About Me

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I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Exposed Exoskeletons

I left the dirt dauber nest on the window sill. It rained. The mud structure melted away like ice cream on a hot day. The mummified spiders, however, did not. Their exoskeletons were left lying, exposed, in the muddy rubbled, like a pile of bones, revealed, once the flesh has rotted away.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Arachnid Mummies Daubed in my Wall

Yellow or Black Dirt Dauber Nest

We recently bought a house built in 1931 located on a quiet street at the edge of Fayetteville. The house was cheap and needed a lot of work. We started by ripping off the musty wallpaper and moldy carpet. Underneath, the walls told stories. One room was a hot pink template covered in teenage graffiti. The living room had old fake wood paneling on the walls, which we tore down just other day. The open cavities in between the studs were full of ancient spider webs and dirt dauber nests. I carefully took one dirt dauber nest out of the wall for examination.

Dirt or mud daubers are often feared a much as hornets or red wasps, but daubers lack aggression and rarely sting people, even though they build their nests in and around houses. Female dirt daubers construct clusters of chambers out of clay. She rolls clay into a ball and flies with it to the nest sight. Carefully she daubers the clay balls together one at a time until most of one chamber is built. Then she hunts for spiders while the male protects the nest from parasitic wasps looking for a place to their lay eggs.

When the female dauber finds a spider, the dirt dauber must fly down and sting the arachnid without getting stuck in its web. The poison in the dauber's sting does not kill its prey, instead the spider is paralyzed. The dauber collects these live spiders and packs them into the chamber. When it is full, she lays an egg inside and encloses the chamber with a bit more mud. When the egg hatches, the larva, a grub-like creature, eats the paralyzed spiders as it grows. Since the spiders are not dead, they don’t rot. Eventually the larva makes a cocoon, and transforms into an adult mud dauber which breaks out of the nest and searches for a mate to start the process again.

With careful precision, I cut open the ancient nest I had found encapsulated in the old wall. Inside spiders lay like mummies. The abdomens of many were hallowed out; they had been eaten alive. Looking at these arachnid skeletons, I saw spiders from a new perspective. Often I mistakenly assume these carnivorous creatures are at the top of the arthropod food chain. But alas, there is yet I higher bug. Don’t forget, there is always a higher bug!

Ancient paralyzed spiders in a dirt dauber nest

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Food, Sex, and Cannibalism

A Black and Yellow Argiope (Argiope aurantia) eating a grasshopper

I had been away from Owl’s Knob for almost a month. Upon returning I found that my home was in the care of beneficial arthropods. The two that fascinated me most were the spider and praying mantis. These two species may appear to be quite different, but when it comes to the two most basic primordial instincts, food and sex, they have a lot in common.

Both arachnids and mantids are strictly carnivorous. They both wait for their prey to wander their way instead of hunting it down. Then they attack quickly and devour indiscriminately. The arachnid is on a liquid diet so it uses digestive venom to liquefy its meal before sucking the prey’s inners out. The mantis is the only arthropod that can turn its head 360 degrees. When it sees its prey it moves with extraordinary speed and viciously bites off its prey’s head with giant mandibles. As a gardener, I appreciate both of these arthropods because they eat my garden pests. But if I were an insect, I would fear these predators with every millimeter of my exoskeleton.       

Both of these arthropods identify themselves as predatory carnivores to such as extent that copulation is a problem. In the case of most species of spiders and mantids, the female eats the male either during or after sex. Though this act of sexual cannibalism is simulated by the arthropods’ intense instinct to devour anything that moves, it also has practical purposes for the species.

For arthropods that practice this sexual cannibalism, their short lives are almost over anyway. Once the male has had sex, his purpose in life has been fulfilled and he will die of old age in either a few hours or a few days. Therefore, from a logistical standpoint, it is only proper for his final good deed to be offering himself over as nutrients for his offspring.  Also, if the female eats the male’s head during copulation, the male’s dying body will inject more sperm quicker, which insures a better chance for fertilization.

Still, not every male is completely enthusiastic about becoming his partner’s meal. Many species of spiders have elaborate ways to avoid being eaten. Since spiders have very poor eyesight (even though they have, like, eight eyes), the first step is to be recognized as a male spider and not be mistaken for food. So some spiders do lovely eight legged dances. Others excrete pheromone laced silk to attract a mate. Many males play the strings of the female’s web like a harp and then she plays a rhythm back, creating a romantic song that gets everyone in the mood.

Once the female spider recognizes her mate, the male is not always safe. Some spiders will still play it cautiously by leaping on the famale and then back off before she can eat him. Others sneak under her and because they are so much smaller they can mate with her virtually unnoticed. One species uses his silk to lasso the female’s legs together so he can mate with her and safely escape with his life before she untangles herself.  

The praying mantis is even better known for sexual cannibalism than spiders; however, the wild praying mantis female rarely eats the male. The myth that the female praying mantis always eats the male started when scientist observed them in terrariums. Apparently, when in captivity the female almost always bites the head off her mate during copulation. This might be because she fears her food sources might be limited in her captive environment.

She might also worry more about the fertilization process since in captivity she sees no other available males. When a male praying mantis loses his head he also loses his brain and all inhibitions, while the ganglion in the male’s abdomen, which controls his basic motor functions, is still intact. Therefore, the male has a better chance of fertilizing the female’s eggs without his head because he copulates with wild abandon.

The feeding and sexual habits of arachnids and mantids are fascinating arthropods. Though I would not want to exist in their world, I enjoy their presence in mine. They are welcome guest in my garden and around my yard.

Preying mantises mating (and not she did not bite off his head).