Six-legged Marvels

Of the many insects living at the Cavern the African Hummingbird Moth must be the most intriguing. Not all moths are nocturnal, and this species flies by day. It can easily be mistaken for a tiny hummingbird (except that hummingbirds are found only in America). It hovers, with wings faintly whirring and almost invisible, in front of flowers, testing each in turn with its long “beak”. Only its antennae expose the moth for what it is. Its favourite flower is Plectranthus neochilus, used as an edging plant, and best seen in the garden on the way to the Forest Retreat.

Our biggest bee is the Carpenter Bee (often wrongly called a bumble-bee). It is black and orange-brown, very furry, and always found near Polygala myrtifolia bushes. The attraction is the pink flowers, produced year-round. A good example of this association can be seen next to the sentry-box. The bee is solitary, and defends its favourite bush against all comers, including tourists. The Carpenter Bee’s nest is a hole, neatly drilled straight into dead wood, hence its name. Another insect that lives on the Polygala closely resembles the bee, an example of defensive mimicry. Although obviously smaller than the bee, the colour is exact enough to fool a predator that has been stung before.

The hemispherical concrete-earth mounds in the grassy areas above the hotel are home to Snouted Harvester Termites. A whole self-contained city exists out of sight. The termites emerge at night to cut short lengths of grass. This is stored underground. The city is ruled by a long-lived queen who has a resident king consort. All workers are female, as are the soldiers who defend the mound if it is attacked. They do not bite, but squirt a sticky irritant fluid at the enemy. Periodically swarms of “flying ants” disperse from the colony to begin a new life elsewhere.

David Johnson

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