Here in southern Australia it’s mid-summer, and in my little corner of Melbourne this summer has been a season of Arthropods. Just the other day I was struck by how many Spiders (Araneae) there were in or around my house all of a sudden; or, surely not “all of a sudden” – yet it seems that way. I can’t name all of them but they come in all shapes and sizes: large, frightening-looking black ones (one in the front door, usually hidden from view but obvious from its web; one living near the hinge of the window in my bedroom, only a thin flywire screen between it and me), numerous Daddy Longlegs (Pholcus phalangioides) scattered about the corners of the laundry and the unused fireplace; tiny Jumping Spiders (Salticidae) forever exploring the edges of the house where the French windows open onto the garden. An Orb-weaving Spider (Araneidae) has made its elegant circular web in a corner of the hills hoist clothesline in my back garden; another, just last week, took up a habit of spinning an equally beautiful web across the garden path every night only to dismantle it again every morning. (One night I had to go out to hang some washing on the line which necessitated walking through the web. The spider was absent and looking ahead of me carefully I plucked the web’s supporting strands until they broke and the web fell away like a used parachute into the bushes. Those strands of silk were remarkably tough and stretched and recoiled back to tautness with great resilience until they finally broke on my third or fourth attempt to sever them. It’s extraordinary to think of an animal which many people wouldn’t hesitate to crush casually underfoot being capable of creating such a structure – and entirely organically.)
It hasn’t all been spiders, of course – an increase in the number of spiders doesn’t occur without a corresponding population explosion in the insect world. Just tonight, to my great surprise, I discovered a large green Cricket (Gryllidae) clinging to the lace curtain in the front room of my house. Yesterday morning when I went to fetch a towel from the clothesline I discovered an enormous Moth (Lepidoptera), the length of my index finger, perched on the towel. Its exquisite dappled grey camouflage would have hidden it perfectly on the trunk of any number of trees, but on a deep blue towel it was less effective. (I trapped the Cricket in a jar and released it outside; the Moth I left in situ, abandoning the towel to it for retrieval some other time.) Weather conditions this summer, to the degree that it’s possible to generalise about weather in Melbourne, have been ideal for insects and spiders and any number of other arthropods: warm, sometimes hot; dry but with occasional rain to contribute to the higher-than-usual humidity.
Last week, late at night, I was coming out of a cinema and I found at the bottom of the stairs a Dragonfly (Epiprocta). It was sitting perfectly still on the tiles outside the cinema box-office, and closer inspection revealed it to be dead: a pity, certainly, yet it was hard not to be enchanted by the tiny corpse; it’s rare to get the opportunity for a close and detailed look at a Dragonfly and this particular one was such a fine specimen – large, perfectly intact, and covered with bright splashes of iridescent sky-blue – that it was almost like a jewel rather than a once-living animal. The film I’d been seeing was Arrietty, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s famous children’s book the Borrowers and the latest film from Japan’s revered Studio Ghibli, and after being treated for ninety minutes to the film’s exquisitely observed animations of Crickets and Cockroaches (Blattodea) and Woodlice (Oniscidea), coming across the Dragonfly made me feel as if the infinite wonders of the world had been opened up for me to experience afresh lest I should take them for granted for even a single day.
Just before discovering the Cricket tonight I was sitting on the small front veranda of my house. I was writing a story, the first proper short story I’ve attempted to write in a long time. I don’t believe that a writer should shut him or herself off from the world, in fact I believe the very opposite, and as I was writing I became distracted by the activities of a European Wasp just inside the front fence of the house. Wasps, too, have been noticeably common this summer, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to shoo them out of my house and close the doors against their further intrusion. The Wasp this evening, though, wasn’t interested in entering the house, and didn’t appear to notice me at all: it was far more interested in a spider’s web which had been strung between the fence and the inflorescence of a kangaroo paw which is one of the few plants growing in the dense clay that takes the place of soil in my front garden. At first I thought the Wasp was going to fly straight into the web, and I was concerned for it while also trying hard to be pleased for the spider, soon to have a meal. I was more than a little intrigued, too, about how a fight between the spider and the Wasp would pan out, though I was slightly ashamed by my own excitement at the prospect of such a deadly encounter.
As it happened, there was no such encounter. It’d misunderstood and underestimated the Wasp. Far from blundering heedlessly into the web, it was inspecting it: hovering carefully in front of one side of it, before flying swiftly and purposefully up and over the web and down the other side. I thought at that point that it had seen the web and saved itself, and would continue on its journey – but in fact it now flew towards the web, landing right in the middle of it. Had it been caught? I watched and listened for its frantic buzzing as it tried to free itself; for the eager scrambling of the spider from its hiding place; but there was no buzzing, and no spider. I got up off my chair and moved closer to the web, to see what the Wasp was doing.
It hadn’t landed on the web at all. It had landed on a large piece of debris in the centre of the web, the remains of some insect that had lacked the Wasp’s eyesight and keen awareness of its surroundings. The corpse was unrecognisable – though less so to the Wasp: I saw that it was biting the dead insect frenetically, with great determination, working its jaws first one way then another. I could hear the cracking of the dead insect’s exoskeleton; I could see the Wasp placing one of its legs carefully on the web to get greater leverage. When it did so I thought surely it must become stuck, surely the spider must appear – but no, still there was no sign of the spider that I’d seen in the web just the night before, a fat Orb-weaving Spider at least three times the Wasp’s size, and soon enough the Wasp severed a large part of the dead insect’s body and flew away with it. It rested on the neighbouring bush just long enough for me to see it with its prize, and then it flew away, down the street and into the clear evening sky. Ants (Formicidae) were crawling over my bare feet, and beginning to bite me, and I shook them off and went inside to prepare for myself some dinner.
Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org