KING CROW 

Erect and majestic, against the clear blue January sky, sits the bird. It is imperious in its mien, the king of all that it surveys, from its perch on the branch of the drumstick tree. Its glossy black feathers lengthen into a long forked tail, like the regalia of a king. No wonder it carries the moniker of King Crow. But it is not related to the crow family.

Drongo
Drongo

This is the Black Drongo. It belongs to a distinct family the Dicrurus. Its scientific name is Dicrurus macrocercus. Dicrurus is derived from the Greek words dikros meaning forked, and ouros meaning tailed; macrosersus is from the Greek makrokerkos, where makros means long and kerkos means tail. It is this forked tail that is the distinctive feature of this bird. The body of the drongo is small (bulbul sized) while the tail is relatively long, giving it a graceful and regal appearance, not only when it is perched, but also when it flies with an undulating wave-like movement, alternating the flapping of wings, and gliding smoothly with wings held still. 

The Black Drongo can be seen in open areas—farmlands, grasslands, fields and even urban pockets, usually perched on poles and wires, or tree branches. These are favoured as they are good look outs for spotting prey. The Drongo is primarily an insect eater, on the alert for bees, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, cicadas, termites, moths and ants. The insects are snatched from the air with daring aerial displays—shooting up like an arrow, zooming down like a rocket, veering sharply to change direction—which are a delight to watch. Once caught, the prey is carried off by the Drongo, who with deft manoeuvres, clamps its catch under foot, and tears it to pieces before swallowing it. 

Drongos are also smart enough to avail of more easily available meals by being around when fields are being ploughed, or stubble is being burned, so as to feast on all the insects that are disturbed by this. They also hitch a ride on the back of grazing cattle, with the same purpose of feasting on the insects that fly up in the wake of the walking cattle. Thus Drongos help to control many agricultural pests, making them important biological pest-control agents, earning them the name ‘farmers’ friends’. 

The Drongo is not just agile in its movements, it has a versatile repertoire of calls—from harsh scolding calls to a range of sweet whistles. It is also a clever mimic, imitating the calls of other birds, so as to use this to its advantage in different ways. It can imitate sounds that make a flock of diverse birds believe that they are from the same flock; it will raise an alarm call that will cause others to abandon their food and flee, leaving the rest for the Drongo.  It is said that the Drongo perfectly mimics the call of a shikra which scares birds like mynas who fly away in panic, leaving the takings for the Drongo.

Despite its small size this bird is fearless, and can be aggressive, taking on larger species that may venture into its nesting territory. It is especially vigilant about keeping out crows who may poach their eggs. Thus being given the appropriate name of Kotwal or sentry in Hindi. The smaller birds take advantage of this vigil by also nesting safely in the ‘sphere of influence’ of this gutsy gatekeeper.  

The battle for supremacy between the freeloading crow and the feisty bird was vividly described by British civil servant and naturalist Edward Hamilton Aitken in his book The Common Birds of Bombay published in 1900. 

 “Its (Drongo’s) aim is true and its beak is sharp and its target is the back of the lawbreaker. The Crow is big enough to carry off its puny enemy and pick its bones, if it could catch it, but who can fight against a ‘bolt from the blue’? The first onset may, perhaps, be dodged, but the nimble bird wheels and rises and plunges again with derisive screams, again and again piling pain and humiliation on the abject fugitive till it has gone far beyond the forbidden limits. Then the King sails slowly back to its tree and resumes its undisputed reign.”

Little wonder then, that this bird, though no relative of the Common Crow, has earned the sobriquet King Crow. 

This agile and spunky little bird is equally celebrated for its cleverness. It displays these traits in a number of folk tales from different cultures and geographies—from South Africa to Australia to North East India. 

Here is one from the Shangani tribe of Zimbabwe.

A long time ago, the birds decided to choose a leader. A call was sent to all birds to attend a meeting to determine the same. When he heard this, Pau the Ostrich was confident that being the largest bird, he would get this title. Gama the Eagle was equally sure that he was entitled to this, being the bird that could fly highest. The little birds also decided to compete. Thus birds of every shape, size and colour arrived at the meeting. The elders had a long and argumentative discussion to fix the criteria for selection. Finally they agreed that the bird who could stay in the air the longest would be designated as leader. 

Pau the ostrich, who could not even fly, stalked out in protest at this criterion. Many smaller birds who knew the limits of their ability and endurance dropped out, knowing that they could not match the powerful fliers. But Matengwane, the fork-tailed drongo, did not throw in the towel immediately, and quietly planned his strategy. The next morning when the big birds set off flying on their course, drongo lightly settled on the back of Gama the high flying eagle, and hid amongst its feathers. As the race went on, more and more birds began to drop out from exhaustion, until finally it was only Gama soaring in the sky. The confident eagle descended, and landed to cheers. Just as the elders were about to crown Gama as the leader, they noticed that there was still one bird flying in the sky— Matengwane the drongo! The clever hitchhiker had detached himself from his ride, just as Gama was landing, and remained the sole winged creature in the sky. And thus was the Drongo declared the leader of the birds!

Certainly no bird brain—the Drongo.

.–Mamata

Neem Chameli-Indian Cork Tree

The last two months were suffused with the heavy scent of the Saptaparni flowers that hung in the early morning air. With the monsoon finally receding, this month there is a change in the atmosphere, and the scents in the air. The crisp dawns are now fragrant with a delicate scent. Following ones nose and looking up one sees some trees laden with clusters of white flowers. In the pre-dawn light, one may think that the Saptaparni is blooming again. But no, it is the turn of another night bloomer with white flowers—the Indian Cork Tree or Tree Jasmine.

This ornamental tree which grows in most parts of India is locally known as Akash Neem, Neem Chameli, Betati Neem, Mini Chameli, Karkku, Malli, Kavud, Machmach, and Buch in different Indian languages.

Native to South Asia and South East Asia, the Indian Cork tree is the sole species in the genus Millingtonia. Its botanical name is Millingtonia hortensisMillingtonia is named after Sir Thomas Millington, an English botanist who was an inspiration to Carl Linnaeus who first described this genus. The word hortensis comes from the Latin word hortensis which means ‘related to gardens’. The tree is commonly planted in gardens and along roadsides.

The Indian Cork tree is a versatile evergreen tree that can grow in various soil types and climate conditions. It grows, generally tall and straight, to a height of between 18 and 25 metres; it has relatively few branches spreading out 7 to 11 metres. It reaches maturity between 6 and 8 years of age and lives for up to 40 years.

This is a hardy tree in terms of climatic adaptation, but the wood is soft and brittle and can snap in strong winds. It has a yellowish grey bark which is cracked and furrowed. Beneath the bark is a kind of cork, which is inferior to true cork, but which nevertheless gives it the name of Indian Cork Tree. The wood can be used for furniture and ornamental work, and the cork is used as a substitute for real cork. This use is reflected in its Gujarati name Buch, which literally means ‘cork stopper’. The leaves are divided into small oval leaflets arranged in pairs along the main rib. They resemble neem leaves, giving it another local name Akash Neem, in some Indian languages.

It is the flowers that attract attention when they blossom in snowy white masses at the end of branchlets. Each flower with four waxy white petals is like a slender tube sitting in a bell-shaped calyx. The flowers open at night and are short lived, showering down to carpet the ground beneath the tree. The fruit is a long slender pod, flattened and pointed at both ends and containing flat seeds. Birds feed on the seeds and help in their dispersal.

As with almost all plants, the different parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes. Extract of its leaves is said to have good anti-microbial properties, and dried flowers are believed to be effective as bronchodilators.

And as with many trees in India, there are myths and folk tales associated with this tree also. I found a really appealing folk tale about the Neem Chameli.

I call it a Cinderella Story.

Once upon a time there lived six brothers who had one sister; her name was Chameli. Chameli was as beautiful and delicate as the flower that she was named for. Her brothers doted on her and showered her with love and care. The wives of the brothers were always jealous of this, but they could only watch in silence. Until one day, the brothers had to go away for work. Before they left they told their wives “We are leaving our beloved sister in your care. Treat her with as much care and love as we do.”

No sooner were the brothers out of sight, than the wives showed their true colours. They took away all of Chameli’s pretty clothes and belongings, and told her, “From now you will do all the housework, and obey all our orders”. The sisters-in-law were cruel and heartless, and the young girl toiled from morning till night, clad in rags and on a hungry stomach, day after day. The delicate Chameli grew frail and ill, until one day, she died.

The wives were frightened; what would their husbands do when they found out? Under the cover of darkness, they quietly buried her in the corner of the garden. When the brothers returned they were shocked to hear from their wives about how their sister who could not bear being separated from her brothers, had fallen very ill, and passed away. The brothers wept and mourned.

In the corner of the garden where Chameli was buried, grew a beautiful tree, which had fragrant blooms. Every morning the ground beneath the tree was strewn with a carpet of delicate white flowers. The brothers loved this tree, and nurtured it with care; the flowers reminded them of their beloved sister. Their wives however were always afraid that someday the truth would come out. They nagged and nagged their husbands to cut down the tree, until finally they agreed. As the axe was about to strike, they heard a soft gentle voice “Oh brothers, do not strike me; I am your sister Chameli”.

The brothers were taken aback. Eventually the truth about their sister came out. The brothers embraced the tree and promised to care for it as long as they lived. And that how, it is believed, this tree was named Neem Chameli.

As I collect the fallen flowers and breathe in the gentle fragrance of the Neem Chameli tree, I celebrate the many seasonal gifts that Nature bestows upon us.

–Mamata

COP Out?

The acronym COP has been hitting us in the face for the last few weeks. We know that there is a meeting happening at Glasgow, and that Climate Change is being discussed. And that the decisions made or not made will affect the future of the Planet and of humankind.

COP 26

But what is COP? COP stands for Conference of Parties, i.e., all the nations which have signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). This is the foundational treaty on climate change, and came into being at the landmark Rio Convention in 1992. A ‘Framework Convention’ is one wherein parties acknowledge that there is a problem, and commit, more or less in principle, to work together to solve it. However, there are no specific obligations laid out in these. The UNFCC is ‘subject to ratification, acceptance, approval or accession by States and by regional economic integration organizations’. 

Over time, as more information, knowledge and science come in, and consensus grows, a Framework is fleshed out, and specific Protocols and Agreements with clear obligations come in. From UNFCC for instance, we have the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, laying down specific obligations on the parties. Each of these has to be signed and ratified separately—and this is where the crux of it is. Easy enough to sign statements of intent, but countries baulk at signing on to specific commitments.

The UNFCC opened up for ratification at the Rio Conference on 4th June 1992. It came into force on 21st March 1994, after the 50th instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession had been deposited. India was one of the early movers, signing the Convention on June 10, 1992, and ratified it in Nov 1993.

As of now, there are there are 197 Parties (196 States and 1 regional economic integration organization). And these are the ‘parties’ referred to in COP. The COP is the highest decision-making body of the Convention and all States that are Parties to the Convention are represented here.

The COP meets every year, unless the parties agree otherwise. The first meeting was held at Bonn in 1995, the year after the Convention came into force. The COP presidency rotates among the five UN regions. COP 8 was held in New Delhi in 2002.

Apart from the Parties, COPs are attended by Observer States. Beyond this, there are two more categories of participants. The Press and Media are one category of participants. The last category is of observer organizations. These ‘observer organizations’ include the United Nations System and its Specialized Agencies; intergovernmental organizations; and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The number of people registered for COP 26 at Glasgow was close to 40,000, approximately double the numbers from COP 25 held in 2019. But there have been allegations that many delegates and participants from developing countries could not make it because COVID-related travel restrictions for their countries were lifted too late, thereby restricting the voices of the Global South.

This is not the only angle from which COP 26 has been criticized. More than half way through the event, many are concerned with the progress made. Greta Thunberg feels that it has been a “two-week long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”.

What can we do but hope? And take actions at the personal level, while the powers talk and discuss and negotiate.

Till another COP next year, at a yet-to-be announced venue.

–Meena

Devil’s Tree

As we go for our walk nowadays, the early October mornings are filled with a heavy sweet fragrance. We look up to see the trees that look as if they have been sprinkled with an overnight flurry of snowflakes. The Saptaparni is in bloom!

The Saptaparni is one of the many names of the tree, but one that most literally describes it. It comes from two Sanskrit words—sapta meaning seven, and parni which refers to leaves. The tree is characterised by its pattern of (generally) seven leaves which grow in a whorl attached around a stem. In addition to Saptaparni which the tree is called in Sanskrit as well as in Gujarati, the tree is known by different names in different Indian languages: Marathi – Satvin, Hindi – Shaitanki Jhur, Chatwan, Chatian, Bengali – Chattim, Tamil – Palai, Elilaippala, Malayalam – Palai, Telugu – Edakulapala, and Kannada – Maddale.

One of the English names of the tree–Devil’s Tree–however refers to the beliefs associated with the tree. Folklore in many parts of India associates the tree as one on which the Devil resides. This association is reflected in the local names such as Shaitan, Chaitan, Chattim etc.

Another English name of the tree is Blackboard tree or Scholar tree. This is because in the past the wood of the tree was used to make slates and blackboards. This is also reflected in its botanical name Alstonia scholaris. The generic name Alstonia commemorates the distinguished botanist Professor Charles Alston of Edinburgh, while scholaris is a reference to its traditional use to make wooden slates for students. 

When leaves are plucked the tree yields a milky sap. The sap is toxic, and in large doses the bitter and astringent extract from its bark can be harmful. But the tree is also known to have a number of medicinal uses, especially in traditional medicine. The famous Ayurvedic physician Charaka used a paste of Saptaparna bark, known as Dita Bark, in ointments for chronic skin problems, and in prescriptions for urinary diseases. Another ancient physician and surgeon Sushruta prescribed the drug internally as well as externally in urinary diseases, poisoning, fever, malignant ulcers, leprosy and other virulent skin diseases and fistula. It is said to be useful in heart diseases, asthma, chronic diarrhoea, and to stop bleeding from wounds. The fresh bark juice with milk is said to be administered in leprosy and dyspepsia as well as to treat ulcers. The bark is also used in Homoeopathy for weak digestion, anaemia, low fever often with diarrhoea, dysentery and as a tonic after exhausting fever. The tree has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat headache, influenza, malaria, bronchitis and pneumonia.

However it may be named—by form, by folklore, or by use, this indigenous evergreen tree is found in most parts of India. It has a rough greyish bark, and the branches grow evenly around the trunk giving the tree a beautiful form. The whorled pattern of slightly rounded dark green leaves distinguishes it. The tree is transformed in the flowering season, which is between October and December. A night bloomer, the greenish-white flowers grow in ball-shaped clusters and exude a heady fragrance. Perhaps it is this phenomenon that has led to the belief in many tribal communities that the tree is where the devil resides; and thus people avoid sleeping under the tree, or even sitting under it. The belief could also be related to the fact that some people may be allergic to its pollen or fragrance, irritating eyes, or causing breathing problems. This may have led to the association that sleeping under a saptaparni tree could make a person ill.

This tree does not feature as prominently in art and literature as do some others. But the Soptoporni or Chatim (as it is called in Bengali), has an interesting link with Tagore’s Shantiniketan. The story goes that in 1862, Debendranath Tagore (the father of Ravindranath, and a leading figure in the Indian Renaissance) was on a boat journey. As he was passing the village of Bhubandanga, he saw lush green paddy fields bordered by rows of wild date palms and Chatim trees. He decided to step off the boat to rest; and sat in a glade of chatim trees for his evening prayers. He was filled with such a sense of peace and happiness that he bought 20 bighas of land there to set up a spiritual retreat which he named Shantiniketan (the abode of peace). The place with the grove of Chatim trees was named Chatimtala. Later Rabindranath expanded the retreat and its activities and it became the Vishwa Bharati University, but the Chatim trees became a symbol of the origin and spirit of the great institution. This was also demonstrated in the tradition that at the university’s convocation ceremony, every student was given, along with their degree, a whorl of saptaparni leaves. In recent years, supposedly to prevent excessive damage to environment, this presentation has been made symbolic–the vice chancellor of the University accepts one saptaparni leaf from the chancellor on behalf of all the students.

Going back to its other name—Devil’s Tree, there is a lovely folk tale from Madhya Pradesh.

Once upon a time there was shepherd boy who loved to play the flute. Every day as his goats grazed in the hills, the boy sat in the shade of a Chatian tree and played his flute. In the tree lived a fierce spirit or shaitan who scared away anyone who dared to sit in the shade of its tree. But when the spirit heard the boy playing his flute, he could not help being charmed by the melodious music. He would come down from the tree and dance joyfully to the lively tunes. The shaitan and the boy became good friends and passed the days with music and dance.

One day a prince was passing by and he heard the notes of the flute. He was entranced. He asked the boy to play for him every day. He promised that when he became king, he would make the boy his minister. After he left, the shiatan came down from the tree and warned the boy not to believe rich people who made false promises. But the young and innocent boy was taken in. The prince came every day and the boy entertained him with his music. The shaitan was upset and refused to come down from the tree anymore.

Time passed; the king died and the prince ascended the throne. The shepherd boy was excited; he went to the palace to meet his friend who was now the king. But young king refused to recognise his old friend and drove him away. Heartbroken, the boy returned to the hills and sat dejectedly under the Chatian tree, not even able to play his flute. The shaitan was concerned. He came down and the boy told him his sad saga. The Shaitan was enraged; he put a curse on the king which transformed him into an ugly monster. The palace announced a reward for whoever could break the spell. The shaitan was delighted that he had taught the king a lesson, but the kind hearted boy was very upset and said that he would not play the flute until the shaitan had taken away his spell. Finally the shaitan relented. He told the boy to go to the palace with a branch of the chatian tree, and wave it three times in front of the king, with the words “the spirit of the chatian tree release you from their magic”. This time the boy was allowed in, and he did as the shaitan had told him to. The king was restored to his original form. The king was overjoyed and asked the boy to stay in his palace and become his minister. But the boy was wiser this time. He said “I am only a shepherd, and all I know is to play the flute.” And he returned to his hills and his goats and his favourite chatian tree, to play his beloved flute. And the shaitan joined his friend to dance in joy every day. 

I love this story. We have a Devil’s Tree at our front gate. I would like to believe that the friendly spirit in the tree protects our home, and that it enjoys the music that we play!

–Mamata

RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

Blender-Composting for the Lazy Gardener

Compost as we all know, is decomposed organic matter. Rich in nutrients, it is also known as ‘black gold’ for the vigour and fortification it brings to soil. Compost is the end-result of the natural degradation of biomaterials like garden waste and kitchen waste. Everything in nature will degrade in the natural course. But left to itself, it may take years or even decades. Composting is a way to nudge the process along. Win-win, because it reduces the amount of green and brown waste entering the garbage management system, and because the end-product enriches soil.

During composting, microorganisms—bacteria, fungi etc.–decompose the bio-materials. Among these, bacteria play a large part—they secrete a variety of enzymes which chemically break down organic materials. Worms, bugs, nematodes, and other critters in the soil contribute by physically breaking down those materials, which makes it easier for the bacteria, fungi and others to do their work.

The resultant compost provides the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with a host of micronutrients and trace minerals.

Fundamentally, there are two types of composting processes which can go to work. The first is aerobic composting, in which the kind of bacteria at work use air to help speed up the breakdown of materials. The other is anaerobic composting, where the bacteria do not need oxygen to carry out the process.

There are several types of composting methods which can be used, basically classified as:

* Hot Composting: This quickly turns organic material into usable compost, but requires a lot of time and effort. Hot composting involves keeping the temperature at the center of the compost pile elevated, ideally to somewhere between 43-60o Celsius. The pile needs to be kept turned once a week or so to move colder material from the outside of the pile to the inside where it is heated and so breaks down into rich humus more quickly

* Cold Composting: Cold composting essentially means creating a compost pile and leaving nature to do its job. It requires less input from the gardener, but does mean that useable compost can take up to a year to be ready.

* Vermicomposting: Here worms are added to hasten the process of composting.

Popular domestic composting methods include open air composting, bin composting, tumbler composting and vermi-composting.

On and off, I have tried my hand at composting my kitchen waste. But being both lazy and inept, it was a mess each time!

Then I came across a method called trench-composting, which basically involves digging up the area around your plants in a shallow ditch, spreading the cut-up kitchen waste in the ditch, and covering it back with soil. I liked this method. Kind of no-fuss, no-muss; possible even for the ten-thumbed like me; and can be done on a daily basis. But then I ran into a problem. This was possible in the kitchen patch or even in the flower-beds. But what about the lawn? I could obviously not dig trenches there.

Then an idea struck. Why not blend up the kitchen waste and just pour it on the lawn? I reasoned that it would return nutrients to the soil, and would also results in a huge reduction of the kitchen waste going out into the waste management system. I started doing this.

And also decided to check if this idea had struck anyone else. Well, yes. Looks it has! The internet has accounts of what is called Blender-Composting. Several gardeners use it, though I could find no scientific papers on it. As some of the participants in the debates point out, this is not composting at all, since one is only physically crushing the pieces. But since that is the starting point of the composting process, I suppose it will help the bacteria and other micro-organisms do their work faster. Gardening experts say that addition of reasonable amount of bio-waste in this form can only have positive effects on the soil, even though it is not clear how much. However, they do caution against adding too much of this, as the early stages of the composting process could deplete nitrogen from the soil.

I can vouch that there is no smell and the goop, properly diluted and spread, attracts no flies or other insects. But depending on what goes into it, the goop can sometimes be yucky-looking, in fact referred to by some as ‘dragon-vomit’. I can vouch for this also—the day the goop is papaya-based, I definitely have to hide it in the soil in the hedges and bushes!

I am sold—it is either trench composting or blender composting for me!

–Meena

Beauty and the Bees

If last week was about boring bees, this week it is about beautiful bees—bees in art, bees and art.

Bees have been depicted in art through the ages, the oldest known been a Spanish cave painting dating back 15,000 years. These insects also have great symbolic value—variously standing for peaceful coexistence, teamwork, industriousness. In some cultures, they are symbols for fertility and healing. In Hindu mythology, Kamadev’s sugarcane bow is strung with a row of bees, thus symbolizing the sting of love.

One of the most popular works depicting bees has to be the Fontana delle Api, or Fountain of Bees in Rome. In a city replete with fountains, this one stands out for its elegance and creativity. Built in 1644, it prominently features bees because it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, who belonged to the Barberini family, whose symbol was the bee. The 3-bee symbol of the family was also immortalized with St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in the Baldacchino sculpture.

Fountain of Bees
Fountain of Bees, Rome

Napoleon did his part for bees—they were one of his imperial symbols. His red coronation robes were embroidered with gold bees. It was not just the beauty of bees which captured Napoleon’s imagination. He consciously used this symbol as a rejection of the fleur-de-lis, which was the symbol of the previous regime of the Bourbons. His use of bees started a rage, and they were used as decorative symbols on everything, from porcelain to textiles.

Coming to contemporary arts, in something called bee sculpture, artist Tomas Libertiny collaborates with bees and bee keepers, to re-create famous sculptures in beeswax. He makes 3-D replicas of the originals—from the Nefertiti bust to Micaheangelo’s sculptures—and creates a wire frame of the same shape. He gives these frames to beekeepers, who encourage bees to build their hives on these. In a matter of months (or years if it is a large and complex structure), the bees build in the desired shape. Not a simple process though—Libertiny compares it to doing bonsai, with the constant need for adjusting, trimming and building the growth in the desired shape. The result is a beautiful and very durable piece of art made of beeswax.

The Hive is a huge immersive exhibit at the Kew Gardens. It is a huge structure made of metal. It reflects the activity of a real bee hive in the Kew. An accelerometer (a device which detects vibrations) is placed in the real hive. It picks up the vibrations of the bees and transmits them to the metal hive in real time. There are 1000 LED lights in the structure, which light up in tandem with these vibrations. There are also recorded sounds from hives to add an audio dimension. It is the closet a human can safely get to being in a beehive!

Then there are artists for bees. The Good of the Hive initiative of artist Mathew Willey has made it a mission to depict 50,000 bees in murals and installations across the world, towards raising awareness of the role of bees in our lives, and the threats they face. The number 50,000 is chosen because that that is the number of bees which can sustain a healthy colony. Louis Masai Michel is another artist with a similar mission.

On the one hand there are humans celebrating bees in art. On the other, there are bees exhibiting a developed sense of art recognition! There is a fascinating experiment concerning bees and art conducted by scientists in Australia. Bees were shown 8 paintings, four by the French artist Claude Monet, and four by Australian Indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. The scientists placed a small blue dot at the centre of each painting. The ones on the painting by Monet had a bitter quinine drop in it. The ones by Marawili had a drop of sugar solution. After letting the bees interact with these paintings for some time, the scientists replaced the paintings with two new paintings which the bees had not seen, one by Monet and one by Marawili. The bees made a beeline for the painting by Marawili! In other words, they were able to distinguish the styles of the two artists, and knew which painting would yield the sugar!

Long live bees!

–Meena

Boring Buzzers: Carpenter Bees

Every few months when we step out onto our little sit-out deck in the morning, we find pockets of sawdust strewn on the floor. Initially we thought that it was termites that had started eating away at the old wooden pergolas over the deck. But a general check could not reveal any other tell-tale signs of termites. So we continued to be baffled about what was responsible for this.

One morning as we sat there we saw a large black bumble bee flying about the pergolas, and then quite mysteriously disappearing somewhere into the wooden beam. A closer examination revealed a hole in the wood, and it seemed to be the one into which the bee had vanished. So now we had a possible suspect, but as yet no confirmation of the link between the sawdust and the bee. The next time there was sawdust, we checked the wood just above it and sure enough we found a neat hole. The next step was to find out if a bumble bee could also be a boring bee!

Some preliminary research confirmed one suspicion—that the drilling in the wood was indeed the work of a bee. But it also refuted the supposition that this was a bumble bee. What we discovered was that this was a bee called the Carpenter Bee, and also many interesting facts. 

To start with, of course, the name. Carpenter bees are aptly named for their habits of drilling into wooden surfaces such as logs and tree branches, or in urban areas, wood used for construction. They drill a neat hole in the wood and tunnel into the wood in order to make their nest and lay their eggs. In a couple of hours the carpenter bee can drill a hole a few inches deep, leaving beneath the debris of sawdust.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa latipes) are one of the largest bees we have here in India. They are big and black with an intimidating appearance. Their wings shine in the sunlight with metallic blue, green and purple colours. The male and the female are more or less similar, but the male has hairier legs.   

Carpenter bees do indeed resemble bumblebees, but while bumblebees usually have a hairy abdomen with black and yellow stripes, carpenter bees typically have a shiny, hairless abdomen. The two bees also have different nesting habits–bumblebees nest in an existing cavity often underground (e.g., in abandoned rodent burrows), whereas carpenter bees tunnel into wood to lay their eggs.

Another distinguishing feature of Carpenter bees is that they are solitary bees, unlike most other honeybees and bumblebees that live in colonies and are known as social insects. The honeybees make hives, while carpenter bees excavate and make well structured tunnels in wood. They vibrate their bodies as they rasp their mandibles against the wood.

After boring a short distance, the bee makes a right angle turn and continues to make a tunnel extending about 30-45 centimetres, parallel to the wood surface. Inside the tunnel, five or six cells are constructed. Each cell houses a single egg, and each one is provided with a wad of pollen collected from flowers, which could serve as nourishment for the larva when the egg hatches. Each cell is then sealed with regurgitated wood pulp and saliva. The larvae feed on the high protein and calorie pollen beebread, and enter hibernation, before they turn into adult bees and emerge from the tunnel. Adult females can live up to three years and can produce two generations of offspring per year, though they never see their offspring!

What an amazing feat of insect architecture was going on, hidden from us, in the single beam of wood right over our head, as we sipped our morning tea!

Equally impressive is the contribution of these bees to the cycle of nature. Carpenter bees typically visit large open-faced flowers which have a lot of pollen as well as nectar. They use vibrations to release the pollen from the flower’s anthers, and are described as buzz pollinators. As they feed on nectar from many flowers, the pollen from the flowers sticks to the underside of the abdomen and the legs, which is transported from flower to flower as they flit and settle to feed, playing a vital role in pollination.

Curiously while I have seen the bee hovering around the wooden beams, I have yet to see one buzzing around the flowers. So the next step in my tracking the bee’s journey still remains incomplete. Even the drilling seems to happen after dusk, as the saw dust appears only in the morning, when the bee appears to be rather ominously hovering around, guarding the entrance to its nesting tunnel, and then flying off into the sunlight.

Interestingly, despite their intimidating appearance, it seems that the males are harmless and do not sting. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but will seldom do so — unless they are handled or bothered by people– another difference between these solitary bees and other bees and wasps that inflict dangerous stings.

While carpenter bees are have their own place in nature, when they start their drilling activities in wood in houses and gardens, they can become pests. As they hollow out the wood, this can lead to the deterioration or collapse of wooden structures. With our already old and weather-worn wooden beams starting to become favoured nesting sites for Carpenter bees, we had to look for ways to stop these boring buzzers. Research indicated that one option was to inject chemical insecticides or pesticides into the holes. We could not bring ourselves to do this.

We then read that these quiet-loving bees do not like vibration or noise around their nests, but seeing as they were happily drilling right next to our large and loud wind chime, this was obviously not bothering them.

Another thing that these bees are said to be very sensitive to is citrus scents near their nest, and spraying citrus oil into the holes was a recommended way to foist them off. We have arrived at our version of this by plugging the new holes with wedges of lemon. We think that this is playing some part in preventing their access, so one battle at a time is won. But this has certainly not deterred their efforts at drilling new holes; so if the hollowed-out beam collapses on our heads one fine morning, the bees would have won the war! 

–Mamata

Snail Alert

As I was walking along in my colony the other day, on a patch of grass I saw a gory sight. Someone had stepped on a snail. It was crushed. And beside it, I saw a yellow outgrowth. I couldn’t figure out what that was: for a moment I thought that the snail had been dead for a few days maybe, and some kind of mushrooms or fungi had grown there, thanks to the nutrients available. That didn’t seem too plausible. So my next idea was that in fact the accident was very recent, and these were the snails innards. But a closer look revealed that small yellow balls made up the outgrowth.  So the final conclusion (borne out by web-searches) was that the crushed snail had been pregnant, and the eggs had come out and lay beside the dead father/mother.

Father/mother? What does that mean? Well, if you remember your high-school biology, most snails are hermaphrodites–which means that they have the reproductive organs of both males and females. In theory therefore, they have the ability to self-fertilize. However, they don’t usually do that. They mate in the “traditional way.” As a result, both of the partners lay eggs.  Each clutch has about 200 eggs on average, and each snail may lay 5-6 clutches per year.

And this high reproductive ability is a cause of great concern. Because the crushed specimen was a Giant African Land Snail, one of the most invasive species ever. A native of East Africa (mainly Kenya and Tanzania), today the snail has spread across almost the whole world, an active and aggressive pest. Given the rate of its reproduction the snail spreads like a wildfire. It is extremely adaptable, and eats about 500 species of plants, and hence poses a threat to both agricultural crops and native plants wherever it goes. Not only does it eat the plants but it is also a vector for plant pathogens, thus causing further damage to agricultural crops and native plants. It carries the rat lungworm parasite and can transfer it to humans, causing meningitis. And once entrenched, the snails are almost impossible to get rid of. Some states of the US have spent millions of dollars to eradicate the creatures, but with limited success.

But coming back to snails in general. Well, snails are gastropod mollusks, which means they are related to both octopuses and slugs.  There are some species adapted to living on land—the land snails, and there are aquatic snails, which live in either fresh water or the sea. All snails carry shells into which they retreat when threatened by predators, or in unfavorable weather. They hatch out of the eggs with small shells, which grow as they grow. The shells are made of calcium carbonate, and they keep adding more of it to the edges of the shells till they are adults. They don’t have legs, but move thanks to the muscular movement of their bodies, and aided along by the mucous they secrete which helps them to reduce friction and slide along. And moving along at snail’s pace means maintaining an average speed of about half-an-inch per second. They can’t hear, but their sight is good and sense of smell even better. They live for 3-7 years. While most species are hermaphrodite, there are some which are not and have distinct males and females.

Well, we do know that snails are a delicacy in some parts of the world. But lesser known is that in places in the UK, snail-racing is a sport! Snail shells are also sometimes incorporated in jewelry. Certain varieties of snails, especially the Muricidae family, produce a secretion that is a natural dye. In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were made from these snails, and were very expensive and prized. There was also belief that snails had medicinal properties, especially for bronchial problems, tuberculosis, etc., and some of these uses are still being investigated. And not to forget, snail slime may well be a part of that anti-aging cream or moisturizer you just bought!

Coming back to my crushed snail.

I know the person who stepped on him/her did so unknowingly.

And that if that clutch of eggs had hatched, we would have hundreds of more pests to ruin our gardens.

But still I cannot but feel a little sad, at the memory of the crushed body and the doomed eggs.

–Meena

Indicator Tea

Those who have gone through high school science will remember lab-experiments involving indicators. Adding a drop of phenolphthalein and noting that critical point at which the colourless liquid in the flask turned a bright pink. Or when the litmus paper turned red or blue. Remember how critical it was for our grades to observe these colour changes correctly? As a B.Sc Chemistry student, indicators played a pretty large part in my life!

Those colour changes are what my experiences with butterfly-pea tea took me back to. This tea has been much in vogue for some time now. But keeping in character, I am of course about two years behind the trend.

This in spite of having the creeper literally at my doorstep. Planted there to supply flowers for my mother’s puja– the shankpushpi flower is specially a favorite of Lord Shiva–it has proven itself a hardy survivor of my spurts of inept gardening. It grows and flowers and flourishes. The indigo-blue flowers are equally beautiful on the plant and in the puja.

Clitoria ternatea commonly known as Asian pigeonwings, bluebellvine, blue pea, butterfly pea or  Darwin pea, is known for its blue flowers, though there is a less common white variant. In India, it is called shankpusham, girikarnika or aprajita.

Here it is used mainly for worship and to some extent in Ayurveda, mainly for de-stressing, and to boost memory and brain function.

The use in Southeast Asia is more varied. It is an integral part of many Thai, Malaysian and Burmese recipes as an ingredient and as a colouring agent, and is very widely used in Chinese medicines.

Which brings me to the visually-stunning butterfly-pea tea, which is a wildly popular drink in those countries (and now the world). Made by steeping a handful of flowers (fresh or dry) in hot water, the resulting tea is a lovely blue. Squeeze a lemon into it, and it turns pink or even violet—taking you right back to your school lab! It is basically the same phenomenon—a change in pH resulting in a change in colour.

Research on the use of Butterfly Pea in managing Alzheimer’s has been ongoing for some time now. The latest is a research study from National Centre for Biological Sciences, India, published in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which takes forward the hypothesis that extracts from this plant ‘can help in neuroprotection and prevent progressions that cause the ailment’.

So go ahead and plant a shankpushi in your garden or a pot—only making sure that it gets enough sun. It is not at all difficult to grow—my creeper sheds seeds all around, and each week, I find tens of little plants wanting to curl around the nearest support and climb. It will do well in most soils, even enriching them, as it is leguminous and will fix nitrogen. Apart from watering it once in a while, you don’t need to do much.

And in return, it will add beauty to your garden, adorn your puja room, help you make conversation-piece teas, salad additions and coloured rice. And hopefully also boost your brain-power. A winning proposition all around!

–Meena