fire ant raft

Fire ants are a major hazard in the Southern US. Whether you stumble onto a colony of these tiny stinging demons or simply stand too near a nest, you’ll likely end up with painful reminders of how appropriately these insects are named.

The mounds – which can approach a density of 1,000 per acre – are usually 1 to 3 inches tall and made of soft dirt, but can sometimes approach a full 12 inches in height. It’s not unusual for a medium-sized nest to hold tens of thousands of ants.

Among environments fire ants like to construct nests is along riverbanks and around ponds. As someone who likes to fish, I’ve discovered many a fire ant nest the hard way.

So, while I have a soft spot for most living things, it is with a child-like glee that, after a day of fishing, I will take occasion to carefully kick ant nests into the water when the opportunity presents itself.

The way I see it, anything that can harm me or my kids – along with any other living creature unfortunate enough to blunder along – is fair game. And if I can help cut down on these invasive pests, even better.

One thing that always caught my attention was how the ants, after being punted into the drink, would cling together. This is no accident, according to a recent study released by scientists from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

When faced with a flood, ants use their own bodies to form a raft and rely on the buoyancy of the brood and the recovery ability of workers to minimize injury or death, according to the study, released earlier this week. In addition, the queen ant is placed in the middle and protected on all sides by the rafting ants.

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asian giant hornet

A tidbit often trotted out to allay the anxiety of those who decline to so much as dip their toes in the ocean for fear of shark attack is that far more people die from insect stings each year than from man-eating fish.

The difference being, of course, that shark attacks generate considerable media attention while insect stings, even when they cause death, rarely make more than local news.

Not so in China, where more than two dozen people were recently killed and hundreds more injured in a wave of attacks by giant hornets.

Victims described being chased for a thousand feet or more by the creatures and stung as many as 200 times, according to The Guardian.

The culprit appears to be the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which grows up to two inches long with a quarter-inch sting.

It is the world’s largest hornet and is known colloquially as the “yak-killer hornet.”

The Asian giant hornet injects a particularly potent venom that can damage tissue. Its sting can lead to anaphylactic shock and renal failure.

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silkworms

Prior to the War Between the States South Carolina’s Fairfield County was among the most prosperous areas in the state and the nation.

A good part of this wealth, it should be noted, was in the form of slaves.

According to U.S. Census data, Fairfield County population’s in 1860 included 15,534 slaves. A decade later not only were all those individuals freed, but the county’s population of blacks had decreased by 9 percent, to approximately 14,100.

In addition to the above loss of “property,” Union troops had done severe damage to the county seat of Winnsboro, burning much of the city in the waning days of February 1865, shortly after having laid waste Columbia, S.C., to the west.

So by the following year, with many of the county’s able-bodied white males dead or crippled from the war, a significant percentage of former slaves having moved from the area and general destitution evident throughout the region, residents were desperate.

One plan hatched was to try to create a silk industry in Fairfield County.

Katharine Theus Obear, writing in 1940 at age 88 in Through the Years in Old Winnsboro, recalled that a supply of silkworms were acquired and distributed to individuals in the county.

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brood II cicadas

After nearly two decades underground, billions of Brood II cicadas are expected to swarm the US East Coast in the coming two months.

Between mid-April and late May, the insects will emerge from the ground in an area ranging from New York to North Carolina, inhabiting trees for four to six weeks and looking for mates.

To get an idea of just how many cicadas will tunnel to the surface after being in the ground since 1996, residents in areas where this year’s “invasion” is forecast can expect as many as 1.5 millions of cicadas per square mile.

Called Brood II cicadas, they are periodic cicadas that hatch every 17 years.  Periodical cicadas are unique in their combination of long, prime-numbered life cycles – emerging after either 13 or 17 years – precisely timed mass emergences, and active and vocal choruses, according to the website www.magicicada.org.

Magicicada is the genus of the 13-year and 17-year periodical cicadas of eastern North America.

“Periodical cicadas are found only in eastern North America. There are seven species — four with 13-year life cycles and three with 17-year cycles. The three 17-year species are generally northern in distribution, while the 13-year species are generally southern and Midwestern,” the website added.

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The modern-day flea, at 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch, is among the most bothersome of insects, with bites that can be both irritating and, at times, dangerous to humans.

Imagine, though, what life would have been like 150 million years ago, when blood-sucking fleas nearly an inch long scuttled across the earth.

That’s the claim being made by Chinese and French paleontologists, who have pored over nine extraordinary fossils unearthed from Inner Mongolia and Liaoning province.

The ancient fleas measured about eight-tens of an inch long for females, and nearly six-tenths of an inch for males, according to Agence France-Presse.

The fleas, which co-existed with dinosaurs, were wingless and, unlike their counterparts today, could not jump and had comparatively small mouths, according to the study.

But for all that, they were supremely adapted to their environmental niche, and a description of the prehistoric parasites sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie.

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Swimming recently in the Tyger River along the Union County-Newberry County border, my kids and I came across half a dozen Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

These were fully grown specimens nearly two inches long, smooth and green, with black bands and yellow spots.

They were quite spectacular, provided insect larvae are your thing.

The small group we found were feeding on what appeared to be Virginia snakeroot located along the riverbank.

The Black Swallowtail is a black butterfly with yellow markings near the margins of the forewings and hindwings, and more limited blue and red markings on the hindwings, according to a description by the Texas A&M Extension Service. Its wingspan can reach 4-½ inches.

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The name inspires giggles among children, but if you work the land for a living stink bugs are nothing to laugh about.

Brown marmorated stink bugs were first discovered in eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1990s, but likely arrived before that. They are now found in more than 30 states, including South Carolina. They have wasted little time making their presence felt, and not just in an olfactory sense, according to The Economist.

“They feed on some 300 species of plant, including figs, mulberries, corn, citrus fruits as well as soybeans, legumes and weeds,” according to the publication. “They do little damage to the plant itself, but they make fruit and vegetable unmarketable. Pennsylvania lost half of its peach population last season. Several New Jersey pepper-growers saw 75% of their crops damaged. According to the US Apple Association, apple-growers in the mid-Atlantic states lost $37m. This year could be worse.”

Adults are approximately two-thirds of an inch long and features shades of brown on both the upper and lower body surfaces. They are the typical “shield” shape of other stink bugs, almost as wide as they are long.

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A half decade ago the future of the honey bee was said to be in jeopardy from colony collapse disorder as big media went overboard on yet another sky-is-falling story designed to whip media consumers into a frightened frenzy.

But as the South Carolina Beekeepers Association begins its three-day meeting today at Clemson the key issues here in the Palmetto State isn’t CCD, but that queen bees are dying sooner than expected and bears are destroying and eating the brood and honey in hives, according to Mike Hood, executive secretary of the association and Clemson entomology professor.

“We are really focusing on bear control in one of our seminars,” Hood told the Anderson Independent Mail, adding that the main goal of the meeting isn’t to scare people with problems but to educate them so beekeepers can enjoy their hobby.

“We want to bring them up to date on what is going on in the beekeeping world and to train them to be better beekeepers and better informed,” he said.

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A pair of Canadian universities on Wednesday began an effort to breed a hardier honey bee in an attempt to reduce the chances of another massive die-off.

Researchers at the universities of Guelph and Manitoba are heading the program, which seeks to breed a better bee through genetic selection, according to Agence France-Presse.

“It will also screen new products for pest and disease control, and try to come up with new ways of managing pollination colonies that face risks that include parasites, bacterial infections and pesticides resulting from the impact of human activities on the environment,” according to the report.

The Canadian government is providing $244,000 to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association to participate in the project.

The goal is to “help beekeepers secure sustainable honey harvests and provide essential pollination services to the fruit and vegetable industry,” the Canadian government said in a statement.

Honey bee colony declines in recent years have reached 10 to 30 percent in Europe, 30 percent in the United States, and up to 85 percent in Middle East, according to a United Nations’ report released earlier this year.

The term “colony collapse disorder” first began to appear in 2006 due to a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of Western honey bee colonies in North America. The cause is still not fully understood.

Honey bees, which pollinate more than 100 different crops, are critical to global agriculture. They represent as much as $83 billion in crop value worldwide each year and roughly one-third of the human diet, Agence France-Presse reported.

In the Palmetto State, there are an estimated 2,000 beekeepers who manage about 25,000 honey bee colonies, according to the South Carolina Beekeepers Association

“We’re looking for bees (for the breeding program) that are resistant to mites and with a greater tolerance to viruses because these appear to be the two main factors behind colony loss,” Rob Currie, entomology professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, told the wire service.

“Hopefully we can keep our bees going by making them stronger.”

Currie said the university has had success so far in keeping bee losses down to 40 percent in tests exposing them to diseases, compared to 75 percent previously.

“It’s not a total success, but it’s a significant improvement and that makes quite a lot of economic difference,” he added.

British researchers believe they have unlocked the mystery of how bumblebees plan their route between the most nectar-laden flowers while travelling the shortest distances, a puzzle that has long vexed academics.

New research from University of London’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences explored the movement of bumblebees as they collected nectar from five artificial flowers varying in reward value.

The research into optimizing routes based on distance and the size of potential rewards, led by Dr. Mathieu Lihoreau and published in the British Ecological Society’s Functional Ecology, is reminiscent of Traveling Salesman problem in mathematics, first formulated in 1930 but still one of the most intensively studied problems in optimization, according to Pysorg.com.

“Animals which forage on resources that are fixed in space and replenish over time, such as flowers which refill with nectar, often visit these resources in repeatable sequences called trap-lines,” Lihoreau said. “While trap-lining is a common foraging strategy found in bees, birds and primates we still know very little about how animals attempt to optimize the routes they travel.”

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