The iNaturalist Interlude

American Hazelnut flower – Northfield, Minnesota – March 20, 2015
American Hazelnut flower – Northfield, Minnesota – March 20, 2015

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.

Wright Morris, Pecos Diamonds, and Hunting Wasps

Fire Sermon
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.

Ammophila wasp – Northfield, Minnesota – September 23, 2014
Ammophila wasp – Northfield, Minnesota – September 23, 2014

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.

Jagged Ambush Bug

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.

Jagged Ambush Bug – Northfield, Minnesota – September 18, 2014
Jagged Ambush Bug – Northfield, Minnesota – September 18, 2014

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.

Browne to Green

The Works of Sir Thomas Browne (1927 John Grant edition)
The Works of Sir Thomas Browne (1927 John Grant edition)

“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.

So far, May has been a lot easier to read.

Mining Bee (Andrena sp.) on Siberian Squill
Mining Bee (Andrena sp.) on Siberian Squill

Starting Small

With the arrival of the first sixty degree day in nearly six months (since October 12, 2013…but who’s counting!), It seemed wise to start small and see if even a fly or a spider could be found, some small living thing from under the recently dismantled snowdrifts. So I drove to a grouping of local catchment ponds that get a lot of sun and always thaw out early. Perched here and there on the windlestraes were several big, recently numb tachnid flies and a miniscule black beetle like a small shining obsidian bead. Beneath some nearby pines, I found a Lynx Spider spiderling not much larger than an ant’s tear or a beetle’s begging cup. A little further on, three powder-gray grasshopper nymphs kicked and tumbled among the dead grass blades and dropped needles.

Most grasshoppers overwinter as eggs, but the Green-striped Grasshopper (Chortophaga viridifasciata) gets a jump on those by overwintering as a nymph. The two nymphs pictured here, are both third instar nymphs, based on the wing development, the smallish wing pads pointing down with veins visible.

With the help of an Olympus micro 4/3 camera, extension tubes, and 45mm lens, starting small can get splendidly big, the small nymphs growing to colossal size on the screen. A close-up of the chitinous face reveals something like weathered stone, shiny in places like the glaze on the pottery in our cupboards. Zooming in on the painted eye, reveals a sphere like a tipped half-moon, a shape that wouldn’t look at all out of place on a Henry Moore bronze. Just how tough do you have to be to survive winter, especially without a fireplace or central heat, I sometimes wonder? These small nymphs are just one of the many answers to that question.

What You Can Do For Bumble Bees

A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson

A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson is due out in the United States from Picador at the end of April. By ordering a used copy of the English edition that was printed last year, I was able to jump ahead and read it in advance. Anyone with even a fleeting interest in native pollinators, in habitat loss, in agriculture, or in conservation will want to order this well-written, often-entertaining book. Combining memoir and natural history into a near perfect blend, Goulson gives us tales of tagging and tracking bumblebees, of grad students paired up with bumblebee sniffer dogs, of reintroducing locally extinct populations, all the while giving clear explanations of the science involved and the current research being done. If you’re already a bumble bee aficionado, who perhaps, like my daughter, enjoys watching and petting these big fuzzies while they visit summer flowers, I know you’ll enjoy this book immensely.

In one of the final chapters, Goulson admits to what must be a common frustration for scientists and researchers: “one might find out everything there is to know about bumblebees, and publish it for others to read in scientific journals, but only a handful of other scientists would read it and it would not result in there being one more bumblebee in the world.” Because of his knowledge and the need to get something done, Goulson founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a non-profit charity “for the bumblebees” with the goal of raising awareness of endangered bumblebees and bumblebee conservation among farmers and land managers and gardeners, people in a position to improve habitat and increase the number of bumblebees in the world.

While most of the science and natural history in this book relates to the UK, much of it applies equally well to our North American bumble bees and their conservation needs. (One difference being the spelling of “bumble bee”–the convention seems to be two words here, but a single word in the UK. If we look back more than a century, we find “Humble-bee” in use by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Darwin, because of the hum the bees make when flying). In North America, with one of our native species believed to be extinct, Franklin’s Bumble Bee (Bombus franklini), and numerous other species numbers in alarming decline, it’s obviously time to do something for our bumble bees as well.

Fortunately, many people here in the states have been hard at work protecting bumble bees for some time. The Xerces Society, which has been involved with protecting and raising awareness of native pollinators for many years, has recently helped to launch Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen scientist survey and monitoring project and website. As soon as I learned of this site, I searched through my old photos for some that I could submit. I didn’t find many. Bumble bees are difficult to photograph—they rarely stay still and if they do, their head is buried out of sight in the petals of the flower they are visiting. Out of three years of photos, I was more than a little disappointed to find only four bees to submit. Even still, it was satisfying to make even this small contribution to this wonderful new project.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee, Northfield, Minnesota, July 30, 2013
Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis) – Northfield, Minnesota, July 30, 2013

Last spring, aided by a copy of Befriending Bumble Bees: A Practical Guide to Raising Local Bumble Bees by Elaine Hodges, Ian Burns, and Marla Spivak, I attempted to rear bumble bees. I built the small boxes for the queens, in some ways like match-box size rabbit hutches. Rolled pollen balls. Prepared nectar. Captured and detained four separate queens: one Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) and three Two-spotted Bumble Bees (Bombus bimaculatus). None of them nested. I think my mistake was that I didn’t keep the queens in the starter nests warm enough (last spring was not an average spring, resembling rather a two-month extension of winter). When the queens didn’t show signs of nesting, I set them free. Hopefully this year I’ll have better luck coaxing a couple queens into starting a nest. Beyond the satisfaction and entertainment of rearing a colony, it seems useful to pursue the possibility of providing some local farmers with local pollinators.

Earlier this week, yet another bumble bee book landed in my mailbox: the new identification guide Bumble Bees of North America by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson, and Sheila Colla. And while I’ve only just begun to read through the front matter, and flip through the individual species accounts, this surely will be another great asset to anyone working with bumble bees in North America.

So, if you’re still wondering what you can do for bumble bees, I’d recommend digging into any of the books mentioned here during the few weeks left of winter. Then do some gardening, add some native plants that will provide native bees with needed nectar and pollen to your property. If you want to do more, throw some support to The Xerces Society or other organizations conserving needed habitat and start telling others about ways to support native pollinators.

Bumble Bees of North America
Bumble Bees of North America

First Wasp of 2014

Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014
Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014

Our always vigilant cat noticed this tiny wasp (6mm in length) on a rug in our kitchen. I believe it belongs somewhere among the Aphid Wasps (Pemphredoninae). The wing venation, the single submarginal cell, is a little curious and doesn’t match any of the illustrations in Bohart and Menke (1976), so I haven’t been able to proceed much farther than the subfamily.

Finding an aphid-hunting wasp in the house in March in Minnesota raises some questions, especially with the snow still piled deeply outside. Being a cavity nester, it could have emerged from some of the stems and galls I have sitting out in my office. That’s one possibility. But, given the porosity of the walls and foundations of this old house, the avenues for a creature this size to enter into our living space are many and, having not seen a living wasp of any kind for quite a number of months, most welcome.

Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014.
Northfield, Minnesota. March 17, 2014.