Pison the spider hunter

For those of you who dislike spiders, I’d like to introduce you to your new favorite friend:

Pison mud wasp on her nest (Victoria, Australia)

The genus Pison refers to a small group of crabronid wasps containing about 200 species worldwide. These insects raise their young on a diet of living, but paralyzed, spiders. Paralyzed spiders don’t decay, staying fresh while the wasp grubs eat them alive. It’s a pretty gruesome death, being chewed up in the dark and unable to move. Not that spiders themselves kill humanely. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

While in Australia I photographed one female’s mud nest stuck to the side of a building.  Knocking away drying mud walls reveals the efforts of what I timed to be half an hour’s worth of spider hunting:

A stash of paralyzed spiders.
The Pison egg on a tasty arachnid.

After I disturbed the nest, the wasp rebuilt it and promptly filled the cell with new spiders.


photo details:
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/13, 1/250 second
diffuse twin flash

24 thoughts on “Pison the spider hunter”

  1. The egg-on-spider pic is gold.

    I also it has very similar appearance to the egg of our North American Cerceris fumipennis, also in the Crabronidae and specializing on adult buprestid beetles which it uses to provision its underground nest. I plan to do some survey work this summer using this wasp to “sample” buprestid beetles for me.

    1. There was a student at University of Guelph using Cereris to survey for EAB – he was digging up and transporting their nests, making them a portable detection tool! I’m not sure if he’s still working on the system now, but it was a pretty cool concept!

      1. A student at LSU found an easier way – he stood watch in an area colonized by the wasps and netted them as they returned and ‘stole’ their provisions (an example of kleptoparastism?). It was quite efficient, as he netted more than 500 beetles that summer! (I had the pleasure of doing the IDs, which resulted in 3 new state records and a manuscript in progress).

        1. That’s basically what this student did, only he was transporting the nest to sites where EAB had not been previously recorded/detected, so detections could be made more systematically (rather than simply hoping to find a wasp nest in an area that he wanted to survey).

      2. Seeing your friends being referred to online like this is cool; I’m glad that Phil’s work has reached such a wide audience! Phil really set the bar for the Cerceris work through his MSc a number of years ago, beginning with simply watching nests and gradually trying to develop other ways to use these wasps for the biosurveillance of Emerald Ash Borer! If you’re interested in finding colonies, seeing some inexpensive equipment to help increase your beetle yield, or finding out more about the numerous citizen science WaspWatcher projects being undertaken around the northeast US and Canada, check out Phil’s website at http://www.cerceris.info/ !

        I’ve worked with Cerceris for a few summers now, and it’s amazing how many beetles you can acquire in a short period of time. In our upcoming Buprestidae Field Guide, we’ll be recording which buprestid species you can expect to find while monitoring Cerceris nesting sites (spoiler: it’s a a lot of species in several genera).

  2. The first wasp I collected was in the genus Pepsis, found it in California. I was after dragonflies, but it was equally if not more impressive than the dragons. Very cool! I still want to see some of the 3 inch ones in the wild.

  3. When I saw this in your Australia gallery I was surprised it wasn’t already a blog post; it’s spectacular. Because I had seen these photos a week before I went to Arizona on spring break, I was able to figure out why a live, plump-bodied spider on a trail in Sedona could hardly move when prodded – I had interrupted the wasp that was dragging it to the mouth of its underground nest. I watched until the wasp crept back out to drag it below.

  4. The antennae seem to be in an unusual position, so far down the face. Maybe I am just used to looking at flies?

  5. Steven McDonald

    Awesome! I have seen the spider hunting wasps that bury the spiders in action before but I didn’t even know about these. Thanks for sharing.

    1. There is only ever one egg in a Crabronid cell, unless it has been parasitised by some Diptera och Chrysididae for example. This goes for all of Apoidea (eg Crabronidae, Sphecidae, Apidae, Megachilidae etc) and Vespoidea to my knowledge, which is very limited but I would still assume that more then one egg per host cell would be a very rare, if indeed occurring at all.

      Would be interesting to know if there is any exceptions to the “1 cell 1 egg” seen in most social and solitary wasps.

      1. Agree emphatically. Would be interesting to know the percentage of cells parasitized in the population, the parasitic species/taxa composition, and a host of other metrics as well. There are so many good insect stores out there and so few storytellers…yes, yes… I am just SO old fashioned that way.

  6. Great pictures, very charismatic head-shot of the collector 🙂

    You did see, or even take pictures, of Stilbum (Chrysididae, Chrysidini) species at or around mud-nests like these? 😉
    Although Pison is perhaps not parasited, Stilbum is a nest-type specialist on these kinds of nests, for example on Delta (Eumeninae) and Sceliphron (Sphecidae) nests.

  7. I DO love spiders but also love all these tiny wonders of our biosphere. Last summer my husband was at a garden party with some friends and while waiting for the food on the grill he saw a Sphecid wasp collecting spiders for its nest-dwelling babies. The wasp followed the same route across the table bringing the paralyzed spider with. Later my husband have found the clay nest of the wasp too. Another Sphecid species in Hungary is hunting for katydids for the same reason. They are very interesting little creatures!

  8. Really fantastic photos, as usual! Ever since I learned about wasps parasitizing spiders, I’ve had nightmares about it. Now they can be more accurate. I, of course, side with the spiders, but I agree with Monika that this wasp behavior is fascinating.

  9. Nice article, I live in Victoria Australia, this particular species of mud wasp is common and quite frequently a nuisance, it likes to build mud nests in any cavity available, so frequently the exhaust pipe of your chainsaw or mower will be full of spiders and mud as will anything else with a suitable space, I have even had them paying close attention to my ear. Far more common and spectacular is the Sceliphron formosum mud wasp, this is a large 35mm wasp that builds large mud constructions over the walls of the house and shed. Many people consider these an unsightly nuisance, I personally am fascinated by the comings and goings with mud and spiders. There are also a few tiny mud wasps that fill up even smaller spaces and one that reuses the catacombs of Sceliphron formosum after the young have left, this one tacks a little bugle shaped entrance to the existing empty cell.
    I find them all a fascinating addition to the place, none of them are aggressive and the occasional misplaced stunned spider around the place gives me a chance to study my spidery neighbours closely too.

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