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What’s the Buzz?

July 25, 2010

July 24, 2010

This "asp" or "puss caterpillar" is one to avoid at all costs. The pain they inflict is excruciating.

This is a hairy caterpillar with a sting so powerful that you want to sever the limb to get rid of the pain. I'm posting this photo, even though it has nothing else to do with this blog, just so you can avoid it.

Every year the population of insects and weeds in the yard varies. One year it’ll be more thistles than usual, or more leaf-footed bugs. Another year it will be creeping Charley mint in the turf , and occasionally we have an unwelcome population bloom like last fall when the “asp” or “puss caterpillar” appeared on my Japanese flowering quince.

There always seem to be ants, fireflies, cicadas, June bugs, katydids, tarantulas, mud daubers, flies, and mosquitoes, but every year something moves to the top of the population hierarchy in the yard. So this year I don’t consider it unusual to have a bloom of the huge cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) burrowing in my garden, but for those who don’t pay attention to the ebb and flow of bug populations, this year the numbers have finally registered on the radar of the general public in North Texas. The wasps were digging, getting ready. The connection that many who noticed the wasps didn’t make is that the cicada’s electrical buzz hit a high pitch up about a month ago. These huge iridescent bugs are rarely seen and perhaps with our modern noisy household technology, many don’t notice their arrival. But it’s the wasp’s raison d’être.

The wasps do a great job of conditioning the soil, almost as good as fire ants.

On June 16 on KERA-FM’s community call in program Anything You Ever Wanted to Know a woman wanted to know how to kill these huge wasps that she said are attacking her children. To those uninitiated in bug behavior, it might seem to her like they are attacking. Chances are that what they are doing, in fact, is buzzing past anyone who gets too close to their burrows in the garden or turf. These B-52s of the garden insect world are flashing their wasp colors, buzzing their wasp buzz, and telling anyone who gets too close to “move along. There’s nothing for you here.” If you keep going back, they’ll keep chasing you off. Soon each female will capture and sting a cicada, drag the paralyzed insect into its hole, and lay her eggs. (You’ll find these featured on page 43 of Howard Garrett’s Texas Bug Book: The Good The Bad and The Ugly.) And then they won’t bother you. (As I finish editing this, a week later, I can say that I think we’ve reached and passed that point. I didn’t see any wasps for the last couple of days. Their work here is through, for now.)
These drop and roll exercises happened all morning when the males were ardently fighting off competitors.

The males don’t have a stinger, but at nearly two inches long, they can be pretty intimidating. The females do have a stinger, but you really really have to annoy them to get a sting. My frequent forays into the garden have been fine and I do manage to get a fair amount of work done even with these masters of soil conditioning hovering nearby. These wasps are active during the daytime; they’re big and noisy and advertise their presence so they’re easy to avoid when they’re working an area. To the left you see two males in one of their frequent confrontations. They slam into each other in midair and drop to the ground, where they roll around for up to 30 seconds.

Last year I photographed some of the pairs mating, and this year I witnessed the mid-air bug battles that occur prior to mating. They literally slam into each other eight feet up and drop straight to the ground as they tussle. They separate and do it again. Landing this hard on the concrete of the driveway doesn’t seem to hurt them. The only photo I don’t have yet is of a wasp actually dragging a cicada.

This pair stayed connected for quite a while, perched next to my air condition unit and near many of the mounds of dirt they'd been digging.
I captured a male wasp on a window in the house this weekend. I tried to catch it in thick layers of a folded up dishtowel but it twice struggled out of the folds. I finally released it after catching it on the glass with a plastic food container and sliding across a piece of cardboard.

The wasps are digging in the gardens on both side of my driveway, and digging in softened turf after we had two weeks of steady rain. The one place they have avoided is the area where I put down cypress mulch bark to delineate garden paths. I try not to step in the garden once it is planted, but I need a few ways in so I put down mulch so I can find the same path each time. I find piles of wasp dirt on my cypress mulch paths, but they are piled from holes dug outsize the mulch zone.
Cicadas are bouncing around everywhere now, and as big as the wasp are, the cicadas are larger.
On July 18, 2010, I called in to Howard Garrett’s weekly Dirt Doctor radio program and reported this observation. Howard isn’t fond of cypress bark mulch in general because it takes a long time to break down in the garden (he prefers hardwood mulch), but said the use for paths in the garden sounded good. He offered a useful suggestion for testing next year: Why not grind up the mulch to a finer powder and sprinkle it over a test area of the garden, to see if it repels the wasps without becoming an indigestible bit of organic matter in the garden? That’ll be my research next summer. For this summer, I have the camera handy as I watch for the wasp/cicada pas de deux, but I think it has passed. The heavy rain we had yesterday seems to have sealed the vaults on all of those cicadas, tucked deep underground with a clutch of wasp eggs laid next to them.

One has only to look at nature in our own yards to find the creepy inspiration for Science Fiction thrillers, doesn’t one?

Click on any of these photos to have a new window open with the larger image.

Here’s a more recent view of the veggie garden:

The garden became an overgrown jungle with two weeks of rain in early July.

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