Killer Wasps

Now that it’s summer, the time for pictures of pretty flowers is over, and most of the things I take pictures of are insects. That’s because it’s Grasshopper and Wasp City here in Milam County, Texas. I’ll save you the grasshoppers for now, and instead share what I’ve been learning about local wasps.

Hello, I’m a cicada killer wasp. I’m big. Why did you dig me up?

First, there are so many kinds of wasps in Texas! Second, most of them aren’t out to attack us. They are busy doing their own thing, for the most part. Two types of wasps I’ve been seeing lately are way too busy killing other creatures to mess around with us. That’s good, because one of them is pretty darned big, and the other one can sting painfully, if you let it.

First, I’d been seeing these reddish wasps with black wings around the porch lately, but they would not hold still long enough to pose for a photo. Luckily, my Master Naturalist friend found one doing its “thing” and got a couple of photos, even though he said his were a bit blurry. Here’s his blog on these spider wasps. Yes, those guys flitting around my porch weren’t after ME, they were after the numerous spiders out here in the country. I wish they would get all the black widows, but they seem to go after bigger prey.

Spider wasp (Tachypompilus ferrugineus) going after a rabid wolf spider. Photo by Eric Neubauer.
Spider wasp with an unidentified prey, found at my neighbors’ house. Photo by Mark Ellet.

I got interested in them, and began reading up on spider wasps. It turns out the females drag a paralyzed spider to their burrow (or the spider’s previous burrow) and lay one egg in them. The egg hatches in there, and the baby wasp goes through five instars with the spider as its food source. Interestingly, they save the vital organs until last, ensuring their food remains “fresh.” How appetizing! Here is an article about spider wasps, if you’d like to learn more.

Spiders aren’t the only insects that need to be watching their backs right about now. Remember the insect at the top of the blog? That’s a cicada’s worst nightmare, Sphecius speciosus! From the sounds we are hearing in our woods, cicadas are up and crawling around, singing their tiny hearts out. No wonder the cicada killer wasps are crawling out of their holes in search of yummy morsels. Now, cicadas are pretty large insects. It’s no problem for cicada killers, though, because they are the biggest wasps in Texas.

Even though it’s a big wasp, a cicada is bigger. Good thing the wasp has strong wings!

I was really impressed when I saw the one above just slinging that cicada around like a sack of potatoes. Even more amazing was that it picked the insect up and flew off with it (granted, it didn’t achieve much height). I already knew they lived in burrows, because that’s where we found the one at the top of this page. I now know that the cicadas are used as food for their young, just like with spider wasps. The adult wasps feed on nectar from flowers. They rarely sting humans, and the more aggressive males actually can’t sting. Here is a lot more information on cicada killers. They’re related to my buddies, the mud daubers, who daub pretty much constantly around the ranch.

So, that’s today’s non-controversial news! Thanks to those of you who actually come here to learn stuff!

Cute Animals for Scary Times

Really, I do understand why people are being cautious these days. The rate of coronavirus infections in Milam County has skyrocketed. I have been limiting where I go, and even wearing my mask to cross the street. I ordered a lot of new masks today, too, since I’m wearing them more and getting them dirty.

Question mark butterfly
This question mark butterfly is stunningly beautiful, and was right outside my office door.

My family and the companies I am affiliated with are all being very careful. There have been two people die who work for my Austin employer, though I do not know what caused it. Sure makes you pause and want to hug your loved ones, though you can’t.

Sleeping white dog
For the past three nights, Carlton has been lying on top of me until I get to sleep. Dogs are so loving.

What I can do is tell you some fun/mildly interesting stories about animals and share some pictures! Okay!

A house finch nest
Mama Finch says she likes it on THIS side.

First, all the birds around our Cameron offices have been continuing their festival of babies. The mockingbirds finally left their parents this week. I miss them, but Lee says now we have a carport squirrel. The swallows are down to two babies who are about ready to fledge. And the every-valiant house finches re-built their nest on the OTHER side of the garage and are sitting on eggs.

I love that nature just keeps plugging along. Some things just don’t change.

One thing that doesn’t change is Alfred and his abundance of hair. We had him pretty well cleaned out, but yesterday we noticed Harvey was getting lots of hair out of him. So, Kathleen sat and patiently removed hair for about ten minutes, before Alfred ran out of patience.

Large pile of dog hair and two dogs
I’m not sure I like this…

The rest of the night, if Kathleen even LOOKED like she was heading toward him, he ran away. Not much makes him run. We laughed a lot, and laughing is good. I hope some day we can work on his other side!

A jackrabbit in Milam County, Texas
Just chillin in the pasture.

I got a new animal sighting today, too! I saw my first jackrabbit in Milam County, right on the ranch. Someone had said they saw a really big bunny, so I think this was the one. Those are some big ears, but I felt a lot better with my ID when a couple of local friends confirmed my sighting. I am happy to see them and hope their population grows.

In horse news, Apache is walking close to normally, for which we are all very grateful. He, Fiona, and Big Red the chicken are all getting tired of living in the tiny pen not sure why Big Red is always there, but maybe she thinks shes part of the herd.

Big Red, Apache, and Fiona
Good morning. We would like to eat now.
Ginger the chicken
I did not ask for a husband.

And in bird news, the guinea fowl are growing like crazy, and the new chickens are, too. The ladies are growing in their combs. Clarence, the newest rooster, has not won over Ginger and Bertie Lee yet, but its getting better every day. Thank goodness!

We think Bruce is about to get his crow going, which will be fun. At the moment he makes some funny sounds we cannot really identify.

So, that is the non-COVID news from around here. Office update soon!

Book Review: The Nature of Texas

A review of a field guide to the nature of Texas, suitable for beginning naturalists

Here’s a new book that some of you who live in Texas might want to order. It’s a field guide called The Nature of Texas: An Introduction to Familiar Plants, Animals and Outstanding Natural Attractions, by James Kavanagh and illustrated by Raymond Leung.

The cover of the book, The Nature of Texas
Any book with an armadillo on it is a book I like!

This isn’t one of those huge compendiums of every single living organism in the state; instead, it highlights plants and animals that an average person with an interest in the nature in Texas might run into. The descriptions are brief and in lay terms, and the illustrations are really lovely (good job, Raymond Leung).

It’s a bit too basic of a book for me to carry around, but I could easily imagine giving it to a teenager or older child who’s going camping and wants to know what they might find out there, or someone who just moved to Texas and wants a nice overview. It would be fun to put on the bedside table for your out-of-state visitors, or on the coffee table of your rental property.

an open page of a book, with information about fish
An example of the text and illustrations.

The back of the book has two handy features. One is a brief list of interesting places to go to see the natural wonders of Texas, with clear maps. The other is a series of checklists you can use to mark off wildlife and native plants that you see in your travels. That would be a fun family project (though I’d have to add a bunch of things, like more owls).

I do recommend The Nature of Texas, just for the beautiful illustrations alone. And the introductory essay, “But a Watch in the Night,” written by James Rettie in 1948 is a real treasure, too. It’s a great reminder of how little time humans have actually been present and messing around with our planet.

I May Never Sleep Again

I was telling Lee how glad I was that all the Master Naturalist stuff has helped me be less squeamish about bugs. I’d just seen a dead bug on the floor and stopped to pick it up and take a picture.

Cool stripes! Cool head!

We went outside (even though it was 99 F today), I checked my rocking chair for black widows, and I proceeded to look the insect up in iNaturalist. Oh, look, that one was easy! Let’s read all about it.

It’s a WHAT? It bites WHERE? It does THAT to people? It was in my HOUSE?

Nature, I love you. But I’d sure rather keep my distance from some of your creations, even if I’m a Naturalist.

If you see the eastern blood-sucking conenose, remove it from your home.

Its name is nowhere near as funny as yesterday’s grasshoppers. Texas. Everything not only bites or stings, but some of it sucks. On the other hand, I have a new thing to tell jerks: “Don’t be a bloodsucking conenose!”

I put it on my altar to represent darkness. Next to snake stuff.

Ick. So, what’s the most disgusting thing at YOUR house?

Grasshopper Names Are Majestic

Not much is going on this weekend. I had two good rides on Apache, and Sara helped me figure out the last thing I needed to keep progress going, which was shorter reins.

Showy grasshopper

Other than that, I’ve been watching summer insects. I’m still trying to get better photos. Perhaps I should try the real camera again.

Differential grasshopper

I did get some reasonable photos today, when looking at a friend’s garden.

Maybe a ponderous spur-throat

As I uploaded them to iNaturalist, I was thoroughly entertained by the common names of the grasshoppers. They are so creative and grand. Here are some names:

Admirable grasshopper

Ponderous Spur-throatedgrasshopper

Differential grasshopper

Devastating grasshopper

Barbarian grasshopper

Wrinkled grasshopper

Boopedon (my favorite)

Prairie boopie

Plains lubber grasshopper

Grizzly Spur-throat grasshopper

Two-striped slant-faced grasshopper

Obscure grasshopper

What cool names, huh? Maybe I’ll find some of these. And maybe someone will help me ID them.

Differential or devastating?

Texas, Where Almost Everything Bites

Today I have a hodgepodge of stuff to share, but first I want to talk about what’s lurking around the ranch these days. That would be things that bite, and things that jump. Yesterday, I went to sit down on one of the front-porch rocking chairs, when I saw something on the seat.

A member of the widow spider family.

I am very glad she was pre-dead, and that I saw her before I sat. Certainly it confirms my habit of checking for creatures before plopping down anywhere around the Hermits’ Rest! I’m not sure what kind of widow spider she was, but I don’t want any of them biting me. These are the main reason I continue to support having pest control come around the house.

The second reason is scorpions, which I haven’t seen any of, but Lee and Kathleen have killed a few. I love them out in the woods, but not in the house. And I love the spiders, but not ones that could really mess with my health.

I’ve apparently become allergic to mosquito bites, and they make huge welts, so I could do without those right now, too. And biting flies! Argh. There are black flies around here, and horse flies (thankfully not around ME), and deer flies. Whatever. One of them bit me on my FACE this morning. That could have to do with how much poop we have at the ranch

Nonetheless, I am heartily enjoying discussing different kinds of flies and grasshoppers and stuff with Eric in our Master Naturalist class. He not only has good eye for finding them, but he has a good camera, and the patience to work hard to identify them.

Eric wrote me an email today about the coolest thing he saw (a “mystical experience,” in his words), which was he was trying to photograph a large grasshopper:

It jumped off the path into the high grass and when it landed it appeared to turn into at least a dozen tiny projectiles which flew off in all directions like a firework. A closer look uncovered a great concentration of grasshopper nymphs in the area.

Eric N., email 6/6/2020

Of course, he didn’t get a picture, but WOW, what an image!

My grasshopper experience this morning was also something you couldn’t photograph. I was walking back from horse riding (it went well), noticing that it’s definitely grasshopper season. Then I noticed the sound. As I walked, I was disturbing dozens and dozens of them (small ones, since they aren’t adult yet), and my walk seemed to have a rhythm section accompanying it. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap-tap-tap.

I k now a lot of people don’t like grasshoppers (like my sister), and I admit they are annoying in the summers when there are hundreds pelting me as I drive the utility vehicle. At least they don’t bite often or hard. But they are so varied and interesting. I have an AWFUL time photographing them, so I think I’m going to get a good butterfly net soon, so I can get some to hold still.

What Doesn’t Bite?

Roaches. Secretly, I have never been fond of roaches, due to childhood trauma, but I am doing better since I started doing iNaturalist. I recently even found one I thought was interesting to look at. It also lived outdoors, where it should.

Fairly attractive pale-bordered field cockroach

And non-venomous snakes don’t bite humans, often anyway. So, I was sad to see this one in the road this morning. Rat snakes are my buddies as long as they aren’t eating my hens’ eggs.

Poor snakey got hit by a car.

Okay, time to go see what’s outside that will hurt in some other way…

Suna the Brave

Yes, I didn’t write anything yesterday. For one, I had way too many meetings and errands to do. But really, I joined many people I know in being so overwhelmed, appalled, and upset about how black men and people of color in general are being treated in this country that I couldn’t find anything non-incendiary to say. So, I’m not saying anything else yet. I will, though.

Am I a Coward?

Tough on the outside, soft on the inside. A goal.

One thing about observing injustices in the world is I sometimes feel cowardly, like I really could be doing more to express the outrage I feel. Or take concrete action. (I have plans, though.)

This morning, however, I got a lesson that showed me I can indeed be brave, but that it helps to do so with a clear head and not from a place of anger.

Testing My Bravery

It was horse riding time on a very hot, cloudless morning. Sara and I met at 9 am, hoping that would be early enough for it to not be too hot. Wrong. By the time everyone was all groomed (including Fiona, who I am continuing to help shed her winter fuzzies) I was dripping with sweat.

I’m always cute, though.

Sara told me she’d had a great ride on Apache yesterday, though he exhibited some of his “druthers,” as she calls them, where he indicates he’d rather be doing something else, thank you. He warmed up fine, though.

Once I mounted, he began to hint that he’d much rather be over chatting with Lakota, the new gelding, who was not being ridden. I got him to do other things though, and we set out to go ride in our favorite pasture, where there is some shade.

To get there, you have to walk down a long “race” that’s used to bring cattle up from the far pasture. It’s mostly grass, but with the recent rains there are still some big muddy areas, which we usually just go around.

This picture of me trying to look intimidating but calm shows what I was trying to project at the dang horse.

Not today. Apache had absolutely no intention of walking down that race like he normally does. He kept turning around. When I’d make him go the other way, he’d back up. He’d go sideways. We crept forward (poor Sara had to just walk her horse back and forth), and eventually got to an area between two slippery muddy areas that caused him to slip and slide as he cantankerously waved his head around and acted pissed off. No amount of urging, poking, bopping with the stick, and strong language helped.

After about fifteen minutes of this and I could see that I was losing my ability to project calm thoughts and not act angry. And Apache was slipping and sliding to where I was worried for his safety.

If I could stay calm after realizing this huge caterpillar was chomping on my ankle last night, I can handle an ornery equine. (A live oak metria moth)

So I got off. He started to head back. Nope. We walked the rest of the way that we were going to ride. He was still agitated but at least went the right way, mostly. About halfway through the walk, he sighed and started acting completely normally. I was so glad I didn’t give up on him, managed to stay calm, and saw the day’s agenda through.

When we got to the end, we enjoyed the shade a bit, then I got back on (no easy feat with a hybrid saddle with high stirrups), and we walked sedately and calmly back. He didn’t break into a trot or anything.

Stay focused and calm and think of beautiful things, I kept thinking.

There was a bit of druthers when we got to the end of the race, because we didn’t go straight to the barn. Sara and I wanted to be sure he had a clue who was in charge. Eventually he realized that prancing around foolishly was just making him sweat, and he did the circles he was asked to do.

Sara said we’d had a real breakthrough and she was very proud of me. I realized once again that I CAN push past fears and do things that need to be done so that I and others (including horses) can grow and do better.

Whew. I needed that.

Things That Puzzle Me

To be honest, a lot of things puzzle me these days, and I assume you’re probably puzzled a lot lately as well. Some of these things are fun or funny, and some are testing my ability to not be judgmental of others (and ya know, sometimes people seem to be begging to be judged; still I try not to do it). And some of it brings me way down. Sigh.

The first thing is this. It’s a fun one. What is going on with these mud daubers? Is this love or death?

What is going ON with this threesome? I can’t get it out of my mind.

There’s been a lot of mud dauber drama around the house, anyway. I see lots of hornets attacking the blue-black mud daubers, but there are usually just two of them. What a way to go!

On to the Rant

Next, I see so many people with huge logical inconsistencies in the things they say and post on social media. How is this not an issue for them? I was going to write some specific instances, but I decided that I don’t want to get involved, because of the next thing that puzzles me…

Why does everything have to be politicized? Health and safety precautions to protect ourselves and others now signify which political “side” we’re on? Why? I’m sorely disappointed at how people are labeling each other as fearful and irresponsible. Let’s look at a butterfly now and breathe.

And facts. What the hell has happened to those little gems? This whole business of not trusting science and verified facts confuses me a lot. Of course there is always more to be learned, but this doesn’t mean that historical event X never happened or gravity doesn’t exist (we don’t exactly know what gravity is, by the way.

And black men! My word! My heart is breaking and I would start hugging every black man I see, but that would not be good at this time, and at any time that would be sort of weird. Nobody deserves to live life judged guilty just for being born. Shame on us.

Ah, a buckeye. That brings some positive energy in.

Honest, I respect people’s right to view the world from different perspectives from mine. I am not telling anyone how to think, as much as it’s tempting sometimes. I guess I’m just disappointed. And puzzled. And confused.

I’ll tell you exactly how bad I feel about other human beings right now. Last night, I dreamed that some kind of bomb went off and I watched a man fleeing a nuclear blast. I thought, “Well, he can’t escape that, but at least he won’t have to deal with the mess the survivors are left with.” I think my subconscious was reflecting what I consciously don’t want to admit, which is that there are times when I’d just rather not be here than to watch society disintegrate before my eyes. It’s so painful.

Debbie Downer, signing off. Going to look at nature so I can feel better. How are YOU coping?

Invasives and Dragonflies

Happy National Invasive Species Week everybody! Whee! I don’t know if we are supposed to celebrate them or deplore them this week, but I’m celebrating along with naturalists in the US, I guess. What I’m doing is participating in the Texas Invasive Species Bioblitz 2020 on iNaturalist. The project’s goal is to identify the locations of as many invasive plants, animals, etc., as possible in one week.

Here are the things I’ve found. No, these are not my photos.

While I’ve made over a hundred observations in the last few days in my quest to find invasives, I’ve only found seven on the list of official targets for the week. At least I’m contributing! It’s fun to see how some people are going all out finding things.

The floating plants are floating primrose-willow and will have beautiful yellow flowers soon. Logs are for the turtles, who are hiding.

I need to drive around more, because those are all I have on the ranch. I was disappointed that my potential chinaberry tree was a benign native soapberry. Then I said, wait, that’s a GOOD thing.

Dragonflies

Skimmer, skimming.

While I was off looking for some hedge parsley or bastard cabbage (where did it GO?) I wandered around our back pond and had fun observing turtles, water plants, and minnows. There were also quite a few dragonflies flitting around, and I did my best to get some photos.

I did not do a good job at all, as my blurry photos below attest, but I did enjoy myself very much. The skimmers were especially pretty, all bronze and dazzling, but they all were good to see. We have fewer these days than we used to.

I observed a damselfly or two, but they were really far away. Certainly looking at these insects while watching the dogs splash around in the pond is a great way to relax. And no dogs were stuck in cars yesterday!

The ranch house from the back. Looks majestic.

Humble but Beautiful

Yep, it’s one of those nature posts. I don’t have anything to rant about today. It’s probably because my day started out so nicely, having coffee with Lee on the back porch (usually I rush off to the office, but I had a sinus issue). Looking out at the lawn, Lee remarked that he was glad his brother hadn’t mowed yesterday.

The humble wildflower makes the lawn glow.

There were hundreds of dandelions in the field, with their little faces all turned toward the morning sun, or where it would be if it were less cloudy. More rain is coming. Remember, most of the flowers in our field are actually “false dandelion” (Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus) and not the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

The chickens love both varieties, actually. The highlight of every evening for me is feeding the hens dandelion greens from my hands.

Yellow always pops on a gray day.

While I was out there checking out flowers, I saw this really great spiderweb. If you look closely, you’ll see how big it actually is, but I was drawn to the center, where it looks like weaving. I think I know where the term “orb weaver” comes from now. Too bad the spider is in back, so I can’t identify her. You can tell she is the size of the “woven” area, though.

We have lots and lots of wasps this time of year. Mostly they just fly a few inches above the grass looking for something to eat, or posing as bird food, depending on your point of view. These blue mud daubers sure are beautiful, though.

And just to clarify: No “murder hornets” live in Texas, so it’s okay to get this close.

A Very Humble Fly

I’ll leave you with what I saw when I came downstairs for lunch. This is one big fly. It’s not as big as a horsefly, but it’s big. Eric in our Master Naturalist class says it’s an Archytas. iNaturalist agreed. I just think it looks really, really, prickly and like it would bite. One thing I dislike is fly bites. Shudder.

It’s sitting on a mop. Look at its cool bronze eyes and greenish body. With bristles. Lots of bristles.

Well, I got curious, so I looked up more information on the Archytas flies. It turns out their larvae are parasites, and they often grow in moths, beetles, and bugs that harm crops. So, they are often used as natural pesticides! How about that? I loved this quote by the person who wrote the article I read:

This tachinid fly is one of my favorites. It’s a huge, hairy fly with a blue metallic abdomen. I frequently encounter it nectaring on flowers and mucking about amongst the vegetation, never on offal or other nasty things like many of the more disgusting fly varieties. I would not allow just any fly to walk my skin with impunity; Archytas is just, well, special. (My affection is probably misplaced, and this bugger is just as filthy and revolting as all the others, but what can I say?  One has to find something pleasant to think about.)

Tachinid Fly – Archytas sp. – North American Insects and Spiders

This scientist really loves their flies! By the way, the flies are named for “Archytas of Tarentum (c. 428-350 B.C.) – Greek statesman, military commander, leading Pythagorean mathematician and philosopher; often called the father of mathematical mechanics.” He also invented the screw and the pulley. There’s a crater on the Moon named after him, as well. Again, huh.

I think I found my favorite fly. Humble, yet lovable. And oddly beautiful.