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Wild buzz: The rites of spring

punjab Updated: Mar 10, 2018 21:28 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times
Wild buzz,HT column,HT Chandigarh

A Carpenter bee relishes nectar from Sweet peas in a Sector 19, Chandigarh, garden.(Vikram Jit Singh)

The flush of changing leaves, lingering fragrance of flowers and chorus calls of the brown-headed barbet that go, kor-r-r, kutroo-kutroo-kutroo, is spring in rapture. But there is a lesser known creature, a big, black, busy, buzzing bee, that emerges from wooden burrows as the season’s warmth seeps in. With a flourish of sounds, wheeling aerobatics and a dazzle of metallic blue, green and purple the large carpenter bee announces its arrival in spring’s carnival.

They are often mistaken for bumble bees but differ as the latter have hairy abdomens. However, their buzzing sounds are similar and they so caught the fancy of Russian composer N Rimsky-Korsakov that he composed an orchestral interlude, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, in 1899–1900. The flurry and dizzying pace of the interlude’s notes beautifully evoke the bee’s chaotic and changing flight movements. A hugely popular ‘distraction’ in the rarefied repertoire of Western classical music, the interlude is a ‘must hear’ for lovers of nature, music and creatures less lofty than tigers!

Carpenter bees are unlike honey bees as they do not live in hives and neither do they churn out honey. Carpenter bees are termed as ‘solitary bees’ and make nests by drilling burrows in dead wood, bamboo, or structural timbers. Nests are used to store nectar and pollen for the brood and for winter hibernation.

“With their large body size, behaviour of floral constancy and buzzing, carpenter bees are considered important pollinators of several cultivated and wild species of plants,” state researchers Prashantha C and Belavadi VV.

The Spitfire birds

A few weeks back, I was witness to five black drongos dare the tongues of fire darting heavenwards from burning fodder stubble near Kubheri village in the Shivalik foothills. There are few birds so agile as drongos when it comes to plucking the fruits of fire. The drongos had perched on a nearby tree and on the ground near the fire to observe insects thrown up in the air by flames and smoke. These aerial predators dived, flashed and weaved within the fires in a sizzling display to snap insects flushed from the hellish inferno. Since I was armed only with a smartphone camera, I could not capture a stunning picture of these ‘Houdinis of fire’. I was fortunate enough, subsequently, to be lent outstanding pictures of drongos literally “eating fire” at other places by Rajkumar Lahiri and Vishal Thakur.

A Black drongo keeps a sharp eye for insects flushed by a stubble fire; (right) while another drongo escapes after plucking an insect from blazing reeds. (PHOTOS: VISHAL THAKUR & RAJKUMAR LAHIRI)

Lahiri’s capture shows how dangerously close the drongo was to the flames while the heat haze and vapours bestowed aesthetic, painting-like effects upon the brilliant photograph. Uninitiated readers may fall prey to the false assumption that the drongo was burning in Lahiri’s photo because the bird had ventured too close. But fact is, the drongo got an insect and was weaving out of the fire successfully. It did recall the escape of a World War 2 Spitfire aircraft from dense German anti-aircraft fire after having duly strafed enemy positions in a daredevil swoop!

Few drops of Sukhna

Those who enjoy walking along the Sukhna Lake after sunset will have noticed big, black creatures flying over Kachnar trees and heading for the darkening sheets of water. These are Indian fruit bats or the Indian flying fox. Observed through a pair of binoculars, the bats skim over water, some skip repeatedly like a stone thrown over water, and take large circles over the Sukhna. They are very similar in flight patterns to gulls and terns over water. But bats do not seek fish nor do they scan water for floating food morsels. Neither do they relish insects hovering over water as these bats are fruit eaters. So, what on earth are they doing out of sight in the darkening waterworld?

I asked assistant professor Sumit Dookia, who has been conducting field research on bats of Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan. “Bats do not sweat but they need to drink water and regulate body temperature. They cannot drink water by sitting on the shores like crows or pigeons as their forelimbs do not afford them that liberty. They skim on water and wet the hair on their chests/bellies. Then, while in flight they lick their bellies or go back to their roosts where they hang upside down and lick the trapped drops of water. This is the reason why bat colonies are often found in the vicinity of wetlands. Bats also wet the membrane between their forelimbs and fan it to regulate body temperature as summer sets in. This is like elephants who flap their ears to regulate body temperature as these large mammals also do not sweat,’’ explained Dookia.

(vjswild1@gmail.com)

First Published: Mar 10, 2018 20:43 IST