Of Great Goldens and Little Browns

The Great Golden Digger Wasp - Photo  courtesy of Jennifer HowardThe Great Golden Digger Wasp is a large and colourful insect, shades of gold and orange and russet. We found her diligently digging a nest on a bare patch of ground on the Carolina Dyke in Tiny Marsh. Down she went, into the loonie-sized hole. Pause. Out again, backwards. In and out, with metronomic regularity as our group gathered to watch.

Then Jennifer decided to get a frontal shot and moved into the wasp's line of sight. I thought this might not affect the dogged activity, but no. The wasp stopped and started a dance – it reminded me of the Maori war dance – stamping her feet and waving her antennae at Jennifer. After which, she turned around and did the same at the rest of us. So we decided caution was the better part of valour and beat a retreat. Jennifer got some great pictures.

Despite the dance (or my interpretation of it), and despite its intimidating size, the Great Golden is not aggressive and minds its own business if left alone – though it will sting if you do something like step on it. It’s a beneficial and solitary wasp that does not live in colonies although several females may be found near each other in suitable nesting areas of bare ground, in full sun, with flowering plants nearby.

When digging, the Great Golden doesn’t push the earth behind her, terrier-like, but digs it up and carries it out between her front legs and chin to deposit it beside the hole. She digs half a dozen nests and provisions each one, killing or paralyzing a grasshopper or some such by an injection of toxins and dragging it into the hole. Then she lays an egg on it. When the egg hatches, the grasshopper’s remains become the larvae’s food. Males do not participate in any of this. They’re off feeding on nectar, the adults’ food.

The Great Golden is a creature of routine – so much so that she has been used as a subject in studies of free will in animals that exibit what appears to be thoughtful behaviour. Wikipedia has details. Whatever the case, there is a fascination in observing the female’s dedication to getting the job done, just right, and it’s worth allowing the beauty of this impressive insect to help us overcome an instinctive fear of wasps.

I’ve spent some time recently looking for bees. I found different types congregated at different flowers. Honey bees favour the milkweed. I’ve only counted two or three honey bees each day, which I found first on the Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca), and on the orange Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). When those two finished blooming, the honey bees moved on to the Rose or Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate). Now that is beginning to fade and the Globe Thistle (Echinops sphaerocephalus) is coming into flower just in time to play host. Globe Thistle is not a native plant, it comes from Eurasia, but then neither is the honey bee a native insect. I find Globe Thistle a useful non-native, it is much enjoyed by pollinators and hummingbirds, and the seed heads get picked clean in fall by chickadees and white-crowned sparrows.

I have yet to see a Monarch butterfly on my property this year – I thought I saw one in my field last month but I couldn't get close and I think it was probably a Viceroy, which mimics the unpalatable Monarch to avoid being eaten. It has the same vivid orange colour, but with a dark line along the bottom wing. On July 29, the day of the Great Golden Digger Wasp, we counted four Monarchs and two Monarch caterpillars at Tiny Marsh.

Last year was the first year I didn’t see any bats on my property. White-nose syndrome – a fatal infectious fungal disease – is more than decimating bat populations in Ontario and I figured, no more bats around here from now on. Last night at around 9 p.m., I became aware of a fair bit of activity in the air outside my bedroom window and vaguely wondered what birds were being so busy so late. Then my husband came in from taking the dogs out and told me there were bats. Imagine my surprise! It’s been almost two years since I’ve seen one here.

I don’t know much about bats, but these ones are probably the once-common Little Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus), one of three bat species for which the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada last year asked then Environment Minister Peter Kent to issue an Emergency Order. That would have triggered development of a federal strategy to help the species recover from their endangered status.

I stayed outside to enjoy the swooping and soaring through the dusk that for years was such a familiar sight of a summer evening. There were at least two, maybe more. Welcome back… I hope you can stay…
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