Summer, or, Biodiversity Within These Four Walls

For the first time I felt it, being stuck in space, coming unstuck in time.

Summers are always eerily quiet; I think to myself this exceptionally silent summer of 2020. As I lie in my bed, stuck in a room dimly lit, staring at the blank ceiling, everything is still. The summer loo creeps in from invisible gaps, and I imagine it propelling downward from the ceiling fan, heating up the bottled water enough to make it distasteful. I am paralyzed in space. How many summers has it been for this summer to arrive? I close my eyes only to feel a sudden rush of a steel breeze.

I’m over 3,000 meters above sea level, on a shoulder of the Gharwal Himalaya that leads to the Bandarpoonch Peak. I’ve just awoken from a sweet afternoon siesta after a hearty post-eight-hour-walk meal. My friend is poised on a tree stump admiring the setting sun over the Gharwal Himalaya. It is May of the year 2006. After four days of clouds and rain and snow, it has opened up. Soon the darkness grips us and the cold winds howl.

A summer in the Himalaya

The next lap is a day-long trek to the origin of River Yamuna. It lies farther beyond the rusty hot springs of Yamunotri. We arrive at the kund under a harsh alpine sun. There’s no fanfare here. The only sign that marks this origin is a make-shift flag. There are no sadhus around, no dhabas, only boulders – some the size of a football, some the size of a car, a truck, an airplane even, on an incline that leads higher up to the unbroken precipice of the Bandarpoonch, the frozen origin. The spring is cold and sharp. The sun crisp and harsh. I break a sweat under the steel breeze, take a deep breath, and squeeze my eyes shut.

The afternoon tarries on. The evening song of the Asian Koel in the distance breaks the silence. I find a curious visitor, an ensign wasp, as I’m making coffee, but it doesn’t stay on for long. They don’t really like my house, I think, probably because they cannot sniff out cockroaches, which is a good thing, really. I’ve seen a pair courting by the Indian Coffee House – I wonder if it has to do with restaurants and hence cockroaches. In that sense, I’m glad they’re around to provide their valuable ecosystem service of pest control that our municipal smoke-emitters are not quite efficient at.

At dusk I find two tiny wasps – both belonging to Braconidae – at the kitchen light, among the most frequent of parasitoid wasps at the counter. One is Phanerotoma, a tiny parasitoid of many urban-dwelling, often pestiferous, moths, the other a member of Doryctinae, a parasitoid of some beetles and moths. Then there was a lone Dexiin Tachinid (possibly Carcelia), that visited the kitchen at night – another parasitoid of beetles and some moths. These parasitic insects are called parasitoids because they end up killing the host in the process of growing up – so all parasitoids are parasitic, but not all parasites are parasitoids. They may sound cruel, but they are important in keeping a check on the populations of other insects – mostly those we consider pests of our foods.

Plate One

The bees visit at least once every week, but it’s always one lost, disoriented, weary bee seeking the white light. This fellow has come in with her baskets full of pale pollen. I wonder if she lost her way in the blaze of the urban lights. I wonder how far she flew to find a way into my house. I’ve never really seen that many honeycombs where I live. I let her rest in a different room, of course, before I retire into mine. Summers are silent, not empty.

The smell of dried mahua flowers lingers on as the skies turn a shade lighter – the older and drier the flowers the stronger it smells and tastes. I stretch myself up in the open temple under the foothill of Mahuli, a ginormous stele of the Sahyadri. At over 800 m above sea level, the peak of this mountain fort is visible as a jagged, dark spine against a waking sky. I am in two minds. I think back to the night before I boarded the train to Asangaon; I would never claim this mountain in summer, I had said to myself once. It is April of 2012. The climb starts before the sun ascends.

A summer in the Sahyadri

The rugged summer landscape of Sahyadri is stark. The vistas change as we rise a few meters every few minutes. At a curve on the mountain another giant arm of Mahuli reveals itself – every skeletal tree on its crown silhouetted against the white-washed sky. Packed with only a two-litre bottle of water and three apples, we find respite by a well-shaded waterhole. The water appears clean. We fill our bottles and eat our apples. The crown of Mahuli is fully cloaked, excepting the edges that command a marvelous view. I set my camera on timer as I’m about to join my friends for a pose looking over the precipice of one of the ginormous arms, nearly missing the edge.

There are some rare night visitors, such as the flower flies. The large-headed flower fly, Eristalinus megacephalus, has visited my kitchen only twice, buzzing around the incandescent light as if it is some portal into another world. I greet this one on the wall by offering some fruit jam on the tip of my finger. The calm that settles on its big round face is priceless. I wonder what these strictly diurnal flower visitors are doing flying around at night. I wonder what ticked them off in the night that they had to leave their leafy abodes. I wonder if they really think there are portals to another world marked by blinding white beams of light.

Well, the day-visitors always visit with an agenda. The blue mud daubers (Chalybion) and the potter wasps (Delta) announce their presence by the balcony, but never really enter in – damn right, perhaps by the cleanliness, or maybe because my house is not situated in an ideal location for them to hunt for their spiders, caterpillars, or even to build a nest. Just knowing that they’re around, as I am stuck in this place, is a relief. They visit flowers in the mornings and hunt for their larva’s food – spiders and caterpillars – in afternoons and evenings.

Plate Two

Some nights see a frenzy of Hemipteran bugs on well-lit walls. The hoppers are the first to arrive, led by the mighty Nilaparvata lugens – now before we proceed, we must pay attention to this curious name. The name was given by Mr W L Distant in 1906 – who also named other bugs Vishnuloka, Sivaloka, Radha, Narayana, Devagama, and so on. In spite of its exotic ‘blue mountain’ reference, Nilaparvata lugen’s common name is ‘brown planthopper’, among the most common pests of rice, but it really feeds on any grass it can find. Other difficult-to-name planthoppers such as Hishimonus and members of Ledrinae arrive at the lights a little later. Then there are plant bugs (Miridae), milkweed bugs (Lygaeidae), burrowing bugs (Cydnidae), and seed bugs (Rhyparochromids), that occasionally join in. Most of them are in this city because of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, the assassin bugs (Reduviidae) follow – those clever stalkers with a dagger for a proboscis. The spiny assassin bug, Polididus armatissimus, is more common and remains well hidden in the shadow areas by the light, while the heart-backed assassin bug, Ectomocoris cordiger, the name meaning ‘carrying a heart’ on its back, explores the well-lit areas. These bugs are true to their name, and actively hunt by the lights. It’s the same game of predator and prey, except that it is on a concrete wall, by a tube light, in the middle of a city, where no bards sing their tales.

Blades of wet grass streak across my face. I’m crouched, barely managing to pass through the wet undergrowth leading to a marsh. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been walking on my knees. My friend has taken extra measures to ensure we are unseen in the grass. I’m in an exceptionally large sized camouflaged coat, with another two pairs of shirts underneath – it’s cold. My cap is camouflaged too, looking prettier on the pointy stems that uncap me every five odd minutes. There is chaos. This chaos is in my mind, and it can be heard in my breath. The surrounding, however, is quiet and bright, a fine blue morning. A birder’s wishful morning to be on a deck overlooking a vast lake. Hundreds of tiny insects prong or fly or leap into my face – my friend who leads the way, thankfully, takes most of the onslaught. It is late in the summer of 2010. While the only thing in front of me is my friend’s butt and long lashing fronds of grass and foliage, we’re inching closer to the edge of the largest freshwater lake on the largest island in the largest freshwater lake in the world.

A summer at the lake

We’ve inched close enough to hear it – the unmistakable crackle of the Sandhill Cranes – an ancient sound I’m fortunately far too familiar with since the last month or so I’m here. Once we reach the edge, a barricade of overgrowth, I peek through a gap: lo and behold the crane city – it is real! A thousand, if not tens of thousands, of Sandhill Cranes wake and stretch and strut on beds of reed. Some have their heads stretched towards the sky, their calls reverberating in the cold damp mist. There are some that have already taken to the sky, flying off to the farmlands just over what they may see as a heap of leaves – me. There are some in the process of taking to the wing – these not-so-small birds don’t just flap away, they build a momentum for a short distance and elegantly paddle their wings, raising – not pushing – their bodies up into the air. The city is emptying as we watch, the cranes scattering across the Manitoulin island to feed as the sun washes the sky a bright yellow.

Plate Three

Within the four walls of my house, 25 species of moths have visited so far (not all of them are posted here today). There’s one flying about right now only just added to the list. So far, the three September visitors are Spoladea recurvalis, Anomis combinans, and Pericyma mendax, all very common, their caterpillars growing on urban plants like hibiscus, acacias – fairly common garden plants, but also vegetables like beet, making them pests on our foods. The cousin of Pericyma, Pericyma cruegeri, is literally everywhere in the city as I write, their caterpillars defoliating the Gulmohar, Copperpod, Ixora, and some other avenue trees off their leaves. There were three visitors in August – all from Crambidae family, Parotis marginata, Glyphodes bicolor, and Pleuroptya - the former two feeding on Alstonia scholaris, another common avenue tree around here, and the latter preferring a diversity of urban salads – Ipomeas, Bougainvillea, Polygonum, and several others. The July members were Achrosis, Epiparis liturata, and Selepa cf. discigera, all of them again feed on common avenue trees and garden plants such as Mitragyna, Ficus, and Ixora, as caterpillars. The highest number of visitors were in June – six species, most were Tineid members – little moths that build a case around them and scale the walls, and a Noctuid, Pseudozarba. I had four different families visit in May – a Tineid, Phereocea, a fairly common moth around here, an Oecophorid, Stathmopoda, - both of these are concealer moths that are quite minute; a tiger moth member of Erebidae, the gorgeous Creatonotos gangis – mostly feeding on our food crops like rice, jowar, sweet potato, and two Pyralids – both Endotricha, feeding on the shrubs and herbs of urban gardens as caterpillars. In the month of April, I had five surprising visitors, a Tineid that I cannot recognize, a Crambid – Noorda blitealis, that visits a lot in summers and is a pest of the drumstick tree, a Nolid – Carea angulata, another common pest on many vegetables, and two Noctuids – Spodoptera litura and Heliothis peltigera – the former considered a pest on many vegetables, including cabbage, soybean, peas, and the latter feeds on sturdy urban herbs of aster and nightshade plants.

As I write this, I realize that all the 25-odd moths eat and feed and breed in this urban corner of the microcosm. There are three kinds here – most are pests on crops and vegetables and in our homes; followed by those that feed on the avenue trees and garden plants, and lastly those that eke out a living on the non-cultivated plants. Almost all of these are among the most common moths. You can almost sense a shift in their diversity here in the city and by the countryside, or a wilderness area. This shift symbolizes many things. Not only do we humans lead to disappearance or extinction of some species, we also, first, encourage growth of those which are quite sturdy and hence out-compete other more threatened species – thereby accelerating their demise further, and second, promote further proliferation of species that are pestiferous on our food resources.

Plate Four

Of the 14 species of beetle that visited this summer, half were in the month of June. The most recent was a little ladybird beetle, Cheilomenes sexmaculata, among the most common ladybird beetles in Indian urban and wilderness areas – they feed on a variety of garden bugs like aphids, making their presence important no matter where they are. A few days ago, I had a rove beetle, the notorious Paederus sp., visit my house. Some species are known to cause dermatitis – skin rashes, if they rub anywhere on your skin. They prefer night-time lights, hence I had to be careful before I called it a night. Curiously, I’ve also had three more species visit, a member of Paederinae subfamily and two Philonthus sp., all over June and August. Among the largest beetles to visit were a Tenebrionid, the darkling beetle, Strongylium aratum in July, and a Cerambycid, the longhorn beetle, Stromatium barbatum in June. While the Tenebrionid largely feed on dead organic, mostly plant, matter, this particular Cerambycid feeds on timber wood as larva – wooden doors and windows and some urban trees – hence its presence here is worrying, but fortunately I don’t have as much wood in my house although someone somewhere needs to worry about their furniture. Among the tiny beetles were some ground beetles in the family Carabidae – three of them, two belonging to Stenolophina and one Ophionea indica – a beautiful slender beetle, visited between April and June. These are largely scavengers, with the latter being a hunter of many crop pests, like the brown leafhopper. And the tiniest of them all was Corticarina, the minute brown scavenger beetle in the family Latridiidae that feeds on fungal spores of mold and whatnot that creeps up in damp corners of houses – they’re found world-over and are usually harmless until they find a way into your food and deposit fungal spores on it. But worry not, they’re mostly light-seekers, disappearing into the day. Do worry, however, if the cowpea beetle, Callosobruchus maculatus, visits; it feeds on peas as larva, and fly around at nights as adults. Seeing them around means someone somewhere has infested peas in their kitchen. One night I woke up with a recurring ‘click’ sound from under my computer table. Unsure of what it could be, I searched and found an annoyed click beetle stuck in a folded plastic bag, trying to click its way out. Some species of this beetle, Agriotes, are known as ‘wireworms’ as larva, and are pests on several food crops. Curiously, I’ve only had one Scarabaeidae – or Scarab beetle – visit, another well-known pest of vegetables, Heteronychus sp., commonly called black lawn beetle. These 14 visitors represent nine families; five confirmed pests of our foods and furniture, four predators as adults, and five detritivores.

A tap on my shoulder bolts me up. We’re transitioning from the dry mountaintops to the semi-deciduous and evergreen slopes of the Western Ghats. I look down from the jeep into the deeply carved hillside. The road winds around Kali River as we follow a white gypsy to Anshi Nature Camp, a twin of Dandeli Nature Camp. The jeep is open, and I am again transfixed on four large drones stalking us at speeds of up to 30 to 45 kmph. Their soft buzz is overpowered by the diesel engine, but they keep up. There are two resting on the sides of the jeep, I tap them from the inside so they let go, but instead of falling behind they fly effortlessly, their green eyes transfixed on me. There’s two on the roof of the jeep now. These drones are the large horseflies in the genus Tabanus, among the fastest flying insects, also known to give a painful bite. It is May of 2009. Somewhere along the journey they again fall back in my mind as we reach the camp.

A summer by a dried-up river

Afternoons are generally quite hot, but summer thunderstorms in rainforest are a welcome relief. I stand alongside a wide riverbank admiring a large tree stripped of its leaves and bark and lying across the river bed. I can’t tell when it fell into the river, but standing tall it would have been at least half-a-century old. There is a small colony of bronze froglets in the waterhole by the tree. There are mosquitoes in here too, of a kind that feed on amphibian blood. And there’s the Tabanus, this time a harmless male, sipping water from the puddle. A Braconid wasp, a parasitoid of wood-boring beetles, is trying to inject its needle-like ovipositor with surgical precision into the invisible larvae hollowing the lumber from the inside. I cross under the giant arch of this edifice. A gliding Draco takes from one tree to another. Further ahead, as the trees close in and the evening sets in, I find a long-nosed vine snake about to climb up a tree. As it starts climbing, I capture it with the sun in front of its face, and see it vanish up in the canopy. Just next to this tree a fairly large Indian cobra is gliding through the leaf bed. The moment I slowly turn, it vanishes into an abandoned underground termite mound. The trees go quiet. Half the world awakes as half sleeps. I wonder what else stirs in the lengthening shadows. I wonder if there is something on my trail. I wonder if the famous shadow of this forest, the melanistic leopard, is about, as I journey back to the camp.

There is almost a ritualistic pilgrimage the ants in my house follow, I think. Every summer, as summer advances over winter, towards the beginning of the month of April, the dangerous-sounding destructor ants, Trichomyrmex destructor, start appearing in small groups by the kitchen window. Smaller scouting groups are followed by larger packs. Kitchen window expands to kitchen counter. Now, I keep the kitchen clean and generally avoid a flood of destructor ants piling in, yet no matter how much I try, they end up establishing a small unit in my house. They scout for food, get inside potato chips packets, inside poorly tightened containers, flours. It’s not as worse as it sounds, but they do end up biting me once in a while. I don’t use pesticides in the kitchen, except the bug spray for mosquitoes because this is a dengue and malaria-prone area. Over time I realize that keeping the kitchen throwaways by the kitchen balcony door diverts their attention from the kitchen counter. This even allows them to move their unit towards the balcony, but the heat is oppressive, hence they pull out and push back as I push them out. As rain normalizes by July, as if by a calling, they start retreating. As I sit and write this, there are no destructor ants in my kitchen. They’ve all just gone, and they do this every monsoon. Another of their cousins, the Solenopsis, or the little red thief ant, seldom appear in my kitchen, as do the black crazy ant, Paratrechina longicornis, which don’t bite but are more annoying and quicker than the destructor ants to find food and pile upon it. I’ve seen Monomorium, Pheidole, Tapinoma, and Camponotus ants on the lower floors, thankfully they have so far avoided climbing on the topmost.

Plate Five

These ants don’t come alone. The destructor ants always have guests – or thieves – living among them. Once while observing these ants take respite under a water container on the counter, I found a curious creature amidst them, a myrmecophilous silverfish. These sneaky insects coat themselves in ant-scent, and feed on the food cached by the ants. They are seldom seen outside of ant nests, except when they move about on walls queuing up with the ants. Think of it the myrmecophilous silverfish thus: they live off of the ants that live off of me. The other companions of these ants are the springtails which seem to live alongside them like neighbours. Springtails feed on detritus, and are possibly not living with ants but only alongside them, and do so only for quick and easy food cached by ants – or the fungus that grows on this cache. Most of these associates live in the wilder part of the microcosm, so I was surprised to find them on the fourth floor in a city.

Plate Six

These houses stacked one upon another are the adopted homes to the arachnid – the spiders. For spiders, I think buildings are just oddly shaped tree-trunks, particularly for spiders that live most of their lives on vertical surfaces. Most prefer natural surfaces, like tree trunks and rocks, some also make do with artificial walls with enough plant growth on it, and there are those that are at home on concrete walls as much as they are in their natural environment. In fact, some of these are much more common on naked walls than on natural surfaces. These highly resilient ones call my house their home. The most common are of course the cellar spiders, Pholcus, of family Pholcidae. The tiny house-dwelling spider, Oecobius, are common in the nooks and corners if they’re not kept clean, but they do a pretty good job of disposing moth flies and other tiny insects that enter homes, even alate termites that are attracted to lights during rainy nights. Other than these, the really dark and damp crannies are preferred niche of the Parasteatoda, the cob-web spider of Theridiidae. The house sac spider, Clubiona sp., of Clubionidae, occupies crevices hard to clean. And if you’re lucky enough – well, that depends on how you see spiders – one of these crevices could also be occupied by the crevice spider, Pritha, in the family Filistatidae. This one is special in a way because they are considered to be the primitive type of araneomorph (non-tarantula) spiders, retaining some megalomorph features, like close-set, smaller eyes and larger fangs. Pritha is quite a small spider, preferring crannies where they build their tunnel-shaped web and lie in wait for passing insects. These are all the ambush hunters of my house, preferring to sneak out in the cover of darkness to hunt.

Plate Seven

The diurnal, stalking spiders are all in the family Salticidae, the jumping spiders, that actively seek out prey on the walls like tigers exploring forests. The most common is the grey wall jumper, Menemerus bivittatus, followed by pantropical jumping spider, Plexippus paykulli, and the pied jumper, Hasarius adansoni – all of the couples have kindly posed for a photoshoot this summer. Some of their spiderlings now are exploring the open walls. One of the pantropical jumper’s spiderlings has made my bathroom his territory. In the day he goes out looking for its prey, mostly moth flies, and in the night he builds a thin ‘sleep web’ – a blanket of sorts, and sleeps under it. He’s usually up earlier than I am. I wonder how long it will be till it becomes an adult, a he or a she jumper. I wonder if it will expand its hunting grounds farther, possibly even challenging other jumpers of the fourth-floor apartment.

Crouching over a rain-soaked, heavily cloaked forest floor, I take a gander of what could lurk beneath a mass of fallen leaves. I carefully upturn leaves using a stick and count the insects large enough to count – about 31 are in this tiny space of the forest floor. Most are crickets and weaver ants, some are flies, mantids, and other arthropods. This is the second of the five quadrats to sample insects. Accompanied by the forest guard guiding the way, we cross into the grassland of Bisanpura, and suddenly the insect composition changes. There are far too many grasshoppers now, also sun-loving hover flies and butterflies. The grass is crisp brown. A herd of hard-ground barasingha run in panic across the edge of the meadow, their sprint reverberating through the ground. It is April of 2014.

A summer under a tree

We return to rolling hills carpeted by the oily sal leaves. The trees are spaced widely enough to offer a wide panorama of this summer forest. I catch glimpses of a red blaze amidst the green canopy. As we inch closer, nearer to the Bisanpura camp, the green canopy makes way for the blaze of the summer forest – Kosum, clothed in crimson-and-red, shining brighter than the sun. We’re on the next lap of our survey. Towards evening the wind is turning tide, suddenly we’re caught in another thunderstorm. Getting caught a freak thunderstorm in a forest is not safe. The drier the air, the greater the chances of trees getting struck by lightning. We start for a clearing and find our gypsy scouting for us. As soon as we get in, there is a blinding flash of lightning. The thundering grows louder.

I feel a gentle tickle on my arm, caused by a curious visitor – a fig wasp. There are very few mature fig trees around my house, hence seeing her flying about, possibly thrown off course by one of these freak summer thunderstorms as she went in search of another fig tree, is a surprise. She takes off into empty space of my house before I take my camera out. An odd cricket, Gryllus maculatus, sings in the balcony to the chorus of rain. It has found the perfect corner of the old cooler chamber, offering a perfect pitch and a better resonance. His song is no music for my ears. I nudge him inside a glass and flick him out to find another platform to sing from. The green (Chrysopidae) and the brown (Hemerobiidae) lacewings visit too, though they’re quite uncommon.

Overall, I’ve had about 60 to 70 species visit my apartment, including mosquitoes, but that’s not ‘a lot’ of species; on an average, only about five to ten species visited per day – a fraction of our neighbours of a handful few that survive in this microcosm (our knowledge of the non-vertebrate diversity of urban India is hopelessly lacking). A band of wandering gliders, Pantala flavescens, is schooling since last three days, probably munching on and filtering out insects from the skies before they set on their long, westward journey. It is a hot monsoon day – an extended summer. I have decided to reflect upon this particular summer. For the first time I felt it, being stuck in space and coming unstuck in time. I’m not sure I like it, but in these trying times, who can do otherwise?