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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!

Thank you to everyone who played our celebratory contest! I hope you had fun looking at the images and thinking about what they are or where they are.  We will quickly go through the correct answers–or at least we will list my best understanding of what is correct.  At the end I will announce the proud winner of these exquisite mint-condition Zoomorphs toys and we can start to fumble towards the logistics of getting you your toys, hooftales…er I mean “mysterious contest winner”.

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Wherever possible, I have linked back to original articles and posts, so, if you have a moment and are curious about these strange places and things, why not click all of the links and continue voyaging through vast realms of life, time, and art!

OK, here we go with the answers:

THINGS:

1.

1

A Song Dynasty (or ‘Sung” Dynasty…if that is how you Anglicize ) ewer not wholly unlike this one or these later Mongol ewers.

2.

two

A parasitoid fairy wasp (Mymaridae family) upon a human hand

3.

3

A Melo Pearl, the world’s rarest and most expensive type of pearl!

4.

4

Whoah! It’s an ancient Visigoth votive crown from the fabled treasure of Guarrazar!

5.

5

A Chiton, the armored mollusk

6.

6

Aww! It’s an adorable school of tiny little glass catfish.

7.

7

Roses, tulips, irises and other flowers in a wicker basket, with fruit and insects on a ledge (Balthasar van der Ast, ca 1614-1619) oil on panel.  (Here is a Ferrebeekeeper post about Van der Ast).

8.

8

The Cap of Monomach, a treasure of the early tsars.  I still think Putin wears it sometimes. Hell, he’s probably wearing it right now!

9.

9

It is the brain of an Etruscan shrew, arguably the smallest mammal.  The arrows point to the trigeminal nerve (black arrows) and optic nerve (blue arrows).

10.

10

Hahahaha! These are Polish chicken chicks. Look at that expression!  The poor li’l guy does look a bit down.

11.

11

A lituus, a mysterious Roman divination device.

12.

12

The underworld deity Xolotl, the scrofulous salamander deity of Aztec mythology’s weird death realm.

13.

13

The “Borghese Vase” a colossal Ancient Roman Urn which was one of the treasures of the Garden of Sallust

PLACES:

1.

ONE

The Faroe Islands (Photo by Tom Glancz)

2.2

A Masai giraffe walking by Lake Manyara Tanzania

3.

Three

Standard Poodles in the Ohio Valley

4.

four

 

5.

five

A welwitschia plant in the Namib Desert

6.

Six

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an, Shaanxi.  I need to write a post about this one in the future!

7.

seven

Ovid Among the Scythians (Eugène Delacroix, 1862) Oil on Canvas

I find it strange that this fantasy piece about Scythians (and poets) was painted during the American Civil War.

8.eight

Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania

9.nine

The world’s largest potash fertilizer plant at Lop Nur, China

10.

ten

The Planet Venus, sans clouds. Sigh…someday

11.

eleven

The Armenian cemetery in Julfa, Azerbaijan…desecrated and bulldozed in the 1990s

12.

dozen

A colossal snake swimming in the Trans-Saharan Seaway of Mali during the Eocene

13.

t

The Site of Eridu, humankind’s first known city.

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I can’t believe how well our contestants did! I am not sure I could have identified any of these…and I have written about most of them!  There were a few humorous stray answers, but even the answers which weren’t a hundred percent right were still clever and well thought out.  Our Ferrebeekeeper mental Olympics thus ends with the following champions:

Gold: hooftales

Silver: Vicki

Bronze: eekee

Everyone is a winner (although Hooftales gets the zoomorphs and the national anthem of the hooftales homeland is currently playing as we wipe away proud tears).  I enjoyed putting this together and revisiting these concepts! Should we do another one at some point? Should the images be harder or easier or what?  Talk to me below (Hooftales, we will figure out how to get you your prize) and thanks again for playing and, above all, for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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Ok…here is one more bee story.  The blue calamintha bee (Osmia calaminthae) is an ultra-specialized bee which is found only upon a particular ridge of hills in Central Florida.  Or that is the way that things used to be: the shiny metallic blue bee has not been spotted since 2016 and it was presumed extinct. Above is a sad picture of a museum specimen.  The bee’s trademark shiny blueness is fading because of, you know, impalement and death and extinction and stuff (although, in fairness, it seems like the bee’s exoskeleton is blue, but its fuzz is grayish white).

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But wait! This story turns out not to be over after all.  On March 9th, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Chase Kimmel, discovered a living blue calamintha bee.  The busy little insect was rubbing its furry head on Ashe’s calamint flower in order to collect the pollen.  Since then, additional blue bees have been spotted, so the species is hanging on. The first bee was not a Martian manhunter style “last-of-its-kind” survivor.

Unfortunately, scientists and ecologists have not been able to further study the insects due to troubles in the human world…or maybe that is fortunate. Perhaps the last blue calamintha bees just need some privacy and human free bee time to rebuild the shattered kernel of their population.  Let’s wish them well, and I will follow up with more information as it becomes available.

 

The giant murder hornet story is fading from the public conscience and maybe that is for the best.  I was saddened to hear all sorts of stories of people going berserk and wiping out hives of honeybees and suchlike overreactions (although if anyone attacked any yellowjackets, I maybe wouldn’t shed too many tears over such an outcome–not that yellowjackets are apt to be phased by anyone coming after them with anything less than a flamethrower anyway). But the bigger point here is that bees are our lovable friends and we need to cherish them!

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To underline this, here is an annex story to go with all of the little watercolor pictures I painted in the flower garden during quarantine.  This is a carpenter bee, one of 500 difficult-to-tell-apart species in the genus Xylocopa.  Carpenter bees are gentle bees: Male bees have no stinger and female bees rarely sting anyone unless they are severely provoked.   They are called carpenter bees because they like to raise their families within little chambers inside bamboo or timber (which means you may want to watch poorly stored stacks of lumber to keep these guys from boring perfectly round holes in the boards).

graph

Anyway, as I was painting there was a sad buzz and a little thud.  A furry black bee fell out of the sky and was lying on one of the bricks in my garden! He lay there dazed for a bit and then tried to take off,  but only emitted an arrhythmic hum before keeling over on his side like The Dying Gaul (albeit with far more appendages and eyes). I don’t know how to resuscitate bees, but they are famously needy of energy (and strongly affiliated with a certain sugary natural source of metabolic energy) so I went inside and put some honey on a little stick and put it next to him. The bee weakly crawled over to the honey and eagerly lapped at the sweet amber like an addict, but then after a few more timorous buzzes he just sat there in the sunshine.

Dying Gaul

I sort of expected to see a brown creeper fly down and eat the tired carpenter bee like a socialite gobbling up a fig wrapped in bacon, however it seems like my scheme worked:  an hour later there was a more substantial buzz from the brick and then moments later I saw a pair of carpenter bees slaloming off into the crabapple blossoms overhead! Of course the bee didn’t really do anything for me in this story (aside from pollinating my crops, holding up the ecosystem, and not stinging me) yet the whole incident gave me a sort of happy glow.  Here is a blurry picture I took of the little guy.  I hope he is ok out there in Brooklyn these days.  Maybe I need to get one of those little carpenter bee houses.

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My neighbor, the carpenter bee

 

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