Archive for the ‘insects’ category

Love still unrequited (55 Fiction)

23 March 2010

He was her first mate. Never had she met such a virile, handsome male. He had wooed her and charmed her; they had just made love. To her dismay, her true nature emerged. She couldn’t stop from turning and eating him while they were still entwined in love.

Praying mantids always do such things.

Mantis mates - deadly for one!

Bizzare behaviour - of the male for passive acceptance of being eaten.

Image credit


Why do male mantids allow themselves to be eaten? One theory says that sex has got nothing to do with the female’s foraging. In other words, she multi-tasks! 😉

Another theory, based on a view of ethology that an organism is nothing more than a vehicle for genes, states that animals will follow lifestyles which will maximise their fitness and success of getting offspring. In this case, the male mantis by allowing himself to be eaten improves the female’s fecundity by providing quality nutrition and correspondingly improving the chances of successfully passing on his genes.

Yet another disputed theory says that the eating of the head of the male results in a longer, vigorous sex act with increased chances of fertilisation.

Some experiments suggest that sexual cannibalism is observed laboratory behaviour caused by human presence. There have been indications that in the field sexual cannibalism may not be so rampant.

The mystery here is not the cannibalism, which is perfectly understood as an adaptive female strategy to maximise her reproductive success, but the male’s complicity in doing so.

Read more about sexual cannibalism in insects here.

Oh and don’t forget to read “Unrequited Love“.

Insect talk shows!

11 January 2010

If  you would like to listen to interesting, light-hearted talks about hexapods – those fascinating six-legged creatures you and I commonly refer to as  ‘insects’, then…

……Insectapod is for you.

You can rest your pods, put on your iPod and listen to insect podcasts.

Now, if I were you a few months ago, I would have said ‘waszat’ to the term ‘podcast’.

Well Wikipedia (almost) says …

podcast is a series of  audio or video files that are released episodically and downloaded through web syndication

So, a insectapodcast would therefore mean a series of interesting talks about insects, recorded as mp3 files in this case, and available as a series from Insectapod.

The insectapodcast is brought to you courtesy the Entomology Deptt, Michigan State University.

Each podcast, there are nine available as of date, talks on a folksy subject. The very first one (find it here) should find you right at home with its subject.  It is titled…

There’s no place like home

and has the byline…

“We share our homes with bedbugs, we manipulate the home lives of honey bees.”

Some other titles are :-

Insectapodcasts are well presented – they are nice to listen to (despite the American accents 😉 ). They permit you to listen, download, read the transcript and have a iTunes and RSS feed buttons.

They recently featured in the Spring 2009 volume of American Entomologist. You can find their article on Insectapod here.

So many of us own iPods or other mp3 players today. Most cellphones have this facility to. In addition to our music,  it is easy to listen to something different such as an educational talk or two.

The master list for all podcasts is of course found at

And if you would like to hear something very interesting about insects, check out the Insectapod talk list here.

Happy podcasting!

A Decorative Beetle

12 July 2009


Calothyrza margaritifera - a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

Calothyrza margaritifera – a Cerambycid beetle recently found in Pen.

On a afternoon in early July, at Vavoshi near Pen, my father-in-law, Mr Nandan Kalbag spotted an intriguing beetle in black and white. It resembled a stylised Guy Fawkes mask of the kind that I remember seeing in ‘V for Vendetta‘. It was perched on a hanging flower-vase and was motionless. It stayed there awhile and after a couple of hours it was gone.

One of the big advantages of being a son-in-law of a man keenly interested in the natural world around him is a steady stream of images and anecdotes which permit me to vicariously enjoy those moments with him. In course of time, the image came to me, was bunged onto the InsectIndia yahoo-group. There it was picked up by a friend and forwarded to a Dr Hemant Ghate of the Zoology Dept of Modern College in Pune, a man desperately keen on beetles. After consulting with Dan Heffern, an American engineer turned coleopterist, a verdict was delivered – the culprit was identified as Calothyrza margaritifera which was described by Westwood in 1848.

Common names are a luxury available to enthusiasts of mammals, birds, butterflies, a few reptiles and amphibians. In the world of arthropods, there are very few common names. Calothyrza margaritifera – the name meant nothing to me. I don’t really know much about beetles – I am quite prone to mis-spelling them too; I forget they are ‘beetles’ not ‘beatles’. India has no recent handbooks on beetles for the amateur. It took a little patient digging online to find out a little more about this curious insect.

Calothyrza margaritifera is a longicorn or long-horned beetle; it belongs to the family Cerambycidae. Most but not all cerambycids have antennae longer than their bodies. These beetles are wood-borers and some are economically significant pests. Some small cerambycids mimic ants, wasps and bees. A member of this beetle family is considered to be the largest insect in existence today.

C. margaritifera belongs to the tribe Phrynetini of the subfamily Lamiinae. The beetle volumes of the Fauna of British India of the early twentieth century vintage are the only tomes available to the amateur naturalist of India. Unfortunately Charles Joseph Gahan, the author of the Cerambycidae section only wrote one volume which unfortunately excludes the Lamiinae, those taxa being reserved for the never written second Volume.

The known range of C. margaritifera embraces the Central Himalayas of India and Nepal, and extends across Myanmar to Thailand. The discovery of this beetle in Raigad district of Maharashtra is then an important range extension. Fortunately, the species has a very distinct look so that, strictly speaking, a specimen may not be needed to record the find.

Like most picturesque long-horned beetles, Calothyrza margaritifera demands a substantial price on the international specimen trade – prices typically range from ten to 35 dollars each. Most Calothyrza specimens show Thailand as their area of origin. One may think that the Biological Diversity Act of 2002 as amended may protect Indian beetles but there is ample evidence to the contrary on the internet, this site being one such example. Single Calothyrza margaritifera specimens, and occasionally pairs appear for sale in insect catalogues and sometimes on E-Bay!

We are often reminded of the need to preserve and protect our biodiversity by stories of how such and such organism s being investigated for new science, fresh discoveries and path-breaking insights. It may interest you to know that Calothyrza margaritifera is one of those. In this case, the vivid white of the beetle cuticle is being investigated at the nano-technological level. The vivid whiteness of the beetle’s cuticle is not the result of a hue but rather the nano-structure of pill-shaped chitin growths. The abstract of the paper, presented in a symposium on ‘Bioinspired and biointegrated materials as new frontiers for nanomaterials’ (Symposum M) on 10 Jun 2009 at 12:05 hrs this year in Strasbourg, can be found here.

What worries me most is that there are hundreds of such delicious scientific curiosities waiting to be discovered in our jungles which may never come into existence before the forests and their associated biodiversity are lot forever.

Image credit – Mr Nandan Kalbag (under Creative Commons 2.5 SA)

Note: Based on comment given by Shyamal below, the genus nameCalothyrzais derived fromcalomeaning white, andthyrza” from a Hebrew wordtirzahmeaningshe is my delight[ ].The species name margartiferameans,bearing pearlsand is derived from the Greek word forpearl” (margarites) and the Latin wordto bear” (ferre). Very apt for the brilliant white chitin on this lovely beetle.

My Secret Garden

16 January 2009

It was a childhood wish of mine to have a secret garden all to myself. I did realise the dream when I was much older and the garden I had then was not quite secret; no garden of a commanding officer’s house can ever be so, no matter how small. Despite this, it contained a secret world which was invisible to all who passed through or passed by but was always available to me whenever I wanted to place the cares of office behind and was ever a source of delight and fascination.

My secret garden

My secret garden

As gardens go, it was a slip of one, hardly 20 yards by 25 yards, just large enough to form the facade of the small two-roomed bungalow in the desert of Jaisalmer where I lived. Indeed it had only a single tree, a patch of grass, some creepers on the fence and a few potted plants but it was peopled by creatures who gave me small glimpses of their lives.

My day begins early, the ploonk plink of bulbuls and the caw caw caw of the crows is infinitely preferable to waking up with the help of an alarm clock. It is just after dawn, the sky is still grey as the sun has not risen over the dunes at the horizon and the breeze which blows cross the sand is still cold. The last vestiges of night-life can occasionally still be seen. Today, a flicker of movement at the corner of my eye causes me to turn my head, just in time to catch a last glimpse of the tail of the large desert monitor (Varanus griseus) who lives behind my bungalow in a hole amidst a tangle of barbed wire. He has a regular nocturnal beat at this time of the year which takes him through the matchbox-sized gardens of the three bungalows side-by-side, then around the large store-house, into the transport yard, across the bordering dune, and back along it on the far side till he rounds the dune, crosses a road and is back into the tiny gardens.

Sometimes, late at night I find a large, prickly and wicked looking arthropod, the solifuge, who patrols my garden each night for insects and small life. Of him, I have written elsewhere.

The hedgehog creeps by night!

The hedgehog creeps by night!

About him and the Varanus, the hedgehog does not know or care, for about once a fortnight, he pays me a visit.

It is always dark when he comes for a sip of water from the squirrel-bowl. He easily finds his way in but for some reason stumbles on his way out and so I notice him. He scrambles between the bowl and fence but there is no exit there. He tries the jird’s hole but I lift him and place him on the road outside my bungalow free to go where he wills.

He is easily trapped, and since taking a good picture is difficult, so one day, I catch him and keep him till day-time when I photograph him.

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehog held in hand peeks out!

Hedgehogs are difficult to identify and my guides are not quite comprehensive and the descriptions not specific enough, so, like a lot of amateur naturalists, I call it an Indian Hedgehog and leave it at that.

Night too leaves behind a few small villains, who now appear or can be found where they were not present the previous evening. I am referring, of course, to the scorpions who have the knack of turning up where you never expected to find it – on the outside of the ‘macchar-dani’ (mosquito net), in the folds of the towel on the rack, three feet above the ground or in your boots, the one day you forget to check. Then, its a ”EEYOWW’ followed by the immediate,abrupt and merciless extinction of the perpetrator and later on a local anaesthetic and some salve. A few bites later, you realise it was the fright and unexpectedness which raced your heart more than the pain and it was your ego that required the balm more than the sting.

Curses! Discovered again!

Curses! Discovered again!

Fortunately, I have never found, horror of horrors, the arch-villain, in my shoes or garden – the saw-scaled viper. I’m sure he must be there for my garden is fenced with old duck-boards standing upright, but I never saw him. Nearby yes, but never in my garden.

But lets put these night-time experiences away, for the sun has peeped over the dunes. At this time, strangely, it is not the birds that draw you but the bees. For my garden boasted two hives of bees. They appeared almost together one year after the winter had passed. The largest was in the tree and belonged to Apis florea, the Dwarf Honey Bee. The second hive in the thatch of my garden fence behind a bamboo ‘patti’ screen was the hive of Apis cerana, the Asiatic honeybee. For a brief period these hives flourished, each oblivious of the other, and just as suddenly died out in the autumn. But while they were there, the humming of bees around the sunlit portulacas gave an almost-ethereal feeling to me drowsing in my plastic garden-chair under the tree.

The hive in the tree!

The hive in the tree! (Apis florea)

The hive in the thatch.

The hive in the thatch. (Apis cerana)

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The abandoned thatch hive exposed. Never imagined it to be so large!

The authorities pipe water twice a day, once in the early morning and once ofter dark. So in between these times, you are dependent on water in the roof tanks and stored water in the bathroom buckets. Water is life in the deserts. The pipeline supplying the garden has a small leak at the place where it bends around the garden corner and there it leaks. Each morning, the garden creatures are treated for an hour or so to a thin lamellar flow across a patch of cemented pavement. I have forbidden its repair so that the creatures can get their small but just desserts!

The bees buzz here across the garden from the hive , and like teenagers wearing many pocketed jeans, they pick up water in the small cups or satchels on their legs and take off for the hive. I imagine this water is used to keep the queen and the larvae air-conditioned through the summer. The bees drink greedily of this water and long after it has stopped they crowd the fence, pipe, wet gravel and moist soil with an unquenchable appetite.

Its not just humans who store water each day!

Its not just humans who store water each day! (Apis cerana)

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water.

The bees crawl everywhere to get at the water. (Apis cerana)

Seeing this and the fact that their presence kept some small creatures away I added two more sources of water. A pot of water hung from a tree branch for the birds and bees and a earthen water-bowl for the squirrels, jirds and other creatures at ground level. Since I was watering them, I decided to feed them, so I added a small wooden feeding tray. The carpenter was so gratified at being asked to do so noble a task that of his own he added a bird-house to the tray. I did’nt have the heart to put him right but gave him an extra shabash! Anyway, the bees now started raiding the water-pot in the mid-morning and afternoons too!

Bees besiege the suspended matka

Bees besiege the suspended matka

The white-eared bulbuls (Pycnonotus leucotis) who wake me are not the bulbuls one meets elsewhere in India but are of the white-cheeked variety but without the pointed crests that their cousins from the hills sport. Earlier considered a subspecies, I am told they have been promoted to the rank of a separate species.

The handsome desert bulbul!

The handsome bulbul of the desert!

They fly around, peck at things, warble in the bushes, or on the fence and provide a running commentary on all that’s happening throughout the day. They, along with the squirrels and jirds are my constant companions and I love them dearly. Indeed, one pair did try to nest in the thatch fence but they abandoned the attempt due to a unseasonal heatwave. I pamper them with choicest grains and by shooing away the ‘Bharadwaj’ (Greater Coucal) bird when he calls upon me. They reward me with their melodious calls and assume coquettish postures for my amusement.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The feisty little purple sunbird.

The other residents of my garden include sunbirds, sparrows, doves and crows. The sparrows nest in the eaves, the doves in the storehouse rafters, the crows somewhere in the ad hoc repairs of the roof in my backyard and the sunbirds I know not where.

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

Mrs Sparrow comes to call on!

It is during the hot hours of the day when I find my most interesting guests. Sometimes it is a Roller perched on a branch under the tree enjoying the coolness just under the canopy where the loo cannot reach directly. On other occasions its a White-browed Fantail, about whom I am constantly admonished by birdwatchers not to refer as a flycatcher any more. Let him catch the two-winged insects, but he must NOT be named as such, declares one soul who fixes me with a glare as if I had just used the much-abhorred ‘n_’ word in a congregation of politically correct citizens.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

Remember, a fantail, not a flycatcher! Oh forget it, lets just call it 'Rhipidura aureola'.

During the hot hours of the garden, the creatures are to be found in the shadiest, coolest places. Some, for no conceivable reason why, try other methods. The squirrel who lives in my garden is one such. At this time the birds cling to the shade but off the ground, the jirds are deep underground while Wally the squirrel, so named because he scarfed walnut kernels from her one day, insists on remaining on the sandy floor in the dappled shade below the tree. So to remain in that spot, he resorts to all kinds of tricks. Sometimes, he is on his belly with four hot feet off the ground. Sometimes he grasps the tree trunk while standing on his hind-feet. Intent on his cooling tricks, he fails to notice the bucket of water I send halfway across the garden. Suddenly sodden, he is shocked for an instant before taking off up the tree but I do hope I have helped him remain cool.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Ok, first lets try a belly flop with legs clear of the sand.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Maybe hugging the tree is a better idea.

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

Back to the good old hide in the shadow routine!

One doesn’t quite expect to find butterflies in the desert but they were present alright. The common danaids were present since their foodplant the Aak or Calotropis was present. In my garden. Every day I saw tiny blues which I discovered to be the Dark Grass Blue Zizeeria lysimon. There was also a Pioneer which stayed awhile and moved on. Insect life must exist in greater variety than one expects small pockets in the desert as I also saw a wasp meticulously scour the garden presumably for caterpillars.

The Dark Grass Blue

The Dark Grass Blue

The visiting Pioneer

The visiting Pioneer

The wasp on the hunt!

The wasp on the hunt!

The star of the garden is, of course, the jird. Most people call him ‘gerbille’ or ‘kangaroo mouse’; he is neither. His short, rounded ears, chubby body, long thinly haired tail with dark tassel, and shorter legs than one would expect of a mouse looking like a miniature kangaroo, he is the cutest of desert creatures in my garden.

Meet the jird!

Meet the jird!

One day he turned up in my newly developed garden strolling in as if he owned the place. This was followed by a detailed reconnaissance on his part which culminated with the selection of a spot by the gate where there was adequate shade available. He then proceeded to dig as swiftly, continuously and urgently as he could, realising the risk he faced of being without a bolt-hole. Every few minutes or so, whenever he felt unsafe or uneasy, he would pause and sit upright, facing this way and later that, till he was certain danger had passed. Then he would resume with renewed vigour. Sometimes his head was not seen as it was buried deep but the rear part of his body and his feet were rapidly jerking upwards above the ground level ejecting a constant stream of sand from the hole. Finally, the burrow was done but it was becoming dark.

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Slaking its thirst before bossing us around!

Tired but satisfied, he went to have a sip in the newly installed water-bowl but instead sat up at the edge and shrieked angrily. Peering to see what was the problem, I espied Mr and Mrs Todarmal stolidly sitting in the water. Only after I had driven off the indignant toads and changed the water, and also hidden myself in the verandah, would the jird take his sip of water.

The Toadar Mals

The Toadar Mals

Now, master of all he surveys, he shows himself during the day only when it is not too hot. Then he emerges from his burrow, does his personal grooming and then clambers up the side of the bowl to drink his water. Thirst satisfied, he seeks to satisfy his palate. This he does by raiding the bird-seed spilled over the edge of the feeder tray or by nibbling pieces of grass sitting outside his burrow. Should another jird enter the garden, there is a thorough free-for-all until he has vanquished the interloper.

One day I saw another slightly smaller jird and realised he had a mate. But alas, I was not fortunate enough to see their progeny as the military authorities cottoned onto the fact that I was enjoying myself thoroughly and decided to remedy the fact by posting me to the North East.

The honeymooners

The honeymooners

Though I am no longer physically present in the desert, in my mind’s eye I can still return to enjoy those pleasurable moments that were once my good fortune to experience.