small but vital package

I found myself peeping through the window as I eagerly awaited the return of the game rangers from their morning game drive. Although we are now modern safari staff, we still gather as if waiting for the stories of tribal hunters coming back from an expedition. Unknowingly my story was already hard at work and although it was going to be small, it was going to be vital.

Finally, pouring into the employees area of the lodge, the rangers arrived for their breakfast. Grabbing my cup of coffee I moved towards the "tribal meeting". As always it wasn't long before the rangers started comparing game drives. They were sharing their thoughts on the lion pride's whereabouts and the leopard that they found due to their superb tracking skills. It was early morning but the pressure of the penetrating heat made us well aware that it was still summer. This morning stood out above the others because of the two wasps persistently swooping down and flying in and between the staff. I felt something soft dropping onto my shoulder. I didn't think anything of it until I saw a ranger pointing towards me. I leapt out of my seated position into something that looked like a traditional dance. To my embarrassment my dancing ritual was for nothing more than just a floppy caterpillar now lying dead still on the floor.

My poking the caterpillar with a small stick got everyone's attention and it wasn't long before we all started comparing our opinions on how this caterpillar landed on my shoulder. Unexpectedly a wasp dove in, landed not too far from us and eagerly started making its way towards the caterpillar. Assessing the "crime scene" with the wasp as the possible killer, we realized that the caterpillar didn't just fall from the tree branch. The wasp was guilty and played an enormous role in the falling of the apparently dead caterpillar.

More ears and eyes gathered while Andre imparted information on the wasps forming part of the Sphecidae family and explaining that the caterpillar wasn't dead but only paralysed by the wasp's sting. We were mesmerized by Andre's explanations and how true it was to the wasp's behaviour. We watched how she circled and investigated the caterpillar before she climbed on top of it and positioned the caterpillar in-between her legs. To lay the eggs she gently turned the caterpillar over to expose the soft under parts. For that moment, while she laid her eggs, we as her audience were without a breath. With her eggs laid she proceeded to gently drag the caterpillar to the shady corner created by a wooden table. To our dismay she flew off without any warning, leaving her valuable package behind. Andre grabbed the opportunity to calm our concerns, giving us more details of the wasp's reproductive behaviour and telling us that she would return. I have to say that we waited for quite some time when just before our doubts got the better of us she swooped in and landed not too far from her numbed victim. She followed her own scent trail right up to where the caterpillar was lying. Before we could fully appreciate her return, she dashed off for the second time. A game ranger decided to follow her. He wasn't too far from us when he announced that she landed and entered a small hole in the ground. The uniqueness of what we were experiencing kept us glued to our seats and determined to see the end result.

Wasp laying eggs in Caterpillar at Sabi Sabi

We became so blasé as to her presence and on-going visits that we didn't notice that the time she spent with her victim was becoming longer. Andre had all of our attention, telling his story on how the wasp paralyzes it's victim by injecting it with venom, then digs a large enough hole to bury the caterpillar that contains her eggs for the larvae to feed on at a later stage. By the time I tore myself away from the conversation I noticed that the caterpillar had moved. With our attention and focus back on the wasp and caterpillar we were amazed by how she positioned herself over the caterpillar, picked him up and comfortably started walking with the caterpillar neatly tucked in close to her body. Like cheering an athlete running the last kilometre of a marathon we were right by her side watching her every move with anticipation. We watched how she closed the distance between herself and the hole. One of the staff actually clapped his hands when she reached her destination. Leaving the caterpillar outside the hole she went inside to check for any unwanted visitors that might have occupied the hole whilst she was gone. We watched how she returned, collected the caterpillar and disappeared into the hole with it. She soon emerged alone and quickly started gathering sand particles to fill the hole. Working hard for a few minutes she completely concealed the entrance to the hole - no one would ever have known it was there. We were relieved at her succeeding in her small but vital task at hand.

Once again nature showed us the immeasurable capacity to self-sustain and how every single creature on earth forms part of the circle of life. Cruel but crucial was the caterpillar's purpose in life.

by: magdel vorster

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