. May I add some more information, please:
    Further flights of these butterflies occurred in a rather erratic fashion. There were days with hardly any in sight. And then, perhaps two days in succession when clouds of these creatures were seen gambling along.
    And, of course, many paused to fill up with nectar on the flowers in my garden.

    Liked by 1 person

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