One of the walks in farms when I was a child, I had noticed some spit on the plants, I had asked a farmer for answers on who spat in his fields early morning, to which he said it is a snake’s spit. Myths such as this varied from farmer to farmer, some said it was spat by frogs and some said a snail puked. In some cultures it is mystified to be witches’ spit or a cuckoo’s spit too. But the real culprit was hidden inside the spit itself. When the bug swims out of its busy morning a yellow nymph showed itself that had a fish-like head. A curious nudge into the spit, limped a bug that undid its proboscis from the stalk and looked out to enquire.
Now you don’t have to feel awful when you see them on your dear plants and lawn, especially on the stalks that hangs a white froth held longer at dew hours. More often than not, the spits are of a Spittlebug unless you have not waged war against your neighbour. These bugs might have fed excessively on the stalks to wear a gown of froth, which would probably keep the nymphs of the bug safe from predators and from drying away in heat or cold conditions. With a few days passing, the wings of the Spittlebug develop and the amount of spit reduces eventually.
What develops from a full grown Spittlebug is another remarkable senior; one that doesn’t spit but jumps called the Froghoppers which are an astonishing little talented creature. Some Froghopper species can shoot up 100 times its body length and sport brilliant colors and patterns for a tiny bug. Scientists have been using high-speed cameras at the rate of 8000 per second to find the kinematics of Froghoppers.
The locomotion of insects is done by using thoraxes, some develop tails, some leap like crickets that use hind legs as spring and some simply walk on all six and most take off on wings. Jumping insects need muscular strength to perform locomotion and an ability to guide themselves for landing. Our contender is by far one of the best jumpers, crickets and locusts do jump but a short distance on heavy hind-legs to make the purchase while Froghoppers with short hind-legs which is less than half their body’s length, and weighing only 2% of their body mass and they don’t even use their wings to aid their take-off does make them outstanding jumpers.
Working against gravity requires energy that Froghoppers have overcome in their body weight by simply weighing less. Their jumping performances are rest taken care by muscle structure inside their hind-legs that catapults them at velocities ranging from 2.4 to 4.5 meters per second! That is 15 kmph. And their readiness to jump with forever-cocked-position of hind-legs keeps the kinetic energy ready to leap of faith. This leap can take them to a height of up to 70 centimetres to land them to their destinations. The super charged legs have now outdone the high-jumper’s records of fleas.
Why do they have to jump? It is quite unclear, could their predators challenge them to do so like the parasitic wasps, rapid chopsticks of mantises, witty warblers, unwitty grazers and camouflaged spiders? From spitting to propelling to beautifully patterned wings, Froghoppers or Spittlebugs fascinate much as any insect would.
Our morning newspaper
pressed earth in vapour.
Sounders have marched,
on a pugmark parched.
Have emptied their butts,
on raiding ground nuts.
The headlines flashed a Python’s track,
the drift alleged it had a snack.
A flaunting Peafowl sirened the scene.
Treed and gloating in his long preen.
Everything is a trending news
compiled at night, printed by dew.
Politics of herd over an obituary.
Every sign revealed its story.
We read news; of all that moves,
we set to track; a limping hoof.
We stalked a gait; of sheared thigh
survived a bovine; from a feline’s try.
We grasped the math; she gasped her breath.
To surprise us both; hugged a rosette death.
Imagine a wedding proposal by a groom with a loud monotonic message of love, would she accept him? Yes, if he was a Cicada! He has crawled out of his gown from the last nymphood and stood up on the dais of a tree trunk for his once-in-a-lifetime event. This event is timed particularly in summer when he along with a million others of his kind assemble within a few acres of such wedding halls to sing their love song.
Cicadas have contested among the loudest insects and won the title by reaching over 105 decibels in some species. Most singing congregations are formed by one species. One such was of Platypleura species’ that have brilliant black hind-wings veined with striking red bases. These Cicadas aren’t louder than the less numbered Platypleura basialba which too have beautiful wing patterns and greenish wash to their body. Although they sing together here in Satpura, they may have different frequencies to their choir.
Unlike crickets that rub their body parts to produce their song, Cicadas use special instruments called timbal in their abdomen, these are like the metal clickers we made a racket out of as kids at any conversation. Had you clicked it 400 times a second your first girlfriend would have been a Cicada! Perhaps she will find another Cicada whose timbal buckles the muscles in and out at 400 buckles per second. This is amplified tenfold on ribbed timble plate to compose the love song. This song resonates in an air cavity in their abdomens to send the message to their love bug. Such messages are whined by millions of male Cicadas putting a passing tractor’s noise to shame.
In such numbers there is safety by giving predators a satiation, especially to Indian Rollers, Drongos and Shrikes who are known to make use of such abundance. A few would be persecuted by Garden lizards, agamas, wasps and spiders who wait for this bounty. The periodic Cicadas that emerge once in 13 or 17 years are Magicicadas of North America. This emergence could deregister any predator’s memory of anticipation. However most Cicadas emerge once in 2 to 6 years.
Here in Satpura, Platypleura sp may emerge and when they do, these true-bugs molt a few feet above on plants. Either for defense or for alarm they squirt the sap liquid from their anus when anyone passes near their ceremonial gathering. Trust me it is tasteless.
Interestingly the Cicadas’ highest assemblage were on bright barked trees like Axle wood, Dhobin, and Kadam trees. We sung into scientists’ ears if this is a strategy employed by grooms to stick out of camouflage and present themselves for the lady Cicada or is it an association with specific tree sap or would pale bark aid the hot-blooded Cicada to regulate their body temperature during their musical sessions.
As adults the Cicadas suck the tree sap using a hard straw from the choice of trees. But females have another straw at their rear to deposit her rice grain like eggs into tree barks by slitting. The song must be heard in a day or two to mate successfully and rest in peace forever. The eggs hatch in the slits made by their mother and feeds their first meal of sap liquid in that groove. Then they drown under the ground up to 8 feet and feed on the pipelines of trees for minerals and water. Here they develop through several stages of nymphood for the next 2 to 17 years depending on the species. And then comes one summer, and that particular day for a male imago to cast his gown and sing that very groom’s song of love.
As the summer Sun warms the land it defoliates trees and triggers them to flower. And this colorful and fragrant drinking fest attracts millions from beetles to butterflies and Starlings to Giant Squirrels, most of the entrepreneurship is taken by bees. Rock bees swarm looking for ridges, tall trees, steep and high rocks to hive. They start colonies wherever they find such ledges and water nearby. Such a spot was an entrance to a cottage at Forsyth Lodge!
Deepanker the manager had to act quickly before the guests arrive and before the bees hem their wax into a comb. After an inspection he came to the naturalists with a news of another entrepreneur around the bees.
‘It is a large moth you guys must have a look’ he cried.
This moth had perched behind the lampshade right behind the colony. We could only see it partly and we peered to have a look after negotiating the enquiring worker bees. But the shadow behind the lampshade only threw its largeness and rusty wing overall. After investing on the risk of getting past an active and aggressive rock bee colony, we were determined to find what the moth was upto. We gently tapped the abdomen for it to crawl outside but the moth turned out to be a death-trap to Deep and me! It squeaked and dashed into bees, then it flew at a great speed hysterically and disappered. Deep had exited the passage by then looking for the moth. And I had pushed myself into the wall’s plaster under the lamp and closed my eyes tight. Half-a-minute later it all appeared to be real and I peeled off the plaster and walked out surreptitiously with a prized moth perched on my shoulder!
Death-trap was set to prove the myths of Death-head moth. This smallest of the three Acherontia moths had chosen the lampshade. This is styx species and a Death-head is a name for its skull like pattern on its thorax. Some say it is to deter any attacker and some say it mimics worker bees, but Buffalo Bill makes it ghoulish in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.
‘Bro this BBC’s post says that they feed on the honey Bro’ exclaimed Bejoy reading about Death-heads in his uncanny naturalist’s enthusiasm. We piled on to read about this snatching the screen away from him. The Death-head moths are known to savour honey from median bees of Europe. It is also said that they make squeaking noise around the hives. And Heinrich Prell who unraveled this in German in 1920 went unnoticed by English readers, he writes about its fondness for honey probing with a short proboscis. He also had decapitated a death-head to find where and how it makes the deathly squeaks. He finds that the moth has its pharynx adapted to inflate-deflate instead of clicking like Erebid moths or any other moths that make sounds from their bodily adaptations.
As the fascination grew about this beautiful moth, of its myths and its physics, I stumbled upon recent discoveries on its chemical capabilities too. That they can mimic the scent of the bees and feel at-home from defensive workers to feast on their honey! Isn’t this a heist entrepreneurship of one insect over several armed entrepreneurs in the heat of summer that work as one?
What has this Acherontia moth got to do with squeaking sounds which we too heard while setting it back on lampshade is still unclear. Could it just be a defense? Is it in the bees’ vocabulary? Another question that squeaked to me is what motivates a moth to feed on honey- a protein rich sugar? We now are following the Death-head moth’s life-cycle and following bees for their marvellous predators.
There are days in a jungle that only promise tracks of several animals; recent ones to couple of days older. On such days a sighting of an occasional Sambar or a sprinting Nilgai extracts an admiration which it deserved for the whole season. Their adaptations and muscles in winter-coat would match Hercules on that day, their camouflage would be toasted as the greatest evolution of genes and their plight to find food and water would be glorified to that of a seven-summit-mountaineer. It was such a story day when two of my best friends from Bangalore railed to see what sort of job I did in Satpura.
It began with a cheerful discussion on trees, the birds, the Tiger beetles, trail of ants, and the efficient management in Satpura’s buffer forest. This talk was interrupted by a bear’s track that was recent, it had sharp edges as good as prints by homebound cattle. The human-like paw impressions of a plantigrade foot time punched the start of the bear’s day. We drove hell-bent for a black figure in bushes and waited by a waterhole. A last homebound bullock did a royal walk and had its fill.
We drove back to double check the track but fell for a 3-inch wide Python’s track trailing into bushes, snaking a nullah and cutting the jeep-track at several spots. Just when we couldn’t snake any further where the reptile could, a Langur struck distress call to announce the prowl of a big cat and marked the setting sun behind River Denwa. We swam the vehicle through an ocean of lantana weed and arrived at a little peninsula where the monkeys were distressed. We were close to the call and the only path out of the thicket that blanketed the tip of the peninsula ploughed to us. Nowhere could the ‘cat’ have escaped, but the treat of a face to face with a big cat was savored by a pair of Sambar on a parallel peninsula of Denwa backwaters that honked their loud distress.
The chase was exhilarating, the 4×4 was engaged to tune the adrenalin of the alumnus of classmates. We eventually spotliit the rocks and crannies looking for a porcupine. An Indian Thicknee put itself on a rock and used the spotlight beam to fiddle insects. We geared to the exit calling it a drive, I decided to show the night sky through a well wooded forest. I pointed at Orion, Sirius, and Perseus and as I advanced towards Andromeda, a snort behind our vehicle came to her rescue- A porcupine!
I flashed the light at the porcupine on the flanks of the jeep-track, behind it were two other pair of eyes. The rare Porcupine hurried towards our jeep and the other two pairs hesitantly glowed from the flanks. The shivering quills of porcupine stopped just behind the vehicle, a leopard cub that had flushed it out made its bold chase after a second thought. The Porcupine must have felt safe close to the vehicle, but innocence of the leopard cub didn’t give it a break, the rodent flounced its way into the bushes grunting and took refuge of a nullah. The adult Leopard who had been waiting at the flank followed the chase. We heaved back and forth the track but the snorts and the eye shines had married the darkness of the starry night.
The chase had happened so quick and close that all of us were opaque to our cameras! I had my video mode set on the camera and didn’t hit the record button out of excitement. But one of us managed a phone click! That is a consolation for tracking the bear and journey with Python and patience practice with the ‘cat’ flagged by Langurs and to gazing at constellations. We lived happily ever after with stories of jungles that we learned, toasting for the chase by leopards that uncloaked the secretive porcupine under starry night.
I’ve been over Sagarmāthā,
winked at wall of death.
Aerial fights with Golden Eagle,
anon the Indian breath.
I’ve raised six Tibetan goslings,
in their mountain lakes.
Our Gander honked to meadows South,
along with other drakes.
Bird watchers count the bars on head,
divide the total by two.
Some are wedded by the rings,
to audit our deadly flu.
I return to higher land for summer,
with just two goslings ringed.
One was shot, another for Hawk,
two were plastic winged.