PSA - Watch Out for Killer Hornets

Asian Giant Hornet (Photo by: Thomas Brown, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Back in the 1980s, the world was abuzz about killer bees (officially called "Africanized bees"). Last year, the existence of zombie bees was brought to the attention of the public. Now, somewhat reminiscent of the fictional genetically-engineered tracker jackers from the Hunger Games, we have killer hornets to worry about.

First though, if you happen to come across an article or receive an email saying that giant hornets are mutants created due to radiation exposure from the Fukushima power plant - and that they're killing people in Nebraska - that is false. However, the Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia) does exist, and it can be deadly.

True to their name, these are LARGE hornets that live primarily in Asia. They are especially found in Japan, where they are also known as the Giant Sparrow Bee. These insects are about 2 inches long with a 3 inch wingspan. Their stingers are about a quarter of an inch long. As one might imagine about such a large hornet, the sting is quite potent. It has been described as feeling like a hot nail, and the venom contains a neurotoxin and can cause renal failure. Unless you're allergic, a few stings likely won't kill you, even though they will be quite painful and will leave a substantial wound behind. However, if somebody is unlucky enough to receive 10 stings, they should seek medical attention right away. (Of course, an allergic person needs help for any sting).

This year, the hornets have been more aggressive toward humans than usual. Just in China, they killed at least 42 people between July and the beginning of October, and injured over 1,600.

It's not just humans who are at risk from the Asian Giant Hornet. These predatory insects go after other hornets, mantises, and honey bees as well. They use their mandibles to decapitate their victims, and just a few hornets can destroy an entire honey bee colony in a few hours. Not all bees are defenseless, though. If a hornet scout happens upon a Japanese honey bee colony, the bees form a ball around her. They use their muscles to heat the inside of the ball, and they breathe out carbon dioxide. A few bees die, but the heat and CO2 also kill the hornet, which prevents her from summoning others to the hive.

Keep Your Bird Feeders Stocked Through the Winter

Chickadee on a bird feeder (own work)

Some well-intentioned people operate under the misconception that all birds head south for winter. I live in the northern half of the US, and while shopping at my local grocery store last fall, I noticed a display of bird food and bird feeders. I stopped to check them out (my old feeders were due to be replaced). While I was examining a feeder, a young boy and his grandfather walked by. I overheard the boy ask if they could get a bird feeder, and the grandfather said (loudly, as if he was making sure I could hear), “Why would anybody buy a bird feeder this time of year? The birds are all going south!”

Another time, once again in fall, I was having a chat with a former co-worker about backyard birds. When the topic of feeding them came up, he said, “That reminds me. It’s about time to take the feeders down for the winter.”

Actually, as I explained to my co-worker, winter is a great time to feed the birds, even for those who live in more northerly latitudes. While it is true that some birds do in fact head south when the weather starts cooling off, quite a few stick around. Blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, chickadees, finches, titmice, and sparrows are just some of the birds who are year-round residents. There are even some birds that migrate to the northern US from even further north. I always know winter is almost here when I see dark-eyed juncos hopping around in my backyard.

Food sources for these birds are scarcer in winter than they are during warmer months. Plants aren’t growing and producing new seeds or fruit, and most insects are dead or dormant. If you keep your feeders stocked, you’ll be sure to draw a crowd! I have a few birds who are regular visitors to my yard in summer, but my feeders are a bustling center of bird activity in winter. I also see a much wider variety of birds when it’s cold.

If you decide to offer food in winter, higher fat foods are best. They are higher in calories, and birds burn off a lot of calories just trying to stay warm. Sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, peanuts, and suet are good choices for most birds. If you’re not squeamish about it, you can also offer dried mealworms and insects. Just keep in mind that suet, peanuts and sunflower seeds are likely to draw squirrels and other critters as well. It’s said that squirrels don’t care for safflower, but that seems to vary by region.


Only Two Bat Species Can Walk

Vampire Bat (Photo by: Ltshears, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Whenever we see bats in photos, videos, or even in real life, they are almost always flying or hanging. If you visit a nature center and see a program about bats (or if a bat program comes to your school), you'll usually see them being held in a demonstrator's hand. We almost never see them walking. It turns out that the reason for that is simple - most bats can't walk.

Bats are the only mammals that can fly, and they are extremely specialized for this skill. Their bodies have an aerodynamic shape, their bones are light, and their wings are thin, flexible, and hypersensitive. In fact, their wings have almost two dozen joints, and are covered with Merkel cells, which are the touch-sensitive cells found on our fingertips.

Unfortunately, most bats' rear legs are more or less useless for anything except hanging. They are very thin and weak with fragile bones. Their knees also face backwards. If a bat ends up on the ground, he'll use his front limbs to clumsily drag his body while keeping pressure off the back legs. This can be awkward, since the front limbs are meant for flying rather than crawling.

However, out of the over 1,200 species of bat, there are two species that actually can walk - the vampire bat and the burrowing bat (also known as the lesser short-tailed bat). In fact, a laboratory study using treadmills showed that vampire bats can even sprint on all fours. They primarily use their front limbs, and can even reach speeds of 2.7 miles per hour. That may not sound very fast to a jogger or power walker, but it's definitely respectable for a small animal that's more equipped for flight.

The burrowing bat has adaptations conducive to walking - claws at the base of their toes, grooves on their feet, and elbow joints that bend sideways and allow them to use their wrists to push off. Burrowing bats take advantage of these traits to forage for food on the ground as well as in the air.

What's the Difference Between a Raven and a Crow?

American Crow (Image by: DickDaniels, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many people see a rather large black bird and assume the bird is a raven. Or a crow. Some people assume ravens and crows are the same type of bird. That's understandable, since they look similar at first glance. To make things more confusing, both birds belong to the crow (corvus) family, and any member of that family can be called a crow. That means a raven could be called a crow, but not all crows could be called ravens. What's the difference between a raven and a crow?

Technically speaking, a crow is any bird from the genus, corvus. However, the word "crow" is most often used to refer to just a few specific species. In North America, it usually refers to either the American Crow or the Northwestern Crow. In Europe, it usually refers to the Carrion Crow or the Hooded Crow. Most crows are black in color (however, the Hooded Crow is mostly grey), have a wingspan of around three feet, and are around 18-21 inches in length, depending on the particular species. They eat almost anything - fruit, nuts, carrion, eggs, small rodents, amphibians, scraps from garbage, etc. They tend to hang out near humans so they can scavenge. Crows are very intelligent, and are often regarded as some of the world's smartest animals. They make many vocalizations, and are great mimics.

Common Raven (Image by: David Hofmann, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Most sources will tell you that one of the main differences is that ravens are larger than crows. While this is usually true, it isn't a fool-proof way of telling the birds apart. The Common Raven is generally between 22 and 30 inches in length, and as mentioned above, crows can be as large as 21 inches. Therefore,a large crow can easily be mistaken for a small raven (and vice versa) if you only go by size.

Even so, there are other physical differences you can look for. A raven's feathers are shinier and usually "fluffier" (or appear fuller) than a crow's. A raven's bill is larger and curved closer to the end than that of a crow. Ravens have a slight point in their tail which gives it a wedge shape, while a crow's tail is more rounded. Ravens also look a bit different in flight. They have longer, thinner wings and are likely to be seen soaring. If you see a black bird doing a somersault in the air, you're looking at a raven! If you hear its call, you can usually figure out which bird it is - a crow has a distinctive "caw caw" sound, and a raven's call is deeper and more of a croak. Ravens are also less social than crows and are more likely to live in less populated areas or in parks, though they can adapt to most environments.

Ravens and crows aren't completely different, however. The similarities in appearance are obvious, and both birds have demonstrated problem-solving skills in laboratory experiments and in the wild, which puts them both toward the top of the avian intelligence ladder. They eat similar diets - they are both opportunistic omnivores, even though ravens seem to prefer carrion a little more than crows. Of course, one of the main things crows and ravens have in common is that they are both awesome and fascinating birds.

Elephant Poachers are Poisoning Vultures

Rueppell's vulture (Photo by: Hans Hillewaert, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Here's another entry for the "reasons why people suck" list.

Elephant poaching has been a problem for a quite some time. Poachers kill these majestic beasts primarily to harvest their ivory tusks to sell illegally. The tusks are made into trinkets, which are seen as status symbols in some parts of the world. Elephant hides are also sometimes taken and sold. Rhinos are being poached as well for their horns, which can be carved into objects or used in traditional medicine. Even though trade of ivory is restricted, demand through illegal ivory networks is rising, and poaching is getting worse.

Poaching these animals is bad enough. However, to make things even worse, elephant and rhino poachers are also killing off vultures. Why are they harming these birds? As most people know, vultures eat dead animals. When something as large as an elephant dies, you'll find many vultures gathering near the carcass to partake of the feast. Police and wildlife officials use this behavior to their advantage. They can follow the vultures to track the poachers.

Unfortunately, these poachers have no respect for lives other than their own (if they did, they wouldn't be poaching), and the vultures threaten their "businesses." To try to kill off the informers, the criminals poison the elephant and rhino carcasses. When the vultures, who are just looking for something to eat, consume the meat, they die. The poachers hope to eliminate the vultures in the areas they operate. Sadly, these lawbreakers don’t seem to realize that vultures travel huge distances to find food, so it’s impossible to get rid of vultures in a particular zone. Or maybe they do realize it and are fine with playing a huge part in the extinction of these birds.

This past July, there was a poisoning incident in Namibia that killed 600 vultures. This just adds to the list of problems vultures in Africa have been facing for decades. Thanks to habitat loss, predator poisoning from farmers, and the use of veterinary drugs that are deadly to birds, vulture populations in West Africa have declined by 42% in the last 30 years. One species, the Rueppell’s vulture, has been hit particularly hard, with an 85% decline.

New Direction for the Blog...

I live! I also want to do something with this blog again. I originally started it about a year and a half ago as "Animal Fact of the Day." For about a month or so, I was pretty good about posting some sort of animal fact almost every day. However, I soon learned that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Trying to come up with a new and exciting animal fact to write about every day became quite a challenge. I was stressing out over keeping things interesting and fun, and about keeping the content coming. It became a "something I still have to get done today" chore as opposed to something I enjoyed doing. I was starting to burn out, and fast. It didn't help that I went back to work and also started taking classes, both of which took up a lot of my time.

In any case, I've recently started to miss writing about animals. However, the idea of trying to come up with daily animals facts again is still as daunting as ever. Therefore, I've decided to give the blog a bit of a makeover. Animals will still be the main topic, of course. However, posts will cover animal facts, news, and just random basic information. They also won't come every day. I'm thinking maybe one or two posts per week, on average. I could have a particular productive week in which I become inspired to write more, but I doubt that will be a regular occurrence.

Anyway, say goodbye to "Animal Fact of the Day," and hello to "Animal Facts, News, and Info."

Watch Out for Zombie Bees

Maciej Czy┼╝ewski, CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

"Zombie bees" (aka zombees) are showing up is some parts of the United States. Don't worry, they aren't coming after our brains. The poor critters are infested with a parasite.

Apocephalus borealis, a fly known as the "scuttle fly" or "zombie fly", is the culprit. This insect has been known to infect bumble bees and paper wasps in the past, but now it is also using honey bees as hosts. The adult fly lands on the bee's back and injects the eggs into the abdomen. The eggs hatch, and the maggots eat the bee from the inside while they grow. Once a bee is infected, it will abandon the hive at night and fly around erratically in movements reminiscent of a zombie. This goes on until the bee dies and the maggots crawl out to pupate. 

As of October 3, 2012, the problem is primarily in California, where the bees were first discovered in 2008. However, confirmed cases of infection have also been confirmed in Oregon and Washington State, and as far east as South Dakota. The flies themselves have been found scattered across the United States and Canada, all the way to the east coast.    

The honey bee has been a victim of unexplained die-offs around the world in recent years. Bees are also susceptible to a variety of other parasites, bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The zombie fly is yet another threat to populations of one of our most important pollinators.

You can find updates on the spread of the infection at ZomBee Watch.


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