Saturday, June 9, 2012


The ongoing, purely-for-fun task of finding my favorite representatives across the animal kingdom continues with: Hymenoptera.

Hymenoptera are the ants, wasps and bees. Without any doubt or hesitation they are my favorite of all the insect orders. They are absolutely fascinating to watch, beautiful to look at and their behavior—especially amongst the social varieties—is amazingly complex. And a bonus: many of them are poisonous and potentially dangerous!

Yellowjacket Vespula germanica

OK. This is a common, maybe even boring choice, but have you ever really watched these wasps? They are beautifully constructed and colored. They can be quite aggressive and are capable of intimidating creatures hundreds of times their size. Undisturbed, though, they are an interesting study. Plus, my kids are irrationally, scream-like-a-little-girl, scared of them.

Mason Bee Osmia spp.

These bees are often metallic blue or green, and they build little homes in holes. They are beneficial and tend to focus on pollinating fruits that we love to eat. Plus, they almost never sting. I was once hypnotized into watching one of these guys go about its day for a couple of hours.

Velvet Ant (Cow Killer) Dasymutilla spp.

Walking around the High Plains of West Texas I often came across these wasps that look like giant, hairy, red ants. They have a sting that reputedly can kill a cow. (It can’t, but I never had an urge to see what sort of pain inspired that name.)

Western Harvester Ant Pogonomyrmex occidentalis

As a kid growing up in eastern Colorado, we had a colony of these ants in our back yard. I considered them my own, personal colony. They were better than an ant farm. They had roads constructed all around the yard. We had a few little colonies of black ants as well, and it was easy to observe that interactions between the two species were not amicable. I think the black ones were occasionally captured by the larger, red harvester ants and employed as slave labor.  They are poisonous, and another species of this genus in Arizona is perhaps the most venomous insect in the world!

Tarantula Hawks Pepsis spp.

This was the most sought after species for our Entomology 101 collections. They are HUGE. They have a non-lethal but indescribably painful sting. They capture tarantulas, paralyze them and lay their eggs on them. Once hatched, the young eat the spider alive. They also look really cool. (Sadly, they are not all that challenging to catch—with a net.)

Leafcutter Ants Atta spp. & Acromyrmex spp.

These are the second most impressive insect I have ever had the chance to see. They are probably the primary herbivores of the forests where they live. As a kid in Costa Rica I followed trails of these ants transporting foliage from high in the tropical trees across hundreds of meters to their massive underground colonies where they don’t eat it, but rather use it to feed their crops of fungus.

Abejorro Chileno (Moscardón Chileno, or Giant Orange Bumble Bee) Bombus dahlbomii

By far the coolest insect ever is the flying ping-pong sized ball of fluff from the southern cone of South America. They are simply stunning to all who have the fair fortune to see them. They are all business and ignore people almost completely. Do they ever even employ their sting? I once saw a man “walking” one like a dog as it flew ahead him down the street attached to a string.

(Pics are from Wikipedia and Project Noah.)

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