*this species doesn’t have a common name, so I created this common name by using the etymology of its scientific name “pallidipicta” which seems to mean “pale-painted”.
Location: Parents’ Farm, Norfolk County.
Date: July 2013.
For an Introduction to this series (my Top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020) go here.
The Story Behind the Shot: While growing up, my brother and I discussed several times the idea of a project: to list every single species that occurred on our family’s property. While this project never reached fruition, the idea of it has inspired me throughout my adventures with the creatures in my own backyard and elsewhere. One day several years ago I spent a day just wandering around on my parents’ farm taking photos of every interesting creature that caught my eye. I was amazed to find busy little wasps digging burrows in the sand at the edge of the field. Despite their frenzied activity I managed to capture one at the entrance of its burrow.
The Story Behind the Species: Bembix pallidipicta is one of those Sand Wasps (members of the subfamily Bembicinae) I’ve mentioned once or twice on my blog about a year ago now. The following information on this species is summarized from Evans and O’Neill (2007).
Not all Sand Wasps construct burrows in sand, but B. pallidipicta does, usually selecting large areas of loose sand to begin their burrowing. Nest site selection is fine-tuned in that they require a small amount of moisture in the sand to maintain a fine crust when they tunnel beneath it. The sites where the females emerge and the males mate are often suitable for the females to use for their nest construction, so unless the habitat is disturbed the same site can support a population of sand wasps for multiple generations. B. pallidipicta males gather around sites where adult females will soon emerge, and fly in short hops, which gives the appearance of “aggregations of very small toads” (Evans 1957).
Once their burrow is constructed with a chamber up to 56 cm beneath the surface (the depth is partly determined by the dryness of the sand), the females lay a single egg at one end of the chamber (termed the brood cell). This egg will hatch and the wasp larva will wait within its subterranean chamber for its mother to provide food. B. pallidipicta exhibits what is called “progressive provisioning” which means that the mother brings prey in multiple times to the larva while it is growing and feeding. I’ve always loved this aspect of sand wasps because it’s essentially the same setup as songbirds awaiting worms in their nests. For B. pallidipicta, the prey is all true flies (Order Diptera) of several Brachyceran families, including Flower Flies (Syrphidae), Horse Flies (Tabanidae) and House Flies (Muscidae). When bringing fresh prey to her larva, the mother will push the fragments of partially eaten prey off to the side, and block this debris off with sand. This likely helps prevent parasites or diseases from accumulating within the nest, or it’s possible that it’s a way for the mother wasp to judge how much more prey to provide. Because B. pallidipicta nests in large unrelated groups, females will occasionally steal prey from other females nearby to feed their own offspring. After about 4 days of feeding, the larva pupates and the mother moves on to construct a new nest.
My top 20 Nature Photos of 2013-2020 are going to be presented in chronological order of when I took the photos, they aren’t arranged in any other sort of hierarchy. Come back next time for a photo of a much larger animal caring for its young…
Last August, I went on a hike in Backus Woods with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to identify and photograph fungi. For the first two parts of the observations I made during the hike, see Part 1 and Part 2. My two previous posts covered all of the fungi (and several interesting non-fungi including wood frogs and fungus weevils) that I photographed and described some of their interesting biologies and ecologies. This final post is a roundup of the non-fungi observations I made during the hike.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this next observation also represented the fruiting body of a fungus. Instead, this drooping white organism is actually a plant without chlorophyll (and thus without the colour green and without the ability to capture light from the sun and turn it into sugar). Ghost Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are parasitic plants, which feed indirectly on the roots of their host trees via underground fungi that attach to the roots in a mycorrhizal relationship (Runtz 2020). The flower heads droop, and give this strange flower its name of “pipe” but when they are pollinated (by bees usually) they will raise their flowers straight upward (Runtz 2020).
Some more traditional plants (you know, ones that are green and perform the magic of photosynthesis) were also spotted along the trails. I learned that the bright red clusters of berries were the ripened fruits of George-Michael-in-the-Banana-Stand (Arisaema triphyllum)*. Besides the red berry clusters, we also saw representatives with green berries that hadn’t ripened yet. Although they may look edible, these red berries contain high levels of oxalic acid and cause painful burning in people that eat them… although apparently white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes will eat them and be fine (Holland 2016).
*more traditionally, the common name is Jack-in-the-Pulpit and most people probably know it by this name, but I couldn’t resist using the new common name proposed by The Field Guides Podcast (for my review of the Field Guides Podcast go here)
Another red-berried plant was a new one for me: Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). These red berries are edible, but apparently tasteless. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and as the name suggests the berries are consumed by ground-birds (such as grouse and turkeys), but also by skunks and white-footed mice (Hayden 2012). You would think that partridges would eat these berries… but we don’t have any partridges in North America, and this species only grows here… so here we have a very useless common name.
Two other wildflowers added colour and beauty to our hike: Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Spotted Jewelweed is pollinated mainly by hummingbirds and bees, while the Great Blue Lobelia is pollinated mostly by bumblebee (Eastman 1995). I unknowingly captured this interaction between Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Spotted Jewelweed in the past, so I’ve included a picture here.
A few interesting arthropod encounters also enhanced the hike. An American Giant Millipede (of the Narceus americanus complex)* was found in curled defensive posture.
*the complex refers to the fact that this “species” is actually made up of many species that may be extremely difficult to distinguish
On the way out of Backus Woods, I spotted some speedy insects scurrying across the sands and gravels of the path, those predatory jewels known as Tiger Beetles (Cicindelinae). The two species that I spotted and photographed were the Punctured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela punctulata) and the Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa).
I hope you enjoyed this tour through Backus Woods with a focus on Fungi. I know I learned a lot and am excited for future outings with the Norfolk Field Naturalists!
Eastman, John. 1995. The Book of Swamp and Bog.
Hayden, W. John. 2012. “2012 Wildflower of the Year: Partridge Berry, Mitchella Repens.” Virginia Native Plant Society Brochure, 2012, 1-3.
Holland, Mary. 2016. Naturally Curious Day by Day.
Runtz, Michael. 2020. Wildflowers of Algonquin Provincial Park.
For more Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:
Back in August, I went for a hike with the Norfolk Field Naturalists to search for Fungi to photograph (see Part 1). Along the way, I encountered many organisms both fungal and not-so-fungal.
One non-fungus was photographed perched atop some fungi on a log. The creature was a Marbled Fungus Weevil (Euparius marmoreus), which feeds on polypore fungi (Marshall 2018).
The next observation brings us back to the focus of the hike: Fungi. This strange spherical object covered in a lacework pattern is the fruiting body of an Earthball (Scleroderma). These fungi actually interconnect with tree roots to form mycorrhizal associations, benefitting the trees and the fungus (Stephenson 2010).
Another spherical object caught our eye while hiking through the woods: an Oak apple gall. This particular one was caused by Amphibolips cookii, a Gall Wasp feeding within the bud of a Red Oak (Quercus rubra). The bud developed into this spherical gall, while the larva fed within and then this “oak apple” detached and fell to the forest floor, and I guess the adult wasp has already left this gall behind? I don’t know, it was very difficult to find any information about this species or gall wasps (Cynipidae) in general despite them being fascinating insects (what I did find was a website that contains some information: gallformers.org, a site worth checking out if interested). I have a particular fondness for galls caused by insects… they’re plant growths that create particular species-specific patterns for the insects that inhabit them… what’s not to like?
Further down the trails, we encountered some classically shaped mushrooms unlike the more bizarre (in my opinion) Earthballs (Scleroderma). A member of the genus Oudemansiella and a member of the genus Russula.
Russula fungi are ectomycorrhizal, meaning that their underground mycelia (the major part of the fungal body) connect with roots of trees and other plants to transfer and exchange nutrients (Stephenson 2010).
Some of the most common fungi that we spotted were associated (as many fungi are) with dead or dying wood. Fungi that feed on dead or decaying material are known as saprotrophs. Orange Mycena (Mycena leaiana) were spotted multiple times throughout our excursion and I have to say they might be my favourite fungi that we found simply for aesthetic reasons. The beautiful colour of their fruiting bodies really brighten up the dead logs and fallen trees in the forest.
Another wood-feeding saprotroph we found often is known as the “Oyster Mushroom” (Pleurotus), apparently because of its fishy smell (which I couldn’t detect, perhaps it needs to be cooking?). These are very commonly collected for humans to eat. As mentioned above, the Oyster Mushrooms feed on decaying and dead wood, but they also feed on microscopic creatures called nematodes. The details of the interaction are incredible. The Pleurotus fungi has special cells among its hyphae (the underground components of the fungal mycelium) which produce a toxin that paralyzes nematodes. After contact, the nematodes continue moving (usually much slowed, and erratically) for 30 seconds to several minutes before succumbing to the paralyzing toxin. The immobilized nematodes are then attractive to fungal growth from the Pleurotus mycelium, which produces hyphae that thread through the material (usually dead wood or soil) to reach the nematodes and enter their bodies. These fungal threads break the nematode down, consuming it while it is still alive but paralyzed. If you’re interested in more of these details, you can read the full paper where it’s described (Barron and Thorn 1987) here: https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/b87-103.
There were a couple of other saprotrophic fungi found feeding on logs during the hike. Resinous Polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum) has a strange texture that was unexpected, though appearing like tougher shelf fungi it was actually quite soft and pliable. Our guide likened it to the feel of a donut and I can attest that this assessment is bizarrely valid.
Not all fungi grow on logs however, and there are several interesting groups that are very easy to miss. One colorful but tiny fungus is the Red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) which grows singly or in clumps and is connected to the root systems of trees in yet another mycorrhizal relationship.
Two representatives of a more bizarre ground-sprouting group would have been easily missed. This group is known as the “Earth-tongues” (Family Geoglossaceae). You can (perhaps unfortunately) see their resemblance to strange tiny tongues protruding from the soil. Our guide was quite excited to have spotted the dark Earth-tongues (identified via iNaturalist as Trichoglossum because of the tiny hairs) because they would be very easy to miss.
That brings us to the end of the fascinating fungi that I spotted on our hike! It is not the end however of the non-fungal sightings. A few more of those to review in the final part of this ‘series’.
G. L. Barron and R. G. Thorn, 1987. Destruction of nematodes by species of Pleurotus. Canadian Journal of Botany. 65(4): 774-778. https://doi.org/10.1139/b87-103
Marshall, Stephen. 2018. Beetles: The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera.
Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.
For other Nature Observations in Norfolk County, see:
I recently joined a local group of nature enthusiasts known as the Norfolk Field Naturalists. My very first outing with the Norfolk Field Naturalists was a hike through the Backus Woods Conservation Area with a local Fungi expert Leanne Lemaich. The hike was rewarding for the opportunity to meet up with others who share my passion for learning about the nature around us, and I learned a lot about the various fungi in the area. I used my camera extensively, capturing fungi and non-fungi (some new ones for me!) as you’ll see below. All in all, it was a great experience despite feeling as though I singlehandedly sponsored the next generation of mosquitoes with most of my blood supply…
Let’s begin with a brief primer on Fungi, because that’s how our hike began as well. Despite being classified so often with plants, fungi are actually more closely related to animals, but in any case they are neither. Unlike plants, fungi can’t produce their own energy, ie. they don’t contain chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green and captures energy from the sun to create sugars/carbons (the incredible process known as photosynthesis). Instead, fungi feed on other organisms just like all animals do. Many fungi feed on dead organisms (termed saprophytic, or saprotrophic), but there are also many that feed on or within living organisms and still others form symbiotic relationships (which can grade into parasitism… the difference between symbiosis and parasitism is actually very grey-shaded). Although most of a fungus is composed of tiny threads that grow and proliferate out of sight, there are extraordinary structures that appear for reproductive purposes and these are collectively called “mushrooms”. I like to think of mushrooms as the equivalent of flowers, because they’re the visible part that facilitates reproduction just like the flowers in plants (via insects/other organisms/wind/rain/other weather processes in both instances). Now that we have a (very) basic idea of what fungi are, we can move onto some of the particular ones I observed and photographed on this hike, as well as many non-fungi spotted along the way!
Our first fungal find was a Bolete (Family Boletaceae), and the first incredible fact that I learned was that this mushroom couldn’t be identified without a… taste test. We hear so often about the dangers of foraging for mushrooms, because there are poisonous lookalikes to edible species and such, that I was very intrigued to learn that some mushrooms are identified by taste. Of course, I will reiterate the warning you will hear literally everywhere mushroom foraging is mentioned (and for good reason): DON’T EAT MUSHROOMS IF YOU’RE UNSURE OF THEIR ID.
Next up was a familiar species even to me, a comparative novice when it comes to fungal identification: Turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor). This common species feeds on dead wood, and contains enzymes able to break down cellulose and lignin at the same time (Stephenson 2010). These are the two main components of plant cell walls, and are notoriously difficult for animals to digest.
Several times during the hike, we came upon Coral fungi, which unsurprisingly resemble underwater corals in their branching structures. Our guide identified some of these as possible Ramaria species, but she also pointed out a false coral (Sebacina schweinitzii).
This next unassuming organism isn’t a fungus, but rather a strange living thing called a slime mould, specifically the Dog-vomit Slime Mould (Fuligo septica). The Dog-vomit Slime Mould is part of a group known as the plasmodial slime moulds, the Myxomycetes. Myxomycetes have a complicated and confusing life cycle. They have two feeding stages: the first consists of single cells which move and feed within their environment like amoebae (Stephenson 2010). These single cells reproduce and form a plasmodium, which is still a mass of what might be termed a single cell because it doesn’t have any cell walls, but it contains many nuclei (Stephenson 2010). In both of these stages, myxomycetes usually feed on bacteria or fungi that they encounter. I believe the Dog-vomit slime mould that I encountered was in this plasmodium stage, possibly preparing for its ‘final form’ which would be the production of fruiting bodies which would disperse tiny spores to start the process all over again (Stephenson 2010). Bizarre organisms… aliens of the forest floor.
We encountered one other species of slime mould during the hike which was much more aesthetically pleasing than the one named after dog-vomit… the Red Raspberry Slime Mould (Tubifera ferruginosa).
While stepping through the undergrowth to approach some fungi, I disturbed some hopping amphibians at my feet. At first glance, we thought they were regular toads (ie. Eastern American Toads: Anaxyrus americanus) and some of them were, but one stood out as something distinctively different. This frog was one that I had never seen before, though I had heard its strange “quacking” calls during hikes in the past: a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Part of the reason I haven’t seen them is their superb camouflage, which consists of not only a generalized leaf-litter brown pattern. Wood Frogs also exhibit background matching: changing their skin to match their surroundings. While in breeding ponds in the Spring they are darker (and thus match the water more closely), and assume a lighter coloration when among the generally lighter leaf litter of their environment for the rest of the year (Wells 2007).
One of the facts that always comes to the fore of my mind when I think of Wood Frogs is not their strange call, or their camouflage, but the fact that they can tolerate being frozen. Wood Frogs, at the onset of winter, have physiological mechanisms that promote ice formation between their cells, and prevent ice formation within their cells. What this response amounts to is well described by Bernd Heinrich in Winter World: “the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead.” (Heinrich 2003, p 174). The incredible part of the story is that the Wood Frog is not dead, but rather will await the arrival of spring beneath the leaf litter and revive during warmer temperatures. They can in fact revive from frozen to active within a single day (Harding and Mifsud 2017). As Heinrich says, Wood Frogs are “biological marvels that challenge the limits of our beliefs of what seems possible.” (Heinrich 2003 p 175).
As I mentioned above, Wood Frogs weren’t the only anurans (frogs and toads) spotted during our hike. On several occasions, we observed American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) on the forest floor. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about toads right now, besides that they are amazing to look at if you take the time. Below are pictures of a particularly large toad (about the size of my fist) and a smaller toad, which was captured from an unusual angle. The angle really makes me reassess toads in general but maybe that’s just me.
For no particular reason, I’m going to pause here for Part 1! Keep an eye out for future parts, because during this hike I spotted many more fungi, and some more non-fungi as well.
Harding, James and Mifsud, David. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, Revised Edition.
Heinrich, Bernd. 2003. Winter World.
Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.
Wells, Kentwood. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians.
For similar Nature Observations in Norfolk County see:
In my backyard, I usually see a lot of Flies of various species, many of which I find difficult to identify. Flies don’t have the obvious characters or colours that other Insect groups have such as Butterflies and Beetles. There are two broad divisions of the Order Diptera (that is, the True Flies) which can be fairly easily distinguished. Nematocera roughly translates as “long-horned”, referring to their relatively long antennae and includes the Midges, Mosquitoes, Fungus Gnats and many others. Brachycera means “short-horned” and includes the House Flies, Carrion Flies, Fruit Flies, and dozens of other massive groups. As I mentioned in my post about observations at my Parents’ house, I’m reading through Flies by Stephen Marshall and it’s only reinforcing the bewildering diversity of Flies and Insects in general.
Incidentally, a Fly that I can’t identify landed on the book Flies as I was reading it in my house. There is a Family of Flies called the Ironic Flies (Family Ironomyiidae), but unfortunately this definitely isn’t one of them. That would have just been too perfect. My best guess for this Fly is a Fungus Gnat or a related Family (Sciaroidea).
All that being said, there are some Flies that I can now identify on sight such as this Common Picture-Winged Fly (Delphinia picta):
Others easy to identify (to Genus) are the Condylostylus flies which hunt small prey and display on leaves worldwide.
Another group of Flies that I’ve become familiar with have one of the most unsettling Family names ever: the Flesh Flies (Sarcophagidae). The three black stripes on the thorax distinguish them from similar-looking Flies (Marshall, 2012). To make them even more unappealing than their name, many of these Flies lay eggs that hatch immediately after they leave the female, or they simply lay larvae that have already hatched. There are about 3000 species in the Family Sarcophagidae, and the ones I see in my backyard are likely in the Genus Sarcophaga. Within the Genus Sarcophaga there are 800 species, so they are very difficult to generalize about, with some of their larvae feeding on or within other insects, consuming dead vertebrates, or specialist parasitoids of spider or grasshopper eggs (Marshall, 2012).
Another Fly observed within my own house is likely a member of the aptly named Window Fly Family (Scenopinidae), as I photographed it on the interior of my back door window. Although this Family of about 350 species is associated with various habits and habitats, they are named for the handful of species that are predators of human-habitat insects such as Carpet Beetles (Dermestidae), which is likely what my Window Fly was.
The most eye-opening Fly observation of the month has more to do with the fate of the Flies, rather than the Flies themselves. I found two Flies in my garden in a bizarre position, one at the very end of May and one on the 1st of June. I’m unable to identify either species of Fly beyond the fact that they’re both Brachycerans. Each fly was positioned at the end of a leaf, clutching it with its legs and they were covered with what looked like white dewdrops bursting out of their bodies on tiny filaments. The filaments emerging from the fly bodies (the Flies were also quite dead or at least incredibly still and unresponsive) must have belonged to a type of Fungi.
Many readers may be familiar with the incredible footage in BBC’s Planet Earth of the Cordyceps fungus infecting ant workers and forcing them to climb into the tree canopy in order to release the fungal spores upon death. What might surprise you is that similar insect-infecting fungi are found not only in tropical rainforests but around the globe, even in my own backyard in Simcoe, Ontario. In fact, Cordyceps itself occurs in parts of North America (into the Southern United States), where it infects insects and causes similar scenarios to the one depicted in Planet Earth (Eiseman and Charney, 2010). There is an entire order of fungi, Entomophtorales, in which most species infect insects and other arthropods. If you’re interested in similar observations, there’s a Bugguide page devoted to this sort of thing. I have no idea which species infected these Flies in my backyard, but it’s fascinating to know that these sorts of complex interactions are occurring right where I live.
I’m going to do something a little bit different with this post. I’ve done a few “Species Profiles” in the past (the Introduced Pine Sawfly and the Eastern Band-Winged Hoverfly), and in those I’ve offered a brief overview of the groups those species belong to before focusing in on the species itself. In future, I’d like to zoom in on a species from a distance. Since all living things, from bacteria to Blue Whales, are part of one huge family tree (species have formed out of species) then all of life is related to a greater or lesser extent. So to start my scope as far out as I can, I’m going to begin with the broadest category of all: Life itself.
What are Living Things? You might be surprised to find that it’s actually quite complicated and difficult to draw lines around living and nonliving things. We can intuitively classify large animals (and by this I mean animals that can be seen without aid of a microscope) as living things. They eat, move and reproduce under their own power. Plants and Fungi are similarly easy to class as alive (though some life stages of Plants and Fungi lie on the border, such as seeds or spores). Although Plants and Fungi don’t behave in easily visible ways in our timescale, they still perform the same functions as Animals: reproducing, metabolizing and growing.
So maybe there isn’t a simple definition for life, but Living Things are still easily distinguishable because of a general sense. It’s just common sense that an Elephant is alive and a rock is not. If we bring the scale downward from the living organisms we can see with our own eyes into the rabbithole of microscopy we find that things are (as always) far more complicated. The simplest and perhaps most relevant example to bring confusion to our general sense of what is alive and what is not is… a virus.
I remember the first time I recognized the difference between a bacterial and a viral infection. The major difference from a patient’s point of view is that Bacteria can be treated (ie. killed) by anti-biotics. Anti-biotics literally means “anti-life”. Because Bacteria are alive they can be targeted by anti-biotic medicine. A viral infection is immune to anti-biotics. Viruses are not killed by “anti-life”. This is because they are supposedly not living. This is where the defining border of Life and not Life gets very very fuzzy.
Viruses come in many shapes and sizes and they affect animals and plants in a myriad of ways, but the reason they do any of that is because they exhibit behaviours which enable them to adapt and react to their surroundings in order to reproduce more of their kind. The description I just offered seems to suggest that Viruses are alive. It really depends on where you draw your lines. My Biology textbook from University states that “the characteristics of life that a virus possesses are based on its ability to infect living cells” (Russell et. al. 2010). So, no living cell, no life. A virus contains some portion of DNA or RNA (the information-coding substance that tells cells what proteins to make and how to make them), and sometimes a protein capsule or container. Again, from my Biology textbook: “They essentially highjack the machinery and metabolism of a living cell in order to reproduce. For this reason, most scientists do not consider a virus alive” (Russell et. al. 2010).
For an alternative view of viruses, here is a quote from a book dedicated to Viruses: “they [Viruses] are highly evolved biological entities with an organismal biology that is complex and interwoven with the biology of their hosting species”(Hurst 2000). In this book, Viral Ecology, the editor also recommends placing viruses within a fourth biological Domain of Life (the other three Domains are Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya). He proposes that this Domain be called Akamara which means roughly “without chamber”, describing the fact that organisms within this Domain are non-cellular.
I’m not sure where I sit on the issue of whether viruses should be considered Living or non-Living. The more I learn about them, the more complicated the questions and answers are. I think that intuitively I wouldn’t want to define Life by its components such as possessing a cell, but I also see the value in having strict definitions for labels even labels as amorphous as Life. The point I wanted to make with this diversion into Viruses is that Life is actually hard to define or describe and place within limits, even if on a larger scale it’s intuitively simple.
I don’t think I’ll really be delving into Viral Biology on my blog anyway as I personally prefer learning about organisms I can more easily observe, but it is a fascinating aspect and background for my interests in living things in general.
Next up… Animals, Plants, Fungi. They have to be easy to divide and define right?
Hurst, Christon J. ed. Viral Ecology, 2000.
Russell et. al. Biology: Exploring the Diversity of Life, First Canadian Edition, 2010.
This book was published in 1991 so it’s certainly not hot off the presses but I’ve recently read it and thought it was worth a Review.
The Social Biology of Wasps is a collection of chapters written by different authors, which can sometimes make the book repetitive but for the most part this volume maintains a consistency of quality and focus that keeps the whole tied together.
The title of this book is key. As much as I would love “The Biology of Social Wasps” this book is more focused than that, instead detailing Social Biology of Social Wasps. The positive side to this focus is that it allows the subject of sociality in the vespids to be explored in great detail, but the negative result is that natural history and basic biology of most species is not discussed in any detail. In this book it allows a more focused discussion, but I would occasionally find it frustrating to find the asnwers to basic questions about the species discussed (what do they eat, what are their nests like, what’s a typical life cycle?) missing or mentioned only in passing in a way that made it difficult to connect some of the arguments of social theory with the species subjects of said arguments/theories.
The first half of the book is called “The Social Biology of the Vespidae”. The chapters in this section begin with two chapters detailing some background on the family tree of Vespidae (where the subfamilies fit) and a very brief overview of the solitary and presocial vespids.
The next six chapters overview the social biology of different groups of vespids. The first, Stenogastrinae, was fascinating to me because it was a group I had never heard of. Stenogastrines are also known as hover wasps and because they’re in the tropics they haven’t received as much study as the temperate wasps. A quote from this chapter will illustrate some of the fascination I felt: “Authors… described with wonder their hovering flight… their shy habits, and their strange, camouflaged nests hidden in the wet and dark parts of the jungle, hanging from roots and threadlike fungi along streams and near the spray of waterfalls.” Another highlight from the chapter on hover wasps was the illustrations of their varied nest architecture, which range from cells lined up in a stack along a stem to cells arranged in a ring, facing inward, creating a donut shaped nest.
There are excellent drawn illustrations through the volume, many done by Amy Bartlett-Wright. Amy is a scientific illustrator and artist who has been doing this now for 35 years. Check out her website: https://amybartlettwright.com/.
These chapters overviewing the subfamilies do well to illustrate what we know and what awaits further study in the social biology of these wasps. They often highlight similarities between strategies but also fascinating differences. One of the comments mentioned multiple times through the book is the influence that ants have had on wasp evolution, as there have been suggestions that they have driven many of the nest designs and defensive strategies of these insects by their relentless ubiquity. A quote that describes this: “There is no potential nesting site in the tropics that is entirely free of ants, many of which readily accept wasp brood as food. It seems likely that the Azteca-wasp nesting associations [an association where Polybia wasps nest inside the nests of Azteca ants, using them as unwitting guards against more dangerous ants] are only the most conspicuous examples of ant-wasp interactions, and that further study will reveal that swarm-founding wasps have as many “words” for ants as Inuit have for snow.”
As I mentioned earlier, these overviews could have done with a little more natural history in my opinion, but as the focus of the book is on the sociality of the wasps, the brevity of such information can be forgiven (the book is already 600 pages long minus the references section).
The second half of the volume is titled “Special Topics in the Social Biology of Wasps”. This half of the book is where repetition between chapters occurs, but usually it’s helpful rather than hindering. Most of the chapters take a particular aspect of the wasps’ biology and use it as a lens to view their sociality through it, demonstrating the various pressures or influences that piece of the puzzle has. For excample, three chapters in a row are about Nutrition, Genetics, and Nest Architecture. Each of these chapters looks at the Social Wasps through their particular focal point and illustrates how it could have provided an impetus for these insects to gain sociality, or at least start them on the path they’re on now. Because of this, it can be repetitive, but usually the repetition reinforces the fact that these are distinct, but not mutually exclusive influences on the evolution and maintenance of sociality. They should be looked at as pieces of the same puzzle, rather than all-encompassing explanations by themselves. One of the most intriguing chapters for myself was Robert L. Jeanne’s chapter “Polyethism” which convincingly demonstrated how individual behaviour can lead to sociality and even maintain it in the colonies of these wasps today, mostly through the comparison of direct reproductive fitness and indirect reproductive fitness.
The chapters on the nests of Social Wasps are fascinating as well, because a nest is something constructed not by an individual as in birds, but by a group of cooperating insects (in many cases, several generations of cooperating insects). These chapters are illustrated with some of the more bizarre nest arrangements (as well as the more familiar) and demonstrate some of the ways in which nest types could develop in relation to each other.
The chapter on the exocrine glands was not particularly fascinating to me, and felt somewhat out of place, since no other chapter dealt with physiology/anatomy of the subject species.
The final chapter, “Evolution of Social Behavior in Sphecid Wasps” was an excellent overview of Sphecid wasps’ social biology. This chapter gave plenty of examples of the diverse paths wasps have evolved down, and the many questions that are raised by viewing comparatively wasps and bees.
Because this book was published almost 30 years ago now, I’m sure that much would be updated and edited in a newer edition. Some of the questions raised will have been answered, many would have branched into further questions. I’m not a professional Social Wasp Biologist, and so I can’t say what those answers are, where the questions now lie, of the focus of such studies are now. I can tell you that as far as I know, there is no other overview volume like this one for Social Wasps. So if you’re fascinated by them like I am and can handle dense science writing, then dive in and learn to appreciate the incredible insect societies that blossom and buzz all around us.
When you’re interested in insects, you’re always going to be running into something new. There is always one more creature that you have never seen before, one more behaviour you haven’t heard of, and that’s because insects are incredibly diverse. Today, I’m going to pick out just one of the many species of insects to zoom in on, and explore its story.
The species I’ve chosen is Ocyptamus fascipennis, or the Eastern Band-winged Hover fly. Let’s start from the top: Ocyptamus fascipennis is a “True Fly”, a member of the Order Diptera, which is a division of the Class Insecta. Diptera means “two wings” which gives you the easiest way to identify this group of insects when you encounter them. Almost all insect groups have 4 wings (two pairs) but these pairs of wings have been modified into very different structures in different lineages of insects. For the True Flies, one pair of wings still provides lift and flight, while the other has been reduced into tiny knobs known as halters. These reduced wings act as stabilizers, giving the flies the ability to perform aerobatic feats of agility (as I’m sure we’re all familiar with in House Flies (Musca domestica)). The halters of Diptera are more than just balancing beams, they’re actually sending complicated signals to the fly about its aerial position.
Ocyptamus fascipennis is part of a Family of True Flies called Hover Flies, or Flower Flies (Family Syrphidae). The Syrphids are common insects in gardens where they feed on nectar and pollinate flowers. Because of this habit, many species of Syrphids have taken on the appearance of more conspicuous flower visitors such as bees and wasps, in order to gain some protection from the classic warning colours of black-and-yellow stripes. O. fascipennis in particular seems to mimic solitary wasps or types of parasitoid wasps with its elongated and narrow abdomen.
So far, we’ve been talking about adults of these flies, but all insects go through multiple life stages, some more dramatically varied than others. Diptera undergo holometabolous growth which is a fancy way of saying that they have life stages that look very different from each other and one of those stages is a transformation phase which is mostly immobile. When young hoverflies (larvae) hatch from eggs, they look very different from the adults landing and lifting from flower petals in gardens. Larval O. fascipennis have no wings, and no legs, and are sometimes known by the name that many fly larvae receive: maggots. O. fascipennis larvae don’t consume garbage or dead animals, but instead are active predators, squirming across leaves in search of their prey: aphids.
Stephen Marshall, in his incredible book about Insects describes Syrphine larvae hunting as this: “at night they move blindly among the aphids, grasping victims using typical maggot mouth hooks, then holding the doomed aphids up off the surface to consume the body contents.” (Marshall, 2006).
It seems then that Flower Flies are very beneficial insects to have in the garden. They provide pollination for flowers, and their larvae consume plant-eaters such as aphids and related scale insects.
While I was unable to find very much information pertaining to Ocyptamus fascipennis specifically, one other member of the genus deserves special mention because of its interesting larval habitat: tank plants (Bromeliaceae). The Central American and South American species of Ocyptamus that inhabit these confined aquatic habitats (pools of water within the plant itself) ambush and consume other aquatic insect larvae that live in the plants alongside them. The larvae are even thought to use a paralyzing venom to subdue their prey (Rotheray et al, 2000).
All in all, Ocyptamus fascipennis and its relatives are fascinating flower flies with intriguing habits. I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a closer look at them today.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2021: Near Point Pelee, Ontario, individuals of Ocyptamus fascipennis were observed apparently migrating. The flies were observed moving East to West along with several other insects including tens of thousands of potter wasps (Ancistrocerus adiabatus) (Skevington and Buck 2021). The authors of the paper note that insect migration is a largely understudied phenomenon, especially in North America, so further study is needed to figure out the details.
Marshall, Stephen. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity. 2006.
Marshall, Stephen. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. 2010.
Skevington, Jeffrey H., and Buck, Matthias. 2021. “The first documented migration of a potter wasp, Ancistrocerus adiabatus (Hymenoptera: Vespidae: Eumeninae)”. Canadian Field-Naturalist 135 (2): 117-119.
If you’re interested in the living things that inhabit this world with us, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve always found it fascinating that there are so many different kinds of creatures, living out lives in different ways to us humans. In some cases, it’s difficult to believe that we share the same planet, let alone the same backyard. There are countless species that surprise and delight in your own neighbourhood, and there are many more around the world. I’d like to explore this diversity, and try to share my own excitement about these creatures, whether they are insects, fungi, plants, birds, mammals, or any of the other species that crawl, fly, swim, run or grow across the planet.
To do this, I’m planning on producing posts detailing a specific species or group of species to get a taste of what sort of creatures are out there. I will also occasionally post about my own observations (and photos) of species that I’ve encountered in my own travels in Southern Ontario. Another thing I’d like to do is review books that are relevant to learning about nature, as I have a personal library stocked with some great books about the diversity and wonder of life.
I hope that when you visit this blog you learn a little something, gain a greater appreciation for living things, and get inspired to pay a little more attention to the world of nature that’s all around us.