Mason bees (genus Osmia) do not sting! They also don’t make honey, and in spite of their name, they do not drill holes in wood. They occupy already made holes, and they pollinate. Like crazy. So, you want more pollinators for your flowers and vegetable garden? Get or make yourself a mason bee hotel!

A mason bee hotel can be a piece of wood with holes drilled into the end of it or a collection of bamboo tubes stuck into soup can. Be aware that some of the cute ones available online, like the one above, are too shallow. The holes must be at least 5 to 6 inches deep and capped at one end.

This is just one of the tidbits of interesting and valuable information we got from Stacy Blomquist of the U.S. Forest Service at our Saturday workshop. It was a very hot day, so we spent just a short time outside netting and examining bugs, but Stacy’s presentations kept us enthralled. I am deeply grateful to Erin Cox for allowing us to use the Conservation Learning Center for the day, and to Jim, the volunteer who unlocked for us.

Stacy’s presentation of taxonomy was one of the clearest I have heard. We all came away with a better understanding and handouts that provide a framework for us to continue to learn on our own.

The critters we tend to call “bugs” comprise the phylum Arthropoda, in turn comprised of 30-32 orders, of which we learned a bit about 24. The critters that make up all of these orders range from tiny “springtails” of the order Collembola that live in the dirt and are mostly unknown to us, to much more recognizable Lepidoptera–moths and butterflies–which we know and love.

Stacy brought a few exotic specimens with her. These are giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Now here’s what I found most helpful. These scientific names that many of us find so confusing, in fact have meaning. “Lepido” means “scale” and “ptera” means “wing.” Did you know that the beautiful colors and patterns in the wings of moths and butterflies are created by tiny scales of different colors that cover the wings? Hmmm. Makes me think we need a workshop on taxonomic Latin!

In fact, it is challenging and often impossible to get to the species level of identification when dealing with many of the orders of Arthropoda. One reason for that is sheer numbers. For example, the order Orthoptera (ortho=straight, ptera=wing), which includes grasshoppers, crickets and katydids, contains 20,000 species worldwide. Ooops! I can’t image learning that many.

Another reason is that sometimes the differences between critters that determine species identification are too small to see with the naked eye or cannot be seen without dissecting the critter. But we also learned that Arthropoda have open circulatory systems with pumped blood–that is, bugs have a heart! So we really weren’t in the mood to take any apart.

One of our outdoor captures: a male Great Blue Skimmer (Libelulla vibrans). The mason jar does not do him justice, but we kept him only long enough to confirm the identification, and then he flew free again.

As always, so much more could be said about a great workshop. And so will the next one be. Yes, the Oct. 3 fungi workshop is on. I am currently making plans with our instructor Tod Maggio, so stay tuned!

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