Category: wall of text

I've been meaning to message you since th…

I've been meaning to message you since the moth appreciation post because like I need to talk/know more about that moth that lays eggs in water? What the f-ing what? That is mental. I didn't know we had aquatic moths! (I currently have lots of Garden Tiger babies at home for a uni experiment. I love my fuzzy babies.)

Hello, Friend! Isn’t that ridiculous?? I only recently learned about Petrophila moths [link], too, and when I read that about their caterpillars, my mind practically exploded. Nature is so weird. But these moths with aquatic caterpillars caught my notice for a totally different reason initially: they are jumping spider mimics.

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You can see from these photos that they’re not very large. If you weren’t really paying attention, you may not even notice anything unusual about them. The first time I saw them, I definitely didn’t notice that they were spider mimics. But one night, I went to a talk about moths, and the presenter talked about these and I thought it was awesome! She had a mercury vapor lamp set up outside after the talk for us to see some moths, and a Petrophila showed up. I was super excited! When I went to add the photo to iNaturalist, thinking I’d seen something new, it turned out I had already seen them at least four times.

You may not even be able to see how these are spider mimics. They don’t really *look* like spiders, do they? But remember, our eyes are much different than insect eyes, and we have the benefit of seeing things from far away. We can see this isn’t a spider. But imagine you are a small predatory insect or a spider, and you are in front of this moth looking at it. What will you see?

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Jumping spiders above are Dimorphic Jumper (left) and Bold Jumper <3 (right)

Anyway, back to the aquatic caterpillars. I’m sure you know that most moths and butterflies have perfectly normal caterpillars who eat leaves, make poops, and turn into perfectly normal moths and butterflies. So finding out that one type refuse to play by those rules just seems super weird. But is it, really? Or is it just weird because… well, we have an idea of what caterpillars are supposed to be, whether or not that idea is accurate?

For example, look at some other insect orders with complete metamorphosis (they have larvae, pupate, and then become adults). Flies are a huge group. Where do fly larvae live? You know about maggots and food, but what about mosquitos? Those are flies too, and their larvae are aquatic. What about parasitic botflies that grow in animal tissue? What about gall midges who parasitize plants? Caterpillars will grow up in equally diverse habitats (although, I don’t know of an animal parasite… yet). Same with beetles–larvae will live on plants, underground, in water, in wood… 

But let’s look a little closer to moths and butterflies, since most caterpillars are fairly predictable in terms of habitat, and the exceptions aren’t very well known. Here’s a phylogenetic tree showing the evolutionary history of insects. In this tree, branches that are closer together are more closely related.

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Note: I found this tree in an image search, but I was unable to locate the original source. I would love to credit it if I can! Let me know if you have seen this in a book before.

In this tree, I have circled the branch including Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Look at who else is in that circle: Trichoptera (caddisflies). Below are a couple examples of caddisflies. Chances are you have seen them before (they are pretty ubiquitous near ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers!), but had no idea what they were.

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Caddisflies are also very difficult to identify. The one on the left is in the Macrostemum genus (zebra caddisflies), but the one on the right… uh… I’ll get back to you on that one.

There are a lot of moths that look pretty similar to caddisflies, so it’s easy to see that they are closely related.

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Left to right: Yellow-headed Lichen Moth, Belted Grass-veneer Moth, Bluegrass Webworm Moth

These look so similar, in fact, you may ask how they even grouped them into different orders. This is easy to answer if you know your scientific names AND Greek! 
Moths & Butterflies = Lepidoptera (Lepido = scale; ptera = wing)
Caddisflies = Trichoptera (Tricho = hair; ptera = wing)

Since I have an electron microscope at work (the “nano” in my username refers to my background in nanotechnology), I felt obligated to illustrate this. The white bar on each images shows the magnification. “um” refers to “micrometer,” or 1/1,000 of a millimeter. A human hair is typically about 100 um wide. (If you have questions about electron microscopes, let me know! These things are fun!)

Typical Lepidoptera (Moth & Butterfly) Wing

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Above: Images of the scales on an American Snout Butterfly wing obtained with Scanning Electron Microscopy. Compare the scales in the middle of the wing to those on the edge of the wing.

Typical Trichoptera (Caddisfly) Wing

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Above: Images of the hairs on a caddisfly wing obtained with Scanning Electron Microscopy. Note the similarities in the how the caddisfly hairs and butterfly scales attach to the wings.

Looking at these images, it’s pretty clear that they are different. But you have to look *very closely* to notice this difference, and when you look even closer than that, you start to see similarities again.

Guess where caddisfly larvae grow up! If you don’t already know about caddisfly larvae, oh boy, they’re fun!

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It may be hard to tell, but I took this photo with an underwater camera. Caddisfly larvae build little cases by cementing together stones, pine needles, sand, or a variety of other things. You can sometimes identify the larvae based on what materials they use and what shape the cases are in. An interesting aside: if you raise these, you can get them to build their cases out of whatever you want. At least one person got creative, and I’m happy to see that she is still selling caddisfly jewelry over 20 years later!

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I don’t mean to turn this post into an advertisement, but her stuff is beautiful and super interesting. She describes her process and some info about the species of caddisfly she raises on this page of her website [link]. Photo credits go to her–I totally stole these images.

Caddisfly larvae are exclusively aquatic. Moths and butterflies are slightly younger than caddisflies, so they have had more time to evolve their own method of development (mostly on land). I believe the Petrophila moths are one of the older moth genera (but definitely not the oldest!), so they could be like Cetaceans (you know, whales and such who had gone *back into the water* after they realized they were cooler than land mammals).

I have not yet had the honor of witnessing a little baby Petrophila scooting along the bottoms of ponds, eating algae and whatnot, so I don’t have my own photos to share, but there are a couple on their bugguide page [link] (just click the link for “caterpillars” to filter out all the adults). They more or less look like a normal caterpillar, except … a little wetter than usual. The females will go completely underwater to lay their eggs (they will carry a little air bubble with them, apparently). And typically moths don’t live too much longer after laying eggs, so who knows if they ever fly again. I’m sure the fish don’t mind finding them!

I hope I satisfied your desperate yearning for aquatic moth secrets! The closer you look, the weirder nature gets. Jeez.

Posted June 22, 2018 (finally!) 
All photos are mine except the caddisfly jewelry, phylogenetic tree source TBD. Everything was seen in Texas except the caddisfly larva was in a stream near Crater Lake in Oregon.

Yo! I&rsquo;m an Anthropology student but I&rs…

Yo! I’m an Anthropology student but I’m super fascinated with entomology n’ the like. Any tips for how to self study entomology/get started? How did you become the bug lover you are today?

Sup! I am a HUGE animal lover. Like, I don’t think you understand how much I love animals. Back when google image search was this crazy new thing, I would google things like “puffer fish” and literally start crying from how cute and precious they were. I don’t remember ever not liking bugs. I was bringing in caterpillars when my age was single digits, which I named and kept in shoe boxes, and who would invariably wander out and make a random cocoon somewhere.

STORY TIME! (what? you wanted a short answer? Sorry!)

… (actually check out this post from a while back [link] about tips for getting started, it was written for a high school student but most of the things I mention are good for all ages)…

Thing is, this was the point in history when you needed to use a card catalog to look a book up in the library. No idea what I’m talking about? That’s how long ago this was. If there was a book about bugs in the school book order form, I would ask for it (and sometimes I’d get one), but that was the full extent of my knowledge pool for things that we weren’t directly taught about in school. In 4th grade, we had a unit on marine animals (with the most amazing field trip on a research boat ever, omg the scuba divers brought up things for us to touch, and we got to look at plankton in the microscope eeeeeee!), and it was like I was reborn. I memorized everything we learned, including the taxonomy of cnidaria (jellies, anemones, corals) and strange eating habits of echinoderms (starfish, urchins). I got REAL into this stuff, to the point where 4 years later, I told anybody who asked me that when I grew up, I was going to get a PhD in Marine Biology.

There was just one problem. You can’t get a degree in any kind of animal biology without doing dissections or killing things. Remember, I’m an animal Lover with a capital L. I wanted to be a vegetarian starting at age 4 (parents said no, but I picked meat out of everything until I made it official at 12). So I gave up on biology real quick. Flash forward about ten years to 2006. I had graduated from college (with a psychology degree that cost me $70,000), was working soul-sucking jobs, and needed a hobby. But wait, DIGITAL CAMERAS ARE A THING! WOW! So I picked up “crappy nature photography” as a hobby. And what did I take pictures of with my First Ever Digital Camera when I bought one that summer?

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I found this longhorn beetle on the hood of my car at a rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Missouri. But back in 2006… What are you going to do with pictures of bugs when you have no background in biology? I posted some on LiveJournal, and that was that. What kind of bug was it? I couldn’t even tell you that it was a beetle at that point. And when I was going through my old photos more recently, I couldn’t even remember seeing it.

I still took photos of basically everything I saw, but nothing ever really happened with them.

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Who are these? At the time (photos are from 2006 to 2009), the most I could have told you was “dragonfly, wasp, spider, caddisfly larva.” Which is pretty good, I guess, but I didn’t even realize how much diversity I was missing out on by not going any deeper. 

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Me + Slugs: Left – Banana Slug in Redwood National Forest, CA (2008); Center and Right – Chocolate Arion Slug at my apartment in Redmond, WA (2006)

Time passes, nature photos are taken. I will take photos of any bug I see, but I don’t intentionally seek them out and I never know what any of them are. Now flash forward to 2013, when I moved from Seattle, WA to Austin, TX. 

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My mind was blown. The bugs were huge, strange, and EVERYWHERE. I NEEDED TO KNOW WHAT THEY WERE! But… It was still hard. At this point, looking things up on the internet was just what you did, but … what was I supposed to look up? “Giant screaming thing in my potted plant that looks like a leaf?” “Pile of handsnails?” I took pictures, shared them on Facebook (nobody used Livejournal anymore!), and went about my day. 

At this point, I had gone back to college to study engineering (I moved to Austin for grad school), and somehow ended up watching a lot of youtube. SciShow got me onto VlogBrothers, which got me onto The Brain Scoop (@thebrainscoop), which got me onto tumblr *waves*. And I was thinking some hard thoughts about what I actually wanted to do when I grew up because I was tired of soul-sucking jobs. Hey, I love museums (that’s actually where most of my science knowledge came from), so I started thinking about careers in science museums, and I followed UT’s collection page on Facebook. One day in 2015, they shared an event for a Bioblitz, sponsored by several groups associated with UT and Texas Parks and Wildlfie. What’s a Bioblitz? I had no idea. So I clicked. 

Basically, you take as many pictures of living things as you can. There were subject matter experts who would lead you on hikes and tell you what things were and how you can tell them apart (WAIT, WHAT?!?). The event required that you download this new nature app called iNaturalist (@inaturalist), which is where you would post the photos you took. With the data you posted from the app, other users of the website would identify your photos, and the state park we were at would use that data to create species checklists to track what occurred there. Your iNat account kept a permanent log of all of your observations. I tend to be extremely skeptical/resistant to new technologies and being told to do things, so at first I wanted to know what was wrong with the way I took photos NOW, I didn’t need some stupid website telling me what to do.

But then I started testing it out before the event.

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Two of my first iNat observations (both butterflies). Left: Henry’s Elfin caterpillar; Right: American Lady butterfly. Links to iNat observations.

I had no idea where to start with identifying either of these, and the Henry’s Elfin caterpillar took me a few years to ID myself. But the American Lady? People told me what it was within hours of me posting it. Within hours.

About a week later, the Bioblitz happened. It was perfect. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were just like me. They wanted to go on long slow walks through nature, turning over logs and walking directly into ponds and poking at insects, all while taking photos of things and identifying them. I was spending the weekend with real life biologists and I was learning everything I could. And the things I saw?

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HOLY CARP. Texas has dung beetles?! (top left) Parasitic wasps REALLY DO THAT? (braconid wasp cocoons on inchworm caterpillar, top right) Diving beetles?! (water scavenger beetle, bottom left) Giant fishing spiders?! (bottom right)

This event was the moment I “got started” with entomology. I regularly used iNaturalist, and in the process of trying to identify my observations with BugGuide.net [link], I quickly began to learn some of the “basics.” For example, stink bugs are a thing. So are green lacewings. And there are a LOT more kinds of spiders than orbweavers and wolf spiders (who knew?). I was so smitten with iNaturalist that I professed my love for all to read on tumblr [link] (all being… 3 people?). I used iNaturalist regularly, but still, unless I was on a bioblitz, I didn’t seek things out. I mentioned I was a grad student, right?

Then 2016 rolls around. I’ve had enough of school and drop master out of my program. I get a Real Engineering Job and Buy a House with a Yard. I started my new job when I was finishing up my thesis (probably not the best idea…) and so my back yard took on a life of its own. By the time I had finished my thesis, the grass was hip height, and the HOA had no rules about what my back yard had to look like, so I just never mowed it. And the bugs… oh man, the bugs. The bugs were good. By January 2017, I was getting more confident in my Bug Knowledge, and I was using iNaturalist every week. I had joined clubs centered around nature (Texas Master Naturalists and Travis Audubon). I signed up for a birding trip in Malawi. Then in April, I found a pile of butterfly eggs and a chrysalis. And the guy leading the Malawi trip (one of the directors at Travis Audubon) asked me to do an insect table at their outreach event. Then City Nature Challenge 2017 happened (and I am *very* competitive). And… uh… I guess I just never looked back?

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The thing to remember here is: the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. What I love about iNaturalist is that I can create a time capsule showing what I did and didn’t know at the time. And what I didn’t know is… really amazing. I taught the entomology class for my Master Naturalist chapter’s training course this year, and I told the people in the class that one year ago, I didn’t know any of the things I was going to talk to them about. I know it sounds like I’m putting on a commercial for iNaturalist (which is actually exactly what I’m doing, I love that website), but besides the curiosity about nature that I had to begin with, iNaturalist is the single most important thing that has enabled me to nurture and grow my love for our invertebrate friends.

Through my use of iNaturalist, I have met real people and made real friendships. Many of the people I meet are professionally biologists, but there are just as many randos like me who crawled out of the internet to hang out with nature freaks. One of the great things about this community is there is no elitism, and even professional entomologists are just as willing to admit they have no idea what something is and will listen to me explain what I know, as they are to explain something I don’t know and answer my questions. The people I have met are absolutely awesome, and the general attitude people on iNat (online and in person) tend to have has really rubbed off on me. If someone I’m talking to doesn’t know something that tends to be commonly known (example: my coworker is a gardener, but hadn’t heard about the ant/aphid relationship), oh boy, it’s awesome, let me TELL YOU about ANTS fighting off PREDATORS so they can DRINK APHID PEE!!!

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Above: Crematogaster ants farming keeled treehopper nymphs on sunflower SO THEY CAN DRINK THEIR PEE

One of the best things you can do to get more into entomology is to just be observant. Look. Notice patterns. Pay attention to relationships between “higher” and “lower” organisms. When you travel, look there too. What is different from home? What’s similar?

The other best thing: meet people. Find groups/clubs for people into nature. Go on hikes with entomologists. Go to “nature days” events (these are always geared towards kids, but ADULTS ARE WELCOME!). A lot of nature clubs and organizations are heavy on the retiree demographic, which means the meetings may not be easy to learn about online. I actually joined the Austin Butterfly Forum after hearing about it from the people I was sitting next to at a Travis Audubon event (Victor Emanuel’s autobiography had just published and he kicked off his book tour with a live interview in Austin), and I’ve met several new friends through ABF. 

I don’t even know how to explain it, but naturalists are a totally different flavor than any other person I’ve known. It’s like, there are other people who would rather be crawling through the swamp in 105°F weather for 8 hours straight than sit and watch TV? There are other people who will skip two meals and stay up until 2 am to get really good bug pictures? I mean, I can’t describe what it feels like to be slowly picking through the deserts of west Texas with 15 other people, when one of them yells, “SNAKE!” and suddenly EVERYBODY RUNS TOWARDS THE SNAKE AND IMPATIENTLY WAITS THEIR TURN TO HOLD HIM. 

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I know this is long and maybe not entirely what you were expecting, @marichuu, but want to make sure that anybody reading this knows that if you like nature, even if you don’t know very much about it now, there are a ton of people like me and those weirdos up there who are so excited to share the world with you that you can’t even imagine it now. Want to stay online because you’re nervous about meeting new people? That’s great! Tons of us are online! But if you’re ready to put yourself out there and meet people in person, chances are, they’re awesome and will love answering your questions (and if they’re not awesome tell me and I’ll YELL AT THEM FOR YOU YOU DESERVE BETTER). 

Anyway. Bugs are awesome and I hope they think you are just as awesome. Also anthropology is super neat and there’s a lot of intersections with entomology [link] that you can look at from an interesting angle.

Posted June 4, 2018

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.

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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. 

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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!

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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).

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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! 

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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. 

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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.

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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?

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

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

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

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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! 

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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).

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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: 

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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?

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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):

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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.