“MISERICORDE, n. A dagger, which in medieval warfare, was used by the foot soldier to remind an unhorsed knight that he was mortal.”
– Ambrose Bierce
It could be the looming death of summer, as back-to-school is upon us this week. Or perhaps it’s the agonizing wails emanating from my son’s bedroom, as he is being “tortured” (his words) to finish required reading before Wednesday’s start of class (I mean, seriously…how painful can a book with a Golden Retriever named Ranger on the cover be???). Or maybe it’s just the reality of Monday puncturing my soul after vacationing for two luxurious weeks, where time had little meaning. Whatever it is, it’s got me feeling somewhat morbid. Which means you’re in luck, because I’m in the mood to share.
When you spend time studying insects in the field, as I have for several years now, not only do you notice all of the amazing details and transformations, but you begin to quickly hone in on anything that seems off. Just yesterday, for instance, J. and I noticed a bee trying to fly from flower to flower, but it was like she was drunk. Sometimes she would land on the petals and simply fall off backwards. Upon closer inspection, we could see that she was missing her left antenna. A similar thing happened back in July, as I spent a morning capturing images of butterflies in the pollinator garden. On this occasion, though, my spidey sense led to a bit more gruesome discovery.
I was standing along the lower level of the garden, looking toward the Pincushion Flowers on the upper path, when I spotted a male Cabbage White butterfly. Immediately, I knew that something was wrong. How? He was hanging from the underside of the flower. If you know anything about butterflies, you know that they land on top of flowers to nectar, certainly not under them. They might crawl around to the undersides, but you never see them limply dangling like this.
I quickly scurried around, up the steps and along the top path to get a better look, all the while keenly aware that opportunities in the world of live photography are fleeting. It’s like running the 200m in the Olympics, gold being measured by milliseconds. I eased in, ever so delicately, and it was then that I became aware of the brutal truth…my friend was not alone. Within the shadows I could see him, crawling, stretching, adjusting, predator sucking the last drips of life from prey…the Jagged Ambush Bug.
The Jagged Ambush Bug hides on flowerheads waiting for other unsuspecting soft-bodied insects. It stabs them with its proboscis, injecting a poison that first paralyzes the victims and then melts their inner contents into a sludge, easily drinkable through his straw-like rostrum. His size, stealth and potency allow him to attack subjects many times his size, like our friend Cabbage White.
At first glance, the scene is reminiscent of the dagger thrust through the top of the skull, the symbol of death and power, tattooed by centuries of seedy sailors upon their arms. Unlike the sword, carried by gentlemen in official battles, you cannot see the dagger coming. It is the weapon of deception, easily concealed until the precise moment of deathly surprise. Yes, at first glance, this is what you see…the Ambush Bug with his dagger piercing the skull. That is, unless you know butterflies.
You see, if you know butterflies, you know that the dorsal side (top side, back side) of the butterfly typically features the most prominent coloring, the thorax has all of the fuzzy hairs and the abdomen appears rounded. The ventral side (bottom side, under side) often exhibits duller coloring, the thorax has shorter hairs and the abdomen is virtually flat (unless of course it’s a pregnant female). So let’s turn this photo on its end…
What you see here are the colorful dorsal wings of the Cabbage White, once fully raised arms in flight now sunkenly lowered, the backside juncture between his thorax and abdomen pinched in a downward rigor mortis “V” from the paralytic poison. You see it? Are you getting it now?
Here’s how the tragedy plays out…
The villain lies in wait, upside down, beneath the blossoming flower, like a vengeful spider. Cabbage White floats in, a knight in shining ivory glory, to just the wrong flower at just the wrong moment, a true fate of time and circumstance. He dismounts from his journey to begin a long, cool drink of nectar when suddenly a violent thrust pierces him from beneath, a misericorde, wounding him where most vulnerable in his armor, not through the skull, but rather straight up through the THROAT! The villain pulls him down through soft petals of flower, nauseous color swirling around him, paralysis setting in, his wings lowering to a pathetic droop, only the dagger holding him in mid-air suspension until his very last breath, never to know the number of minutes he will dangle. And then, it is over.
Peachy, huh? Yeah, that’s the way the world works out there in the garden, people.
Ever dream of floating like a butterfly? Guess I just dashed those dreams. I think I’ll take a walk outside on two legs now, like a human, with liquid on some ice, in a glass, gratefully enjoying my Monday evening. Maybe you should do the same.
All the best,
– All content photos by Amanda J. Schulz