Heads will not roll.
The Hunger Games will not begin.
Preying does not always work.
It's Aug. 2, 2020 and a praying mantis decides to occupy a specially stunning Mexican sunflower. Specifically, it's a female Stagmomantis limbata occupying a Tithonia rotundifolia.
It's a brilliant day, the kind of day that makes you love the world and everything in it. You know those kinds of days? No? Thought not. Me, neither.
A honey bee, Apis mellifera, lands on the Orange Blossom Special—no connection to the deluxe-passenger train that Johnny Cash made famous, the train that links New York City to Miami.
Ah, but it's a brilliant day, yes, indeed.
Ms. Honey Bee begins sipping nectar to share with her colony.
Ms. Mantis has no intention of sharing anything.
Ms. Mantis: “Well, hello there, Ms. Honey Bee! You are looking quite delicious today!”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Excuse me? Oh, yes, this nectar is delicious. Try some!”
Ms. Mantis: “No, thanks, I am a carnivore.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Well, I'm a vegetarian!”
Ms. Mantis: “Well, I can bite your head off.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “That would not be a nice thing to do. Where are your manners?”
Ms. Mantis: “Manners? Do you think I'm Ms. Manners? I'm Ms. Mantis not Ms. Manners.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Well, just telling you that I'm a vegetarian.”
Ms. Mantis: “I eat vegetarians.”
Ms. Honey Bee: "Not today!" Abruptly, she takes flight, buzzing off faster than Johnny Cash can mimic the "choo choo" of the Orange Blossom Special.
Conclusions? There are three:
- Heads do not always roll when a flower is double-occupied by a praying mantis and a honey bee.
- The Hunger Games do not always begin.
- Preying does not always work.
(Editor's Note: No organisms were injured in the making of these photographs. The mantis wanted to, though!)
Yes, I'm hungry.
A female praying mantis is perched upside down in our pollinator garden. She has maintained this position in the verbena over a four-day period, enduring temperatures that soar to 105 degrees.
The mantis, a Stagmomantis limbata (as identified by praying mantis expert Lohit Garikipati of UC Davis) remains persistent, even as the temperature gauge spikes and the insects vanish.
Then on Saturday afternoon, we notice a few honey bees and Valley carpenter bees buzzing around her, and Gulf Fritillary butterflies and skipper butterflies fluttering next to her.
The predator and the prey. The hunter and the hunted. Will she be a successful hunter today? No, not today. Maybe tomorrow.
On Sunday morning, with the temperature hovering at 80 degrees, it happens. A sluggish honey bee makes the fatal mistake of nectaring on a blossom next to her.
Bad day for the honey bee; good day for the mantis. The mantis grabs the bee with her spiked forelegs, clutching it firmly, and begins to eat.
Freeloader flies, Milichiidae (probably genus Desmometopa), arrive too late to partake in the meal.
Ms. Mantis, now nourished, scales a verbena stem.
Am I hungry? Well, I can still eat a bite.
How magical are the dragonflies.
They zig-zag through the pollinator garden, a perfect portrait of a predator: multifaceted eyes, strong wings, and mouthparts that include a toothed jaw and flap like labrium.
They're an ancient insect: scientists have found fossil dragonflies that date back 325 million years ago.
Bank robber Willie Sutton (1901-1980) reportedly said he robbed banks "because that's where the money is." Predators, like dragonflies, frequent pollinator gardens because that's where the food is--food like native bees and syrphid flies.
Like other dragonflies, red flameskimmers, Libellula saturata, frequent our pollinator garden because of "Sutton's law." We welcome them with bamboo-stake perches. They circle the garden on their hunt, snag prey, and return to the perch to consume it.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll see a dragonfly eat a bee (lucky for a nature photographer who wants to share a little bit of how nature works, but not so much for the bee!).
We can't tell what bee was on this male flameskimmer's menu, but it appears to be a longhorned bee, maybe Melissodes agilis, family Apidae.
It's eat and "bee eaten" in a pollinator garden.
It was a good day for a crab spider.
It was NOT a good day for a honey bee.
It's early evening and here's this bee foraging on a bluebeard plant, Caryopteris x clandonensis, totally unaware of the ambush predator lying in wait.
The hunter and the hunted.
A venomous bite and it's all over.
These spiders, often called the "white death spider," are camouflage artists. They can turn colors, from yellow to white, or white to yellow. You'll often see yellow crab spiders on golden rod Solidago or a predominantly yellow plant, like blanketflower, Gallardia.
"These spiders change color by secreting a liquid yellow pigment into the outer cell layer of the body," according to Wikipedia. "On a white base, this pigment is transported into lower layers, so that inner glands, filled with white guanine, become visible. The color similarity between the spider and the flower is well matched with a white flower, in particular the Chaerophyllum temulum, compared to a yellow flower based on the spectral reflectance functions."
"If the spider dwells longer on a white plant, the yellow pigment is often excreted," Wikipedia says. "It will then take the spider much longer to change to yellow, because it will have to produce the yellow pigment first. The color change is induced by visual feedback; spiders with painted eyes were found to have lost this ability. The color change from white to yellow takes between 10 and 25 days, the reverse about six days. The yellow pigments have been identified as kynurenine and 3-hydroxykynurenine."
One thing's for sure: everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
What's for dinner?
A crab spider, camouflaged in our lavender patch, didn't catch a honey bee, a butterfly, an ant or a syrphid fly.
No, it nailed a green bottle fly.
We couldn't help but notice. The fly's metallic blue-green coloring stood in sharp contrast to the white spider.
One venomous bite to kill it. And soon the fly, Lucilia sericata, was toast. Milk toast.
Crab spiders don't build webs to trap their prey. They're cunning and agile hunters that spring into action when an unsuspecting prey appears on the scene. They belong to the family Thomisidae, which includes some 175 genera and more than 2100 species. And they're ancient: spiders date back 400 million years ago.
Do you like spiders? You should.
“Spiders are an incredibly diverse group with more than 50,000 species described with probably another 200,000 remaining to yet be discovered,” says spider expert Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
It's worth repeating what Professor Bond said about spiders at the Bohart Museum of Entomology open house, “Eight-Legged Wonders,” on Saturday, March 9.
The five good reasons to like spiders:
- Spiders consume 400-800 million tons of prey, mostly insects, each year. Humans consume somewhere around 400 million tons of meat and fish each year.
- Spider silk is one of the strongest naturally occurring materials. Spider silk is stronger than steel, stronger and more stretchy than Kevlar; a pencil thick strand of spider silk could be used to stop a Boeing 747 in flight.
- Some spiders are incredibly fast – able to run up to 70 body lengths per second (10X faster than Usain Bolt).
- Athough nearly all 47,000-plus spider species have venom used to kill their insect prey, very few actually have venom that is harmful to humans.
- Some spiders are really good parents –wolf spider moms carry their young on their backs until they are ready to strike out on their own; female trapdoor spiders keep their broods safe inside their burrows often longer than one year, and some female jumping spiders even nurse their spiderlings with a protein rich substance comparable to milk.