Dancing in the Garden With Daddy Long Legs

Are you really waltzing with a spider?

Even if spiders make you shudder, it’s hard not to smile at that long-legged creature bouncing along like a button suspended on silk rubber bands. Whether you’re watching a garden floor show featuring a cast of dozens or enjoying a solo performance, this interesting insect’s name stays the same: daddy long legs. Is he really everything he appears to be?

What Is He?

While daddy long legs belongs to the Arachnid class of insects, your friendly biologist will explain that this little guy is actually a non-insect anthropod belonging to the order Opiliones. Also called a harvestman, this special species has a single body unit and only two eyes. Daddy long legs doesn’t spin silk or weave webs, and he doesn’t produce venom. Officially, he isn’t a spider, but don’t tell him that you’re on to his secret, and don’t believe all the crazy stories you’ve … Read Full Post »

Honey Bee ID Crisis: Friend or Foe?

Does the honey bee have an evil twin?

Honey bees are beneficial insects that everyone should protect. By pollinating plants, they help people grow vegetables, nuts and fruit. This friendly bug also creates the delicious honey that we enjoy adding to many foods. It will only sting you if it feels threatened. However, this bee has an aggressive cousin that arrived in Texas during the early 1990s.

Although some people call them “killer bees,” Africanized honey bees cause very few deaths. They don’t fly faster or have stronger venom than other species, according to the Houston Beekeepers Association. Nonetheless, these insects won’t hesitate to use their stingers. They can attack in large swarms and sting repeatedly. People with venom allergies must avoid them at all costs.

If honey bees begin stinging you, it’s best to escape as quickly as possible. Texas A&M reports that some colonies contain up to 90,000 insects, so it … Read Full Post »

The Ancient Romans Had a Goddess of Sewers and Drains

Her name was Cloacina, and she meant business

Ancient mythology is filled with some incredible characters, but few are as memorable as the Romans’ goddess of sewers and drains. Known as Cloacina, she was initially imagined to have presided over the city of Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, the city’s primary drainage tube. Over time, she came to be known as the patron of many additional things, including actual sewage, sexual intercourse between spouses and personal cleanliness.

A Brief History of Rome’s Sewers

As one of the ancient world’s most advanced civilizations, Rome has a long history of public sanitation. Along with its satellites, the city had open sewers since its founding. Beginning in the 6th century B.C., engineers constructed the first segments of covered sewers within the city limits. As Rome expanded, its sewer system grew along with it. Although its drains and tubes have mostly been filled in or built over, modern Rome … Read Full Post »

Bugger Off, Boxelder Bugs!

All about a pervasive central Texas pest

Boxelder bugs are a fact of life in central Texas. Like many other garden pests, these insects love to reproduce in ornamental trees and other cultivated plants that commonly appear in the region’s gardens. Although they do have some redeeming qualities, they’re notorious for causing serious damage to a wide variety of plants. If you have a boxelder bug infestation, there are a few tips you can follow to mitigate it.

What Are Boxelder Bugs?

Boxelder bugs are half-inch critters that live in and around several species of trees that are native to central Texas. During cold weather, they often burrow under roof shingles and attempt to enter homes through cracks in the wall. They can cause serious damage once they’re inside, so it’s best to keep them outside. Although they’re not members of the same species, red-shouldered bugs and largus bugs behave in a very … Read Full Post »

If You’re Going to Live in Texas, You Might as Well Grow Yellow Roses

Roses take well to Texan soils

“The Yellow Rose of Texas” has been a well-known ditty since the middle of the 19th century. It remains relevant to this day, but not for the reason you might think. According to folks who know about these things, Texas is one of the country’s best places to grow roses. Whether you prefer the yellow variety or want to plant a different hue, your property could use the color.

Where Do Roses Grow in Texas?

As anyone who lives here knows, Texas is blessed with a wide range of climate and soil types. In the far western part of the state, residents of El Paso contend with sandy soils and meager rainfall. Despite these limitations, hardy varieties of roses bloom handily amid the brown desert. In the northern fringes of the Panhandle, cold winters demand a little extra care. To the east and south, rain-fed soils and … Read Full Post »

600 Miles of Roots

Untangling the fuzzy facts about pampas grass

Pampas grass has a mixed reputation, and rumors around lawn care circles allege that just one clump produces a root mass that can unravel to a length of more than 600 miles. If you drove that distance east from the Bryan/College Station area, you’d make it to the Florida panhandle. What else should you know about this unusual ornamental?

Are Those Fronds Friend or Foe?

The sight of a Texas sunset through those feathery plumes adds a special beauty to the evening, but early settlers saw them as something more practical. Pampas grass was imported from South America to feed grazing herds. This plan proved to be mistake, but the plant’s rooting tenacity and efficient reproduction techniques made it a permanent part of the landscape. The flowers are dioecious, which means that each shrub is either male or female, and all it takes is one gentleman … Read Full Post »

Termites Never Sleep

They prefer to eat

We’ve all wrestled with big questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Why are we here?” For worker termites, both of these queries have an identical answer: to eat wood. In fact, termites are so single-mindedly devoted to this task that they can’t be bothered to sleep in between meals. If you thought your kids were eating you out of house and home, just wait until you learn about these insect pests.

Programmed to Work

The sad truth is that termites simply aren’t programmed to sleep. Instead, they’re programmed to work. The brains of worker termites are far simpler than ours, so they don’t require as much repair and refreshment as those of higher-order animals. Despite the fact that they’re “always on,” termites actually live pretty long for insects—between two and three years for a standard worker.

As long as they’re alive, termites continue to gnaw their way … Read Full Post »

Castle Moats Were Sewers, Too

Not much of a fairy tale

It turns out that those fairy tales you read as a child all left out a very important truth: The moats that surrounded medieval castles weren’t just useful defenses against attack; they were also open sewers into which the castles’ primitive waste disposal systems flushed human excrement and other foul substances. The next time you have a plumbing problem, be thankful you don’t live near one of those.

More About Moats

The history of sewers is fraught with misconceptions and legends. However, it’s true that moats played a big role in sanitation for medieval Europe’s nobility. Whereas commoners used communal outhouses or open, out-of-the-way latrines, residents of Europe’s castles used rudimentary plumbing systems called garderobes. These were little more than holes or short tubes that dropped waste directly into the castle’s moat or onto a hillside that led down into the pool. Needless to say, moats were … Read Full Post »

Big Pests, Small Holes

What has sharp teeth and the ability to squeeze through a nickel-sized hole?

You’re probably aware of the better-known characteristics of mice and rats. They have distinctive ears, protruding snouts, sharp teeth, drab-colored hair and tiny claws. They also have voracious appetites for human food. You might not know, however, that mice and rats can squeeze through remarkably small holes, which can make it difficult to keep them out of your home.

How Small Is Too Small?

Rats and mice are able to squeeze through holes many times smaller than their bodies. While rats need a hole that’s equivalent in diameter to a half dollar, mice need just a nickel-sized opening to work their “magic.” Needless to say, that’s far too small for house cats to follow. Contrary to popular belief, these critters don’t have collapsible skeletons. They do, however, have extremely flexible bodies and loose joints that can easily accommodate tight squeezes.

Common … Read Full Post »

The Texas A&M “Bug Bytes” Podcast

Bugs are more interesting than you ever imagined.

At least 50,000 people listen to the “Bug Bytes” podcast from Texas A&M University. The entomology department in College Station produces this insightful program about the bizarre world of insects. It explores strange bug habits, odd uses for insects and related human culture. “Bug Bytes” offers a fun way to learn more about these fascinating creatures.

Diverse Topics

The content of this podcast ranges from practical to amusing. For example, one episode looked at the reasons why certain people choose to eat insects. Other programs have compared different repellents, discussed insect bathing techniques or examined bugs that glow. This podcast also explores arthropod influences on human creations, such as architecture and technology.

The hosts interview entomology experts from time to time. In April 2011, “Bug Bytes” featured a conversation with the director of a documentary on honeybees. The program briefly examined colony collapse disorder, an unexplained … Read Full Post »