This is the time of the assassin bugs. In fact it’s the time when everything small vigorously engages in a life of unspeakable violence, which up here in the human world we take for horror and cruelty, but on the next stage of biological size down is just, well, things as they are. It is a place that is apparently, as far as I can imagine it anyway, literally beyond good and evil.

If you could shrink to the size of ants, yellowjackets and sow bugs, not to mention spiders, and still have the wherewithal to think like a human, you would find yourself in a nightmare. Multifaceted grasshopper eyes and saw-toothed mantid maws bigger than your head, and the cold, remorseless, kindless, treacherous intent there behind them.

“Treacherous” is a human idea, though. The insects are just hungry. A praying mantis will eat its brother. Lately I saw a bright green Zelus luridus nymph — the intermediate stage in the life cycle of the assassin bug — motionless on the side of the house near a spider web. I assumed this meant luridus was hunting escapees from the web, or possibly the spider itself. It would seize whatever living thing its size that it found, such as an aphid, in its sticky forelegs, hold it viselike, stab it with its beak and suck out the insides. This is not cruelty, it’s just making a living.

The house spider with its nearby web was no more treacherous than a fisherman with a weir net. But what if you were the spider’s size? You might wander into a tangle of sticky rope you can’t twist, shake or pry off your arms — like the ant-mimic bee who I watched writhe and flail in a few strands of silk for nearly half an hour last fall. Imagine if you could think about your silk chains. Eventually the spider would run along the web and loom over you with its hairy mouth, eight glossy eyes and upthrust knees. Then it sticks you with its side-to-side jaws (or chelicerae, as the arachnologists call them from a safe distance) and injects a toxin. You’re paralyzed.

Maybe you’re still groggily aware of what’s happening. The spider turns you around and around, coiling length after length of sticky rope over your legs, arms, chest and face. You’re suffocating, it stinks and you can’t move. It drags you along a silk bridge to the center of the web. There you hang, immobile, maybe you have a horrible headache and nausea. You wait. After a sick drunken eternity the spider returns, prods your silk wrapper a few times with the claws of its front legs, then with its face, and then suddenly it tears open your side, injects a fluid that turns your insides to mush, and sucks it all out.

And in this underworld spiders aren’t even the top of the food chain. They’re hunted by spider wasps. When a breeding female spots a wolf spider (who stalks and ambushes, rather than snares), she pounces and stings it, paralyzing it. She then drags it — alive — to a suitable hiding place in the grass or dirt, and sets to work digging a hole. This can take a half-hour or more. When the hole meets her standards, she retrieves the paralyzed spider and drags it in backward. She then lays an egg on it. In a few days the egg hatches, and the larva emerges and eats the spider alive.

Violence, science, elegance! This has been going on for untold hundreds of millions of years, generation after generation.

Thank goodness we grew big. The same way the night sky seems awesomely beautiful and familiar, the twitching eyes of a dragonfly, the swollen red glare of a house fly, the lidless gaze of a snake can, on the other hand, freeze your young blood. Those ancient images of horror and beauty seem to live in our minds like genetic ghosts from the evolutionary past, when something with the hallucinatory face of a garden spider blotted the morning sun out of the cave entrance. The fear of it is like a poison that’s stayed in the veins of memory, as it were, and catches up the conscience.

Imagine, after we were human, the level-headed intoxication it took to stare those faces down. The assassin bugs are still alive and well on their small stage down there, beyond evil and good.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. His writings on the Maine woods are collected in “The Other End of the Driveway,” available from Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month. You can contact him at [email protected]

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