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!

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.

Wasp Watching

Be prepared for lots of writing, it I think I’ve spewed forth enough deep thoughts for a couple of days.

This morning, I was trying to get some exercise before a long car ride and I suddenly realized I was about to step on at least five wasps. What the heck?

I looked around and the area in front of the ranch house was covered in wasps, all flying around a few inches above the grass. They weren’t swarming, just bopping around.

A good old mud dauber.

There were two types out there, mud daubers and great black wasps. I could only get a picture of a mud dauber. That’s too bad, since the black ones are beautiful.

Yay, I found a black wasp picture that’s public domain!

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