Category Archives: insects

Time spent with grand daughters is surprisingly valuable

Zoo

I knew it would be fun to spend a week with my grand daughters, I just never realized how much smarter I would be after a week with them. I learned a lot.         I mentioned in my last posting, how  they expanded my horizons about music. I also learned a lot about bugs. Yes bugs. We took them to the zoo and there we visited the bug exhibit.  the girls participated in a scavenger hunt and they learned a lot on the way. So did I.

Did you know:

 

All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs. “Bug” is  a word we usually use for the creepy crawly creatures. Actually scientists use a specific term to refer to bugs–arthropods. True bugs have a specialized mouth part called the  proboscis, which squirts digestive enzymes into their prey to turn them into a liquid so they are easier to digest. The bug juice is then slurped up through their proboscis like a Slurpee straw.

Bugs are more formally called arthropods and they include 80% of the species in the animal kingdom and are found nearly everywhere on earth. They can be found on land, sea, and air. They can be found on the highest mountains and the deepest oceans. Bugs include ants, bees, wasps, spiders, centipedes, cockroaches, grasshoppers and especially beetles. Beetles are the most successful animal group on the planet. There are about 350,000 different species of beetles.  In California one special type of beetle—ladybugs–, gather in groups of up to 40 million on the same mountains each year. They practice communal hibernation to keep warm. They can live up to 9 months in logs or trees.

Another type of arthropod, Dragon flies have compound eyes with up to 50,000 lenses! This gives them extremely sharp eyes that allow them to see in everydirection at the same time! That helps them catch prey instead of becoming prey. I wish they would catch even more mosquitoes than they do.

When moths leave their cocoons they no longer eat or drink. They spend their entire adult lives looking for mates to produce offspring. They have no time to eat or drink because they only live for about 14 days. Of course, how long would you live without food or water?

Bugs sometimes gather in extreme numbers and that can disconcert us. Swarms of bugs are very scary.  But bugs live in a world of giants—like us.  Gathering in extreme numbers gives bugs a chance to defend themselves from enemies like us. Extreme numbers also allows them to function like a super-organism. I learned that from E.O Wilson, one of my favorite scientists. Large numbers of bugs sometimes give them a better chance to find and kill prey. Swarms of bugs can appear out of thin air. Messages in chemicals, sounds or even colour changes can indicate to their friends to head somewhere else. I know we had an amazing swarm one night at the lake this summer. I estimated there were billions of mosquito-like bugs that normally hover far above us, but this year for one night, came down to visit. Thank goodness they did not bite. They were just annoying. Bugs in such large numbers are very disconcerting. It felt like armageddon. I thought it might have been the smoke in the air from BC forest fires more than a thousands of miles away that drove them down. I don’t need to have that many visitors again.

By now the migration of monarch butterflies is well known. It is one of the wonders of nature how it can take 3 or more generations to return to Canada from Mexico and then one super generation, goes all the way back in one migration even though they have never been there. Somehow, they follow the flight patterns of their ancestors. Most monarch butterflies fly up to 2,500 miles away to Mexico for the winter, though some migrate to Florida or California. They are not the only butterflies and moths to migrate however. Some moths hitch on to jet streams and have reached speeds of 90 km (56 mph). Last year at this park I saw painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) that had come from the north. They can migrate as much as 15,000 km (9,000 mi). They like to fly high where they catch favorable winds.

Ants are particularly interesting. I knew that because of what I learned from E.O Wilson. Ants have about 10-20 “words.” At least that is all we have discovered so far. They communicate by sending out chemical instructions that can summon a few mates from their colony or thousands to help them out. Cockroaches also communicate by sending out chemical signals. They can tell others where the dining is good, or when its time to mate. They can send signals through saliva, feces, or airborne pheromones.

Ants, bees, and wasps can act jointly like a team that enables to achieve a “win” for their team, which is the entire colony. When they perform as a collective they act like a single or super organism and achieve things cooperatively that would be impossible any other way. Humans, in some sense, also cooperate this way, though they also compete with each other. Acting together they can achieve enormous successes.   Siafu ants  work together in colonies with 20 million members in which they knit themselves together to form ladders  and bridges out of their bodies so that they can move safely in a march. Leaf-cutter ants, which we saw in Costa Rica a few years ago can live in colonies of up to 5 million members. That is a pretty big city! The ants are incredibly strong. A leaf-cutter ant can carry up to 50 times its own weight.

In a honey bee colony the bees get together to survive a winter. They use honey that they produced in summer and which oxidizes in winter giving off heat energy. In an amazing demonstration of teamwork 60,000 pairs of wings then vibrate to circulate the heat through the colony. Honeybees contribute between 3.1 and $ 4.4 billion to the Canadian economy in 2013. Without honey bees there would be no apple, blueberry, cherry or canola harvests. Life would be a lot more boring without honeybees.

Amur tigers unlike most other cats, love water.

Stellar sea eagles, like bald eagles and brown bears, depend on salmon runs for their survival.

If it had not been for my grand daughters I probably would not have gone to this exhibit and I would be even more ignorant than I am. There is an important lesson here, I must go out with my grand daughters more often!

Scorpions

 


An univited visitor to our backyard

One evening we went to Usery Park to hear Ranger B, our favorite ranger, give another talk. This time the subject was scorpions. Scorpions are very interesting creatures. They are not insects. Insects have 6 legs. Scorpions are arachnids that have 8 legs. Since I knew nothing about them I was scared of them. Now I have learned a little about them so I am terrified of them. Not really. But sometimes ignorance is bliss.

There are about 1,400 scorpion species in the world. 80 can be found in the US. Of those 55 can be found in Arizona. In fact Arizona has more scorpions, rattlesnakes, bees, and tarantulas than any other state. Why are we here again? Ranger B says he mentions that enthusiastically to unwelcome relatives who threaten to visit him. I think he was joking.  In Arizona scientists are looking so thoroughly that a new species or even 2 are discovered each year on average. Some have said, “Its time to stop looking!”

Scorpions have hairs on their body parts that act like ears. Through these hairs scorpions can “hear” an approaching organism. If it is big and makes the ground rumble, like a human for example, it knows what to do. It hides. I wanted to hear that.  Scorpions are ambush hunters. They wait for prey to pass then by and then launch onto them. Scorpions are often very well camouflaged in their surroundings. Like our backyard!

Scorpions are extremely tough. That is part of the problem; if you consider them a problem. They can live up to 12,000 ft. in elevation. They can live in all kinds of habitats–deserts, forests, and even beachfront property.

Scorpions are among the toughest animals in the world. They can live an entire year without food. Scorpions have ben found under water where they appeared to be doing just fine.

Basically scorpions are nearly indestructible. They can’t even be killed by nuclear explosions. Scorpions can live for at least 2-4 weeks in a frozen state. That is why it might be surprising to some that none are found on Antarctica (at least so far). They can be killed with the human foot squashing them. That will do it. But be careful and avoid that stinger.

They are adaptable. That is why they have survived so long. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica and they might be found there if they could find food there.

As I found out scorpions can be detected with a black light.  Our friend (at least he used to be our friend) Rick Molinski showed up at our home with a black light and then we learned we have scorpions in our back yard. I am not sure I wanted to know that.

Part of what interests me is their long and slow evolution. As Steven J. Prchal said,

Scorpions have changed little in the 350 to 400 million years since they first climbed from the primal seas and took their place among earth’s first terrestrial arthropods. [1]

Ancient scorpions were much larger than their modern descendants. A scorpion could reach 96 inches (8 ft.). I don’t know about you, but if scorpions were 8 ft. long I would not venture into my backyard at night. I would not go looking for them with a black light. I would stay in Manitoba!

Today the largest scorpion is the Emperor scorpion. They are not found in Arizona. They grow to 7.9 inches (20 cm) in length and weigh up to 30 grams. That is plenty big enough for my taste. Some people keep these as pets. I cannot understand why they would do that.

After gestation that they give live birth to their young. Typically, a mother scorpion can give birth to 8 live young. After they are born they often stick close to mom, often climbing on the mother’s back. When they are on the back they must cling tenaciously, for if they fall the mother is likely to eat them. These mothers are not likely to win the Mother of the year award.

The deadliest scorpion in of the 3 common ones in Arizona is the Bark scorpion (Centruroides exilcauda). It is the only one of the three whose sting is truly life threatening. It has a slender shape with long delicate pincers and tail. The others are larger and stouter, but actually less threatening. Sometimes size is not everything.

The bark scorpion prefers to climb and may as result be found many feet above ground on rock faces or trees. Bark scorpions display negative geotaxis, which means that they orient themselves upside down. People often get stung by picking up something and then getting stung by a scorpion clinging to the underside. After I heard this I decided I was not going to climb into our orange tree for oranges again.

Bark scorpions are so small that they can enter homes. If they do, be careful, very careful. Their venom is 150 times as dangerous as that of the Giant Hairy scorpion. This is what we did not like hearing.

Because the bark scorpion likes to climb and find cool places with airflows it can find its way into homes. Sometimes they are trapped in sinks or bathtubs or hiding in dark areas of the closet.

We should remember that scorpions don’t want to sting us. We are not prey for scorpions. They will only sting humans if they feel threatened by them. I don’t intend to frighten them on purpose. But it can happen accidentally. For example, some people pick up a piece of wood on which a scorpion is latched and it stings them when that happens. In such cases it sees us as a predators and stings us for defence.

The sting of the scorpion is usually not fatal, but it is extremely uncomfortable. 8,000 people are stung by scorpions in Arizona each year. Yet there has been only 1 known fatality caused by a scorpion.

As a result if you are stung by a scorpion don’t panic. You probably won’t die. You are 440,000 times more likely to die from heart disease than a scorpion sting, even if you live in Arizona. The only ones likely to be adversely affected are the very old or young. Don’t I fit  into one of those categories?

If you get stung don’t go to the hospital unless you absolutely must. Hospital stays and anti-venom serums are very expensive. The stay and treatment could easily cost $40,000. Rather stay home, remain cool and collected (though in pain) and apply a cold compress. Only go the hospital if you end up in a state of shock. Then you must go to the hospital. Of course how will you get there if you are in a state of shock?

After all of this information I wondered was it worth it? Was it worth it to know what scorpions can do to you? Now I am worried. When we got home I looked on the ceiling, in my shoes, everywhere. Was I not better off when I was ignorant? I suppose that knowledge is always preferable to ignorance, but I wonder if that was really the case.

[1] Steven J. Prchal, “Scorpions,” in A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, edited by Steven Philips and Patricia Wentworth Comus (2000) p. 262