Yesterday I experienced a really amazing coincidence of events. Let me start by reporting that I had just mowed the front lawn a few days ago and, while I was doing the subsequent
edging, couldn’t help but notice a pair of fresh piles of dirt with rather obvious burrows nearly an inch in diameter in the grass quite close to the edge of the driveway. We have had 13-lined ground squirrels (gophers) in the front lawn in the past, and I thought, in passing, that more had moved in.
Then, yesterday, I was out looking fondly at the flowers and with trepidation at the weeds, and as I passed one of the burrows, I stopped for a closer look. The excavations from the ground squirrels are normally smooth and even; the soil around these openings, however, was distinctly granular, similar to that of an ant hill.
As I looked more closely still, I noticed something lighter in color moving in the deeper shadow of the burrow, and as the inhabitant moved closer to the opening, I recognized the ominous and quite frightening visage of a cicada killer, a wasp of truly scary proportions. I have always had a very healthy respect for these predatory and incredibly hardy giants, and remember distinctly a summer’s day while we were living in Virginia and a half-dozen or so were cruising around our lilac bush. Since our daughters and their friends often played in the front yard, I got a can of wasp & hornet killer, and thoroughly sprayed several of them from near-point-blank range—to absolutely no apparent effect! A second soaking dose had no more result than the first so, fairly trembling with awe and not wanting to piss them off even more, I let them have the front yard and had the kids move to the back until they should move on. But this time I had the urge to capture one in a jar to have a much closer look through a nice, sturdy layer of glass. I upended one over the opening to one of the two burrows and waited. During the first few minutes, I could see the large head coming up the shaft, but its owner made no move to come out. After a patient 20 minutes of this, I decided to give it a little urging. I attached a plastic tube to a funnel and poured a few ounces of water into the mouth of the burrow. I was immediately rewarded with loud, angry buzzing from within, and the creature fairly burst out, flying straight up into the upended jar, and I had my prize. But what to do with it? It was far too angry to hold still for a photo session, and the glass far too wavy for sharp images, and besides, I thought, I’d be mowing again soon and did not want to chance angering it again, so I decided to put it down so that I could study it closely. I considered several alterna-tives, and settled on what seemed to be the most humane—I put the jar into the freezer. I looked again in 45 minutes and found it completely unmoving. After putting it back in the sun for another 10 or so to be completely sure it was dead, I was now able to look at it as intimately as I wished. It had shrunk somewhat from its live size, but it was still a most impressive sight, especially with its formidable stinger, a full centimeter in length (the scale of the rule is in inches).
As luck and happy circumstance would have it, I was blessed later in the day with another of nature’s wonders when I took Limo out for his last constitutional and paused to look at the web of a very interesting spider that I’d seen a few days ago and that had subsequently disappeared. I was hoping that it would return so that I could do a photo study to share with Squiddy, but its web was in disrepair. As I looked, though, I noticed several cicada larvae clinging to the lower surface of a branch in the pine tree that held the abandoned web. My curiosity was further rewarded, as one of them had split its brown, chitinous case and the adult was very slowly emerging. So I gathered up my camera and tripod and
spent the next half-hour gleefully watching and photographing this marvelous miracle of metamorphosis.
I realize now that I should have left the camera in place and made a couple more shots as its wings unfurled and it took on its classic, elegant adult form, but I didn’t. I’ll keep checking back for the next few evenings, though, to see if I can capture a more suitable final chapter to the process. As I was putting my equipment away again (too soon), I reflected on the unlikely coincidence that it was my luck to experience—the fearsome killer earlier in the day and the lovely cicada at its close, now somewhat more likely to live a full life.