A TALE OF PREDATOR AND PREY

By Arthur V. Evans

I had just spent a grueling three hours in the sweltering afternoon heat stalking insects and spiders with my camera along the James River. As I walked through the gate toward the parking lot at Reedy Creek, I saw a spider wasp with shiny dark wings flitting about agitatedly in the road. With another dozen or so exposures left in my camera, I decided to get a few pictures of the wasp before calling it a day. She flew all around me, landing briefly here and there before taking wing again. My patience quickly wore thin in the heat and I decided that enough was enough. But then I saw what had kept the wasp in the vicinity.

Lying perfectly still and in pristine condition was a wolf spider splayed out in the middle of the road. It had been laid low by the paralyzing sting of the spider wasp and was destined to be hauled off and stuffed down a nearby burrow to become fodder for a wasp larva. I decided to stake out the living corpse right then and there in the middle of the road. Sprawled out in the rapidly fading sun I aimed my camera at its still body in anticipation of photographing the predator with its prey.

For nearly ten minutes the wasp flew circles around me, frequently landing and running over the ground to search in vain for the hapless arachnid. At first I thought she was intimidated by my presence, but several times the wasp came within inches of me and my camera. Time seemed to drag on as the wasp inspected every piece of real estate in the immediate vicinity, except the tiny parcel that actually had the spider.

The occasional cyclist or jogger went past, but no one stopped to ask what I was doing. Then I heard the slow crunching of gravel coming toward me along the railroad tracks. A Richmond police car slowly wheeled toward me and stopped about 50 feet away. From my perspective down on the ground the car’s headlights seemed to stare at me like two giant bug eyes separated by shiny and toothed mandibles.

I smiled in the direction of the officer and wondered what he must be thinking. Just then a big panel truck hauling a trailer load of bright blue kayaks pulled up beside me. I looked up as the driver inquired if I was all right. I assured her that I was just fine and that I was waiting to take a picture of a wasp attacking a spider. She said she hated spiders and hoped the spider would meet its demise and then drove off to deliver her cargo by the river.

Then the police car pulled up. The officer told me that he did not want to ruin my shot and had decided to wait. But then he figured that if the kayak truck hadn’t spoiled my shot, his police cruiser probably wouldn’t either.

With all the hubbub I thought for sure that the wasp would have been scared off, but it was still scouring the ground in search of the spider. Finally it ran right up to the spider and inspected it nervously with its curled antennae. Suddenly it grabbed the spider’s leg with its mandibles and began to drag it away with surprising speed across the open ground.

Just as the wasp and spider cleared the roadway a thundering herd of about 40 young kayakers and their river guides stampeded over the site where I has just spent the past three-quarters of an hour on wasp watch. I paid them little attention as I crouched and crabbed along the access road paralleling the railroad tracks, following the wasp’s progress through my lens.

Every now and again the wasp would abandon the spider, apparently wandering off to reconnoiter the next leg of its journey. After a few minutes I could see the wasp negotiating its way back through the tangled growth.  As before, the wasp briefly inspected the spider with its antennae before grabbing a leg with its mouth and setting off on a new course.

The sunlight was beginning to fade when the spider wasp ditched her booty once again. I had two more shots left and decided to wait for the wasp to return one more time. I waited another 10 minutes or so for the wasp to come back, but it never did. I decided to call it a day and could only assume that the wasp was out somewhere, simultaneously excavating a spider’s grave and preparing a wasp’s nursery.

Excerpt from “What’s Bugging You? A Fond Look at the Animals We Love to Hate, University of Virginia Press. © 2008, A.V. Evans

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13 Responses to “A TALE OF PREDATOR AND PREY”

  1. I’ve always loved that story. Thanks, Art!

  2. First time I have read this, what a dedicated bug photographer you are!

    Last year I had my own experience with a Tachysphex wasp when I was stalking the banks of the South Saskatchewan river. Thankfully I did not have to contend with traffic! I have a little slide show at:
    http://nobonesaboutit.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/tachysphex-the-hunter/

  3. more pics!!! Want to see the gruesome outcome!(shudder!)

  4. Michael and Patricia Hicks Says:

    We loved the story, like listening to a mini series Mystery. Great Picture

  5. Awesome! I love stalking and waiting to capture a natural history moment.

  6. That’s a great story, Art! Thanks for sharing.

  7. MObugs41 Says:

    What a great story Art, I am always relieved when I read stories such as this, that I am not the ONLY one who crawls around trying to get “the shot”. Last summer we took a family vacation to the Smoky Mountains in Townsend, TN. I had high hopes of capturing all sorts of interesting insect shots. Insect life near the cabin was almost nil. I talked Joey into driving with me into town and scouting around the grocery store, carwash, etc. Keep in mind this was 11:30 at night, small town, everyone is sleeping. We drove to the car wash first, and found several interesting specimens. I was excited. We drove to the grocery store, and found a few more insects. We were on a roll. I suggested the Visitors Center, we drove into the lot, and right behind us pulled in a deputy in a pickup, red and blue lights on. Joey was so embarrassed. He asked me “what are you going to say” I responded “the truth” he just rolled his eyes.
    I got out of the car, walked back to the deputy and smiled. He asked me if everything was alright. I said “sure, just fine” Then he said “may I ask what you are doing”….”sure, bug hunting” He gave me the strangest look, that spoke volumes (I’m sure he thought I was loony), he said “oh, by the lights?”
    my response in my mind was “DUH!” but I said “yes, and would you happen to know any place that has a lot of bugs?” Now Joey just wanted to find a rock and crawl under it. The office suggested the grocery store….LOL
    It was so funny.

    • Arthur Evans Says:

      Thanks for sharing this! Yes, we are not alone in our need from time- to-time to go the distance to get “the shot.”

      I was in AZ years ago in the middle of the night collecting at lights when two sheriff cars came racing up to us. The officers lept out with guns drawn and demanded to know what were doing. Turns out (unbeknownst to us) that we were collecting behind a bank! Upon finding out what we were up to, one officer starting laughing, holstered his weapon, and drove away. The other talked to us for another 40 minutes or so, wanting to know if the bugs we were catching were worth anything!

      • MObugs41 Says:

        NOW that’s funny.

        Three days after the incident in Tennessee, we were back home. It was a gorgeous balmy evening, and I just knew it would be great for capturing or photographing insects at night. I headed outside and soon after Joey followed…in his boxers (we live in the country). He walked around the farm with me in his boxers, and work boots…talk about a site to see….LOL. He decided to go back into the house, and I told him I would be in shortly after I checked the front yard for bugs. He no more than went into the house when the deputy sheriff pulled into our driveway, got out of his car and shined his spotlight into my eyes. I just smiled and waved and said “hi Robert” He said “Oh it’s you” I wonder who else he expected in my front yard? He said he got suspicious when he drove by and saw a flashlight shining around in the air. I explained i was hunting bugs and photographing them. He wanted to know “why”. I just laughed and told him I love bugs. I’m sure he thought I was bonkers….but I told him he should have been there 2 minutes sooner and he would have seen Joey in his boxers and boots….LOL. Oh how I wish he would have gotten caught with his pants down ( so to speak ) I came in the house and told Joey that the deputy had just left. I got to thinking about him getting caught in his boxers and started laughing and then our son started laughing, and we couldn’t quit until our sides were splitting. Talk about a mental image…..hehehe

  8. Great story – here at the border the patrol officers are probably quite used to our nightly bug hunts – the border patrol has these huge lights that attract us entomologists just as much as the bugs.
    By the way, you say the wasp wasn’t afraid of you…but you may still have been the reason for her disorientation. I remember experiments by ethiologists around Eibel Eibersfeld in the eighties: a wasp had a hole close to a pine cone. She flew off to collect prey – the researcher moved the cone, the wasp came back and obviously triangulated for her hole in relation to the new position of the cone, of course not finding it, even though she got really close to the actual hole in the process. Now think what a big, impressive pine cone in the wrong place you and your camera must have been!

  9. Beautiful shots! Action shots are always the most intriguing photos in my opinion. An entomological “Clash of the Titans”!

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