Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”




Raining Spiders

I’m standing in my driveway directing the spray from a garden hose at mud wasp nests stuck to underside beams of the porch roof and at spider webs hanging on the wall in front of me.  After I’ve knocked down both sets of insect homes I sweep dirt and leaves off the porch with a push broom.  Drops of water and what I hope aren’t dislocated spiders fall down on my head and shoulders and inside my collar.  I flinch and squirm and think that this isn’t a chore we used to do in Ohio at Christmas time.  Snow hasn’t fallen, and there are no sidewalks to shovel or icy car windows to scrape.  Instead my porch is raining spiders.

The spiders and wasps are year round porch dwellers, and recently we’ve acquired a swarm of mosquitoes.  The weather has been very dry for the last few months, and the blood sucking pests have responded by going into hyper-breeding mode.  We’ve no standing water anywhere on our property, so it’s a mystery where the little bastards are dropping their eggs.  I wouldn’t call it a Christmas miracle, though the adults who’ve managed to slip inside like to roost in our Christmas tree when they aren’t buzzing in our ears and trying to steal our blood.

A few of the spiders that I’ve dislocated are huddled on the ground beneath the picture window of my dining room.  They’re hunched over with bent legs and looked pissed off to be alive.  A few have found refuge on the underside of the door frame, and one slipped inside and is crawling across my closet door.  He almost looks grateful when I squish him with a tissue.

I only make our arachnid friends homeless a few times a year.  They kill a significant number of bugs that congregate around our front door in hopes of finding refuge within.  But the spiders eventually hang down in dense clusters from the porch roof.  Their masses frighten children.  A Christian missionary and his son came to our door one day, and as Dad tried to save my soul the little boy looked upward with wide eyes and a distressed look on his face.  He interrupted his father by saying in a quiet voice, “Daddy, look at all the spiders!” My soul went unsaved.

And I believe that our suspended, dirty and clotted webs of long legged bug killers invite flyers from realtors who want to buy our house “as-is”.  So I purge them when their clustered colonies draw comparisons between our house and the decrepit mansion in “The Addams Family”.

But I don’t blame the spiders for costing me an evangelical salvation or making us the target of real estate predators.  They’re trying to make a living just like I am, and I feel a twinge of guilt when I knock them down.  I know, however, that given a few weeks time they will have climbed back to their perches above my porch light and picture window and will be lying in wait for flies, moths and mosquitoes.  I envy their resilience.