Thursday, March 24, 2022

Book Review: The Social Wasps of North America

Chris Alice Kratzer’s new guide to The Social Wasps of North America stands to revolutionize the future of field guides. It certainly sets a new standard in many ways, through methodology, organization, and sheer honesty. It is my pleasure to recommend this wonderful reference without reservation.

This is a self-published book from Owlfly Publishing, one arm of Kratzer’s company, Owlfly, LLC. The other branch is an engineering firm. Kratzer has not only avoided all the usual pitfalls of self-publishing, she has taken great pains to make every aspect of that enterprise respectful and sustainable, right down to her choice in the packaging vendor she uses.

Why is this book so unique and important? Perhaps the most obvious feature is the geographic coverage. Kratzer rightly defines North America as everything north of South America. Most natural history publishers, and authors, would consider that to be overly ambitious, confusing, and impossible to execute given the increased biodiversity south of the Mexican border. It helps to choose a taxon that has relatively limited diversity, and social wasps in the family Vespidae do fit the bill nicely. However, one should not overlook the statement this book makes about inclusiveness. This book is useful to indigenous peoples in those other nations, as well as people traveling from other places. A Spanish translation, in digital format, will be available by the end of 2021, but if a publishing house is interested in producing a hard copy, please contact Kratzer at Owlfly Publishing.

This book also marks a return to illustrations, rather than photographs, as the best means to visually communicate each species. Kratzer is a master of digital renderings. Social wasps are maddeningly variable in color pattern, so she ingeniously fused the most common xanthic (mostly yellow) and melanic (mostly black/dark) forms of each species into a single drawing, capitalizing on the bilateral symmetry of her subjects to do so. Brilliant. Kratzer essentially crowdsourced her references by utilizing pinned specimens from many curated collections, and images of living specimens from the iNaturalist web portal. She gives credit to every single individual who furnished the material. Unheard of. Each species account includes female and male examples, plus queens, where relevant. Range maps are included. Photos of living specimens, and their nests, are featured under descriptions of the genera.

© Owlfly LLC

The first seventy or so pages of the book serve as an introduction and overview of social wasps, their biology, role within ecosystems, and how they impact humanity. This alone is worth the price of the book. The writing is outstanding in accuracy and honesty:

“All of the information in this book is wrong. All of it. Wasps are an appallingly understudied group of organisms, to the point that even this book – the most complete visual guide of social wasp to date – is built precariously upon the edge of a vast, unsolved jigsaw puzzle.”
The grammar is impeccable, and the tone is exceptionally friendly and empathetic, even to those readers who want nothing to do with wasps. It is easy for someone with an affinity for maligned animals to be unintentionally hostile towards those who do not share the same perspective and opinions. Kratzer is going to make many more “friends of wasps” with this book. Did I mention that there is also a glossary and extensive bibliography with links to online versions of actual scientific papers?

Overall, Kratzer’s embrace and navigation of the scientific ecosystem, inclusive of both academic professionals and well-informed non-professionals, is admirable and even ground-breaking. Rarely does one find a reference or author/illustrator so worthy of emulating. Maybe David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, but add Chris Alice Kratzer to the list.

Are wasps not your thing at all? Stay tuned for Kratzer’s next effort, a guide to North American cicadas, in the works as I write this. Meanwhile, order The Social Wasps of North America for a friend, directly from Owlfly Publishing.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Save A Spider (Every) Day

Every day should be “Save A Spider Day,” considering all that these arachnids do for us as people, and ecosystems around the globe. Alas, March 14 is the only day officially designated for their respect, admiration and, at the least, tolerance. The timing this year is pretty good, though, given hysteria surrounding some sensational journalism, and a forthcoming field guide to spiders in North America.

Lucas the spider, © Joshua Slice, furnished by Sayles & Winnikoff Communications

I was prompted to write this post by Kelly Cleary of Sayles and Winnikoff Communications, the marketing company promoting a new Cartoon Network series starring “Lucas,” the fluffy, adorable animated jumping spider that took the internet by storm a few years ago. This is a wonderful, positive milestone for arachnid appreciation, and I am honored to be asked to be a messenger for something innovative and excellent.

There is the fictional, lovable Lucas, and then there is the Joro Spider, a real species that is getting the polar opposite treatment in the press. Eight years ago, a large orb weaver was discovered in the state of Georgia, USA, and determined to be Trichonephila clavata, a species native to most of Asia. This was considered something of a novelty at the time, but soon more individual specimens were turning up in nearby locations. Since then, the Joro Spider has expanded its range to include most of northern Georgia, and parts of northwest South Carolina and adjacent North Carolina. Single specimens have turned up in Alabama, and even Oklahoma, likely a result of someone unwittingly moving them on an object or vehicle.

Adult female Joro Spider © Kim Fleming via Bugguide.net

Recently, scientists have extrapolated the potential expansion to eventually include most of the Atlantic coast of the U.S., plus Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, Indiana, and other states. This is based on latitudes where the spider is found in its native Asia, plus the warmer maritime influence along the coast. This is what scientists are supposed to do when confronted with an alien species in a new territory: make predictions and then inform the public accordingly.

Unfortunately, journalists are prone to sensationalize this kind of information and, in this instance everything is, literally, being blown out of proportion. When they are young and small, spiders disperse themselves by “ballooning,” climbing to the top of tall objects, standing on tiptoe, and issuing long strands of silk to catch the wind. Someone forgot to properly explain this to reporters, so now we have the expectation of very large spiders raining down on us come springtime. Relax, it is ot going to happen.

© Wikimedia Commons

Whether the Joro Spider is going to have a negative impact on native spiders, temporarily or permanently, will not be determined for some time. Any effort to control, or eradicate the Joro Spider is likely to have more dire ecological consequences than the spider itself. Do report your sightings with at least clear photos, if you cannot present an entomologist or arachnologist with the specimen itself. Otherwise, there is no need for overreaction.

Need help identifying the Joro, or any other spider? I have good news. My friend and scholar Sarah Rose has written Spiders of North America, in the Princeton Field Guide series. I will have a review here eventually, but suffice that I have intimate knowledge of the scope of this reference, its design and presentation, and can speak highly of the expertise and communication skills of the author. You will want to put in your pre-order soon.

Not everyone is a fan of spiders, likely not even everyone reading this post, but we can at least learn about their place in the natural order of things, and welcome them in our yards and gardens as free pest control, and architects of marvelous silken webs. Meanwhile, until journalism is more responsible, please help us spread correct information via social media and our in-person interactions with others. To paraphrase Smoky the Bear, “only you can save spiders.”