Thursday, 14 March 2013

All Creatures That Grate and Pall!

People often ask us about the various creepie-crawlies and mini-beasties you come across here.

At this time of year during the annual inundation, the insect life here is prolific and as the water level rises and more holes, burrows, mounds and tunnels become flooded, high and dry real estate becomes a premium for all creation. So at this time you learn to share terra firma with a myriad of etymological refugees.

At the moment we are being plagued by ants. I am afraid it got so bad we blotted our green credentials by going out and buying Termodan spray to evict and extirpate the persistent columns of ants and their soldiers who were seeking refuge in our kitchen, dining-room and office, making it impossible to stand, sit or work there.

The ants quickly covered any available surface and gave any exposed human flesh a sharp and irritating nip. Since applying the spray, each morning we swept out the debris of ant corpses which looked like heaps of spilt coffee-grinds. It is now bliss, typing this, as my bare feet no longer have to be kept lifted to keep them out of the way of the marauding ants on safari underneath the desk.

Two trivial ant facts:

1. What people call ants eggs are usually the silk cocoons containing a chrysalis. The eggs are pinhead size white and shiny and found in bunches.

2. There can be more than a dozen queens in a large nest. They don’t fight or kill each other as bees do.

Another war we constantly wage is against the ravenous regiments of the wrongly named white ant. They are actually neither white nor ants but termites with soft bodies and no narrow waist like true ants. As a rule their food is wood and they do great damage by eating holes, galleries and trenches in the furniture and floors. They are not averse to books either. They are certainly industriously destructive as they cover the object they covet with a clay and saliva shell, gradually enlarging this and finally engulfing the object with termite clay, if left to their own devices.

The workers and soldiers are blind and stunted by their diet, but other brothers and sisters are fed on richer food and become kings and queens of new nests. Now, when the weather is warm and just after a heavy shower of rain, these winged termites leave the nest and fly up into the air on their nuptial flight. When they land they shed their wings and look for a place for a new nest.

These are the inswa that people in Central Africa gather and roast as relish, after they have already run the gauntlet of birds, frogs and lizards. It is reckoned only one in 10 000 survive and succeed in starting a new colony, for which we should be thankful.

Last week on our weekly trip to Livingstone our car was engulfed at Sikaunzwe by a massive swarm of ephemeroptera, known as mayflies. The high grey cloud stretched for at least 4 kilometres along the road. The car was so thickly covered by the dead insects that we needed to have it washed in Livingstone. Sikaunzwe is another area bisected by rivers, a low-lying fertile floodplain. It is a day’s march from Mwandi and where Livingstone spent his first night on the way to the Falls.

These tiny white insects are only about 5mm in length and have two pairs of wings and two tail filaments at the end of their abdomen. They do not feed and only live for a few hours, hence their name. Their only function is to mate and then lay their eggs. The eggs are laid in the water and the larvae live for a long time, feeding on decaying animal and plant matter on the waterbed. They are interesting in that they emerge in a pre-adult stage and then moult into the true imago. Sikaunzwe is a good spot to fish at the moment especially for lindombe (catfish), obviously the larvae must be an important element in the diet of local fish.

In contrast to the mayfly, the cicada is one of the longest-living insects. You hear the loud shrill love song of the male all the time here during the hot summer months during the hot noonday hours and in the still, warm nights. It can be almost deafening at times

The cicada has a long beak which it uses to pierce tree-bark to feed on tree sap. He does not make the racket by rubbing his hind legs or wings like a grasshopper or cricket. He has a pair of drums on his body just behind his back legs. He uses the rapid movement of certain muscles to vibrate the drums. The male enjoys six weeks feasting and singing before he dies.

Tuesday was Woman’s Day and I have been undergoing a gender sensitization process since then so now let me deal with the female cicada. Before dying she lays her eggs in the bark of trees. After a few weeks the eggs hatch, the offspring are similar to the adults but lack wings but are equipped with thick strong front legs and blunt teeth for digging. They drop to earth and burrow into the ground and feed off sap in roots. Depending on the type cicadas spend anything from 2 to15 years underground. After that they crawl to the surface, climb a tree and split their skin. The adult emerges and flies away.

Oh, I forgot to say only the male can sing, the female is completely silent.

As Xenophon put it over 2000 years ago:

“Happy are the cicadas’ lives,

For they are blessed with voiceless wives.”

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