The year 2020 felt like a close encounter of the worst kind.
The raging COVID-19 pandemic, the California wildfires, the political scene, the poverty, the racial uprisings, the stay-at-home mandates, the strife...
When the Washington Post recently asked its readers to describe 2020 in one word, more than 2000 responded. These three words tumbled out the most: "exhausting," "lost" and "chaotic." Readers also defined 2020 as "surreal," "relentless," "fallow," "limbo," "heartbreaking," "nightmare," "broken dreams," "stifling," "dumpster fire," and simply "ugh!"
"Ugh?" That's right. We never knew what was coming at us next.
At times it seemed as if we were the prey, trying to escape hundreds of hungry, circling predators.
We remember this encounter last summer between a praying mantis, a female Mantis religiosa, and a Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, on a fenceline bordering our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Here's the mantis, lying in wait by the passionflower vine, ready to ambush any "suitable prey" that comes within her reach. Along comes a Gulf Fritillary, which the mantis defined as "quite suitable."
The mantis pounced, but couldn't wrap its spiked forelegs around the butterfly. The mantis finally settled for a caterpillar.
So, as we end the year 2020, the key word should be "escape." Like the butterfly, we need to be find our way out of the clutches of a cunning predator, one cunning predator at a time.
Here's hoping for a Happy New Year!
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.
A pollinator garden is a study in diversity--and of inclusion and exclusion.
The residents, the immigrants, the fly-bys, the crawlers, the wigglers, the jumpers. The big, bad and bugly. The prey and the predators. The vegetarians and carnivores.
The nectar-rich flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees and butterflies. And right near them are the predators: the praying mantids, dragonflies and assassin bugs.
The assassin bugs, family Reduviidae, are ambush predators. They resemble human assassins (or at least those on the movie screen!): long narrow neck, beady eyes, and sturdy body. When they ambush a predator, they stab it with their rostrum, inject venom, and suck out the juices. Or as UC Berkeley entomologists Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue write in their book, California Insects, "The victims, which include all kinds of insects, are snatched by quick movements of the forelegs, and immediately subdued by a powerful venom injected through the beak."
Such was the case with the assassin bug, Zelus renardii, this week. We watched one lie in wait on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); we watched another dine on an unidentifiable prey on a milkweed blossom; and we watched yet another stab a lady beetle (aka lady bug) on a leaf.
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
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.