Creepy-crawlies - wildlife in a garden
"The song of birds, the voices of insects, are all means of conveying truth to the mind; in flowers and grasses we see messages of the Way. The scholar, pure and clear of mind, serene and open of heart, should find in everything what nourishes him."
- from Haiku, edited by R.H. Blyth.
Gardens are beautiful expressions of the need we humans have to live in touch with the natural world around us, a world which, in the concrete jungle so many of us perforce inhabit, can seem far away and beyond our reach.
A garden is a tamed piece of nature, a place where nature's "red in tooth and claw" reality can be kept at bay while we absorbe the peaceful quiet, the colours and scents, of the plants we love and nurture.
We can dream in a garden of earthly delights, of romantic notions and we can be in control of nature, or at least have the illusion of control - take out that "weed", cut back that bush, plant the seeds in neat, straight rows.
Of course, that control and neatness is illusory - there are things going on the garden that are destructive, violent and uncontrollable, and redolent of sex. Perhaps that is the unacknowledged attraction of a garden - we can see, or imagine, in a garden, what would not be "allowed" in polite society.
All our violent and/or sexual fantasies can be played out, in miniature, in a garden, seemingly under our control. And no-one needs to know or suspect!
I love the "secret" creatures of a garden - those things that in the normal course of events we insecticide out of the garden and our lives. So I often take my camera into the garden and seek out these little creatures which we often can not control - they live despite us, often in seemingly blithe ignorance of our very existence.
The name most South Africans know this creature by is the "songololo". It is actually a millipede of the class Diplopoda. Of course, althougth its English name, millipede, means "a thousand legs", it doesn't really have that many - it just looks that way!
These creepy things are not harmful to humans - they eat mostly rotting vegetable matter - but they have a protective device which most humans find rather distatsteful, to say the least.
From glands behind the head these creatures secrete a foul-smelling liquid which contains hydrogen cyanide, and so they are potentially toxic, though not really to humans as the amount is small.
The millipede rolls istself into a tight ball, or coil, when alarmed, as in the top photo. It usually has a hard, shiny skin, either black, as in the specimen here, or red.
The diplopoda are thought to have been among the first creatures to colonise land during the silurian geologic age which started almost 450 million years ago, so these babies are old!
We all learnt about metamosphosis in school - the process whereby a butterfly lays eggs, the eggs hatch into caterpillars, the caterpillar forms a pupa from which, in time, emerges another butterfly.
How does this change happen in the pupa? Well, the answer is that the caterpillar in a sense eats itself, using the same digestive juices with which it digested the leaves on which it fed in its caterpillar phase. It digests its old body, leaving only some cells called "histoblasts" which control the building of the new butterfly's body from the "soup" made from the caterpillar body by the digestive juices.
Of course the caterpillar, no matter how beautiful the butterfly might be, is not a very welcome visitor to the garden because they are usually voracious eaters.
The little furry guy in the first photo here ate my origanum bush until there were just stalks left in about two days.
The caterpillar in the next photo did the same to some wild strawberry plants. I can understand why some people would want to get the insecticide out!
I just remember my mother's wisdom about this sort of thing - these creatures have a right to live, share with them! But it is a bit distressing to see one's plants destroyed as some of these creatures are wont to do.
The last photo is of a pupa cleverly constucted from small pieces of twig. It was hanging in a fir tree in our garden, along with dozens of others. I never got to see what came out of them, unfortunately.
Spiders and others
“Our souls sit close and silently within,
And their own webs from their own entrails spin;
And when eyes meet far off, our sense is such,
That, spider-like, we feel the tenderest touch” - John Dryden
That little guy on the agapanthus leaf is ready to jump. We have large numbers of these spiders around the garden and even in the house.
As far as I know they are harmless, though the one really venomous spider we have in South Africa, the black button spider (genus Latrodectus) looks a little like this one in the photo. The black button spider though has a red hour-glass-shaped spot on its body which distinguishes it form the common or garden variety of jumping spider, which is what this little guy is.
The button spiders of the family Theridiidae are mostly not of the venomous kind but it is still worth keeping clear of them anyway as they are not always so easy to distinguish from the venomous black button spider.
I have no idea what the next pretty critter is. This is the only time I have ever seen one of these. It was beautiful with those gossamer wings and the two long feelers, or whatever, sticking out in front of it. Could it be a species of damselfly?
The next photo is of a honey bee in an agapanthus floret. In summer we have myriads of these busy fellows buzzing around the garden, doing their pollinating work.
This fellow is a member of the sub-species Apis mellifera scutellata, a rather aggressive type of bee with a particularly venomous sting. It is also the bee which produces the most and best honey.
The last photo is of an interesting fellow called a shield bug of the family Pentatomidae. These guys are also called "stink bugs" because of the really awful smell they emit when crushed or held.
There are many varieties of this bug and they love lights at night. They come into the house and get into a light shade, flying around inside it, bumping into it making a very irritating sound, especially if you are trying to go to sleep.
Snails and slugs
Frogs and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,
- from an early 19th Century nursery rhyme
Many people have an instinctive revulsion to snails and slugs. There is something repulsive about their sliminess.
This garden snail, of the class Gastropoda is an immigrant to South Africa, coming originally from Western Europe. It is related to the escargot (Helix pomatia) which I, like many people, love to eat with a lot of garlic, and this garden variety is in fact also edible, with the proper preparation.
I think the fellow shown here is of the species Helix aspersa.
Slugs, as in the third photo, are also gastropods.
This is a striped skink (Trachylepsis striata) which has lost its tail. This little chap lives under one of my planters in the carport. He is quite inquisitive but at the same time very shy.
There are quite a large number of these chaps in the garden and I love having them, in spite of the shivers they give my wife, because they help to keep the insect population under control.
What we don't have in the garden!
Recently the African rock python pictured below was found in a suburban garden not too far from where we live.
It is a female of about 3.5 metres in length. It was captured and released into the Groenkloof Nature Reserve.
This snake species is the largest in Africa and is not venomous, but has been known to attack humans, though very, very rarely.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011