Summergreen January 2017

Ceratothecum trilobum Wild Foxglove

It’s Summer

It’s a wonderful Summer, given the amount of persistent rain and the speed at which nature has bounced back after such a test of endurance that this last extended dry season has thrust upon it. It’s hard to compare it with any other wet season that has come before. From a sun-baked and wind-blown bare earth, with seemingly lifeless trees holding on to their moisture, to the dense green wonderland that has emerged, with so many flowers and a constant flutter of butterflies.

It is such a stark transition and a time when we see the process of survival and adaptation with a climactic change that has swung the gene favour in a completely different direction to the wet and dry years of seasons gone by, resulting in the somewhat sudden proliferation of some species and the inexorable decline of others. 

Last Summer, we lacked the successive and soaking showers that were needed to continue the growth spurt that began after the first rains. It’s like a false start when it rains and life begins to grow and then there’s no rain to feed it but only the blazing sun to bake it.

Last Summer, we had only a few, heavy, once-off downpours, that caused more run-off than soaking, life-giving hydration. The consequences were manifest in the plants that did manage to survive and the whole food chain that had to depend on them. And so, the quality and the quantity of a season pretty much dictates what flourishes; whoever can adapt the quickest and even benefit from the conditions.

It’s not quite that simple, but it’s a good place to start when trying to figure out the changes we see from season to season and why some things are here at one time and completely absent at others.

This summer, after an absence of a few years, the Foxgloves are back.

And back with a vengeance in fact.

In the past few years, our Wild Foxglove, Ceratotheca triloba, started growing with the first, sparse rains that fell in early summer and I doubt whether even a fraction of them flowered and even fewer managed to seed. I watched a lot of them wilt before they even left the ground.

Now, however, filling the gaps between the trees where bare, baked earth made it hard to imagine that anything could grow, are the towering, flowering Foxgloves, hiding the Heliotropes that were the first to fill the spaces. Many more species are flourishing; the pioneers of the soil, the ones whose seed survived the wind and unrelenting sun.

Mopane Grove Green and a field of Foxglove.

With all these flowers being so insect-dependent, there are myriads of insects and some of the most extraordinary are the hover-flies, bee-flies, carpenter bees and solitary bees and their extraordinary aeronautical abilities.  There are also robber flies and dragonflies and ooh, all the spiders and mantids that also like the bees and flies, but in a different way.

So much life and action, it tempts me to digress just thinking of it all.

Sometimes I wish I could just plug into a USB port.

So, this current status quo, this life that now explodes around me that has different tones to anything before, but is reminiscent of the floods of five years ago, is slowly revealing a new world around me, things I haven’t seen for years, things that are different because the bush has never been like this in our lifetimes and it is a wonderful feeling to be in something so new.

Yet also so familiar.

One  species I haven’t seen in such numbers as I am seeing now, in this area, for so many years, is the Quelea, although I did miss out on a number of years here at Mopane Grove when I was either in East Africa or when I was on the southern tip of Africa in the wet and windy Cape, when I had to have my transplant.

A few weeks ago, I noticed the presence of a few families of Red-Billed Quelea; a small bird, cousin of the finches and not only a prolific breeder but also an avid seed-eater. They are probably one of the most numerous of species on the planet and obviously of some consequence to a farmer or two. 

Within days, these small families became larger clans and bigger gangs and soon they were in flocks of uncountable numbers that appeared throughout the day. As the birds gathered, plants grew, rain fell, grasses came back and began seeding. After the late December rains, those daily soaking showers that left little rain but made sure to soak it in, the veld is a green sea of seed and now, with flocks in their thousands, there is a constant Quelea presence. Their combined weight flattens the veld, bends and breaks branches and we still have a lot of Summer to go. 

We might be surprised by a spectacle.

With this constant presence comes the background symphony of their chirping and the occasional hurricane sound as a whole flock takes flight and the whoosh of their collective wing-beats is enough to give even a lion a start. I have some resident Go-Way birds, which I still call Grey Louries.

The Louries hide in the Mopane and every now and then emit a life threatening alarm, as only they can do when they want some attention. At this, the Quelea take fright and fly up in unison to the nearest thorn tree. Knowing the Louries as I do, I’m sure they get some sort of perverse pleasure out of these antics.

A couple of days ago, at sunset, clouds of Quelea made their way to their nightly roost, flying in large shadowy flocks, making shapes against a pink and purple sky. When the sky eventually emptied of clouds and birds and the colour faded and the day darkened, a  pre-full moon cast Mopane leaf shadows and a wasp plugged a hole with a stone and flew off to hide under a leaf for the night.

She’d been digging the hole for most of the day. Just one of those tiny, unrecognized and complex wonders that are at play every moment of the day or night. Beauty and perfection of the smaller components that make everything else work so well. Like so many other things that go unnoticed in the pursuit of the hairy and scary and the ultimate photograph.

I was quite young when I first followed a wasp with a worm and saw her plug a hole with a stone.

It was some time after I discovered a batch of wasps emerge from a mantis egg case that had been made on the curtain above my bed one day. I was baffled at first, especially since I had come home from school for weeks hoping to see the new mantids and instead found these tiny wasps! There was littleliterature available for an enquiring mind in the early 70’s and all I had apart from a meager school library, was access to a neighbour’s Time-Life library and I spent a lot of time on the insect edition and developed an intriguing fascination for wasps.

I don’t think it was very long after that, perhaps on a trip to Kruger or even here at Mopane Grove, still in the early 70’s, that I followed a sand wasp with a worm. I was probably looking for a chameleon and ended up mesmerised as this wasp dragged a caterpillar across the ground.

I was reminded of this as I watched one whilst out on the day bed waiting for an elephant as the Quelea faded away with the light.

There are many insects and arachnids that dig holes as homes and for many, if not most, not much care is taken to mask or conceal their burrow. In fact, for some, ants in particular, the piles of sand that appear around the entrances to their nests are most noticeable as the atmospheric pressure changes and weather moves in, bringing with it sometimes heavy rain. The volcano-shaped mounds of sand then become plugs that seal the entrance as water gushes over it and the colony stays dry.

It is often easy to see the sand that is brought up to the surface, being a darker, richer soil than the wind-blown and rain-washed sand that makes up the substrate; it is usually pale sand that is composed of granules of quartz and granite in colours from light beige to brown or the iron rich red that is found in many parts of Africa.

For many things it is not likely that their homes will be invaded by something else and usually, with the residents present, there is enough of a defense to safeguard their domain. For the sand wasp, however, no such thing exists and as she prepares her burrow for her offspring, there is always a danger that something will find it during the long, hot hours of preparation and the times when she is absent.

For her, the burrow is not a home but a place to hide her egg and a food store for her young when it hatches so she can ill afford the likes of an ant or another predator discovering her secret. She is a very slender wasp and a meticulous mother who goes to great lengths to safeguard her progeny and their survival. Every grain of sand that is excavated is taken several feet away, disposed of and dispersed in a way that makes it impossible to see that a hole is being dug in the first place.

A sand wasp at the mouth of her burrow

Using her jaws as a chisel and the vibration of her wings as a jackhammer, she drills into the hardest of sun-baked soil, emerging every few seconds with the loosened soil, which she then holds together as she flies away a few feet to sprinkle it over a few square feet, returning to the excavation with pinpoint accuracy. To do this, she maps out the immediate area around the hole, taking note of twigs, stones or other objects to navigate to her nest.

At times when there is other insect activity around her excavation, she becomes extremely agitated, aggressive and protective, resorting to the physical removal of the intruder by picking them up and carrying them several feet away, discarding them as she does a clump of sand and no doubt with a message to stay away.

Once the burrow is complete, perhaps a few inches deep, she takes time selecting a small stone to plug the entrance, often vibrating her wings over the “door” to blow dust over any sign of disturbance as the next task in her quest can take some time. To provide for her young, she needs to find a caterpillar. A very particular caterpillar. Too small and it will be finished before the larva can pupate and too large could leave something to rot and attract attention.

Usually, it is a drab brown looper caterpillar (or inch-worm to some) that she will sting and immobilize, sometimes dragging it up to 50 feet or more to the nest. To find the caterpillar, she hones in on the scent given off by a leaf of a tree as it is eaten by the caterpillar that she wants to abduct. Her sting is not deadly because her prey would die before her larva emerged and so her venom acts as a neurotoxin, disabling the prey yet keeping it just above the threshold of death, in an induced coma.

With it being too heavy for her to carry whilst flying, she grasps it behind the head and drags it between her long slender legs, occasionally administering another dose of venom if it struggles too much. Often, when the burrow is still some distance away, she will risk leaving the caterpillar to fly a sortie over her target area to readjust her bearings, before going back to her prey to continue the arduous task.

Back at her burrow, she removes the plug, has a quick scan for ants or other parasitic wasps and proceeds to stuff the caterpillar down the hole and, once it is secure, she emerges, turns around and deposits an egg on the back of the caterpillar and then proceeds to close up the hole in a most extraordinary way.

Unlike the single stone plug she used when she would have to leave an unfinished job, she now takes time to find several large grains of sand that she can pack around the edges of the plug to make a very strong seal. Once this is done, she gathers sand and sprinkles it on top of her door before finally brushing sand from around the hole by kicking sand with her legs and fanning it smooth with her wings.

When finished, there is no evidence that hidden just under the surface, an egg will hatch and a little white grub will begin feeding on a live caterpillar, finally becoming a pupa when the true transformation will take place. That science-fiction-like process where the cells of the body transform the creature from a blind, pale and legless grub into a powerful, winged and maternal adult.

When the rains wet the soil and soften the earth again, the adult wasp will emerge to set off and find her spot in the sand, to begin to dig a hole. And find a caterpillar.

It has taken a few days to complete the process of typing this up, editing and waiting for batteries to charge. During this time, with the full moon present, the weather has changed considerably, bringing with it some days of cloud and a soaking rain over the last 24 hours. The Quelea have not been seen since the weather change and the wasp hasn’t returned to her burrow. Yet.

Thank you all for your support!

2 thoughts on “Summergreen January 2017”

  1. Who would have thought that anyone could make this so very readable and interesting? Only if you had not thought about our friend, Marc. Thats why we love you so much and pulling for your return to the things you embrace in this world. ~Fairygram

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