Category: educational

When I were a lad I had the unfortunate luck t…

When I were a lad I had the unfortunate luck to sit on on a yellow jacket nest, step on another a week later and then a hornet nest a week later. I developed a phobia and now my heart races even if a fly buzzes past my ear. I have done some emersion therapy by walking in a lavender field while honey bees were working.. but I still fear bee-ish creatures. I love them and I plant them flowers, but I want to be less afraid. What can I do?

Hello, @keepcalmandcarrieunderwood, I’ve been thinking about your question a lot, and this is a really hard one to answer. The obvious first step in getting over a fear of anything is wanting to get over that fear. When you have so many traumatic experiences so close together, especially when you’re young, it will take a lot of work to train your mind to be more comfortable around black and yellow striped things. So first off, congratulations on wanting to be more comfortable about our stripey friends! The good news is, you can do it!

Warning: wall of text precedes bug photos! Also this got Looooooong sorry (not sorry)

Fun fact about me: I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (from way back in 2005). And one of my favorite things about studying psychology was learning about classical and operant conditioning. You are probably already familiar with both of these. 

In classical conditioning, two stimuli are paired (they may or may not be at all related), and your reflexive, unconscious response to one gets associated to the other. This phenomenon was popularized with Pavlov and his digestive experiments with dogs (dogs salivate when a bell rings in the absence of food, because the bell has been paired with food many times previously). In your case, the two stimuli are actually very closely related (seeing/hearing things that might be stinging insects, and being stung by stinging insects). Because many organisms rely on learning quickly about danger for survival, it can only take one such pairing to develop a very long-lasting response to something. 

In operant conditioning, behaviors are punished or rewarded, which can result in an individual’s behavior changing given the right circumstances. The behavior change is not necessarily conscious. A lot of interesting stuff in our brains happens outside of view from us. Say you look into a cactus flower once and you see a really cool beetle. Neat! You’re going to start looking into cactus flowers a lot more often. And if you keep seeing neat beetles, oh boy those cactus flowers better look out. Even if those flowers start turning up empty, you’ll still keep peeking in them for a while, even if you are in a situation where it’s really not appropriate to keep peeking into cactus flowers (apologies to people on my last guided hike…). I’ll get back to operant conditioning in a minute.

You may have heard about a common treatment for anxiety disorders called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I’m a big fan of this method, because it asks you to re-evaluate your thoughts, as you are having them, to restructure your gut reaction to a situation into a less emotionally-charged one. In other words, you have a fear resulting from classical conditioning–it’s totally reflexive and unconscious, and you had no control over the creation of your phobia. The problem is, phobias can become self-sustaining with the help of operant conditioning. Basically: Bee > PANIC! > flee > relief! The act of removing yourself from bee-like insects will give you relief from the fear, and makes you more likely to avoid bee-like insects in the future. But, you don’t want to be afraid anymore!

The trick is: turn your reflexive, unconscious responses into thoughts. This can be really hard–I have a lot of generalized anxiety issues, and I don’t always know what (if any) actual thoughts are making me uneasy. But I think it is easier to translate reflexes into thoughts for phobias, even if they aren’t always logical. 

In the case of a fear of stings from bees/wasps, there are several angles you can take:

  • Learn more about stinging insects and their behaviors, and understand why they sting. Take fear and reshape it into curiosity, use what you learn to avoid getting stung. 
  • Not all that buzzes is a bee. Similarly for yellow/black striped insects. There are lots of mimics out there, who look like a dangerous stinging insect to protect themselves, when they are totally harmless. Learn how to tell them apart, so know which ones couldn’t hurt you even if they wanted to.
  • Not all bees/wasps can sting! Males cannot sting, and some species are completely stingless.

Desensitization through Education

First off, you need to know a little about stingers. What are they, exactly? Well, they weren’t originally stingers. Before there were stingers, there were ovipositors.


Ovipositors in katydids. Left two: common conehead katydids; Right: lesser meadow katydid

Ovipositors are tubes that some insects use to lay their eggs inside something. Insects who lay their eggs in the ground (but who aren’t burrowing insects, like katydids) will use the ovipositor to make sure the eggs are safely tucked away from predators. Some insects go a step further, and lay their eggs inside another organism (these are called parasites or parasitoids depending on whether or not they kill the host). These insects will lay their eggs either in plant tissues (gall wasps and midges do this, and I wrote a post about galls a little while back [link]), or in animal tissues. 


Various parasitic wasps, Superfamily Ichneumonoidea. I have no idea who these are at the moment. iNat links: [Photo 1 Link] [Photo 2 Link] [Photo 3 Link]

These parasitoid insects tend to be wasps, and they tend to have some pretty fancy ovipositors. The larger ones tend to parasitize caterpillars, and before you gasp and lament the plight of the poor helpless babies, remember that every living creature in nature serves a very important purpose. Caterpillars can absolutely destroy a vegetable garden. These wasps make sure there’s still something left for us. 

These wasps do not sting. The painful sting is a result of venom, and these wasps with long ovipositors do not have a venom gland. 

But, as insects are wont to do, if there is a niche, they will fill it. The inside of the caterpillar is claimed? Well, you can just lay your egg on the caterpillar instead. This is a lot harder to do. With a long ovipositor, you can just hold on, stick it in, and go. But if you need to lovingly affix your eggs to the outside of a wiggling caterpillar, you’re gonna have a hard time. If only there was a way to temporarily paralyze it!


Meet Netelia. This is a genus of Ichneumon wasp. Notice her ovipositor? Kinda short, huh? That’s because it’s a stinger [link]. She stings the caterpillar, which is paralyzed long enough for her to beadazzle it with eggs, and off she goes. I don’t know much about the evolutionary history of ovipositors and stingers, but somehow, some species started living in large colonies full of sterile female workers and a stingless queen who laid all the eggs (think ants and bees). If you didn’t reproduce, you could make some pretty scary and painful stingers to protect your colony! Also: this means that only females can sting

And this brings us to the issue: some of them DO sting humans and it is not pleasant!

Bees and wasps are similar in that the notorious species tend to live in large colonies, but they sting for very different reasons. Bees are defensive (their stingers are embedded into flesh and detach from their bodies–a nice way of saying they rip their guts out and die), while wasps are offensive (they can sting many, many times, and will do it when they feel threatened even if they are not under attack).


Left: Western Honey Bee; Right: Apache Wasp

Why are they so different? Bees are vegetarians, so they have no need to kill for food. Their stingers are the last line of defense for their colonies, because every bee who stings will die. A colony can’t survive if all the workers die, but it also needs to protect the young and the queen. But these bees tend to make fairly elaborate hives which serve as a good line of defense in addition to the army of stinging workers. Bees will sting if you are actively harming them or the hive, even if you don’t realize it. Remember those ridiculous wide leg raver pants (hey, I said I graduated from college in 2005, stop looking at me like that)? I knew a guy who wore those all the time, and one day his pant leg managed to fall over a single lady bee, and she… uh… Well, she felt threatened. Let’s just say I laughed. Yes, as it happened. I regret nothing. Bees do not want to sting you.

Wasps are also vegetarians (wait, WHAT??)–at least, they are in adulthood. Wasp larvae? Carnivores. Those evil wasps killing other bugs and carrying them off are taking them to their nest. They will lay an egg alongside their prey, which is paralyzed to keep it alive until the egg hatches (terrifying, huh?). What a good mother! Some wasp species are solitary, and their nests can be safe underground. But paper wasps, which you are likely more familiar with, have their babies literally hanging out in the open. Their delicious, nutritious babies. They are so vulnerable! They must be protected! 


Paper wasps. Left: Apache wasp nest; Right: Common paper wasp nest

The only thing between a hungry predator and the life of those babies are the valiant wasps sworn to protect the nest. If they sense something which triggers the “hungry predator” switch in their brain, they will attack. Is their nest pretty low to the ground? Are you TOO CLOSE? Look out! Is their nest HIDDEN IN YOUR BALCONY WALL and you bump the side while enjoying a beautiful spring day? Are you throwing rocks at the nest? Do you smell like a bear? I don’t know what triggers wasps, but the only time I’ve been stung was when they secretly lived in my balcony wall. Thing with wasps is, when they’ve had enough, they will come after you. They can sting you to teach you to STAY AWAY and fly back to their nest. 


But, if you don’t set off “hungry predator” alarms, and instead exist in their world as “irrelevant scavenger,” you can actually get pretty close to them. I was lucky to find this Common Paper Wasp lady making her nest on the underside of a pokeweed leaf in my backyard two years ago. I took these photos with my phone. I was inches away from her. Sometimes I had a headlamp shining in her face. She never once came after me. I started to recognize her foraging around my yard for paper fiber (ever see a wasp hanging out on your wooden fence, of landing on grass or dried dead plants? they are collecting building materials!), so I could get a really close look at her nest and the eggs inside. Look in the cells in the nest in the top left and bottom right photos. Those little white things are her eggs!

So there’s a bit of a Catch-22 here. If you’re not afraid of wasps, come up to them curiously, SHOVE A CELL PHONE IN THEIR FACE WHILE BLINDING THEM WITH A HEADLAMP, eh, they don’t care. But if you are afraid of getting stung… what are you going to do? Calmly walk away? NO! You’re going to swat at it, flail around, run, scream, etc. All things a predator would do. Same thing with bees. Sometimes, they will land on you for whatever reason. Maybe you’re wearing a fluorescent yellow shirt and you look delicious.


All this baby wanted was some nectar, and from her perspective, I was *clearly* advertising that I had bountiful nectar reserves. If I was not aware that they see UV light, and that this is how they find flowers so quickly, and if I instead thought that bees hate the color yellow and will sting you if you’re wearing it (this is what I was taught growing up… *sigh*), I would have thought I was getting attacked, and would have started with the flailing. This lady, who thought she was coming for lunch, instead now has to start fighting? She’s gonna be mad.

There is a lot to know about bees and wasps. I do not know that much about them, but I think they are very interesting and I love learning more about them.

Mimics Can’t Fool You!

Wow that first section was long. How about some pictures of things that aren’t bees or wasps?


Hover flies! Top: Left – Eupeodes sp.; Right – Copestylum sp. Bottom: Left – Palpada agrorum; Right – Yellow-shouldered Drone Fly


Longhorn beetles! Top: Neoclytus mucronatus (both photos) Bottom: Left – Zebra Longhorn Beetle; Right – Painted Hickory Borer


Robber flies! Left: MacQuart’s Bee-mimic Robber Fly; Right: Beelzebub Bee-Killer


Moths! Left: Sphinx moths; Right: Clear-wing moths
I know, I’m cheating a little here. These are specimens in the Texas A&M University Entomology Collections. They have an open house every January and it’s AMAZING! 


Bee flies! (really!) Left: Poecilanthrax sp.; Middle: Exoprosopa fascipennis; Right: Villa sp.

Some clear take-aways here: 
(1) Flies are very into bees
(2) Looking like a bee/wasp is a very successful survival strategy!
(3) If it looks like a bee… it’s probably a fly (unless it’s actually a bee)

Stingless Fakers

There are two major groups of bees that don’t sting–Tribe Meliponini (Stingless Bees) and Family Andrenidae (Mining Bees).


Admittedly, I have not seen many of these. The two Meliponini species I saw were in Malawi (Africa), and those are the two photos on the left. Far left is a group going to their hive (they can make honey, too!), and center is a different species in their nest (a wax tube on the side of my cottage). These bees are so tiny you’d think they were fruit flies! Right photo is from West Texas, Mining Bees in the Macrotera genus (I love them! Little Valentine butts!)

BUT! There is another fairly common group of stingless bees: MALES. No male insect can sting (they can bite if equipped, but remember, stingers are modified ovipositors!). You may never see a male honey bee, but here’s what they look like: 


Not the best photo, but you can see he’s shaped… kinda weird? His eyes are HUGE, which is probably the easiest way to tell him apart from the females.

You are more likely to meet a male Carpenter bee, however. How will you know a male carpenter bee?


Male Eastern Carpenter Bee above. I read the males have a white patch on their face (look! his nose!), and there were some other features, but really, WHITE! NOSE!

Another Carpenter Bee I see at home (and NOTICE because … well you’ll see in a minute):


Xylocopa tabaniformis Carpenter Bee. Many apologies for the TERRIBLE PHOTOS. These were from my phone before I had a Real Camera and they only *just came back* this year and I am way behind on photos sorrryyyyyyyy

Anyway, I don’t know how to tell the females/males apart visually (or if you even can). And this photo may very well be of a female, who knows. But the way you know the males: They will get in your business. That’s why I call this section “Stingless Fakers.” It’s because of these. I love them. This pink bush is right outside my front door. I walk around it to get to my car in the morning. And in the summers, there are always a few of these buzzing around. And the males are interested in protecting their (small underground) colonies, so they will COME UP TO YOU to see if you’re a threat. Or maybe to intimidate you because THEY ARE A BEE THEY COULD STING LOOK OUT! 

Carpenter bees are distinguished from bumble bees by not being as furry. Carpenter bees will have shiny abdomens. Bumble Bees should be bumbly furry.

ANYWAY IN CONCLUSION Bees/Wasps are interesting, not everything is a bee/wasp even if it looks like one, and they don’t all sting. I wish you the best of luck in facing your fears and buzzing back at bees and hornets in triumph.

Posted (finally–sorry!) May 31, 2018
As always, all photos are mine and most were taken in Texas. Exceptions are Netelia and Meliponini from Malawi.

bowelfly: gachimushi: thesumlax: birdsbugsa…







A friend asked what was going on with the mouthparts here so I sketched this up:

What we’re seeing (mostly) is not the mandibles, but splaying of the clypeus and labrum, and the paired maxillae. It looks super weird because the dragonfly is upside down – nice grab by @bowelfly too, this is textbook How To Hold Your Dragon(fly).

The maxillae move out and down, and they can splay open but they aren’t here. The mandibles (or at least what I’m 99% sure are the mandibles) are visible but they’re not open until the last picture:

Uhhh… no? Actual mandibles are probably bigger, and definitely not jointed. Those are most likely the big black appendages right under the labrum, while the tiny limbs are maxillae, and the bottom cover is labium (it is basiclly a second pair of maxillae fused together, but still). 

Insect mouthparts awlays follow the same simple scheme, even if some parts are drastically modified or lost entirely:

labrum (upper lip, simple unjointed flap);

mandibles (paired, unjointed upper jaws);

maxillae (paired, jointed lower jaws that bear palps);

labium (lower lip; like I said, it`s a second pair of maxillae fused itogether);

– you can also count hypopharynx if you want (the closest thing they have to a tongue, not sure if it`s the thing visible in this dragonfly`s mouth).

This will probably help clear things up.

fr-frons, pclp-post clypeus, aclp-anteclypeus, lbr-labrum, md-mandible, mx-maxilla, lbm-labium.

Diagram from Borror and Delong’s Introduction to the Study of Insects, 7th Edition

hello everyone and welcome to


anyway yeah as @gachimushi points out, @thesumlax is correct:


That’s the maxillae in red and labium in green.


The mandibles are not very obvious in the photo, but I think that’s them on either side of the clypeus/labrum “upper lip.” not circled.






if coyotes are just indie wolves and wolves are just bass boosted dogs what the fuck are moths to butterflies


please be nice to moths im begging you



Here’s the thing:

Taxonomy is tricky. Moths and butterflies make up the insect order Lepidoptera. But… just like technically wolves and coyotes are already dogs (canids = dogs-ish I guess?), butterflies are just a type of moth. A very, very small group of insects in a gigantic, humungous, incomprehensibly more diverse order of insects. Allow me to demonstrate.


Got it? Good. Here’s the answer key (NO PEEKING BEFORE SPOTTING IT YOURSELF!). 

From Left to right:
TOP: Painted Lichen Moth, Moonseed Moth, Beautiful Tiger (moth), Grote’s Buckmoth (endangered)
BOTTOM: Eubaphe unicolor (moth), Eight-spotted Forester (moth), Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Chickweed Geometer Moth

Wait… ALL OF THEM ARE MOTHS? Of course they are. There are so few butterflies in the giant sea of moths, it’s amazing you even notice them!

Okay, okay fine. That one was tricky (or was it?). Here’s another.


Easier this time, right? Let’s see how you did! (NO CHEATING)

From Left to Right:
TOP: Checkered Skipper, Soldier Pansy, Funereal Duskywing, Dotted Checkerspot (endangered)
BOTTOM: Texas Powdered Skipper, Tawny Emperor, Reakirt’s Blue, Fatal Metalmark

Wait… so which one is the moth? NONE OF THEM THESE ARE BUTTERFLIES. “What do you mean these are butterflies, they are boring?!” Shut up I love them. “But moths are supposed to be the boring ones!” Shut up moths are cooler than a T-rex with a mohawk riding a skateboard.

Moths are furry; Moths are smooth

Left: Southern Flannel Moth; Right: Carmenta ithacae (glass wing moths)- mating pair

Moths are large; Moths are small

Left: Cecropia Moth; Right: Banded Scythris Moth

Moths are Air; Moths are Water

Left: Eggplant Leafroller Moth, caterpillars live on plants; Right: Jalisco Petrophila Moth, caterpillars are aquatic and grow up in freshwater and the adult female moths will swim into the water to lay her eggs GUYS SHE IS A MOTH!!!!!! Also: they are jumping spider mimics! Look!

Moths are Elegant; Moths are Strange

Left: Wilson’s Wood-nymph Moth; Right: Dejongia californicus Plume Moth

Moths are Perfect; I Love Them

Left: Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth; Right: Harrisina coracina

Composed May 24, 2018
All photos are mine and all but two were taken in Texas. Soldier Pansy and Beautiful Tiger were seen in Malawi.

Ever wonder how spiders do it? Well, here ya g…

Ever wonder how spiders do it? Well, here ya go!

Male spiders have special organs at the end of their pedipalps (their leg-like mouthparts) which they use to transfer sperm to the female. Females have genital structures called the epigyne or the epigynum, located about where you would expect their bellybutton to be if they had one. So mating spiders tend to look like one of them is eating the other. That’s actually what I thought was happening until I learned more about spiders!

These spiders are Long-Jawed Orbweavers (genus Tetragnatha). The reason for the name is pretty apparent when you see them:

For whatever reason, they had a great mating season last year, and there are HUGE long-jaws EVERYWHERE! It’s great 😀

Photos from March 16 & 18 / Posted March 29, 2018

Les Catacombes des Paris


Last week, I was on a Fancy Adult Business Trip in Paris, France. I had a little time to explore the city before Important Business meetings, so I did something I never thought I would get a chance to do: Visit the Catacombs.


A long, long time ago, back when the educational TV channels actually had… educational programming (yes, I’m that old)… I watched a show that featured the amazing tunnels dug under the city of Paris, which had been stacked to the ceiling with the skeletons of 6 million people. The short version of the story is: Paris has been a big city for a long time, and several centuries ago, funerary practices were not very… hygienic. A few of the cemeteries became public health hazards, so beginning in the late 1700’s, the city systematically emptied every single cemetery and reinterred the bones in the abandoned quarry tunnels. And instead of just throwing all the bones in, the “architect” of the project laid the bones to rest in beautiful arrangements that honored the lives of the people who were moved. The bones are grouped together by the cemetery they were from, or later by which the battle of the French Revolution they died in.

Amazing! But I was a poor kid, we never went on vacations, and although I had big plans for the future (I was going to go to college!), I grew up knowing that people like me didn’t get to travel so the best I could do was just read every book I could get my hands on. But I seriously lucked out, and 25 years later, not only did I get to go to Paris, my work was paying for the entire trip. !  So, to the Catacombs!


It was amazing. The first 1/3 of the tunnels was just getting down. The cramped spiral staircase seemed to go on forever. Then you went down a very narrow cramped tunnel sparsely lit with old-timey lamps. That photo above should give you an idea of how cramped they were. Those shadowy figures are humans. This is definitely not an activity for somebody with claustrophobia.

Anyway, you may be wondering: Wait, aren’t you a nature blog? Why are you talking about this here???

Well. Thing is, nature happens even in the strangest, most artificial environments. When you put skeletons in human-made caves and then leave them for a few hundred years, interesting things start to happen.

-> Warning: photos beyond the cut include human remains (skeletons)


The tunnels were dug into the limestone bedrock under the city, beginning around the year 1300, and were used as a quarry for building materials. The floor and ceiling are limestone. Although the tunnels were dug by humans, they function exactly like a natural cave. I’m from Texas, another place with a limestone foundation (and *lots* of caves). The Catacombs are 20 meters underground (65 feet), and when you’re that far underground, you may think you are protected from the rain, especially after standing in line for two hours in it. You’d be mistaken. In the photo above, look at the path. The darker edges are wet.


Limestone is primarily calcium carbonate. If you have hard water, you are likely familiar with it. The white residue it leaves behind are dissolved minerals from limestone—and you can see that same residue on the bones in the photo above. In some parts of the Catacombs, the bones were glittering from crystals that had started to grow on them, and they were beautiful.


If you’re familiar with what happens when you add water to caves, you shouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that baby stalactites are forming above the bones in some areas (see below). Stalactites take thousands of years to form. One estimate I looked up said they grow less than 10 cm (just under 4 inches) in 1,000 years. If this section of the tunnel dates back to 1400, that would make these stalactites about 600 years old.


But enough about geology, right? You want to see bugs, why else would you be on my blog? I also wanted to see bugs, but I was not expecting them, and I was a little pessimistic after getting stranded in Pittsburgh, meaning I missed not only my one free day in Paris, but a chance to see a friend who moved abroad a million years ago and currently lives in Germany. While I stood in line for two hours, she had started posting her photos from the day before when she went to the Catacombs without me, so I got to see her photos of the moss growing on the rocks and her comment, “Life finds a way.”

And since I am the iNat fanatic that I am, I thought, “hmmmm I’ll bet nobody else has posted iNat observations from the Catacombs…” so I paid attention to green stuff growing so I could get a couple fun photos of moss.


The first bits of green I saw was this–it appears to be green algae [link to iNat] growing on the bones, but I am not an algae expert. Then, aha! The Moss!


A beautiful, luscious, gorgeous bed of moss [link to iNat]. Perfect. I love it. Yes, life does indeed find a way. This part of the tunnels had moss in several spots, so I hung around getting a good view of it. Then, wait, who is this!?


!!! An Isopod !!! [link to iNat] Guys, I love isopods. I love isopods so much, when I saw that in Japan, you can get an iPhone case shaped like an isopod, I dropped everything and ordered one, even though it meant I’d have to upgrade my phone and I hate upgrading my technology because I’m a dinosaur. But here they were! Yes, they. There were three in the first area I saw them. In the photo above, you can see little “chocolate” sprinkles on the rock. These babies are having a nice moss feast! The first photo of this post was on this rock face as well. I was so happy. Look at these cuties!


So we have all this algae and moss, with fat happy isopods eating it to their hearts’ content. Clearly, there was plenty of moss to go around, so what was keeping the isopod numbers in check?

I’ll give you a hint:


These guys. There were cellar and cave spiders [link to iNat] throughout the tunnels, always in close proximity to the isopods. It was fairly predictable, too. If I saw a patch of fuzzy green stuff, I could reliably find an isopod and a spider.


There are hundreds of miles of tunnels under Paris, so extensive that holding 6 million skeletons leaves most of the network completely empty. The public tour goes through only a tiny fraction of the tunnels holding human remains. Just imagine what other food webs developed in the ~700 years since these tunnels were created, which humans have never witnessed.

As I was walking towards the spiral staircase back up (it was long), I was granted a fond farewell by this lovely moth who would not hold still:


Photos from March 4, 2018 / Posted March 14, 2018