Crime Scene Front Garden (Part 1)

Of foreboding in nature

Jersey Tiger

This is not about your unease as a mighty thunderstorm front approaches, although this spectacle of nature could also be worth an article in Harlequin, especially if there is a theatre of clouds in the sky (look up and discover, as I did, your grandmother as a cloudy silhouette). And it’s not about mosquitoes either, which are, after all, known as awe-ful bloodsuckers of mammals and thus also transmit diseases. Nor is it about ticks, which, once they have bitten into a mammal, grow larger and larger and only occur at altitudes of up to 1,200 metres.

Today it’s really about crime stories, S&M practices, pretense and deceit. And all this in nature. And it’s about small and tiny creatures trying to hold their own in a world of eating and being eaten with artifice, guile and trickery.

I wrote this article in July. My garden had been at it for months. I like to observe small and smallest things. For example, have you ever seen a butterfly, let’s say a peacock butterfly, tussle with a wasp? The casual observer might think that the wasp will automatically come out the winner. Far from it. Although the butterfly has no suitable weapons, such as a sting or biting devices, to immediately finish off the wasp, its thin and long legs are capable of inflicting considerable damage on the wasp. The fact that it will have to fly on with dishevelled wings after the fight does not bother the winner of the fight much. The main thing is that it gets to the next flower again.

Do you recall in “Silence of the Lambs”, when the death’s-head hawk, a moth species with an impressive wingspan of twelve centimetres (its caterpillars, which look like candy canes, reach a length of 13 centimetres), lives up to its formerly ominous reputation? As a migratory butterfly, it actually lives in southern Europe, but due to climate change it is increasingly finding its way here. Unlike other moths, it does not drink nectar from flowers, because its snout is made for other things: it “enters beehives with its wings spread and vibrating, like a giant bee, where it pricks and sucks honey cells with its short and very strong snout”1. The bees don’t seem to care at all, they don’t seem to perceive it as a predator at all, because it is shielded by a chemical cloak of camouflage with an impressive cocktail of four different fatty acids. Its smell so closely resembles the bees’ recognition pheromone that they mistake it for one of their own. Bees can smell better than they can see.

Flower Crab Spider

Or take the flower crab spider (misumena vatia), which needs it warm and sunny and therefore feels quite at home here these days. The females, which can be up to eleven millimetres in size, can actively adapt their colour to the flower they are sitting on (usually white and yellow flowers) and are thus undetectable by potential prey, which is often much larger than they are. This invisible monster will catch anything it can get its hands on: dance flies, bumblebees, bees, even hornets and large butterflies are not too big for it as victims. It holds on with its small rear legs. With its strong, long front legs (they make the spider look like a crab), it grabs its prey in a flash, injects its venom and sucks it dry. To avoid being stung by a bumblebee itself, it holds its prey far away from its body. A single specimen might spend most of its life on a single plant.

And as befits a good spider, the act of mating is more dangerous frustration than pleasure for the much smaller male spider, who has to crawl onto the female’s abdomen to release his sperm. The male, by the way, cannot change colour. Don’t ask me why….

My friend Gudrun recently told me about the Dark Meadow-headed Ant Blue (Phengaris nausithous), a beautiful butterfly. In the early stages of their development, the caterpillars feed exclusively on the buds of the large meadow buttercup (sanguisorba officinalis). As this is rare, so too are the butterflies. In late summer, the caterpillars are carried by ants (only selected ant species, of course) into their nests. In return, the ants get a sugary secretion. And the caterpillars are cared for by the ants like their own brood. As a “thank you”, the caterpillars eat the ants’ larvae! Having hatched from the pupa, the butterfly must leave the ant‘s nest urgently to avoid being eaten itself. Strange insect world. By the way, the Dark Meadow-headed Ant Blue is strictly protected and on the Red List because of its special modus vivendi and its specialisation on a particular plant.

Dark Meadow-headed Ant Blue

You already know my enjoyment of angle spiders, which always make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, if you’ve poked around a bit on the (see article in October 2018). But Tegenaria atrica and Eratigena atrica are not at all dangerous and therefore not monsters (only for me and a few friends – yes, there are many of us).

Much more dangerous are the admired and gorgeous aerial acrobats at waterholes and lakes: the dragonflies. They eat anything that comes within their reach and do not even stop at their own enemies, e.g. the praying mantis. Despite their voraciousness, the almost 80 different dragonfly species are useful animals because they consume many, no, very many mosquitoes and mosquito larvae. Once, during an observation in a water conservation area, I marvelled at how skilfully dragonflies glide across the water and snatch at anything that moves. And then the frog came and was faster than the dragonfly.

In the animal kingdom there are also zombies, walking dead, so to speak, because in the insect world so-called zombification is a real risk2. Parasites, fungi and bacteria mutate flies and co. into will-less puppets. The fly fungus entomophthora muscae, infects flies, for example, which then feel compelled to ascend to great heights to die there with their wings outspread. The dead females become so attractive to the male flies, especially houseflies, that they try to mate with the dead female. In years of observations and experiments, scientists have found out what the fungus uses this necrophilic behaviour of the flies for: Apparently, it’s the most effective way to find a host for itself to spread quickly and widely.

My garden is small but has a variety of plants. From April to October, m garden teems with life – with appearances from, sometimes the Jersey Tiger (a beautiful butterfly), but more often hedgehogs, foxes, cats, dogs and small animals. And, I am glad that my garden is not in Sulawesi, where in 2011 a 6 centimetre (!) wasp (dalara grabuda) was found with enormous biting tools, which it probably likes to use for nest defence and sex. The males in particular are real fighting machines, the scientists said in their paper.3 It doesn’t have a sting, but the oversized jaw in front might not need another weapon at the back.

For me as a consultant, nature is a real source of recreation and amusement. It is, viewed with human morals, brutal and hostile. But that is our idea of a “perfect” world, which does not exist at all in nature. So look forward to the sequel when I tell you about decapitating titmice and sneaky robins.

I would like to thank my friend Gudrun Müller from Würzburg for the beautiful photos of “crab spider” and ” Dark Meadow-headed Ant Blue”.

Original text: HFI
English translation: BCO

1 Dominik Eulberg, Mikroorgasmen überall




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