| Life and death on the riverbank|
|Perched above nettles on the side of the Great Ouse, a mayfly was resting her short life away. A year crawling at the bottom of the river had brought her to this, the sun-kissed coda as an adult that could be measured in hours. Her last costume change had produced a clear-winged insect that sat with forefeet thrust forward up a grass stem, body arched bow-like as if pulled taut by the sail on her back. Three tail streamers, longer than her body, sprouted from the tip of her abdomen. She had little black eyes to see, but nothing where mouthparts should be, for the mayfly has none. All that was left for her was to wait for a mate, her one last purpose in life. |
I looked up to see banded demoiselle damselflies nettle-hopping. Males flashed broad dark bands on blue-black wings, metallic green-bodied females showed two light marks on their wing tips that suggested they had ventured too close to the white paint. The damsels were skittish, landing on the nettles for only a few seconds. Some had lingered too long. One was dangling from a leaf, lightly bundled in silk, a spider cradling its abdomen. Another was hung from a cow parsley crown as if crucified, the translucent panels of its open wings flexing with each breath of wind, held in place by cobweb guy ropes. Curled around the edges of one jagged nettle leaf were the hooked claws of feet. I counted all eight before peeping underneath to see the globular body of an animal that would trade hours of immobility for the split second in which to earn its reward.
A large spider had thrown out a washing line of a web and was sidling across to a nettle top filled with a spaghetti plateful of small tortoiseshell caterpillars, each no more than 1cm long. It had almost reached them when they spontaneously contorted their bodies to create the impression of a many-headed hydra. The startled spider twanged its web in shock and scuttled back from whence it came.