Hong Kong Lepidopterists' Society - News


by M.J. Bascombe, G. Johnston and F.S. Bascombe, 1999. Academic Press, London, 664pp.

(including 240pp. of plates), hardcover, £149. (Not for sale in Hong Kong).

Hong Kong is endowed with a large and diverse butterfly fauna, and watching and recording it is a growing interest (as evidenced by the recent formation of the Hong Kong Lepidopterist’s Society). However, books about the local butterflies are notoriously difficult to come across. The two most useful previous texts (J.C.S. Marsh’s Hong Kong Butterflies, originally published in 1960, and Gweneth and Bernard Johnston’s This is Hong Kong: Butterflies, published twenty years later) have long been out of print. Paul Lau’s recent Butterflies of Hong Kong is not comprehensive, and is stocked in only a few Hong Kong book stores. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Bascombe, Johnston and Bascombe’s The Butterflies of Hong Kong, which emphatically supersedes all previous books on the subject, is in danger of staying almost as little-seen here as are its predecessors.

This masterly work has been a very long time in coming. The authors - all now based in England - gathered most of their material for it during the 1970s and 1980s, and an earlier version of the book was written many years ago. It has at long last found a willing publisher in the Academic Press, has been brought meticulously up-to-date, and is now, finally, available to Hong Kong naturalists.

Well, sort of. You can’t actually buy it here, and, given its size and weight, ordering it from overseas will add substantially to its already titanic price tag of £149 (approximately HK$1,900). However, those who are able and willing to part with such a considerable sum will not be disappointed. The three authors have condensed their collective experience (amounting to several decades of study), and that of many others, into a volume which will surely remain unchallenged as the definitive account of Hong Kong’s butterfly fauna until well into the next century.

 The book’s layout is clear, logical and attractive. It begins with a useful but rather too brief section placing Hong Kong and its butterflies in a biogeographical context, followed by a lengthy chapter on butterfly biology (structured around an account of the butterfly life-cycle), and a shorter one on taxonomy. Part Two of the book comprises a highly detailed systematic account of the Hong Kong butterfly fauna, complemented throughout by figures, tables, photographs and keys. All stages of the life-cycle are described (with occasional exceptions where knowledge is scant) for 219 species. Information on host plants, larval and adult behaviour, and known parasitoids of particular species is also given. Various useful appendices follow, before one reaches the splendid plate section, in which adults of all 219 species (including wet season forms and dry season forms where appropriate), and pre-adult stages of 163 species, are featured.

Throughout, one cannot fail to be impressed by the detail, technical scope, and sheer depth of information provided. A particular strength of the authors is their knowledge of pre-adult life history. One learns, for example, that Hong Kong butterfly species which feed as larvae on Papilionaceae are able to use, on average, thirteen different foodplant species. However, a few glitches have crept in, as on page 269, where the authors inadvertently assert that pupae of Hong Kong Satyrinae (Browns) are not green or brown. This text unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) appears beneath a photograph of the apple green pupa of the satyrine Lethe confusa. One might also question many of the photographs - particularly of adults - which accompany the species accounts. These are of variable quality, even for common and easily photographed species. The photograph of the Common Sailor Neptis hylas on p. 332, for example, is rather poor and virtually indistinguishable from the photograph of the Southern Sullied Sailor N. clinia which appears next to it. However, these are trivial criticisms, and in truth it is difficult to find fault with the authors.

 Those of us (this reviewer included) who are accustomed to using the common names given in Johnston & Johnston’s 1980 book, This is Hong Kong: Butterflies will be interested to learn that many of these names have been thrown out by the present authors, in favour of names used in other regional texts. This means, for example, that ‘Dark Mormon’ becomes ‘Spangle’, ‘Common Black Jezebel’ becomes ‘Red-base Jezebel’, ‘Common White’ becomes ‘Indian Cabbage White’, ‘Common White-banded Brown’ becomes ‘Banded Tree Brown’ and ‘Dark-veined Tiger’ becomes ‘Common Tiger’. There are many other examples, of which the most confounding is the re-naming of the two Ypthima ‘Six-ring’ species (lisandra and baldus) as ‘Five-ring’, even though both commonly have three pairs of eyespots on the hindwing underside. The logic at work here is apparently that the third pair of eyespots occupies a single space on the wing, whereas the first two pairs each occupy two spaces. In one species, both the common and the latin names have been corrected: Mycalesis panthaka Common Bush Brown should actually be M. zonata South China Bush Brown.

 Hong Kong’s butterfly fauna is growing, and a number of claimed recent additions to the list (Ampittia virgata, Tagiades menaka, Zographetus satwa, Papilio dialis, Pithecops corvus, Euthalia monina, Mycalesis sangaica and Neptis nata) are omitted from The Butterflies of Hong Kong either because there is no specimen or because the additions are simply too recent for inclusion. So this magnificent book is not quite a final statement. However, it is as close to one as we are ever likely to get.


 The book can be ordered from leading local bookshops or internet stores such as Amazon.com, or from the Associated Press at http://www.apcatalog.com.

This book review was first published in the Porcupine! Newsletter of the Department of Ecology & Biodiversity, the University of Hong Kong, issue number 20 (December 1999).