Posts tagged with Nature

Cow Killer!

Several people have reported seeing these wonderful insects over the last couple of days. These are sometimes called velvet ants. They are not ants but mutillid wasps. The females are wingless and usually brightly colored-orange or orange and black, though a few are grey. The males are winged. The females are enter the burrows of ground nesting bees and wasps and lay their eggs on or near the larvae of their host. The eggs hatch and the Mutlillid larvae feed on the host's larvae.

Mutillids can pack a powerful sting-especially the one pictured here. That probably is the origin of the other common name as a figure of speech- "Cow Killer." The females are extremely active and never seem to stop moving so it is difficult to get a decent picture of them. Fortunately I had a plastic lid to a lens filter handy and was able to trap this one long enough to get a good shot.

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Don’t Kill These Guys!

You may have noticed these large wasps flying around and making burrows in loose soil.


They may look fierce and frightening but they are actually not very aggressive. These are Cicada Killers and the female digs burrows in loose soil and she provisions the nest with cicadas that she paralyzes by stinging them before carrying them to the burrow. It is possible to be stung by these wasps but you have to little put your hand on one to get stung-which is a pretty stupid thing to do. The sting hurts momentarily and the site doesn't seem to swell as a hornet or paper wasp sting does.

How do I know this? Well, guess who was stupid.

At The University of Kansas they used to aggregate around the entrance of Strong Hall - the entrance facing Snow Hall. I haven't checked to see if they are still nesting there.

Here is a pretty good summary of the natural history of these wasps:

You can control them with chemicals but there really doesn't seem any reason to do this from my way of thinking. Supposedly cultural practices like improving your turf in areas where they nest help, but I rather have the wasps myself.

In terms of identification there isn't a whole lot of insects with which you can confuse these wasps. The females are two inches or so long, their burrowing and swarming behavior in areas where you have loose soil is pretty distinctive. Again they are not likely to sting you; in fact I was standing in the middle of a cluster of wasp burrows on the JCCC campus when I took this particular shot. So use some common sense (not like me) and enjoy!


Mad Dogs and…

Biologists? Now that my summer semester is over, I just had to get out yesterday to do some hiking so went over to Prairie Park for a couple of hours. What struck me was how green the prairie area was with no maintenance.

Do you think maybe this is an indication of the sorts of plants we should use around our yards rather than the usual garden store fare?

Here by the way are a couple of shots from my visit.

First up is a hummingbird moth-resting- until I went to take the NEXT shot.

Next a very nice orb weaving spider that was hanging out near the nature center itself.

There was at least one other photographer out-a fellow from Ottawa with his new camera- and I steered him to the spider. Hope his shots came out well and that enjoyed his visit to the park.


Two Guests: One unwelcome; one welcome.

Yesterday while in my backyard with my camera I happened upon a not very welcome visitor to my Purple Cone Flower-a Japanese Beetle.

A not very welcome guest

Back East these are a serious pest of ornamentals but I had not seen them here in Lawrence before. The closest I have seen them is Arkansas-in fact I've blogged about them here:

Fortunately I have only seen the one so far.

The other visitor is much more welcome. I have been growing fennel in the hopes of getting Black Swallowtails to reproduce in my garden and finally this year got at least one larva.

Black swallowtail larva

And my favorite picture of this "cat:"

Black swallowtail larva 3

Actually I first noticed an adult Black swallowtail visiting my fennel before I found the larva.

Of course what makes part of what makes the Japanese Beetle unwelcome is partly that it is a pest. I suppose too that if I was raising fennel for cooking I might consider the swallowtail a pest as well. Indeed this one larva is probably going to pretty much destroy one of my fennel plants by the time it is grown.

This brings me to an interesting segment on yesterday's Science Friday. The biologists featured in the segment argue that much of our concern about non native species is misplaced and that many of these species are now part of our landscape. You can listen here while you are cooling off with a Gin and Tonic or what ever beverage floats your boat.

While I am on this topic, there is a controversy brewing about wild horse control. The standard view point about wild horses is that they are non native and thus need to be controlled. Of course horse lovers and animal rights people don't agree and some have pointed out that the horse WAS a part of the natural fauna in North America as recently as 11,000 years ago and indeed evolved in the New World. So are they really non native?

Read about that controversy at LiveScience or here at New Scientist-again while you cooling off with your favorite liquid refreshment.


Last night’s sky.

Last night was the harvest moon and I hope everyone got to enjoy it. I got home from teaching at around 9:30 and thought about eating supper and going to bed. Instead I ended up taking my camera outside-not so much to take pictures of the moon but rather pictures of Jupiter, the largest planet in our system.

So here is the best picture I got:


Jupiter is the bright object in the lower left of the photo. Click through to my flickr page and you will see three faint objects very close to Jupiter-those are three of Jupiter's moons. All and there is an added bonus. Up and to the left of Jupiter is a very faint bluish point of light. Turns out that is Uranus, a planet I have never seen. So an interesting first for me.

I expected to be able to get Jupiter since that planet is close-OK relatively speaking- to the Earth, but I thought light from the moon would prevent me from getting a good exposure.

In fact the moon was so bright it cast very pronounced shadows. Just for a lark I shot this picture of plants in my front yard and driveway:

By the light

As you can see the moon's light rivaled that cast from the street light just down from our house-one of the few times something in the night sky is able to break through the light pollution that keeps us cut off from the Universe unfolding around us in deep time.