Tag Archives: bees

The Venus Flytrap: Three Poets In Agra

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The holes didn’t make the leaves look any less beautiful, and that’s what caught my eye. When you live with and look after plants you learn to ignore natural wilting and discolouration, understanding that all things have their moments and their messes, just like you. But the crisp semi-circles that began to appear along the edges of the greenest of my bougainvillea’s leaves were so perfect that I could not regard them as decay. They looked like bites out of an apple logo, or lunar incurvations. They were lovely – but what was causing them? I enjoyed a whimsy about caterpillars dreaming their butterfly selves at a near distance from my own dreaming, but worried that the pigeon terrors had developed a taste for them.

I asked my friend Nitoo Das, the poet who waters her plants at midnight, and she told me that the culprit, or more accurately, the artist, behind the geometric mystery was the leaf-cutter bee.

I hadn’t considered that bees would deign to grace my modest balcony garden, and so regarded this as the highest compliment. Leaf-cutters were new to me, so I looked them up. What I learned was that they are solitary creatures. Hives are social entities, created with the labour of many. But leaf-cutters do everything themselves: from pollination to home-building to protecting her eggs. As Nitoo told me, they bite green leaves not to consume them, but to use the material to build their nests, which themselves are holes.

I sighed with joy. I could live with leaf-cutter bees, who live in a way I already lean toward.

Just a few days later, Nitoo and I met at a Delhi station and took the train to Agra with a third poet, the brilliant young Urvashi Bahuguna.

Many reams have already been written about the beauty of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. On that overcast and uncrowded day, the serenity of the first washed my cynicism clean. There really was love imbued there. I imagined being able to go there to read or contemplate, to be something other than a sleepless tourist collecting proof of experience.

We noticed how parakeets loved red sandstone but were unenthused by marble. Their colour brought to mind the leaf-cutter bee’s alcoves lined with green leaves, and I wondered where my neighbour made hers. It was close by, I was sure, but either out of sight or else I hadn’t known how or where to look.

In a shop in Agra, we were shown sarees made of banana stems and leaves. They were exquisitely soft, and had been made by prisoners serving life sentences. The proceeds from them would go towards supporting the prisoners’ families. I choose one made from banana stems in a gentle red, with a print that reminded me of georgette and chiffon sarees of the 80s, the kind my mother was always wearing when my sister and I would lift our chins to kiss her bare waist.

I hadn’t known that the banana plant, with all its versatility, could also be worn. I thought of my leaf-cutter co-habitant then too, and hoped for a long and gentle co-existence.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 28th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Creature Coupling

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If you look up moorland hawkers, a species of dragonfly, you’ll find that their conservation status is a cool “Least Concern”. They’re thriving just fine with or without human intervention, but a new study has drawn our attention to them. The females of this species have been observed doing something the females of our species may find familiar: finding resourceful ways to avoid unwanted sexual advances. While we give out fake numbers, plaster on fake smiles in discomfort, and finally namedrop fake boyfriends (the worst one – because an imaginary man’s claim is given more respect than your right to refuse), pregnant female moorland hawkers are simply dropping out of the sky and faking death. Like I said, least concern. Literally no ‘F’s given.

The researcher who observed this phenomenon, Rassim Khelifa of the University of Zurich, hadn’t seen this behaviour in ten years of studying the dragonflies, but further investigation revealed that 27 out of 31 dragonflies were noted making this risky plummet to get away from an aggressive male. I can just imagine the first dragonfly who decided that a predator isn’t just one who wants to consume you, but also one who wants to have sex with you, performing a freefall then telling her friends about her dramatic escape.

The animal queendom is full of extremes when it comes to courtship, and for every example of brutality by one sex, there’s one of brutality by another sex. The black widow spider is famous of course, but you’ve got to appreciate her frankness as compared to the males of the nursery web spider species. They keep food in their mouths and play dead, then begin to copulate when the female comes to inspect these gifts. Then again, a Darwin’s bark spider is forced to perform oral sex up to 100 times in one session; so that his partner won’t eat him. Enough of spiders and their seriously kinky but totally unsexy mating. Take the hermaphroditic banana slug, some of which are pretty much all penis (that’s eight inches for you). They must take care to choose mates that are able to accommodate their size; otherwise, the slug in the female role may find the phallus stuck inside itself – and have to chew it off to live. Drones break their penises off inside the queen bee. And you thought your sex life was interesting.

These are known behaviours in species propagation, and evolutions in the same, such as the moorland hawker dragonfly’s death plunge, are fascinating. Consider more innovations in the world of creature coupling. Two species of the African queen butterfly can no longer produce male hatchlings owing to bacteria; they mate with migrant males, but create only female lineages in a newly evolving subspecies. Oh yeah, and the female caterpillars eat their dead brothers. Last year, a female shark in a Seoul aquarium got so annoyed by the brat who kept bumping into her that she ate him (the brat was another shark; she just another man-eater like you and I). The unicorn is passé (and according to legend, can only be touched by virgins) – maybe your spirit animal is one of these.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 4th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

On Tribal Honeygathering In The Nilgiris In National Geographic Traveller

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In mid-2012, I had the amazing experience of accompanying five Irula tribespeople on a honeygathering mission in the Nilgiris, where I watched them harvest combs off a cliff using 2000-year old traditional methods. I wrote about it for the July issue of National Geographic Traveller India, which you can subscribe to here.

[Update]

Or you can see it in pdf, below.

Sting in the Tale