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 Garage 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.
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. And 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. 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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
Better yet, I managed to get another anatomical feature that I missed in the Housefly series: the ovipositor. In 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.
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 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 frame (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.
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.
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 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 bugguide.net for the S. triangulosa ID. I love that site.