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Going Out to Eat

May 19, 2009

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The tarantula used to live in this corner near the agave.

The tarantula used to live in this corner near the agave.

As I turned from hanging my clothes on the solar clothes dryer on Sunday afternoon a movement on the far end of the yard caught my eye. Something small had hopped on the ground in front of a mound of sand and rocks that I built last year for transplanting some agave. It didn’t look like a rodent, and I haven’t seen lizards hop like that, and it almost glimmered with a reddish hue in the sunshine. I was still carrying an empty laundry basket when I walked close and realized it was a wasp, of the tarantula hawk variety, bouncing around. And it had a tarantula in tow.

My heart sank. I love those tarantulas. It took only one or two encounters with them when I moved into this house in 2002 to realize that they aren’t the tough scary spiders of film, but they’re elegant, large and yet delicate spiders. You can’t use a stick to bounce one gently across a path or out of the street without critically injuring them. Their shiny black blood slowly seeps out and they die on their backs, legs curled up. The yard is riddled with spider holes and an evening flashlight tour will usually locate several spiders hovering near their holes this time of year. They eat all sorts of things, and most of those things I don’t want in my house, so along with the native snakes, toads, and lizards and introduced Mediterranean house geckos, I like seeing them in action. This spider youngster had been stung but was still twitching as it was dragged headfirst by its captor. I placed my ventilated laundry basket over the top of the pair and raced for my camera in the house.

Wasp-1b-cropThey’d already exited the basket when I returned, but I found them again easily. And despite my fears that the two dogs would get curious and interfere, a few hisses were all it took to get them to leave. I took a lot of photos. The wasp, about an inch and a quarter long, moved backwards through the grass and weeds dragging this spider. The wasp was the narrow end of an insect/spider wedge on the move, and was able to part the path that she dragged her prey along, but still climbed many bunches of grass and navigated through lots of clover and wild flower knots in the lawn.

Wasp-8bI looked around for a hole. I’d known about this spider and wasp relationship for years; in the early 1980s I worked as an interpretive naturalist in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona where the spiders and the wasps are even larger and more prevalent than the Texas prairie. The wasp stings to paralyze, not kill, then drags the spider to its hole where it then lays eggs on the spider and leaves. Her young will finish off the spider, and this fresh meat allows the wasps to survive. Who needs a yoke with an egg if you can provide a first hearty meal? In the time I spent as a ranger in that park I only saw the spiders in the museum, or dead in park restrooms, no doubt killed by fearful visitors. I wasn’t rooting for the spiders or the wasps back then, just hoping not to come face to face with either. But this my yard, and I’ve had the luxury to get to know the neighbors.

A wasp hole was nowhere in sight. I followed them the distance of three feet, six, nine, and on. Every couple of feet the wasp scouted around a few inches in every direction, then came back to spider and dragged it again. Across the lawn, over weeds, tall grass, and dog poop. I felt guilty for not scooping recently, and for not mowing yesterday like I planned. The trip would have been easier. Past clear patches, under the pine tree, over more rough grass where an old vegetable garden once grew. I transplanted a remnant of garlic from there last week. Past that hole, over the rough ground I’d disturbed, and closer to the clothesline pole near the garage. At last there seemed to be a destination in view, a small berm left over from when the foundation for the garage was built. The only bit that is left is near the clothesline, and this last couple of feet may have been the hardest—that small berm of compacted dirt must have looked to that wasp like the Mogollon Rim. About four feet from this rim the wasp flew to that spot, then back, and finished the trip. Once there they vanished, no messing with digging, the hole was ready.

The dog is standing on the spot where I first spotted the duo. The left corner of the garage, in the distance beyond the pine, is where they ended up.

The dog is standing on the spot where I first spotted the duo. The left corner of the garage, in the distance beyond the pine, is where they ended up.

This trip took under an hour, but think about the scale. As a naturalist I tried to put myself in that position, how would it be for a human to drag something of proportionately that size for a distance equivalent to that trip? Weight wise, if I’d stunned a young steer on the other side of the village, then proceeded to drag it by the head, feet up (to keep them from snagging on stuff) across the village, backwards to my home, I’d never manage it, but that’s what this wasp did.

I think it’s time to start rooting for the wasps also. By the time this wasp reached the hole it had traveled about two chains, paced off, or 132 feet from the pile of sand where I first spotted them. I know there are spiders over on that side of the yard. A few yards further is the creek bank, and along there the terrain is probably rougher than the spiders like. I am guessing that the wasp snagged the spider inside the fence where I maintain what environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott has jokingly referred to as an artificial “mow climax” community. Without irrigation, the grass is mostly sparse there, so spiders would thrive. If we have enough rain or if I water that end of the yard it is more lush with various grasses, but I keep it navigable for the tarantulas by mowing. Either way, they’re going to be living there.

Now when I hang and later remove and fold my laundry, I’ll be watching for the iridescent orange wings of the emerging wasps. The old huge tarantula that lives under a slab of rough concrete just a couple of feet from this spot is probably safe, it’s way too big for a wasp this size to manage dragging. It was a careful selection process to get just the right spider for this nest. The desert wasps are much larger, and they probably take on the larger spiders as well. It is my guess that in an “economy of scale” in the natural world, the prairie wasp doesn’t need to be as large, and the prey doesn’t need to be as large, for the population to be successful.

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