🕷️🌯: That’s the science on being bit by a black widow. Not instant death on saying the words, or looking at a photograph. You don’t keel over from walking past one, or letting your eyeballs rest on her. This beauty, undisturbed, is living her best spider life. Hanging out, deciding what to have for lunch. Today, I opted for a veggie burrito, while she settled on a well wrapped bug. To each their own.
I don’t want to be blasé about her venom though. I have not experienced a black widow bite, and I hope to keep it that way. I’ve read the pain can be very real, and the risk is greater for the very young and the elderly than it is for me.
🕷️📵: But humans have a gnarly tendency to fear all the wrong things. We are quick to spin tall tales around small dangers, but slow to act on the real but boring or difficult ones. Otherwise rational people learn a black widow — generally shy and timid spiders — was once seen in a field, and run straight back to their car to drive home doing 140kph. While texting.
🌬️🕷️: To be clear — I am also afraid of black widows. Not the spider herself. She is exquisite. But why she is here… Now that does worry me. Like ticks, climate change is shifting their range further north. Lines on a political map don’t define where critters live, habitat does. Wherever they can survive, that’s where they’ll be. And Canada’s welcome is not so cold anymore. This tiny spider’s presence is a sign my habitat is changing. She is a glossy black canary in this coal mine.
🛤️⤵️: The world around us is screaming to pay attention, but we are driving too fast to notice. I hope that as individuals and communities and municipalities and provinces and nations that we learn to pump the brakes in time, and chose a different direction.
The first signs of spring here flash by like ghosts. A chipmunk dashing from the deck to the feeder. A couple of crows snacking on sumac. An eastern comma butterfly perched on a post to warm its wings.
And then the drips of spring come quicker and closer together. The first turkey vulture, the first sap in the bucket. Buds on the poplars. The first crocus. And then one day the sap is yellow and full of bugs and the driveway is more mud than ice and the sun is stronger and the green has returned.
And in that mix is one of my favourite sounds of early spring: the purring of the wolf spiders.
Sitting on a rock, I hear the dry leaves pulsing around me. Purr purr, purr purr. It’s a love song played by vibration. To woo potential mates, male wolf spiders drum on the dry leaves with their pedipalps. Singing with their feet, hoping a lady wolf spider digs their vibe and decides to make little wolf spider pups with them.
🏃♀️💨🕷️: I recognize spiders are not everyone’s cup of tea. They weren’t always mine. When I was little, I was terrified of them. I remember when it began. My parents were sweeping out the garage, and I was holding the dustpan. I can see it — the large spider running for its life ahead of the broom. Ahead of the broom, over the edge of the dustpan, up the handle, up my arm, into my shirt.
I shook for an hour after it was gone.
🕷️❤️🏃♀️: But that was then and this is now. If I was about to be swept up, I’d run for my life and into the nearest sleevehole too. We fear what we don’t know, and I have gotten to know spiders. We are now good friends, and a spring afternoon spent with wolf spiders is spent in excellent company.
Just had my first sighting of emerald ash borer. We knew our ash were infested, but I’d never seen the actual beetle before.
I looked down while I was in the garden and noticed a shiny bug on my shirt. Did a little googling to confirm and sure enough, it was an emerald ash borer. It was much smaller than I’d pictured. Only about half an inch long.
I know I’m on the tall side, but I don’t think I’ve been mistaken for a tree before…
Though it’s no fault of the beetle that it was transported here and is now wreaking havoc on Ontario’s ash, I did squish it. Sorry about that, my shiny friend.
Sometimes we glimpse the pure volume of life here and it’s nearly overwhelming.
We were watching the woods flickering with fireflies this evening, and began talking about the other nearby critters, just the ones we know about, who were also going about their evenings, on the ground and on the plants and in the trees around us.
The phoebe sitting on her eggs, in her nest on one of the logs that make up our house. Who periodically cliff-dives down past the living room window, to catch a bug or have a sip of water.
The robin, on her own clutch, sitting on top of the nest box by the wood’s edge.
The hawk who flew over the yard today, carrying a snake.
The four swallowtail caterpillars in the carrot patch.
The flying squirrels, whose day begins as ours ends. Who take off from our roof, each evening at twilight.
“Scrappy”, the eastern cottontail missing a chunk from his ear, who visits the yard every evening, and who seems to have developed a taste for milkweed as well as the other forage.
The eastern grey squirrel we saw building a new drey today in one of the junipers.
The monarch babies on the milkweeds, some of which are evading Scrappy.
The cabbage white eggs on the kale.
The bat who has been using the roof’s overhang as a sometime roost. Leaving little bat poop “I was here” sign on the deck.
The hummingbird who buzzed my head today, intent on getting a drink from the red flowers of the scarlet runner beans.
The tiny bees in the yard’s clover.
The wolf spider carrying her egg sac.
The mystery russet-coloured bird who flushed from the ground up into the trees, when I rode past on my bike.
The veerys, singing their pan-flute songs as dark sets in.
The barred owl, whose call drifts through the night and in the bedroom window.
Just a few of the critters we happened to notice today. Just the ones whose paths crossed ours.
Each one of them living their lives, coming and going and breeding and eating and resting.
Goodnight moon, goodnight birds and bees and bugs and beasts. Goodnight all.
“All swallowtail larvae have an eversible horn-like organ behind the head known as the osmeterium (osmeteria, plural) that looks like a forked snake tongue. It is a bright yellow-orange color on the black swallowtail. When the caterpillar is disturbed it rears up and the organ is extended for a short period of time. When everted it it releases a chemical repellent with a foul smell to repel predators. It is harmless to humans, however.”
One of several black swallowtail caterpillars (all different instars — a younger one pictured below) found munching away on the carrot tops. I wasn’t trying to alarm it into pretending to be a snake, but just my looming presence in the carrot patch was probably a bit alarming.
It would be better for our crisper if the caterpillars were on the usually abundant Queen Anne’s Lace instead of our domestic carrots, but until the wild food gets going, I don’t mind sharing. The veg patch can be a pop-up pollinator garden.
Agent of destruction. Ah, no, I don’t mean the caterpillar shown here. I mean humans. We’re capable of a lot, and not all of it is great. This hungry hungry caterpillar — Lymantria dispar dispar (“gypsy moth”, hereafter “LDD moth”) — is only here because in 1868 one man thought he could use them for silk. Étienne brought them over from Europe, and “kept” them at his house. They got out, of course. When will humans learn it is one of life’s truths… Death, taxes, and they will get out.
We live here in a forest full of oaks, the LDD moth’s preferred food. Many of our trees are completely bare. In the middle of a green spring, dry leaves crunch underfoot. If we step out of our house *at all* recently, we get caterpillars all over us. The ground is slick with their frass. Later this summer, the moths will fly so thick they’ll hit us in the face. Maybe they should be called “truth moths”…
But I do not hate the LDD moth. It is a caterpillar eating leaves. There is no malice there, no forethought. Humans, on the other hand, might need a time-out to think about what we’ve done. And, importantly, what we plan to do. For nearly anything ecological today, not much has changed. We still chase quick fixes. How quickly, how quickly can I stop looking at this and pretend what I want to be normal is normal. But the complex fights our efforts to make it simple. And nothing complex will be simply solved. At least not without making more problems…
The good news is that while some outbreak years are brutal to witness, the data to date shows that these moths, even though they’re not from here, now collapse very much the same way as endemic species with outbreak cycles do. From diseases and the weight of their own populations. We are already seeing here the extraordinary number of caterpillars beginning to die off in equally extraordinary numbers. The crawling masses suddenly gone still. Healthy (deciduous) trees can withstand a couple of years defoliation. And if trees are unhealthy, well that’s a different string to follow…
It’s a tangled web indeed, but the bugs didn’t start this.
It’s quite easy to walk our woods and see “nothing”. There are many months when the trees are bare and the ground is brown. Our walking trail is a loop, and it is not difficult for a human to walk in a circle and not see a deer. But that is only when we are chasing our (or their) tails, looking for what we know we might see, not what is there.
I was out on a brown dry leafy walk a few days ago when I came across this. A startlingly shiny large blue-teal beetle walking amongst the leaves at my feet. I recognized it from other encounters, but couldn’t remember the ID.
This is a Meloe — an “oil beetle”. Sometimes called a “blister beetle”. So called because it can release oily droplets that contain the chemical cantharidin. Cantharidin, on contact with skin, can cause swelling and painful blisters. Another critter best filed not under “handle with care”, but rather “do not disturb”.
But, on closer inspection, I noticed that something was in the middle of disturbing this Meloe. On its rumpside was another smaller beetle. You can see it in the photo below. That bitty black and orange bug on the backside appears to be biting the big’un.
I am not certain what kind of bug this little one is, though it may be an Oedemeridae, or false blister beetle. Apparently some bugs have been found parasitizing Meloe beetles in order to harvest their cantharidin and make use of it for themselves. But interestingly, if this is an Oedemeridae, it already produces cantharidin all on its own. I would say that perhaps that means it is just being a little jerk, but I have not found that to be nature’s way. There is nearly always a will, a purpose, even if we or I don’t know what it is yet. And don’t feel too bad for the Meloe beetle either — they are themselves parasites of solitary bees. An integral part of their life cycle is to have their larva catch a ride on an adult bee back to its nest, where the Meloe larva consumes the larval bees and/or their food stores.
As Annie Dillard put it so marvelously in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see. More than one insect–the possibility of fertile reproduction–is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.”
I don’t feel the same way as Annie does about the situation, but what a colourful slice of language pie.
One of the reasons I think this may be a false blister beetle is that apparently they are big fans of trout lilies, which are currently out in force, so it does fit that I would be noticing these wee fellas on the ground (or on beetles on the ground) this time of year.
If the false blister beetle is trying to obtain cantharidin, there may have been better candidates. The Meloe oil beetle in this photo is a female. Apparently you can tell by looking at the antenna — in females the antenna are relatively straight, whereas male antenna have a noticeable crook at the end. They use it to help hang on to females while mating.
Female Meloe beetles do not continue to generate cantharidin during their lives. Whatever they have as adults is leftover from their larval stages of development. But! They can refuel — thanks to the male Meloes. During mating, a male Meloe beetle will transfer more cantharidin to the female, and top up her reserves. She’ll saunter away from their tryst fully recharged with all that toxic goodness.
I went for a barefoot walk of the woods yesterday. A thing to be savoured before the bitey bugs wake up. Sleep tight mosquitos…
One of many many things I like about walking barefoot is the quiet. I’m certain that to the critters in the woods I still sound like a bipedal animal (tripedal if you count my walking stick). And I certainly still have human scent and shape about me. But even my human ears can tell that my footfalls are not the same, when my feet are out. The leaves rustle instead of compress. The sound is more of foraging chipmunks than clomping shopping malls.
When you walk barefoot, you notice your steps. Shoes steamroller. They walk over, on top of, and through. When you can step straight onto any and every little thing, you tend to. Shoes make your feet callous to the world, while ironically your foot’s calluses let you feel it.
In bared feet, where your foot falls is part of your walk. The ground under your skin is a part of your moment. I pay more attention to what is coming just ahead, and what is directly beneath me right now. Where I am. This mud is soft, when that mud was firm. This moss is plush, that moss was crunchy. These leaves rustle, others were silent. There are many sticks here, when a few steps ago there were none. The ground here is cool, the ground there was warm. Hmmm this stone is chilly underfoot… ah, it’s light-coloured, and not absorbing the day’s heat. The last one was dark and toasty. That soft moss covered stone… how could I not divert my path, to go feel it underfoot?
One woman, who did not wear shoes until she was 20, said that having shoes on felt like walking “con los ojos vendados”, with blindfolds on her feet. Taking your shoes off is like peeling the blindfold back. Allowing your feet to see the ground. To simply chuck off your shoes and go walk the woods is not advised — it is too much too fast too blinding too sharp. I have a good sense now of what grows and scuttles in our woods, and there is no trash here, no broken glass. I have grown familiar with what I am likely to find where, and almost none of it is truly hazardous to me, though I show respect to the unknown by stepping mindfully.
I am also a practical lady who lives in a northern climate, and I have many pairs of practical shoes. There is a time and a place, and my steel-toed boots are best when, say, splitting wood. But if you are outside and you find a good spot, a bit of soft moss, or a smooth log, why not take the blindfold off for a few moments at least, and let your toes see the earth.
I went for a gentle jog in the woods the other day, barefoot. I saw two deer, two turkeys, two ruffed grouse, and a bluebird. Some of that is chance, each day in the woods is different, but I can’t help but notice that the days when my footfalls are softer, I often see more and from closer than the days I am shod.
But you want to know about the spiders. 🙂
Again yesterday, I walked a gentle lap of the woods. This time a slow walk. Slow enough and quiet enough that my ears eventually noticed that underneath the spring bird song was another sound. Or sounds. A sound I didn’t recognize, but that was persistent, and all around. A sort of … crickety noise? Like the leaves were… humming?
I looked closer, and saw some familiar shapes skittering around in the leaves. Wolf spiders. These jewel-eyed beauties are all over our woods. We sometimes see them scooting around, but most often notice them when the reflection of their eyes catches the light of our headlamps, when out for a walk after dark. A quick dazzle of sparkle on the ground.
Could this sound be coming from… the spiders?
I got closer and watched one of our fuzzy friends in his fast skittering path across the leaves. Sure enough, the sound was coming from him! A sort of humming, vibrating sound. From him, and from many many many others nearby.
I say “him” with confidence only now — having untangled this mystery once I got back home. This was the song of the wolf spider — a mating “call” played on the forest floor.
Male spiders actually produce vibrations, which hit surrounding dried leaves and cause them to vibrate. The vibrating leaf produces a low “purring” sound audible to humans, and that sound travels. If it hits leaves near a female spider, causing them to vibrate, she can pick up on the vibrations.
For this to work, male and female spiders need to be on a good surface that can vibrate. Dead leaves, in particular, are ideal. Leaves serve as a sort of telephone line or radio wave through which the spiders call females, and they’re essential to the wolf spider communication system…
And if you missed it in that video — here is the sound thanks to SmithsonianMag. I don’t know about you, but when I woke up today, I didn’t even know that “purring spiders” was a thing in the world. And now, here we are. I for one now feel that much closer to these little leaf kittens.
The little Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) butterfly I mentioned the other day took up residence on our porch under Sherman, our potted solstice shrubbery who was sitting there waiting to be planted. Though Sherman was in a pretty awkward spot for us, I decided to leave him where he was, until the Comma moved out.
However something else moved in — for the kill — before the Comma was finished hibernating. The other day I found just its wings left behind, its body becoming springtime sustenance for a different critter. I’m looking at you, chipmunks.
The wings being separated from its body was a perfect time to confirm the ID. An “Eastern Comma” is called that because of a white mark on the middle of its hindwing. Though the wing is quite tattered, you can see it in the photo below: the small white-ish “comma” mark in the centre of the image.
It was also a perfect time to try out a new-to-me toy. A literal toy in fact — a vintage children’s microscope. I had bought it a few months back from Weekender’s Vintage, a vintage seller in Warkworth, but had not yet taken it for a spin. The microscope was missing one magnification and a light, but was also sturdy and well-made, and a steal for what the lovely lady was asking for it. Two magnificatons is still lots more than none, and for a gal who is rarely far from her headlamp, supplying a replacement light is no problem.
The image below is what we see through our franken-scope: the beautiful layered scales that make up a butterfly’s wing. Though they have a reputation of being delicate, and in many ways they are, a decent argument could be made that butterflies and moths — these scale-winged critters — are miniature modern day dragons.
Some butterflies, like the Eastern Comma and the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), are so tough they don’t even leave Canada over winter. They just tuck themselves under a bit of bark or in a crevice and wait it out. So the next time you feel an Ontario winter is too long or too cold for you, just think — are you as tough as a butterfly?