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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.

Hay Editor! Caption this - the Penguins

Ferrebeekeeper tries not to portray the world in black and white…yet some important issues are black and white. Additionally, some important issues are unable to fly. In fact some important issues live only in the southernmost reaches of the southern hemisphere and are formidable ocean predators which hunt squid, shrimp, and fish. These issues establish strong pair bonds for a season and work together to raise a single nestling. Um…which is to say that today is World Penguin Day! Ferrebeekeeper proudly salutes our many friends from the order Sphenisciformes! Everybody is familiar with these endearing, beautiful birds. Yet looking at penguins more carefully reveals that they are less familiar (and more remarkable) than we think.

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In the media, penguins are always portrayed as debonair bon vivants who are trying to kill Batman, or as the sidekick of villainous ice wizards, or as weak-minded props for Jim Carrey to fart on. Needless to say, this does them a terrible injustice. Penguins diverged from other birds before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. The first basal penguins were the contemporaries of dinosaurs and giant mosasaurs. For 70 million years the birds have evolved to simultaneously live in swirling freezing oceans and on profoundly inhospitable land environs like desert coasts and icebergs.

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Penguins look like sad little drunken gnomes when they are walking on the land (although walking on ice cliffs is no mean feat for any creature). Underwater, however, they look like next generation naval weaponry. They can turn and maneuver with preternatural speed.

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One of the most remarkable pieces of footage I have seen of any animal was an underwater reel of a Gentoo penguin hunting a school of shimmering pilchard type fish. With lightning speed, the school of fish changed to evade the bird. The school swelled into a ball and then elongated and then melted away into glistening tendrils. It formed gyres and broke into equal halves and used every advantage of the 3-d underwater habitat to get away. The fish moved faster than I could see and darted off in ways I could not anticipate or understand, but always the penguin was faster and more nimble. She out-thought the group mind of the fish. She was unfazed by their otherworldly dazzle and picked them off one after the next with relentless ballet-like grace (all while swimming underwater on a breath of air). I wish I could describe it properly (or just find the footage online). It was beautiful in an overwhelming and otherworldly way…so perfect it was scary. And it convinced me that penguins have a rightful place among the greatest predators–like lions, saltwater crocodiles, peregrine falcons, (although those creatures eat carrion or steal other animal’s dinners, whereas penguins are super predators who only eat live prey).

There are 17-20 species of penguin, depending on which ornithologist you ask. Some dwell in temperate portions of Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and South America, but others are more familiar as the creatures of the extreme frozen south.  Some of these march  inland to the plains of Antartica where they spend the winter in nightmare cold and darkness. They are the only large animals to inhabit that frozen continent (unless you also count Norwegian scientists).

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The root of the word penguin is unknown. The word looks French, but it appeared in English and Dutch sources, before it appeared in French ones. Some linguists surmise that it came originally from the Welsh word for great auks which were the penguin analogue of the northern hemisphere. Great auks are forever gone from Earth…extinct since the mid nineteenth century (when they were hunted to death for their down and so their flesh could be used as fishbait).

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I bring up the sad stupid fate of the Great Auk for a reason. Penguin populations are plummeting. Usually humans kill off animals by hunting, industrial poisoning, or habitat destruction by means of development. Although it is true that the penguins which live in inhabited locations like Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, face pressure from housing development (or sometimes from oil spills like the poor guys in sweaters above).  However the penguins in the southern oceans are facing threats from the planetary changes which the oceans are undergoing.  So world penguin day is important and meaningful…but I’m not exactly sure what we need to do to help these ancient formally dressed predatory friends.

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