Insects: the creepy crawlies that excited me!

By Seena Narayanan Karimbumkara

As someone in charge of the Insect Museum at ATREE over the last decade, I must have interacted with hundreds of curious visitors. The most common questions I have encountered during these interactions were, “how did you get interested in insects?” Almost each time I searched my memory for a quick and coherent inspiration to fall back on. Writing this blog has given me an opportunity to reflect on this question and dig a little deeper. Indeed, when did I really get interested in insects? Searching for an answer took me down to some of the fondest memories of my childhood days, when I used to roam around my grandparents’ house (Image 1) in a nondescript village called Odathilpeedika in Malabar region of Kerala. Like most houses, ours too had a large and lovely backyard filled with wild tropical greenery amidst many coconut palms with the characteristic moist red-stoned boundary walls perennially covered with mosses and grasses. My brother, Rinu, and I used to devour on the nectar of banana inflorescence and that of Ixora flowers and in the process must have denied many bats and butterflies their rightful share. We also used to smear our eyes with the slimy crystal-clear exudate from the root tips of a particular grass (Image 2) for the coolness it provided. We used to spend all our holidays exploring this mini wilderness and some of our favourite pastime activities were trying to catch the colourful slow flying damselflies and observing the antlion (kuzhiyaana) trapping ants. We were amazed at how the antlion used to dig back a pit after being pulled out of the smooth soil by us. We didn’t realize that these drab predators of ants would molt out and fly off as a myrmelion adult; a fact I came to know as an entomology graduate.

Image 1_Ancestoral home_Kannur_Kerala_Seena
Image 1: The Ancestral House
Image 2_Grass exudate_VC Balakrishnan_Seena
Image 2: Grass exudate (Photo credit: V. C. Balakrishnan, Source: Facebook)

One such exploratory round in the greenery led me to many black hairy caterpillars hanging in a web, formed by strings of silk, which helped them to hang on their host plant as they fed on its leaves. I was very curious to know what these caterpillars would turn into and would regularly visit their abode. I watched them turn into beautiful white pupae with black spots and one fine day I saw them emerge out as lovely white moths with black spots. Yes, that was the first time I watched the eclosion of a moth.  Now I can clearly identify it as the moment when I got really hooked on studying insects. Later when I started reading more about insects, I came to know that the moth which instilled an interest for insects in me was named Naxa textilis (Image 3).

Image 3_ Naxa_textilis_Vengolis_ Seena
Image 3: Naxa textilis (Lepidoptera: Geometridae)
(Photo credit: Vengolis, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As we grew up, we had to shift to another house with not so vast a backyard but located close to a canal and had beautiful paddy fields and charming hills nearby surrounded by many wild flowers which attracted hundreds of butterflies. On a hot humid summer afternoon, I came across a brilliant blue, but dead, butterfly (Image 4) on the side of road. I don’t know why, but I carefully picked it up and took it back home where I carefully spread its wing and kept it inside a book. Years later, I was reorganizing my room and I realized how the old farmlands were being replaced by large villas. Their red tile roofs replaced the charming hills on the horizon that I had observed through my childhood. Yet somehow, my first insect collection, with that blue butterfly lay intact in that same old book. A bit worn out around the edges, but the glistening blue and green scales against the brown body were as spectacular and as fascinating as ever.

Image 4_Paris peacock bfly_Seena
Image 4: Paris peacock butterfly (Papilio paris) from Kannur, Kerala.

That mysterious moth, the dead blue butterfly and the fact that the Zoology Bachelor’s and Master’s courses which I have chosen had Entomology as a specialization brought me closer to studying insects.  I was surprised as to how our syllabus managed to reduce the most fascinating, colorful and eclectic group of living organisms, comprising of almost a million species globally, as mere pests and vectors.

            It was only after I joined the insect laboratory at ATREE, as a Research Associate with Dr. Priyan[1], I became aware of the whole new concept of insect conservation and the various services the insects provide. From pollination to biological control, the different roles they play in the ecosystem are amazing. Meanwhile, I had also moved on from moths and butterflies to the dung beetles, one of the coolest groups of insects which thrive on dung and carcasses. In fact, one of my long-cherished dreams was not to see the charismatic tiger or the elephant but the Heliocopris dominus (Image 5), the largest dung beetle of Asia, in the wild. I distinctly remember the day I finally saw it during a trip to the forests surrounding Idamalayar dam in Kerala. Commonly known as the elephant dung beetle, being specific to elephant dung, their size ranges from 5- 6.5 cm. Their large size is enough to terrorize the villagers whose use of light coaxes the gullible beetles out of their juicy excretal abode. But later, when I visited Thailand, I found that the terrors of Idamalayar, Mr. and Mrs. Dominus, were délicatesse populaire, not only in Thailand but throughout Southeast Asia.

Image 5_ Heliocopris diominus_Seena
Image 5: Heliocopris dominus, the largest dung beetle of Asia

The excitement of seeing the largest dung beetle ended as there was a heavy downpour and we had to hurry back towards our vehicle. On the wet forest floors along with the hundreds of leeches, I also noticed many huge millipedes scurrying along. Suddenly my eyes locked on a live millipede that had some of its body segments damaged and a dung beetle, Onthophagus rudis, was found to be entering its body (Image 6). As the raindrops obstructed any more of field observation I collected the millipede and the beetle and hurried along. On examining the millipede after returning to the lab I found that the female of that dung beetle species was already inside the cylindrical body of the millipede. Amazed, I searched for literature on dung beetles feeding on millipedes and found that the defensive secretions of the millipedes which are supposed to keep away predators attracted certain species of the dung beetles. In the rainforests of Peru a dung beetle Deltochilum valgum even caught live millipedes and dragged them to some distance before killing them. This led to the search for more such beetles which fed on resources other than dung and finally we discovered thirteen species out of which nine species fed on millipedes, three on snail and one on a fungus. Among these, three were new species; two recovered feeding on millipede collected from Kerala and Karnataka and one was found inside a dead snail in Kaziranga, Assam[2].

Image 6_Onthophagus rudis_Seena
Image 6: Onthophagus rudis entering body of a millipede.

A million species of insects are known and described so far with probably another million or two still waiting to be discovered and named. But do we know enough of those species whose existence on this planet has been revealed? Natural history of many of the insect taxa is yet to be explored. Each species has a different story to tell, be it the black soldier fly which helps in bioconversion of kitchen waste or the dung beetles which devour dung and carcass and keep our surroundings clean. The onus lies on the society as to how much of the story we will be able to learn about before earth and its life runs its due course and face the inevitable extinction.

[1] Dr. Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan is a Senior Fellow & Program Leader (Ecosytems & Global Change) at ATREE

[2] To read more on these species see the following link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312136134_Report_of_dung_beetles_Scarabaeidae_Scarabaeinae_attracted_to_unconventional_resources_with_the_description_of_three_new_species

About the author:

Seena Narayanan Karimbumkara is a Senior Research Associate & Assistant Museum Curator at ATREE. She takes care of the ever-growing insect collection at the ATREE Insect Museum- Bangalore (AIM-B) by curating, cataloging and systematically storing them. For her Ph.D. she has worked on the biosystematics of Scarabaeine dung beetles of Shendurney Wildlife sanctuary, Kerala. She holds a Master’s Degree in Zoology from University of Calicut with specialization in Entomology and M. Phil. Degree from the same University with specialization in Parasitology. She is an EOL Rubenstein Fellow and has prepared species pages for the dung beetles (Scarabaeinae) of the Indian subcontinent which has been shared on the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP).

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