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How hawkmoths and Rangoon creepers are eternally attracted to each other

The magical association of hawkmoths and Ragoon Creepers

How hawkmoths and Rangoon creepers are eternally attracted to each other

These days in Lahore our homes and gardens are full of insects, nematodes and reptiles. In other words, all around us are insects, worms, frogs and the like. This basically means it is squirming with creepy crawlies. Here is a tale of just one of the myriad of creatures.

As these soft, humid evenings come to a close, our twenty-year old Rangoon creeper or Pachranga Bael (Quisqualis indica) festoons its blooming branches in front of our bedroom windows. All over warmer Pakistan, this climbing plant is loved for its graduated white to pink to dark pink clusters of tubular flowers held all in one gorgeous, scented bunch. Glowing like tiny, flickering ghosts are a whole host of night flying insects around its scented blooms, most intriguing among which is the hawkmoth. Its Latin name is Macroglossum, meaning the long-tongued species of the insect tribe called Sphingini or the sphinx-like ones.

The hawkmoths of Lahore cannot be fathomed without their natural complement, the Rangoon creeper. It is a dance of two inseparable beings that thousands of Lahoris pass by on their evening walks. I wonder if we notice the magic that is going on over our very heads!

To begin with the hawkmoth, let us go back to the year 1867 and Alfred Russel Wallace, a famed naturalist of England. In those days of colonial explorations, he received a box of dried Orchid flowers from the island of Madagascar. This flower featured something very unusual. In order to reach and eat the sugary nectar at the base of the orchid, a creature with a tongue over 7 inches long would be needed. Of course, in nature, sugar cries out to be eaten by everyone, as we know from our love of honey or dates. Wallace predicted that a hawkmoth would be found on the island that would have a tongue exceeding 7 inches in length especially suited to eat this flower’s nectar. He noted in his diary “that such a moth exists in Madagascar may be safely predicted”. 21 years later, just such a hawkmoth was indeed found, and named praedicta, or the one who can be predicted.

So what of the flickering insects outside my Lahore window? The long-tongued, sphinx like, predicted ones. Seen only around midnight and hovering on shimmering wings, they are sometimes confused with hummingbirds. How mysterious are these elusive sphinx likes being to the human eye.

In fact, hawkmoths are only one of four nectar feeders who have the ability to hover in the air. Such hovering, nectar-eating creatures are confined to families of the hawkmoths, hummingbirds (found only in the new world of the Americas), certain bats and hoverflies. The hawkmoth’s flying abilities have long been studied and one of their specialties is that they can side-slip while hovering around the flowers whose nectar they eat. They move from side to side like a skier aligning down a slope. This is thought to be a technique used to deal with ambush predators lying in wait within the flowers where they feed.

The punch line though is the Rangoon creeper itself that is the host for this tamasha. It offers irresistible, tubular and shining white flowers that are dazzling in the darkness of midnight for those creatures that will pollinate it when they come into contact with its flowers. Together with scent and sugary nectar, the hawkmoth must feel in perfect harmony with the flowers, its senses attuned to colour, smell, taste and shape. I cannot identify Lahore’s sub-species of hawkmoth, but I suspect it is a Macroglossum, or the long-tongued one.

And as if this wasn’t enough, researchers have discovered that the Rangoon creeper is a real charmer for many others in addition to the night flying hawkmoth.

This Asian tropical climbing plant using a fascinating method to diversify the way it attracts various visitors to its flowers is unusual in that its multi-shaded flowers are not just faded ones as are so many other flowers that alter their colour as they age. No the Rangoon creeper’s floral colour variation is quite deliberate. The white flowers, discovered to have the most nectar are special attractors for hawkmoths, the pinks, with less nectar, are for bees in the day’s sunshine as are the dark pinks for butterflies in the morning. A feast for so many, colour coded to perfection. They say it takes two to tango!

Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib

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Mehjabeen is an ecologist and writer who lives in Lahore.She holds a PhD in Social Ecology.

15 comments

  • This climbing plant sounds like a twenty four hour party for three different kinds of guests with three different kinds of decor suited to each one! Brilliant!

    • Yes put like that, Rangoon creepers in Lahore’s summer are a Rio Carnivale indeed – never thought of it until you pointed it out!!

  • This is really beautiful and turns what is ordinary, ubiquitous and taken for granted into what it should be treated as: a truly magical gift. I love articles like this! I learnt so much from it..

    • Thank you Maniza. You are so right, being on this earth should be treated as a magical gift for humans. Maybe we would not have transgressed nature quite so much had we adopted what you suggest.

  • What a beautifully romantic article.shows the authors rich knowledge of the subject and strong observation.She is an artist with words and can spin a web of words around the readers leaving them mesmerized with such beautiful depictions. Worth a read. Would look forward to her attempt at writing a book.:-)

    • Wow Adil, with readers like you, who knows what I might attempt based on these small offerings! Thanks so much for your appreciations, which of themselves are so well worded.

  • Thanks for sharing Mehjabeen. I too have been in love with the Rangoon creeper since 30 years when I brought it home. Never did consider the insect connection but the scent charms me around the middle of the lunar month when these flowers are at their blooming and fragrant best. My cleaning maid is at logger heads with me because the creeper sheds so many leaves but I have told her they will be removed over my dead body. Your piece inspires me to write once again. Shall do so as soon as I am done with my teaching assignment at lums end oct. Regards. Nyla Daud

    • Cherish you Rangoon creeper Naila, and prune it heavily every winter so it bounces back with even more blooms in the summer. Do look out for the various visitors that it attracts. Do write once again when you are through with your other labours.

  • Excellent Mehjabeen!! And so informative. I am going to observe my rangoon creeper with binoculars from now on until I can spot all 3 insects visiting!!!!!

    • I would love for you and many more Lahoris to take out their binoculars and study the plants and animals around us! It makes me laugh to think of you studying your Rangoon creepers in this way. In exchange you are bound to be given much more to marvel at than the time and effort you put into the activity. Despite our complainings, we are lucky to have as much flora and fauna as we do in this city.

  • What a beautifully expressed observation, took me back to my Enid Blyton days of fairies and majic filled secret gardens Thank you for sharing

    • Thank you for reading Rabia. I’m so glad that a biologist’s enquiry can also evoke fairies and magic. We should have more space to mix magic into the everyday don’t you think?

  • Beautifully scripted.. Such romance between both species. To put it in ecological term what beautiful mutualism between both. I love its fragrance and used to inhale the mesmeric fragrance of its flowers at night. Observing closely such relations takes you back to your Lord for the wonderful things HE has us blessed us with.

  • What a lovely article!! Gave me new found respect for all the creepy crawlies around me ❤️ Please keep sharing whatever you write! I read it out to the kids and they were so overjoyed and inspired to know that their neighbor is such an incredible writer! ❤️❤️❤️

    • It is wonderful to have a neighbour reading these pieces as well as her children. For me, it is a special pleasure.

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