One of the biggest privileges for us as guides at Londolozi is getting to meet incredible guests from around the world. Spending upwards of seven hours a day together, and making lifelong memories usually leads us to all form a unique and genuine connection. Each guest I have connected with has taught me something completely different, and usually, in a field, I have little to no knowledge of. But that’s the beauty. We are all learning from each other in the presence of nature – the greatest teacher of all.
On a recent drive, this is exactly what happened. Having two qualified doctors on the vehicle, tracker Ray Mabilane and I were more than keen to share our knowledge (his far more practical than mine) on the medical uses of plants, and hear the guests’ more modern, scientific understanding of the effects. We had stopped the vehicle and were talking about the numbing effects of a sliver cluster leaf tree when a loud and distinctive rattle came from something that flew past our heads.
Enter, the Spider-Hunting Wasp
The sound we heard is from a larger species of spider-hunting wasps. There are various species of spider-hunting wasps found at Londolozi, and more than 200 are found in South Africa alone. Before I get too scientific, I need to preface this blog with two things. Firstly, there is a lot we still don’t know about the wasp’s themselves, and secondly, as important as the role they play in maintaining the balance of nature is, these insects are rather barbaric.
Let’s start at the beginning.
As the name would suggest, spider-hunting wasps are a unique genera of wasp species specializing in hunting spiders of all shapes and sizes. Their distinctive flight ‘rattle’ is made in flight with their wings, supposedly to assist them in hunting, by causing movement in the prey (side note: I am unconvinced on this theory as they spend a large amount of time searching the ground in apparent silence).
The females are generally larger than the males, with the largest species up to 50mm in length, dwarfing the smallest species of spider-hunting wasps at less than 10mm. Each species is adapted to hunting spiders, which also vary greatly in size in every conceivable habitat. The spider-hunting wasp is an efficient flier and has a well-developed prothorax to use its forelegs to dig burrows.
This wasp is known for its agile hunting tactics and its ability to paralyse its prey with a venomous sting. The wasp’s venom is a complex mixture of chemicals that work together to disrupt the spider’s nervous system, causing paralysis. In what can only be described as evolutionary mastery, the wasp delivers the exact amount of venom to the spider to only paralyse it, not kill it. Whilst I was sharing this with the doctors on our vehicle, I could see the look of disbelief on their faces, and in turn, I realised what I had just shared.
Here, at Londolozi, there is a wasp – it’s about 5cm long.
And there is a whole medical field of study into anaesthetics, with individuals studying for years to come to grips with the intricacies of the drugs and dosages… and this wasp does that on a daily basis. Without batting an eyelid. Nature is crazy!
But Why? (This is the slightly barbaric part)
The female spider-hunting wasp paralyses its prey and puts it into a coma, not to feed on it, but for its larvae. The wasp then takes the paralysed spider back to its burrow, where it will lay its eggs on the spider’s body. After roughly ten days of incubation, the wasp’s larvae will then feed on the spider’s still-living body, eventually killing it. The larvae eat their way outwards leaving the organs and heart for last in order to preserve the corps of the spider.
These wasps, therefore, undergo a complete metamorphosis (holometabolic life cycle) that includes an egg, larvae, pupates, and adult stage. After the egg hatches, and the larvae have fed on the spider, they then spin a dense cocoon around themselves. The larva will then lie dormant for months until temperature and humidity stimulate pupation. After a pupal period of around three weeks, the adult emerges to continue the cycle.