I was once again fortunate to be able to attend another excellent Advanced Naturalist Workshop at the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County. My sincere thanks to Chris Bedel and Mark Zloba of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History for letting me audit the Saturday portion. I don't know how these guys do it, but they consistently bring in the top experts in the country to teach about various facets of natural history. Be sure to attend one of these workshops next year.
Last weekend's subject was the wide and often wacky world of wasps, and the instructor was none other than Eric Eaton.
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. If you don't have this handy guide, be sure and get one. It is easily the best and most useful of any of the general insect guides, and Eric deserves major props for an uncanny ability to distill down the 10's of thousands of insect species in North America to include the ones that you are most likely to see. If you are a casual bug enthusiast, the chances are good that you'll find your mystery bug, to the species, in this book. If you are a bit harder core and interested in more obscure bugs, the book will quickly get you to the right family and probably genus, and you can proceed from there.
I did my best to make photos of some of the wasps that we encountered, but they are often not the easiest subjects to work with. The bruiser above is a cicada-killer, Sphecius speciosa. These brutes are massive, and the females provision their ground burrows with huge annual cicadas. An egg is laid upon the unfortunate cicada, the wasps seals the tomb, and when the wasp grub hatches it is ensured of fresh meat. This rather morbid life cycle is a recurrent theme in the wasp world. Cicada-killers tend to make communes of burrows in favored spots, often dry sandy banks, and perhaps you've seen cicada-killer colonies.
Eric had another interesting point about the seemingly most ferocious wasps that possess powerful neurotoxins that can rapidly knock out large prey. If you DO get stung by one, it is excruciatingly painful, BUT the agony only lasts for about three minutes, and the sting leaves no lasting blisters, localized flesh necropsy, or other ill effects. I'll take his word on that.
Like many wasp species, this one spends much time nectaring at flowers; indeed, wasps as a group are major pollinators and thus extremely important ecologically. Paper wasps also capture caterpillars, which the adults masticate - chew into a fine gruel - and feed to their larvae. I've said this before and will repeat it again: DON'T come back as a caterpillar. You'll have no friends, only fierce enemies.
Grass-carrier wasps capture various tree crickets and provision their nests with them.
We found this cricket-killer and a number of others in the gloomy confines of a barn. The soft powdery soil in such sites is perfect for burrowers such as the "cricket-killer".
This one and others were working the exterior of the barn in which we just observed the cricket-killer wasp. Cuckoo wasps - which have no sting - are parasites of carpenter bees and wasp species that create nests in wood. When a nest site is located, the cuckoo wasp boldly enters and attempts to lay its egg within the nest chamber. If successful, the cuckoo wasp egg will hatch prior to the host egg, and the cuckoo wasp grub then consumes whatever prey the host had provisioned he nest with, and possibly even the larva of the host species.
Note the heavy platelike armoring of this cuckoo wasp. It needs it. The wasp probably has no way of knowing whether Mrs. Carpenter Bee or other savage stinging host is in the cavity when it enters, or even more psychotically, the cuckoo wasp may know but not care. If the rightful owner is home, the cuckoo is apt to be attacked and stung, but in theory its armoring will protect it.
THIS POST. We saw quite a few, but none topped this cute little couple. Brian saw them in the act of producing more of themselves, and rather rudely I might add, netted the pair. When placed in a vial, they promptly went right back at it. So we gently tipped them back out of the container and onto a leaf, and they just kept going so we had some outstanding photo ops. Note the massive mandibles of the female. She uses them to grasp and carry her caterpillar prey.
Well, it was our good fortune to encounter the fascinating insect above yesterday. I suppose most people would quickly identify it as a wasp and with good reason. But it isn't - not even close.
It is a moth, and I think it's Synanthedon sigmoidea but I'm not positive of the specific identity. I find it amazing that a moth, of all things, could evolve such a fantastic mimicry. And I'm sure its ruse is effective at keeping away unwanted attention.
Thanks to Eric Eaton for coming all the way to Ohio from Colorado Springs, and conducting such an outstanding workshop, and to the crew at the Edge of Appalachia preserve for facilitating these excellent workshops.