Sunday, September 3, 2017

Death From Above... and Below

WARNING! Contains graphic descriptions of insect mayhem and hornworm carnage! Few people would think of Hornworm Caterpillars as being much more than tomato-devouring, nightmare-inducing, yucky, poopy garden pests. And for long time we would have agreed with that. But if you look at them as a soon-to-be White-lined Sphinx Moth, that opinion could be softened a bit. We have "volunteer" datura plants that sprout spontaneously in our front yard throughout the year. We let them grow, because the Hornworms would rather eat Datura than our tomato plants. Fair enough. So while weeding around the Datura recently, we were surprised to witness a scene of carnage. On the ground beneath the largest well-chomped Datura I noticed a very small Hornworm being set upon by ants. It was crawling as quickly as it could, trying to escape the methodical ant gang. Imagining the eventual Sphinx-Moth-to-be, I scooped it up in my garden trowel and placed it up in the Datura plant. The little Hornworm quickly grabbed the leaf and ducked underneath it, out of sight. I went back to my weeding, but immediately found another little Hornworm in the same ant predicament. And another one. And another. All together, there were 8 or 9 small caterpillars in various stages of ant attack. None of them looked very happy. I quickly reassessed my decision to weed in that particular area. As I pondered where to weed next, a Paper Wasp flew into the same Datura plant. It flew very slowly and purposely between the Datura stems and under the leaves, like it was searching for something. Finally it zeroed in on one of the larger Hornworms, which flinched as the wasp approached. The Paper Wasp backed off, then found a smaller Hornworm. That Hornworm wasn't as lucky as the first one, as the wasp started munching on its midsection. The wasp tried to fly off a couple of times with the Hornworm, but it was too heavy with the additional weight. Finally the wasp was able to trim it down to a "travel size" and flew off with its prize. More Paper Wasps came into the Datura, hunting down Hornworms and carrying them off. The Hornworms that fell onto the ground were quickly found by the ants. This Hornworm carnage went on for at least another 20 minutes. The larger Hornworms in the Datura plant remained unscathed, probably because they were too big for the wasps to contend with. I looked down on my shoe and saw a tiny little Hornworm crawling up to safety. I picked it up and placed it on a different Datura plant, away from the mayhem. So hopefully we will have at least one beautiful White-Lined Sphinx Moth in our yard, in the near future. "Every moment there is creation, every moment destruction. There is no absolute creation, no absolute destruction. Both are movement, and that is eternal." ~ Ramana Maharshi (Indian philosopher, 1879-1950)