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.
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.
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.
“Men that look upon my outside, perusing onely my condition, and fortunes, do erre in my altitude; for I am above Atlas his shoulders.”
Written by Sir Thomas Browne some centuries ago in his work Religio Medici, this sentence caught my attention when I first encountered it some years ago and it continues to fascinate me. The image of Atlas is curious. I always picture this god holding the earth on his shoulder, then inevitably wonder, not how heavy it must be, but where could he be standing. What is below Atlas his feet? And I admire the surprising use of the word “altitude.” But ultimately I suspect the main reason this sentence resides and rides along in memory is its sound, the syntax and cadence, especially that final phrase zeroing in on the shoulders.
Because my thoughts tend to dash off on wild tangents when reading, I sometimes (more often than I should care to admit) miss the point, and missing the point of this sentence by Browne would be especially embarrassing given that the sentence is about misreading, about errors in judgment. So let me change directions and get to the point of this blog entry, the point being that I did err in my estimation of the month of April.
Just as it’s possible to err in the estimation of a person’s “altitude,” it’s also possible to mistake the weather. By and large the general consensus of the weather throughout the month of April was that it was the pits, that it wasn’t fit for man nor beast. Perusing the conditions at my window or on the computer screen I too easily agreed. I was convinced spring wasn’t coming. The days linked together to form a malicious, unwelcome limbo. Each afternoon seemed to lose its way between melting ice and freezing water. However much I griped and kept from venturing out, the world beyond our snow-spattered windows found enough sunlight and warmth to get on about the business of changing seasons.
Judged by the list of first-of-the-year sightings—the first Chorus Frogs, the first Sandhill Cranes, the first mining bees, the first dragonflies, the first flowers, Scilla and Sanguinaria on the ground, Salix and Acer overhead —spring undoubtedly arrived in April. The ice went out. The grass turned green. Underneath the shroud of inclement weather, snow falling even to the final days of the month, the soil unthawed, the buds burst, and the insects awoke.