This post originally appeared as ‘Marauders on mango plants’, an article for ‘Rooting For Nature’, my monthly column in Deccan Herald. This version has a few more images. The published column is linked here.
It was a monsoon day in June. I was at the southeastern fringe of Navilu Kaadu farm inspecting a coconut sapling.
Siddhamma, who was mulching mango saplings with the other women, complained of a stinging sensation along her arm. The men too grumbled of stings as they uprooted an overgrown agave plant nearby.
When breaking for lunch, Siddhamma brought me a partially devoured mango leaf with the culprit.
Our farmhands are tickled at my obsession with what they term ‘huLa-huppate’ in Kannada — lowly insects in their view — and promptly bring such finds for my examination.
I suspect they hand me these just for the fun of watching an artless city slicker gape wide-eyed at the bugs, like a kid at a shiny new toy!
The boys and I were decidedly fascinated with Siddhamma’s specimen. The little green blighter sported four pairs of menacing prickly horns at either end. A pair of florescent yellow bands with tiny spikes, embellished the flanks. It appeared straight out of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, a book about magical creatures in Harry Potter’s realm.
The outlandish sci-fi creature was a stinging nettle slug caterpillar, the larva of the slug moth or cup moth. Mango trees are the larval hosts of cup moths. These stinging nettle slug caterpillars feed on mango leaves and are considered pests. They also go by ‘green marauder’, a felicitous moniker in my view.
We let the marauding army be. They were harmless, beyond nibling a few leaves. The matter was settled after relaying instructions to farm hands to tread with caution around mango saplings.
Two months on, in August, Siddhamma gifted me two more mango leaves.
I couldn’t spot anything on the first leaf at plain sight. Closer inspection revealed an ethereally beautiful creature. A leaf green caterpillar rested along the central leaf vein with feathery bristles fanned out on either side, making it practically undetectable. Our mango saplings were now playing larval hosts to the young of Common Baron butterflies. I recognized the caterpillar from a similar sighting in a mango orchard in Kolar many years ago.
The second leaf had what resembled an exquisite green pendant hanging by silken strands, the chrysalis of a Common Baron butterfly. The quadrangular pupa had a gilded, protruding edge around the middle. It pulsated at intervals and my younger one kept constant watch, should a brand-new Baron butterfly emerge at any moment. In reality, the occupant wasn’t yet ready to emerge, but having sensed danger, was flexing its scales to scare us away.
It was soon time to return to Bengaluru. We left the leaf with the chrysalis securely lodged on a mango sapling, for the Baron butterfly to emerge when ready. Adult Barons have brown wings with a tinge of olive.
In late October, during the bi-monthly Jeevamrutha application, young Suresha reported mottled leaves on some of the mango saplings. The leaves were infested with grey blobs, about 3 to 4 mm in diametre. We couldn’t find the felon at the crime scene this time round. But here’s the backstory.
Female gall midge flies lay their eggs on the leaves of mango trees, their only known larval hosts. The hatched gall midge larvae bore into tender leaf tissue and feed on it, triggering an eruption of unsightly grey globules.
Unlike the larvae of the slug moths and the Baron butterflies, these latest arrivals didn’t appear to be in benign transit. Left unchecked, gall midge infestations can fester, and hamper growth and yield.
The infected leaves were plucked, and the plants treated with diluted Agni Astra, a stiff brew of native cow urine, crushed native garlic, green chillies, and chopped neem and tobacco leaves, to keep further attacks at bay.
Like our mango plants, most flora support a panoply of beings over the seasons. While few need managing, others add to beauty and biodiversity if granted safe passage, as they journey through their enchanting life cycles in urban gardens, farms and forests.