By Wendy Langhans
Sometimes it pays to get up early. Like last Saturday, when a few intrepid (or insomniac) folks went for a morning walk with me in Pico Canyon.
Our valley was wrapped in fog, yet the mountains were clear and bathed in the early morning light. Rabbits were out feeding – taking advantage of the transitional time – before the hawks woke up and after most owls called it a night.
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As we headed up the trail, we began to see metallic blue insects whizzing past us. “What are those things?”, someone asked.
I took a closer look. They were huge (for an insect), with long dangling legs, orange wings and black antennae. Then I noticed their hour-glass-shaped thorax and abdomen, characteristic of a wasp. “They look like some kind of wasp to me. But I don’t know what kind. I’ll look it up later and get back to you.” So after the hike, I did some internet sleuthing and here’s what I found.
They were wasps, all right. Specifically, they were Tarantula Hawks, Pepsis formosa, one of the two most common in our area. (The other one is Pepsis thisbe, which looks the same except for an orange antennae.) These wasps prefer to be out in the daytime, before it gets too hot. They have a sweet tooth, eating flower nectar and the juices from damaged, fermenting fruit. It was a bit early for narrow-leaved milkweed blossoms, but the elderberry in Pico Canyon were loaded with ripe juicy berries.
Their bright orange wings were designed to send an aposematic signal to potential preditors – “BACK OFF!” Rated twice as painful as a bee sting, these wasps are said to have the most painful insect sting in North America. Fortunately for us, though, they’re not aggressive.
Not aggressive, that is, unless you’re a tarantula and you meet up with a female Tarantula Hawk (with curled antennae). Then, just like in the movie, “Aliens”, there’s trouble afoot. I’m not going to give away the gruesome plot, except to say it involves a paralyzing sting, egg laying and ravenous feeding. To learn more, go here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
(Thanks to Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel for sharing her Tarantula Hawk photo.)
Upcoming Outdoor Events:
Saturday, August 21, 8:00-10:00 AM. Morning Bird Hike at Towsley Canyon. Bring water and your binoculars and wear closed-toed shoes. Meet at the park entrance. 2 hours. For a map, click here.
Trail Maintenance Schedule. Come join our volunteers as they help maintain our trails. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org for time and place.
Wednesday mornings, August 4, 11, 18 & 25.
Saturday mornings, August 14 & 28.
You can listen to stories like this every Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. on “The Hike Report”, brought to you by your hometown radio station KHTS (AM1220) and by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
For the complete MRCA hike and activity schedule and for trail maps, go to www.LAMountains.com.