Spring has sprung


Text and photographs Marlies Craig

The rains have finally come in Durban, good and proper. Just what nature has been waiting for. So much is happening now out there in the bush. Everything is coming to life, babies are being born, food is being gathered, the next generation is being raised. This will continue and increase throughout summer. It’s a wonderful time to look out for insects.

Flowers on legs

These past few weeks the neighbourhood watch has been atwitter with reports of eyed-flower mantids in their final stages of development, all spiny pinks, greens, whites and purples. Finally, with flair, they make their entry into adult society with a splendid attire of post-modern fashion.

Here is a younger mantis, from back in June, immaculately camouflaged. The butterfly didn’t stand a chance.

And this is a young adult, on the way to the prom.

I must tell you a story. There was a time when I was so desperate to see a flower mantis, I would stop randomly by the side of a road, whenever I saw a pink-flowering bush, get out of the car, and search the bush for flower mantids. The last time I had seen one was back in 2000, when we lived in Overport. I did this for several years, even begging Darling Father God to please let me see a flower mantis again. Please! Then one fine day my prayer was answered (unbeknownst to me at first).

Outside my front door (in Pinetown) grew a basil bush and on this basil bush I found some tiny black mantid babies. At the time I didn’t realise what I was looking at, but I fell in love with the little spotty thingies immediately. By the time they were 2 months old I knew that my prayers had been answered. Since then flower mantids have appeared more than once in this particular basil bush. I wonder if they are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the particular little beastie in the photo below?

Nowadays, any eyed-flower mantids who choose my garden as home, get preferential treatment from the moment they are born. In autumn I start looking out for them: small, black, with white spots, just like a mosquito-sized domino set. The babies are very vulnerable and may get eaten, for example by slightly older common green or brown mantids.

A newly hatched flower mantis: black with white spots, no frills.

A young and hungry green mantis.

Now I have nothing against the common mantids at all! I love them nearly as much and they are just as welcome in my garden. But I do have a special soft spot for the flower mantids.

I start looking out for flower mantis babies in March, and when they are little, I bring them inside-one per jar to stop them eating each other (just in case). They like aphids so feeding them is simple enough.

Quite soon they moult into the slightly bigger second stage (or ‘instar’). They are still small enough to eat aphids. No shortage of those on my rose bushes.

Second instar flower mantis: brown striped legs, starting to grow frills on abdomen.

By the third stage they are large enough to appreciate slightly larger prey, such as small solitary bees, bugs, small moths or flies, which are a bit of a bother to catch. So at this point I release them back into the garden, to fend for themselves.

Though they are less vulnerable now, I still keep a close eye on them. When the weather turns bad, or the wind blows too hard, I bring them inside temporarily. Larger common mantids are politely escorted to the other end of the garden.

Third instar flower mantis: brown and green. The abdomen is getting nice and spiny.

With every moult they grow bigger, change colour, get more frilly and fancy. They are very good at finding the perfect spot where they are most effectively camouflaged. Basil flowers are the perfect location, and that is exactly where this lot spent the rest of their childhood.

Fourth instar: increasingly fancy in pink and brown. Still open to a snack of aphid.

Fifth instar: pink, purple and green, with growing flanges on the legs. This one is munching on a moth. Notice the little wings starting to develop, already clearly showing up the spiral pattern.

Semi-final stage, wing bud growing larger. It’s made it this far and you can see why: the perfect pose.

This year three of them spent several months on my basil bush. One disappeared at some point, I suspect the green mantis that was lurking in the same bush before I moved it to a new home, but the murderer could have been a bird of course.

Later I discovered two more on my roses. (In fact, I only discovered the one after I had cut back my roses, and it had somehow managed to crawl out of the bin where I had thrown the cuttings. I must have almost held it in my hand, but completely missed it. That’s how well it was camouflaged!)

In the end only two out of the 5 or 6 babies definitely made it to adulthood. Two is not bad. These creatures fill my heart with joy. Let’s hope all the flower mantids in the neighbourhood meet up somewhere, have a party, and make many more! (Not that they are the social types…)

Termites swarming

A major social happening at this time of year is the royal termite gala event. Now that the rains have drenched and softened the ground, many millions of princes and princesses are leaving their cushy underground quarters to go and seek their fortune in the big wide world.

Wide and ugly it is, for hardly have they seen the light of day, when this pampered and unsuspecting royalty meet with one mortal danger after another. Deadly enemies of all shapes and sizes are waiting in line to feast on their fattened bodies. A spider web directly above the nest is the first death trap. But it doesn’t end there.

An entire army of birds decimate their numbers from the moment they take to the air (and before… and after). Not just your standard insect eaters, but seed eaters, fruit eaters, nectar eaters and birds of prey. I have a video of a yellow billed hawk picking termites out of the air with its talons and transferring the food to its beak in mid-flight, seconds before taking another. And of course geckos, gorging themselves at the bathroom window, lizards, frogs, even our dog and cat.

A lucky few of the termites survive long enough to find a mate. In tandem they waddle about, queen in the lead, looking for a place to dig in and start all over.

Even fewer will go on to establish a new queendom, where they will rule for decades. A termite queen can live for 50 years and more.

With their lesser, hard-working siblings overseeing the grand exodus, the young royals leave their home. Most of them are destined to live extremely short lives in the overworld, where their main job will be to serve as food for others.

Just at the time when mother vervet monkeys are giving birth, they are met by this ready and nutritious food supply, high in fats and proteins. Mommy weavers going shopping for baby food.

Recognise this chap? Yes, mantids too join in the feast.

Beetles galore

At this time of year a variety of beetles also emerge, beetles whose larvae have been living in or on the ground, for who knows how long. Here are a few examples.

If you are ever so lucky, you may come across fireflies or glowworms, which are beetles belonging to the family Lampyridae. The ground-dwelling larvae are predatory, especially on snails.

Fireflies are small, both males and females fly. Glowworms are larger. Only the males grow wings and fly, while the mature females keep their larval form.

The light organ is used to signal for a mate in the dark. Each species has their own code. The light organ is an amazing feat of engineering. Read up on both the nano-optics and the chemistry, on a biomimicry website. ‘Biomimicry’ is a branch of science that attempts to design new technology by copying designs found in nature.

Here is a small male firefly that I spotted on the South Coast. The tip of my finger, holding the grass blade, shows just how small it is. His amazing light organ is clearly visible.

‘Glowworms’ are flightless females. Around this time last year we found this female crawling across a lawn in New Germany. It was enormous!

You may also come across net-winged beetles (family Lycidae). Their larvae look similar to glowworms; they are closely related, belonging to the same superfamily, called Elateroidea.

Net-winged beetle larvae live in decaying wood, where they probably feed on fungi.

A net-winged beetle (in Springside nature reserve) has just emerged from its pupal skin. The wings are still crumpled, and need to inflated with body juice to their full size and proper shape.

The front wings (‘elytra’) are often large and wide…

…sometimes extremely so. This one (spotted in Ngome forest) is nearly circular in shape…

…while other species are plain and narrow.

Net-winged beetles are poisonous. Their bright orange and black colours give birds fair warning. Several other insects mimic the net-winged beetles to benefit from the same visual protection, even though they may be perfectly edible themselves.

This soldier beetle is an example of a mimic.

Soldier beetles (family Cantharidae) are also members of the same superfamily Elateroidea. They feed on mites, aphids and the eggs and larvae of other insects such as grasshoppers, moths and other soft-bodied insects.

Soldier beetles secrete poisonous chemicals and alert would-be predators using the same warning colours as the net-winged beetles. Sharing the same colour pattern to reinforce the message for predator deterrence is called Müllerian mimicry.

Lately I have also seen a number of click beetles around the house. They are attracted to light, and even end up inside. Click beetles (family ‘Elateridae’) are the main or representative member family of the superfamily Elateroidea.

Common brown click beetle.

Here is a particularly large click beetle, about 4cm long, which we came across in Hluhluwe Game Reserve.

Click beetles have a funny super-power. There is a peg on their underside, which they can dislocate by twisting their thorax sideways. When it snaps back into place it jolts them into the air with a click! They use this trick to flick themselves upright when they get stranded on their backs, or to escape an enemy by startling them.

The peg-in-groove on the underside of a click beetle.

Should you come across a click beetle, why not give it a try: pick it up gently (if it doesn’t click immediately, it will play dead) and put it on its back on a smooth surface, so it cannot get back up. Then wait and watch.

Yes, keep an eye out for many amazing insects that emerge now that the rains have come. If you have an indigenous garden (trees and shrubs and flowers) you will be rewarded with a spectacular variety of insects that live where their food lives – and the food of their food, and the food of their food of their food.

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Marlies Craig is an epidemiologist who used to research malaria, but now works for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though she did originally study Biology and Entomology, her love affair with insects is very personal. In her book What Insect Are You? – Entomology for Everyone, she shares that passion with young and old. She hopes to kindle in children a deeper appreciation and understanding of nature and show them why and how they can make a difference. Find Marlies’s website at whatinsectareyou.com.