uhPsEI really enjoyed the 31st Olympics…but then I have always really enjoyed the Olympics.  I was raised in rural America during the end of the Cold War and I love the United State of America with all my heart.  I remember the glow of pride when the Star-Spangled Banner would play as the gleaming American stood atop the podium while the glowering Russian looked up from the step below.  Not only was it great drama, but it was a bonding event as well. My family would watch the games together—and everyone else in the community would be following the international spectacle too. In the middle of the country, the Olympics reminded a sports-crazed community about different sorts of people who we didn’t see too often in rural Ohio. These days I live in heterogeneous libertine New York—plus I have been around and seen some things—but I still love America and I still feel exactly the same way about the Olympics. Indeed, perhaps the Olympics are even better now that they are untainted by Cold War posturing and now that my experience of the world is broader.

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Growing up, the sports which the neighbors loved were the big 3 professional sports: basketball, baseball, and, above all, American football.  These are large institutional sports with lots of expensive equipment and pettifogging rules. They seem to mostly benefit a bunch of state college administrators and arrogant millionaires.  As a child, I found them dull (although I later learned to enjoy them as a beer-swilling observer).

The Olympics however was a rare window to a much finer world of amazing sports!  There are sports of true martial prowess: archery, shooting, judo, and fencing.  There are sports with horses and sports with boats.  There are sports for rugged individualist and sports for teams.  All sorts of athletes of tremendously different sizes, shapes, and agility compete and their very different attributes are a source of collective strength. The little 1.3 meter (4 foot 6 inch) gymnast can do amazing things that the juggernaut 2 meter (6 foot 8 inch)  shotput thrower who weighs as much as a gnu cannot…and vice versa. The freak with a muscular noodle for a torso and huge flippery feet metamorphoses into a dolphin in the pool.  The slender diver morphs into a falcon.  It should go without saying that America’s athletes, like Americans, are from every different ethnic backgrounds and walk of life. That tremendous range is a huge advantage in the Olympics…not just because it gives the nation a pool of athletes with lots of different body types and strengths but because it provides people who have lots of different perspectives on hard work and success.

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The self-discipline of the athletes is evident not just in their chiseled bodies or lightning speed, but in the intensity of their expressions.  And, when they win, the champions typically don’t talk about their “yuge” victories but instead talk about minute differences of grip or stroke or technique …then maybe they enthuse about their families and loved ones. It is very refreshing in our age of PR blitzes and self aggrandizement.

We need to hold these memories in our heart this year, as politicians and effete taste-makers work hard to divide us.   The nation needs to remember our original motto:  “e pluribus unum”.

America needs to be work harder to be worthy of our hard-working young athletes. The Olympics remind us that we are all on the same team—the Christian fundamentalist divers, the Islamic swordswomen, the atheists, the city kids and country kids, the team players and the rugged individuals, black, white, Asian, Indian, Native American, gay, straight…everyone is so different but they are all working together to tally up all of those medals.

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Anyone who aspires to national leadership needs to recognize that, just as team USA needs little gymnasts and huge weight-lifters and all sorts of people in between, the real team USA– the nation itself–requires ever so many more different sorts of folks.  We need both the sharp-eyed riflemen from Kentucky and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair. We need Jews and Gentiles, Mormons and Taoists, black folks and white ones.  We need number people and word people and image people. We need people we don’t even know we need.  The people of the United States are heterogeneous but we stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that.

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I have been trying not to write about flags too much…ever since an impassioned plea for blogging feedback revealed surprising anti-flag sentiments among our general readership.  Yet, Brazil’s flag features outer space AND a golden rhombus.  How could I not write about such a thing?

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The basis of the modern Brazilian flag is the flag of the Brazilian empire.  That flag had all sorts of classical medieval trappings of empire: a laurel wreath, a world-girding cross, a green shield, and big fat green & gold crown, however the backdrop—a bright yellow rhombus on a Kelly green field–was meant to be seen from a distance, and so it had a robust minimalist appearance.

When the First Brazilian Republic supplanted the empire in 1889, the flag changed by getting rid of all the regal trappings and replacing them with vault of the heavens.  The particular stars represent the night sky over Rio De Janeiro on the night of November 15, 1889, when the First Brazilian Republic was born.  The motto “Ordem e Progresso” means “order and progress” (that’s exactly what I would have guessed…hey, do I secretly know Portuguese?).

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There were however other options on the table and some of them are pretty fascinating.  Look at the weird dark mirror of the American flag which was proposed…or that strange black and white monstrosity which looks like it was printed at Kinkos to be handed out by street people.

On the whole though, the Brazilian flag is quite splendid!  Its bold color scheme stands out among all of the hundreds of flags of the world and perfectly represents the glowing dynamism of the Amazon and of the young nation!  Hooray for Brazil!

Brazil-People

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Emperor Dom Pedro I at age 35, 1834

One of the founding fathers of Brazil’s democracy was, somewhat ironically, a king and a colonial emperor.   Born in 1798, Dom Pedro I was the fourth son of King Dom João VI of Portugal and Queen Carlota Joaquina.  When Portugal was invaded by the French in 1807, the royal family fled to the wealthy and vast Portuguese colony of Brazil.   Young Pedro thus grew up on the vast estates of South America.  The prince particularly enjoyed physical and artistic pursuits such as hunting, building, music, furniture making, and horseback riding (although he tended to neglect his academic pursuits and studies in statecraft).  When he reached adolescence he pursued other physical pursuits as well, and his romantic dalliances were a lifelong problem for his government and his wife, Maria Leopoldina, an Austrian Princess.

In 1821, revolution in Portugal compelled Dom João VI to return to Lisbon.  The king left his son Pedro as regent…he also left some valuable advice: if revolution were to come also to Brazil (a certainty in those days of colonial independence), Pedro should join it, rebel against his father and co-opt the movement for himself.  This is exactly what Pedro did in 1822.  On the 1st of December, 1822, Pedro became Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil.   By 1824 the huge South American nation had made a clean break from Portugal and was well and truly independent.

Independence_of_Brazil_1888Declaration of Brazil’s independence by Prince Pedro on 7 September 1822

Alas, Pedro’s constitutional empire was ridden with secessionists. Brazil swiftly began to rip apart into separate nations.  First he was forced to quash the Confederation of the Equator, a secession bid in Brazil’s northeast.  Then he had to fight the Cisplatine War, an Argentine land grab which ultimately lead to an independent Uruguay being carved out of Brazil’s southernmost province.

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Pedro I was the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne (which he rebelled against back up in paragraph 2).  When his father died in 1826, he briefly became king of Portugal before abdicating that throne in favor of his daughter, Dona Maria II.  Unfortunately his scheming younger brother, the traditionalist Dom Miguel, stole the throne from his niece (Dom Pedro had toyed with the idea of marrying them in order to prevent exactly such an outcome). Weary of secession attempts, and recognizing that he was needed back in Portugal, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5 year old son Pedro II.  He joined forces with the Portuguese liberals and defeated his brother in an Iberian civil war, but just as this “War of Restoration” was finished he keeled over from tuberculosis.

Among all of those revolutions, counter-revolutions, abdications, and trans-Atlantic crossings, it is easy to lose sight of how remarkable Pedro I was.  In an age of bondage, he despised slavery.  Unable to convince the slaveholding landowners of the Brazilian national assembly to enact a gradual process for ending slavery, he decided to lead by example and freed all of his slaves.  He then granted lands from his estate at Santa Cruz to these manumitted bondsmen.

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He possessed an understanding of people’s shared humanity. This is rare enough among everyone but especially unusual among those who are born to immense privilege.  When adoring Brazilians once unyoked the horses of his carriage and began pulling it themselves, he promptly stopped them and proclaimed “It grieves me to see my fellow humans giving a man tributes appropriate for the divinity, I know that my blood is the same color as that of the Negroes.”

After Dom Pedro’s day, Brazil has sometimes flirted with absolutism (always to its detriment), however the delightfully heterogeneous and chaotic modern democracy owes its real character to this king who was always willing to set aside his own power, prestige, and privilege in order to advance the betterment of all.

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*Also, apparently, his grooming was immaculate.  It is a footnote, but everything I have read mentions it.

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This is Wagner’s mustached bat (Pteronotus personatus), a somewhat ridiculously named bat which is a master of echolocation.  The little flying insect hunter is tiny:  bats have a body length of 6 to 6.7 centimetres (2.4 to 2.6 in).  They are strictly nocturnal insectivores.  They fly over rivers at night feeding on moths and mosquitoes.  Wagner’s mustached bat is notable as one of only a handful of Doppler-shift compensating bats in the new world: the little animals.  To quote Michael Smotherman’s article in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America , Wagner’s mustached bats “adjust the frequency of their [Constant Frequency] component to compensate for flight-speed induced Doppler shifts in the frequency of the returning echoes.” This is no mean feat for an animal without any onboard computers or slide rules.

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Wagner’s mustached bat ranges from southern Mexico, down through Central America to the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It is found in a broad swatch of South America in a band through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and across central Brazil to the Atlantic.  Not only does the bat intuitively understand Doppler shift effects, it also exhibits an interesting coloration feature.  The species has two color phases: some bats are sable colored with grey underparts; others are reddish-orange with cinnamon colored underparts.   Ferrebeekeeper needs to talk about polymorphism (maybe later this week) and this little mustached creature is a good start on explaining the concept.

Swimming - Olympics: Day 4(Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

As you have probably guessed, all of my posts this week have been about Brazil because I have been fixated on the Olympics, the worlds’ foremost sports competition.  The 2016 Brazil Summer Olympics are the 31st Olympics (or I should maybe write “XXXI” Olympics) of the modern era.  That last phrase is significant.  There were Olympics of the ancient classical past and today’s Olympics were deliberately created in homage to these Greco-Roman games.  The ancient Olympics were held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia Greece.  According to myth, the Olympics were founded by Heracles in honor of his father Zeus.  After he completed his twelve great labors and thus freed himself of the taint of murder and madness, Heracles built a beautiful stadium in honor of his father, the king of heaven. He then walked 200 heroic paces and proclaimed this distance to be a “stadion” one of the principle units of distance in Greek society.  The Panhellenic games were held every four years (a unit of time known as an “Olympiad”).  Although the origins of the games are shrouded in epic myth, the games basically lasted from 776 BC until 393 AD–when they were suppressed and ended by Theodosius I in a bout of anti-pagan Christian fundamentalism.

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The ancient games featured running, jumping, discus, javelin, wrestling, pentathlon, boxing, pankration (a nightmarish no-holds barred ultimate fighting event), and equestrian events including riding and chariot races.  Art and poetry competitions were also held at the Olympics—a notable difference from these modern games!

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The athletic events were held in the nude with a few notable exceptions (which I will get to shortly). Only freeborn Greek men were allowed to participate.  Some of the greatest athletes of the ancient games are still remembered to this day:  Varazdat, the peerless Armenian boxer; the famously handsome Melankomas; the jumper Chionis of Sparta whose distance records held until the modern Olympics; Milo, the greatest wrestler of history (who was also a poet and mathematician); and, perhaps greatest of all, Leonidas of Rhodes–champion runner of 4 Olympiads.

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Leonidas of Rhodes competed in four successive Olympics games (164BC, 160BC, 156BC and 152BC). He was peerless at sprinting the stadion (which was about 200 meters).  Leonidas was also gifted at running the fast “diaulos” which was twice as long as the stadion.  Both of these races were fleet nude foot races which would be more-or-less familiar today (although modern athletes must wear little loincloths or smallclothes and sundry plastic placards branded with the name of rich patrons and sponsors).   Leonidas was the victor at the stadion and the diaulos in each of the four Olympics he attended (in the classical Olympics, the winner of an event received a crown made of laurel and there were no silvers and bronzes).  What set Leonidas apart from other great runners was that he could also win the hoplitodromos—the race in armor!

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The hoplitodromos was a long distance race meant to approximate the rigors of classical infantry maneuvers. Participants raced in 50 pounds of bulky equipment including heavy bronze helmet, breastplate, greaves, and a wooden shield (although the exact details are lost in the mists of history).  The runners had to carry all of this kit and execute fast turns in blazing 90 degree heat.  It was thought that a light swift runner capable of winning the stadion and the diaulos could not also win the grueling hoplitodromos—but it turned out that conventional wisdom was wrong.  Leonidas won the laurel in all three events in all four Olympics he ran in.  His record of 12 individual victories—laurels in three distinct events over 16 years–has stood the test of time well.  It endured 2168 years until Michael Phelps surpassed it yesterday (August 11th 2016) in the pool.  But who can say what deeds of athletic prowess might have supplanted Leonidas’ accomplishment during the dark ages when the Olympics lay dormant? If only Theodosius and grim-mouthed Christians had not ruined the fun for everyone for 1500 years, some Lithuanian lancer or Burgundian coustillier or Scottish yeoman could have won 12 gold medals at jousting or barrel dancing or monk-hurling lo

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Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)

When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees.  The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia.  Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood.  Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.

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The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood.  The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.

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Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse.  By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range.  Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.

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Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height).  However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.

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The Amazon is the planet’s largest river.  The great waterway is very much in the news this week as the world turns its eyes to Brazil to watch the Olympics. My whole life I have wanted to visit the upstream backwaters of the Amazon and view its ecological treasures before it is all converted into strip malls and low-cost parking.  Unfortunately, the developers are doing a lot better in this life than I, so I am not sure that will ever happen. Thus, instead of going to Brazil in the real world, we will go there via blog! No need for visas (I hear that Brazil doesn’t really want American visitors anyway). We can check out the amazing fish, snakes, mammals, and, um, emperors of Brazil without ever leaving the internet.

The Piranha TheoryNo!

Speaking of fish, the Amazon is the home of the fearsome pirarara! No freshwater fish is more storied or more…wait “pirarara”?  What the heck is that?\

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The Pirarara is actually a giant extremely colorful catfish which grows to immense size (You knew I couldn’t get through these Olympics without writing about some of the magnificent siluriformes from the place with the greatest diversity of catfish….a place where catfish are actually found beneath the water table).

CATFISH RED TAIL PIRARARA Palm Tree Lagoon Lake amazon world record biggest fish ever caught big huge fishes records largest monster fishing giant size images pictures IGFA lb  brazil brasil

The pirarara (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus) aka “the redtail catfish” is the only living representative of the genus Phractocephalus.  These catfish are omnivores which grow to 1.8 meters (six feet) in length and weigh up to 80 kg (180 lb). I wonder if they wear the same sized suits as me?  I am being silly, of course: these catfish do not wear suits since nobody has found a pattern which does not clash with their brown backs, mustard yellow sides, and white stomach….and their bright ketchup-red tails.  The pirarara should really be called the condiment catfish.  The fish are popular in large aquariums, although they are so voracious that they can injure themselves by swallowing aquarium furniture and vomiting it back up.

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Redtail catfish may be the last living members of the Phractocephalus genus, but there were once many species…some of which date back to the upper Miocene (13.5 million years ago).  They lived throughout what is now Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, and Ecuador, in the great series of lakes and wetlands which made up the long-vanished Pebas mega-wetland.  The pirarara has a certain prehistoric look to it.  Can you imagine the crazy color combinations which its vanished realtives must have had as they sw3am among the super crocodiles and crazy alligators of the Pebas?

5c17c34df71391c4e9bd07fd3bda91bbThe Brazilian Goldsmith Carlos Martin manufactured the Imperial Crown of Brazil in 1841 for the coronation of Emperor Dom Pedro II.  The crown is also known as the Diamantine Crown—because it is covered with 630 diamonds—ooh, so sparkly! I guess, the crown also has 77 large pearls too, but nobody really talks about them.  The imperial crown of Pedro II replaced the unremarkable crown of the extremely remarkable Dom Pedro I, a revolutionary and reformer who was responsible for many of the things which went right for Brazil.  We’ll have more to say about him later this week.

With 8 magnificent golden arches meeting beneath an orb and cross, the crown of Brazil echoes the crown of Portugal…and rightly so, since the great South American nation began as the most magnificent Portuguese colony (although Goa, Macau, Agola, and Mozambique were quite nice too).  Here is a picture of Emperor Pedro II looking exceedingly magnificent (and perhaps a bit silly too) as he opens the annual Parliamentary session in 1872.

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So lovely was the crown of Brazil that is was the central motif of the Brazilian flag until the monarchy was abolished in 1889.  Unlike other crowns which were sold or stolen after independence, the Brazilian crown has remained in posession of the Brazilian republic and can currently be seen at the Imperial Palace in the City of Petrópolis.

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One of the defining characteristics of warriors in this age of the world is their camouflage garb.  The brave men and women of the Army, Marines, and even the Air Force all have combat fatigues which make use of broken stippled patterns of drab colors meant to conceal them from the eyes of enemy combatants…but what about the Navy?  Sailors tend to be mercilessly prone to being spotted—since they are generally located on huge floating metal arrays belching out smoke above the flat blue seas.  Ferrebeekeeper has written about attempts to camouflage ships, but what about the men aboard these vessels?

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Perhaps the absence of camouflage—as much a part of a soldier’s identity as a sword was in the past–is why the US Navy decided to try blue digital camouflage work clothes (aka aquaflage).  However that experiment is now coming to an end.  The navy is discontinuing the production of the chunky blue-black-gray suits as of October 1st (although the final phase-out of service will be three years from now).

There were a lot of problems with these suits.  The tunics and trousers feature a pattern which resembled a ghastly mélange of bluefish chunks and hematite.  And the purpose was unclear too.  Was this for sailors who were trying to hide in the ocean itself…or in a bad nineties music video?

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The outcry against the uniforms was not solely aesthetic.  Apparently these awful things were hot and were prone to melting and catching on fire (although I guess those are aesthetic concerns too—who wants to be seen wearing melted sardines and asphalt or running around in a flaming sailor suit?)

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The uniforms came into service in the not-very-great year of 2008.  Maybe they were part of the same sort of wooly thinking which caused the great recession or, more-likely, the result of an unsavory deal between a vendor and a politician in charge of appropriations.  The suits which are formally known as “Navy Working Uniform Type I” will be replaced by green camo known as “Navy Working Uniform Type III” (apparently Type II uniforms were a sort of invisible khaki color).  This will solve the sailors’ fashion woes, but now everybody is going to think that they are army guys.  Maybe the Navy needs to give up on camouflaged sailors and return to some stylish 18th century horizontal stripes!

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If they want to be inconspicuous, they can just stop playing bagpipes….

2004-08-08-107_baldfaced_hornetWhen I was growing up I used to sometimes see these huge black and white hornets which were bigger than my thumb (although I guess my adult thumb is bigger).  These monochromatic monsters were bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate).  They live across North America from Alaska to Texas, from Nova Scotia to California.

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“Bald-faced” means shameless and undisguised (it is a very good phrase for 2016).  These are shamelessly undisguised wasps.  They are beautiful, in a sort of nightmarish alien shocksoldier way, with cream-colored mouths and ivory abdominal markings contrasting against a midnight black body with purple iridescence.  They have matte black legs and smoke-colored wings.  Adult wasps are 19 millimetres (0.75 in) in length and the queens are even larger.  Dolichovespula maculate is not a true hornet, but rather a sort of yellowjacket wasp—predatory wasps of the genus genera Vespula.

Like the terrifying giant hornet, bald-faced hornets are predatory carnivores.  They smash into the hives of other hymenoptera (like lovable honey big-hearted bees) and gobble up all of the bees, larvae, and honey.  They aren’t just chaotic hunters: they are also weirdly omnivorous. Wikipedia says “They have been observed consuming meat, spiders, fruit and insects. Adults will also drink flower nectar.”  What the heck? That sounds like a banquet for dark elves!

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The creatures are eusocial.  They band together in a hive of 300-700 individuals.  Their nests are built of disturbing grey-yellow paper-type material which seems like it was excreted by a Steven King monster (which actually seems like a pretty good description for the bald-faced hornet).  You are probably curious about where this bruiser falls on the Schmidt Pain Index.  Although the wasps are bigger than their close cousins the yellowjackets, both creatures score the same SPI number: 2.0 (exactly in the middle of the four point scale).  They also are tied with honeybees (which are smaller but pack a potent one-time-use wallop.   The description of a bald-faced hornet sting is particularly poetic and sounds like a restaurant’s blurb for an autumn pie or a painful cup of coffee. According to the pain index, the sting of Dolichovespula maculate is “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.”   I am glad I gave these characters a wide berth when I was growing up…but I am glad I saw them too. They are intense animals.

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