Wasp

This evening, I went out to look at the paper wasp nest that is well-hidden in the native plants garden at the church. I’ve learned that in the hour before sunset, the founder wasp rests herself on the nest, between the nest and its supporting twig, just below the petiole. And that’s exactly where she was when I got out there.

My camera is a good tool for getting a close look at her without getting too close; I have a healthy respect of wasps and have no desire to provoke her into stinging me. Looking at the photos I took of her, it looks like she has added some cells to the nest. The light began fading rapidly while I was taking photos, and it wasn’t long before the camera would no longer focus on the nest; as a result, I didn’t get any photos looking into the ends of the cells, so I’m not sure whether the cells contain any eggs or larvae.

In addition to global climate change…

In the United States, there’s this stereotype that different human populations worry about different environmental catastrophes. College-educated white suburbanites, so the stereotype goes, worry more about global climate change — perhaps because they are more aware of how much energy it takes to power their many automobiles, and to heat their large homes. Communities of color and working class whites, so it is said, worry more about toxics in the environment — perhaps because people of color and working class people are more likely to be exposed to more toxic substances in the places they live and work.

College-educated white people have tended to be dismissive of the threat of toxics in the environment, at least in comparison to the threat of global climate change. Global climate change has the potential to cause another “great extinction” and to decrease human chances of survival, whereas toxics in the environment don’t have the potential to do as much damage.

But I think we all should start worrying more about toxics in the environment.

According to a BBC article titled “Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples,” a recent study published in Science shows that neonicotinoids have been found in three quarters of honey samples from around the world (from every continent except Antarctica). The widespread presence of neonicotinoids is especially troubling, because they were found in places where the chemicals have been banned for several years.

When asked by the BBC to comment on the article, Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said: “Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity.”

The collapse of biodiversity is bad enough. But consider, too, that if we humans kill off major pollinators, there’s a potential cascade effect that could drive many flowering plants towards extinction. So if you’re looking for a cause of the next “great extinction,” or if you’re just looking for another reason to lie awake at night and worry — look no farther than toxics in the environment.

Hudson, Ohio, to Black Wolf, Wis.

Yesterday, we drove from Hudson, Ohio, to Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin. The drive was long and remarkable only because of a huge traffic jam that we were able to avoid by using an online map service, and thunderstorms outside Chicago that prompted us to stay in a service area for an hour until the rain died down.

Today Ed took us to the Paine Art Center and Galleries in Oshkosh. I enjoyed seeing the building, the art, and the furniture, but I liked the gardens most of all. I enjoyed the creativity of the plantings — using red Swiss chard as an ornamental in a garden dominated by deep red flowers was inspired — and the variety of the gardens, from woodland shade gardens with winding paths, to formal rose gardens laid out in rectangles.

What particularly struck my attention, though, was the variety of pollinators I saw. Several species of Hymenoptera, and at least two species of Lepidoptera were actively seeking out blossoms throughout the garden. I felt fairly confident identifying the Lepidoptera as the common species Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta).

I was unable, however, to identify the Hymenoptera species that I saw. One was a bumblebee, in the genus Bombus, crawling in and out of the flowers of a hosta; but which of the two dozen species of bumblebee that live in this region, I am not able to say.

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I saw a small greenish bee-like insect, perhaps one of the metallic green bees (genus Agapostemon) crawling on a red flower. Another individual, apparently of the same species, flew to the flower and the two clutched at each other and lay on one of the petals for a few seconds; then both flew away.

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I looked through the BugGuide online guide to genus Agapostemon, but it was clear I did not have enough information to figure out which species I had seen. Nor was I able to decide what the behavior I saw was about: were they two individuals copulating? having a territorialdispute? Here’s a magnified section of the above photograph:

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And there were other individuals where I could not even determine the genus, like a wasp-like insect I watched crawling around on a fennel flower. Lepidoptera is the only order of insect where I find it possible to carry identification down to the level species; in Hymenoptera, I feel lucky if I can get to the level of genus; and there are other insects where I’m not even sure in what order the insect should be placed.

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Curiously, I didn’t see any European Honeybees. But I saw at least two or three other species of Hymenoptera active among the flowers. I could have spent all afternoon looking at these insects, but that would have been a serious imposition on Carol and Ed.

Bee nests

In the fall of 2014, the ecojustice class (gr. 6-8) at our congregation made “bee houses” to provide potential nesting sites for Mason Bees. We kept watch on the bee houses through spring of 2015, but neither I nor the teens observed any nesting activity. (Mason Bees are solitary, and do not nest in hives like the more familiar Western Honeybee.)

But when this year’s ecojustice class checked on the bee houses last Sunday, it looked like some of the holes are now or had recently been occupied by insects:

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Since Mason Bees use mud and soils to plug up their nesting holes, and these holes do not look like they have mud in them — the color of the plugs is not the color of any of the nearby soils — I’m not convinced that Mason Bees are nesting here. Nevertheless, some organism has definitely moved in to these holes; perhaps further observation will reveal what that organism might be.

Drama in the portable toilet

Several us went out to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area on Saturday to look for birds. We did see some fabulous birds, but the highlight of the trip for me was seeing a Black Widow spider capturing a wasp of some kind, and wrap it in spider silk, and slowly kill it. This all took place inside one of the portable toilets, just below the urinal. Had anybody seen several of us standing around and looking in the door of a portable toilet for five or ten minutes, I suppose they would have thought us odd. But it was a riveting drama, well worth watching.

Emily, who was with us, has posted a series of photos showing the whole process; my favorite of this series of photos is here.

I spent a little time trying to track down what kind of wasp the Black Widow was preying on. The best I could do was to say with certainty that this insect was in the order Hymenoptera; with somewhat less certainty, I’m willing to say the insect was in family Vespidae. But is it a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellowjacket? I have neither the patience nor the expertise to answer that question.

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:

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It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

San Mateo, Calif., to Winnemuca, Nev.

As usual on one of these cross-country trips, I got a late start on the first day. Carol was going off to Lake Tahoe with her friend Elaine, and I sat and talked with Elaine while Carol finished getting ready. Elaine has lived all her life in the Bay Area. She grew up in the city — that is, in San Francisco. Even though San Jose is more populous and has more land area, San Francisco is “the city” in the Bay Area, while San Jose is not even a place. Joan Didion, a fifth generation Californian, once wrote that the problem with California is that every place is starting to look like San Jose; not a real place, just featureless sprawl; but San Francisco is still a real place, and so it remains “the city.”

Even though I’m a relative newcomer to the area, Elaine and I both agreed that the Bay Area is a lovely place to live — except for the traffic and the cost of housing. Then Carol was ready to go, and they left, and I finished packing the car and started driving sometime after eleven.

I got to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area at a quarter past two, my head still buzzing from the Bay Area traffic. At Parking Lot B, I got out of the car. Marsh Wrens were calling all around me. Through the cattails and rushes I could see that there was still water in some of diked areas. There were flowers everywhere: most prominent were banks of plants in the carrot family — call it Queen Anne’s Lace — with nodding umbrelliform flowers three to seven feet off the ground. I stopped to watch honeybees buzzing around these flowers.

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There were plenty of birds, too: Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, and many more feeding in the shallow water. As usual at Yolo Bypass, the birds were very aware that there was a human nearby, and as I got closer they moved farther away.

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Then it was time to get back on the road. Up over the Sierras where I could see dark clouds and lightning to the east, then down into Reno where the roads were still wet from a thunderstorm. Thence up through the Humboldt River valley, with dark clouds all around. Everywhere I looked, the hills were washed with a faint green, the desert coming to life after rain. At dusk, I pulled over to get gas near Mill City, and pulled over near the exit ramp to stretch my legs. As I walked through the low grass, grasshoppers sprang to life to get out of my way, and small burrs wormed their way into my socks, and swallows swopped close to my head catching evening insects.

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Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

It was a perfect New England summer day — breezy, about 85 degrees, gentle blue sky — so Carol and I decided to take a walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon.

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Above: Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Concord, Mass., looking north over the lower impoundment

 

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Above: Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
 

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Above: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), with unidentified pollinator