Monday, November 30, 2009

Weekend Cleanup Part 2: All About Yellowjackets

Note: Yes I’m late. I said I’d get this post up Wednesday. Then I said over the long weekend. But I didn’t get it up till now. Here’s the deal:

1) The post required some research. Seriously, all my posts do. It’s not like I just throw this crap together*, you know…

*Expect for my “filler” posts, which are wonderfully research-free and totally stream-of-consciousness**.

**Kind of like this note.

2) No one reads blogs over the weekend anyway. Why waste a great post like this- oh, and yes it’s great alright*- on a weekend?

*Especially my new Expand-O-Graphic. Man it is so awesome you are totally going to pee your pants when you see it!

3) OK the real reason. I blew off everything this past long weekend. We (Watcher-Family-Unit) went down to St. George for the holiday. And I just wanted to hang out with AW and the Trifecta. And it was great.

The Post Already

IMG_3394Like every North American suburban homeowner, I’ve had my run-ins with Yellowjackets, including many summer outdoor meals that were scuttled due to their persistent interference. And like so many homeowners, we turned to traps. When I spotted the 2 dead yellowjackets on the garage windowsill (pic left) I belatedly remembered that our 2 traps from the summer were still hanging in the back yard, and given that it was almost Thanksgiving, I really ought to clean them out.

Tangent: You’re not a real man until you can regularly kill yellowjackets with your bare hand. It’s not as hard as it sounds. They just have to land on a hard surface for a second so you can swat them. They key is not to crush them, but just lightly stun them so they fall to the ground where you can follow up with a vigorous stomp*. Remember- the stinger always points down, so if you hit it quick from the back it can’t sting you.

*If it falls to soft earth you may have to augment your stomp with a thorough and heartfelt back-and-forth grind. Obviously this doesn’t work if you’re barefooted.

All About Yellowjackets

But first, what is a yellowjacket?

Yellowjackets are one of about a dozen different wasp species belonging to the genus Vespula. Oh wait, I guess I should first explain what a wasp is…

Apposition Graphic[4] OK, a wasp is a type of hymenopteran. Hymenoptera is a huge and very successful order of insects that includes lots of things we’ve blogged about including ants, bees and tarantula hawks. There are thousands and thousands of species, generally sharing many anatomical features including well-developed mandibles, ovipositors, apposition compound eyes* and 2 pairs of wings which lock together via a set of specialized bristles, called hamuli.

*Which I explained in this post. And actually I should put in a qualifier; I know all Apocrita (Ants, Bees, Wasps) have apposition compound eyes, but was unable to confirm that Symphata (sawflies, horntails) also do in time for this post.

Haplo Diploid Family[4] Probably the 2 most interesting things about hymenopterans are this: First, sex is determined by number of chromosomes, as described more fully in this post. Females are chromosomally diploid, with 2 sets of chromosomes, one from her mother, one from her father, just like us. But males are chromosomally haploid, with just a single set of chromosomes, which they get from their mother. Hymenopteran males have no fathers.

Second, the order Hymenoptera includes- with one notable exception*- all of the world’s social** insects- namely ants, bees and wasps. However, not all hymenopterans are social; many that we’ve looked at- like tarantula hawks and orchard mason bees- are solitary. Hymenopterans have been around since the Triassic period, but social Hymenopterans didn’t appear till the Cretaceous.

*Termites, which I later covered in this post. Man, by the end of Part 1, it was like I had a post for everything.

**The term entomologists seem to usually use now is “eusocial.” The “eu” part means “good” and it’s meant to describe specifically social living for a common reproductive system, as in a beehive with a queen, etc.

Hymenoptera is divided into 2 sub-orders. The first, Symphyta, includes stuff like Sawflies and Horntails and a bunch of things we’ve never covered but maybe I’ll get around to someday. These guys are thought to be the more “primitive” hymenopterans, closer to the ancestral form.

The second, Apocrita, includes ants, bees and wasps- all the social hymenopterans- and is characterized by the classic “wasp-waist”, or petiole.

A wasp is any species of Aprocrita that is not a bee or an ant. But that doesn’t mean that all wasps are more closely-related to each other than a given wasp is to bees or ants. In other words, “wasps” per se are not a monophyletic group*. Below is one of my Very Crude Phylogeny-Graphics to help you understand how all these wasp/bee/ant critters are related.

*I explained what a monophyletic group is in this post.

Hymenoptera crude phylogeny Like all my Phylogeny-Graphics it looks kind of complicated and dull, but as you go through the rest of the post you can bounce back up whenever you get lost to remind yourself of what’s what. Got it?

Tangent: “WASP” is of course also an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which I heard used often when I was growing up, but probably haven’t heard more than once or twice during the last decade. Maybe it’s a regional thing. Or maybe- hopefully- people just don’t care about that stuff as much anymore.

Nested Tangent: My father’s side of the family are WASPs. Once in the late 1980’s my sister- let’s call her Elizabeth- and I were having dinner with a slightly-older paternal-side female cousin. The cousin was bemoaning her single status and how hard it was to “find a nice guy.” We asked what kind of guy she was hoping to meet, whereupon she answered- completely seriously, “Oh, he doesn’t have to be perfect… just, you know, white, Ivy League-educated, Anglo-Saxon, Episcopalian…”*

*Yes, she really said that. To my sister and me (who were neither Anglo-Saxon nor even Protestant.) And yes, she’s still single.

Wasp caption cut Anyway, the guy who cooked up the acronym was a University of Pennsylvania Professor named E. Digby Baltzell, who was widely regarded as some big-shot intellectual for his book The Protestant Establishment. My senior year at Penn I took his sociology class as an elective.* Digby had a (rather odd) policy that if you got an A on his first exam you didn’t have to take any more exams, and what’s more, he took you to lunch at the faculty club.

*Because I was a EE major about to start job-hunting and desperately needed to boost my GPA, and yes, Soc classes are easy…

Appealing as this policy did to my innate sense of laziness, I studied my ass off and aced the exam. Digby took several of us to lunch, which I remember being rather boring, the talk focusing mostly on collegiate sports. I mentally checked out, smiled and ate eggs benedict.

OK so yeah anyway yellowjackets are a small genus of wasps. There are about a dozen different species, strung mainly across the Northern hemisphere, but also introduced to places like Australia and New Zealand. And on the surface of things, they’re sort of like bees. They have queens and drones and workers with stingers and live in hives. But where bees run around collecting nectar* and pollen to make honey, yellowjackets are hunters, targeting caterpillars, flies, spiders and hemipterans (like box elder bugs.) Basically they’re carnivorous bees.

*Yellowjackets and many other wasps will also visit flowers for nectar, but just to consume directly; they don’t make honey.

YJ Queen And they’re adaptable and willing to try and/or raid new food sources. They’ll often try to invade bee hives and steal honey*. A large, healthy hive can usually fight them off, but if the hive is weakened by illness or Colony Collapse Disorder, they can be overrun.

*Lest you feel too sorry for the poor bees, you should know that bees of different hives also raid each other for honey.

From our standpoint, this adaptability has a downside: many yellowjacket species* are persistent and aggressive scavengers, frequenting cook-outs, picnics and garbage cans with annoying predictability.

*Primarily the V. vulgaris group, highlighted in the Phylogeny-Graphic above

YJ Worker expando Oh, and there’s another difference between yellowjackets and bees: yellowjacket stingers aren’t barbed. This makes sense an insect that hunts for a living; if her stinger got torn out on the first sting, she’d never live to eat a meal. But for us humans it means that unfortunately, yellowjackets can sting repeatedly. And they’re much likelier to sting*.

*Which makes sense, given that they get to sting more than once…

The lifecycle of yellowjackets is a bit more somber than that of bees. While bees huddle together and consume stored honey reserves to survive the winter, yellowjackets just die. The workers die, the drones die, the founding queen of the colony dies. The only yellowjackets who survive the winter are impregnated “new” queens.

Come Spring, the pregnant new queen emerges and seeks out a nest site, where she starts to construct a nest out of paper that she creates out of chewed plant matter mixed with saliva. She lays eggs in the nest, and when larvae hatch, feeds them with food- hunted or scavenged- which she brings back to the nest.

The first generation are all workers. Yellowjacket queens and workers are similar in form, though the queens are about 30% - 50% larger, and have slightly different abdominal markings, as we’ll see in a moment. After Generation One is raised, they take over the nest-provisioning and young-rearing duties from the queen, who then focuses her efforts on laying eggs. More generations of workers are produced, but as the summer progresses, the queen switches to laying eggs for reproductives- drones and queens. In some species the switch is dramatic and complete, while in others it’s more of a gradual mix and changeover. Later in the summer the reproductives go out on mating flights, and as Fall settles in the newly-impregnated queens hunker down for the winter and the cycle starts anew. Every winter is the end of the world for a yellowjacket colony.

Interestingly there’s some evidence that food preference changes throughout the summer. Early on, when workers are being reared, yellowjackets seem to prefer fresher food, and meat. Later in the summer they seem partial to decomposing food. (So it may well be that they’ll raid your cookouts more often in the early summer, and garbage cans later on.)

Our trap had probably ~40 yellowjackets inside. Curious as I was to make a species ID, I opened the trap and spilled the contents out onto a large plate.

The most common yellowjacket in the Western US is the Western Yellowjacket, Vespula pensylvanica. It’s an aggressive, annoying scavenger, and loves human garbage. Another garbage-loving yellowjacket, common to both North America and Europe, is the Common Yellowjacket, V. vulgaris. I expected that our trap would contain one or both of these 2 species, or possibly the Forest Yellowjacket, V. acadica, which is also common in the Western US, but only hunts live prey, and so isn’t much of a nuisance.

Western US YJ Species Side Note: in the Eastern US the Common Yellowjacket is still common as are a couple of other species, including the Eastern Yellowjacket, V. maculifrons, and the German Yellowjacket, V. germanica, which is native to the old world but has been introduced to t he US. Both are pest/scavenger species, and interestingly, the German Yellowjacket seems to be in the process of displacing the Eastern.

Eastern US YJ SpeciesSo how do you tell different yellowjacket species apart, anyhow? By the markings on their abdomens. Each species has distinctive black-on-yellow marking patterns for its queens, drones and workers. Here are examples I pulled from this extremely helpful Canadian site.*

*I love Canada.

But when I examined the yellowjackets in the trap, I failed to make a match. So I uploaded a shot to my friends over at and had an ID within 20 minutes.* And it turns out that my yellowjackets weren’t quite so ordinary after all. They were Prairie Yellowjackets, V. atropilosa, a species native to the US, but which- according to the good folks at shows up much less frequently in traps. Prairie Yellowjackets often nest near yards and golf courses**.

*Those guys are awesome. I love that site.

**We live 2 blocks from one.

Prairie Worker Queen Caption Their nests are small, with a maximum of ~500 workers, or only about 10-20% the size of a Common or Western Yellowjacket nest.

Most important to humans though, V. atropilosa hunts only live prey; it’s not supposed to be a scavenger, and generally doesn’t bother humans. This last bit is a bit of a head-scratcher for me; we were absolutely hassled during outside meals this past summer, but of the ½ dozen or so carcasses I checked from the trap, all were V. atropilosa. Hmm…

Side Note: None of these species however was what I was really hoping to find. No, what I really wanted was to find a Cuckoo Yellowjacket, V. asutriaca. If I had, it would’ve been a queen (or a drone) because there are no V. austriaca workers.

More Western US YJ Species Cuckoo YellowJackets are social parasites. The queens invade the nests of other species- most commonly Forest Yellowjackets- and systematically hunt down and kill any queens. They then take over the colony, directing the workers, who then (unknowingly?) rear the Cuckoo Queen’s eggs, which are all queens and drones, and which eventually take flight to mate, then seek out, invade and subvert other Yellowjacket nests. It’s like something out of a sci-fi horror flick!

The "take-over", specifically the killing of the resident queens, is followed by a period of apparently aggressive bullying behavior by the new austriaca queen, including forced trophallaxis. Trophallaxis, common to most (All?) social hymenopterans is an exchange of regurgitated foodstuffs. With yellowjackets it commonly occurs between adults, who regurgitate pre-chewed meat, and larvae, who secrete a sugary substance in return. It's thought that the new queen asserts control through some combination of force, threat and pheromones.

Nested Side Note: The need for such "bullying" makes me wonder a) how thoroughly the workers are "fooled", if at all, by the queen-switch, and b) are workers always bullied- in “normal”, non-parasitized colonies- to some extent into compliance? Meaning, we sort of assume that workers in wasp, bee and ant colonies do what they do because they "want*" to do it, but is that the case, or are they actively bullied/threatened into doing what they do?

*When I say "want" here, I'm not suggesting that a wasp or bee sits there and thinks about it; I mean that the wasp or bee naturally does the thing, without prompting, force, threat or direction.

This socially parasitic takeover schtick BTW, is not unique. There are other (non-yellowjacket) wasps and a number of ant species that are socially parasitic as well.

So the contents of my trap turned out a bit more interesting than I’d expected. But my thoughts returned to the garage, and the 2 dead yellowjackets that had started this whole little project. Clearly they were different from the Prairie Yellowjackets, but I was unable to make an ID. Again I turned to and again I quickly had my answer.

It turns out I couldn’t make the ID because- after all this- they’re not yellowjackets. They’re Paper Wasps, specifically Polistes dominula, the European Paper Wasp.

EU PWasps caption Paper wasps, like yellowjackets (who are sometimes lumped in with them) construct paper nests out of chewed up plant matter mixed with saliva. PWasp Nest But a true paper wasp nest always conforms to a specific design with open combs and a small stalk, called the petiole (no, not a typo; it’s the same word as for the “waist” connecting the hymenopteran thorax and abdomen.) They usually build nests above ground, in places like eaves. Yellowjackets more often build below ground, or in rotting stumps, logs, compost heaps, etc. A yellowjacket nest usually has a single or few openings; a paper wasp nest*, with its open cells, has many openings.

*The nest in these pics was also a result of weekend cleanup- located inside the hollow base of the patio-table umbrella.

IMG_3419 Native paper wasps don’t look too much like yellowjackets; the coloration is different, and the rear legs hang down while in flight. But the P. dominula does look like a yellowjacket, with its black-on-yellow abdomen. The giveaway is the antennae: Euro-Paper Wasp’s are orange, yellowjacket’s are black. In general paper wasps are far less aggressive than yellowjackets, with one exception. That’s right- the European Paper Wasp.

Probably the most interesting thing about the Euro-Paper Wasp is that it is common and widespread clear across the US, yet didn’t exist here when I was born. It’s not clear exactly when it was introduced- sometime between 1968 and 1981 for sure. The likeliest scenario appears to have been two separate introductions: the first in the late 1960’s in New Jersey, and the second in the late 1970’s, probably in or around Cambridge or Somerville Massachusetts. Think about that second introduction for a second: There’s a 50/50 chance that the 2 Euro-Paper Wasps I found in the garage last weekend were the ~30X great-grandchildren of a queen introduced to North America when I was 13 or 14 years old, within 10 miles of where I was at the time*. Wow.

*Awesome Wife would’ve been about 7 at the time of the New Jersey introduction, living in- that’s right- New Jersey. It’s like these things tracked us down across the continent.

Polistes-fuscatus-05-01 Long before P. dominula showed up, there were nearly 2 dozen native species of paper wasp in North America, the most common of which is Polistes fuscatus (pic right, not mine). P. dominula, in the course of its rapid expansion, appears to be displacing and replacing the far less aggressive native species, so keep an eye out for it; it may not be around for your grandchildren.

So. All those cool bugs and stories in just a couple hours of weekend “clean-up” work. We were down in St. George this weekend, and had a wonderful time, but part of me couldn’t wait to get back home. Back to my garage.

Note: Special thanks for “Vespula vulgaris”* over at for the V. atropilosa and P. dominula IDs. I’m always extremely grateful for the effort and consideration shown by topical specialists who take the time to help out motivated laypersons.

*His handle. Don’t know his real name. Why am I saying “his”? Don’t know that either. Only he comments like a man. Specifically, he said, “Nah” in a comment. Only guys say “Nah”, right? OK, starting tangent in footnote to thank-you-note. Must stop now.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Weekend Clean-Up Part1: The Garage

This past weekend wasn’t that exciting. I cleaned the garage.

Well, actually, seeing as Awesome Wife sometimes reads this blog, I better stick a little closer to the truth: I cleaned part of the garage. OK, OK, I organized part of the garage. Really it wasn’t all that much of a cleaning. I just wanted to move stuff around so that when the snow finally hits I can access the snow-blower.

Tangent: I think some psychology student should do his or her dissertation on what’s in people’s garages, and what it says about them. Better yet, I think they should come up with new branch of psychology- called IMG_3500Garage Psychology- whereby a certified Garage Psychologist would come to your house, check out what’s in your garage, and diagnose you accordingly. He’d open the door, look around, check out the junk and clutter in your garage and be like, “Yeah, OK. 4 mountain bikes, 3 broken rakes, 10 pairs of skis, a case of Rock Star and a disassembled Volkswagen Carmengia*; you’re an OCD-agoraphobe, with an oedipal complex and dependency issues.” And then he’d prescribe something or have you committed or whatever.

*OK that’s not actually in my garage. But all the other stuff is.

What’s fascinating to me about garages is that no matter how big they are, they always fill up. I’ve had 3 houses in Utah. My first house had no garage. And you know what? Life was just fine. Yes, I had to brush/scrape snow/ice off the car and that was annoying, but it wasn’t really a big deal. My second house had a 1-car garage, and that was fine too. My current house has a 3-car garage, and it’s bigger than pretty much any of the apartments I lived in before owning houses. Seriously, if you had a time machine and you went back to 1989 and brought me back and put me in my present-day garage, I would be like, “Awesome!” I’d set up a cot, live in it, throw parties* and be totally happy. But in the real world, in just 7 years I’ve managed to completely fill it up with crap.

*I threw way better parties in 1989 than I do today.

Nested Tangent: I started to write about countless examples of crap before I caught myself and decided to share just one example. In my garage is a pair of skis- Volkl Snowrangers- that are completely, 100% beat-to-crap. The p-tex has actually been torn off the base in chunks in several spots. But I keep them because one day I “plan” to strip off all the p-tex down to the base metal underneath and make “sand skis” out of them. Sand skis. I’ve skied sand dunes once, 6+ years ago, thought it was kind of lame, have no plans to do so again, live several hours from the nearest decent dunes anyway, but still keep the skis. My garage is like a cry for help.

So anyway, I spent most of the weekend “cleaning” the garage, which might not sound like a very exciting weekend, but it turned out- surprisingly- to actually be really interesting, albeit in a creepy-crawly bug-geek kind of way.

Tangent: OK, not even that part’s true. It was like just 2 hours on Saturday afternoon. And I actually got a bunch of good biking in, both days, road and mountain.

Watcher CC Gully1 Sunday OCRick took Vicente and me on a new trail he found just below the BMX park above City Creek near Shoreline trail.(Pic right. 2 things about this pic, BTW: 1- if you click on it you will note that my beard still looks awesome, and in this context it does so in an I’m All Grown Up And Know What I’m Doing kind of way, and 2- it’s the last photo in this post that is not absolutely packed with close-up creepy-crawly shots, so if that’s not your thing, quit while you’re ahead.) It was one of these wonderful but frustrating trails through a tight, eroded high-walled gully that’s super-cool, but only for like 60 feet, and then it’s over. Doesn’t that drive you crazy?

Cleaning the garage means moving stuff around, and specifically moving stuff that hasn’t been moved in a long time. Gross GarageAnd when you do that, you find bugs. Dead bugs. The most common dead bugs in my garage are these things- Woodlice, also called Pill Bugs or Sowbugs. Woodlice aren’t lice, or anything like them. They’re not “bugs” or even insects, and they’re not arachnids either. They’re crustaceans, like lobsters or crayfish. The majority of the world’s crustaceans are aquatic, but woodlice have done quite well on land, with hundreds of species worldwide.

One of the most interesting things about woodlice is that they never seem to have quite adapted to land in the way insects and arachnids have. WL2 Their exoskeletons lack a waxy cuticle, and so are not water-tight. Woodlice need to stay moist, which they do by seeking out damp conditions and avoiding direct sunlight. They drink water directly and also absorb it through their 2 rear, tiny, tail-like appendages, called uropods. Female woodlice carry their eggs around in a little marsupial-like pouch between 2 exoskeletal plates on their undersides, called- appropriately enough- the marsupium. She keeps the marsupium water-filled and the eggs moist until hatching, when the young woodlice scuttle out and away. And they don’t breathe via trachea- like insects- or book-lungs- like spiders, but through modified gills, called pseudotrachea, which need to be kept wet.

I didn’t make a species ID on our garage woodlice, but my likeliest suspect is the Common Pill Woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare. Woodlice that can roll up into a defensive sphere (“rolly-poly bugs”) belong to the family Armadillidiidae, and A. vulgare is one of one of the most widespread species in the family, tolerating both drier and colder conditions than most other woodlice. It’s native to Europe, but is now common in North America.

But then again- as we’ll see in a moment- I may be completely wrong.

The important thing about finding dead woodlice in your garage is this: there are spiders about. Spiders chow on woodlice, leaving the sucked-out exoskeletons behind. In fact the last time we visited woodlice, it was a year and a half ago, when I was chasing down that Black Widow in the garage. So if you’re moving stuff around and come across a bunch of dead woodlice and maybe a cobweb or two, you need to start watching where you put your hands.

Side Note: The coolest thing about that Black Widow post was that Black Widow venom contains 7 separate neurotoxins, one of which is specifically targeted for crustaceans.

And as I moved other boxes around, I found more dead bugs. I found several millipedes, which, like woodlice, aren’t insects or arachnids either, but something altogether different. There are somewhere around 10,000 species of millipedes in the world. Some are quite large, growing to several inches in length. The ones in my garage are tiny, maybe 1” long. Millipedes BTW never have 1,000 feet; most species have between 30 and 400, and the record-holder is around 750.

mpede1 Legs are generally 2 pair/body segment*, in contrast to centipedes, who have one pair/segment. Also in contrast to centipedes, which are generally predatory, millipedes are usually detritivores, consuming primarily dead organic matter. The first known land animal BTW was a millipede that lived 428 million years ago**.

*I learned this back in the Spring from Ted over at Beetles In The Bush. Thanks Ted!

**That would be during the Silurian period, which came about following the Ordovician period, possibly- as we saw during AstroWeek- as a result of a nearby supernova. Isn’t it cool how all this stuff just keeps tying together?

553px-Armidillidium.vs.glomeris OK, so here’s the confusing thing about millipedes. 2 orders of millipedes, called the Pill Millipedes (superorder = Oniscomorpha) have evolved a way different body form, with fewer body segments (11 to 13) and corresponding leg-pairs, a broader, flatter profile, and the ability to roll up into a ball when threatened. That’s right- they’ve evolved- completely independently- into “rolly-poly bugs”, that look just like woodlice, but aren’t at all closely-related! (pic left from Wikipedia) So the truth is I don’t know what I’ve got in my garage- woodlice or pill millipedes, and suspect I’ll have to explore the question further when Spring returns and the Trifecta catches me some more “rolly-poly bugs” out in the yard.

Woodlouse plates1 Side Note: I’m leaning toward Woodlice though, for 2 reasons. First, when I rooted out that Black Widow last year, her lair was littered with these things, and we know Black Widow venom has a crustacean-specific neurotoxin. Second, check out the layering of exoskeletal plates in the very rear and compare with the Wikipedia comparison-photo.

Cricket1 In addition to all these dead non-insects, I stumbled upon a fair number of dead insects as well, including this cricket (pic left), but mostly flies. I found several Green Bottle Flies, Lucilia sericata. This fly shares a largely familiar anatomy with the Common Housefly which we looked at earlier this month, and you can see several of the typical housefly features we covered in that series. Below is a view of the right haltere (flight-stabilizer).

GBF Haltere1 And here’s a great shot, with both an eye close-up (check out the individual facets- is my camera awesome or what??) as well as the tarsal claws on the end of the right foreleg (her right, not yours) and the pulvillus visible in between.

GBF eye claw1 Better yet, I managed to get another anatomical feature that I missed in the Housefly series: the ovipositor. IGBF Eye Superzoom1n that series I mentioned how one can use the separation between the eyes in houseflies as an indicator of sex. You can also tell via the opposite end by checking out rear end. This Green Bottle is a female, and the bump on the tip of her abdomen is the ovipositor in its retracted position. A female fly’s abdomen has 9 segments, only 5 of which are normally visible. The ovipositor consists of segments 6 through 9 and is contained within segment #5, but extends like a telescope when utilized to deposit eggs.

GBF Female Abdomen1 So what about the spiders? Who’s eating all these “bugs”? I spotted a few. First I found this wolf spider, with a nice view of one of the “big eyes.” About 99% of spiders have 8 eyes, 2 of which are big, image-forming eyes (the remainder serve mainly as light/dark indicators.) Unlike insects, the eyes of spiders are not compound eyes, but “simple” lens-type eyes, more like ours structurally than those of insects.

Wolf Spider1 Wolf spiders are not orb-weavers, but spin small funnel webs. They’re hunting spiders, relying on speed and camouflage. Along with jumping spiders, wolf spiders have some of the best eyes in the arachnid world, complete with telescopic components. Here’s another shot of the spider running along a guideline at the top of a window IMG_3486frame (below, right).

Wolf spiders are common in most homes (and harmless). There are hundreds (thousands?) of species; many of the most common belong to the genera Hogna or Pardosa, as I believe this one does.

Tangent: What is it about spiders and (some*) women? Twin B, who will happily pick up nearly any insect, is absolutely terrified of spiders- especially wolf spiders- and will immediately summon me to dispatch any she spots. Why is a spider scarier than a box elder bug or a moth or an ant or a rolly-poly-bug?

*Yes, yes, this tangent's all sexist and all. Fine, go ahead, let me have it- I'm the Bobby Riggs of amateur entomology. But you know it's true. So many women are freaked out by spiders- why? (And besides, I said "some"...)

But wolf spiders don’t spin real big webs, like those in the nooks and crannies in my garage. So I poked around a bit (with help of KanyonKris’ Miracle Light) and found a likelier suspect: The Triangulate Cobweb Spider, Steatoda triangulosa.

S triangulosa1 Steatoda is a worldwide genus of about 120 species. S. triangulosa is believed to be native to the Old World but was introduced to North America early on in European colonization and is now widespread throughout the US. They love garages and basements, and prey upon woodlice and ants and ticks and millipedes and flies and all sorts of other arthropods, including… other spiders, which we’ll come back to in just a moment.

TCS climbing1 cut In form these guys sometimes appear similar to “widow”-type spiders, but they’re a whole different deal. Their bite isn’t dangerous to humans, and apparently they practically never do bite us anyhow. But even better, they hunt other spiders, including the dreaded Brown Recluse, Loxosceles recluse, and Hobo Spiders, Tegenaria agresti, which also show up in your garage and whose bites can be both painful and medically significant. S. triangulosa is in particular both a habitat competitor and a predator of hobo spiders, and in area where it occurs appears to play a significant role in reducing T. agresti populations*. So check out this guy and remember it: this spider should absolutely be on your do-not-kill list when you encounter it in the garage.

*2 other Steadota spiders are even more significant hobo spider predators: the Western Bud Spider, S. hespera, which looks like a small brown black widow, and S. grossa, the “False Black Widow”.

Thinking about this assortment of “bugs”, 2 things jump out at me. First, insects, arachnids, crustaceans and myriapods are all represented. None of these things has a shared a common ancestor in over half a billion years- nearly twice as long as the time since we and magpies shared our last common ancestor- and yet here they all are in my garage. Isn’t that wild? And at least 2 of them- the Woodlouse and the Cobweb Spider- aren’t even native to North America. It’s like my garage is this little arthropod United Nations! “Cleaning up” turned out not to be quite so dull Garage Yellowjackets1 after all…

There were a bunch of other dead bugs in the garage, including these 2 yellowjackets (pic left). Which reminded me- it was probably time to clean out and put away the yellowjacket traps out back.

Next Up: Yellowjackets = Bees Gone Bad

Note: Special thanks to Andrew Williams over at for the S. triangulosa ID. I love that site.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Filler: KanyonKris’ Miracle Light

I have a cool post brewing, but it’s not quite ready yet.* But I’ve got good filler.

*Wanted to check a couple bug ID’s over on Those guys are awesome.

I think one thing every blogger struggles with is whether and how much to evangelize. It sure is tempting sometimes to just go off about something you feel strongly about, whether it’s religion, gun control, abortion, wilderness protection, healthcare reform or Sarah Palin. But really, if you start evangelizing all the time, you’re just another middle-aged white guy spouting off on the Internet. That’s right- you’re Glenn Beck, without a, uh, TV program. So I think that in general it’s important not to evangelize on your blog. Or, if you really can’t help yourself, pick one topic that you’re going to evangelize about and come back to it every now and again, but just don’t do it every post.

Tangent: Oh man, know what? I’m going to break my own rule right now. I’m going to blog about Sarah Palin.

People have all kinds of reasons for being appalled by the idea of Sarah Palin running for president. So do I, but it’s not the same reason you’re appalled. No, I’m appalled because Sarah Palin is exactly the same age as me, and every time I see her speak I am reminded of my High School Girlfriend (HSG).

My HSG was a great girl. And on the surface it may not seem to make sense that I’d associate her in any way with Palin, because my HSG was kind, fairly liberal, didn’t wear glasses, thought you should help out poor people, and had a thorough understanding of how birth control worked. But there was a moment we had one night that somehow I am reminded of whenever I think of Palin.

It was the summer of 1982 and we were driving home to Boston from my parents’ cabin in Maine, where we had spent the day… well that’s not important. Anyway, we were driving South on I-95 through New Hampshire, and it was a beautiful night with a full moon, and there were a few clouds in the sky as well, and we were just driving along, not talking much, when HSG said, “Alex, which is higher, the moon or the clouds?” And I knew right then, that wonderful and kind as HSG was, that this was not going to be a Long Term Thing, and indeed it turned out not to be.

Omni Windshield I don’t know why, but whenever I see Palin on TV, I am instantly transported back to that moment on I-95 in New Hampshire. I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be a Long Term Thing.

OK, that’s good advice, and you should do it, because I don’t. Here at WTWWU I actually have 2 evangelical causes. One is high-minded and noble and altruistic, while the other is self-indulgent and juvenile. The high-minded/altruistic cause is of course the whole theme of this blog, which, if you haven’t figured it out by now*, is this: pay attention to the natural world around you. It’s full of wonder and amazement and absolutely incredible stories behind everything little thing, and once you start paying attention to it and understanding it and realizing how you’re connected to it and really seeing it, then well everything just changes, including you, in a really great way, that you couldn’t ever have understood if you hadn’t started paying attention to it.

*Really? You haven’t figured it out by now? This is post #285. How much longer do I have to keep at this before you get it already?

The self-indulgent and juvenile evangelical cause is this: Go night-riding. No, it won’t change your life like watching the world wake up will, but it sure will add some zing to it, as I have blogged about previously.

Mtn bikers are always making excuses for not night-riding. Most of them- cold, time, etc, - are totally lame. But there is one pretty good reason: light. A decent mountain bike light set-up costs a few hundred dollars, and represents a pretty big commitment. What if you don’t like it? What if you spend a bunch of money and never use the lights again? That’s a valid concern. Until now.

Well over a year ago KanyonKris did a post called Mountain Bike Lights for under $65. He mentioned it to me a couple of times, but seeing as I already had a fairly high-end HID light, I didn’t think much about it*. I just kept riding with my bar-mounted HID light and my rather clunky-but-effective TurboCat S-15 mounted on my helmet.

*Actually that’s not true. I did think about it. Specifically I thought, “$65? Gotta be a piece of crap. I’m serious about night-riding and I like to go fast. I’m not bothering with it.”

But then last month in Fruita, when the rain finally let up and we wheeled out for our night-ride, Vicente turned on his new light. And we all stopped and checked it out. It was bright, it was strong, and it was from Hong Kong. It was the TrustFire TR-801 from DealExtreme, spec’d from KanyonKris’ post. Since then I’ve bought 2, Hunky Neighbor’s bought 2, and SkiBikeJunkie is about to order. I received mine last week and have been thrilled. First, because of the light. Check it out.

Here’s my existing lighting system, the NiteRider Firestorm HID, It’s plenty bright, runs for 4 hours. The battery pack is about ~1lb, and the light itself is a titch heavy/bulky; it’s a much better bar light than helmet-light.

HID OnlyNow here’s KanyonKris’ Miracle Light, the TR-801. It’s a spot, not a flood, but the illumination within the spot is at least as strong as the HID.

KK Miracle Light Only Together, the spot and flood complement each other nicely. Coming from slightly different angles (bar vs. helmet) the 2 lights act to mitigate harsh shadows and provide a more 3-dimensional view of the trail ahead.

HID plus Miracle Light So the light’s great. But the second great thing is the weight and size. Here it is mounted on my helmet. The weight is negligible, and it runs for >2 hours on a single lithium battery. (The batteries, which are about 30-40% bigger than AAs, are small enough to pop a spare in your pocket for longer rides.) And the third great thing is no chord. No external battery pack, no tricky routing, no removing your helmet to add/remove a layer of clothing, etc.

Light Mount But best of all, it’s cheap. $65 for 2, or just $37 for 1 plus charger and batteries. There goes your last excuse not to night-ride. And now’s a good a time as any to mention that these lights are great for non-cyclists as well. If you’re into night-hiking or wildlife spotting, this little light is fantastic.

IMG_3351 As longtime readers know, I like to whine about the future, and how lame it turned out- no flying cars, no robot friends, no moon-base- just a bunch of guys looking up directions on their iPhones... But lighting is a notable exception. In just 15 years cycling lighting systems have gone from old-style flashlights to halogen to HID to the new generation of super-LEDs. The change is absolutely amazing.

Tangent: 2 other exceptions for me are fuel injection and radial tires. Does anyone remember carburetors? And flat tires are rare enough these days that when we do get one, we have to dig out the owner’s manual to remember where the jack is…

Anyway, I can’t say enough how thrilled I am with this light. Do yourself a favor and put it on your Christmas list. But order early- shipping from Hong Kong takes ~ 2 weeks.

Thanks KanyonKris!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Magpies Part 2: Alien Intelligence

When I learn and think about other creatures, the thing that interests me most is their perspective. What must it be like to see the world as a pentachromatic Pigeon sees it? Or as a Dragonfly with ~360 degree vision and a 200Hz flicker rate? Bird Eye Cones[4] Or what would it be like to “see” the world through sound, like a bat or a dolphin? Or even weirder, and harder (at least for me) to envision: what must it be like to “see” the world through smells, like your dog? Think about it. You’re probably around dogs at least once a day. But your whole life, you’ll never really understand what it’s like to see the world how a dog sees it. There’s probably no animal more familiar to most of us than a dog, and yet when it really comes down to it, their perspective is forever alien to us; we can understand and get to know and maybe even love them, but we can’t ever get inside their heads.

Tangent: In fairness, dogs could say the same of us. No matter how familiar they become with us, so much of what we do must be forever cloaked in mystery. Certainly they can never understand what most of us actually “do” all day (work), but on a more mundane level, I often wonder if they truly “get” cars. Oh sure, they understand that we all get in the car and go someplace. But do they understand that the driver’s actions control where the car goes?

K9 Concept Flow Or for that matter, does it even occur to them that the driver decides where the car will take them? Or do they assume (quite logically, actually) that our relationship to the car is more like theirs: you get in, close the door and it takes you someplace- someplace you don’t decide. Then you get out and do stuff for a while before getting back in the car which then takes you home.

In my darkest moments, I wonder if this fundamental alien-ness really applies to all “selves”, whether “self” can ever, really truly communicate with “other.” Certainly politics, religion and workplace meetings are all routinely characterized by people talking past each other, and regularly failing to get inside other people’s heads and see the world from their perspective. When you really get down to it, can any of us ever really communicate with our colleagues, our friends, or even our spouse? Or are we simply engaging in a never-ending verbal and non-verbal dance of positioning, assessing and bilaterally manipulating each other, each of us ultimately alone, inside an impenetrable shell of “self”?

OK, lighten up. I don’t really think that*. And I’ll tell you why. Because the longer I live and the more I learn about people, the more I see that most people are more or less the same, with similar hopes and dream and worries. Dog in Car1And as I’ve gotten to know about animals, I’ve come to gain a similar perspective about them. Because even though we perceive the world radically differently than horses or coyotes or chimpanzees or porcupines do, we all think. And we all think with brains that, while different in size and form, all share a basic, fundamental structure, with parts and components that do more or less the same types of things in all of us. And so while we may never “see” the world as dogs see it, I’m convinced that we know what it is like to think, to experience, many things- hope, surprise, sadness, fear, affection, satisfaction, and maybe even wonder- much as they do. And when I think about that, the world doesn’t seem quite so lonely.

*Not most of the time anyway. Usually only after elections in Utah.

But then there’s birds. The most interesting thing about Magpies isn’t their nests or tails or the color of their bills- it’s their brains.

Among birds, corvids are regarded as some of the most intelligent*. Nearly all of us have heard some smart crow or raven story- how they cleverly stole food or outwitted a dog or some such. Rather than just recite a whole list, I’ll tell you my absolute favorite:

*The other contenders, which may be even more intelligent, are large parrots and macaws.

betty_portrait2 2 New Caledonian Crows, Corvus moneduloides (pic right), were in a cage*. In the cage was a little bucket with a handle down below where the crows couldn’t reach. Also placed in the cage were 2 wires, one straight, and the other bent into a hook. The idea of course was to see whether the crows would pick up the hooked wire and use it to retrieve the bucket. This in and of itself wouldn’t be all that shocking. Several corvids have been known to use other objects as tools. Caged Blue Jays for example have been observed using folded strips of newspaper to obtain food from cracks/crevices where their bills or talons couldn’t fit.

*OK, this sounds like the set-up for a geeky ornithological joke, doesn’t it?

NC Crow in action But what actually happened was this: One of the 2 crows- the male*- snatched the hooked wire away. Then the female bent the straight wire into a hook and used it to retrieve the little bucket. Wow.

*Of course it was the male, right?

New Caledonian Crows are the champion tool-makers of the avian world; in the wild they’ve been observed fashioning twigs and leaves into tools to extract grubs from holes and crevices. Several corvids use tools, but C. moneduloides is the only one known to make them. And perhaps even cooler, they teach other New Caledonian Crows how to fashion the same tools. The only other animals known to use tools with the same proficiency as corvids are primates.

Tangent: New Caledonian Crow. Which is endemic to- that’s right- New Caledonia. Are you kidding me? That place again? How many times do we keep winding up back there in this blog? At least 10, that’s how many! Rare trees, parasitic conifers, ratites and now genius crows, all on the fragment of an ancient supercontinent- seriously- How. Cool. Is. That. Place?

NC2I’m not superstitious, but this project keeps leading me back there again and again and again. OK that’s it- I’m saying it right now, right here: Some way, somehow, in the next 5 years, I am getting my ass to New Caledonia. Enough is enough.

a1 Clark's nutcracker Closer to home many of our local corvids display impressive mental faculties as well. A favorite of mine is Clark’s Nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana, which- incredibly- keeps track of the locations of up to 2,500 seed caches made over the year over a range of ~150 Findability Hierarchy[5]square miles. If I leave my keys in 1 room, my wallet in another, and my phone in a 3rd, it is guaranteed that I will lose one of them within 15 minutes.*

*And that, once I break down and ask for help, Awesome Wife will locate the item in question in just 30 seconds.

Corvids also score well in tests of object permanence, the understanding that objects continue to exist when out of sight, something which takes a human a year or so to figure out*. Eurasian Jay1Object permanence is measured and rated through a series of tests, in 6 stages, 6th being the highest. Eurasian Jays (Garrulus glandarius) (pic left) have achieved stage 6, a level matched only by primates. Magpies (specifically the Eurasian Black-billed Magpie, Pica pica) have clearly achieved stage 5, and possibly stage 6. Interestingly, Magpies don’t become fully independent of their parents until reaching stage 4 or 5.

*This has been the accepted conventional wisdom since the 1950’s. More recent research has begun to question this however, suggesting that human infants display a sense of object permanence when just a few months old.

IMG_0130 But even more interesting is the social intelligence of many corvids. Ravens, crows and magpies in particular display many advanced forms of social intelligence, including the formation of coalitions and alliances (like chimpanzees and dolphins), social learning and tactical deception. For example Ravens will typically delay caching food items until out of sight of other ravens, and will even make false caches in view of their fellows in hopes of throwing them off.

Getting back to Clark’s Nutcracker for a moment, another corvid that regularly collects and caches pine nuts is of course the PJay1 Piñon Jay, Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus (pic left). While Clark’s Nutcracker is pretty much of a loner, Piñon Jays are highly social, with apparently higher social intelligence. When tested on ability to perform various tasks- opening food containers, discriminating between different colored containers- Piñon Jays learned much faster by observing other Piñon Jays, whereas Clark’s Nutcrackers benefitted little by watching other Clark’s nutcrackers perform. Similarly, Piñon Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers both display impressive ability in re-locating their own nut caches, but Piñon Jays show much greater ability in locating the caches of other Piñon Jays. Clark’s Nutcracker is smart, but a Piñon Jay shows higher social intelligence.

Tangent: Know what Clark’s Nutcracker reminds me of? Orangutans. An advanced primate, very intelligent, with a huge neocortex- which should mean a high Dunbar number- but largely solitary. Orangutans are suspected to have evolved from more social primates, but subsequently taken up a more solitary lifestyle. Similarly Clark’s Nutcracker is thought to share a common ancestry with more social corvids, and perhaps later followed a more solitary path. There’s something both weird and strangely admirable in such a possible story- if true- for either primate or corvid: a creature that turned away from socialization, that applied its impressive mental faculties away from its fellows and toward the physical world around it.

Even further off-topic, I can’t help but notice another possible parallel: humans with Aspberger’s syndrome. Is there some common thread? Something switched off, or even cast aside? Could Aspberger’s “suffererers” be not disabled, but just going following a different mental path?

magpie4Unsurprisingly, these birds, and corvids in general, have big brains. As a rule birds have a smaller brain weight-to-body weight ratio than mammals, though a much larger ratio than reptiles, who in turn have a much larger ratio than fish. But corvids have a ratio more like that of mammals, or even specifically primates*.

*But again, large parrots and macaws may be even more impressive, with a ratio almost 2/3 as big again. It’s interesting that while corvids have thrived world-wide, parrots and macaws have remained restricted to a far narrower tropical (and neotropical) range which is now under pressure from human expansion and development. Kind of like… chimpanzees.

So great. Magpies are smart. They have big brains. So what?

One of the most interesting things about birds is that they’ve solved so many of the same problems mammals have solved- color & foveal vision, thermoregulation and sex-determination are examples we’ve looked at in this blog- in fundamentally different ways*. The evolution of intelligence is another.

*The evolution of the ear is yet another example, which I had hoped to blog about before doing this post, but I felt I’d put this one off long enough.

Smart Critter Phylogeny I’ve mentioned in passing in this blog that I used to be into science fiction when I was younger, but gradually lost interest, probably in part because I “grew up”, but also in part I suspect because I found so much of the genre formulaic and unimaginative. In particular, I was almost always disappointed by depictions of aliens, who were invariably creatures who thought more or less like us, except they were generally less fun. Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons, War-Of-the Worlds Martians, Cylons, the Borg, the Visitors- they were all so dull, because they really weren’t different from us. And yet that’s what makes- or should make- the very idea of alien intelligence so darn interesting- that it would be different from us.

Tangent: The aliens of Star Trek- the original series- were particularly disappointing. TOS-day_of_the_dove_klingons The very first alien race we were introduced to were… Humorless White Guys with Pointy Ears. Really? That’s “alien?” Hell, at work I can work over to IT and see that anytime. And the Klingons*? Dark-Complected Sweaty Angry Guys with Facial Hair. You know, that’s pretty much me half-way through a bike race. And then the Romulans- still more Humorless White Guys with Pointy Ears- oh come on! Give us something else- a long nose? A third eye? Anything! I swear, you see more diversity at a Utah Republican Party convention…

*Again, in the original series, before Next Generation tarted them up with skull-ridges and such…

So here’s the thing about corvids: they’re the closest thing to intelligent aliens any of us will likely ever meet- far more alien than any of the fictional aliens listed above. Because corvids are living thinking creatures with exceptional memories, powerful tool-using capabilities and advanced social intelligence- just like primates- but with a radically-differently structured brain that evolved along a completely independent evolutionary path.

HeckJeck caption Side Note: Corvids (and many other birds), BTW, like primates, engage in social grooming. With birds it’s called allopreening. We humans no longer engage in social grooming of course*; the pop-anthropology explanation is that we now accomplish the same social bonding through chit-chat.

*With the notable exception of picking nits out of our children’s hair.

All the mammals I listed above share a common brain architecture which I touched upon in the Dunbar Number post last Spring. brain_portions_illus205 The top hunk of the mammalian brain is the cortex, which handles things like memory, awareness and perception. The outermost layer of the cortex is the neocortex, which is big and wrinkly in things like people, apes and dolphins, and which is associated with both higher-order intelligence in general and specifically social intelligence. I won’t repeat the whole story here; you can go check out the that post if you’re interested in the details. But the thing with birds- even smart birds like corvids, who use tools and have obvious high social intelligence- is that they have no neocortex.

Birds and mammals last shared an ancestor probably around 280 million years ago. That common ancestor almost certainly had a brain that would be characterized as “reptilian” today. You can think of a reptile’s brains as a stripped-down version of a mammal’s; it lacks a neocortex or a limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala), which is thought to be responsible for emotions beyond fear and anger. Over the ensuing 280 million years, mammals evolved these additional components, leading to the brains- and minds- we experience today.

Bird Brain Schematic2 Bird brains (diagram right, not mine) also evolved, but along a completely independent path which is reflected in their brain-structure. In birds the forebrain has developed and expanded, creating a structure called the nidopallium*, which appears to perform the same kinds of higher-order cognitive and social intelligence functions handled by the neocortex in mammals. Both neocortex and nidopallium developed out of an area called the pallium in the reptilian brains, but are constructed very differently. While the neocortex is organized in a layered structure, the avian forebrain appears more “nucleated” without any real layering**. It’s suspected- though yet unproven- that the nidopallium may contain a higher density of neurons than the mammalian neocortex, enabling greater brain activity in a more limited space.

*It used to be called the hyperstriatum, but was renamed within the last decade. You’ll still find the old name in many sources.

**An exception is a small area called the Wulst region, consisting of 3 or 4 layers, which seems to be involved in visual processing.

So the structure of bird brains is very different. Here’s one more Magpie story: In 2008, German researchers produced evidence that Magpies recognize themselves in a mirror, as shown by “mirror-induced self-directed behavior”, in this case using a mirror to reach and manipulate a mark on their bodies not visible without the mirror.

Chimps5 The sample size was small (5) and the success rate modest (3 out of 5) but this is more significant than you might think. Clear mirror self-recognition has been observed in chimpanzees and orangutans, but only maybe/possibly in gorillas. And even in chimpanzees, the self-recognition rate was only 75% in young adults, and lower in older and younger animals. In apes, such mirror-induced behavior has been taken as evidence of self-recognition, or a sense of self. Magpies, with their completely separate-from-us evolutionary history and their totally alien brains, appear to have independently evolved a sense of self.

Yolo County YB Magpie That’s right- those annoying squawking birds, those “flying rats”*, with their fundamentally alien minds, are apparently self-aware, just like us. Now that’s a cool bird. (Pic right = Yellow-Billed Magpie in Yolo County, CA, taken by reader Alexis. It’s the best shot in this series- make sure to click on it. Thanks Alexis!)

*Coworker Sid’s description.

I’m not sure why, but I like that self-awareness, even intelligence, can evolve in different ways. It somehow makes the makes the world seem just a little less lonely, and hints at all sorts of crazy possibles across the big, wide universe. I’ll wrap up the post here; there’s something I want to go chat about with Awesome Wife.