One of the greatest magics of these late autumn evenings is that of midges, gnats, flies, mosquitoes, and bugs which flitter about in the humble stratosphere of their world between the intermittent cold snaps. They loop and spiral, as if on spiritual roller coasters, gently refracting the setting sun through and upon their bodies so that they seem to glow and become prescient of the night’s stars soon to bloom. When the cool November sun begins to set low, I can look out amongst the naked shrubs and thinning trees, the tall shaggy grasses and dead kaleidoscopic leaves, and see those hidden creatures who only dance in unlovely places the splendid slow waltz of autumnal joy.
Through the cascading shadow, the dance of the waning wing-bearers becomes even more dramatic. As the sun continues to slide below the mountains, the insects increase their pace it seems, and then begins the cataclysm of the birds. Small gray and off-gray birds with different flecks, inflections, songs, and hearts, though unified as the kind that would easily build a good hardy nest in an old dilapidated mug, begin diving through the midges and gnats and flies and mosquitoes. The birds are trapeze artists. Starting from a perch in a nearby tree, they swoop with grace through the air in a dramatic arc. At the nadir of their swing, the snare roll abruptly halts, a sharp inhale of silence descends like thunder and is followed in quicktime by a cymbal crash as the acrobats catch their purse in midair. Then, gently arching back up to the adjacent branch across, a great applause raptures. Like this, the birds dive and breach, avian orcas earning their rich protein in preparation for the imminent changing of the season. The horizon of thin times drives the orchestra of life onwards.
As I watch the fading insects, bugs, winged things, and other wonders I ponder as to why many see them as pests. In the evening glow, it seems an impossible identity for these fellow inhabitants of our world. Do people fear them? Not understand them? Believe they belong in one place and not another? Watching them in that moment, the thought escapes my mind and I am glad. I am glad to forget their supposedly assigned state, and I instead reforge my memories anew in the present, watching them as sparks in the swiftly quenching day. The perpetual creation of the world continues along, with I and you and all we’ve ever known and will know wrapped within it.
We drove up a gravel road to the top of the dry, desert mountain known locally as West Mountain. This cheatgrass-covered mountain rises nineteen hundred feet from the waters on the south end of Utah Lake. At the base, there are fruit orchards, but climbing higher, we saw few plants rising above the cheatgrass. Near the top, more than 12 structures support antennas that transmit and relay signals across portions of Utah and Juab counties.
As we slowly climbed the gravel road in the UPR pickup, large bodies began to appear, moving on silk threads attached, like guy wires, to anything with height. Mobile spiders guarded each thread. When we passed, they took what appeared to be offensive positions. These spiders’ delicate legs easily span two inches. A unique black and white pattern of diamonds and dots on their back identifies them as western spotted orb weavers. The larger-bodied, grey spiders are females with legs attached to a three-quarter-inch body. The narrower-bodied males measure half an inch. When they move, flashes of red show on the undersides of their legs. These same spiders live along the shores of Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake.
The exterior of the equipment building was covered with spiders, as were the transmitting antennas above and the large receiving satellite dish nearby. We could see the problem. Spiders were blocking the signal to the satellite dish feed horn. Using a broom, we gently relocated them. Many took quick exits, dropping on threads of silk from the horn to the dish below, then running to the edge and rappelling to the ground. Others took more defensive or combative positions, only to be invited off with the broom or a gloved hand. After the eviction, we sprayed around the horn and the dish supports.
On previous trips, we had often wondered what these spiders eat. This time we found small flying insects, akin to those found along the shores of Utah Lake. They are likely carried up the mountain on wind currents. Up-hill winds develop every day as the sun warms the surface of the mountain. This time of year, the spiders don’t lack nourishment.
And how did the spiders get up there? Their progenitors were also likely carried uphill on silk parachutes. Once there, the spiders found the tallest location, strung their lines, and thrived on other unfortunates delivered by the same winds. You see, spiders, like predatory birds, are helpful pest control. For a spider, hanging high above the ground on a mountain top is a great place to be. There, the spiders can catch anything that blows or flies by. No wonder they grow so large and multiply so profusely on top of Spider Mountain.
Visit Wildaboututah.org for images of the spiders hanging from the trees, guy wires, antenna masts and satellite dish. We also have links to common spiders found in Utah.
This is Lyle Bingham, and I’m Wild About Utah, Utah Public Radio and Utah’s spiders.
These spiders were blocking the UPR satellite signal received by the Utah County transponder broadcasting at 88.7 MHz. The spiders were identified as Western Orb Weavers, Neoscona oaxacensis, that are also found along the shores of Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake.
Courtesy and Copyright Lyle Bingham, Photographer
More than one type of spider lives on Spider Mountain. The last time we visited Spider Mountain, we hadn’t traveled far before Friend Weller stopped the truck. A Utah tarantula was walking across the road. Yes, did I tell you the spiders on Spider Mountain are big? This guy easily covered a small dinner plate without extending its legs.
We found out that tarantulas are nocturnal and rarely seen except in August and September, when the males are searching for mates. In Utah, we found most tarantulas are identified as Aphonopelma iodius, because they have a triangular dark patch near their eye turrets. We understand our tarantulas are not to be confused with a similar brown-bodied, black-legged species, Aphonopelma chalcodes, the western desert tarantula that are found in Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah.
Courtesy and Copyright Lyle Bingham, Photographer
Visit ‘Spider Mountain’ on https://wildaboututah.org/
This white-spotted sawyer said he is often misunderstood because of his appearance. He can’t help looking a bit creepy. He also sometimes gets blamed for damaging forests and wanted to set the record straight. He said that as a grub, he fed on the sapwood of evergreen trees that are already dead or nearing it. In fact, sawyer beetles invade trees following forest fires and in the months following mountain pine beetle attacks. They do not, however, kill healthy thriving trees. Sawyer beetles are, though, responsible for the familiar teeth-grinding sounds one hears in a wooded area as the fleshy larvae scrape with their mandibles.
At the other end of Utah perched in Monticello’s rabbitbrush a few days ago, I met a colony of striking Crossidius coralinus. Instead of mostly black bodies, these longhorn beetles boast vibrant reds and many more stories to tell. Thanks to beetle entomologist Ted MacRae, I am able to understand those stories better. I must admit that I will probably still jump when a longhorned beetle initiates a conversation from my forearm, but I now appreciate its point of view. After all, Charles Darwin suggested that “a taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life,” and I will take all the help I can get.
Children’s author George Selden described the impact of a cricket’s chirping in the bustle of a subway station in his book “The Cricket in Times Square” like this: “Like ripples around a stone dropped into still water, the circles of silence spread out. …Eyes that looked worried grew soft and peaceful; tongues left off chattering; and ears full of the city’s rustling were rested by the cricket’s melody.” Combine this musical talent with Jiminy Cricket’s gentle reminder to always listen to my conscience, and it is no wonder that I would drift to sleep on summer evenings enamored with cricket songs. How, I thought, could such a beautifully-sounding insect be the villain in Utah’s legend we know as the Miracle of the Gulls, memorialized in Minerva Teichert paintings and Temple Square monuments?
Decades later, near Fremont Indian State Park, I met a Mormon cricket for the first time. I cringed as I watched thousands of these creatures hopping across the mountain path that afternoon, and I understood how merciful those California gulls must have seemed, swooping in to gobble up the insects, as the Mormon pioneers struggled to develop a defensive, crop-saving plan as newcomers to this land.
Utah settler Mrs. Lorenzo Dow Young captures a bit of the incident in her 1848 journal entry: “May 27: …today to our utter astonishment, the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans…, and in twenty minutes there was not a vestige to be seen. They next swept over peas…; took everything clean.” These hordes of insects were not new to the area, however, as we know that explorer Peter Skene Ogden noted “crickets by millions” in his 1825 journal account over 20 years earlier.
Did you know that Mormon crickets are not crickets, grasshoppers, or cicadas, but large shield-backed katydids that walk or hop rather than fly? Their smooth, shiny exoskeleton can be a variety of colors and patterns, like the reddish-brown female I chased and studied this summer in Fishlake National Forest. They have long antennae, and each female has what looks like a long curving stinger extending from her abdomen. This ovipositor allows her to deposit 100 eggs or more that look like gray or purple rice grains just below the soil surface. The males, on the other hand, lack this structure, but they “sing” as a way to attract females, and reward their mates with protein-packed spermatophore prizes.
These insects can be solitary mountain-dwellers but make headlines when they swarm in huge bands, marching in one direction as omnivores, in search of anything to eat: cultivated crops, succulent forbs, sagebrush and other shrubs, other insects, and even their own kind. Researchers tracking migrations determined they can travel more than 50 miles in a summer, perhaps a mile a day, and for many, including those early Utah settlers and others hoping to shield crops from Mormon cricket devastation, it is a sign of relief to see the last one for the season. They do make for a great story, though.