Little Known Bugs

...of Mumbai
Lush green forests of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, during Monsoon
There are times when we walk in the wild and find something interesting. We look at it, and forget. Then there are times when we remember seeing it but not photographing it. That’s when we regret. I have been through such times, apparently not photographing something that is very common, but then thinking back and wondering if it’s so common, why didn’t I photograph it?

On a dull winter day I was browsing on the web, where I came across a picture of an interesting centipede. I had photographed a similar fellow during monsoon in 2008, when I had been on a trail at SGNP (read it HERE). I came home and forgot about this image. It never appeared on my blog either. So now, more than a year later I dig into heaps of albums and find this one image. Now I know what it was and I wish I had taken more photographs.

This made me look for some common but lesser known bugs. After researching online, I was amazed to see little to no information on some bugs found in our backyards. There are studies and specific research around these bugs, but little is known to the general public. The bugs I am going to talk about interest me, and I conclude them to be the least or little known bugs of Mumbai. These are the top six on my list. Starting with the commonest:

Everyone who has been on nature trails during monsoon has seen this bug. That frothy, spit-like “shelter” is built by a bug nymph. It’s not hard to recognize it once you see it. Spittlebug or Spit bug is very common all around Mumbai. These “spit homes” are more so common during post-monsoon months starting August to October. The frothy structure is not just a home, but a safe zone. It is itchy if it comes in contact with the skin, it keeps the nymphs moist and protect against heat and cold.
Spittlebug Larva in it's foamy shelter
The Spittlebug is in fact a larval stage of insects in the family Hemiptera – the true bugs. The adults are referred to as Leafhoppers or Froghoppers. The adults are easily distinguishable from one another compared to their larvae. The family Cercopidae is most abundant. The adults are as commonly seen during post-monsoon months as the nymphs. Some species are considered pests since they damage cash crops.
Callitettix versicolor - seen at Nagla Block part of SGNP
The “Spittlebug” I find interesting is Callitettix versicolor. This mysterious bug is so common, it’s an irony that there is no information available on the internet. It belongs to Cercopidae, is a plant-sap sucker, and is most commonly seen during post-monsoon as are its other cousins. It is a beautiful conspicuous bug, fairly large in size compared to some Leafhoppers and prefers clinging onto grass blades. Although the nymph may be a pest, the adult is not known to be a pest on any plants, but there is a big lacuna in online literature on this fellow.
Cercopis sp.
There are several Cercopidae bugs unknown to us – with their real name buried deep in million different scientific papers. The above photograph was taken in 2006 with an SLR. It is probably a Cercopis sp. – another beautiful Spittlebug adult – seen at Karnala.

Vindhyan Bob
Skippers (Hesperiidae) are my favorite butterflies because of their cryptic appearance, and the fact that identifying them is tougher than identifying the Blues (Lycaenidae) butterflies. These butterflies are small, commonly seen during monsoon and post-monsoon, and love shady forests. The Hesperiidae of Mumbai is well documented, but there is little information available on some.
Arnetta vindhiana - Vindhyan Bob, identified by the two distinct spots in the
center of the forewing - seen in the picture
Vindhyan Bob is of particular interest to me because of its mystery. It is seen throughout the seasons, but is most common during Monsoon months. This little skipper has baffled scientists for its multiple seasonal forms that are confusing. The different seasonal forms were long thought to be different subspecies! But that’s not it. This endemic skipper of Western Ghats is one of the commonest skippers seen in Mumbai – particularly SGNP – including Yeoor and some part of IIT-Campus. The sad part is – its life history is unknown to us. There are no records on its larval host plant and larval stages. However, we can speculate how the caterpillar might look and which food plant it might prefer based on its cousins in the same genus, but the fact that this endemic butterfly of ours is still unknown is the reason why I included it in Little Known Bugs of Mumbai.
Mating pair of Vindhyan Bob
There are several successful butterfly rearing enthusiasts, who I hope will one day find a mysterious caterpillar that belongs to Vindhyan Bob. Until one of us hunts it down, we can only wait. I have seen a mating-pair during monsoon of 2008, but that’s just one-fourth of its life cycle.

Derbidae is a family of bugs belonging to Hemiptera. The bug I am interested in is called – Derbid Planthoppers. It belongs to genus Proutista. I like to call it rabbit-eared fly. This bug is fairly common in all seasons if you have an eye for nature. It is mostly seen on palms, specifically Coconut palm, but also prefers shaded forests.
Derbid Planthopper
These bugs are plant sap-suckers in their adult stage, the nymphs are known to feed on fungi. There is another big lacuna on literature of these bugs. Seeing them in Mumbai is common, but seeking information is not. It is related to the planthoppers, as its name signifies, but they hold their wings straight up. They are cute, little interesting bugs that I know very less about.
Another unidentified Derbid Planthopper
Soldier Flies
Sargus sp. possibly metallinus
These flies are as common as Robber Flies. What’s not common is finding enough information on them. These are metallic, elongated flies with large eyes, covering most of the head. They are seen throughout the seasons. The soldier flies, specifically those found in Mumbai (or India) have no information available on the internet. But a quick search on Soldier Flies earns a good deal of information.

Melon flies
These flies are excellent mimics of wasps and bees. They belong to Stratiomyidae, a diverse family of flies. The most common I have seen is Sargus sp. This fly is most common of all, which is seen on most nature trails sitting patiently on leaf surfaces. The flight is very fast, to-and-fro, but they do not fly far off once disturbed.
Paper-wasp mimicking flies - Tephritidae flies
(Another probable Soldier Fly is a Paper Wasp mimic, picture shown above. It was seen at Yeoor in monsoon of 2009. It is one of the most interesting flies I have ever seen – which not only resembles a paper wasp, but congregates like one too.)
* This fly is now identified as a Melon-fly, Dacus sp., from the family Tephritidae. They are known to be serious pests on melons. Adults lay eggs under the "skin" of fruits, and larvae bore tunnels inside, thereby making the fruit rot sooner.

Kleptoparasitic Flies
Let’s accept the fact that we don’t like observing flies as much as we like butterflies and spiders. There are several fly families that go unnoticed, but not all. The flies of the family Milichiidae are as common as spiders – because, where there are spiders – there are these flies, entitled Kleptoparasitic flies.
Uninvited Desmometopa sp. flies share Honey Bee prey of a Crab Spider
Kleptoparasitism is a form of parasitism, where one animal takes prey or food from another that has caught, collected or prepared the food – including stored food. The prey may not be stolen from its predator, but merely fed upon without predator’s consent. The Melichiidae flies are one best example, where they feed off the prey captured by other insects or spiders.
A Lynx feeding on a Honey Bee. Can you spot Milichiidae flies in the above picture?
This sort of behavior has been documented and photographed by many at SGNP. The flies hover around spiders and sit on the prey a spider is feeding on. This parasitic behavior ultimately gives the spider less nutrients, since the flies feed off the free food, sadly avoiding these flies is impossible.
Unidentified flies hike a ride on Lemon Pansy
There are several fly families that are kleptoparasitic, and Milichiidae is only one of them I have observed and photographed in SGNP. The flies sitting on this Lemon Pansy butterfly could probably be parasitic, but I have no idea – and never came across information on this kind of behavior – they are probably just hiking a ride ‘cause they are too lazy? Or are they parasitic?

Soil Centipede
One rare creature of the ground, soil centipedes are not that rare underground. It was this interesting centipede that made me wonder how many other creatures I overlooked in the past. I do not have a thing for centipedes, but a soil centipede is nothing like the ones I am afraid of.
Soil Centipede - being carried away by ants
Soil centipedes belong to Geophilomorpha – an Order under Chilopoda (Centipedes). They dwell underground or under rocks and are eyeless. These centipedes feed on bugs in the soil and are considered beneficial to the ecosystem. Seeing one above ground is rare, unless you turn the rocks or dig underground. Some species occur commonly in gardens, even plant pots, but that’s all we know about them. The soil centipedes also show an enormous lacuna in its information availability. The only reference I collected related to Indian Geophilomorpha was “Contributions to knowledge of the Chilopoda - Geophilomorpha of India” which is unfortunately not available online.

Many studies conducted abroad on Soil Centipedes cite the above reference, which is a clear fact that it is a priceless study on Geophilomorpha of India. It is our misfortune to not be able to find the document.
An unknown fly (probably Stomorhina sp.) or a deformed Chrysomya sp.?
Both belong to Calliphoridae (Blue Bottle Fly/Blow Flies)
The little known bugs are several that include spiders, moths, ants, beetles, bees and other insects. This is just a touch-up on the ones I find interesting, but know little about. Whether we will get know them or not is uncertain, since it might be too late to learn if all the habitats as we know fall under a serious threat. The current state of the habitats is not something I would argue upon. We all know what happened to Uran – a bird paradise, or we know what is happening to the mangroves elsewhere – or with the constant encroachment into the last forests of Mumbai, and we all regret on what’s happening and can do nothing about - simply because we-don’t-know-what-the-hell-we-can-do-without-getting-involved-with-police-and-politics.

By studying these animals, we will not only learn a bit more about the biodiversity of our surrounding, but it will be easier to assess the health of the ecosystem. These little flies and other creatures are at the base of a large food pyramid. The larva of Soldier Flies grow in damp, dead and decaying wood – excellent for breaking down the wood and passing the nutrients into the ground. The Milichiidae flies somehow control the extent of spider’s reign over the flowers (in place of bees). The Spittle bug larva and adults might be pests, but they also feed on weeds! Every organism is an indicator of the health of a habitat. Let’s look further into the thickets and find these creatures, and let them have their share of fame for the little but wonderful work they do to keep our planet going.

Medway Creek

...a trail during January Thaw

“Whose woods are these I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
- Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Medway Creek - as seen from a bridge
I was growing impatient for the arrival of spring. This was a month ago, in January – a month considered to be the bleakest of all. Spring is yet far from now. I continued my daily chores of going to school every day, missing the song of the birds and merry squirrels that would scour on the ground. The snow filled the landscape, so much so that I hardly ever saw anything that’s green and not white. The weather was ever in transit – once it was cloudy and windy and sometimes bright and calm. I welcomed the sun every time I saw it thawing the icy mounds.

Then came a week in January, of something unexplained and loved by all – January Thaw. January Thaw is a climatic phenomenon of unseasonably warm temperatures that tend to occur at about the same time every year (usually in the second or third week of January).

The Canadian Encyclopedia writes,

Though the midwinter upsurge in temperature appears consistent enough, the phenomenon is not recognized as real – it is what meteorologists call a “singularity”. A singularity is an annual weather episode, usually an anomalous departure that reoccurs at roughly the same time every year in a majority of years.

It also notes that Toronto only once in 150 Januaries has had no thaw period. This year, Toronto has had far little snow, and London did receive a dose of snow earlier during New Years Eve when the temperatures dropped to below -10C. During the period of January Thaw in the third week, the temperatures rose to about 6C, the snow created pools of water and mud, and the sky shone brightly! It was a break I was looking for during midwinter, to get out of the classroom in the basement and explore the woods.
With such a “singularity” blessing, I wandered to the Medway Creek that runs in front of my house. It’s a blissful place – a nigh fifteen feet from the road alongside. I wrote about Medway Creek during fall, which can be read HERE.
So exploring Medway Creek wasn’t new to me, but surprisingly, it was – very new, very different. The sound of water gushing beneath a crust of ice, the dripping of snow off the bare branches, little plants lying dead in the graveyard of snow – it was a surreal. There wasn’t enough activity of the animals, although their presence was felt everywhere. There were Black-capped Chickadees high in the trees, dancing around merrily – always hiding from me. I haven’t managed a single photograph of these birds yet! And there were other signs of the teeming life during winter – that of White-tailed Deer, Cotton-tail Rabbits and raccoons. None were sighted, unfortunately.
Footprints of a White-tailed Deer
Medway Creek is one of the tributaries of Thames River, and one of the much polluted ones at that. It is unfortunate that the tree cover is thinning in much urbanized parts and the increasing road runoffs adding to the pollution. It is a source of water for the wildlife that lingers around, and a prime habitat for aquatic animals. The UTRCA graded it at D for its forest cover and a C for its water quality. NOT good.

Many footprints on the ice over the creek
After walking around the creek, seeing no animals around – I considered photographing dried plants.

This task is easy but the identification is far from easy. So I took help from Walter Muma, owner of Ontario Wild Flowers website
, one of the best online sources for identification of all kinds of flora of Ontario!
As I walked onto the snow laden ground, searching for signs of life, I recorded a video, which can be seen below,

And took photographs of what I thought was interesting.

Daucus carota
One such dried plant that grabbed my attention was Wild Carrots – Daucus carota. It is a common plant throughout the landscape in Southern Ontario which is edible. The flowers when dry come close together and form an interesting design.

Staphylea sp. (?)
Another plant that I noticed was identified as a Bladdernut – Staphylea sp. The identification is uncertain. It was dead and dripping with melting snow. The flowers are ornamental and possess a bladder-like fruit – hence the name.

Alliaria petiolata
Then it was Garlic Mustard – Alliaria petiolata, a pretty flowering plant of Mustard family. However, as other plants, only the pods were seen attached to it. It is an edible plant. Unfortunately, it was introduced in North America as a culinary herb and has found its way into the woods where it thrives amongst other native plants. It has a status of “invasive species” and is of much concern throughout Thames River Watershed.

Dipsacus sp.
Teasel – Dipsacus sp. was also common throughout the banks of Medway Creek. These too are considered ornamental. The seeds are a good food source during winter for birds and hence grown in natural reserves to attract them.

Viburnum sp.
Another pretty – but dried – plant was Highbush Cranberry – Viburnum sp. This shrub is native to North America and is commonly seen all over. The fruits are sour and rich in Vitamin C.
After exploring some of these dried plants, how much ever boring or exciting you might think it is, I noticed these three mushrooms. It’s not that I saw them for the first time – I have been seeing them since I got here in September. I haven’t identified them yet, never photographed ‘em before, but I felt this was the time to capture them. The three ‘shrooms on a bent tree-trunk, with a backdrop of snow laden riverbank was a beautiful sight! These are probably related to the Bracket Fungi, which, when they die, do not disintegrate easily but leave behind a hard, woody structure. This could be a reason why the three fungi are still intact on the tree.

While walking along the creek, as I photographed the scenery around, I was stuck with a thought of how evolution works. It is one of the processes that cannot be predicted in time. It is either slow, or fast. It can either lead to a successful species, or extinction (survival of the fittest). It is a pure, strong natural force driving life from its very beginning. It will only lead to further evolution; hence it will never stop on its own. Until we interfere. Human interference is termed anthropogenic, something man-made, “artificial”, something that we devised and not nature. But we forget we’re a product of nature – of this evolution. Like non-related species lead to evolution of some other species, we’re but a part of this relationship – where we, the non-related species let other species evolve.

It is in our perception, however, the way we see such evolution – as either constructive or destructive. First thing that comes to my mind when I see us as a reason for evolution is the invasion of exotic species. Be it by an accident – such as introduction of many plants and animals in other environments – such as Garlic Mustard, Crazy Yellow Ants, and rodents on Australian islands and so on. Or be it on purpose, such as introducing exotic ornamental trees such as Delonix regia, or Acacia pycnantha for a greener tree cover and the Giant African Snail in India, or the introduction of biological pest controls such as Cane Toad in Australia, and of domestic animals in the wild. All of this took place in not more than a hundred years – too short to see any signs of evolution, but the effects are already seen.

In case of Medway Creek – or any in the Thames River Watershed, the invasive species such as Zebra Mussel have posed a threat to the native diversity of mussels – this might contribute to evolution or extinction of some, it’s a part of the survival of the fittest. There’s Buckthorn, an invasive plant species posing a threat to the native flora in Thames valley. It is a game of waiting for a thousand or even million years to see the actual effects. But in case of invasive species, it’s always the opposite of evolution. Thus, in order to minimize the extinction rate – which is faster than the rate of evolution, we must act as a responsible part of this biodiversity by eradicating the invasive species (we caused the invasion, we must sort it out, too!).
Harmonia axyridis
All invasive species are pests. Whether accidentally or purposely introduced. Take the example of the Asian Lady beetle – Harmonia axyridis (which can be read HERE). These fellows should be hibernating for winter, but several individuals were out as the temperatures rose during the thaw period. H. axyridis were introduced to protect crops from aphids but ended up being a pest themselves – posing a threat to the native ladybird beetles. Now we see more of H. axyridis than any native beetles in London. All of this also brings to my mind the “survival of the fittest”. Why is it that on an average, the invasive species tend to be more successful in a foreign habitat than the native ones? There are several reasons, such as possessing toxic chemicals, being disease resistant, so on. This is because of the way in which the respective invasive and the native species evolved.

Footprint of a White-tailed Deer on snow
Most of the barriers that existed before, such as mountains, rivers and oceans are no more barriers. Humans have a vast network of transportation, thus accelerating invasion far and wide. Only extensive monitoring can reduce this, and more efforts be made in curing the already persistent invasive species.