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.
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.
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.
An examination of the open trap nest revealed four occupied cells and one empty cell, a vestibular space between the nest plug and the occupied cells. Three of the occupied cells contained potter wasp larvae, the fourth, the one closest to the entrance, did not. It held, apparently, the remains of the original provisioning, as if the potter wasp egg never hatched. Placing the nest and this suspect cell under the microscope, I discovered two tiny wasps (both dead), three tiny cocoons (one still full), and a bunch of mummified caterpillars. Something had obviously gone wrong in this cell.
The cell in question, being the closest to the entrance, was the last to be provisioned. It appears, bad luck for the provisioning wasp, that one of the caterpillars captured and placed in the cell must have been secreting a number of parasitoid wasp larvae. Like the clever Greeks in the Illiad, these wasp larvae emerged from their caterpillar host (the substitute for the Trojan Horse in this metaphor) at some point after being sealed into the cell. Unlike the successful Greeks, these stowaways perished. Not having the mandibles or the mud-dissolving spit required to breach the mud partitions, they died, immured in the dark. In describing this, I feel other literary echoes, namely the horror story The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe. Of course the fate of the caterpillars in this cell is hardly more disturbing than the fate of the other caterpillars stung into paralysis, then devoured alive.
These wasps really were small, just a couple millimeters in length, no larger than an Argentine Ant, that common pillager of kitchen sugar. The wing venation indicated the wasps were of the family Braconidae, a large family of parasitoids with more than 1,700 species in North America. Interestingly enough, some braconids have been used as biological agents in the control of agricultural pests, pests such as the Cabbage Butterfly. Many species are colored black and red or black and orange. Since βρακον is Greek for breeches (or pants in a less stilted dictionary) I wonder if the brightly colored hind legs resulted in the family name or if it’s those swollen thighs, the coxa, that gives the family its name? As far as I could determine, these particular wasps belong to the family Agathidinae, though in consulting a recent key to the Agathindinae I couldn’t make it past the first binomial because my microscope isn’t powerful enough to examine the shape of the foreclaws, so I don’t even have a guess at the species.
While the Braconidae are interesting in their own right, this failed cell also provided an opportunity to look over the provisions. Seven small green caterpillars, all probably of the same species (no prolegs on A3, patterned prothoracic shield) were preserved. According to both Cooper and Krombein, Ancistrocerus antilope (the likely provisioner of this nest), stuffs its nest full of small caterpillars, most often the tiny larvae of micro moths—the crambid moths, the twirler moths, the concealer moths—and that appears to be the case here. My best guess, after an hour browsing bugguide, would be a Tortricid moth larvae (Tortricidae, tribe Archipini; possibly Choristoneura sp. which seemed to have a very similar prothoracic shield). The cell also contained a different species of caterpillar, 2 to 3 times as large as the others (prolegs on A3-A6, no prothoracic shield). It seems likely that this caterpillar hosted the wasps.
Krombein also reported that Ancistrocerus antilope provisioned its cells, on average, with 3 to 10 larvae, usually of a single species, and usually of early instars, the selection of early instars no doubt lowering the likelihood of interring a larvae containing parasitoids. And Krombein, out of thousands of trap nests examined, reported braconids in just two! I feel fortunate to have happened upon this complication so early in my trap nesting career.
The nest, reassembled, has been overwintering on a frosty window sill in my cold, corner office, sitting alongside plastic cups with dragonfly nymphs, other containers filled with Lepidoptera cocoons, and several heaps of gathered plant galls. It’s a nice place to sit on a cold winter day, one large creature among numerous little creatures, all of us biding our time, preparing for warmer weather.
If I hadn’t set out this trap, I wouldn’t have learned of these wasps, or known about their presence in our back yard. I wonder, often, about how few people know or care about these small happenings. I worry, just as often, about my own lack of understanding, the little I really know about the complexities of even my backyard, let alone the larger world. And I suspect, more and more, that it’s simply a failing of patience and of imagination if, for instance, a certain moth caterpillar runs rampant in our gardens and we reach for insecticides, not trusting the unseen checks to their population provided by wasps and other predators.
I think the tension, here, is between what we manage and what we don’t manage. What escapes our hand widens and grows wild. This is not pristine wild, but salvaged wild, the wild that creeps back over the land, resettling the unweeded margins, homesteading the fallow flower pots, mining the messy understory and the fetid margins of the compost. When I see weeds I see hope; and when I see unmown, unsprayed lawns I see progress being made.
Cooper, K.W. 1953. Biology of eumenine wasps. I. the ecology, predation and competition of Ancistrocerus antilope (Panzer). Trans. Am. Ent. Soc.79: 13-35.
Evans, H. E. 1963. Wasp Farm. New York: Natural History Press, Doubleday.
Krombein, K.V. 1967. Trap-nesting wasps and bees: life histories, nests, and associates. Smithsonian Press, Washington D.C. vi + 570 pp.
Vladimir Nabokov—literary stylist, lifelong lepidopterist—wrote, following his late masterwork Ada, a slim novel entitled Transparent Things. On the very first page, the book’s narrator posits the following statement about time: “When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!” While Nabokov’s novel veers off in pursuit of the duplicitously named “Person” and his sordid tale, Nabokov’s philosophy of the present moment, multiperspectival and enigmatical, stuck with me, novice that I am, leaving me in need of practice.
Let’s back up. Let’s jump ahead.
“Look. A transparent thing!” I said, as I entered the back door of our house, holding out an object for my wife to inspect. “You found a what?” she slyly answered, eyeing the less-than-see-through block of wood in my hand. I stepped down from the metaphysical soap box and said, “One of my trap nests…que está llena.” Lisa shook her head and went back to grading papers; I stepped back outside, pleased, smiling to myself.
That object, pictured above, may not be immediately recognizable to many. And that’s ok.
A closed door, a pebble, the bark of a tree, a loose floorboard, a shut book, an unopened letter, a missed phone call…almost any object or event, unknown or familiar, gives the mind opportunity to wander; it’s never long before a magic key unlocks the door, a phantom hand lifts the loose floorboard or reaches into the past and answers that phone. The mind jumps at the chance to get moving, budging ahead of the senses. The thing we were looking at or holding dissolves, disappears before our eyes like smoke into fog. The moment the past shines through, we sink out of the present moment, into the metaphysical transparency of memory and imagination. We lose hold of the day. Or, at least I do, often. It’s as if I fill an imaginary glass with imaginary water, over and over, never drinking anything. Daydreaming, I suppose some would call it. My mind races to supply answers to questions it needn’t have asked, forgetting the task at hand.
Left untreated, this traveling out of the present moment can be problematic, and probably irritating to others. Luckily it only takes the smallest amount of discipline (a deep breath, a hug or a handshake…at most a cup of coffee or a glass of wine) to return one to their senses; a little enjoyment, a little curiosity, a little wonder is all it takes. And so I’ll leave you curiously wondering about this image, that clay disc centered in that block of wood, fixed on its concentric orbit like a model planet. Consider it a gift, a temporary present of the present moment. We’ll tear the wrapping paper off in the next post.
When news of the death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney reached me, I went to the bookshelf and took down a 1969 Faber and Faber hardcover, Heaney’s second book, Door Into The Dark, and started to read, revisiting the familiar poems.
While I can’t remember when I first read one of his poems—”the years shuttle through space invisibly” and, at least for me, imperiously—but it must have been near to when I first began to read poetry in the late 1980s. Then, sometime in the 1990s, I heard Heaney read in Minneapolis, at Orchestra Hall. Given the venue and the crowds attending, the reading must have taken place not long after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, which was in 1995.
I felt akin to the his early poems, the words in the poems like rocks rolled into place, but when he built above that, adding the upper story of Irish politics and culture, I felt the Atlantic Ocean intervene and felt all that terror at a distance, however vividly described.
So, after my initial, intense attention to the early books, I didn’t follow Heaney as closely as I might have. Nevertheless each new book caught my attention at some point, whether remaindered on a table in a used bookstore or shelved against oblivion in a college library. Sometimes I’d go back to those first books, Death of a Naturalist or North, and indulge. Sometimes, I’d sample an essay or two, from Governing the Tongue or Redress of Poetry. More recently I’ve enjoyed his translations of the Old English Beowulf and the medieval Scots poet Robert Henryson. Heaney brought to both the same sack-of-potatoes diction, the same turf-cutting syntax, that made his own poems resound so low to the ground and honestly.
Each day has it’s own doorway into the dark. Seamus Heaney was kind enough, poet enough, to remind us that the passage need not be one way. True, that dark is inside, an impenetrable core, like imagining the center of a stone, but as long as we, the living, can go both ways through that door, the light will make “The sea a censer, and the grass a flame.” That our eyes, after they’ve adjusted to the dark inside the church, inside the Oratorium, inside the stone chambers of our grief, should be almost blinded by the intensity of the daylit world. This no doubt holds for the other senses as well. So that our ears, for instance, after taking in too much routine noise—blenders, lawnmowers, blaring cars—can be restored by the subtlety and surprise of our language put down in poems, something Heaney did so well, and something for which he’ll be long remembered. Think of the whinlands, that treeless and boggy landscape that is brightened and brought to life by Heaney’s choice of words “gilt, jaggy, springy, frilled…”