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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.

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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Ferrebeekeeper, like its author is meant to be benevolent and philosophical.  Yet sometimes, despite our best intentions, we all must grapple with the unthinkable–this is why, today, we descend into a realm of unimaginable pain.  Allow me to present the dreadful bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) also known as the 24-hour ant–the hymenopteran that sits at the apex of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  The worker ants of this genus are 18–30 mm (0.7 to 1.2 inches) long; there are no soldiers or other castes (and the queen herself is not much larger than any of the workers).  They live in nests just underground and they hunt for small arthropods (and nectar) in the trees above.

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

The common name of the ant comes from the 24 hour agony caused by the creature’s excruciating sting.  Victims of the ant claim that being stung feels the same as being shot (and since the ant ranges from Nicaragua and eastern Honduras south to Paraguay, it seems likely that some of the people it has stung have sufficient personal experience to intelligently make the comparison).  The ant’s venom is poneratoxin–a short chain of amino acids held together by covalent bonds–which acts as a neurotoxin.  Poneratoxin affects voltage-dependent sodium ion channels which therefor disrupts synaptic transmission within the central nervous system.  That sounds clinical and antiseptic, but people stung by the ant describe hours upon hour of unrelenting abject agony (along with partial paralysis and general flailing in the afflicted part).

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale--they are not grubbing for money)

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale–they are not grubbing for money)

The ants have developed this potent sting as a means to deter animals which might unearth and disturb their underground nests (or otherwise harass them as they hunt and gather food).  Unfortunately, the ants never reckoned on the madness of humans.   The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil, an Amazonian tribe of hunter gatherers utilize the ants as part of their manhood initiation ritual.  Shamans lull a hive of ants into paralysis with smoke and then sew the living ants (stinger end out) into a sort of grass mitten.  Thirteen-year-old boys take turns putting on the mitten for five to ten minutes.  Then the initiates face 24 hours of partial paralysis as well as pain so intense that it causes hallucinations and madness (and some boys die from the ceremony).  In order to be respected as a stoic and fearless warrior a young Satere-Mawe man might undergo this ritual a score of times.

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was...

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was…

schmidt

Justin Orvel Schmidt (pictured above) is an entomologist who specializes in insect defenses.  His greatest expertise is in the stings of hymenopterans—the bees, wasps, sawflies, hornets, and ants (although he also researches the toxic/chemical defences of other arthropods).   In the early 1980’s Schmidt attempted to systematize the different medical and physiological effects of insect stings.  This work led him to coauthor one of the comprehensive tomes on the subject of insect venom Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators.  Unfortunately for Schmidt, in the course of his researches, he has been stung/bitten innumerable times by various aggressive and toxic insects (and other creepy crawlies) from around the world.

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants.  In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants? In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Based on these experiences, Schmidt attempted to categorize the algogenic (i.e. pain-inducing) effects of hymenopteran stings in the now world-famous Schmidt sting pain index.  This index is a captivating blend of subjective pain analysis, horrifying real world experience, and inventive poetry.   The lowest sting on the Schmidt index is a 0—betokening a sting which has no effect on humans. The highest rating is a 4 which describes an experience of maddening absolute agony.  The index became famous because of an interview with Outdoor magazine.  Schmidt has since conceded that his descriptive efforts lack an empirical basis and that stings vary depending on body location and the amount of venom injected.  Because of such admissions, Wikipedia took down its remarkable table of stings–which is a shame because the subjective descriptions gave the index its visceral power.  Here is a sampling copied verbatim from “Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog”:

1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

While the work lacks rigorous empirical criteria, even the most relentlessly analytical critics seem to aver that being stung by over 150 different species of arthtopods gives Schmidt a certain robust validity.  The literary merit of the metaphors is certainly genuine (although one hopes that the good Doctor Schmidt never actually dropped a hair dryer into his bubble bath or let misanthropic vaudevillians torture him with fire).   Personally I have only been stung by sweat bees, honey bees, and yellow jackets, so I cannot testify to the more esoteric sting ratings (thankfully–since yellowjacket stings nearly did me in), however something sounds completely right about the yellowjacket sting description.  I recall a moment of warmth which metastasized almost immediately into a sour panic-inducing pain which spread through my arm and then my body.

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

In conclusion, I salute Justin Orvel Schmidt as a man of science and a masochistic poet/performance artist.  If he claims that a bullet ant sting is the worst hymenopteran sting, I see no cause to contradict him and I never want to think about it again.

An Irisdescent Green Sweat Bee (photo by Cyrus Khamak)

Sweat bees are tiny bees of the family Halictidae.  They take their common name from their affinity for human sweat, which they lap off of our naked skin for the salts and electrolytes therein. Sweat bees are small (at least to us) and tend to measure between 3 and 10 millimeters in length. A few species have thick robust bodies, but most are slender and delicate.  They tend to be glossy black, but some have exoskeletons which are gorgeous shades of metallic gold, green, purple, or blue.

The majority of sweat bee species nest in the ground (although a few build their homes in dead trees).  The social behavior of sweat bees runs the entire gamut of bee conduct: the University of Florida Department of Entomology Website states, “species can be solitary, communal, semi-social, or eusocial.”  Sweat bees therefore greatly interest entomologists who are studying the development of eusocial insects—those hive-minded insects which form colonies made up of a mass-reproducing queen served by a number of biologically sterile individuals.  Most species of sweat bees live together in a simple underground tunnel-hive where they act more like roommates than like city-states, however some halictids do indeed create caste-based societies (albeit not as large and elaborately organized as those of honey bees or ants).

Sweat bees mass-provision their larval offspring—which is to say they stick a mass of pollen inside a waterproof cell, place an egg on it, and seal then it off until a functional adult emerges (as opposed to honey bees which lovingly feed the larva as they develop).

Halictidae species are immensely important to flowering plants.  They are critical pollinators for many wildflowers, crops, and fruits.  Therefore, although the creatures usually fly beneath our notice, they have a tremendous importance to humankind and to ecosystems as a whole. Not all sweat bees are virtuous workers: some species are cleptoparasitic and lay their eggs on the pollen masses accumulated by another species of bee.  A handful of these little bees are outright parasites in the manner of the parasitoid wasps.

A Sweat Bee Gathering Pollen and Nectar from a Poppy

Like their fiercer large relatives, sweat bees are capable of stinging, however their stings are weak (which is fortunate considering their affinity for landing on us).   Sweat bee stings rate a lowly 1.0 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (a remarkably poetic scale for rating the discomfort caused by hymenopteran venom). I have been stung by a sweat bee and the sensation was that of a needle-like itch which penetrated deep below the skin and then subsided almost immediately.

The sweat bees are cosmopolitan, which means they can be found throughout all similar habitats in the world (although they are thin on the ground in Australia and South East Asia).  However the sweat bees are cosmopolitan in another way: alert reader, Michael Donohue (who is always on the look-out to identify his fellow native New Yorkers), sent me an article which details the discovery and naming of a new species of Halictidae, Lasioglossum gotham, which Dr. John Ascher, a bee researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, discovered in Brooklyn Botanic garden in 2009.  In the NY Times article about the discovery, Ascher describes how New York City has a very rich diversity of wild bees.

Lasioglossum gotham–actually about the size of a rice grain (photo by American Museum of Natural History)

An Iridescent Wasp on a Linen Tablecloth

Today I would like to start a brand new animal category concerning the most gifted of the social insects, the superorder Hymenoptera, which consists of wasps, bees, ants and sawflies (along with some other oddballs which are less frequently mentioned).  Hymenoptera are arguably among the most successful creatures on the planet.  Their behavior can be almost embarrassingly humanlike and they are famous for building elaborate constructions, going to war, taking slaves, farming fungi, and crafting rigid city-like social hierarchies. However, of all life forms on earth, the hymenoptera are some of the most vividly alien: cuttlefish do seem downright cuddly when compared to the horrifying digger wasps.   A sociologist could happily draw parallels between a bee hive and a city until he looked at the details of bee reproduction, at which point he would probably break down and weep.

The Hymenoptera are not as ancient as either the mollusks or the mammals (if it is fair to compare an order with a phylum or a class).  They originated in the Triassic and did not develop the successful social organization which is now such a defining feature until the late Cretaceous.   The first hymenopterans were the xylidae, a family of sawflies with a minimal presence on earth today but with a long pedigree. These first sawflies fed on the pollen and buds of the conifer stands beneath which the first dinosaurs developed (and under the roots of which the first mammals cowered).  The rise of the flowering plants in the Cretaceous led to a leap-forward for these pollen-eaters: complex flowers then evolved in tandem with the hymenopterans. It was also during the Cretaceous that the ants and termites split from the vespoid wasps.  The earliest honey bees of the familiar genus Apis evolved at the end of the Eocene bt they were preceded by all sorts of hymenopteran pollinators.

A Sawfly Fossil (Hymenoptera: Symphyta)

I mentioned above that, for all of their familiarity to us, the Hymenoptera are disturbingly alien.  In fact as I have been writing this comparatively tame post, a dreadful sense of formication has stolen over me and I find myself brushing phantom ants from my limbs and feeling the terrible pang of yellowjacket stings from childhood.  The hymenoptera are frequently the basis of the extraterrestrial enemies in science fiction.  Although people are occasionally stung to death by wasps or ripped apart from within by driver ants, it is something larger and less tangible which makes the hymenoptera such reliable villains. I have watched the soldier bees snip the wings off of wasps trying to invade my grandfather’s bee hive and then toss the invaders’ writhing bodies from the painted ledge—all while a river of worker bees went out and came back laden with pollen.  There is an alarming touch of civilization to these social insects: a hint that they are utilizing the same kinds of organization and communication which have made humans such a success.  And, in fact, the social insects are a huge success—ants alone are estimated to constitute a substantial portion of the animal biomass of earth (to say nothing of termites, bees, wasps and the rest).

Yellow Jackets on a Coke Can (photo by the fearless Alan Cressler)

Of course this success has broad ramifications. The hymenoptera are everywhere in nature and they also play a huge part of human culture. Indeed the very name of this blog is a play on words between my surname and the noble art of aviculture.  Without the bees, we would not have much in the way of fruit or vegetables.  Not only would this be a disaster for human farming—just contemplate how many other creatures rely on those fruit!  Similarly the ants bulwark an entire portion of the ecosystem by scavenging the tidbits out of fields and forests.  Writing about the hymenoptera may be an itchy, antsy business but it is a well-merited study.  This group of insects is pivotal to life on dry-land as we know it.  The biblical promised land was one of milk and honey.  There would be no milk without mammals, but there would be no honey (and precious few mammals) without the hymenoptera.

A beekeeper completely covered with swarming honey bees in a “bee man” cantest in China

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