Wake Up!

No, not you! But if that is your alarm clock I can hear ringing even from here then perhaps you ought, you’ll be late and you know how tetchy that new boss of yours can be. Actually, I’m talking to our local insects and especially those who’ve been lazily, and very sensibly I must say, snoozing away the winter. For today (5th March) the Chinese calendar tells us is their special day to stir. And you know what? They did!Not only that but according to folklore the day should also experience a thunderstorm heralding the arrival of much warmer weather and of course to provide sufficient boom and bluster with which to wake our tiny sleepers; well blow me down if it didn’t do exactly that! An early morning rumble, suddenly steaming hot temperatures and a noticeable presence of our insect population which hadn’t been there a day or two previously; romantic folklore or an amazing coincidence – I wonder.

Noted on the traditional Chinese calendar as Gingjat (Cantonese) or Jingzhe (Mandarin), literally the awakening of insects from hibernation, it forms the third of 24 solar terms. These, incidentally, were originated by ancient Chinese farmers to assist with food production and to mark days on which various offerings should be made. Most indicate a seasonal occurrence (start of spring, autumn etc.) or a climatic one (start of rain, heat, snow etc.) relevant to working the land but it also includes a few that we in the west know well, typically the spring and autumn equinox and the summer and winter solstice. It’s amazing quite how much this calendar still shapes modern life.

Although we’re blessed with a weird and wonderful array of insects, save for those pesky mosquitos obviously who never seem to rest, one of our favourites who wakes up at this time of year is the lychee stink bug which, despite that rather ominous moniker, is actually quite endearing – though not to all presumably! These charming and fascinating insects are generally prevalent between March and July.

I’m guessing that you may not have noticed too many last year as the entire Hong Kong population seemed to find its way into our flat. Doubtless bored with their favoured habitat of the nearby lychee and longan trees, the next best draw was clearly a cosy human interior, ours; open window, open invitation. Incidentally, these insects would appear to be stink bug by name only and not by nature. Apparently if interfered with they will emit a smelly jet of liquid as a way of deterring predators. We’ve handled many and have so far not been targeted, perhaps we’re lucky or maybe they see us as friends! Not surprising really as we expend a great deal of time and effort in trying to save them; let me explain.

The adults are poor flyers and should never really have received their wings, they fly hither and thither for a few moments before crashing headlong in to the nearest inanimate object. They inevitably fall to the ground landing on their back where they remain, legs wiggling skyward and unable to right themselves. And this is how we come in, picking them up and reacquainting any such stunned casualties with the natural world. If there is such a thing as god and creation, these chaps constitute a serious design flaw; aerodynamics is fine, navigation would appear to be the main problem, I know how they feel!

The cycle starts in April when you’re bound to discover a cluster of eggs, each about the size of a Tic Tac; could be on a wall, window, curtain, laundry, clothing, bed, you name it, a place where one of the adults had entered before its impending impact with whatever. They will always lay 14 eggs, never more and never less; should you find less the adult may well have been disturbed during the laying process and, feeling a bit miffed, gone off to finish the job more privately – well, who wouldn’t?

If discovered early, we can remove the eggs and, in our capacity as fosterers, transfer them outside to a sort of incubation ward and hatchery in the shape of an old plastic food tray where they can emerge at will. Otherwise, we encounter dozens of new-borns sporting a handsome dark, pin-striped livery crawling around the flat. They do stay close to the eggs for a while but, being unable to fly, are clearly born with the same inherent problem of spending a lot of time upside down and therefore helpless, glossy floor tiles especially hinder their movement. So again we rescue and guide them toward the great outdoors!

The young, or nymphs as entomologists world call them, will undergo five instars (or stages of development) before adulthood in five weeks. One such stage has the bug adopting a strikingly patterned red hue – perhaps there is a god after all! For this stage we nicknamed them the Aztecs based on colouring and design alone and it’s rather a let-down that full adulthood sees them revert to a rather drab brown coachwork; such is life, which for our little friends can be up to seven months long.

A gathering of lychee stink bugs

Anyway to quote from the book Hong Kong Insects by Dennis S Hill: ‘The number of stink bugs in Hong Kong is considerable but little is known about them. Over 3500 species worldwide…’ Amazing creatures, so if you come across a stink bug, most likely a stunned upside down one at that, give it a hand or use a leaf upon which it will gratefully catch hold to right itself. They neither bite nor interfere with garden plants though can apparently be a pest in some parts of the world.

And it’s not only insects that hear the wakeup call; even amphibians and reptiles get to join in. We’ve already seen a few house geckos but no snakes as yet; perhaps they’re heavy sleepers and missed the alarm. Though as any herpetologist will be quick to point out, snakes don’t hibernate as such but instead submit to a languid torpor or brumation, to use the correct term.

Snakes are indeed mysterious creatures and I have to admit that I’d been in Hong Kong a few years before I even realised they existed here at all. But they are certainly prevalent where we live now and consequently we’ve made an effort to get to know them, not too closely of course as familiarity can breed contempt, text and photographs do the job better. After all, it’s useful to know which snakes will happily run away from us as opposed to those which decide it’s we who need to do the running!

Apparently there are 14 venomous slitherers here of which eight can be fatal if bites are not treated in time. The experts assure us the creatures are quite docile and will never attack, unless you do so first or maybe inadvertently stand on one; I’m pleased to report that until now at least the experts would seem to be right.

Last summer by example we discovered a 6-foot long snake entwined in the metal security bars of the front door. A common rat snake we think and quite harmless to us at any rate. It was however trying to get at a nest of violet whistling thrush nesting on the ledge above. The two parent birds were giving it hell in trying to defend their patch and the racket they created and the serpent’s thrashing around in the stairwell downstairs soon attracted our attention. Hissing Sid slithered off once we intervened and shooed it away in true heroic Tarzan style! Unfortunately however, being frighteningly clever the snake bided time and returned after dark when we, despite our best efforts, could do nothing about it. It probably got the eggs but the parent birds survived. That’s nature for you and I suppose it’s something of a moral dilemma as to quite how far one should interfere in these things.

So this is that time of year when the weather changes and our village woodland turns from a more temperate Sherwood Forest type of climate, in which Richard Greene’s Robin Hood would feel quite at home, to a more tropical sultriness favoured by the likes of Ron Ely’s Tarzan swinging from vine to vine. Evocative of the background sound to that well-loved 60s TV series the countryside assumes a decidedly jungle din as exotic birds, cicadas, frogs and those recently woken insects commence their first-season sing-song. You won’t see Tarzan needless to say but fans of the programme might remember the character Jai, an orphan boy; no, you won’t see him either but you might see a jai, by linguistic coincidence the Cantonese word for, amongst a few other things, a son; this one from the neighbours. It would also be nice to tell you that the cheeky little monkey who uses our roof as a passageway in foraging from one thicket to another is called Cheeta, but that would be quite ridiculous – or would it?

It could be that fertile clump of banana trees behind our house which influence this monkey’s route; bananas are a constant feature around the village and are usually harvested by an amazingly agile and deceivingly frail group of machete-wielding octogenarian women. For them however our trees are a little hidden and difficult to access but not for Cheeta who with typical simian aplomb swipes the odd one without anybody even noticing. This is just before he transfers to a palm tree outside our kitchen window and launches himself, via an adjacent television aerial, on to our roof. Of course I should make clear, before any zoological pedants voice out that Cheeta of Tarzan telly and movie fame was of course a black chimpanzee and not a greyish long-tail macaque like our chap; okay, poetic license, though I have to say that this one can be equally cheeky.

By way of thanks no doubt for using our roof as a convenient cut through, the little blighter recently deposited a sizeable dollop of poo on one of our air-conditioning units. Needless to say we took this in the spirit hopefully intended as a propitious sign of luck and fortune in the year ahead. Now if only it was the year of the monkey that could really have given us cause for optimism! So be it. And then, having sauntered nonchalantly along the roof parapet, we’re treated if there to his rear view as he dives spread-eagle off the roof and into the next set of trees, carefully collecting himself and stepping majestically from bough to bough, danglies swaying prodigiously as he goes; it always reminds me of those seismic-damping gyroscopes we put in tall buildings to limit sway and retain verticality – clearly works for Cheeta too.

Anyway, standing by our kitchen sink you may have gathered by now does offer a tantalising window upon all this tropical carry on; from admiring those magnificent purple banana flowers grow and eventually give way to a bunch of luscious yellow fingers, to savouring a few moments eye-contact with Cheeta who occasionally stops midway, as if performing a double take, to peer quizzically in our direction.

Not sure if we’re actually seen or sensed behind the slightly tinted glass, but if so I wonder with security grilles in place whether he might regard us with sympathy for having to endure life behind bars, perhaps in time we can train him to lob a few bananas our way. Have to admit also that I’ve never ever been so close to a wild and exotic mammal in a domestic situation, you just don’t get that in an English garden. Having studied monkey’s curiosity, agility and intelligence at close hand I’m often left wondering if Darwin might have misjudged as to quite who evolved from who. So you can appreciate how watching this little vignette of jungle life can also inject a slightly philosophical dimension to that somewhat tedious task of washing the pots!

Indeed, never a dull moment in this here locale; funny how you might arrive in Hong Kong to fulfil a contract or for a quiet retirement maybe but instead, with Mother Nature deeming otherwise, end up as an acting custodian of the environment. Yes, sometimes it really is akin to living in the wild; Sir David Attenborough would love it and we certainly do, would you?

After graduating in 1982 Ben worked throughout the UK before an unlikely adventurous disposition led him to Nigeria, India, Japan and Hong Kong. Between each of those overseas assignments he had attempted repatriation with varying degrees of 'success'; the last of which occurred in 2004 when he and his partner returned from Hong Kong for what they considered to be a permanent move, only to return to Hong Kong years later. The exotic misdemeanours inherent in that first expatriate period (1984-2004) together with various Asian sojourns and activities, contributed to a series of travel journal scribbles which eventually morphed in to the book Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad.