Halloween gross-out: wasp v. spider smackdown

Tarantula, Round Valley.

In the 1979 film “Alien,” a monster in hatchling form lays a parasitic larva inside one of the good guys. The larva matures in a couple hours and – no respecter of immaculate walls and ceilings – bursts through the host’s chest as a small (soon to grow really really large) beast with little or no sense of humor.

One factor that keeps our eyes riveted to the screen is the consolatory concept “it’s just a movie.” Just fiction. But where do these makers of horror fiction get some of their best ideas? From the facts.

Of the creatures we run across in real life, the spider ranks high on the creep-out quotient. A life form grotesquely unlike us, it sports eight legs and way too many eyes for our taste. It wears its skeleton on its sleeve and its abdomen in its back pocket. And it dines with a gruesome gentility, paralyzing its prey with venom, wrapping the hapless victim in silk while its innards liquefy, and returning later to sip away with a straw.

One creature that suffers from not a twinge of arachnophobia is the tarantula hawk (we’ll shorthand it as “T. hawk”), a large wasp that preys on tarantulas. As in “Alien,” the T. hawk delivers an especially nasty package to its victim. But the horror inflicted on the character Kane in “Alien” is a spa holiday compared to the real-life tarantula’s ordeal. Shall we elaborate?

The male tarantula stops growing at about age 7 and sheds his exoskeleton for the last time. Normally a nocturnal creature, the mature male leaves the protection of his burrow in September and October and goes searching for a mate in broad daylight. That procreative impulse is good for the species but hazardous to the suitor’s health. Out in the open, the tarantula is a prime target for the T. hawk.

The T. hawk measures up to 2 inches in length, making it one of the largest wasps in the world. It hunts the tarantula on the ground, by scent, skittering around till it finds the female spider’s burrow or locates the male spider while he’s out cruising for chicks.

A tarantula hawk sips nectar at Los Vaqueros. The wasp uses the spider not as food, but as a larva nursery.

The T. hawk probes the spider with its antennae, formulates a plan of attack and strikes with its stinger, which delivers a paralytic blow to the tarantula’s nervous system from which the spider never recovers.

A tarantula expelled from its burrow and paralyzed will be dragged back to the burrow; a tarantula ambushed in the open will be dragged to a burrow excavated by the T. hawk. The female wasp lays an egg on the spider’s abdomen and seals the crypt.

It takes about a week for the larva to hatch. Keep in mind that the spider isn’t dead; merely paralyzed. The T. hawk grub burrows into the spider’s abdomen and feeds – and here’s the icky part – bypassing the spider’s vital organs in order to keep it alive. Clever little grub. When dessert time comes and the spider’s vitals are finally devoured, the grub begins the pupation process, which takes a few weeks. The cute little T. hawk grub morphs into an adult, then re-enacts the “Alien” scene in a climactic belly burst.

A public-service announcement: the T. hawk’s sting is hazardous not only to the tarantula’s health; it can put the human nervous system on pain overload. Although the T. hawk isn’t easily provoked, its sting ranks among the most painful of any insect. According to biochemist Justin O. Schmidt, the T. hawk sting delivers “immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” Outside Magazine’s Katie Arnold describes the sting as “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.” The good news: the peak pain lasts only three minutes and isn’t lethal.

In Round Valley's Murphy Meadow, a male tarantula inspects a burrow in hopes of hitting on some long-legged, eight-legged brunette.

The male tarantula leads a hard life. He must fend off not only the T. hawk, but the female tarantula during mating. A famished female will kill (though seldom eat) the male if he fails to make a swift and smooth exit from the coital scene. As a defense, the male grows two tibial spurs (“stirrups”) with which he hooks and neutralizes the female’s fangs before mating.

After luring the female out of her burrow and impregnating her, the male tarantula never returns to his own burrow. He puts his nose to the reproductive grindstone and continues pounding the pavement for poontang until the lethal winds of November – or a T. hawk – permanently ends his quest.

Tarantula mating season is nearly done. If you’re lucky enough to cross paths with these remarkable creatures, admire, take your snapshots, but cut them some slack. Unlike those cardboard creepy-crawlies infesting our haunted houses, they’re probably minding their own besotted business.

And if you hear a buzzing noise and spot a large, orange-winged, black-bodied wasp, follow the the tarantula’s inspiring example. Duck for cover.

East Bay park pros: stars behind the scenery

Eddie Willis explains Native American cosmology at Vasco Caves Regional Park.

It was late August but I wasn't late for dawn. By 6:35 the Round Valley summit was flooded by the light of a burnt-red sun flaring through a gap in the sawtooth silhouette of the Sierra. Atop that highest hill in the park – my treasured sanctuary – stood a blue oak I call Old One – my treasured tree.

As I approached Old One to pay my respects a strange object came into focus – dozens of strange objects. Throughout the tree's mesh of twigs and leaves hung tiny red … thingys … as if a swarm of miniature sea urchins had blown through and latched on.

I snapped photos of the little buggers, hurried home and knocked off an e-note to Denise Defreese, who at the time supervised Round Valley for the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). The gist of the note: what the heck are these red thingys? Are they hazardous to the tree's health?

I hit “send” and moseyed downstairs to brew a cup of coffee and get down to the serious business of writer's procrastination.

When I returned to my inbox 30 minutes later I found that 10 minutes earlier Denise had written back, explaining that the thingys in question were “urchin galls” laid by gall wasps. No danger to the tree. She dialed me in to Ron Russo's excellent “Call of the Galls, The Lively Universe of an Ancient Oak,” published on Bay Nature's website.

Who says you can't get good service nowadays?

In 2014 the EBRPD, the largest urban park district in the nation, celebrated its 80th birthday, replete with art, harvest and wildflower festivals, concerts, a health program, outdoor movies, a gala dinner at the Claremont – you name it. But amid the well-deserved hoopla, the district did what it does year in and year out: provided access to the world of nature that lies just outside our doorstep; access to the awe that world inspires, the healing it offers.

I've been blessed. I've traced with my fingertip a bobcat's track embossed on the caked mud; felt the spring wind sifted through a thousand Coulter pine needles; heard the crazy chorus of a coyote pack assembling for the evening hunt.

Roger Epperson Ridge, Morgan Territory Regional Preserve. The inscription reads “In memory of Roger Epperson (1954-2008) in recognition of his significant and lasting contributions to the East Bay Regional Park District and the landscapes he loved.”

Mike Moran leads a Raptor Baseline expedition at Big Break Regional Shoreline.

I've been blessed. So I bless the rangers and docents and supervisors who help me understand what I'm touching and feeling and hearing. I bless those who negotiate with landowners and buy the properties; those who design the trails, build the bridges – heck, maintain the outhouses – at those havens of natural beauty. I bless those who do the dirty work of ripping out poison oak and yellow star thistle, and those who do the clean but hard work that takes place in offices and meeting rooms.

“What is it about the people in the district – in our DNA – that makes us responsive?” said EBRPD GM Robert Doyle. “We were small. We're big now, but we were small. It's still a family of caring. All our park supervisors care about their parks. They know it's pretty special to work out in this stuff – and that the public's who they work for. They're professional and very committed to their mission. And that's personal – as much as anything in the institution. I'm extremely proud of the staff here.”

The EBRPD heroes who over the years have graced me with their time and assistance are too numerous to recount, but include Carol Alderdice, Rex Caufield, Jim Cooper, Defreese, Doyle, Emily Hopkins, Carol Johnson, Isa Polt-Jones, John McKana, Patrick McIntyre, Mike Moran, Traci Parent and Eddie Willis.

Navigating this juggernaut through the turbulent waters of national and regional economics is no small task. For those unfamiliar with the scale of this enterprise, the EBRPD manages 65 parks (including shorelines, preserves, wildernesses, recreation areas, inter-park trails and land-bank areas) comprising more than 1,250 miles of trails laid out on more than 119,000 acres. And let's not overlook the 235 family campsites plus 42 youth camping areas; 10 interpretive and education centers; 11 freshwater swimming areas, boating and/or stocked fishing lakes and lagoons plus a disabled-accessible swimming pool; 40 fishing docks and three bay fishing piers. And when when 5,000 state park employees lost their jobs during the recent recession, not a single EBRPD person was laid off.

Where the district goes from here will be watched with interest by its constituency: the campers, cyclists and runners; the chirpy families, solo hikers and cyclist convoys who pay these facilities around 25 million annual visits.

One way the district must go is to adapt to the constituency's changing face.“Everybody knows that when you go hiking, you're enjoying it but you're also doing it for your health,” said Doyle. “It's part of your stress release and exercise. But the park agencies were never overt about it. It was, 'Go enjoy the beautiful scenery and the wildlife and the environment.' And we're trying to be more direct. We have a national crisis of obesity with kids, and heart attack with seniors.”

To that end, the district has become a partner in Healthy Parks, Healthy People, a worldwide effort to promote fitness by getting folks off their duffs and into the world of nature. Among the slew of activities offered by the EBRPD are bike rides, kayaking, birdwatching, wildflower discovery, a host of programs tailored to kids, and the Trails Challenge, the district's longstanding self-guided hiking program.

Spying on raptors at Vasco Caves.

The district must also contend with one of the culprits in our current health crisis: the popularity of social media and its power to keep kids indoors and indolent. Doyle's generation “would be out climbing trees, getting dirty, looking under rocks,” he said. “Now kids go 'Eewww. I'd rather get on my social network.' And for us, the environment was social. We were always with a gang of friends – with our girlfriends, with friend-friends, in groups camping out. It was very social. But social now is 'social media.' So how do we build the next generation of park supporters?

“The generation who raised me are all gone now. They were all environmentalists. They were the people who established Save Mt. Diablo, Save the Bay, the state park system. They're gone. The people I got connected with in high school are in their 50s. Where's that next group of kids who wants to come charging up the road?"

That road is more than metaphorical. “We shouldn't say, 'Don't go off the road; this is a fragile environment,'" said Doyle. "This is a tough-as-nails environment. What ruins an environment is dozing off the hilltop and putting a building on top of it. If a bicycle or a horse or a group of kids get off trail, yes, they can cause some damage. So does a big pond-filler of a storm. My biggest worry isn't the economy or public support for the park district in general. It's: where do we get the next generation of men, women, Hispanics, Asians interested in representing the state and taking care of the parks?”

How we answer that question will cast a glaring light on the priorities of our heart. As Terry Tempest Williams put it in “Testimony,” “If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go.”

Next time you cross paths with a park service worker, the star of the show – from whichever generation – grooming a trail or cleaning an outhouse, don't forget to thank that person. For us all.