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We will get back to plans for a Hart Island memorial in the immediate future, but right now there is something which needs to be dealt with right now.  Eight years ago, Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the nightmarish Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) a 5 centimeter (2 inch) long flying murder machine from East Asia.  The Asian giant hornet’s sting contains neurotoxins and an enzyme which dissolves flesh.  They are capable of stinging again & again & again…and then going home and living long successful lives untroubled by regret (unlike poor honey bees which perish after delivering one sting).  Every year the giant hornets kill dozens of innocent people who aren’t even allergic to bees.

And now they are here…

To quote ABC News,

The hornet was sighted for the first time in the U.S. last December, when the state Department of Agriculture verified two reports near Blaine, Washington, close to the Canadian border. It also received two probable, but unconfirmed reports from sites in Custer, Washington, south of Blaine.

This is obviously bad news for humankind…but, let’s be honest…nobody is really that worried about us.  We are already the Asian Giant Hornet of the primate world (and primates are truly aggressive, cunning animals).  Plus there are billions of us and we have all sorts of diabolical machines and contraptions.  The ones who are really in trouble because of this terrifying invasive hornet are bees.  Asian Giant Hornets live by hunting other insects like smaller hornets, praying mantises, and, especially honey bees.  Washington is the nation’s orchard.  It’s honey bees were already in trouble and they are not ready for this (did yoou click that link to the earlier post).  Gentle, kindly honeybees may never be ready.

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All of this means the giant hornets have got to go. We have a brief window where we could maybe stamp them out (figuratively…even our big feet might not be big enough to stamp them out literally).  So if you see a hornet the size of a goldfinch with Deadpool’s face (except the color of a finely aged, um, schoolbus) kindly call the Washington Department of Agriculture  as soon as possible*.  Do not grab a machete and a flamethrower and try to tackle these things on your own:  you will just end up on the Schmidt pain index.

(*Seriously? It’s only May, how much weirder are public service announcements going to get this year?)

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When I was a five-year old child, my whole family went on a trip out west.  We traveled from Utah up through Wyoming, Boulder, and Idaho.  My parents rented a big taupe car, but my grandparents, my uncle, and my cousin all had trucks with campers (my cousin even had a CB radio!). It was amazing fun and the undiluted beauty of the mountains and the joy of family time made up for the long days of being trapped in a car with leg cramps from running up and down said  mountains.  Many are the storied adventures we had…and the western legends have grown in the telling.  A particular favorite is the tale of how my grandfather and my uncle obtained a special blacklight so they could spot uranium ore (which was at a great premium in the seventies).  They turned the light on in some forsaken midnight desert and not only did they discover a shocking number of scorpions EVERYWHERE, they also found huge mounds of uranium ore in immense abundance—a multi-million dollar strike!  But when they picked up the precious ore it was soft and friable, and when they fumbled their flashlights on, it turned out to be cow manure covered with a fungus that glows under black light….

At any rate, among all of these travel yarns, a story shines out in my mind as being unusually important.  Sadly the story paints me as a callow & greedy brat, but it is still worth recounting, because of the tremendous lesson embedded in it like a razorblade in a mallomar.  My great grandmother was traveling with us on the trip.  She would switch between vehicles and share her stories of the days before airplanes, motorcar, great wars, or radios.  It was wonderful to have her with us and I feel incredibly lucky that I got to know her and hear her stories, however some of her folk traditions caused…trouble…when I attempted to apply their mythical wisdom to the real world.

For example: we were camped in some paradisiacal glade in Wyoming, when  I found a winsome wildflower with little golden anthers  (in my memory, this flower looks like a cross between a mimulus and a columbine, but who can say what it really was) and I rashly picked one for grandma.  She was delighted by it and she said, “if you leave these out overnight, the fairies will turn them to gold” Just what I would have done with whole bushels of gold was somewhat unclear, but I was a tourist out west where every little tourist-trap is all about GOLD, plus I had some heady ideas from old-fashioned chivalric tales of dragons, knights, and kings.

I began making an altar of flower heads, when my mother, a modern woman with an abiding love for nature (and for rules) found me decapitating unknown wildflowers in a park in order to transmute them to gold via fairy magic.  This was the beginning of a stringent & powerful LESSON concerning (A) the nature of endangered plants, (B) wise environmental stewardship, and (C) national park rules.  I tried to interrupt the flow of the moral lecture with the puissant rejoinder that “Great Grandma says the fairies will transform them into gold!” However this did not have the desired effect.  In fact, in addition to learning about wildflowers in national parks, I also learned that (D) the mythical wisdom of beloved superannuated ancestors does not overrule parental fiat (or park rules). Not at all.

Of course there is only one truly ironclad rule in life, which all other things must pay obeisance to…and that is the primacy of what actually happens.  I assumed that after that long-ago summer night had passed I would have a great rock heaped with gold which would convince my mother that she was wrong and great grandma and I were right.  However, sadly, in the pink dawn light when I went out to my flat mudstone to look at the gold (maybe I would share some with my parents so they could see how foolish they had been) all that was there were a bunch of mangled wildflowers which I had mutilated with my lust for gold. Come to think of it, this was a real lesson about world history too, I guess.  Anyway it was obvious that dealing with the fairies is tricksy.  Dealing with reality is inexorable.  I killed a bunch of potentially endangered wildflowers for a pretty lie.  I felt so ashamed.  I still do.

After the fairy gold incident, the other supernatural entities in my life started to fall like big jeweled fabulated dominoes. The Easter Bunny was always pretty suspicious anyway—a magic rabbit who hands out chocolate malt balls (a confection which my mom and nobody else likes)?  Soon he was gone, never to hop back.  I learned to read, and I read up on UFOs and monsters: it became perfectly obvious to a second grader that they were all hallucinations of stressed or otherwise addled people.  It wasn’t long before Santa himself, the great undead demigod of winter and giving was exposed…well, not as a fraud (I still have some of his wonderful toys) but certainly not exactly real in the way that you and I are, gentle reader.  All that was left was the big bearded guys–the sort who flout the temple rules of the Pharisees or build allegorical gardens with forbidden trees–and the curiosity of adolescence (and knowledge of astronomy, biology, and history) put an end to them except as symbols.  It’s a humorous story…but it isn’t so funny when I see my roommate wishing away her life on horoscopes and homeopathy or look at the NY Times and catch a glimpse of what ISIL is up to.

Everywhere, still, I find people who believe in the fairy gold despite the irrefutable evidence of the dawn.  I almost didn’t write this because I was afraid somebody would push a wildflower towards extinction so they can make their car payments.  What are we going to do? How are we going to make our way to Venus (or anywhere other than extinction) in a world where fairy gold is still so much in circulation, even if nobody has ever seen a single speck?

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.

number-4It’s weird down there at ground level. We humans go around building Dairy Queens, discarding old credit cards, and prospecting for fossil fuels when beneath us, at grass level, strange alien life forms share our world all but unbeknownst to us. The fourth top post of all time illustrates this fact by featuring a tiny animal which is simultaneously endearing and frightening. The velvet ant is not an ant at all—it is a wasp from the family Mutillidae (which has more than 3000 species worldwide). Mutillidae wasps are furry and colorful—like cute little Jim Henson puppets with extra eyes—but they pack a ferocious wallop in their stingers. Female velvet ants are rated a ferocious 3.0 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (a subjective scale which quantifies the agony caused by the stings from Hymenopterans). Male ants have no sting although they do have wings and thus look more wasplike.

 

Panda Ant - (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

Panda Ant – (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

The velvet ant post is notable for being the most-commented on Ferrebeekeeper post of all time. Nearly 70 readers have chimed in with anecdotes about running across the furry little bugs. They seem to be quite prolific in the American South and Southwest (goodness help us). Some of the comments were quite amazing. Adam Riley told us about a terrible childhood experience writing, “I was 6 or 7 years old, playing in the sand of our driveway in S.E. Alabama, when I encountered a velvet ant. I tried to smash it with my hand to painful consequences. Aside from breaking my arm, that is still the most memorable pain I’ve experienced to date. The ‘cow ant,’ as my mom referred to it, was fairly indestructible; trying to crush one was like trying to crush a pebble.”

 

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Reader Erica captured one and then became trapped in a riding-the-tiger type predicament. She wrote, “I was stung by one on a hiking trip and caught it in a bottle just in case it was poisonous. I have made a little habit for her and put a little drip of sugar water. I don’t want to release her in the city nor do I have the heart to kill such a beautiful exotic creature.”

Perhaps most dramatically of all, Kathy became involved in a protracted battle with a velvet ant. Industrial poisons and specialized weapons were barely sufficient to grant her (eventual) victory. Her story reads like Sci-Fi horror: “They are in my yard in Ohio…actually took video of it after I had hit it four times with fly swatter and sprayed it two times with wasp spray it still lived for the next day just kept curling its body and jabbing its stinger out which reached over its head, freaked me out…….! Hope my kids don’t get stung playing outside.”

Yeesh! Be careful out there people! And keep commenting and writing your stories. I have made a resolution to respond more to comments and to post quotations from the best ones!

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