Bookshelf entomology

Everyone knows about bookworms, even if all they know is the name, but bookworms are not the only small wildlife found in bookshelves, particularly in the tropics, as a recent bout of librarianship associated with repainting a couple of rooms has demonstrated to me very clearly.

mud wasp nests on book
Exhibit 1: Wasp nests

Wasp nests like these were by far the most common sign of insect life in our bookshelves. Female mud-dauber wasps (Sceliphron sp.) construct a cell, lay an egg inside and provision it with food for their larvae then, if they can, repeat the sequence nearby. A string of cells like this will have been constructed in a short time (days or weeks) by a single wasp and, if all went according to plan, her children would have emerged and followed suit.

The empty cells stay there for ever but don’t cause any real harm. They are just dirt, and nearly all of it will brush off. The easiest prevention is to push books all the way to the back of the shelf, making the gap too small to be tempting. The wasp will probably build a cell in a corner of the shelf instead.

Exhibit 2a: Resin bee nest
Exhibit 2a: Resin bee nest
Exhibit 2b: Resin bee nest occupied by mud wasp
Exhibit 2b: Resin bee nest occupied by mud wasp

Mud wasp nests are so common around our house that we hardly notice them until they do something odd but the resin bee nests did surprise me.

The pine bookshelves are adjustable, via a double row of holes about 5mm in diameter down each side for the shelf brackets. The empty holes seem to have been just right for our Fire-tailed Resin Bees (the second species described here).

In turn, the empty resin bee cell seems to have been just right for a tiny mud wasp to build its own cell. We often see tiny nests like this in odd nail-holes and screw-holes and, less often, in resin bee nests outside the house.

The resin bees are not doing any harm here except that the shelves are no longer so adjustable as they were meant to be. The resin is very tough, so removing it may mean drilling it out.

book eaten by silverfish
Exhibit 3: Silverfish damage

Our books don’t suffer as much from silverfish here as they did in Melbourne, I think because our climate is (usually) too dry for their liking, but this is their typical handiwork (mouthiwork?): superficial nibbling at the cover or dust-jacket, sometimes extending deeper into the bulk of the book. This damage may actually have occurred in Melbourne – we have had the book that long.

book attacked by borer
Exhibit 4a: Bookworm

The Britannica notes that a bookworm is, “any insect (e.g., moths, beetles) whose larval (or adult) forms injure books by gnawing the binding and piercing the pages with small holes. No single species may properly be called the bookworm because a large number of insects feed upon dry, starchy material or paper and may damage books.”

More specifically, however, bookworms are the larvae of beetles. Their damage is more distinctive than they are: tunnels one or two millimetres wide, often though book covers and sometimes through the pages, with a scattering of sandy droppings tending to fall out when the book is handled.

They are the most destructive of our book pests, and a book has to be really special before we will go to the trouble of trying to save it from them. They are not very choosy and it is obvious that one of ours veered out of its book and into the side of the bookshelf.

wooden shelf attacked by bookworm
Exhibit 4b: Bookworm, lost

Online references such as “Bookworms: The Most Common Insect Pests of Paper in Archives, Libraries, and Museums” compiled by Dr. John V. Richardson Jr., PhD, Ecological Informatician (nice specialisation!) list various other pests but we don’t see many of them.

Spiders, often Daddy-longlegs, sometimes lurk in corners of the shelves but do no harm at all; “booklice” (Psocoptera) don’t seem to be a problem here (again, probably because our climate is too dry) and cockroaches don’t go near our books except by accident.

Dr Richardson also mentions termites and these can indeed be a problem in North Queensland. There is a wonderful passage in Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country in which visitors to an abandoned homestead investigate a bookcase and find that it has been transformed into one solid mass of termite-mound.

I will leave you with that thought as I return to my re-shelving.

Monstera deliciosa fruit at last

creeper and flower buds
Monstera buds, February 1, 2015

I wrote about Monstera deliciosa here, almost exactly three years ago. That post has attracted more comments than almost any other on Green Path, so when I enjoyed a monstera fruit yesterday I thought I should mention it to clear up the remaining vagueness in our collective knowledge, i.e., how long do the fruit take to ripen?

I said, “The fruit takes a very long time, perhaps as long as a year, to mature,” and the Agfacts brochure I linked to says “usually about 12 months after flowering.” That turns out to be absolutely correct, at least in our monsoonal climate: the fruit I ate yesterday formed as a flower during our last Wet (nominally Wet, anyway) season.

My photo shows the buds forming (we ended up with five flowers) at the end of the creeper’s stem. The rest of these fruit are now nearly ready to pick as well; I think they would begin to ripen as soon as I picked them but I will let them take their own time. Later stages of the flowers and fruit are illustrated on my earlier post.

Postscript, Feb 8: Two more of the fruit have ripened, as expected, and the plant has produced two new buds at its growing tip.

Ibis in flight

white bird carrying branch
Not a dove, not an olive branch; not a stork, not a baby

This lucky shot was one result of a visit to the Palmetum yesterday. It was good to get out for a walk after retreating indoors during the 37 and 38 degree days we had last week.

The bird is, of course, an Australian Ibis or White Ibis, Threskiornis molucca. It probably intends to use the branch (paperbark, I think) as nesting material, since it is flying towards the park’s rainforest zone, which is occupied by Black Flying Foxes and nesting ibises as I wrote here a few months ago.

Malay apple or Roseapple

pink fruit on plate
Malay apple, also known as Roseapple

Another visit to Cotters Market, another exotic fruit to try … this one is the Malay apple or Malay roseapple. It resembles an apple in that the skin is thin, shiny and edible, and the flesh is white and pleasantly crunchy. The flavour is sweet and gently aromatic – ‘rose-scented’ is a fair description. However, the fruit’s structure is not apple-like: it has a single large seed instead of a core. It’s not so big, either, more plum-size than apple-size.

According to Glenn Tankard’s Tropical Fruit, which I mentioned a while ago, the tree (Syzygium malaccense) is a native of Malaysia (so now we know where all the parts of its common names come from) and it is grown there as as ornamental as well as for its fruit.

According to Wikipedia, there are about 1200 species in the genus. Several of them produce fruits similar to the one shown here, and the names often cross over. Australian species include Lilly Pilly and Brush Cherries.

Brown Goshawk – an unexpected visitor

hawk seen from behind
Brown Goshawk

Repeated alarm calls from a Little Friarbird in my garden around mid-morning on the 30th made me go outdoors to see if I could see what the problem was. When I did see it, I had trouble believing it: there was a large hawk perched just above head height in one of our frangipani trees. Hawks just do not normally perch three metres off the ground in suburban gardens!

I happened to approach it from behind and made sure I got a photo before it took fright and flew off, but it didn’t even move (except to look at me) as I quietly walked around to its front and approached within four or five metres, clicking away as I did so.

I backed off and watched. It flew down to the ground to seize something like a grasshopper, then walked (I thought it was a bit odd that it didn’t fly) around behind the tree and flew up into the lower branches of the mango tree. The friarbird had hardly stopped complaining all this time and was now joined by a Spangled Drongo, screeching out its own alarm/challenge call and repeatedly dive-bombing the hawk, which flew up into the cluster palm.

Brown Goshawk in golden cane cluster palm
Brown Goshawk in golden cane cluster palm

It spent a few minutes looking around before dropping almost vertically on prey near the pool fence. Finished with the prey, it walked through the fence (one of the ungainliest things I ever expect to see a hawk do) and flew up to another palm.

bird walking through fence
…through the fence…

Eventually it moved to the guava tree nearby, and that’s where it was at dusk. By this time I had consulted my references and decided it was an immature but nearly full-grown Brown Goshawk, Accipiter fasciatus. Coloration will change but it is already a big bird, at least magpie size.

I don’t know where it spent the night but it spent the next day around our garden as well, with just a few small excursions to neighbours’ yards. We were always able to find it easily because the smaller birds kept telling the whole world about its presence; the drongo kept harassing it, too. By that afternoon I was beginning to think that it needed some care. It had been unnaturally lethargic ever since I saw it first, and it wasn’t flying freely or far.

When it was still around on Day 3, New Year’s Day, I rang the Wildlife Carers’ group. Two of their volunteers came around mid-afternoon to assess the situation but concluded that it would probably be scared off by any failed attempt to catch it and we should wait until today, when someone else was able to come with a trap. However, it was nowhere to be seen this morning (Jan 2nd) so we cancelled the attempt. At this point, well into the evening, we still haven’t seen it again and can only hope for the best, i.e. that any injuries weren’t severe and it has now fully recovered and moved on.