Poem of the moment: William Cullen Bryant on the summer of 2011

July 31, 2011

He did not write specifically for this year, of course.

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by William Cullen Bryant

A power is on the earth and in the air,
From which the vital spirit shrinks afraid,
And shelters him in nooks of deepest shade,
From the hot steam and from the fiery glare.
Look forth upon the earth—her thousand plants
Are smitten; even the dark sun-loving maize
Faints in the field beneath the torrid blaze;
The herd beside the shaded fountain pants;
For life is driven from all the landscape brown;
The bird hath sought his tree, the snake his den,
The trout floats dead in the hot stream, and men
Drop by the sunstroke in the populous town:
As if the Day of Fire had dawned, and sent
Its deadly breath into the firmament.

July 31, 2011 – Today’s poem appears in Poems, published by University of Michigan.  Read more about this book.

Cicada killers, 2011 edition

July 6, 2011

It’s slower population growth than in the past, but earlier, too.

In earlier years we’ve had cicada killer wasps — cicada hawks, in some parlance — as early as July 7.  Rains fell all spring in 2010, which discouraged the emergence of cicadas and their predators.  First certified sighting in our backyard did not occur until July 18.

Cicada Killer, with cicada - photo by Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Cicada Killer, with cicada - photo by Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service, Bugwood.org, via University of Delaware Cooperative Extension

We had modified a planter, and that may have killed some of the larvae.  Generally 2010 was a slow year for the large wasps.  My guess is that they were less active locally because the ground remained wet through July and into August.  I still get e-mails asking about how to get rid of them, and I still recommend watering the spots you want them to leave.  The females sting and paralyze a cicada, then plant that cicada in a tunnel underground with one wasp egg.  The young wasp hatches and feeds on the cicada, emerging usually the next summer to carry on the cycle (in a long summer, there may be a couple of hatchings, I imagine).  Females do not like to tunnel in wet ground, partly because it collapses on them, and I suspect wet ground is conducive to fungi and other pests that kill the eggs or hatchlings. Our wet weather kept them away last year.

I waited to say anything this year because I wanted more, but we saw the first cicada killer wasps this year on June 27, 2011, the earliest date we recorded here.  I had hoped to get a good photo, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Down at Colorado Bend State Park, the cicada killers greeted our arrival, much to the panic of the little kids in the campsite next door.  They were happy to learn the wasps don’t aim to sting them, and the kids actually watched them at work.  One of the wasps reminded me of just how much they like dry ground — she kept tunneling into the fire pit, unused now because of the fire bans that cover 252 of Texas’s 254 counties.  Covering the holes, putting objects over the holes, nothing could dissuade her from using that site.  I hope for the sake of the larvae that they hatch soon, and get out, before someone builds a fire in the pit.  Some of the cicadas in that area hit 110 decibels at least, and they badly need the discipline of a force of cicada killers, if you ask me.

Prowling the yard this morning I found two more emergence holes.  The wasps leave a smaller hole than the cicadas, so I’m pretty sure they are back in force.

Nature, red in tooth and claw, the poets say.  Or in this case, moist in sting.

It’s summer.  By the weather, it’s late summer.   Hello, cicada killers, Sphecius speciosa.

Earlier at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:


Some teachers had great summer experiences

August 6, 2010

One of our more adventurous teachers spent the summer on a Fulbright-Hays program in Senegal, in West Africa.

Lunch in Senegal, William Adkins photo

No, that's not William Adkins. That's his lunch one day in Senegal.

William Adkins’ African adventure blog is here.  Mine it for stuff you can use in economics, art, world history, world geography, or anything else.  He’ll probably give you free reign to use the photos for classroom presentations.

What did you do on your summer vacation?

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Cicada hawks a month early – another sign of climate change?

July 2, 2009

Well I remember summer camp as a Boy Scout, annually at Maple Dell, a few miles up Payson Canyon, Utah.  Troop 17 camped the week of July 4th, by tradition.  Most other troops avoided that week so families could get together on the holiday — there would be half the usual number of Scouts, and we had a lot more opportunities to hit the rifle range, archery range, rowboats and canoes.  Over four years, we noticed that the annual cicada invasion would usually start near the end of that week, as the Utah heat started its march toward August records.  It was a good week to camp, to avoid the heat and the astounding noise of those insects.

As an Explorer, and junior camp staff member later, I spent entire summers at Maple Dell.  We’d start in early June, when the Payson River still ran icy from the snow runoff, and when our sleeping bags would be coated with frost in the morning.  Cicadas in July said it was warming.  Cicadas in August screamed it was hot — sometimes near 100° F, a dramatic shift from the frost just eight weeks earlier.

In Maryland, one year we lived through the confluence of the 13-year and 17-year locusts, which are related to cicadas. (Bug Girl?  You out there?  Help me out on these details.)  The adults would literally coat trees.  They’d mate and die, and fall to the street, where cars would smush them — driving was more treacherous than driving on ice.  What few predators there were — and the predators seemed awfully few in relation to the billion locusts per acre — would eat their fill, and then ignore the rest of the mob.  The locusts came earlier than the cicadas, as I recall — but still later in the summer.

A post I wrote two years ago has been getting a lot of hits. In late July 2007 I wrote of the return of the cicada hawks, here in Dallas.  Each summer since, about the time the cicada hawks return, people start cruising the web to find out how to get rid of them, mostly (don’t, they’re practically harmless).   As I watched the traffic counts, I noticed that I had posted it on July 20 back in 2007.  I wrote that the wasps had been around for about ten days, then.  Last year I posted a welcome to the wasps on July 8.

Cicada killers at Boisenberry Lane, Dallas

Cicada killer wasps on Boisenberry Lane, Dallas, 2008 - copyright Ed Darrell

I saw my first cicada-killer wasp in 2009 about  June 10.  We didn’t have cicadas, then, that I could find.  The cicadas started buzzing on June 21, the first day of summer.  Our backyard is quite busy with cicada hawks right now, tracking down the cicadas and digging the holes in which to store the cicada zombies.

I hate to crash the denialists’ parties, but it sure seems to me that this cicada season thing is moving up.  The tilt of the Earth is still 23°.  The amount of daylight is the same.  What factors other than climate warming would cause these insects to come earlier each year?  What’s your experience?

More information:

Cicadas, cicada-killer wasps are back!

July 20, 2007

Cicada killer wasp, from Purdue University

Extensive rains delayed them a bit, but our annual cicada cycle started up with vigor sometime in the last ten days. For the past three years, we get the announcement at our house, not from the cicadas singing from the trees, but from the cicada-killer wasps that buzz our back patio area, scouting the yard for good places to bury their prey.

It started with one female burying cicadas under the patio; perhaps another joined her by the end of the first season. But last year, we had about a dozen buzzing about the yard. We have plenty of cicadas, so it should be good pickings for the wasps — so long as no one sprays insecticide on them.

These wasps are larger than most wasps, as long as 2.5 inches, and big enough to muscle a cicada around. The cicadas are twice as big, volume wise, but I suspect they weigh less. In any case, the wasps show outstanding strength and coordination in zooming around carrying their paralyzed victims to their holes — yesterday I saw a wasp rocket into a hole in the garden without the usual stop to drop the cicada and tug it in. The hole was a perfect fit. Jet air delivery.

The wasps leave us alone as we watch. We’ve never been stung, and I don’t know that these guys sting humans (unless attacked, and I assume they’d fight back).

Their ability to move dirt is amazing. We usually get a pile of soil about a foot around and three to six inches high at each hole.

So far as I know, down here in Dallas we don’t get any massive infestations of the the 13- or 17-year cicadas. I cannot imagine how such a feast might affect these industrious little guys, other than they might fly themselves to death. We lived through a double hatching of the 13- and 17-year cicadas in Maryland. Corpses of the cicadas made some streets slick enough they were dangerous to drive. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for a few thousand cicada killers then!

Cicada killers, or cicada hawks, sting and paralyze cicadas, then inter the still-living cicada with one egg laid in it for male larvae, or one egg with two cicadas, for female larvae. The wasp egg hatches and the larva consumes the fresh cicada; some of the wasps survive the winter, and I don’t know if the cicada is kept fresh the entire time, or if a few of the wasps hatch and go dormant.

My photos didn’t turn out as well as those from Purdue and Michigan State — the buggers are fast and restless. The photos could easily have come from our yard, with the massive blossoming of the yellow composites right now (“DYCs” in local horticultural parlance).

Watch your yard — you probably have these tiny “True Life Adventures” going on in your own backyard. You can encourage them with careful plantings, and especially by not spraying poisons (did I mention that between the predatory insects and the now-large geckoes that have taken up residence here, we don’t have cockroaches and other nasty house pests?).

The photo below shows a wasp carrying a cicada.

Cicada killer carrying cicada, from Michigan State U Extension

Update on resources (7-30-2008):

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