Monday, December 20, 2021

Have Yourself A Nostalgic Little Christmas

A Santa dressed in blue holding a white kitten. He is in the foreground, out of focus yellow lights are in the background.
According to people who keep track of these sorts of things, a big trend this Christmas is nostalgia.
Decorating and celebrating in retro ways seems to offer the modern reveler some comfort in the storm of current events. What better way to escape the inflation, social upheaval and pandemic that has colored all our lives than by retreating into an imagined time of good old days? In this blog, I have put together a smattering of Christmas joy ideas from the 1950s and 60s. I’ve chosen those decades because, frankly, I think they’re the most fun to replicate. It may be late in the season to do all this, but maybe do it next year, or pick a few
elements to embrace. 

A box of Shiny Bright ornaments, the original glass ornaments.
A photo from the 50s - it shows a woman in a blue dress and black heels in front of a heavily itself tree with lots of presents under it.
The Tree - You’ll need to get the tree right for a proper vintage Christmas. You’ll want  plenty of brightly colored glass ornaments (maybe even some bubble lights), and you’ll want to make some popcorn or paper chain garlands. If you can swing a toy train to put under the tree, that would be ideal. And of course, a must-have is tinsel – and gobs of it. Unfortunately, the modern tinsel made of mylar doesn’t drape as well as the old-school kind that was made of lead. They outlawed that stuff back in 1972. You could go for an aluminum tree; their heyday was from the very end of the 50’s until the mid-60s  (see my blog from last year for their story). If you go with the metal tree, you may as well commit to a color wheel as well (also super-fun).

Décor -  Artificial snow spray was patented in 1953, and it was a big hit immediately.  After you spray some of this all over your tree, give you windows a good coating.. A word of warning, though: That stuff can be hard to get off surfaces. 

Many different types of nutcrackers.
Nutcrackers became a Christmas thing during the 50s. You could add one to your table or put it under the tree with the train, but really they can be as little or as big as you like and go almost anywhere. 

Although people don’t send out Christmas cards like they used to, you should prominently display any that you get. 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first aired in 1964, so that little reindeer was very much a part of pop culture at the time. Any decorations that he's a part of are good.

Santas on rockets vintage ornaments
Starting in the late 50s, the US and Soviet Union were in a Space Race that culminating with the moon landing in 1969. Anything that was outer space or astronaut themed was popular and this was when science fiction came into its own as an entertainment genre. So, add anything space-y to your theme to tap into the excitement that all the new science brought. Here’s an article on how to go full Space Age on Christmas.

A Santa doll with a thousand-yard stare
Santas, you need Santas. Santa ornaments, tabletop Santas, Santa door-hangings, Santa linens, Santa dolls – all kinds of Santas were popular throughout the 50s and 60s. And some of them were pretty creepy. For more Santa decor (some creepy, some not), check these out.A tabletop plug-in ceramic Christmas tree.

Kitsch is king in vintage decorations, so you have a great deal of leeway in choosing. Think rocking horses, Christmas villages, wreaths, tree toppers and wall hangings. All of these are available retro-style, extra-cheesy optional. Here’s some examples.

Food - If you choose to do an authentic mid-century Christmas, you should commit to mid-century tastes. So, out with the paleo or keto routine and in with relish trays, Christmas cookies,  elaborate cakes and even more elaborate appetizers, Jell-O molds and creamed onions. Or maybe not – here’s some menus to get inspired by. And don't forget the nut tray - it's the perfect accessory to your nutcracker because back in the day people would actually use them to crack nuts.

A Christmas gathering where they are offering eggnog from a punch bowl to the grandma.

Drink - I don’t want to portray everyone as drinkers in the 50s and 60s, but the culture of cocktails was strong. Cocktail parties and boozy poker nights were common, so a proper host or hostess had a well-stocked bar. But no IPAs or flavored vodkas – we’re talking scotch, vermouth and gin. And whatever it is they need to make a Pink Gin Fizz. And there was eggnog, of course. This was a special favorite of those that “only drank on Christmas”. Holiday punch (spiked or not) was also popular. Here are some excellent cocktail suggestions that would be right at home at any mid-century gathering. 

Dress Code -  After you’ve dolled up your tree and house, get yourself all fancy. In the 50s, one always dressed up for Christmas. So, gentlemen get the tie out and ladies, put your heels on (I think you can skip the girdle, though).

In a scene from It's A Wonderful Life, Donna Reed and one of the children are putting tinsel on a tree.

Music - Although it should go without saying, I'm saying it anyway - no retro Christmas would be complete without a soundtrack of  great mid-century Christmas crooners. Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt, Perry Como and Dean Martin are some of my favorites but there is an abundance of goodness in Christmas music of the era.

Happy Holidays!

Submitted by Pam

Monday, December 6, 2021

What's This Bug? The Antlered Wasp.

Closeup of the Antlered Wasp on a green background
It’s Christmastime, and to mark the season I bring you the Antlered Wasp (Eucharitidae).  What these
guys lack in size (they’re less than an inch), they make up for with their large and dramatic antennae. These insects are known as Antlered Wasps, because with a little imagination, they could be itty bitty reindeer (although some people see their “antlers” as punkish mohawks). And while it’s entertaining to view them as tiny reindeer, you will not come across one of these wasps where reindeer reign, as they are tropical insects.

A tint Antlered Wasp on a person's fingertip
Antlered Wasps, like many other wasps, practice parasitism as a part of their life cycle. And they only parasitize ants, an insect that is often the aggressor in the insect world and not the victim. To put an even finer point on it, each specie (there are over 400 species) specializes in a particular species of ant. Here is a list of some of those pairings.

Child-rearing in nature is extremely variable, with some species providing long-term, hands-on care and other species leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. Antlered Wasps are firmly in the latter category. When the female is  ready to lay her eggs, she chooses a plant that is a favorite of ants, or one with an ant colony nearby. She lays her eggs and moves on; after a week to ten days the larvae will hatch. The larvae will then spend several days lolling about on the plant, getting their energy and nerve up, and (presumably) planning their strategy for the next step. The goal of the larvae is to infiltrate the ant colony, so the next step is to find an ant to take it into the nest. For this attachment to happen, most 
A ant queen on her nest with eggs and other offspring
Ant Queen and her offspring
Eucharitid wasp larvae depend on rubbing up against an ant and fastening themselves to it. If there are no available ants around, the wasp larvae will use an intermediary host that can get them up close enough to grab an ant. However, according to this article, the Kapala species in the Eucharitidae family has developed jumping abilities. Apparently, they will stand up on the leaf and jump down onto a passing ant. High diving larvae – nature is amazing.

Once a larva has found its Trojan Horse/ant host, it will ride it right into the ant colony. Ants are notoriously and intensely protective of their nests, so how do these larvae get away with this? It seems they have developed the ability to mimic the odor of the ant larvae. Scientists have observed that ants will avoid the adult wasps, a clear indicator that they view them as a threat. But, thanks to the aromatic camouflage, ants seem to not recognize the wasp larvae as different from theirs. 

Closeup of an ant tending to a newborn wasp.
Ant tending to a newborn wasp
Small black larvae moving along a nearly invisible filament.
Wasp larvae on the move
The camouflaged wasp larva makes its way, with the unwitting help of the ants, deep into the ant colony’s inner sanctum – the brood chamber. This may be the easiest part of their mission, as the wasp simply has to find an ant larva to attach to. Since a queen ant can lay up to 300,000 eggs a day, there is an abundance of potential hosts for the little wasp. Once attached, the wasp larva will begin feeding on its ant counterpart, but it eats just enough to keep them both going until the ant pupates. Once this happens, the wasp will finish off its host. The wasp uses this last bit of ant fuel to finish growing into an adult and will then emerge from its host. At this point, still helpful and unwitting, ants will feed and groom the newborn as they do their own. Eventually, the wasp will fly out of the colony and mate, usually right above the ant nest. 

Closeup of an Antlered Wasp facing the camera

Cartoon ants shouting "Arghh!" fearfullyThe life cycle of the Antlered Wasp could be adapted into a Mission Impossible type action movie. And be as unbelievable. Except this is an incredible true story.

Take Care. 
Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The World-Wide Obsession with November’s Flower

A blonde haired woman in a white shirt carrying a bunch of huge pink chrysanthemums over her shoulder.
Chrysanthemum is November’s birth flower and those lucky November-born couldn’t have a more
exquisite or meaningful bloom associated with their month. The chrysanthemum comes in hundreds of varieties and each one is competing with the others to be the most beautiful bloom (see some stunning pictures here and here.) Unlike most other flowers, mums bloom in the chilly weather of autumn. This late-season blooming habit makes them the most obvious and popular choice for holiday bouquets, but for many people it has also made mums a symbol of vitality and perseverance. Mums have inspired symbolism across time and place. In Victorian times, they were symbols of well-wishing and friendship, in Australia they are the flowers of Mother’s Day (because they’re called “mums”, get it?), and in many European countries they have come to be symbols of death (which comes from their being used so frequently in funerals and graveyards). The meanings of chrysanthemums seem to be as wide-ranging as their varieties.

The Emperor of China mum - a beautiful pink, white and red variety.
A 4 Gentleman type painting with yellow chrysanthemums on the far rightIn China the mum is venerated as a whole –their symbolism, their beauty, their medicinal qualities, their spiritual potential, and even their flavor. To underscore this devotion, look no further than this ancient Chinese saying: “If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums”. As far back as 3,000 years ago Chinese people have been planting, painting and writing about the Chrysanthemum. It is one of the Four Gentlemen of traditional Chinese art. These four plants are the plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. They each represent a season (plum blossom-winter, orchid-spring, bamboo-summer and mums-autumn) and also embody the highest levels of integrity and moral character. Although these ideals/images became part of the culture in the time of Confucius (551-479 BCE), they have remained an element of Chinese thought even through communism. Chrysanthemums are now a part of Chinese identity, with towns being named after the flower (Chu Hsien=Chrysanthemum City) and weeks-long festivals held in its honor.

Emperor Akhito of Japan standing in front of his Chrysanthemum throne. You can see the flower emblem on the back of the chair.
A gorgeous yellow mum opening and closing.
The chrysanthemum came to Japan much later than China (5th century AD) and has since become deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. It had been widely admired and used in many facets of Japanese life for centuries before Emperor Go-Toba made it the official symbol of his reign (1183-1198). From that time to this day, the emperors of Japan have sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne. This concept encompasses not only the monarch, but the government that he rules. Thus, the image of this mum appears not just on the actual throne, but on official documents, stamps, coins and even Japanese passports.  An interesting side note: Even though the role is mostly symbolic these days, the Japanese emperor represents the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy; the same family has ruled for 2,600 years
A beautiful peach, pale yellow and red spider type of mum from Japan.

Although their beauty is undeniable, mums have more to offer than just good looks. They are the source of the powerful botanical pesticide Pyrethrin. Like the ancient Chinese, the ancient Persians had mums, and they all were well aware of its insecticidal properties.  As early as 400 BC, Persians were rubbing pyrethrin ointments on their livestock to repel fleas and ticks. This article suggests that the mum, and it’s use as an insecticide, originated in Persia (modern-day Iran) and was brought to China along the Silk Road 2,000 years ago. Others claim it moved the opposite way. Wherever and however this use began, it remains an excellent alternative to synthetic pesticides. We carry a number of top-notch pyrethrin products – check them out here.

A Kenyan woman smiling while standing in a field of daisy-like flowers.
The introduction of pyrethrin was likely a game changer for those ancient Chinese and Persians, and the same can be said for people in Kenya when British colonizers brought it there in the late 1920s. Since pyrethrin has been around so long, it's unlikely that Kenyans had never heard of it, but the British presented it as a money-making crop and that was the game changing part. It seems Kenya has the perfect climate for the daisy-like Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium that pyrethrin is derived from. These flowers grow prolifically after the semi-annual rains and they can be harvested as frequently as every two weeks, providing a nearly year-round income for growers. By the 1940s, Kenya had replaced Japan as the world’s number on producer (a position it had held for hundreds of years. In addition to the financial benefits that this flower brought to local farmers, it turns
out that just growing the plant is enough to
Red and yellow Indian chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum indicum
repel the sand flies that carry leishmaniasis. This infection, which can cause painful skin lesions and attack internal organs, has maimed or killed untold numbers of people in Africa. The benefits that the chrysanthemum brought to the Kenyan people got lost for a while as they struggled with their new-found independence in the 1960s, but it was still cherished enough to be a part of the new Kenyan Coat of Arms. Nowadays, the mum is back to being widely produced by farmers in Kenya and studies are being done to determine how it can be used to control the locust hordes that regularly decimate crops in Africa.

A beautiful chrysanthemum with pale pink swirling petals
An amber colored glass mug with some clear liquid in it and with a lemon and a chrysanthemum floating in it.
It’s hard to think of any other flower that has such widespread devotion, with the possible exception of the rose. Chrysanthemums are undoubtedly gorgeous, in all their varieties, but they also make a healthful and delicious tea that is a natural de-stressor. If you want to take a moment to try some Chrysanthemum Tea, here’s a video from a tea expert.

Submitted by PamLucy Ball and Desi Arnaz. Lucy's hair is sticking up everywhere and she is saying, "I've always wanted to look like a chrysanthemum".

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

What’s This Bug? The Fiery Searcher Beetle.

Calosoma scrutator, the Fiery Searcher Beetle

This beautiful beetle is the Calosoma scrutator, commonly known as the Fiery Searcher or simply Caterpillar Hunter. As their name(s) suggests, these beetles are tireless and aggressive predators. Luckily for us humans, the foods they love best are some of the most crop-damaging pests around. They will prey upon a variety of insects in varying life stages, although their favorite is the caterpillar stage. Their dinner of choice depends on whether they are larvae or adults, as they hunt in both stages. Fiery Searcher larvae, since they are not as agile as the adults, prefer to target insects in their pupal stages while adults are way less picky (here’s more on their feeding preferences). According to this article, they favor the all-star list of crop pest which includes the larvae of imported cabbage worms and gypsy moths, the larvae, pupae and eggs of root maggots, as well as the Colorado potato beetle, diamondback moths, cutworms, cabbage loopers, aphids, asparagus beetles, slugs and flea beetles. Some species even eat snails. Fiery Searchers are exceptionally long-lived for an insect; they can live 2 years or more. And during their lives they can consume hundreds of insects. So, these are clearly helpers that you want to have in your yard and garden. 
Fiery Searcher larva (R) eating a Pipevine Swallowtail larva
Fiery Searcher larva (R) eating a Pipevine Swallowtail larva

These beetles live throughout North America, but their numbers are largest in eastern states. They are nocturnal, so even if you live in an area where they are prolific you may not see them. They spend their daylight hours in crevices, under leaf litter, logs and rocks and venture out in the dark. This night-life suits them well; it allows them to  stay hidden from those animals that like to prey on them and the insects that they like to eat are also hiding in daylight for the same reasons. As pests come out at night with a false sense of security and their eyes on your plants, the fiery searchers are ready to snatch them up. 

A Fiery Searcher beetle wrapped around the tip of a tree branch.

Fiery searchers are usually found in fields and gardens, although some live on forest floors. These beetles have wings, but rarely fly. Instead, they use their long legs to scamper up branches and tree trunks to grab a meal. They are especially fond of tent caterpillars and gypsy moth larvae, which they find up in the trees. Fiery searchers don’t just use their long legs to climb trees, their legs allow them to run very fast to chase down prey. Their burst of speed in pursuit of prey is similar to a cheetah’s, so much so that they have been called the cheetah of the insect world. 

A closeup of the head of the Fiery Searcher.
If you come across a fiery searcher, it is best to give it a wide berth. These are large insects (about 1-1½ inches) with big, sickle-shaped mandibles. They will not hesitate to give a nasty bite if you mess with them. And if that doesn’t do the trick, they can and will emit a foul odor when handled. Clearly they have some tools that help them remain the predator and not become prey.

Fiery searchers are around from May through November but are most active from May through June when trees have leafed out and caterpillar populations boom. In the fall, they will be scuttling around getting the last of the bug goodies before it gets too cold and it’s time to overwinter. They like to spend their winters under some bark or under a rock.

These beetles are glorious – not just in how pretty they are, but in their hunting game. They literally take no prisoners. Here’s a really informative video that shows them in action and this article contains three separate short illustrative videos . Enjoy the glory that is the fiery searcher on the hunt.

a little boy in a coonskin hat and glasses holding up 2 beetles on earring hooks and saying, "I made you some jewelry. Are your ears pierced?".

Take Care

Submitted by Pam

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Creatures To Be Thankful For

An image of Earth, showing different ecosystems like jungles and underwater.
At this time of year, we are all encouraged to find things to be thankful for and this year I'm encouraging you all to look beyond humans and to consider all the other living things that help us survive on our planet. Without the input of these creatures, the conditions that allow people to live comfortably would not exist (or perhaps humans wouldn’t exist at all). All of these deserve our gratitude. While we are familiar with many animals that are essential for the environment (hello, bees), there are many others you may not think of. I’d like to introduce you to some.

A black silhouette of a female praying mantis
BENEFICIAL INSECTS & NEMATODES- Here at ARBICO beneficial insects are a big part of our daily lives, so I can’t help but mention them first as something to be thankful for. We are all about good bugs that kill bad bugs. We have bugs that fly around hunting others, bugs that crawl around to hunt, and others that burrow through the soil while hunting. Some like specific prey, and some eat just about everything they come across. What all these beneficials have in common is that they feed on things that feed on our food. In other words, they keep gardens free from predators, so they can grow lushly and produce prolifically. If you are not familiar with all that we have, this page will get you started on learning more.

An artist's rendering of Bifidobacteria, a beneficial bacteria.
 BENEFICIAL MICROORGANISMS - As far as beneficials go, insects may be the stars of the show, but beneficial microorganisms are essential supporting characters. Without healthy soil, full of bacteria, mycorrhizae (and even fungi), your soil will not be able to sustain any plant life. These tiny beings are crucial for our survival, but it’s probably safe to say they never cross the mind of most people. Let’s take a minute to be thankful for them. We have a great many products that have one form or another of beneficial microorganisms, but they really shine in our microbial inoculants.

Silhouettes of bats flying through the trees against a blue sky
BATS – There’s nothing scary about bats; they are gentle mammals that are great to have around.. On any “World’s Most Dangerous Animals” list, you’ll find mosquitoes listed as the most dangerous  (those that don’t include humans, that is). They kill roughly 725,000 people a year from the various diseases they carry, so any animal that can put a dent in that number should be thanked. An individual bat can eat 1-2,000 mosquitoes an hour, so just imagine how many a large colony can take care of! Experts say that birds eat more mosquitoes than bats, but those bats that are not insect-eaters are pollinators. So, bats are either eating a deadly insect, or pollinating our plants – a two-fold reason for appreciating bats. One more thing: their guano is excellent fertilizer. 

A close-up of a beaver in water with his eyes and nose poked out above the surface.
BEAVERS – Most of you reading this have probably never see a beaver in the wild, but you should be thankful for them nonetheless. These North American mammals are tireless stewards of our waterways and their busy aquatic lifestyle keeps wetlands wet, groundwater levels up, and provides essential firebreaks that protect forests. Even if you don’t have beavers where you live, all life benefits when waterways are working as they should. Any creature that protects such a crucial resource as water get my thanks. This article tells how scientists in California are working with beavers to combat devastating drought and fire caused by climate change that state.

Snakes swimming in a blue ocean with a reef below them full of colorful coral and fish.
SHARKS -  I realize that this creature provokes a visceral response in many people, but it really does play an important part in keeping our oceans in balance. And we all know that a healthy ocean is key to life on Earth. Sharks preserve the balance in the sea by being an apex predator, but they also keep coral reefs healthy. They do this by eating the fish that eat the herbivores that graze on algae. When there is too much algae, the coral (and other species) will die off (for more on why reefs are important, watch this video). On the other hand, the appetite of sharks also prevents the overgrazing of seagrass (which store carbon and help prevent erosion). They do this by eating herbivore fish, so they are really working both sides of the equation.  For more on the what the wondrous shark can do, here is an excellent short article. Thanks, you big toothy environmental warrior! 

A close-up of a Red Squirrel.
 SQUIRRELS – Squirrels are (with the exception of Australia and Antarctica, found all over the world),  so they are very familiar to most people. These bushy-tailed little mammals are both endearing and entertaining as they scamper about in their busy little way. And it’s this behavior that we should be thankful for. As squirrels gather, eat, bury, store, and poop out seeds and nuts they are keeping the forest floor groomed and are ensuring a healthy distribution of future plants and trees. According to this article, it’s estimated that squirrels can be credited with planting millions of years every year in North America alone.

Green and purple phytoplankton under a microscope.

PHYTOPLANKTON – These microorganisms are even more important to life on Earth than soil microorganisms. These microscopic marine algae are a key component in both marine and freshwater ecosystems, but their impact goes beyond the water. As the foundation of the aquatic food chain, without this tiny creature whales, seals, sea birds and even humans would go hungry. But probably the most important role that phytoplankton play is in producing oxygen – up to 2/3 of the world’s atmospheric oxygen. We are all aware that trees produce oxygen, but it is these hardworking microorganisms that produces the most for us by far. This, simply put, is why we need clean oceans. So that they can continue to thrive and survive. Although they may be hard for some people to appreciate because they cannot be seen, let’s just consider them magic. A vital environmental magic.

A squirrel standing on a stack of nuts and munching on one. Of course, there are many other creatures on this planet to appreciate; in a well-functioning ecosystem all parts played by each species are important. I challenge you all to notice, and be grateful for, those that I did not have space or time to mention.

Take Care                           Submitted by Pam





Thursday, October 28, 2021


Cartoon woman screaming

In keeping with my October theme of creepy critters, I’m bringing you swarms. The sheer number of swarming animals is not just creepy, it’s deeply unsettling for most people. The feeling is such a profound part of the human psyche that swarms even surface in religious teachings – there are the biblical plagues in the Old Testament and the Miracle of the Gulls in Mormonism.

Swarming can be found throughout the animal world, among all types of creatures in the air, on land, and in the sea. The reason behind much of this behavior is still a mystery, but scientists have figured out why some occur. One strong impetus for swarms is the search for food. This is the case for the largest swarms on earth, locusts, and for the daily swarms of bats as they leave their caves in search of food. In the ocean, swarms of sardines and krill will trigger other swarms of animals seeking to feed on them. Swarms born of swarms. Despite drawing predatory attention, animals of all kinds swarm for protection from predators. While some members of the swarm may be picked off, the individual still has an improved chance for survival in a large group. This is the old “safety in numbers” logic. Swarms can be also created by climate, seasonal, or environmental changes. We see this in migratory patterns or the simple business of moving to a new house (which causes swarming in bees and ants). Lastly, swarms are set off by the biological imperative to reproduce. In virtually every part of the natural world there are animals seeking love in large groups.

Locusts eating corn corn off the stalk

The effects of swarms are mostly confined to the animals involved, with some important exceptions. Locusts, for instance, cause massive destruction to the environment and decimate food resources wherever they go. Last year (2020) residents of East Africa were beset by a massive swarm that spanned nearly 930 square miles and contained an estimated 200 billion insects. By far the largest swarms on earth, locust swarms have the ability to drastically alter life wherever they go. According to this article, the conditions that locusts need to thrive (dry weather followed by torrential rain) is becoming more common due to climate change. Also, swarming locusts are biologically compelled to reproduce faster and eat more while swarming. So, there’s every reason to believe that these swarms will only continue to grow in frequency and size. Which could become a hazard for life worldwide. Luckily, there are smart people working hard on solutions, including this one that turns locusts into animal feed. 

A mass of grey-brown millipedes
If you read my centipede blog, you know how I feel about centipedes and millipedes (not a fan of those squirmy legs), so millipede swarms are super-duper creepy to me. Apparently driven by an irresistible food source, millipedes in Senegal pile on top of each other to get at it (see the video here). In Japan, millipedes swarm in large enough numbers to stop train traffic. Scientists have now determined that these poisonous creatures are part of a brood cycle that emerges every eight years, similar to the life cycle of cicada.

Swarming red crabs by a roadwayOne of the most incredible swarms on the planet is the march of the Red Crabs of Christmas Island. This small island is off the northwest coast of Australia and has a population of 2,000. People, that is. Its crab population is 40,000,000. Every year at this time (October-November), the crabs march from their homes in the forest down to the beach for a festival of breeding and nothing stops them. Their relentless march is annoying and messy (especially when thousands lie dead on roadways), but Christmas Island inhabitants have learned how to live with them. Among other concessions to the crabs, they’ve built tunnels under roadways for the crabs to use. For more on this cool phenomenon, including what invasive species is threatening it, check out this article

A swarm of female sea turtles coming onto the beach from the sea.
Speaking of crabs, if you who don’t like swimming in the ocean because you don’t know what’s underneath you, you should not look at the video of this next swarm. While researching something else entirely off the coast of Panama, scientists discovered a massive swarm of Tuna Crabs moving along the bottom. According to this video, they say there are thousands of crabs in the horde, but it looks like zillions to me. Cool…and creepy.

Right up the coast from the Tuna Crab swarm is Costa Rica, home to large populations of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. In the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge females of this species swarm the beach to lay their eggs. Their swarm is known as a mass arrival and happens every month. In November 2016 biologist, Vanessa Bézy captured something special on her drone camera – a swarm of hundreds of thousands of turtles; the largest swarm ever filmed. Why there were so many remains a mystery, but it is a spectacular sight. Protecting these turtles continues to be a high priority to environmentalists. Learn more (and see the amazing video) from National Geographic.

Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies mating

Most people would consider fruit flies to be annoying but otherwise unremarkable. But, as it turns out, those little fliers carry big secrets. It seems they are into free love and they swarm to get in on the action. Their urge to reproduce turns them into sex-crazed, orgy-loving little beasties. According to this article, their initial one-on-one heterosexual coupling escalates into an extended session of group sex. There’s more, but I’ll be discreet and let you read it for yourself. 

Monarch butterflies create epic and beautiful swarms as they migrate to and from their winter homes in the mountains of Mexico. Much of their travels are still a mystery, but we do know that they number in the millions (150,000,000 or more) once they arrive. Here is a video done by National Geographic using a fake hummingbird camera to get up close without disturbing them. It’s amazing. And, this video, lets you hear how sounds there. 

A man in white clothes stands by some trees next to a river. The trees are covered in spider webs.
And then there are the spider swarms. And for many people, these are the creepiest of all. In the fall months here in the Southwest, male tarantulas leave their burrows and take to the roads in search of lady tarantulas. They number in the hundreds, and even thousands, as they venture out (here’s more from Marfa, Texas). While the tarantulas we see in our country are generally harmless to people, there are others that are more problematic. Case in point: Australian Diving Tarantulas (yes, they go underwater). These guys have a particularly strong venom that can severely sicken a person. And, in 2015 (for reasons unknown), roughly 25,000 of these spiders swarmed the little town of Maningrada, Australia. That must have been a very scary scene, even for the bravest of spider-lovers.  Another truly frightening spider swarm happed in 2011 in Pakistan and, to be honest, this is where my love of nature crashes right into my tapped-down arachnophobia. That year, after unprecedented flooding, the arachnid population moved to high ground. Specifically, into trees. Once there, they set up house and spun webs. Tree after tree was covered in webs in which millions of 2-inch spiders lived. Altogether too much for me. 

A swarm of deadly jellyfish moving through the water.

Here’s wishing you a happy, creepy Halloween… and if you come across a swarm, get out of the way. 

Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Vampires Are Everywhere

A cartoon Dracula peeking around a corner and waving hello.
We humans have an interesting relationship with vampires. On the one hand, we have created a whole genre of creatures to horrify, titillate and entertain ourselves. We like the über creepy Nosferatu type vampire, and we like sexy dreamer Twilight type vampires. We like them all. But, while we may like fictional vampires, we revile the animal most closely associated with vampires - vampire bats. For as much as we love fake vampires, it seems people just don’t like to think about real-life vampires. Nevertheless, we are surrounded by them on a daily basis.  

Most of the common insects that plague people are bloodsuckers. There are mosquitoes, bed bugs, various flies and fleas, ticks and leeches. And I probably missed a few. These insects represent a staggering disease toll taken on the human population. For instance, mosquitoes continue kill more people than any other animal and fleas helped spread the Black Death that tried to wipe out Europe in the mid-1300s. Not all blood-feeding insects are dangerous to humans, but the ones that are a threat are super dangerous to humans. 

Vampire Bat

There are a surprising number of vampires hiding amongst us in the animal kingdom. For various evolutionary reasons, these animals have adapted to use blood as a food source. Here are some you may not be familiar with, and all have just as much creep cred as any old flying bat:

Dracula Ants (Adetomyrma venatrix) – 

A close-up of a Dracula ant
These rare ants are from Madagascar and are endangered, which is just one of the things that are unusual about them (most ant species thrive spectacularly). Perhaps part of their problem is that they are horrible parents – they’ve earned their common name by their habit of sucking the blood of their young. More specifically, they poke holes in their larvae and slurp up the hemolymph (ant blood) therein. Scientists say this does not harm the larvae, but I remain unconvinced. These ants will also consume the larvae entirely if the colony runs out of food, which is undeniably harmful. Other interesting facts about this insect are that their workers are blind and that they have the fastest animal movement on record – they can snap their mandibles at speeds of up to 200 mph (more on that here).

Vampire Moths (Calyptra spp) – 

A beige Vampire Moth sitting on a person's finger and looking directly into the camera.
While people are busy swatting at mosquitoes or running from bats, they may fall victim to a seemingly harmless little moth – because who’s afraid of a moth? You might want to be, because it seems that the males of these moths have branched out from piercing into fruit and sucking out the juice to piercing into mammals and sucking out the blood. And they don’t bite and run like most mosquitoes do, some will stay on their host for up to 50 minutes! Scientists have not determined definitely why the moths drink blood and why only the males do it, but it is believed it adds something beneficial to their sperm. Vampire moths are fairly widespread across the globe and are not specific in their choices of host animals, but the feeding habits of all the species have not been well documented yet. Which means that you may or may not be in danger of getting bitten by a moth seeking male enhancement. More on these bite-y little things here (including a video that shows their drilling technique while feeding). 

Surprisingly (at least to me)  there are a number of birds that are vampires. And not big and scary-looking ones like vultures (who only ingest blood incidentally while they feed on carrion). These vampires are more seemingly-sweet creatures hiding gruesome tendencies. Bird vampires appear to have evolved from being parasite-eaters to supplementing parasites with doses of blood. It is easy to see how a tick eater could morph into a direct blood drinker.  
Tristan Thrush eating a dead bird. Photo by Brian Gatwicke

Vampire Finch (Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis) and Tristan Thrush (Turdus eremita) - 

From the nursery of evolution, the Galapagos Islands, these two birds have a varied diet, including the blood of other birds. With limited food resources on the islands, it seems only sensible to get whatever you can from whatever you can. Here’s a video of a Vampire Finch sourcing a Boobie bird's blood. A picture of  the Vampire Finch preying on a Boobie won Wildlife Photographer of the Year for Thomas P. Peschak in 2018 - see it here. The Tristan Thrush is another island-based bird with the same blood-sucking habit. In this case, they occasionally like to suck on penguin blood, but it's not a major source of nutrition. They are expert scavengers  and will find food wherever it presents itself. For instance, they will pull other birds out of their burrows, peck them to death and eat them. These guys are brutal - but survivors.  

Oxpecker bird drinking from a wound. Photo by Ian White on Flickr.
Oxpecker Bird (Buphagus spp) – 

These African birds don’t mess around with other birds, they go straight for some of the largest mammals on Earth. They ride around on the backs of buffaloes, giraffes and the like and clean off parasites. But they want blood as much as parasites and will not hesitate to create or reopen wounds to get what they want. These birds can be major pests to their hosts and possibly dangerous to the weakest ones. Here’s video that shows them feeding on, and squabbling over, a buffalo’s blood.  

Looking into the mouth of a Lamprey.
I’ve saved the worst for last in this list of blood-lovers – the Lamprey. For me, the horror factor of these animals is way above and beyond any fictional monster. These fish have thrived and remained unchanged for 360 million years partly because they have pared down to simple sucking machines. They have no jaws or scales; they are simply an elongated body with a suction-cup mouth full of hook-like teeth in circular rows. They are parasites and live to find a host fish to latch onto and live off its blood. The creepiness factor for these fish is really ratcheted up when you see them in the large, squirmy masses they congregate in. Their design may be efficient, but I do not want to ever be in any water that they are in (and they live in fresh and salty water worldwide!). This article has a great video with some close-ups of the mouth, which should explain why I find them so freaky.

Either share your blood willingly or watch your back closely; there are plenty of things that want a piece of you. 

A vampire creature holding a bat and saying "Your wife has a beautiful neck".

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

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