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Happy Winter Solstice! I am sorry about 2022. I meant to blog more, and answer everyone’s comments, and write a consolidated treatise defending liberalism against the neo-fascists who are everywhere, and post my new monastic orchid illuminations, etc., etc., etc. Alas, not everything got done the way I wanted and now it is the darkest night of the year (the real end of the year, in my book, although I guess there is a week or so of Saturnalia before 2023 truly gets here according to the calendar).

We will work on all of this next year (and much more besides) but before sending the year off, I wanted to share some pictures of my sacred tree of life (an annual tradition). Look! it has even more cephalopods, turkeys, waterfowl, and ancient mammals (plus all of the animals I could get my hands on from every other branch of the great zoological family tree too).

My flounder art (sigh) was about trying to reposition the natural world at the center of what humans find sacred: the religions of Abraham treat the natural world as contemptible–and we are all suffering because of it. Sadly, the fish gods I made did not grab people’s attentions despite their portentous deep-sea secrets. However a few holiday guests have stared at the holiday tree of life for a looooong time before brushing away some tears–so perhaps it actually does get the point across to some degree.

And of course, I saved the best thing for last! My late feline life companion, Sepia (wipes away a few tears of my own) did not enjoy the public eye and so I did not put her in my blog. My present housecat, Sumi Cat, feels much differently and likes to be the constant center of attention. Here are some pictures of her loving little face to help you stave off the primordial darkness (although, ironically, black cats are always hard to photograph and doubly so on the darkest night of the year). Sumi and I hope that you are safe and warm and happy this holiday season! May your dreams come true and may the great tree of life always bloom with fulsome new growth!

We will talk again before 2023, but for now, season’s greetings and good (longest) night!

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My roommate Rennie is also a flower gardening enthusiast, but what he likes is morning glories. To make this work in Brooklyn, where space is limited, he gardens in the front yard (where there is lots of light and lots of things to climb on) and I plant my shade garden in the tree-filled back yard (admittedly, I plant a few morning glories to climb up onto the broken down structure behind the Haitian Church behind us).

Anyway, last year, Rennie ran around collecting all of the seeds from the morning glories he raised in the front yard (Grandpa Ott, chocolate cocoa, & flying saucers) and the ones I raised in the back (crimson rambler, Carnevale di Venezia, and Harlequin). He planted them all in big plastic planters and throughout the long hot summer of drought he has lugged out bucket after bucket of dehumidifier water straight from the dank basement for the thirst tropical flowers.

Unfortunately these pictures do not do them justice–the pure glowing colors are almost psychedelic–but even through the lens of my cellphone the beauty is still evident. His morning glory garden is such a triumph and it has been giving me a few seconds of unbridled joy each morning as I run past trying to get to my morning subway (mornings are not my best time–but the flowers help a bit).

I even unexpectedly captured a special visitor. Perhaps you remember this post from the depths of 2020 about rescuing a little carpenter bee which keeled over from exertion. Well, I noticed that a carpenter bee was rooting around in one of the cocoa-colored trumpets and took a close-up picture before rushing off to work. The picture came out far better than I would have expected (who knew my cheap phone had such a good macro function?). Admittedly, I only captured the carpenter bee’s behind (beehind?) but the lens picked out all of the individual grains of pollen caught up on the bee’s fur. Additionally, you can see the glistening luster of the cells which make up the flower.

September may be the second best garden month in Brooklyn: I will see if I can get some more pictures from the back yard and from the front one, before the magic fades. In the mean time, I will just assume that this bee is a direct descendant of that earlier one, just like these vines are all children of last year’s flowers. Also, thanks Rennie!

This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Temnothorax ants living in a tiny acorn

Of all of Ferrebeekeeper’s topics (over there at left in the topic cloud) the one which is farthest from my heart but closest to this blog’s purpose concerns the hymenoptera. This enormous order of important insects always offers diverting stories and anecdotes (like the Schmidt sting index or the Asian giant hornet), but the real reason I started writing about them is that the nature of the huge eusocial ant colonies and bee hives mimics the human super colony in eerie and intriguing ways.

The ants pictured with tapeworm larva (below)

Thus we come to today’s horror story concerning Temnothorax ants which live in German forests in unobtrusive rotting logs and suchlike habitats. Temnothorax ants have a disquieting problem: a parasitic tapeworm likes to live within the abdomens of some of the worker ants. However, to the infected ants it does not seem like a problem. They live up to three times longer than their uninfected sisters and, while the other ants rapidly age and wear out, the ones which harbor live tapeworms keep permanent adolescent good looks through their enormously extended lives. Additionally, infected ants exude a sweet chemical which makes them socially appealing to the honest hard-working ants in their own colonies. Uninfected ants seem to misidentify infected ants as queens (or at least as royalty of some sort) and spend a great deal of time feeding, grooming, and caring for them.

High status individual human

This sounds like a pretty delightful deal for infected ants who live like (and are like?) Kanye West, but there are a couple of drawbacks. The infected ants soak up critical resources from the greater hive and reduce its overall efficacy and ability to survive. Infected hives are at much greater risk of destitution or outright destruction from predators. Which brings up the final problem: the parasitic tapeworm’s final life stage does not take place inside the guts of an ant, but rather the tapeworm must be eaten by an ant-eating bird. There, inside the larger predator, it mates and lays eggs which are released by the bird into the forest where Temnothorax ants feed on the rich droppings and are infected.

So infected ants aren’t just dullard aristocrats not carrying their weight. They are actively seeking self-destruction. When birds tear into the nest the infected ants lift up their heads, glisten, and wait for annihilation (while the infected ones are desperately trying to protect the larvae and the queen). Of course the ants (uninfected and infected) do not comprehend any of this. If we were to ask them about their lives the uninfected workers would probably tell us how fortunate they were to meet so many high-status ants and the infected ones would probably try to sell us self-help books about raw food or talk about running for office in Texas.

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto) with a normal honeybee for scale

After all of the hullabaloo this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that the largest hymenopteran is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia aka “murder hornet”), a formidable insect which can measure up to 40 mm (1.6 inches) long with a 60 mm (2.5 inches) wingspan. But the murder hornet might be outweighed by a behemoth bug from the Moluccas…assuming it still exists.

Way back in 1858, the renowned British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (who was working on the theory of evolution on the opposite side of the world from Darwin, without either man knowing it) was cataloguing the wildlife of the Moluccas when he found a colossal black resin bee. Resin bees are pretty interesting (they are also known as mason bees) since they carefully cut up pieces of leaves and then glue them together into little houses. We probably need to talk more about them at some point. But what was remarkable about the bee Wallace found was not that it was gluing together tiny houses, but rather that it was an enormous insect, a veritable flying bulldog. Wallace’s giant bee was given the cool scientific name Megachile pluto (although the Indonesian name rotu ofu, “queen of bees” might be even cooler). Female bees measure in at a length of 38 mm (1.5 in), with a wingspan of 63.5 mm (2.5 in), however, with their huge mandibles and heavy tanklike bodies they look heavier than the Asian giant hornets [eds note: sadly we do not have the mass for either insect and, although we here at the Ferrebeekeeper division of weights and measurements tried to coax them up onto the bathroom scale for a weigh in, we were quickly dissuaded by…ummm…the modesty of these colossal stinging creatures).

Wallace’s giant bee disappeared from the public eye and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1981, but the bees again vanished. Once again they were believed to be gone from the world until last year (2019) when they were re-rediscovered on the internet! Somebody even filmed a live one! (ed’s note: please don’t harass Wallace’s giant bee or try to buy specimens online)

You are probably wondering where these bees were for all of those long years of presumed extinction. Well it turns out that they do indeed build little houses just like other resin bees, however they build them inside living colonies of tree-dwelling termites! This is why they are so robust and have such terrifying mandibles–for bulldozing into termite mounds and doing as they wish! Wallace’s giant bees are hopefully doing just fine snug in their little homes, built safely inside a writhing river of biting termites inside rotting trees within the remote rainforests of quasi- inaccessible Indonesian islands. We could all learn from their fine example of staying home. Let’s not molest them so that they are a pleasant surprise when they are re-re-rediscovered in 2107 (assuming any of us self-destructive are around to be cataloging tropical bugs then).

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

Worldwide there are about 17,000 species of bees…and most of them seem to be is some sort of trouble. However it is not easy to keep track of 17,000 anythings…much less 17,000 species of small flying insects. So the plight of all bees is not clearly understood (even if we have shocking anecdotes of how poorly some individual bee species are doing). To remedy our ignorance of the bigger picture, a group of apiculturists, hymenopterists, ecologists, data scientists, and biology-minded cartologists collaborated to create a worldwide bee map.

Assembled from piecing together millions of individual data points, The bee map is a god’s eye overview of how bees are doing across the entire planet. Just glancing at it reveals some strange patterns about our little flying friends. Unlike most animals, bees are more numerous and various in temperate and arid habitats than in tropical forests. I wonder if this is because tropical forests do not offer the sheer acreage of uncontested flowers that prairies, croplands, & blooming scrublands do, or if it because nobody is marking down data points about tiny flying (and stinging) insects in the middle of the trackless Amazon. Perhaps as the bee map evolves into greater complexity and thoroughness we will have a definitive answer to that question.

The bee map should also help us to track the results of habitat loss and climate change on bee populations (and distinguish the impact of such vectors from natural bee predilections/behaviors). Dr John Ascher of the National University of Singapore expresses this point with greater clarity: “By establishing a more reliable baseline we can more precisely characterize bee declines and better distinguish areas less suitable for bees from areas where bees should thrive but have been reduced by threats such as pesticides, loss of natural habitat, and overgrazing.”

I hope the bee map fulfills its purpose and helps nature’s hard-working pollinators and flying fieldhands to worldwide recovery. But beyond that wish, I am excited to see more visual representations of vast ecological datasets. Big data had such promise…but so far it seemingly has mostly been used for targeted marketing, tearing apart democracy, and crafting esoteric financial schemes. Sigh… Let’s have more thoughtful use of the tools that technology gives us to solve actual important problems.

Here is a Cretaceous drama (including both original players) captured in amber and perfectly preserved for 99 million years.  A predatory “hell ant” (haidomyrmecine) was grasping a proto-cockroach (Caputoraptor elegans) in its strange vertical mandibles when a dollop of sap preserved both creatures in resin.  Because it was so well preserved, we can see how the hell ant’s mouth parts are completely different from those of modern ants. Today’s ants all have horizontal side to side scissor-like mandibles.  The ancient hell ant has scythelike vertical mandibles which meet up with horn like appendages on its forehead (like a platybelodon…if its upper tusks came out above its eyes).

hell-ant

The ant was found in a piece of amber from modern Myanmar and gives us a precious window into the lives of ancient ants (which were seemingly as widespread in the age of the dinosaurs as they are now, yet were also completely different than they are now).  The first ants evolved during the Jurassic (170 million years ago) so the hell ant is nearly as far removed from its first ancestors as today’s ants are from it.  Sometimes it seems like the way we picture the world–an empire belonging to dinosaurs, Andrewsarchus, or humans–must be ridiculous to ants.  To them we macrofauna must seem like ludicrous obscene monsters who dwell in a different world and are doomed to disappear in the immediate future (the same as Kardassians appear to us normal people).

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This summer I have spent a great deal of time in the garden which has been my refuge from the plague, turmoil, and strife.  I keep hoping that the carpenter bees will return, but I have barely seen any hymenopterans at all thus far (aside from little black and brown ants which seem to be as numerous as ever).  That all changed the other day, though, when a magnificent visitor swept into the garden!  A lot of hymenoptera are strikingly colored (as the velvet ants will testify) , however this dapper character looked like a refugee from a 1980s musical video or a disturbing anime.  Not only was this wasp’s jet fighter body the deepest brown (which was so dark it might have been black), but all four of its wings were the same color too! Not only was the whole creature sable, but its dark brown coloring was also iridescent blue/purple–so it gleamed like a blue revolver.  There was one noteworthy contrasting color on the wasp’s face– its huge antennae were fluorescent orange!

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Although the wasp seemed like it was preening on my hostas, as soon as I moved to get my camera it was gone.  So, alas, I have no photos of the strange visitor.  Fortunately though, this wasp was more visually unique than a Dick Tracy villain so I quickly found a match in the rogue’s gallery of wasps online: Gnamptopelta obsidianator, the “bent-shield beseiger wasp”

Now you would think that if crazy creatures like this were flying all over New York City, there would be plenty of information about them online, but you would be wrong.  It speaks of our human myopia that, although I easily found pictures of it, I could barely find out anything about the lifestyle of the beseiger (although one website opined that I had actually seen the lookalike wasp Thyreodon atricolor–so keep that in mind, for what it is worth). According to the internet, these wasps are both ichneumonids– parasitoid predators which lays eggs inside living hosts.  Paralyzed, the hosts still-living flesh provides a decay-resistant larger for the wasp larvae [shudders].

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Whatever you might think about the terrible things this wasp does to make ends meet, there is no denying that it belongs here just for its sheer fashion sensibility alone.  I will keep my eyes peeled for more of these magnificent yet troubling wasps–both in the garden and online.  I still can’t believe we know so little about creatures which literally live right next to us!

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