|This bush in front of my house is where the entire drama plays out..
|Praying mantis egg case from 2012.
|Mantis shedding exoskeleton.
|The molt that didn't go right.
The mantis may have gone somewhere but that didn't mean that the bush had nothing to offer. If the mantis is the top arthropod predator on the bush, the spiders, dragonflies, and robber flies are close behind. The bush is teaming with tiny spider webs housing an unbelievable variety of spiders whose names I don't know. There are also larger ones. One day came across a green lynx spider feasting on a brown stinkbug.
|A green lynx spider consumes a brown stinkbug.
One day on my way to make my daily check on the bush, I noticed a large moth hanging out near my front door. In some ways, no surprise since I keep my porch light on all night for security purposes. It attracts all sorts of bugs and consequently many spiders as well but that is another story.
|A tobacco hornworm denuding a stem.
Well he might have been safe from me and the birds but he was far from safe. In fact when I first saw him, his fate had probably already been sealed. It was just not apparent to me. A few days later, I looked for the caterpillar and found him or one like him having a really bad day. He was covered with tiny white egg-like structures that made him stand out from everything else around, a flash of white in the sea of green.
|Tobacco Hornworm with Empty Wasp Cocoons
They were not eggs though, They were cocoons from which dozens of tiny wasps would emerge and fly
away to continue a bizarre life cycle. This caterpillar had been host to these wasps and paid for it with its life. After some time, the wasps did emerge from the tiny cocoons and most flew away to begin the cycle all over again.
|Wasps and cocoons to show actual size.
Needless to say I was being naive to think that there was only one hornworm in that bush. They tend to crawl up the undersides of stems and blend in very well with the colors. Stripped stems are the main giveaways. Well, the naked hornworms may be hard to see but those that have been parasitized are easy to spot. It is like seeing small white flags waving in the green foliage. There were several more in the bush so I decided to watch the story unfold again. I already knew the sequence. The caterpillar was going to have some very bad days then die, my bush would suffer some leaf loss, and the little wasps would emerge from their cocoons, fly away, and start the cycle all over again. They would do something like "live happily ever after."
Then out of nowhere an old friend showed up, bad wings and all. The mantis was back. It was like in the movies. A character is casually introduced at the beginning then fades away for the entire flick only to reappear at the end looking for something, . . . .in this case, an easy meal. She consumed the caterpillar and most of the silken cocoons including the tiny wasps inside. A few of the cocoons fell off the hornworm and into delicate spider webs below below but all the rest were eaten along with the host. Who knows? Maybe she is why I hadn't seen many other hornworms on the bush. Now, who gets to live happily ever after? The apex predator of course.
|Neither the hornwom nor its parasites will survive this time.
End of story? Well not quite. You see, there is another kind of small wasp with long grasping legs who latches onto the backs of praying mantises, out of reach of those grasping claws. There she sits and simply waits. When the mantis is ready to lay her eggs, the wasp lets go and deposits her own eggs in the newly formed but still soft mantis ootheca (egg case). Her young will hatch early and feed on the developing mantis larvae . . . and so it goes.
By the way, that first caterpillar continued to chew on leaves even after the little wasps had emerged. It was a futile effort to develop into a pupa. One day it just let go and fell dead from the stem, empty cocoons and all. I picked it up for a closer look. Like so many other things from my front yard adventures, this ended up in my studio as part of a new still life.
|Still Life with Tobacco Hornworm and Parasitic Wasps. 21" x 14" Print