Tuesday, July 22, 2014


We all know when yellowjacket season rolls around, with pesky wasps that bother us on every picnic. You can usually chase them away easily, but they come back again and again. They are relatively innocuous when you’re trying to give them the brush-off, but don’t ever disturb one of their nests in the ground!

Western yellowjackets (Vespula pensylvanica) are members of the insect order Hymenoptera, the bees and wasps. Other wasps that are common in our area are bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), bigger and fiercer than the yellowjackets and with a big turnip-shaped paper nest up in the trees; and introduced European paper wasps (Polistes dominula), with a much smaller paper nest with chambers open below.

All these species have in common a black and yellow or black and white banded abdomen. That coloration is common in wasps and bees and is thought to be aposematic (Greek ‘away sign’), a word used to denote a warning coloration. “Don’t mess with me” is a loose translation.
Some birds, for example kingbirds, are able to take stinging insects in their stride, catching them in flight and beating them to death, even squeezing out their stinger, but a lot of animals doubtless leave them alone because they pack such a punch at the end of their abdomen. The warning coloration assures that they are safe either because the predator species has a genetic memory of them or has tried to capture one previously and was stung by it, a much more immediate memory!

As these wasps move through our environment, relatively impervious to predation, other insects have benefitted by evolving coloration, shape, and even wing sound that mimic the wasps. Most of them in our area are flies (Diptera), especially hover flies of the family Syrphidae. Here are a few of them. They look very much like the wasps as they fly around, and even seasoned entomologists often have to look closely. I for one have grabbed what I thought was a fly from an insect net and been stung for my mistake.

By mimicking stinging wasps and bees, these so-called Batesian mimics (from Henry Bates, early student of this phenomenon) gain protection from predators, mostly birds, that mistake them for their models and leave them alone. It must work very well, as there are so many kinds of flies that mimic wasps. There are also grasshoppers, beetlees, moths, and other insects that do the same, especially in the tropics, where there are so many more species of insects and so many more birds that eat them.

A study done in Illinois that involved extensive collecting of model Hymenoptera and mimic Diptera showed that the mimics are common in the spring, when adult birds are present as predators, but virtually absent during the period in midsummer when young birds are fledging. Some of them appear again in fall. The authors speculated that the mimic flight seasons were adjusted to miss the time when young, na├»ve birds were everywhere, birds that wouldn’t know enough not to catch them!

Dennis Paulson 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


With our very wet climate (favorable for terrestrial mollusks) and our relatively acid soils (not so favorable for forming snail shells), we furnish great habitat for slugs.

The ones most of us see are garden slugs (Arion ater). This slug, native to northern Europe, comes in two forms, a black and a reddish one. Long thought to be subspecies of one another, Arion ater ater and Arion ater rufus, they have recently been split as two separate species Arion ater and Arion rufus. Unfortunately for the field worker, both of them come in a great variety of colors and can only be distinguished by dissection or molecular analysis.

So we’ll just call them all garden slugs. They have proven to be very successful imports to our region but aren’t well liked by gardeners because of their predilection for garden plants. In fact, it’s the easiest thing in the world to go online to find out how to get rid of slugs. I am choosing to extol their virtues, perhaps the most important one just to familiarize people with slugs.

Our big native slug is the banana slug, Ariolimax columbianus. After a European species that grows to a foot (30 centimeters) in length, ours is the second largest in the world, reaching lengths of 25 centimeters. Four of these in a cup would weigh a pound! Rarely are such monsters seen, though; most that we encounter are in the range of 10-15 centimeters, just a bit larger than the much more familiar garden slugs.

But walk into a mature wet forest, and if it’s a moist day, you are likely to find lots of banana slugs. They come in a variety of colors, from white to plain yellow to heavily spotted with black. There must be some genetic differences among these color types, as often all the ones you see in one spot look about the same.

The big hole on the right side of these slugs is the pneumostome (breathing hole). An active slug shows two eyestalks above that detect light or movement and two tentacles below that are chemosensitive. They have mucous glands all over the body that keep them protected from dehydration and that can lay down a trail for easier locomotion.

Most slugs are herbivorous, feeding directly on plant tissue (garden slugs) or on detritus and mushrooms (banana slug). The leopard slug (Limax maximus), a large pale brown, black-spotted species that is also introduced in our region, feeds on other slugs as well as detritus and garden plants. In turn, garter snakes and ducks eat a lot of slugs, apparently able to combat the mucous that protects them from many other predators.

Slugs are hermaphrodites, both sexes present in the same animal, and when they mate each one contributes sperm to the other. The lack of separate sexes may make sense in slow-moving animals that might have trouble finding a mate. In this case, every slug encountered would be a potential mate, not every other one!

Dennis Paulson