Did I See What I Saw?

8.15 pm, June the 9th, 2021. Bangalore.

I was looking out at the madhu-malti (Combretum indicum; English names: Chinese Honeysuckle or Rangoon Creeper) in my garden.

And I saw an amazing sight. An aerial creature hovering and sucking nectar from the flowers. It darted away and was back for another 10-15 second go at the flowers. And again and again and again. And the movements were accompanied by a whirring sound.

Smaller than any bird I have seen, and with gauzy wings, it was much larger than any bee or wasp. To me, at first sight it looked like a giant wasp. But a wasp that was behaving like a sunbird or a humming bird. So then I wondered whether it was some sort of sunbird. But I didn’t feel comfortable with either explanation.

I rushed to get my phone. The creature was a fast-darting type; my phone does not have a great camera; the light was bad; last but not the least, I am a terrible photographer. I clicked away, knowing full-well that there would be nothing out of the exercise other than some dark blurs. And I was right.

I called Raghu. He came a few minutes later. Just caught a few glimpses of the creature. Not enough for him to make any conjectures apart from that it was a larger-than-ordinary flying creature. It did not hover when he came. The saga ended when it vanished into the dark. Raghu said it was just a moth and it was my hyperactive imagination which had seen it hovering and sucking.

I could not let this insult pass. I went to good old Google. And have concluded that what I saw was a Hummingbird Moth, probably a Hummingbird Hawkmoth (genus Macroglossum). But which one, I cannot tell.

Kitching, Kendrick and Smetacek in their enumeration ‘ A List Of Hawkmoth Species (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) Of India, Nepal, Bhutan And Sri Lanka, Including Their Common Names’ list about 20 Hummingbird Hawkmoths which may be sighted across this area. The common names run an interesting gamut, from Black-Based Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Burnt-Spot Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Obscure Hummingbird Hawkmoth.

Obviously not the pic I took!

What is this creature which looks like a bird and acts like a bird, but is an insect? An evolutionary phenomenon called convergent evolution or homoplasy explains this resemblance. In homoplasy, two creatures from different families and orders develop similar forms which serve the same functions. Basically, Hummingbird Moths mimic hummingbirds because it gives them some advantages. What could these advantages be? Scientists opine that looking like a bird may help them for two major reasons: first, these moths are diurnal, and this makes them more vulnerable to predators. They are also pretty colourful, which adds to the vulnerability. So looking like a bird may fool predators, and give them an edge.

These moths, like hummingbirds, have extremely strong wings to enable them to hover and sip. Hummingbirds beat their wing over 80 times a second. While the moths are not quite as fast, the speed is enough to keep them suspended over the flower for several seconds at a time. They have very long proboscis, which enable to suck the nectar.

Good to know. But can I be sure that what I saw was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth?

No. While Hummingbird Hawkmoths have been sighted in Bangalore, they are supposed to be seen in South India in the winter. But this sighting was in June.

And emphatically, all HHs unlike most other moths, are diurnal creatures. They are supposed to be active in the daytime, especially when it is sunny and bright. But this sighting was at 8.15 p.m.

These moths are supposed to come back at the same time to the same place, day after day. But alas, not in my case. I have been watching the madhu-malti for the last few days not only between 8 and 8.30 p.m., but on and off through the day, with nary a sight.

So did I see what I saw?

–Meena

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