It's early morning and the spider is hungry.
It snares a honey bee foraging for pollen and nectar in a patch of Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifola) in a Vacaville pollinator garden.
The spider slides down the sticky web, kills its prey with a venomous bite, and begins to eat.
The spider is not alone. It soon has unexpected dining partners: tiny freeloader flies (family Milichiidae) who did no work but insist on their share of the free food.
Indeed, orbweavers are artists. Wrote Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) in her poem, "The Spider as an Artist":
The spider as an artist
Has never been employed
Though his surpassing merit
Is freely certified.
Today was a good day for an unemployed artist, freely certified, too--and a good day for the freeloaders, certified hungry.
Emily Dickinson? She wrote many poems with references to such arthropods as bees, spiders, butterflies, flies and gnats,
Emily Dickinson's Arthropods
Pity the poor honey bees.
They have to contend with pesticides, parasites, pests, diseases, malnutrition, stress and that mysterious malady called colony collapse disorder in which adult bees abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen, immature bees and food stores.
The primary pest of bees? The blood-sucking, virus-transmitting varroa mite, found in probably every hive in the country.
But there are other pests that target the honey bee as well--from praying mantids and dragonflies to birds and spiders.
It's a predator gauntlet out there to make the round trip from their hive to their foraging site and back.
We recently saw a honey bee trapped in a spider web stretched from a honeysuckle bush to a purple salvia. The bee's fatal mistake was taking a shortcut to the lavender patch.
The bee, incongruously bubble-wrapped by the spider for a future meal, twisted in the breeze.
It was not alone. A horde of freeloader flies, family Milichiidae, and probably genus Desmometopa, made sure of that.
It was a bad day for a honey bee but a good day for the spider and the flies.
Just another day for the predators and the prey. And a few square meals in the circle of life.
If your dog is well, a little chunky, you're probably accustomed to someone saying "Fido never misses a meal, does he?"
Well, those little freeloader flies never miss a meal, either.
They not only never miss a meal, but they're never late for dinner. First come, first served. Table for 12, please.
Such was the case last weekend when a banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) trapped a bee in its web, wrapped it, and was all set to eat it.
Wait! Where did all those uninvited guests come from? (Family Milichiidae, and probably genus Desmometopa,)
The spider reluctantly abandons its prey.
"All right," the spider seems say. "Have at it. I'll get another one."
A freeloader. A moocher. A sponger.
That's the freeloader fly.
A praying mantis is polishing off the remains of a honey bee. Suddenly a black dot with wings edges closer and closer and grabs a bit of the prey.
So tiny. So persistent. So relentless. That's the freeloader fly.
Don't look at the mangled honey bee. Don't look at the hungry praying mantis.
Look at the freeloader fly. Wait a few seconds and you'll see another.
The scene: a camouflaged praying mantis is tucked beneath some African blue basil leaves and the light is fading fast. (You could say I took this image "on the fly.")
Senior Insect Biosystematist Martin Hauser of the Plant Pest Diagnostic Branch, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) identified these "freeloader flies" as family Milichiidae and "likely the genus Desmometopa." See Wikipedia.
They are so tiny, Hauser says, that the mantids, spiders and Reduviidae (think assassin bugs) "don't bother chasing them away or even trying to eat them."
Hauser pointed out images of freeloader flies from BugGuide.net: http://bugguide.net/node/view/23319/bgimage
And look at all the freeloaders on this prey: http://bugguide.net/node/view/512989/bgimage
Back in March of 2012, agricultural entomologist Ted C. MacRae who writes a popular blog, Beetles in the Bush, posted an image of an assassin bug eating a stink bug. Check out all the flies engaging in what he calls kleptoparasitism--stealing food.
Everybody gets fed. Nobody leaves hungry.