Archive for December, 2008


December 31st, 2008 | Category: animals

Just because I can, here are some pictures to serve as a reminder of gentler weather. Not that I mind snow, or even cold, but we only seem to get the bad part of winter nowdays (in the northeast corridor).  Grey, cold rainy days seemingly without end.

This grows in my back yard in the spring.

A young mockingbird mooning me in the twilight.

A titmouse, tiny and energetic.



December 29th, 2008 | Category: Uncategorized

Behold, a mango, which is good in my sight.

At our house, we really like mangoes.

In fact, we like fruit.  A lot.

We have provisioned ourselves with 28 mangoes, two bunches of bananas, and a bag each of oranges and grapefruit.  It is now a race against time; will they spoil before we can eat them all?  I think not.  For we shall have mangoes in the morning.  We shall have mangoes in the afternoon.  And we shall have mangoes in the evening.  We shall eat bananas in the car on the way to work, and oranges at the other times.  And grapefruit.  And probably banana bread, and diverse mango recipes besides.

Seldom have so few eaten so many.


Enormous freaking spider

December 15th, 2008 | Category: animals

My wife, who is mortally afraid of spiders, came to me a few years ago and announced that she’d found the largest spider she’d ever seen.  I hear this kind of thing all the time, and dutifully trudged off to relocate the animal, expecting a tiny blond spider.  But this time she was right (see her account of the story here).  On the kitchen floor I found a spider the size of a 50-cent piece.  A spider that could move like the wind. The kind of animal that winds up running over the back of your hand while you’re trying to capture it, and you can feel its weight.

Of course, I captured it and spent hours photographing it.  Since I’ve been posting bugs lately, I had to post about it.  Don’t forget to click to make it bigger…

The good folks at ID’d it as a “rabid” or “rapid” wolf spider (both apt names).  Wolf spiders can bite people, but usually don’t.  I didn’t take too many chances.  If you look at this image below, you can see the giant mandibles gleaming dully through the “hairs” on its mandibles.  They look like iron meat hooks.

While working with it and looking at it through my magnifying stack of lenses, I noticed for the first time – but not the last while looking at spiders – that it worked its jaws constantly and that it had what appeared to be a tongue, a little pink catlike one, and that the interior of its mouth was wet.  I didn’t realize that spiders had mouths that could open or had saliva, and maybe I didn’t understand what I was seeing, but it sure looked like a little pink mouth with a tongue in it – one that worked maniacally as its huge mandibles rubbed against each other in anticipation of plunging them into the next victim.  Definitely creepy.  It was like a corny villain rubbing his hands together in anticipation of an evil deed.  I could see it looking at me with its many eyes and reacting to my movements.  It didn’t like the flash, but it got used to it.

Spider eyes, by the way, are very different than insect eyes.  For one, spiders do not have compound eyes.  Their eyes are more like our own, or at least, some of their eyes are like ours.  The various sets of eyes are specialized for different purposes – some for use in sensing prey at a distance, some for manipulating prey while feeding, etc.  Kind of like the little video cameras that can be installed on RVs or SUVs for backing up.

Another cool thing about spiders is how they have little cat feet, if you look closely.  When relaxed, they test the surface much like my cat does when she’s walking on something unstable.

Some people keep these as pets. Check out this disturbing image:

Image by Brett Tyler

Image by Brett Tyler

Here is a shot to show you how big this thing was, and also another fact: spider feces looks like bird crap.

More images of this guy can be found here.  I didn’t name it; suggestions, anyone?

And no, I didn’t keep the profoundly creepy thing.  It lives in the back yard now.


Another bug, more eyes

December 13th, 2008 | Category: animals

I’ve been on a bug streak lately.

In the last post I mentioned ocelli, because they were so prominent in the image of the mantis.  Here is another bug – a cicada – showing prominent ocelli, or accessory eyes.  You can see them on the ‘forehead” in between the prominent red compound eyes.  This individual has recently emerged from its nymph stage (leaving the characteristic shell, not shown).  I had this one in a jar and watched the entire sequence unfold.  You can see that its wings have not completely “inflated” yet.

As a nymph, the cicada had no ocelli.  This is because the nymphs don’t have wings; the ocelli function mainly as flying aids. I took this shot in 2004 during the emergence of brood X.

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insect of the day

December 09th, 2008 | Category: animals

Those of you who received my yearly letter may remember this one. It was a large mantid that somehow ended up in my house. It was a difficult and uncooperative subject, refusing to stay still or upright. I had to trap it in a container for the shoot.

It was the most engaged insect subject I’ve had the pleasure to shoot; she watched everything and seemed constantly to be on the verge of violence. One of the things I like about photographing insects is that you are forced to meditate upon your subjects; you spend great amounts of time with them and notice things about them that normally pass under your field of vision. When you see an insect carefully clean itself, and realize that insects are capable of gentleness, it has to make you think that everything you knew about them was bigoted nonsense that must be discarded. I don’t think they are “smart” in the intellectual sense, nor do I have illusions about their brutality – positive or negative.  They are living things and their dramas are as large as ours; larger than the average person’s maybe.

If you click to make this larger, you’ll see the three pseudo-eyes, called ocelli, between the antennae. Did you know that most insects have ocelli? I didn’t, until I began looking.  I’ll try to find some other pictures I’ve taken of insects with ocelli.


Pump it up!

December 06th, 2008 | Category: Uncategorized

While on a business trip, I managed to arrange a short visit with Todd, Melissa & Co. in Colorado Springs. I didn’t understand what I was in for when we took their oldest daughter to this place:

For a reasonable fee, we gained admission, where I assumed we’d watch the kids play whilst we did boring adult stuff like sit around and discuss the economy. But I had no idea what it was like in there.

Instead of the expected pool full of brightly colored balls covered with germs, I found a warehouse-like space full of brightly colored inflatable structures covered with germs.

I am not much of a spectator. I like to get involved. The idea of watching kids on a playground is not exciting for me, because I’d rather be playing too. I expected to see a stern legal notice forbidding heavy people to romp, but it was perfectly OK for the old people to play too.

Inside one of the structures were two enormous boxing gloves. We picked them up and beat each other. Everything is built so that it’s difficult to get hurt, but I managed. My 40-year-old carcass took a bad landing, pressing my neck beneath the weight of my body and making an L shape out of it. Oy gevalt! For the next week, such pains I could tell you about…

Here’s a gratuitous cute picture.

The dog is a quasi-willing playmate and a sweet animal.

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December 03rd, 2008 | Category: animals

In case I haven’t mentioned it, most of the images on my blog are available in high resolution – just click on the image.

Here’s another beautiful insect, this one a katydid, found in the house. It is about 1.5 inches long. This animal is completely harmless, unless you’re a plant. These guys make a real racket – much like cicadas – and are seldom found at ground level. I have no idea how this one ended up inside. Like most insects it is fastidious and is cleaning itself, just like a cat.

You might be tempted to pigeonhole me as a bug-lover because of my last two posts, but that’s not really the truth. I am drawn to these creatures as I am any other, from unicellular to elephantine, because they are all amazing, and most of them are beautiful. There are few animals that I do not admire or appreciate. Bugs are just another form of animal. Of course, some animals are cuter than others!

Insects are almost universally reviled, and I am squeamish too sometimes. But that seems silly when compared to the miracle of these animal’s existence, their survival, their astonishing capabilities, and their intricacy. I often look at one and think “if only I could build something even nearly as reliable and sophisticated!” Currently, the most advanced machines are only shadows of even the simplest insects, or bacteria for that matter.

I remember reading about a computer that was supposed to have a particular skill almost as complex as that of some particular insect (I wish I could find this research now). But that computer, even if it could mimic some of the qualities of an insect, didn’t even come close to the real thing. I’m sure that it consumed hundreds of watts of power, wasn’t waterproof, and couldn’t reproduce or heal itself.

I’m sure that eventually, machinery will reach this level of complexity, but we are not even close yet. However, as Dijkstra once pointed out, maybe we shouldn’t measure the complexity of our machines by comparing them to ourselves – they are amazing in a much different way. There is room in this expansive universe for beauty and awe to be found in every direction. To look, to notice, is to be in awe – of animals and machines.

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A tale of insects and danger

December 03rd, 2008 | Category: animals

Since my mind is on bugs, here is the strangest bug I ever saw at home. One night in the early fall I found this thing on the front porch. It was so unusual, it had to be photographed, and I dropped whatever I was doing. I captured it, brought it inside, and examined it for 3 or 4 hours while photographing it from every angle.

It moved slowly, unthreateningly, like a Parkinson’s sufferer, like something that really wanted to look like a plant moving in the breeze… Notice the strange head and eye placement, and the beautifully adapted feet. And what is that thing on its back?

Eventually, I got around to identifying it and looked it up. Turns out it was a “wheel bug.” Wikipedia has a typical entry for this animal:

This insect is considered one of the largest true bugs in existence… It has one of the most developed mouth parts among true bugs… The bug plunges its beak into its victim… It then injects enzymes into the victim, paralyzing them and dissolving their insides, and proceeds to drain all of the victim’s bodily fluids.

OK, interesting so far, but not too disturbing, since many “bugs” and spiders feed this way. Then I read:

The bite of a wheel bug is painful and may take months to heal (sometimes leaving a small scar), so caution is advised when handling them. The wheel bug is also noted to be very vicious in the wild…

Ok. Time to be free, big bug! I gingerly took it outside and coaxed it onto a branch, getting away unscathed after handling the bug that delivers “one of the most painful bites of any insect in North America, 10 times more painful than a bee sting.” I continued my research:

It possesses two scent sacs (red-orange in colour) that it everts from its anus, especially when disturbed.

Well, that explained something I had noticed, also. It definitely put a musky smell into the air. Great. I “disturbed” one of the most painfully-biting bugs on the continent.  I hadn’t known that, but looking at that “beak” I suspected that it had potential and never let it touch my skin – I always handled it with sticks or in containers.

Possibly the strangest thing of all – this animal is common!  I’m almost 40, how did I never see this before?  There are always miraculous discoveries waiting right under our noses – sometimes, potentially painful ones!


I Hate Cave Crickets

December 02nd, 2008 | Category: animals

Here’s something I wrote a while back, and just found again.

Right now I’m sitting in a mentally toxic meeting, so replete with irrelevant information and incomprehensible acronyms that it’s impossible for me to focus.

In an effort at self-preservation, I’m not paying attention and will write this instead. From time to time I will include bits of the meeting that managed to impinge themselves upon my unwilling consciousness (They will be in bold italics, like this). The meeting had nothing to do with the subject of this post, other than being coincident in time. Think of it in the same way as trying to sleep with the TV on.

When fall comes, everyone prepares for the onset of winter. People install new weather stripping. Squirrels bury nuts. Cave Crickets (also known as camel crickets) move indoors. The OFCCP has attempted for years to properly define “applicant”.

Cave Crickets are a miracle of nature, creatures that are wonderful in their body plan and behavior. Cave Crickets don’t really eat our food, infest our cabinets, or behave like cockroaches generally, although they can and did infest my house, causing literally thousands of dollars of damage with their cement-like droppings. I am not aware that they transmit diseases. Like any insect, they are tiny, miraculous little meat robots. They are beautiful in their own way and utterly harmless, but I hate the f–king things.

Every year at this time, it happens – usually as we’re beginning to think that we’ve not seen any Cave Crickets in a while: we turn on a light, and discover a huge Cave Cricket sitting blithely on the wall at eye-level. Internal review of external requisitions is mandatory.

Many times I’ve wished for a good image of a cave cricket to email in order to properly explain the hideousness of these f–king things. Keep the DST informed of internal candidates. Usually I’m too busy killing them or demolishing some part my house previously damaged by Cave Crickets to get a good image, not to mention the fact that getting near one is difficult. It’s like explosive ordinance disposal; they might go off at any time, flinging themselves at your head with wild abandon. BRAC capture of qualified talent presents significant challenges in the current competitve market environment.

Last night, I was taking pictures of a leaf-hopper, and walked into the computer room to look at the images. Flick goes the light, revealing a huge and particularly arachnidian Cave Cricket. Camera still in hand, I whipped into action and photographed it. Consider the qualifications matrix.

Then I had to capture it.

Cave Cricket capture is a subtle process. Cave Crickets are extremely wary and fast. You cannot usually walk up to one and simply grab it, although sometimes this happens – more on this in a minute. Instead, in a zen-like exercise you must approach the Cave Cricket slowly with a coffee cup in one hand and a stiff piece of paper in the other. You must become empty, void of desire, particularly the desire to capture the Cave Cricket. You must focus with singular concentration on your slowly moving hand. The cup must be lowered slowly, carefully atop the Cave Cricket over a period of about 30 seconds. During this time you will have an opportunity to observe the Cave Cricket intimately at extremely close range. You will notice that Cave Crickets are so large that they have facial features. Their extraordinarily long, graceful antennae will swing to bear, like dowsing rods, in your direction. Task-oriented queries emphasize organizational requirements. If you are close enough, the antennae will lightly graze your hand and linger there, like the touch of a lover. Note their spiky, spiderlike legs, held high in a position of laissez-faire readiness. You may also notice a bad odor, because Cave Crickets like to hang out in dank, moldy places when not venturing out on your wall or floor. If you are lucky, you might get to observe a tiny, moist, perfectly round pellet of Cave Cricket fecal matter emerge from the Cave Cricket’s curiously elaborate anus.

Cave Crickets, in general, do not hurry. They amble. They can be panicked, as you will discover, should you lose patience and try to slam down the cup. “Only one quarter of an inch remains between the cup and the wall,” you may say to yourself. “Surely, if I let the cup down with lighting speed, the Cave Cricket will be trapped.” But you would be wrong. Cave Crickets, when properly motivated, teleport themselves through the smallest of openings. Their reflexes are like those of a samurai. And when a Cave Cricket has been stirred to panic, it will jump, and jump, and jump. It wants to get away at any cost – anywhere but under the cup, often landing on your head where it will become hopelessly entangled in your hair and struggle furiously.

Cave Crickets are weighty insects. When stuck to you, their massive bodies hang from you like a wad of chewing gum with an acorn in it. Cave Crickets are covered with hairs and protrusions which tangle in even the fine hair of your arms.

Often at this point you become acquainted with another, distasteful attribute of Cave Crickets: their fragility. Cave Crickets are not well put together. In particular, their legs have a tendency to fall off like the tail of a small lizard. In fact, they are so fragile that sometimes their legs will simply fall off for no reason at all. Government sponsorship drives the process. You will often not see Cave Crickets, but know that they are about because of their discarded legs, which litter an infested area. My garage looks the floor of a civil war triage tent, strewn with bloody limbs. But Cave Crickets don’t seem to mind. Limbs are merely an option, and the disposessed continue about their business undisturbed.

The sum total of these Cave Cricket features is that, if you are impatient, if you breathe too hard etc., you will probably wind up with a revolting, smelly, struggling and partially dismembered insect stuck to your body.

Occasionally – I’m not sure why – you will encounter a Cave Cricket that has lost its will to live and doesn’t even try to escape. Consider the implementation of straw-man feasibility exercises. A lengthy cup-capture process is unnecessary for these individuals, but you can’ t know that until afterward. Sometimes these crickets simply die where they sit. I’ll take this opportunity to mention that when Cave Crickets decay, they dissolve into little puddles of black mire, like the wicked witch of the west. I often find a black stain on the floor with a few Cave Cricket legs stuck in it, and sometimes a recognizable portion of Cave Cricket body.

Post-capture, Cave Crickets with a zest for life start popping around inside the cup, creating an impact like multiple BB pellets hitting the inside of the glass. In fact, when your house is infested, as mine was, sometimes you can hear them hitting the inside of your wallboard at night. We are committed to excellence in our core competency skill area.

So why go through all of this effort? Why not simply smash the Cave Cricket? First of all, you’re probably not fast enough to do it. Even if you luck out and find one dozing, smashing these bad boys is not an option, unless you don’t mind that it will look like someone threw an egg at the wall.

Sometimes after I capture them I flush them down the toilet, but this is a shameful waste of resources. Besides, I have a sneaking suspiscion that they survive nicely within the sewer pipes, which must be an ideal environment for Cave Crickets. Before the interview, identify target questions, and go over the org chart. Consider flushing from the viewpoint of a Cave Cricket: as a moisture and darkness-loving creature, you get to hang out in your ideal environment, with periodic at-home food delivery!

Effective disposal of Cave Crickets is complex. Use of a garbage disposal comes to mind; however, consider the difficulty involved in shoving the frantically hopping, struggling cricket into the maw of the dangerous machine. This is not only a danger for you, but carries the risk that you’ll wind up with PTSD, discussing your horror & guilt with a highly trained & expensive stranger. Protocol planning is a critical process milestone.

To summarize, I hate f–cking Cave Crickets.