Beau October 2nd, 2009
It’s a heavy year for the “mast” crop of acorns all across Missouri, and probably adjoining states. That’s good news for wildlife populations, especially in the Ozarks. Deer, squirrels, rodents and the many predators such as foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls will benefit from the robust forage available this year. Looking forward, the next two years should produce increasing populations of these animals, depending upon the severity of winter weather.
During the previous two years the combination of drought and early spring freezing weather negatively impacted the acorn production from the oaks. I combed area forests last year and the hickory trees had produced an abundance of nuts everywhere I went, yet there were very few acorns from the oak trees. And now while our red and white oak trees have produced a huge amount of acorns this year, our hickory trees did not produce many nuts at all. Isn’t that interesting?
I wish I had a picture, but I actually saw a Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying around the pond yesterday. It’s not that unusual to see a kingfisher around water, but it is unusual to see one here in our upland forest area. I’ve heard their rattling call a few times in as many years, but always wondered if I was just hearing things… so it was fun to see a bird I usually only see while hiking or hunting in bottomland forests or canoeing on Missouri’s various rivers. While I don’t really appreciate the visiting heron’s voracious appetite in eating our pond’s bigger fish, the kingfisher can have all it wants!
We’ve also had a few interesting insect critters in recent weeks. I call ’em Big Ugly Goobers, my acronym for BUGS. A pair of Wheel Bugs (Arilus cristatus) were either in the pre or post phase of mating near the barn door last week. They are strange looking things, and true bugs as only one of the 32 some-odd Orders in the insect world. A little research indicated that no one really knows what the spiky-wheely-thingy (forgive my entomological void) on their back is for. They’re in the assassin bug family, preying on other insects, and stick a huge straw-like proboscis into whatever they can catch to feed upon, after liquifying the insides. Sort of a bug milkshake perhaps? “Ewww…!” Sorry… Apparently their bite is really painful, so I’m glad I just looked at them and took a picture. Maybe that spiky wheel is all for show… it’s a bad looking bug! And yes the male is the smaller of the two…
If that didn’t dissuade your romantic contemplation of our pastoral lifestyle here at Fox Haven, here’s something that might. A new population of European Hornets (Vespa crabro) decided to show up this year. I had never seen them before, but in July I started seeing a huge reddish-waspy-thing (another fine technical description!) in various places zooming by while I was outside working. After some research I pretty much knew what it was but hoped they weren’t really here. Sure enough though, one morning I came outside the house in late August with a cup of coffee, and heard a droning hum around one of our ash trees. The sun wasn’t even up and I looked into the tree branches above to see more than a dozen huge hornets flying around. My coffee grew cold as I stared at the size of these things. They were landing on the branches, stripping bark or something. To confirm the identification, I got out some trusty wasp spray that would shoot fairly high in the tree and dropped one to the ground (I left it there for a good twenty minutes to make sure I wasn’t going to be stung).
Yep… they were European Hornets. I thought their populations were much further south, but obviously not. I then began seeing these guys everywhere for a few weeks… probably in the same manner as when you’re looking for a new car or similar product? Once your interest is focused in a certain direction, you begin seeing that kind of car everywhere. Anyway, for more exciting encounters, one night at nearly 10:00 pm I walked out near a floodlight turned on above the garage and two of these hornets were smashing into the light and flying all around. I then read of them banging into people’s windows at night, attracted to the lights, and scaring the bejeesus out of them. These guys can even hunt at night!
Last week I saw the big hornet in the photo above at the base of an oak tree near my bee hives. It may have been a queen investigating its next meal or a warm place to overwinter this year… in any event it became another specimen for my collection, and didn’t get the chance to bring others nearby. (That big yellow round mass is actually spray foam insulation that I sprayed into the base of that tree. The tree is slowly dying (right behind the barn) and I was trying to seal up some small cavities around the base. It’s a lost cause as the tree continued to lose half its leaves this year. Next year I’ll probably cut it down).
The hornets are considered non-aggressive unless threatened. I had no intention to find that out first hand or to test how painful the sting was, but upon closer examination I found that the stinger is about 1/4 inch long! Here’s a AA battery and one of the recently deceased hornets for a size comparison. I think it actually shrunk a bit- they are huge when flying.
Obviously these creatures fulfill a positive role as predators in eating other insects, and we should appreciate that. Yet these were an introduced species first being reported in the U.S. around the 1840’s presumably arriving on ships from across the Atlantic. They have since marched slowly west… I wonder if their presence in the food chain has displaced other insect predators such as paper wasps, yellow jackets, praying mantis, etc? Or what form of adaptation has occurred within the environment in response to their presence and behaviors?
Of course if we go down that road we can bring up our favored Honey Bee as an introduced species a couple hundred years earlier. But now that the hornets are actually resident in our area, I’m not going to put out a welcome sign. If they do build a nest somewhere around our house they are going to want to defend that nest, and I’ll want to defend the house. So I’ve told a few of them to go tell their friends and relatives to build their nests somewhere else thank-you-very-much. I’ve got enough stinging and biting critters around at this point.
But hey the cooler weather has really arrived and the insect populations are dwindling fast for the year. The chigger, tick and skeeter populations are fading, and it makes working outside in autumn a little more enjoyable. Okay, a lot more enjoyable! Compared to so many other regions of the world though, we really don’t have too many pesky insects. If you love the outdoors it’s all part of the experience and the beauty of our living natural world. Thankfully my least favorite insect was not very abundant this year with all our cool summer weather!