My quick post on the small, many legged creatures of the South African bush has turned into a four part monster, and I’m only scratching the surface! I had hoped to get the little things out of the way quickly, so I could move on to cooler things with much bigger teeth, but in doing so discovered that I am actually rather fond of the creepy crawlies. The thing with cool, big toothed creatures is that you have to go out and find them. To get to the little stuff, all you have to do is step outside. Sometimes, they come inside to find you!
You can see the earlier posts at https://23thorns.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/226/, https://23thorns.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/this-is-the-sec-9/, and https://23thorns.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/this-is-the-thi/.
Those posts dealt with creatures that were cute, scary, or downright dangerous. Today I’m just going to mop up what’s left. These are just a few of the more interesting beasts I haven’t covered yet.
The better museums around the world have all started to put up interactive exhibits. Kids (and grownups) are far easier to engage when they can get directly involved, rather than just standing on one side and looking. Lots of the smaller creatures in the bush are best left alone, but nature has very thoughtfully set out a few interactive exhibits of her own (as I think about what I’m going to write, I realise that some of these are better left alone too, but what the hell. Too much common sense stands in the way of a rich and fulfilling life. Or so I keep telling myself). Some of the first little creatures I remember playing with were the ant lions.
I think you find them all over the world. The Americans call them doodle bugs. They set up little cone shaped traps in the sand and wait for an unsuspecting ant to come along. When the ant falls into the trap, the ant lion will kick up little sprays of sand to knock it back down into his waiting jaws. As children, we would break off a stem of grass and gently tickle the inside of a likely looking trap, pretending to be ants. If sand was kicked up, we would scoop up a handful of earth, trap and all. The ant lion would start chugging along the palm of your hand, and you could blow away the sand and have a look at him. Whoever named him after a lion clearly never actually saw one. They are more soft grey bag of pus with vicious jaws than graceful feline.
Once you graduated from these guys, you could kick things up a notch. Or seven. Growing up, I had a friend who lived on a smallholding with a river flowing through it. We used to go fishing for crabs. All you needed was a piece of string with a bit of meat tied to it. You would dangle it in front of a crab, and when it grabbed hold, you could haul it out of the water. Down in the bush, you could do the same with baboon spiders.
Baboon spiders are Africa’s tarantulas. They aren’t as big as the South American ones, but they are still a disconcertingly large piece of spider. They aren’t as popular in the exotic pet trade, either. Not because they are slightly smaller, but because, according to the books, they are “unusually aggressive”. They are not very dangerous though. A bite will only result in 18 hours of “intense localised pain”.
To find the spiders, all you had to do was find their homes. They live in deep, narrow holes lined with silk. If you peered down a hole, you would see nothing. The spiders obviously hid round a bend at the bottom. You would again break off a stem of grass. You would then gently and carefully feed it down the hole. Once you reached the bottom, you would twirl it around until you felt a sharp tug. Then you would slowly pull it up out of the hole. Usually, you would get the spider only as far as the entrance. All you would see would be a bunch of fat, hairy legs with an enormous pair of jaws at the middle. Every now and then, though, you would get one out in the open. This would be an ideal opportunity to practice some very grown-up words, and run like hell. These spiders are very big, unusually aggressive, and have a bite that can cause intense localised pain for 18 hours. Plus look at them!
The next one is strictly for the fathers of young boys. It is about as interactive as you can get. There is much that is fascinating about termites. They invented air conditioning. They are all blind. Their homes are as hard as concrete and can be taller than a man. But these are not the really cool thing about them.
The really cool thing about them is that they constitute a huge percentage of the biomass of the bush. What this means is that when you see photos of the wildlife of Africa; the elephants, the hippos, the rhinos and all the rest, you are looking at bit part players. Kilogram for kilogram, there are more termites. Just trying to picture enough termites to make up the weight of one elephant is daunting. The termites, however, weigh more than all the elephants put together. And the buffalos. And the giraffes. And the zebras.
Why is this cool? Think about what this sort of information could do to the right sort of test subject. Find someone a little wired. Just a little more jumpy than the rest of us. Share this interesting little snippet with them just before bed-time. Then tell them not to think about it. Not to think about that blind, heaving, pulsing unsleeping mass, scuttling their way through tunnels in the ground beneath their feet, crawling unseen under the bark of every tree, through the thatch in the roof over their heads, inside the walls, eating, eating, eating, while their bloated, unmoving queen pumps out egg after egg after egg after egg, adding every second to the soft, pasty white mass of gelid flesh all around them, growing, always growing, until together they are bigger than us, bigger than everything, never stopping, always moving, creeping, scuttling, chewing, always busy, never further than mere inches away. Then go to bed yourself, and sleep the sleep of the righteous.
So where do the dads come into it. The soldiers of some of the lowveld termites are massive. They have the same pasty white bodies as the other termites, attached to enormous orange heads. Attached to these are even more enormous black jaws. To collect one of these, you simply knock a little piece out of the nearest termite mound. The soldiers will rush to protect the breach. All you need to do is pick one up, say to your boy “watch this!” and attach it to your arm. It will sink its jaws into your arm and hold on like grim death. There will be blood. You can grimace theatrically. You can offer to let him try. This is all about timing. Do this when your son is young enough and he will think you are a god. A few short years later, and he will think you are a moron. He will be right the second time. The key is to focus on being the happy kind of moron.
On to our next light hearted subject. Plagues. Plagues, even of the biblical sort, are actually a fairly normal part of natural systems. If you have the luxury of hopping into your car and going home when you’ve seen enough, they can be fascinating. Out in the bush I have seen a few over the years. Mice, quelias (birds), locusts, and so on. I’ll just cover two here. The first was a great deal of fun. It was a plague of stinkbugs. These were not the usual shield shaped stinkbugs we are used to; they were small, black, and built like ladybirds. The smell was all stinkbug, though. And the flavour was Appletizer. I can tell you this with great authority because, although I had never seen them before, and have seen them only occasionally since, for one week when I was growing up I saw millions. Literally. I was crawled on by thousands. I ate hundreds. Certainly more than ten went up my nose.
When we are out in the bush we spend most of our time outdoors, even at night. We do most of our cooking outdoors. At night, this means we need to use lights. We all know about insects and lights. Certainly the stinkbugs did. Without exaggerating, we would light a lantern early in the evening, and by bed-time it would be covered, buried under a living, heaving dune of shiny black stinkbugs. In the mornings whole table-tops would be covered so deep you couldn’t see the surface. And they loved it when people wore white shirts. At one point we thought we had lost one of my sisters, until she stood up, and the bugs all fell to the floor. And we just gave up with the food. If you shone a light to see if any were on your plate, they would all go and land on it. If you didn’t shine a light you wouldn’t know if they were there. In the end we just got used to eating them. It wasn’t too bad. I still don’t like Appletizer, though.
The next plague was rather more sinister. We went down in high summer. Everything was lush and green and leafy, to the extent that we couldn’t really find any animals because we couldn’t see through the green. Within a week there wasn’t a leaf left. It was army worms.
They are caterpillars smaller than silkworms. Again, I had never seen them before and have never seen them since. But in that one week, things obviously came together so perfectly for them that they went from being tiny little nothings to being the most important things in the world. They turned a lush green wonderland into a desert, left nothing for the browsers to eat and then just disappeared, flapping away on powdery white wings never to be seen again.
Speaking of wings, there is a tree down here called the Mopane. It has delicate, paired leaves like butterfly wings, and where it grows, it’s pretty much the only thing that grows. I don’t mean that it grows in single species clumps. I mean that there a places where you can drive for several hours without seeing anything else. It can grow into quite a substantial tree, but in South Africa it forms what is called Mopane scrub. It grows so thick that you can drive past a herd of elephants just a few metres off the road without seeing them. At the right time of year though, you can see these.
It’s called a Mopane worm. It can grow as big as a man’s thumb. And there are millions of them. The human appetite is a strange thing. Someone once looked at a gleaming, quivering pile of fish eggs and thought mmmmm! The tasty, tasty sight of a slime covered garden snail sent someone scuttling off to find some garlic butter. And someone took a look at a Mopane worm and thought “You know, dried out and salted I bet those would be pretty damn tasty.
So now you can buy bags of them, like potato chips from hell. Dried, they don’t taste so bad. If anyone ever offers them to you cooked up in a stew, though, start backing toward the door. Mopane worm stew is as vile as it sounds.
I mentioned snails a second ago. The lowveld has those too. Here’s a picture of one.
I have no idea what they are doing out in the hot, dry bushveld. Surely these things belong in a tropical rain forest somewhere. We tend to see them only after it rains. For the rest of the year, they seal themselves up in their shells and aestivate. You do, however, often come across their dried out shells, especially in areas where there has been a fire. One last note. They eat carrion. At least the books all say they eat carrion.
I find it hard to imagine. Picture it. A pride of hungry lions pulls down a giraffe. As they gorge themselves on the meat, the vultures start to circle. A clan of hyenas moves in, snapping and cackling, trying to push the lions off their kill. Jackals skip and dance at their heels, dashing in to grab any loose scraps. When the lions move off, chaos descends. A scrum of feathers and teeth, growling, screeching and snapping, covers the carcass. When the party is over, and the scavengers have slunk off back into the bush, all that remains are a few scraps of bone and skin for the flies and carrion beetles.
Two and a half weeks later, a lone snail inches its way out of the trees, stops, and looks slowly around. “Bugger” it says to itself. “Missed it again.”
Wow. Four posts to cover a few little bugs. For a blog that’s not about bugs, that’s pretty heavy going. And as I said, I have hardly even scratched the surface. For those of you who have stuck with me so far, thank you, and I promise never to write about bugs again. In fact, I’m going to steer clear of the bush entirely for a while, and write about important things like petty theft and sex (don’t worry, my mother reads this. It will all be above board.) I hope you’ll join me.