Posted by: Memorizing Nature | August 7, 2011

No Wishes, No Affections

Usually I write about the beauty of nature, using overwrought text illustrated by blurred photographs. Not this time. Enough about frog calls and butterfly dust. There’s conflict out there, and it’s not always the fault of humans.

Photo by Elaine Medline

Here I am in the meadow, examining a white moth on a thistle, when I come upon a competition of Darwinian scope. Spider versus beetle. It’s a crab spider (Misumena vatia), the kind that conducts an ambush instead of weaving a web. Also known as goldenrod spider, this expert in camouflage secretes yellow ink when creeping along a yellow flower, later excreting the chemical when it tires of that particular fashion.

What I am witnessing is a surprisingly deliberate altercation. I am amazed there isn’t more thrashing. I listen, unsuccessfully, for some sort of high-pitched bewailing. There is no smell of insect panic. I can save the beetle, I think. Just a shake of the thistle, and the less capable invertebrate would gain back its full lifespan. Obviously the match is unfair; while the combatants are similar in size, the spider owns the advantage of long, grasping arms.

Photo by Elaine Medline

My internal debate continues – if I save the beetle, would I then starve the spider? The spider might have waited all day for the catch, not appreciating intervention from a meddling third party. Besides, beetles are so numerous they are praised as earth’s most successful life form, and predators are crucial in controlling the population of such abundant prey. What’s more, this happens to be a Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica), albeit captivating in its copper iridescence, but known to be destructive to crops. Surely, then, it is the spider that is deserving of our sympathy.  

Ecological realities aside, the sight is sickening. At one point, I turn away, gaze at a grasshopper instead, distracting myself so that I can reminisce about the meadow when it exuded a more innocent mood. Charles Darwin said, “A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections – a mere heart of stone.” That’s a problem – my heart, it is coated in a layer of feathers.        

Photo by Elaine Medline

Not that I am criticizing Darwin for his coldness, far from it. In the mid-1990s, my mother and I made the voyage to the Galapagos Islands, where we hopped over the nests of fearless Blue-Footed Boobies and marveled at black iguanas covered in skins of volcanic rock. We visited Lonesome George, the last tortoise of its kind, no mate to be found. It was there, of course, that Darwin analyzed the shape of bird beaks to realize the overarching premise, ultimately explaining why this spider with its bean-sprout appendages is tussling with a beetle. Evolution explains almost everything, except the reason for a warm breeze in a supple pine. The mechanism is sure, but the philosophy remains unanswered. I have come full circle now, back to the idea of the beauty of nature, of orange powder flying off butterfly wings during a sunset of dazzling artistry.     

Photo by Elaine Medline

The beetle escaped for a time, nursing a bodily injury with one of its delicate legs. How could it not have dodged its fate at the beginning of the battle? It seemed to have had the opportunity. Did it mistake the spider for something else, most obviously a flower? Did the crab spider’s venom daze its victim, making the encounter painless, I can only hope? Can a spider taste? Does a beetle understand?

Photo by Elaine Medline

I leave when the spider holds the beetle fast with its jaw. It is not my role to witness the actual repast. Truly, this is nauseating. Several hours later, I return. The spider is on the same thistle, resting. There is no trace of the beetle. I am wondering if the less likely hypothesis could be true, that the beetle got away. That it miraculously found its strength and kept its genetic material alive, awakening some silent mutation to overcome its deficiencies, understanding that only the fittest survive.

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Responses

  1. Marvelous macro shots!!

  2. Your pictures of this struggle are wonderful. Truly, you’ve gained an entire philosophical debate from this battle, while my thought is simply, “Cool!”

  3. It’s very unlikely the beetle got away. Console yourself with the thought that insects have no real brain and a very rudimentary nervous system compared to ours, therefore it’s unlikely they’d feel pain or panic on the same scale that we do.

    They’re good photos. I hesitate to say ‘beautiful’.

  4. Simply amazing!

  5. Most likely once the spider injected the first bit of venom, the beetle was doomed, since spider venom basically causes the cells of the organism inside the carapace to lyse, liquefying the bug. Then the spider sucks the liquified bug juice out. Once they are finished, they discard the carapace; if you had looked hard you might have found the empty beetle shell on the ground under the flower.

    I have a similar set of pictures of a crab spider eating a moth on one of my day lilies. But my story would not have been so lyrical, I’m afraid.

    So glad I stopped by today.

  6. Terrific entry, I especially liked your commentary of the personal emotions evoked by the violence of nature. That you stayed “hands off” only as a witness recognizes your strong will and resolve.

    My favorite post to date. Thanks.

  7. Thank you all for your comments and insights. Your support is uplifting, Linda, Teresa and Simone. Boy do I love insects. I wish Disney would feature insects on Earth Day instead of the predictable big cats and chimps! (Sorry, Quin). Healing Magic Hands, I did look for a beetle carapace but it was impossible among all the growth; a beetle slushie, yikes. Jay, I really do think the beetle feels pain, even with its rudimentary nervous system, but who knows? Wild Bill, you understand the dilemma of being nature’s witness. By the way, jewelweed is gorgeous, I agree.


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