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Drama, the buzz-word here

Welcome to a world far more savage than ours, says RANJIT LAL.

Stop...Rough handling at Immigration.

IF you feel you're missing out on watching tigers launch assaults on nilgai, or muggers ambushing chital as they bend down to drink, take heart. Get your magnifying glass out and cast about closer home — in your garden or in the nearest park — and you shall be well rewarded. If anything, the insect world is far more savage and terrorising than the mammalian one.

Idling by a Chinese orange bush one morning, waiting for a butterfly to settle, a movement amidst the leaves caught my eye. Dressed in the camouflage colours of the caterpillar of the lime butterfly (common on this plant), a praying mantis — one of favourite horror insects — had just clamped its gin-trap forearms around a honeybee. A breakfast treat no doubt — rich in protein and pollen, and probably nectar flavoured too! With its grotesque bulbous eyes swivelling from side to side, the monstrous insect chewed on the bee — alive and struggling weakly — like someone chomping on a bhutta. Close up, you could hear its mean mouthed jaws rasp and scrunch as they worked their way along the bee's body. Like jackals around a tiger kill, small flies hovered around the feasting mantis, even daring to settle on its grotesque pea-like eyes. Astonishingly, they were ignored, and the mantis went on devouring its main course with relish. Eventually only the husk of the poor bee's body remained, and when this broke into two hollowed out shells, the mantis dropped it. Immediately it took up its beseeching, begging posture, martyred up to the hilt. Of course, the first silly fly to come anywhere close was now snapped up in a trice. Afterwards, with all the fastidiousness of a cat, the mantis cleaned every barb on its formidable forearms like someone licking off curry trickles from his arms.

The love life of the mantis is equally savage, with the female decapitating her husband even as he continues to do his duty by her. But then, there are two very good reasons why this happens. First, as he's obviously not going to be around to provide for the family (actually neither is she) the female has to get as much lumpsum alimony from her husband as possible, and what better time than the present? He is a protein millionaire after all and the eggs need all the protein they can get. Second, the gentleman mantis is apparently a bit too much of a gentleman. A nerve centre in his head prevents him from taking advantage of the ogress — I mean lady — until it is severed. And so, crunch! Off with nerve centre and along with it, the head and all! The lady frees him from his virtuous bondage, allowing the testosterone to go ballistic as it were. Of course, he doesn't live to talk about the torrid honeymoon, and I'm sure there are many ladies out there who will sigh and murmur — why are only the mantis so lucky? If only ... Ah, but then I guess you'll have to look like one, first!

Buzz off...wasp on guard.

Wasps have never been very high in the popularity stakes — but are well worth watching — from a distance of course. Some months ago, a yellow paper wasp had set up residence in a hole in a wall cavity near the dining room. And every day, from around 11 a.m. to sunset, she would stand guard outside that hole, rearing up warningly if you approached close. She could sense movement from at least 10 feet away, her amber eyes following you, her body swaying threateningly. After a few days she was joined by a sister wasp, and then perhaps some more. Now, there's a family of them, and they have erected a typical umbrella style paper nest in the cavity.

Until this summer, I didn't realise that wasps too loved swimming. With splayed out legs and feet they would land in platters of water, the surface tension holding them afloat. It's all very well until they start doing this in the swimming pool and take to sunbathing afterwards on your arm or neck — and you can't swim! The sting can burn for a good three hours. It's best not to panic and thrash about in the water when you see one coming your way, though. To be drowned by a wasp — that really <243>would be big drama by a small creature!

No escape...a carpenter bee brought down by ants.

And now it's time to look out for the metallic black spider wasps that come zinging into your room, and head for any screw slots they can find. In this, each wasp will cache around a dozen small spiders — not dead, just blissfully anaesthetised — and lay an egg on one of them. The entrance will then be cemented. The grotesque yellow grub, when it hatches, will cling on to the feebly alive spider like Sinbad's old man — and suck it alive, for it must have fresh food. Then it will crawl on to the next one, also fresh! Spiderman, take that!

Acutally, even the jumping spiders that posture fiercely on door and window frames are worth watching. Like before, they dance and spar, sensitive to the slightest moment. Their attacks are lightning swift, their eyes bright and beady. They pummel their arms gamely at the big glassy lens thrust at them, and go after each other in hot pursuit in cases of territorial infringement across invisible lines of control.

Line of control...Jumping spider eyeballs an opponent.

But by far, the most exciting "hunt" I witnessed recently, was the one that occurred in a large sunken bed of torai (Ridge gourd). The bed was ablaze with the yellow flowers, and here, large humming squadrons of shiny black carpenter bees would thrum from pre-dawn onwards. The bees' collection of pollen — and nectar perhaps — was no easy matter, for a team of rottweiller-like ants guarded each flower. The moment a bee alighted and thrust its head into the flower, the ants would charge out from nowhere and attack, causing a frustrated buzz and a hasty take off. But one bee was not so lucky. I heard a furious buzzing from the leaf litter and looked down. There, a bee struggled desperately to take off, but obviously had been injured by the ants. Its wings blurred as its engines revved at top speed, but lift-off it could not achieve. And like wild dogs after a wounded buffalo, the ants swarmed over it, their terrible serrated jaws clamped tight or biting, biting, biting. The bee struggled across the leaf litter, trying to get away from its tormenters, but there was no escape. The ants followed it relentlessly, joined by fresh recruits patrolling the area. Its pauses for rest grew longer, the buzzing less furious. Its beautiful midnight dark wings were tattered, but its big metallic eyes remained wide open and staring, like that of a wildebeest in shock. Fifteen minutes after the chase began, it lay still. Would the ants now carve it up into small pieces and cart them off home for any orgy? And why did they guard the torai flowers so zealously in the first place. For the nectar? (Ants are gluttons for sweets!)

At the entrance to a nearby ant hole there is more drama. A soldier ant has "arrested" a worker that was probably attempting to infiltrate without passport or visa. And by "arresting" I meant exactly that. It had clamped the head of the intruder in its jaws, daring it to move. Strangely none of the other ants seem bothered, and entered and exited the hole at will. For 10 minutes the stalemate continued and then I had to leave. Was a bribe paid in the end, or was the illegal immigrant summarily deported — or decapitated? Alas, I'll never know. But I will be keeping watch again.

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