You can't get any more Halloween than a bold (daring) jumping spider with orange spots!
This common North American spider was hanging out yesterday on our showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, trying to look like a spectator instead of a predator.
The orange spots indicate it's a juvenile Phidippus audax. As it matures, those spots will turn white. It can jump 10 to 15 times its body length, deploying its silk "lifeline" when it's jumping for prey or evading predators, according to Wikipedia. It hunts only in the daytime.
Yesterday, resplendent in its iridescent chelicerae (mouthparts or "fangs"), the eight-eyed, eight-legged dark hairy spider crawled around the broad leaves of the milkweed, sharing its home with assorted lady beetles, aphids, wasps and an occasional butterfly (Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries and skippers).
It soaked up some sun and then apparently decided that the telephoto camera lens represented a clear and present danger, too bold and too daring.
A little haggard, a little worn, a little ragged, a little torn.
But there she was on Monday, Aug. 1, the first monarch of the season to lay eggs in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
She found the milkweed, but that was AFTER the aphids, milkweed bugs, praying mantids, assassin bugs and assorted spiders claimed it.
It's always a joy to see the majestic monarch fluttering through a pollinator garden. On Sunday, July 31, a male lingered for two hours, nectaring on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) as the male territorial longhorn bees tried to chase him away. No welcome mat for him! No place setting for him!
Then today, a female arrived, first stopping by the showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, to lay eggs and then fluttering over to the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to lay more.
It's amazing how the monarchs, Danaus plexippus, know how to put their "resources" in multiple places. Like the idiom that cautions "don't put all your eggs in one basket," instinctively they seem to know that if they put all their resources in one place, they could lose them all. There's a better chance of offspring survival if they spread the eggs around.
All summer and into fall, we spotted the familiar reddish, black and white bugs scurrying around on our showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, and tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
Showy bugs on showy milkweed.
The ones we saw: the Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii. Like its name implies, it's small, about half an inch long.
They're primarily seed eaters, but they're opportunistic and generalists, says insect migration biologist Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, author of the popular textbook, Animal Migration: the Biology of Life on the Move. "They'll get protein from wherever they can find it," he said. Dingle, whose research includes migratory monarchs, said the milkweed bugs not only eat seeds, but they also eat monarch eggs and larvae and the immature stages of other butterflies. Forever the opportunists, they eat other small bugs as well--if the opportunity arises. And they feed on nectar, too.
Some scientists have seen them feeding on insects trapped in the sticky pollen of the showy milkweed.
The bugs, it seem, have few predators. They feed on the toxic milkweed, which makes them distasteful to predators, prey to avoid. Their warning colors (red and black) strike home that fact.
In the fall, as the seed pods burst open, it's a horticulture/culinary war between the milkweed growers and the milkweed bugs. Both want the seeds: the humans to plant them and the bugs to eat them.
(Note: Research shows that the milkweed bug also feeds on other plants. Read about the opportunist Small Milkweed Bug in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.)
It's one of the most recognizable of all insects--if you can find it.
Ever had someone poke you and point toward a plant: "Look, there's a praying mantis?"
"Right there. See it?"
"No. Where is it?
"Right there. It's right there. Can't you see it?"
People aren't the only ones who can't see it. Neither can their prey, including honey bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, long-horned bees and assorted butterflies. Praying mantids are so camouflaged that they look like part of the plant.
We recently spotted a praying mantis clinging to our broad-leafed milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. The milkweed is meant for monarchs, their host plant, but it's also occupied by many guests, including lady beetles (aka ladybugs), lacewings, aphids, carpenter bees, honey bees, milkweed bugs, moths and spiders.
The praying mantis checked out the milkweed as people would a restaurant menu. It crawled along in the shadows, emerged into the sunshine, and crawled back into the shadows again, before summitting the plant.
It caught no prey. But it did look. A monarch circled the milkweed and fluttered off, heading toward a narrow-leafed milkweed. A lady beetle scurried down a leaf. A milkweed bug slipped behind a leaf.
And the aphids, well, they kept on eating.
The ever-patient praying mantis, with its elongated body, spiked forelegs, long antennae, and triangular head, complete with bulging compound eyes, is like no other insect. It's an ambush predator, totally equipped to be a predator and snag prey in a split second. Thankfully, it's not interested in us!
If you engage in a mini-monarch conservation project, you know the joy of watching the egg-caterpillar-chrysalis-adult transformation. It's one of Nature's miracles.
Then when you release the monarchs and watch them soar high, awkwardly fluttering their wings in new-found freedom, that's another high.
But there comes a day when you realize that Nature isn't perfect--not that you ever thought it was or ever will be.
In fact, Nature can be a little cruel.
Take the case of several caterpillars we reared in an enclosed habitat to protect them from predators. The 'cats ate the milkweed, and then, they formed chrysalids, just like they're supposed to do. Perfectly formed green-jade chrysalids dotted in gold.
They all looked normal, except one. Apparently a very hungry caterpillar chomped on one of the chrysalids instead of its milkweed. It knawed and knashed until it cratered it.
"This is it!" we figured. All done. No more left to eclose. But today, a monarch eclosed from the damaged chrysalis. A monarch with a deformed wing.
It was a girl. It still is.
We placed her on a broadleaf milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), where she sunned herself and warmed her flight muscles--flight muscles she'll never use because she cannot fly. She sipped some sugar-water and a chunk of juicy watermelon.
She may even attract a mate and give us the next generation.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Nature is not always nice.