Tracing Monsoon: Part II: Following the Insects

Monsoon is magic. If I have said it already (thrice now), please bear with me. This magic is not the kind we read in books. It is a heightened sense of seeing, of hearing, of smelling, of tasting, of being happy. Of love. It is a heightened sense of knowing: anything natural seems supernatural. Anything supernatural is no less than magic. And monsoon is just that – a heightened sense of everything.

To be amidst the deep and dark woods or over the edge of a cliff while the cupid of clouds strike the ground with numerable arrows, is not only our time of happiness. It belongs to all the creatures of this world. Happiness to be alive, to be able to survive, to procreate. During this time of the year, it is monsoon that expands this emotion, even to creatures we so wrongly consider sphexish.
A bee pollinating Chlorophytum tuberosum - a monsoon ephemeral
As I followed the plants, I followed insects as well. Their lives are intermingled, and I find observing either without their counterpart unfair.

When the first drop hits the ground, it is not only the plants that take root or blossom. Life blossoms.
Streambed puddling
In the beginning, there is only an increase in the humidity, with a negligible drop in the temperatures from the torturous summer trend. The first showers are always silent and, like spices, are only sprinkled upon the receptive soil. But this little sprinkling is enough to start mass congregation of butterflies that have been eagerly waiting to mud-puddle and chase mates.
Common Emigrants and a Spot Swordtail
Streambeds, river banks, lake shores, and many other sources of freshwater that turned to dust by the end of summer are again brimming with new life. In pre-monsoon months, it is not merely to survive, however. For butterflies that especially mate during monsoon, it is to build up the reserves of minerals and other nutrients, which the males present to the females when they mate. This cycle almost exactly coincides with the onset of sprouting plants.

I find this natural rhythm of life like music. It begins with the clairvoyant songs of birds and the flutter of butterfly congregations. It is backed by the chorous of cicadas accompanying the backdrop of thunders. But it is not always the sounds.

There are plants that add colours and perhaps vibrations as they grow, to the string of monsoon’s instruments. There is that silent music to which the butterflies perform the courtship dance. There are man-made structures that play the theme of rain. And then there are our senses, providing illusions that are true.

For an intro to the great musical that lasts for four long months, it passes by seemingly quickly. This is proof enough that you’re entangled in this rhythm by your heightened senses, that you become invariably lost during monsoon. Time doesn’t merely pass by, it escapes.

Slowly the streambed and forest floor is saturated with water, and as soon as it happens, little bejeweled creatures stir out of their burrows, leaving behind their previous life now only reminiscent deep into their genome: Tiger Beetles.
The Azure Tiger Beetle - Jansenia azureocincta
These extravagant creatures are less than an inch in length. They spend the dry months of winter and summer in burrows under decomposing wood and forest floor, preying actively on other unfortunate invertebrates lurking nearby.

Monsoon is the best season to observe these beetles, as most species are seen only during the early monsoon weeks (mostly from June to July-mid week). I have never seen a dead Tiger Beetle ever, save those that were either crushed or were killed by predators. I’m sure most of them die a natural death, probably by lying still deep under the leaf litter, hidden from scavengers – a respectful death of a creature we once thought were mindless.
Cicindela fabriciana (probably)
Given that counting number of species and the comparison of species diversity to other similar habitats elsewhere is scientifically important, it is also of a personal interest to me. Merely striking off a checklist, however, is not my intention, although sometimes I give in into striking off some heard-of creatures I’m yearning to see.

In case of Tiger Beetles, it is not worth making a checklist, simply because there exists none for Sahyadri (which is a shame really), but also because they are some of the most ephemeral and elusive of all insects. For instance, I explored as much for these beetles last year as this, and I could identify only 5. This year was a bonus, with 9 to 10 species on the list: some as inconspicuous and small as a fleck of dust in a dust-storm, some as brilliantly obvious as Nyctanthes arbor-tristis on a dark night.

Their life as adults is merely of two months. From a few days after pre-monsoons starts their mating season, where a male is rather territorial, and would not tolerate the presence of another male in his little territory. However, there are always small communities of these beetles near banks of rivers with a thick canopy. Such places show tolerance of a male with several other individuals about probably because food is in abundance.
The mating season lasts until end of July, after which they abruptly disappear. Whether they hibernate, like several species in North America, is unknown; but many do complete their lifecycle and return to dust.

Not all last long to live and retire back to earth, however. In their life of two months as adults, the Tiger Beetles face a great threat from predators – birds, small mammals, other predatory insects. One in particular specializes in parasitizing the grubs of Tiger Beetles. This nemesis is rarer than Tiger Beetle themselves – the Velvet Ant.
A mating pair of Velvet Ants
We stumbled across this rare sight as we were looking for spiders. The sexual dimorphism is pretty apparent in Velvet Ants. The male are winged, and always larger than female, which are wing-less. The name Velvet Ant signifies the female, but they are actually Wasps. A male holds the female in his mandibles, and carries her up on a leaf – where they mate.
A female Velvet Ant
Once mated the male flies off and the female scampers down on the forest floor, and begins the search of prey for her offspring’s upbringing. These preys are the many burrowing insects – mostly larvae – and Tiger Beetles happen to be one of them.

The female of the mating pair is different from that of the individual seen by a stream-side. They both were observed on the same day, and around the same time as last year. I can be pretty sure that this is the season they are commonly seen around, although I cannot say for sure until I have observed more than just three specimens.

Sighting them mating at the same time as Tiger Beetles only means that their lifecycles overlap. It may not mean that their lives are entwined, but only because it has already been established, we know that some of the Tiger Beetles were sacrificed for the birth of another unique insect we might again consider sphexish.

We are in the end of June; the struggle to survive and procreate in the little world of insects is now at its peak.

There is an explosion of life everywhere. There are insects flying everywhere – flies and butterflies, bugs and beetles, dragonflies and damselflies. Some are sipping nectar from freshly blooming flowers, some munching on the freshly unfurled leaves. There are those, feeding on those that feed on plants. One of the extremely efficient predators, probably one that will beat all other aerial predators for its stealth, is a Robberfly.
Robberfly feeding on a Horsefly
Like a hawk swooping onto an unsuspecting prey from high in the sky is invisible even on a clear day, the Robber Flies are efficient hunters of the lower troposphere. On two days, I saw the same species feeding on a variety of diet – from a Weevil, Housefly, Horsefly, to its own kin – a Robberfly. This shows the efficiency with which they feed. On other occasions, I have seen them feed on Paper Wasps, Dragonflies, Damselflies, Hoverflies and flies in other families, Beetles, and Butterflies. The list probably contains all that they can empower. We must be glad we’re beyond the size that they can feed on.
A mating pair of Robberflies
These flies are ferocious predators, but are splendid lovers and responsible mothers. Sure, it is all coded in their genes like ours, but in case of insects, nature takes its course in the most efficient manner. Nurture, on the other hand, is their own responsibility. The Robberflies will reign throughout the Monsoon, some well into the dry months. And as the season grows old, their competition will only increase.

One such competitor is the Dragonflies and Damselflies.
Trithemis aurora defending his territory
The months of June and July are always interesting if you’re interested in Odonates. One of the curious things about early dragonflies is that the females are more common than males, and as the season ages, males become more common.

In June, starting from late May, Trithemis aurora females are common along forest-clearings. As the monsoon begins, the males capture territories along the waters – mostly free-flowing streams, where they defend it from a number of other larger Dragonflies, as well as small but persistent Damselflies. Yet they never always succeed in claiming their territory, and several species end up laying eggs in the same spot.
Disparoneura quadrimaculata, male, sharing the same territory
In August and early September, the Odonate diversity is rather low, and it is the most diverse in October when the waters are full, the niads have left their aquatic lives and entered the aerial.

But really, we’ve not seen even half of this waking world. For that, we need to look a little closer. On a wet trail at Karnala, we found a large tree bearing many young flowers, the Ficus. Some of the figs were tender green, and some yellow-orange. It was just a flower, just a fruit, on one really large tree.
A Fig Wasp from Karnala Bird Sanctuary
On these were tiny wasps carrying a long sword in their back-end. This is the Fig Wasp, some so small, that they are almost invisible to a naked eye. On another occasion in the month of July, I found another species of wasp with an extremely long ovipositor – almost five times its own body length sitting patiently on a fig.
A Fig Wasp from Peb Fort
These rather specialized wasps are anything but sphexish. Some are the caretakers and breeders of Ficus trees, few of the largest and oldest trees to grow, harbouring their own species of Fig Wasps, and some are cunning and deceitful, playing no role what-so-ever in pollinating the figs. The sword-like ovipositor is sharp enough, and long enough, to pierce and enter into the centre of the Ficus flower. An egg is carefully nestled amongst the anthers and stigmas.

There are several non-pollinating Fig Wasps in the family Agaonidae. What these do, is lay an egg close to the larva of a pollinating Fig Wasp, and the grubs when hatched devour the pollinator's larva. While it may seem that this wasp damages the mutual relationship of the pollinator wasp and Ficus tree, the non-pollinator actually help keep the populations of pollinator wasps under control - because if the fig is overloaded by pollinator wasp grubs, it may exploit the plant as a resource and may result in damaging the flower.

The wasps I photographed likely belong to the non-pollinating clan, which prefer to insert the egg through the wall of the flower, unlike pollinating wasps which enter the flower through an opening at the top. A really great article discussing some species of Indian and Sri Lankan non-pollinating Fig Wasps can be found here.

The plant-animal interactions are closest amongst insects. Although it is a love-hate relationship, monsoon is often the time of rejoice, when they so hopelessly, lovingly, lay down their guards and provide the selfless services to each other.
Apis florea and Justicia procumbens share a connection
A Dwarf Honeybee, Apis florea, was busy feeding on the flowers of Justicia procumbens, an annual herb seen commonly on the slopes of Sahyadri during monsoon. There was a complex, diverse system in function here. The Dwarf Honeybees were accompanied by Leaf-cutting bees, Common Honeybee, Hoverflies (Eristalinus sp.), feeding on the ephemerals and endemics of the Sahyadri. If it was not for them, the endemism of Sahyadri would probably be replaced by monocultures of other aggressive species, such as is seen in many urban ecosystems today.
A pair of Cicindela fabriciana at Yeoor Hills
By July end, the Tiger Beetles, Wasps, Butterflies, Dragonflies and Damselflies, and a number of members of various Orders and Families have mated, and laid the edifices of the future generation. Their killing and feeding has not gone in vain. As a human, I see a Robber fly’s voracious diet as an excellent example of population control, of flies and bees’ tireless flower-visits I see as the strongest bond, for the survival of our very own species.
A Common Crow - Euploea core, chrysalis
It begs me to think beyond the obvious: are they really sphexish? Is their life merely mechanical? As I sit here and shuffle through the biology-oriented articles, I see a life history of an insect drawn as a never-ending cycle. To a student it explains the life of an insect in the simplest form, but to observe it unfold in nature is what gives you a clear perspective. To call it complex would be to sum it in one simple, understandable word; but to call it social, interactive, and as lively as we believe our species is, is something I believe is true for all organisms on the planet, including insects.

We’re into August now, and life is speeding faster than the speed of my grasping. To have it each described will take us a million lives, so I end this note here until later.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing as always Ani! I especially love the robber fly environmental portrait, which is incredibly beautiful!