Friday, September 23, 2011

Cool but Clunky

THE children have discovered in our garden what they have dubbed "the coolest bug ever". It's a wheel bug. He caught our attention noisily flying around our back patio and we transferred him to a bug box with a magnifying lid to examine in closer detail. These creatures are often called "assassins of the insect world" thanks to their chosen method of feeding, which involves using their long beak to pierce soft-bodied insects like caterpillars with dissolving enzymes, then sucking out their insides. How charming. Sometimes the females even feed on the male after mating. The cannibalism was not a trait I shared in detail with the children, but we did observe that it moves very slowly and jerkily and has of course that huge and strange "bumpy hump" on its back. Big, clunky, and indeed pretty cool. 

Herbal Frogspawn

WALKING home from school one morning after heavy rain, Alexander and I noticed something strange on our morning "snack bush". This is a huge lemon basil plant at the front of a neighbour's garden, which never seems to mind sparing a leaf or two as we breeze past. This day, however, it seemed to have been showered with frog spawn. The strange gelatinous lumps with a black speck in the middle were sprinkled all over the leaves, and piled in masses on the ground beneath the plant. We thought they might be some insect eggs, then on a hunch I checked the basil plants in our garden. Nothing like that to be seen on the regular Italian basil, but yes - the Thai basil and lemon basil both had the same frog spawn. To the internet I went a-running! Turns out the seeds swell with water (rain). In fact, they can be used to make a delicious drink by mixing the seeds with water and sweetening with a little sugar or honey to taste. Naturally we had to try it, and we found it was similar to drinking chia seeds in water, or bubble tea, which uses tapioca. Apparently this drink is common in Thailand, where it is also sold in cans. "Thai basil seed drink" is not especially original, but it does sound more appetizing than "frog spawn drink".

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nature Study

IT'S great to take sketching materials along on a hike.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Most Amazing Thing

THE other day we noticed a green caterpillar on one of the tomato plants. Having plucked it off ready to deposit elsewhere, we realised that the tomato plant was nearly dead anyway so the caterpillar might as well enjoy the last few leaves. So we put it back. Imagine our surprise when the next day we found it tucked cosily in a cocoon! In fact there were two of them! Two days later the plant was indeed dead, as was apparently the second pupa. But the first pupa still wiggled when gently prodded, and one part had turned brown inside its opaque, silky home.

On my return from a trip four days later, Emma greeted me with: "Mama! The most amazing thing happened!" It seemed that the pupa had transformed into a moth, which Emma had discovered drying its wings next to the empty cocoon. It had flown away by the time I got home, so we didn't get to photograph or identify the moth or butterfly, but it could have been a diamondback moth.

Pupa, Chrysalis or Cocoon?
A pupa is an insect undergoing transformation. If it is a butterfly pupa, it is called a chrysalis and is surrounded by a hard casing. Moth pupas most often change inside a cocoon of spun silk, though some species burrow into the ground. Pupas of other insects change inside the exoskeleton of their final larval stage, or in a nest or shell.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Creek Life

YOU'D think with four children under six, a mad labrador and an excitable Jamaican in our camping party, the wildlife would stay very, very far away. And indeed many of the wiser creatures did, a few cawing a retreat or leaving a tiny footprint behind. But not all. Whether oblivious, confined or simply unperturbed, some animals of the water allowed themselves to be discovered.

Armed with new birthday catching nets and bug boxes we went to explore the creek. It was bursting with animal life! Diving beetles tootled leisurely through the water as pond skaters gathered in little groups around the edges. Tiny fish came into sight when we stayed very still then flitted away the second a small foot disturbed the silt. A 10cm long stick insect brushed my nose as I ducked under an overhanging branch. Two crawfish were enjoying a little sunlight in a shallow, sandy spot and dragonflies flew abundantly overhead.

But it was one particular insect that caught my attention. Under almost every stone we found the same clear-coloured crawling creature with a split tail from a few millimetres to 2cm or so, including a couple of larger outgrown skins outside the water. I think they were mayfly nymphs. Mayflies live up to a year under water in the larval stage, then crawl out of the water and in their last stages of moulting, emerge with wings. They then fly around for one day only, during which time they mate and lay eggs on the water's surface, where they sink to the bottom to repeat the cycle. Whatever they were, they made interesting creatures to watch.