Our beautiful planet: Blanketing a town in spider silk

Beautiful – or an arachnophobe’s nightmare? Either way, reams of spider silk covering an Australian town was an unusual and arresting sight.

For some, the swathes of spider silk blanketing fields turned landscapes into beautiful snow-like scenes; for arachnophobes, it looked more like a living nightmare.

Nature and Environment | 26.04.2018

This is what confronted residents in Wagga Wagga in eastern Australia after floodwaters swept through the town in 2012 following a week of record rain.

As the floods came in, the spiders moved upwards

Not only were thousands of people forced to flee their homes because of the floods – but masses of the ground-dwelling spiders also had to evacuate to higher ground.

To escape, the fleeing creatures – a type of wolf spider – can produce an individual strand of silk to catch the wind like a parachute.

Nature and Environment | 15.08.2018

This allows them to fly up and away into the air to travel over long distances, in what is called "ballooning."

The spiders produce silk while 'ballooning' away to escape

So the huge blanket of silk was the result of the spiders all trying to balloon away from the flooding en masse – earlier reports of webs covering fields were inaccurate, because wolf spiders don't produce webs.

Unlike other spiders, which make webs to catch prey, wolf spiders instead run and pounce on their victims.

Wolf spiders are usually solitary creatures

This kind of wolf spider, which measures up to 1cm long, is considered relatively harmless and is usually very solitary – but the extreme flooding forced them to all escape together and therefore come into close contact with another.

There are thought to be 130 species of wolf spider in Australia alone. But sights like the one produced in Wagga Wagga in 2012 are rare.

The wondrous world of African bugs

The amazing Picasso bug

African art had a powerful influence on Picasso, did Picasso influence African insects? Otherwise known as the Zulu Hud Bug, this colorful shield-backed creature is often mistaken for a beetle. Its geometric design helps it blend into its surrounding and is meant to warn off predators. Full grown Picassos are only around 8 millimeters long and live in tropical Africa from Ivory Coast to Ethiopia.

The wondrous world of African bugs

Termite construction workers

Not many insects are known for their creative architectural abilities, but here termites in Namibia's central Otjozondjupa region have built amazingly tall structures in the savannah. Such mound-builders live throughout Africa, Australia and South America. Their complex structures full of tunnels cover a subterranean nest and are so well built they often outlive their termite builders.

The wondrous world of African bugs

Giant devil's flower mantis

Looking like part of a fashion school project, the Idolomantis diabolica, more commonly known as the devil's flower mantis, is a jumble of shapes and colors. One of the largest praying mantis species, they are native to many East African nations like Tanzania. Mimicking leaves or a flower, these carnivore killers remain still until their favorite meal — airborne insects — flies by.

The wondrous world of African bugs

The giant African fruit beetle

Another creepy crawly that tries to blend into its tropical African forest home is the giant African fruit beetle. The female is a bit smaller than the male which can grow to around 5 centimeters (2 inches) and has menacing looking horns. These beetles live off of fruits and sap flows from tree wounds. Also called the magnificent flower beetle, these mighty beasts can live up to five months.

The wondrous world of African bugs

Butterflies and moths galore

One of the world's greatest experts on butterflies and moths was German entomologist Adalbert Seitz. Born in 1860, he edited the monumental 16-volume Macrolepidoptera of the World. Elaborately illustrated with over 200 color plates, four of its volumes were dedicated to the moths and butterflies of Africa. Started in 1907, the unfinished project was only stopped after Seitz's death.

The wondrous world of African bugs

The killer mosquito

Not all insects are helpful and some are even downright dangerous. The tiny mosquito is at home on every continent except the Antarctic, but is especially bad for Africa. It only takes one bite from certain species of the Anopheles mosquito genus to transmit malaria and last year over 200 million people became ill with the disease. In Africa, a child dies of malaria every two minutes.

The wondrous world of African bugs

A rainbow milkweed locust

One African insect that is not trying to blend in is Madagascar's vibrantly technicolored rainbow milkweed locust. As the name suggests, besides being colorful, this grasshoppers' diet consists primarily of milkweed, which makes it a highly toxic dinner for predators. Officially named Phymateus saxosus, these locusts can grow to about 10 centimeters (4 inches).

The wondrous world of African bugs

The African honeybee

A subspecies of the Western honeybee, these social insects live in central and southern Africa. Slightly smaller than their European cousin they also produce less honey. But don't let their fuzzy upper body fool you — their sting is more potent than the Western honeybee. Yet despite their link to the "killer bees" spreading around the world these hard workers still have an important job to do.

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