Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

18Apr/09Off

Nature Walk #4.1 – Arthropods

Spring is Here!

Days like these remind me what I love so much about the South...warm Springs exploding with life.

This edition of my series of Nature Walks is a big one. I took all of the following images over the past few days - some on my lunch break, some at the NIEHS campus, some at home, and some simply next to the road on my daily commute. So perhaps "Nature Walk" is a misnomer for this edition, but it suffices. Even while staring at the lake through my windows at work I am walking nature in my mind (unless I'm sectioning brains).

I've broken this post up into four parts due to the large number of images:

The images are highly compressed for bandwidth's sake, but you can click on the images for larger versions (and a few are much deserving of an extra click).

As always feel free to give me any species identifications where I have failed to do so or done so incorrectly.

Arthropods

The first thing I'd like to note is that if you haven't visited Bugguide.net before, you should check it out.  It is an utterly indispensable online reference for everything arthropod. I almost never fail to identify insects using it (and it has quite a few experts and educated amateur entomologists always willing to help in identification).

My wife walked into the house white-faced a couple of days ago. She had gone into my shed for a tool.  This is what she saw:

Dolomedes tenebrosus spider

Dolomedes tenebrosus spider

Dolomedes tenebrosus spider

"Go ahead - touch me - I dare you"

Dolomedes tenebrosus spider

Dolomedes tenebrosus spider

It's a Dolomedes tenebrosus spider. She's a lovely beast. She keeps my shed relatively bug-free.

I saw this next spider at the pond back behind my property today. It's a Six-Spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton). Interestingly, I learned that it is of the same genus as the monster above, though they are massively different in size, color, habit, and habitat. They both belong to the family of Fishing Spiders (though the first one does not live on water).

Dolomedes triton spider

Dolomedes triton spider

Dolomedes triton spider

Dolomedes triton spider

While turning over some leaves, I found this brilliantly colored orb-weaver, (I believe it's a Marbled Orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus)).

Marbled Orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus)

Marbled Orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus)

At lunch I struggled to capture an image of this stunning beauty of a Coleopteran. It would sit still as I focused, then dart about a foot forward in a blink - I would move, refocus - rinse and repeat... It's a Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata). What luck! Two different species with "Six-spotted" in the common name (the beetle and the spider above).

Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

Of course, the Azaleas are in full bloom at the homestead, and are of course covered in bees, flies, and butterflies.

Here's a Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Next is the Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica). I know they are carpenter bees because they drill into my wood-paneled house. This is followed by hungry red-bellied woodpeckers drilling into said wood to retrieve the hymenopteran snacks.  This is followed by me patching and repainting the woodpeckers' hack job. It's a semi-circle of life.

(Note: If you haven't seen it, you must check out my story from earlier today: The Carpenter Bee and Her Mate: A Heartwarming (and Dissapointing) Tale of Rescue.

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

A bee (Anthophila (Apoidea) - Bees) of unknown identity (I couldn't even peg it to a family - help please? It was about half the size of the carpenter bees.

Unknown Bee

Unknown Bee

And some Ants (Formicidae) on a flower. I didn't even realize they were there until I checked out the image on my computer.  It was a tiny flower.

Unknown Ants

Unknown Ants

Finally, I found a nice specimen of what I believe is a Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) ootheca (egg case).

Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina)

Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina)

Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina)

Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina)

See the rest of this Nature Walk:


18Apr/09Off

The Carpenter Bee and Her Mate

Today I witnessed (and was an integral part of) one of the strangest and coolest insect-related events I've been privy to.

My wife and I are trying to get our home fixed up to be put on the market.  One of the things we will be doing is repainting our front porch. Unfortunately, our porch is riddled with holes under the edge (that are invisible because of their positions). The holes themselves aren't a major problem, though appraisers certainly take note of them.

You see, the holes are caused by the Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica). We live in the woods and hundreds of them buzz around me daily. They're actually pretty cute and are quite important pollinators. The trouble comes when woodpeckers, mostly Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), take note of them and destroy the wood to get at the tasty bees and their offspring within the bees' tunnels.

So this morning, after watching a bee exit the hole (I initially thought it was a male but now I know it was a female), I promptly sealed the hole with putty thinking the problem was solved.  I felt a little bit bad that all the bee's excavation work had been for nothing - but what could I do? Holes in my house structure are not a good thing.

Two hours passed.

I stepped out onto my porch and saw the bee again. This time however, she was frantically chewing at the wood above the bore tunnel (the entrances are always on the underside of the wood). In fact, she had already dug a hole large enough to stick her head through.

Then I noticed that there was another bee inside the burrow. I could see his little head staring upwards from the new hole (I now know that males have a characteristic white face).

I had sealed in the bee's mate!!

The bee kept sticking her head into the hole, followed by a strange buzzy chatter between the two bees. She kept trying to climb in but she hadn't made the hole big enough yet.

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

Eastern Carpenter Bee attempting a daring rescue

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

"Don't worry, Bjorn! I'll get you out!"

You must check out the video.

At this point I thought "Well, I sealed in her man, she thwarted my big-brained attempt at sealing the wood, and it's clear that she desperately wants back in - I might as well help a bee out."

So I grabbed my pliers, shooed her away from the hole, and widened it enough for her to fit through.  She immediately went straight inside, after which there was much buzzy rejoicing (at least that's my own anthropomorphic imagining of what all the buzzing meant).

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

I ripped the hole wider with pliers and in she went.

I didn't really expect a rescue with the both of them exiting into the sunset to find a new home. I fully expected them to resume normal life (though it was still a rescue). In fact, I decided that since I don't really need to seal the hole right now, and since the bee had shown an amazing dedication to her mate (or more likely, her brood), I'd let them get through their rites of spring.

My wife witnessed the whole thing and felt bad for the bee as well, so she was happy to let them keep their home a little while longer.

But as I said, I really don't know much about carpenter bees. So a little research was in order.  I found two excellent websites on carpenter bee life cycles and habits: One at Penn State and one at Ohio State. From these sites I learned a few details that made my plan a bit moot.

About the Eastern Carpenter Bee

First of all, unlike social bees such as bumblebees and honeybees, carpenter bees are much less social. A male and female pair up, the female excavates the burrow, and the male hovers around the burrow defending their territory.

The defense of the home is actually quite entertaining to watch. Every few minutes one (or sometimes several) bees will come near the nest. The diligent male immediately locks into a hurtling, writhing ball with the other males while making a loud ruckus, and chases them away.

This explains why I had only seen the one bee actually enter the nest. The female remains mostly inside the nest, though I must have happened to catch them while he was in and she was out.

Second, after the female excavates the entrance, she makes a 90 degree turn and continues the tunnel along the wood grain. After completing her tunnel, she deposits eggs (along with a food ball) one-by-one inside the burrow, sealing each "brood chamber"  behind her. The chambers are collectively termed a "gallery."

Unfortunately, much like other insects, cephalopods, and many other animals, the female dies shortly after laying her eggs. So she is a goner no matter what I do.

The eggs that she lays then take about seven weeks to reach adulthood. However, they don't emerge from the burrow until August! They collect pollen and store it inside the galleries, and hibernate inside throughout the winter. In the spring, they emerge again to begin their own life as mating adult bees.

One thing I am certain of is that I can't wait until August to seal the holes - and even if I did I would probably just be dooming the new adults to a cold wintry death.  So really, my entire altruistic idea is a moot point. I'm not really sure what I'm gonna do about them now.

Obviously, they are "just" insects. I'm certainly no St. Francis of Assissi1 or Ko Hung2. That being said, I don't generally enjoy killing anything unnecessarily. As I said before, we are surrounded by carpenter bees - our woods provide ample habitat - so I certainly won't be hurting the population.

Most people just shoot pesticides into the nests. I, however, refuse to use pesticides on my property (partly because we are on well water). I guess I could just try to seal it again, though I imagine they will find a way back in (or out).

What do you think I should do?

A couple of other points

Male carpenter bees cannot sting (males are distinguished by a white face - see image below).

Females can sting (but you basically have to handle them before they will).

Carpenter bees at my house buzz me constantly, hover in my face, land on me - but I have never once seen one act aggressive, even if I bat them to get out of my face. They are mainly just curious and very gentle creatures.

Male:

Eastern carpenter bee male showing large eyes, white face and mouthparts (image via Wikipedia)

Eastern carpenter bee male showing large eyes, white face and mouthparts (image via Wikipedia)

Footnotes

  1. "Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission--to be of service to them whenever they require it... If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men." - St. Francis of Assissi
  2. "Respect the old and cherish the young. Even insects, grass and trees you must not hurt”. T’ai-shang kan-ying p’ien, a Confucian-Taoist treatise. Attributed to Ko Hung"