Saturday, July 8, 2017

The attack of the killer monsoon

By Tom Walker

It sounds like a 1950s “creature feature” horror movie. Giant bugs crawling down from the treetops. Even bigger bugs crawling out of the ground to go for a drink in swimming pools. And big wasps with paralyzing stings searching for a place to lay  their eggs.
Welcome to Tucson in the summer.
It’s the time of year when the desert springs all kinds of surprises on you. Even though I’m a native Arizonan, I was completely unaware of the existence of mesquite bugs until my friend Doug Kreutz wrote about them in an Arizona Daily Star article.
Mesquite bug
The imposing insects — up to 2 inches in length — are harmless to humans,” Kreutz writes, “but they’re nevertheless startling to some people because of their size.”
The “beautiful gentle giants,” as a University of Arizona entomologist described them, live in the canopies of mesquite trees. There, they feed off the trees, mate and lay eggs in late summer that will hatch in the spring. They are completely harmless, to mesquite trees or to people.
But when the heat gets really brutal like it has been in Tucson — the high yesterday was 111, the latest in a long string of 100-plus days — the mesquite bugs move down to the base of the tree where it’s maybe a few degrees cooler. It’s the same way Tucsonans head north to the higher elevations of Flagstaff or Pinetop.
Man, I wish I were there now.
But like many others in this desert city, I must  content myself with the knowledge that restaurants are less crowded since everyone flew off; or that my house and cars are air conditioned; and that the monsoon must surely come.
That North American Monsoon is always a welcome break from the oppressive summer heat. Moisture flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico brings wonderful afternoon and evening thunderstorms. There are damaging winds sometimes, lightning-set fires, and flooding in which stranded motorists have to be rescued from the roofs of their cars.
Palo verde beetle
But there is blessed rain and nature’s own air conditioning system that can drop the temperature 30 degrees in a matter of minutes. Fully half of Tucson’s annual rainfall comes during this period.
Yes, monsoon, please come soon.
The music of hot weather before the monsoons, of course, is the screeching of cicadas. Then, once the rains begin, we will have the annual migration of the palo verde beetle.
This lovely insect lives most of its life underground, as a grub that feeds on the roots of trees — preferably, the palo verde. It can do a lot of damage down there, but then, in the summer it finds its life purpose: to mate, lay eggs and die.
To do that, the adult beetles come out of the ground looking like some kind of armored fighting machine — nearly 4 inches long, with waving antennae, wings, and a pair of impressive pincers. Despite all that formidable equipment, these bugs seem to mostly end up drowned in swimming pools.
Guess big pincers don’t necessarily mean big brains. (Fill in joke about our president here.)
One bug you don’t want to tangle with, though, is the tarantula hawk. This guy is scary looking, about 2 inches long with blue-black bodies and rust-colored wings. In flight, they make a loud fluttery kind of sound like an old prop plane that’s missing  on a couple of cylinders.
Tarantula hawk
If you hear that sound coming toward you, look out. Its sting is rated as one of the most painful, second only to the bullet ant. If you do get stung by one, the recommendation is to “just lie down and scream.” Then, after about five minutes the pain will subside. Maybe.
Mostly though, the tarantula hawk isn’t looking for trouble. It’s just looking for a tarantula that it can hire as a baby sitter.
The female tarantula hawk stings a tarantula with a paralyzing venom. She then drags her prey to a brooding nest — often times, the tarantula’s own burrow. Then the hawk lays a single egg on the spider’s abdomen and covers up the burrow’s entrance.
When the wasp larva hatches, it digs a small hole in the belly of the paralyzed tarantula, which is still alive. Then the larva feeds on the spider, avoiding vital organs to keep the spider alive as long as possible. Finally, the wasp emerges from the spider’s belly as an adult, ready to hunt for another tarantula.
Ain’t nature wonderful?

1 comment:

Tom Walker said...

And all this doesn't even include fun creatures such as the scorpion, the centipede and the rattlesnake, which also are active during the monsoon. Nevertheless, please come, monsoon. Come soon.

(I feel like some old-time revivalist preacher. Come, Jesus! Come soon!