More than two years have passed since my last post. The reasons are multiple, some good, some not so good. In 2017, I undertook a natural history project that required daily attention. From the first day of January to the last day of December, I went outside, photographed what animals and plants I happened to encounter, then wrote about what was observed. 365 days in a row. Much of this was done in real time through the iNaturalist platform: uploading the photo observations, posting the day’s writing. I ended up submitting observations for 1,905 observations. Close to 1,000 different species of animals and plants, the majority being insects. During the subsequent year, the journal entries were typed up, edited, and gathered together as a book. On January 1st, 2019, Following the Earth Around: Journal of a Naturalist’s Year was published. This was a big project and I’m quite pleased with how the book turned out. Now I can return to some smaller writing projects, including some essays which will be posted here, having to do with books and bugs of course.
Three additional books found their way into print during this interval as well:
Rice County Odonata Journal: Volume Four (March 2018).
Field notes about dragonflies and the pursuit of dragonflies. Volume Four covers the year 2011 and includes accounts of trips to the Tallgrass Aspen Parkland in northeast Minnesota in search of Red-veined Meadowhawks, Persian poetry, Minnesota Odonata Survey Project work weeks, an up-to-date Minnesota Odonata species checklist and a species index.
Brevities (May 2018)
A collection of small, imagistic poems influenced by Basho, Jorge Carrera Andrade, Thomas McGrath and others.
Dragonflies and Damselflies of Minnesota: Atlas and Annotated Checklist (July 2018)
PREVIEW EDITION: Contains maps and flight season data for each of the 149 species of dragonflies and damselflies known from Minnesota. Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes and 149 species of dragonflies and damselflies. This atlas and annotated checklist is a summation of a century of observations and research. As such, this book is intended as a quick reference to the current flight data and geographical distributions for each of the recorded species in Minnesota. [An updated edition is planned which will be fully annotated, with descriptions and identification tips for each of the species.]
As winter suddenly tightens its grip on us here in Minnesota (it’s snowing outside as I write this, and cold), it’s the perfect time to sit back and do some reading and to reflect on this past summer’s encounters. This means more poetry, more desk work, and more blog posts.
On a recent visit to the college library to retrieve a book about the ecology of tropical bees, I found a slim pamphlet standing near it on the same shelf. Picking it up and opening it, I saw that it was a published lecture given April 22, 1970, at Utah State University by George Edward Bohart. Bohart was an internationally recognized expert on pollination biology and a professor at USU. (Interestingly, his brother, Richard M. Bohart, was another well known entomologist, founder and namesake of The Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of Califonia, Davis.)
In his lecture, The Evolution of Parasitism among Bees, Bohart discusses the various bee families and the parasitic black sheep among them: from honey-robbing honey bees and resource-pillaging stingless bees to cuckoo bumble bees displacing rightful queens from established nests and myriad kleptoparasites stealing into nests of solitary bees and laying their eggs upon pollen stores not rightfully their own. The trickery involved in parasitism must be quite successful in the grand scheme of things given the abundance and variety of parasitic species. For example, Bohart points out that just among the bees “morphological evidence indicates that existing parasitic lines were derived at least 16 times from non-parasitic ancestors.” (emphasis mine) This lecture reminded me of the interesting parasitic bees I’d encountered, in particular the host prey pair discussed here.
In 2014, I encountered, for the first time, Holcopasites calliopsidis, a brightly colored but tiny parasitic bee that targets the mining bee Calliopsis andreniformis (a fact reflected in the species name of the parasite). At 5 mm in length, this bee is smaller than a grain of rice. A single photograph, mid August, taken as the bee nectared on fleabane (see photo above). I revisited these flowers many times that autumn and the following year and did not encounter this bee again.
This summer I had much better luck. One day in June I noticed a number of tiny bees at several patches of hard-packed, bare ground along the walking trails in the St Olaf Natural Lands. These turned out to be Beautiful Mining Bees, Calliopsis andreniformis. Again, grain-of-rice-sized, though perhaps a millimeter or two greater in length than the aforementioned species. On subsequent visits to the same locations, I was able to get very good photos of these small bees, both the females and the surprisingly different males, with their lemon-yellow legs, face and antennae. According to the description in The Bees in Your Backyard, almost all the bees of the genus Calliopsis are specialist pollinators. Unfortunately, I was unable to observe which particular plants Calliopsis andreniformis had been visiting at this location. (A photo on Bugguide by Heather Holm shows this species on Blue Vervain at a nearby location in Minnesota, and that’s one possibility here as well.)
My good luck continued. Several times while watching the mining bees, Holcopasites calliopsidis showed up, snuffling the ground with their antennae, searching the nesting sites of their hosts. After I had several photographs of Holcopasites calliopsidis, I began to notice that this bee almost always kept its wings tucked under its abdomen. A curious and unique behavior. I haven’t been able to locate any explanation or even mention of this behavior. Considering the bee’s equally unusual colors and patterning, it seems at least plausible that the bee is mimicking the appearance of lady beetle larvae. I’ve included a photo by Katja Schulz of a Convergent Lady Beetle for comparison. If anyone has any alternative theories…I’d like to hear them.
Bohart, G. E. 1970. The Evolution of Parasitism among Bees. Utah State University.
Obviously, the laws of the universe are such that the day after one finishes a guidebook to the wasps and bees the author will step outside and immediately see a species that is new and not included in the book. Actually, make that seven new species. In the weeks following the printing of the first edition of A Photographic Guide to Some Common Wasps and Bees of Minnesota, I’ve encountered seven species I hadn’t photographed before in the state. While I expected this would happen, I’m a little surprised at the abundance of previously overlooked species. But it’s a good thing. And I plan to add information here at Of Books and Bugs on these additional species. The first species (discussed below) probably doesn’t qualify as a “common” species.
Scientific name: Nysson plagiatus Cresson, 1882
Common name: Devious Sand Wasp (proposed)
This wasp showed up, a little conspicuously, among a densely congregated nesting site of Great Golden Digger Wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus). At first it stood at the entrance to one of the nests, then (as I leaned in for a closer look) this black and yellow wasp flew a few inches away to a leaf and proceeded to groom itself. In the moments that followed, several of the large sphex wasps arrived with prey, katydid nymphs, long and slender and pallid after being envenomed. Each paralyzed katydid is left unguarded for a brief period of time at the lip of their burrow while sphex disappears below to prepare the cell. She reappears a few seconds later, takes hold of the katydid antennae, and whisks the katydid below ground. I wonder, if Nysson plagiatus is quick enough, devious enough, might it not be able to secret an egg on the katydid during the brief interval that sphex spends underground?
While Nysson plagiatus hasn’t been confirmed as a brood parasite of the Great Golden Digger Wasps (this would require rearing one from the contents of one of the nests), the circumstantial evidence seems to be mounting. Most of the Nysson species are brood parasites of closely related wasps within their same family, the Crabronidae, so it’s a bit of a mystery why or how this wasp came to be a brood parasite of a wasp from an unrelated family, the Sphecidae. It’s thought that the jump was facilitated by the Orthoptera prey certain Crabronid hunting wasps have in common with this Sphecid hunting wasp.
Formerly placed in genus Synnevrus but recently moved to Nysson, its taxonomical status may not be settled. The yellow marking the full width of the first abdominal segment, differentiates Nysson plagiatus from Nysson aequalis which has a yellow marking only about half as wide.
I’m pleased to announce the publication of A Photographic Guide to Some Common Wasps and Bees of Minnesota. The last nine months I’ve been hard at work organizing, editing and writing this guidebook. It all began with the simple thought last October after the realization that I had photographed over one hundred species of wasps and bees…I know, I’ll put together a little book. Well, what at first seemed a straightforward and reasonable project, quickly consumed nine months. I hope it was time well spent, that the book will be useful and enjoyable.
In the end, I was able to include photos and descriptions for over 125 species (see sample page below). Also included are an introductory essay, a list of North American Hymenoptera families, and an index of scientific and common names. The book is available for purchase direct from me via PayPal at the book’s website or by sending a check for $28 (includes shipping) payable to Scott King to the 307 Oxford Street Northfield MN 55057. If you prefer a pdf for use on a tablet, that is available for $10. (176 pages, ISBN 978-1523208319)
Nine contains a sequence of thirty-six poems written in 2012, during the months of February, March, and April. The poems celebrate and try to capture some of the day-to-day life of my daughter when she was nine years old…thus the title. The poems cover a range of topics such as losing teeth, listening to Shostakovich, and imagining an icicle as a magic wand.
ISLANDS have fascinated people for a very long time. Think of creation myths like Turtle Island or the numerous accounts of catastrophic floods. Think of Odysseus’s misadventures among the Aegean Islands. Think of the vikings who discovered and settled Iceland and wrote the sagas. Think of William Shakespeare and the magical island of The Tempest. Think of Herman Melville and the grim, volcanic islands recounted in The Encantadas or Robert Louis Stevenson and the buccaneers and buried gold stashed inside the covers of Treasure Island. Here’s a list that could go on and on, yet, even curtailed, it’s an island list redolent of mystery and adventure.
Many early scientists, explorers, and naturalists expressed a penchant for islands, some as ardently as the storytellers. Most preeminent being Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. Wallace collected insects and birds among the islands of the Malay Archipelago, wondering what might explain their distributions and variations. Darwin puzzled through similar oddities encountered on the many islands he visited during the five-year voyage of the Beagle, resulting…eventually…in his theory of natural selection. During the century and a half since Wallace and Darwin, numerous scientists have focused their research upon the natural laboratories that are islands—Ernst Mayr, E. O. Wilson, and Peter and Rosemary Grant to name but a few. The big story of island biogeography, its rich history and relevance to modern times, has been masterfully told by David Quammen in his magisterial book, The Song of the Dodo.
Biogeographers study the distribution of plants and animals—which species live where, and why—bringing to prominence the role geography plays in the process of evolution. Island biogeographers study the same thing, only with a focus on the more restrictive and clarifying setting of islands, delineating the special role isolation plays in the formation of new species.
Two main factors influence the formation of new species on islands: location and size. If an island is small or close to the mainland nothing too extraordinary happens. On the other hand, if an island is large or distant enough from other land masses so that vagrant species arrive only with great irregularity over great spans of time speciation is more likely to occur among the plants and animals that happen to make it to the island and that survive to establish populations. Extinction plays a role as well. As evolution’s unavoidable shadow, extinction reduces and subtracts and trims island diversity, this permanent negation creates an absence that new species might fill.
In August, I had the privilege to visit Mallard Island, an island of some renown on Rainy Lake in Minnesota, a mile or so from the Canadian border. The island is a lance-shaped skelf of bedrock, one and a half acres in size (an area roughly equal to that of a football field), covered in pine and lichen and moss. The island’s notability can be credited to Ernest Oberholtzer (1884 – 1977), who occupied the island for some forty years beginning in the 1920s. During those four decades, Oberholtzer constructed a number eccentric dwellings and outbuildings upon the island, built various stone walls, bridges, and gardens, amassed a library of more than 10,000 books, and helped protect a vast amount of wilderness, work that led directly to the establishment of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. And, near the end of his life, he created the Oberholtzer Foundation in order to preserve the rugged and secluded charm of his beloved island—and bring forward his conservationist legacy.
As member of a small group of people invited to stay on the island for one of the Oberholtzer Foundation program weeks, I arrived Sunday afternoon ready for six days of intense reading, new conversations, and an abundance of time out-of-doors. The focus of this week’s program, as laid out by the organizers, was on art and science. The purpose, and our purpose in participating, was to expand our views, to strengthen our resolve, to collaborate across the distances and differences, all with an eye to the economic and environmental struggles that we all are facing and which will only intensify in the years to come as human populations increase and resources dwindle.
Now, according to some people, powerful spirits inhabit Mallard Island. Inanimate objects like books are said to leap into your hands as if in magical apprehension of your wants or shortcomings. And while I do my best to respect the angels and demons encountered by others, I have to say right off that I’m a skeptic in my own sphere, content enough with the wonder-filled world as it is, finding any superadded spirit world unnecessary. Nonetheless, I’ll admit it can seem uncanny, in such a sweeping assemblage, to immediately find a book that is extraordinarily apt and directive. For instance, as soon as I had the opportunity to look at books I happened upon a copy of Shan Walshe’s Plants of Quetico and the Ontario Shield. “There are occasions when luck goes farther than wisdom” I’d read recently, and this is true. Thus I allowed my luck to direct my activities for the week. For the next few days I would unburden myself of the role of writer, turn truant from the island’s other books (as best I could), try my hand at some botany, conduct a little island biogeography.
Realizing full well that most island biogeography happens on oceanic islands not islands on freshwater lakes, I didn’t expect to discover any endemic species or any vast differences among these small islands. Rather I expected them to be similar and express only subtle differences. Separated by less than a mile of water from the mainland, having strong “land communication” to use Wallace’s term, the flora and fauna should be nearly identical across the islands and representative of the fire-dependent, northern forest ecosystems that covers much of the Canadian Shield. However, some small variations could be expected, reflecting the happenstance of slight differences in physical shape, human habitation and use, and microclimates.
I took photographs. I made lists. I mapped the flowers as if I were a bee. My entomological surveys consisted of two nights of mothing and various incidental encounters with other insects. My botanical surveys consisted of daily excursions and rambles: a hike on Crow Island, from tail-feathers to beak; fishing the circumference of Gull Island, noting the trees and shoreline vegetation; an east-to-west ramble the length of Mallard Island, pen in hand; an afternoon exploring Hawk Island; a paddle into the long, marshy bay of Grassy Island; a boat ride to Blind Bay in Canadian waters (thanks to the generosity of fellow naturalist Mary Lysne); ending the week with a second trip to Crow Island.
Midway through the week, on Wednesday afternoon, I visited Hawk Island. To get there I waded the narrow channel separating it from Mallard Island, shoes in hand, camera slung over my shoulder. Barefooted, I could feel the ridges and recesses in the bedrock. The stone underlying the islands had formed many millions of years ago. Those original rock strata had been broken, turned on edge, and scoured by glaciers. Only the stars overhead at night were older.
Once across the channel, the only way onto the island was up a steep rock face, so I climbed and entered the woods. My transect of exploration sliced across the middle of the island. Reaching the abrupt cliffs that define the south edge of this island (a pattern interestingly repeated on the other islands), I veered and puzzled my way to the eastern tip, where the bare rock thins and dips beneath deep lake water the color of iced-tea. From there I worked back. A few flowers on the wave-beaten rocks, Hedge Nettle and Grass-leaved Goldenrod, before the Jack Pine and Reindeer Lichen and mosses thickened as I climbed inland. In a small, mossy clearing, I came upon a beaver skull missing the bottom jaw, turned to reveal the upper teeth. The clean, white bone of the skull brightened the forest floor. Here was a reminder that there existed a time element to this timelessness; islands come and go; species evolve and go extinct.
On hands and knees I inched as close as I could to a shiny, brassy-green soldier fly that had perched on a blueberry leaf. After it flew, I sat back. A few deep breaths. A few hearty exhalations, sighs of satisfaction and gratitude for this time, for this place. Then I moved on, continuing this fine-scale perusal of the surroundings. I smiled at pixie-cup lichens so small that a single drop of rain would overfill one. I shook my head in wonder at the clubmosses so perfectly replicating the form of trees on a miniature scale. I made my way across a seemingly stochastic quilt of vegetation, and yet I knew that it wasn’t purely random, but patterned in subtle ways. Eventually I reached the edge of the forest where the bedrock drops away. Time to return to the other island. Though before I left, taking a final glance back, the forest produced a parting surprise, a ghost plant, a small clump of Indian Pipe.
Even as I began to learn the names and recognize certain patterns of occurrence, I was humbled by the sheer abundance and complexity of these small islands. Goethe once wrote of Rome that “the immensity of the place has a quieting effect. In other places one has to search for the important points of interest; here they crowd in on one in profusion… One would need a thousand styluses to write with. What can one do here with a single pen?” Wild, unbounded nature, not urban complexity, confronts one here and leaves one the task of organizing its subtle immensity into the simplicity of a few paragraphs. How does one write a long, slender island into an essay? A splinter of schist, a sliver of seed must be forced into a simple sentence that proceeds: noun, verb, stop. Or elaborated, the serendipitous occurrences of flower and insect and observer intersecting at a moment in time on an island gets written into a sinuous sentence, full of detours and wrong turnings, break downs and bad luck, or simple exuberance, the description going all out, on and on, forming a widening interior, fattening the page, where eventually the reader walks out of the forest and finds the shore at land’s end.
On Thursday, after some morning reading—sonnets by Conrad Aiken, a natural history of worm-lions by Morton Wheeler—I took oars from the rack on the side of the library and headed off on a return visit to Crow Island. I rowed past Japanese House on the westernmost tip of Mallard Island, then past Fawn Island, rounding the westernmost tip of Crow, doubling back into a small bay, beaching the boat at the landing, snug in a thicket of sweet gale. Once on land, I worked my way up to the sunlit outcroppings, hoping to find and photograph a Dragonhunter, a large dragonfly I’d seen flying and landing on the waterside ledges just the day before. When no dragonfly materialized, I fell into surveying the plants.
All week I’d stepped carefully around bumble bees nectaring on oregano that grew in thick patches in and out of the rock gardens on Mallard Island. Several times I stopped for a closer look at the handsome workers. Tri-colored Bumble Bees (Bombus ternarius), attractive yellow, orange and black bumble bees, are small, not much different in size than a honey bee, though fuzzier. Their abundance indicated a thriving population, with perhaps a number of hives located nearby. Now, as I prepared to leave, a very large bumble bee, much larger than the workers observed on the other island though patterned the same, buzzed by me and landed on the ground. It, also, had arrived on the island looking for something. I watched the bee as it searched about the pine needles and duff. It started to dig, disappearing into the dirt. How curious. My first thought was that it had entered a hive…but when no other bumble bees came or went, I realized that wasn’t correct. Then I remembered the abundance of bumble bees from the other island—the hidden hives—the workers working the oregano flowers, had succeeded in producing queens, the goal of their summer labors. Though it seemed early in the year, with next year’s summer certainly a long way off, this queen was likely searching out a hibernaculum, a safe place to wait out the winter and dream bumble bee dreams.
Here was a being adept at finding its way about the world. Another kind of island biogeographer in fact, locating suitable sites for hives, mapping the flowers. The shooting stars, which the other residents and I had witnessed in the night sky this week, were not more wondrous than this, nor more rare. To see this, to think about this had something to do with presence and absence…of leaving and longing to come back.
In the end, I realized that I would be returning home to my own small island of house & family. The small city lot on which our house sits surrounded by so many groomed and lawn-care-tended plots is certainly a kind of island refuge for insects and weeds. And the city parks and college natural lands that I often visit, while not islands surrounded by water, are engulfed by vast acreages of agricultural and urban/industrial development (for many plants and animals a far more treacherous crossing than water) making them islands as well. In fact, our increasingly fragmented landscapes make islands everywhere. Which is the very reason the science of island biogeography plays an increasingly important role in wildlife conservation and preservation.
A quick note about the following list: The first and most obvious caveat is that the list is not complete; I missed and overlooked many species, nor did I survey each island equally, nor did I include animals and insects. Secondly, links are provided for photo observations that have been submitted to iNaturalist.org, a crowd-sourced species identification system and database. If you notice something that’s been misidentified please let me know.
* Fire-dependent indicator species
‡ Inland Lake with Boulder Shore indicator species
MacArthur, R. H. and E. O. Wilson. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton Landmarks in Biology Edition. 2001
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Field Guide to the Native Plant Communities of Minnesota: the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province. Ecological Land Classification Program, Minnesota County Biological Survey, and Natural Heritage and Nongame Research Program. MNDNR Saint Paul, MN. 2003.
Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. Scribner. 1996.
Walshe, Shan. Plants of Quetico and the Ontario Shield. University of Toronto Press. 1980.
For close to a decade I’ve been documenting the plants and the animals that can be found in our yard, a rectangular lot in the city of Northfield, Minnesota. This is not a grand project, but a small, cumulative task, providing a lot of enjoyment and many surprises. Dragonflies, butterflies, bumble bees, mining bees, orchard bees, leaf-cutter bees, great golden digger wasps, grass-carrying wasps, ichneumon wasps, braconid wasps, stoneflies, caddisflies, soldier flies, gall flies, hover flies, crane flies, tree crickets, tiger beetles, may beetles, fireflies, ground beetles, long-horned beetles, lady beetles, jumping spiders, crab spiders, orb-weaver spiders….the list goes on. Just the number and diversity of moths attracted to a light on our garage astonishes; over a single year, well over two hundred different species visited.
Last year a newly married couple moved in next door. One of the first things they did was cut down trees, tear up their yard, and put down sod. Suggesting to the young man of the house the option of perennial grasses, he quipped that he’d really prefer concrete across the entire lot. But they’d be good for insects, I added. To which he answered defiantly, meanly, I hate bugs. I stopped short of answering that I hated people who hated bugs. So the relationship with these neighbors began and withered in a single, short conversation.
This last week these same neighbors began a campaign to rid their yard of weeds and insects, hiring someone to spray herbicides. From the looks of the lawn it seems they were targeting the creeping charlie, applying something on the order of Dicamba (3,6-dichloro-2-methoxybenzoic acid) which goes by the name of Banvel, Diablo, or Vanquish. [Btw “Diablo” seems an honest name!] This was followed a few days later by a second crew, two men in gray shirts with red badges, resulting in a different bouquet of chemicals entering our house through open windows. The men sprayed along the foundation of the house and along a backyard fence, so I’m guessing round two was for insects, possibly spiders or ants. If it was for insects, the chemical would in all likelihood be one of the Pyrethroids. These insecticides kill most insects, which means they kill the beneficial insects along with the targeted pest. (Need I mention that beneficial insects far outnumber the pests probably a thousand to one?) Because insecticides are toxic at very low concentrations, runoff that reaches lake or river or wetland will take out aquatic insects as well…mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies. Many insecticides are toxic to fish as well. Beyond the inconvenience of not being able to enjoy our screened porch while the chemical smell dissipates, I found these actions deeply unsettling. Reflecting upon this immediate, literally in-our-face, spraying, I realized that they were just acting normally, that most everyone else does this to their yards as well. In fact, there’s a thriving industry built around this very habit of destroying plants and animals. A certain local yard service provider even has the gall to use the image of a Monarch butterfly in its advertisements. Perhaps they’re innocent of the knowledge that Monarch butterflies don’t visit lawns. I guarantee they’re not innocent of using herbicides to rid lawns of weeds such as milkweed, the host plant of this butterflies caterpillar.
This destruction, to my mind, is the biological equivalent to burning books. Actually it’s worse. Life can’t be reprinted, rewritten, or given back.
So why, as a culture, do we do this? Where does this deep-seated need for a monotonous expanse of green lawn come from? One thinks of the greens surrounding castles in the old country. The bazillion manicured lawns that appear in movies and television shows…and advertisements for lawn care products. From sales statistics for lawn and garden products, urban residences in the United States apply approximately ten times more chemicals per acre than the Ag industry. Certainly there are phobias involved. Some people, it would seem, think any plant that is not grass is a weed and that weeds are bad, maybe even dangerous somehow. Many people, I know from experience, think all bugs are either woodticks, disease-carrying mosquitoes, or stinging bees and that they are all bent on inflicting pain and suffering the humans. Certainly there’s a lot of ignorance involved as well. At best, it’s a kind of automaton-like habit; our parents did it and now we do it.
Wouldn’t it make more sense, both fiscally and morally, to abandon this habit of yard work? To plant wildflowers and native grasses? To grow more of our own food? To spend our time and money elsewhere?
Everyone is worried about the next big catastrophe, a plague or a meteor from outer space. Unfortunately, the truth is far worse; we, ourselves, are the next big catastrophe. Habitat loss, climate change, poverty, starvation, extinction…all these big, global problems, start in our own backyards.
In my darker moods, as currently brought on by this reflection of nearby chemical application, it seems my labor to learn the names of the plants and animals is no more than a preparation for a kind of memorial. Let’s see how it looks. These are the names of animals observed in our yard. Imagine polished, black granite with these names chiselled in Roman caps:
While by and large the chemical approach to lawn work continues unabated, there does seem to be an increase in more natural, insect friendly approaches. All I have to do is look to the other side of our property. These neighbors have no lawn whatsoever, just flower beds and rock gardens and unmown ground cover. It’s beautiful. More and more homes around town have mini prairie patches in their front yards. And there are increasing numbers of vegetable gardens and chicken coops. Our yard falls somewhere in between, with about a third of the area in grass that is mowed with a hand mower. There’s room for improvement. I can see now that it needs to be even more insect friendly, provide even more of a refuge. Maybe a rain garden. A border of thistle. Something that aids the natural world, rather than subtracts from it.
A single post in the last six months. One might wonder what’s been going on. Certainly winter puts a stop to the insect sightings, but it should also free up time for reading books, and writing blogs. This winter, however, much of my free time was spent preparing and submitting photo observations to iNaturalist. This sight is an online community and data hub for naturalists across the world—from professional scientists, to citizen scientists, to casual outdoor types, to rank beginners. I began in October with photographs from a recent trip to southeastern Arizona. And only recently have I come close to being caught up, having submitted over 1,500 photo observations spanning six years of field observations. A lot of dragonflies. A lot of moths.
So what’s the big deal? And what possible good can come of such obsessive effort? Fair question. First off, it’s allowed me to organize a large amount of data, in effect creating a personal guidebook for a lot of local species. Secondly, iNaturalist has some very useful tools for creating checklists and guides for locations. Thirdly, it was a way to share data, to transfer knowledge from a personal collection into the public domain. Once a given observation is submitted, it can then be confirmed by other members of iNaturalist. These verified observation become “research grade” data, imparting some scientific value as part of a range map and supplying general information about that species. Also, if there’s a flower or insect I can’t identify, it’s easy to upload a photo to iNaturalist and ask for ID help—odds are pretty good some one will know what it is. I’ve learned a whole lot of natural history by simply keeping an eye on the constant variety of observations—animals, plants, fungi—submitted from all across the globe. Its really a great method of learning and sharing information and I’d recommend giving it a try.
Henry David Thoreau, whose journals I’ve been reading again, survived without iNaturalist…or a digital camera, but he did document his days in a similar manner—supplying dates, species names, and locations. Occasionally, he would add a simple sketch to the pages. His journals, stretching from 1837 to 1861, consistently log the timing and occurrences of flora and fauna around Concord, Massachusetts, in rich detail. And those volumes of elegant prose are one difference between his efforts and that of most active members of iNaturalist, a product of pen and candles and memory, not keyboard and digital image. Here’s an excerpt from the pages I read this morning:
“The hazel is fully out. The 23rd was perhaps full early to date them. It is in some respects the most interesting flower yet, though so minute that only an observer of nature, or one who looked for them, would notice it. It is the highest and richest colored yet,—ten or a dozen little rays at the end of the buds which are [at] the ends and along the sides of the bare stems. Some of the flowers are a light, some a dark crimson. The high color of this minute, unobserved flower, at this cold, leafless, and almost flowerless season! It is a beautiful greeting of the spring, when the catkins are scarcely relaxed and there are no signs of life in the bush. Moreover, they are so tender that I never get one home in good condition. They wilt and turn black.” – Henry David Thoreau, Journals, March 27, 1853
Having planted several hazelnut trees in our back yard, it was easy to be the “one who looked for them.” I walked into the back yard, camera in hand. Late summer, the squirrels go for the nuts well before they’re ripe, so we’ve never had more than a handful of homegrown hazelnuts. Early summer, I often stop to admire the leaves and enjoy the feel of their felt-like texture. And each year I notice the catkins; today with the branches absolutely bare of leaves they are especially noticeable. However, until reading this passage by Thoreau, I’d never thought to look for the flower.
After a mean-spirited coinhabitation of the flu, occupying the couch the way a bad stretch of weather occupies a week, needing something solid, lasting, earthbound to see me through some hours of misery, I took down an old hardcover from a nearby shelf. The book, Fire Sermon by Nebraskan novelist Wright Morris, would do.
The title made me think of T. S. Eliot and The Waste Land—it is after all the title of one of the sections of that poem. What I discovered, quickly, in the first few pages, was a humorous narrative of a boy, one Kermit Oelsligle, orphaned and living with a strange uncle, one Floyd Warner. The story and the style brought to mind The Christmas Story, that holiday film favorite based upon the writings of Jean Shepherd. This passage describing an employee at the local post office suffices for a flavor of Morris’s writing:
“He stands there, his pale face green in the shadow of his visor, the shirtsleeves turned back on his hairless arms. As many as eight or ten pens—ballpoints, felt points, etc.—fit into a plastic holder that protects his shirt pocket, although the only pen the boy has seen him use lies on the metal counter with several rubber stamps. Now and then he takes a puff of the cigarette he balances on the rim of the scales, right over one of the pouches, and there is no way to explain why the place hasn’t burnt down.”
These days when I read I’m always alert to allusions and comments referring to insects (as if spending hours and days looking for real insects is not enough!). Thus the following passage caught my entomological eye:
“He had sat down on a rock, and let his eyes rest on the small hole of some earth creature. Not so big as a prairie dog hole, or a mouse hole, but somewhat larger than most ant holes. Heaped around it, as in most cases, were the sand and pebbles kicked up out of the hole. A tiny volcano: that was how it would look in a photograph. He was struck by the color of one of the pebbles, and took a closer look. Separated from the others, in the palm of his hand, it looked very much like the stub of a pencil, only not so large. One end of it was sharpened to a very fine point, and it had six smooth polished sides. The other end was just a crude stump of dirt and sand, as if left unfinished.”
What the uncle, as a boy, held in his hand was a variety of quartz crystal known as a Pecos diamond. In a glass jar containing agates and crystals, inherited from my rockhound grandparents, are a few of these minute, crystalline pencil stubs, each no bigger than a tic-tac mint, sift their way to the bottom. And I wonder, now, having read this passage, if my grandparent’s adventures took them to the Pecos River country, and if these were authentic Pecos diamonds?
Obviously one of the great pleasures of reading is the synchronicity between reader and what’s written—the surprising way our memories bring living images up from the author’s printed words, the consentaneous way we are allowed to wander off the page and back again. So after wandering off in thought about my grandparents, I return and wander off in a new direction, this time in thought about the insects responsible for excavating these gems.
Mining bees seem the best match for a burrow shaped like a mini volcano, but there are a lot of contenders for insects that might excavate a hole the dimensions of which fall between that of the entrance to an ant hill and that of the entrance to a prairie dog burrow. Digger bees, cicadas, tiger beetles, come to mind. Or sand wasps that flick sand from their burrows through their legs like digging dogs. Or the hunting wasp that meticulously excavates, mouthful by mouthful, and discretely deposits her tailings some distance from the entrance to their burrow. If there were Pecos diamonds where I live, these wasps, like the thread-waisted wasp pictured below, would be likely excavators, hauling the buried gemstones up from the earth so they might glint in the sunlight of summer like tiny sparks of fire. I can’t help but think this would have been a wonderful mechanism for the reappearance of the magic ring in J. R. R. Tolkien’s middle earth saga, better perhaps than its surprising presence at the bottom of a stream.
Fire Sermon, to return to the novel, abruptly ends. After a long road trip in the uncle’s dilapidated car, driving from the California coast to the Nebraska plains (opposite the western movement of earlier generations), giving a lift to a couple of hitchhikers, the house that they have been journeying toward, that contains all the family possessions goes up in flames. And the fire, like that spoken of in the Buddhist Fire Sermon, liberates as it destroys. “Fire purifies” is what the hitchhiker, Joy, tells the boy in the book’s final sentence.
It’s been a long week, make that a long month. So many new tasks added to old obligations—construction of a new website for Red Dragonfly Press, publication of several new books (also for the press), new sports teams (for my daughter), and a couple of household wood-working projects—have left little time for visits to even nearby natural areas (let alone time to write about them). Yesterday, however, between fetching my daughter’s bike at the junior high and dinner, I found time for a quick hike at the Cannon River Wilderness Area.
At a pace near to running, it took me nearly fifteen minutes to breach the armpit-high ramparts of horse nettle that crowded the trail through ravine and river bottoms and break through to the good stuff, the wide-open fen and the hillside oak savanna. Catching my breath, I knelt alongside a section of sandy trail. A tiger beetle kicked sand out of a shallow burrow, either hunting or seeking shelter for the night. A bright, black-and-yellow beewolf arrived, its captured prey—a small, metallic bee, barely visible—slung beneath its belly. After remaining motionless for some time, the beewolf flew a few inches into a thicket of grass stems and began to excavate the entrance to its burrow. A satellite fly, gray and rather nondescript, tagged along behind the wasp, no doubt hoping to larviposit on the wasp’s prey before the wasp buries it. (This is probably one of the reasons beewolves rarely set down their prey, even while digging.) I now noticed a second wasp, a thread-waisted wasp. I watched as this wasp searched for a pebble, picked it up in her mandibles, then used it to seal the entrance of her burrow, tamping and pounding with the pebble before dropping it. After a few minutes of kicking sand around and the addition of several more pebbles, the burrow was sealed and camouflaged. The wasp, done with her day’s labors, flew a loose circle around the site, then departed.
Ready to move on, pleased to have been a small part of the landscape the departing wasp had memorized, I stood up. A line encountered recently in a poem by John Fuller came to mind. “But we so easy are still not at our ease.” The poem, ‘Aberporth,’ is a meditation upon a visit to a village on the west coast of Wales. I felt the poet’s admonishment. Here I was, ready to push on, when there was no need to push on. I could have sat down and continued watching over this small patch of sand until it was time to go. Instead, I turned and began to climb the prairie hills toward the oaks above, noting this failure to take my ease, but noting also that the grasses had lost much of their green since my visit earlier in the summer, that the year itself was speeding on as well. A few clumps of Gray Goldenrod still bloomed, adding dots of yellow to the rusty field. Sweet Everlasting bloomed in places as well and added a kind of green, dusty light to the hillside prairie, its pale florets raised like unlit candelabra. Taking a closer look at one of these flowers, I noticed a very strange bug.
Disruptively colored, its abdomen indented and spiky, this bug would be nearly invisible on a goldenrod flower, but on the white, bud-like everlasting flower, it stood out (instead of blending in). Still it was so small I couldn’t really appreciate how odd-looking it really was. Later, when I enlarged the photos, a chimera-like creature appeared on the computer screen, part Musk Ox, part mantid. Given such a fierce aspect at larger-than-life sizes—just look at those fiery eyes!—it’s best that its true-to-life dimensions remain at less than a centimeter in length.
This strange creature is a Jagged Ambush Bug. An apt name, I think, considering it’s basically a living trap for other insects attracted to the flowers on which it waits. Supposedly it’s even capable of capturing prey larger than itself. Fair warning, I guess, to those of us who wish to stop and smell the flowers, who insist on sticking our noses into the blooms.