When I sat down to photograph a spider wasp, little was I planning to sit rooted to the spot for over two hours, witnessing one of the most fascinating dramas unfurl in front of me. The setting – River Tern Lodge, managed by Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd – a resort at the edge of the Western Ghats. The season – monsoon.
It was about 09:30 am; I had finished breakfast and stepped out of the dining area. The sun was bright. The lush, wild growth was too inviting to resist. Armed with my camera, I stepped out, only to be taunted by a butterfly which would sit still only for a brief moment at any given place, and not give me a chance to photograph it. I followed the butterfly through the brush for a while and reached a small clearing just a few paces from the dining area. Here, my attention was drawn by a black coloured wasp with orange wings. She was carrying a limp Signature Spider (Argiope sp.).
She placed the spider down and scurried around the area as if scouting for something, until she reached a small hole. It dawned upon me that she was busy ensuring the safety of and food supply for the next generation. She must have stung and paralysed the spider that she was carrying. She inspected the hole and returned to the spider. I was hoping that she would drag the spider into the hole and that I could get a good photograph.
For reasons best known to her, she decided to abandon this hole. She scouted around and tried digging a fresh hole at a few places. Finally, having selected the spot, she started digging rapidly with deft, coordinated movements of her front legs and hind legs. Between bouts of digging, she visited the paralysed spider time and again, as if to size up the spider. Before long, the hole was deeper than the length of her body. Again, I fervently wished to see the spider being dragged to the hole.
To my dismay, she scurried around located another spot and started digging again. The whole process of energetic digging and visiting the spider continued. During one of the regular visits to the spider, she dragged it closer to the site of excavation. The digging continued. Once more, she dug a hole deep enough to conceal her entire self. This done, she came out and looked around. I readied my camera. In one swift move, she reached the spider, grabbed it in her mandibles and dragged it into the hole. This happened so quickly that I failed to photograph the proceedings.
She came out briefly and went into the hole abdomen first. This entry into the hole, I presumed, was to lay her egg.
The wasp came out and started shoveling the excavated mud back into the hole. Having shoveled some mud, she packed the soil with rapid taps of her abdomen. She did this until the hole was almost full. Then she meticulously swept all the unwanted material away from the site. Subsequently, she dug some mud from the surroundings and covered the hole, before venturing a few inches farther to gather small stones and debris to cover the nest.
Why the two tunnels that the wasp excavated were abandoned, still remains a question in my mind. There was no reason that was obvious to me. This question was still haunting me when something very unexpected happened.
The female had almost finished the job that she had started, when another larger individual of the same species came by. A fight between the owner and the intruder ensued.
They would run into and grapple with each other before going their own way. This was repeated several times. The intruder tried digging up the hole on a couple of occasions when the owner was busy gathering material to give finishing touches to her nursery. Finally, the owner of the hole was vanquished. She spent a little time in the vicinity before she was gone. During this time, she seemed to be very confused and was often seen trying to tackle stones too large for her. Whether this was displacement behaviour or not would be difficult to say.
The intruder started digging up the hole again in a great frenzy. Having reached the spider, she, like the owner, went into the hole backwards and emerged out after a brief moment. She repeated the entire process of filling up the hole and packing the soil with her abdomen. Like on the previous occasion, the taps were audible to me. Having completed her act, she too flew away. I was so engrossed watching the whole event unfold that I almost forgot that I had my camera in my hand, in spite of the weight of the equipment trying to compete with the wasp for attention. I left the site to catch up with my work.
The next morning, I packed my bags and as I walked past the stage where the drama was enacted the previous day, I decided to quickly check on the nest. I was in for a big surprise – the nest hole was dug up again, with no wasp in sight! What had transpired during the rest of the day after I had left is anybody’s guess.
This whole episode left me perplexed. I had neither heard of nor witnessed such behaviour in the past. This will be something that I shall remember and recount for a long time to come.