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Jungle Out There

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Who or what could possibly want to hurt such a sweet, beautiful creature as a skipper butterfly.  There are lots of skipper butterflies in the world, maybe thirty-five hundred species world-wide, and somewhere around two hundred and fifty in North America.  The European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola), known as the Essex Skipper in Great Britain, is a relative newcomer to North America, having arrived in the Canadian province of Ontario in 1910.  Like many recent migrants to the United States and Canada, the European Skipper has done well for itself, and can now be found in much of the northeastern United States, in small scattered pockets throughout the midwest, and for some reason nearly the entire western third of Montana.  The European_IGP3219 Skipper caterpillar has an affection for timothy grass, and the butterflies deposit their eggs on these and similar grasses so that the caterpillars will find suitable nourishment upon hatching the following spring.  Thus, it has been theorized that eggs of the European Skipper found their way to western Montana in a shipment of grass hay, but no one knows for certain.

I first noticed these small butterflies, which are sometimes mistaken for diurnal moths, in the summer of 2003.  I cannot recall having seen them before that time, though it is possible I did, but failed to take note of them.  By 2003 it was impossible not to take note of them.  There were hundreds of them in the fields around the house.  By the summer of 2010 they were ubiquitous.  By the middle of July I found them everywhere I went except in dense timber.  They were in the tall grass surrounding the house, in the middle of a two hundred acre hayfield, and in the scattered meadows in the timbered hills half-a-mile above the house and beyond.  I have no idea how many were around.  Tens of thousands, at least,  maybe millions.  Whatever the tally might have been, there were lots of European Skippers this year.  A friend in town who is a retired biology professor said they were all over the golf course she plays three times a week.  Sometimes, she said, they had to shoo them off a ball before making another shot.  Fore!  Skipper comin’ at ya!

Whereas I can reasonably identify several dozen birds that frequent my neighborhood, and a similar number of wildflowers, I can identify with confidence only a handful of butterflies and moths.  Indeed, it took me some years to figure out that the butterflies that were feeding by the hundreds on several species of flowers thirty feet from the front door were, in fact, European Skippers.   As long as the sun is out they can be found there, as well as most everywhere else, skipping from flower to flower with a quick and erratic flight.  And now you understand why they are called skippers.

image002sIf the day is cloudy and cool they are less than aggressive in their feeding habits, and can often be observed hanging out on a single flower with wings folded above their backs, or clinging in a similar fashion to a tall stem of grass.  Clinging to grass stems is the way they spend their nights.  It takes them some time to warm up in the morning, and one can peer into the tall grass to see them clinging by the dozens to the stems like small orange Christmas decorations.

Once the sun has been up for half-an-hour or so the skippers are off to feed.  Many flowers attract their attention, but a few appear especially appealing.  Around here I see them from time to time on the wild geraniums, on one or another of several members of the composite family, some on the clovers, and occasionally a few can be found sniffing around the flowers in the garden along the side of the house.  Their favorite sources of nectar, however, appear to be the flowers of the alfalfa plant, and those of the Canada Thistle.  The thistles are abundant, the alfalfa less so, but enough has escaped cultivation to grow in scattered patches within a hundred yards of the house, and the flowers of both plants are covered by skippers from shortly after sunrise to an hour or so before sunset when the butterflies retire to the shelter of the grass.

Photographing butterflies is sure to stretch one’s patience to the limits.  For me, this is not much of a problem since there are few enough butterflies here that I pay them little attention, thus saving myself the exasperation of chasing one around the yard for half-an-hour only to have it flutter off into the woods.  The skippers, however, do not seem to give a whit if I am around or not, and tolerate my camera and tripod within a few inches of them as they are sipping nectar.   The European Skipper is a perfect subject: beautiful, abundant, and tolerant.  As I said, who or what could possibly wish to cause one of these sweet creatures any harm.  Aw gee, I think, they’re so cute.

Aw gee, they’re so tasty, thinks the female crab spider lurking among the flowers of the Canada Thistle, and now we know who or what could wish to harm the sweet and beautiful European Skipper.  The crab spider in the thistles appears to be Misumena vatia, commonly known as  the Flower Spider, or sometimes the Goldenrod Crab Spider.  It is one of the most common of the crab spiders, so called because with their two pairs of long front legs they look more or less like…well, a crab.  They really do.  The legs are jointed so as to allow the spider to move sideways as well as forward and backward, just like, you guessed it, a crab.  Misumena vatia can also change its color in order to match the color of the flowers on which it hunts its prey, although the ones I have seen around here are greenish-white.

The Flower Spider does not weave a web in order to catch its prey, but waits patiently among the flowers for its prey to venture close enough to be caught.  Patience is its greatest virtue, it_IGP3389 appears, as it waits motionless in the hot July sun.  Sometimes two hours pass without a butterfly coming close to the spider, but the spider displays no anxiety.  Sometimes one notices a small movement in one of the front legs, but aside from that the critter might as well be comatose.

Eventually a skipper will venture close enough to arouse the spider’s interest.  If the butterfly is within two inches of the spider, let’s say, the latter may begin to move slowly toward its prey.  The spider must move with deliberation in order to avoid alerting the butterfly to its presence, but neither can it dawdle because the butterfly is not likely to stay in one spot for much more than sixty seconds, most often less than that.  When it comes to stalking prey this a problem for every predator from wolves and cougars to ants.  The spider continues its stalk apparently undaunted by such concerns, as well it should since this is what it does for a living.  Indeed, the spider I watched and photographed over a period of nearly two weeks did nothing but wait and stalk.

Often the spider’s initial stalk goes unrewarded when the butterfly moves to another flower or flies away to a different plant altogether.  The spider then either backs slowly to where it had been hiding, or simply hunkers down in place to wait.  It may wait another two hours before a butterfly comes within striking distance, and if that stalk goes unrewarded the spider will wait some more.  This goes on all day long, every day, and from a human perspective would seem to be a losing proposition for the spider, but the spider displays no sign of dismay, and from time to time it may catch a fly or some other insect that has had the misfortune to wander by her perch, but these appear to be only light snacks for the spider compared to the much larger butterflies.

_IGP3284Eventually the spider will be compensated for its perseverance.  The slow stalk will bring it within reach, it will draw back the long front legs in preparation for an attack, and if all goes well, at least for the spider, a skipper will be caught.  Everything prior to the actual attack can be easily followed and photographed, but the moment of truth is impossible to see.  It happens in less than the blink of an eye.

Once the spider has the butterfly in its clutches the two of them often go for a short ride through the air, the spider releasing a thread of silk from its spinneret, before coming to rest on a nearby leaf or branch where the former does its utmost to keep the latter under control long enough to insert its fangs.  The silk line which it uses to steady itself once the two of them have landed may well serve the dual function of preventing the spider from being carried off by the butterfly.  Once the fangs are inserted and the poison released the butterfly slowly ceases its efforts to escape.  The spider then proceeds to consume the butterfly’s internal components which have been liquified by the poison.

Well, it’s a jungle out there.  It’s sip, suck, munch, crunch, chomp, chew, nibble, or die.  Everything eats something.  The ugly spider eats the beautiful butterfly fed by a flower, itself fed by the elements of the earth and atmosphere.  The butterfly’s purpose is to reproduce, but to the spider the butterfly is a commodity.  The Canada Thistle is only a plant, a non-sentient entity, we think, but its purpose is the same as the butterfly.  Snatch a carrot from the ground, and pop it into your mouth.  The carrot is just a commodity, and another being is fed.  Beauty and ugliness has nothing to do with it.  Nature is about what is, not what we think it ought to be.  We are all here to reproduce, but in the end we are all commodities, too.

Over the course of two weeks the crab spider caught between two and five skipper butterflies each day, and was never more than a couple of feet from where I first saw her.  Each butterfly was consumed in less than an hour at which point it was allowed to fall to the ground or into the branches below.  The spider then simply stayed put, or perhaps moved to another flower two or three inches away.

Meanwhile, the other butterflies have continued their foraging, often feeding within a couple of inches of the feeding spider.  The butterflies are either unaware that one of their kind is being_IGP3311 sucked dry in front of their eyes, or are simply unconcerned.  Indeed, once the spider has finished her meal and moved off a short distance, the butterflies feed next to the spider with impunity.  In one instance, a butterfly stood on top of the spider, proboscis extended in search of nectar, and the satiated spider could not, or did not wish to, muster a response.  Indeed, the poor creature appeared to be trapped beneath the butterfly, who was for the moment, at any rate, living a charmed life.

Near the end of the second week the spider disappeared, and I did not see her again.  She had grown considerably over the intervening days, and I assumed she had moved into the foliage to lay from one to four hundred eggs on a leaf which she would then fold and wrap with silk.  She will then stay near the nest to protect her eggs from predators since any number of insects from ichneumon wasps to ants and earwigs and flies may attempt to parasitize the eggs.  It is said, too, that she will stay near her eggs until they are ready to hatch because her young will not be able to breech the sewn leaf, and when she has opened it enough for the them to emerge her maternal chores will have come to an end.  Indeed, should any of the young invade her new territory they will likely be killed by her.  At any rate she has not eaten for nearly a month, and her time is coming to an end.  The young will fend for themselves, spending the winter on the ground before making a final molt early the nest summer when they will begin their lives as adults.  The females will gain eighty percent of their weight in the final instar before retiring to a leaf to begin the process once again.

For their part the skippers will mate, the females will lay the eggs on stems of host grass where they will remain through the winter before hatching the following summer.  The caterpillar will feed on the host plant before eventually becoming a sweet and beautiful European Skipper.  I’ll be waiting come next July.  So too, I suspect, will the crab spiders.




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