Venomous and Poisonous Creatures

Red Velvet Ants or Cow Killer Ants

Velvet Ant (Photo: Mary Kiern Flicker Sharing)

It's Really a Wasp

Working outside, and in Education, I often get queries and questions about things people find in their yards or sidewalks. This week was no different, one of the researchers where I work messaged me asking about a big red fuzzy ant that has a black stripe on it. This fuzzy visitor is quite common in the Eastern US so it was an easy ID, but I thought it worth doing a post to introduce you to some quick facts about red velvet ants, also called cow killers, and their relatives. Most species of velvet ants are found in the southern and western parts of North America, and there are over 50 species in Florida alone,

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Wolf Spider Facts and Pictures

Wolf spider (Hogna Lenta) (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Is it Really the Big Bad Wolf?

Have you ever been out with friends, and you see a big hairy spider and someone yells, "wolf spider!"? Now the thing is, there are lots and lots of big brown spiders out there (and "big" is relative to how much you hate spiders too). Wolf spiders are the ones that have a bad reputation because they're big and brown and easy to see, and they have a fierce sounding name so people remember them. If they were called "floofy brown Betsies" or "hairy teddy bears" then most folks would probably just chalk them up to big brown things that happen to saunter through now and again.  But no...a biologist long ago thought that wolf spiders hunted like wolves, in packs, and they named the family "Lycosidae." This comes from the Greek "lycosa" meaning wolf. Any time you see an "a" after a Greek name it means the critter is a predator, it eats meat. In the case of spiders, bugs and other small creatures, this particular family name is misleading because wolf spiders the world around are really solitary and don't like hunting in packs. They do pounce on prey but not quite like a wolf does. So let's get down to some real wolf spider facts and pictures.

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Jellyfish Stings and How To Treat them

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Sea nettle (Photo: Baltimore Aquarium, Flicker Sharing).

Don't Pee on That Arm!

How many comedies have you watched where someone was stung by a jellyfish and the "hero" very selflessly offers to pee on the sting site? It really is just a comedy line, there is no truth in the myth and it can even make things worse! Yes, research as been done on this, and there's a great article in "Scientific American." If you'd like to read it, click here.  For this article I'm going to do two things:     1) Explain what happens when you get stung by a jellyfish and 2) Give you some treatment options.

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Mushroom Circles or Fairy Rings What Are They?

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Fairy ring or mushroom circle (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Unukorono)

Magic or Mundane?

One of the magic parts of summer, for me, is the appearance of mushroom circles and lightening bugs. Fairy rings have captured imaginations around the world, and they are found in folklore from Scandinavia to Europe and North America.  They're even included in  fairy tales called "The Fairy Ring: A Collection of Tales and Traditions" by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1857).

There's some neat biology around mushroom circles (also called elf circles or pixie rings), but it makes them no less magical. So let's dive into to explore what is known about them.

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Lion's Mane Jellyfish: Winter Visitors to the Chesapeake Bay

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Lion's Mane jellyfish (Photo: Aplonid, Flicker Sharing).

Lion's Mane or Winter Jellyfish

As a kayaker and rower I tend to stay on the water as long as safely possible, right up until water and air temperatures become unsafe without a dry suit. Winter paddling and being on the water can be great fun, especially when you look for winter visitors that may be here for the season. One such visitor is the lion's mane jellyfish or winter jelly. Here in the Chesapeake Bay it's a common visitor to our waters in cold months. Many of my friends send me pictures asking exactly what they're seeing, and why there are jellyfish moving in the waters in winter, so I thought a post about these unique invertebrates might be in order.

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Bee Sting Remedy 

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Bumblebees like this can sting multiple times, and don't leave in a stinger (Photo: Karen McDonald)

What To Do If You're Stung

At the best of times it's nearly impossible to avoid bees and wasps. Regardless of how most people view them, I'm a huge fan of bees and wasps. This is because they help pollinate plants to create food and they eat other insects. The upshot is that nature has armed them a defense that humans find painful, stings.

I'll say this up front, I'm not a doctor, but I have been an outdoor educator for over 15 years, and I've been stung, or dealt with stings, in places you don't want to imagine (including the tongue). From these experiences I wanted to share with you ways to find bee sting relief and what to do for a bee sting if you are stung.

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Identifying Common Insect Bites and Stings

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A bee with its mandibles and sucking mouth parts. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Answering Questions About Spider & Insect Bites and Stings

When I take groups into the woods, along the shores, or into the field, invariably we have to deal with bug bites. One of the most common questions I get is, "What does a spider bite look like?" or "How can I tell what bit me?" It's a tough question to answer, but I'll try to provide you with some basics of what to look for.

There are more insects and invertebrates on Earth than any other living creatures, thus it becomes difficult to specifically classify how they all behave and how they interact with humans, in part because it varies by where you are, the temperament of the crawlie wee beast, the invertebrate's physical make-up, your physical chemistry, etc. However, there are a  few commonalities you can look for.

NOTE: I am not a medically trained doctor, so please take the materials below as general advice and guidelines, and seek professional treatment if you have been bitten or stung, and you need assistance.

First, Not All Things That Bite And Sting Are Insects

Remember, all insects have three body parts and six legs. This means that not all invertebrates that bite are insects. This is true of spiders, which have two body parts and eight legs, as well as ticks, chiggers, scorpions, and leeches.

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Copper Head Snakes and Water Snakes

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Copperhead snake (Photo: Michale McCarthy, Flicker sharing)

Identification of the venomous copperhead snake and the harmless northern banded water snake

In the Eastern US one of the biggest fears of homeowners and people who work or play outside near the water is venomous spiders and snakes. However, in fear of these creatures, other non-venomous and beneficial species are often misidentified and killed. Today's post is how to tell if a snake is a copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortorix) or the harmless northern banded water snake (Nerodia sipedon). Both look similar, but they have some key differences.

Let's Begin with Copperheads....

Copperhead snakes are the most common venomous snake in the Eastern US. They are in the pit viper family (Crotalidae, pronounced Crow-tAl-a-day). They are also in the genus Agkistrodone (pronounced ag-kiss-trow-doe-ne), which includes the cottonmouth or water moccasin. It is a shy snake that is usually not aggressive and its bites are rarely fatal, though they can be painful.

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Identification Tips for Brown Spiders of the Eastern US

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A wolf spider carrying its egg sac. (Photo: Wiki commons)

Knowing What is and is Not A Brown Recluse or Wolf Spider

I'm often amazed at the number of times I've been outdoors with someone and when we see a brown spider immediately someone says, "Look, there's a wolf spider." I have to admit, I hate identifying "little brown jobs" or LBJs (a term we use commonly for brown sparrows when birding) because it's hard to find the fine distinctions between species, especially when the creatures are moving  or you're just skeezed out by the hairy eight legged creature crawling across your floor. However, it is important to understand that not all brown spiders are wolf spiders.

There are many different types of brown spiders and this blog post will help you begin to tell the difference between them. I'm going to write mostly about the spiders common to Eastern and mid-western North America, because this is my home range, but there is some overlap with western species.

A great starting place to learn spider ID and to become familiar with their body parts, names, and  the eye placement of spiders is on the website "Spider Identification Guide." I am particularly fond of their great graphic on the 25 different eye patterns you can find on spiders (I wonder if they make this in poster form?). Begin with the basics of spider anatomy on their website if you need a refresher. They also have a great guide for finding spiders by region and color. Check out their page on "Brown Spiders" for a quick browse of the diversity out there.

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An Introduction to Black Widow Spiders

Check Your Firewood Before Bringing It Inside

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Common North American Black Widow Spider, Female (L. Mactans)

Every year around this time I'm reminded that it's important to check firewood carefully before it comes inside. We keep our wood under a tarp outside near the house. Many different invertebrates, and even salamanders and other reptiles, will overwinter in a wood pile. Be sure to shake off the wood you bring inside because the warm interior of your house is a perfect place to "wake-up" and start crawling around if you're an insect!

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