The Case of the Zombie Cicada

It is not unusual at this time of year, as Summer slowly starts to wend its way into Autumn, to start finding dead cicadas on the ground.  Cicadas produce the sound of the summer – a modulating, thrumming buzz like the sound of hundreds of tiny maracas or drum kits.  Finding their corpses, therefore, is a signal that summer is nearing its end.

What is unusual, however, is to find a zombie cicada.  If anyone was going to find a zombie cicada, however, it was going to be me.

I was collecting in the washing from the line when I spotted a cicada hobbling across the patio.  Guessing it was injured, I picked it up.   I studied the cicada in my hand and noted that he was missing a leg.  I assumed a bird must have tried to eat him.  What a shame, I thought, to be missing a leg.  My youngest son is also obsessed with cicadas and collects their shed skins so I knew he would be interested in seeing a cicada and especially one who, like our older cat, was missing a leg.  But incredibly it was only once my kids were handling the cicada that I realised he was missing more than a leg.  He was, in fact, missing his entire abdomen.  This cicada was managing to hobble around and climb without having a body.  It was the Undead!

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As zombie fans, we were all excited to have found a zombie cicada.  My kids wanted to keep him as a pet.  They reasoned and argued that he stood no chance of surviving without our assistance.  I pointed out that he stood no chance on surviving in a house with two cats either.  They named him Worf because he liked to cling-on to them.  Naming the cicada did their case no good.  I refused to adopt the Undead cicada.  We left him to go his merry way.

The next day, we found an actually fully dead cicada.  My youngest son wanted to adopt that one too.  He wanted to go full Frankenstein and see if we could revive it.  Things were easier when he just collected their sloughed off skins.

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Road Trip #21 – Natural History Museum

It has been our experience that the first and last days of any vacation with the kids are the most trying.  With the first day, it is all about navigating the transition out of routines into some degree of chaos and about managing expectations; with the last day, it is all about fatigue causing crankiness and an unconscious or conscious desire to return to familiar routines, a need to retreat back into the family cave for some hibernation after all the stimulation.

We, therefore, kept our final day of the road trip pretty low key.  We were travelling back to the Philly suburbs that day anyway plus had arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch so we only had the morning to fill.  We selected the Natural History Museum, part of the Smithsonian.  Actually, Mr Pict was keen for us to try a second visit to the Museum of American History since our first family visit there had been less than stellar.  I had cause to reference the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my blog post about it.  In the hopes that those issues had been resolved, we first headed to the Museum of American History, picked up a map, and discovered that absolutely nothing had changed since our last visit two years before.  Half the museum was still closed off due to renovation work.  We decided to jettison that plan (actually I was keen on jettisoning it as soon as it was the plan since our last visit there had been so cruddy) and move next door to the Natural History Museum.

We had not chosen the Natural History Museum for our last morning in DC simply because we had visited the Field Museum in Chicago just the week before and it felt like a repetition.  However, for that very reason it turned out to be a good choice.  As parents, we felt we could just relax and take a step back since we did not feel that same pressure to educate the kids.  We could just let them wander and engage as they saw fit rather than trying to guide them and focus their interest.

We started with a genuine Easter Island moai statue.  The boys had seen a plaster cast of one of these in February 2014 when we visited the Natural History Museum in New York city but this was the first time they had seen a real one.  It turns out this is because the Smithsonian owns the only two moai in America.  We then ascended the stairs around a group of spectacularly carved totem poles.  The boys enjoyed looking at the carved characters and reading the stories behind them.  The first gallery we visited was one exhibiting National Geographic photographs of Africa.  I love photography and the kids love animals so we spent some time admiring the images.

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Our first proper destination in the museum, however, was the hall of gems.  As I have explained before, our 10 year old loves anything sparkly or shiny.  He has magpie DNA.  We, therefore, thought he ought to see the Hope Diamond.  This blue diamond is one of the largest and most famous precious stones in the world.  We told the kids it had a long, interesting and intriguing history to the point that it had been associated with a curse.  And then we took them in to see it.  And they were underwhelmed.  I think their vision of a large diamond was one the size of the palm of a hand or larger.  It was a failure of reality matching expectations.

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The rest of the gem and mineral collection, however, was a massive hit with the kids – and not just the one who likes sparkles.  They found the diversity of the minerals to be really fascinating and they wandered from case to case choosing favourites.  There were big chunks of quartz that contained bubbles like sedate lava lamps.  There were rocks that looked like Doozer constructions from beneath Fraggle Rock and shards that looked like they came from the Dark Crystal.  There were chunks of gems encrusted with other stones or minerals, such as a chunk of calcite sparkling with a thick seam of chalcopyrite.  There were other lumps of calcite that looked like elaborate desserts encrusted with sugary confections.  There were geodes on display that had been split open to reveal their colourful, sparkling contents – and I could see my 10 year old wanting to take a rock hammer on every nature ramble now.  There was an otherwise unprepossessing rock that had a wide mouth split to reveal lots of rows of white fuzzy mounts inside and which looked entirely like something Jim Henson would have imagined.  There were formations that looked like chunky frost or snowflake clusters.  A geometric piece of purple-red fluorite made my kids think of a set design for Tron or else something from Minecraft.  By contrast, there were pastel hued pieces that looked like petrified clouds or bubbly candy floss.  One enticing display case was filled with forms of gold and silver, thought it was a blobby chunk of copper that I liked best.  When the boys saw the case of glowing willemite calcite, the green glow made the boys think of it as having been spattered with Predator blood. The 10 year old was ecstatic about getting to touch a massive chunk of amethyst and now wants a chunk of his own.  I had never seen that child go as full Gollum as he did in that room full of gems and jewellery.

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Next up – mainly because it was near the restrooms – we popped in to visit the dinosaurs.  We looked at the large fossil specimens of a T-Rex and a triceratops but otherwise, between the Field Museum and the Creation Museum, the kids had experienced quite enough dinosaurs for one vacation.  We, therefore, found ourselves a spot in the insect section.  The boys enjoyed seeing the cockroaches since we used to have Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches as pets back in Scotland but they also got to see a tarantula up close and some butterflies hatching out of their cocoons.  And then we were all museumed out.  Partly it was because our friend had arrived and it was time to head for lunch, partly it was because the museum was very crowded, but mostly we had just absorbed as much in the way of experiences as we cared to absorb for the fifteen days of our road trip.

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And so, after a tasty lunch with great company, after heading back to NoMa to pick up our car and luggage, a few hours’ drive to collect the cats from their cat hotel – to much excited squealing from the kids – we finally emerged from the car that had been our mobile home and tour bus for a fortnight and we were home.  And we were glad to be home.

The Black Widow Spider Dilemma

A few days ago, my husband declared he had found a spider that might be a Black Widow in a corner of the garage.  I was ushered in to perform a closer inspection (since Mr Pict and the kids have varying degrees of arachnophobia) and to identify the spider and then deal with it accordingly.

Obviously we are very aware that there are Black Widows in this area.  As I have discussed before, we are on a steep learning curve when it comes to dangerous beasties since Britain only has one venomous critter (the adder snake – and it’s pretty timid) and no rabies.  That said, in all of his years growing up in America, Mr Pict never once encountered a wild Black Widow.  I was, therefore, pretty confident that the spider inhabiting our garage was not remotely a Black Widow.  I mean, that would be as unlikely as Black Bears roaming the streets because they fancy hitting up a Wawa for a snack. Oh yes.  That happened.

So I scooched down into that dank and dusty corner of the garage and had a look at the suspect.  Certainly it was the right size and shape and proportions to be a Black Widow (I have seen them in captivity as well as in books) but it was not shiny black.  I was about to dismiss the idea entirely but wanted to double check that this was not some other spider we might not want to have malingering in our garage.  To my phone and google I went.  Actually first I tried that (soon to be deleted) app CamFind.  I snapped the Spider but the app’s suggestion that what I had taken a photo of was a grey-brown spider was not especially helpful.  Google was more helpful.  I pulled up a page about identifying Black Widows and started to compare notes.  Our eight-legged guest was definitely very similar to a Black Widow, including its web construction, but it was definitely dark grey and brown rather than black.  I could not see the underside of its abdomen and was not about to start picking it up but at that point but I assumed that Mr Pict had misidentified the spider.  Besides, it was in the garage so it didn’t really matter.

Later on, however, while waiting for some food to cook, I idly looked at the google results again and clicked on a different link.  This one was much wordier but critically it explained that some northern Black Widows are not in fact black.  They can be grey or brown.  Furthermore they do not all have the red hourglass under their abdomen.  Some may have a very faint and almost self-coloured hourglass shape.  Ugh.  I was compelled to go back into the garage and see if I could see the abdomen.  Our compliant spider had moved around on its web so that, by tilting by head uncomfortably close to the wall, I could make out the underside of the abdomen.  There it was: the tell-tale hourglass.  I was more annoyed that Mr Pict had been correct than anything.  He once misidentified a groundhog as a possum so I don’t place much stock in his creature identification skills.

That’s when the conundrum began.  What should I do with the Black Widow inhabiting our garage?

My first and strongest thought was to just leave it be.  We don’t use the garage except for storing some tools so it was doing no one any harm.  It was right in the corner of the room, beside the exterior door too, not near the door that connects to the house.  The chances of an encounter were slim.  We can live in harmony with nature, even if that nature is a bit more ferocious than we are used to.  That was how it went on for a couple of days.

Then Mr Pict went into the garage and – not being able to stop himself from checking in on the spider – he noticed egg sacs.  Oh dear.  That was a game changer.  One spider was easy to live in harmony with.  A whole bunch of spiders marauding through the garage, maybe even the house, trying to stake out their own territories, was a whole other issue.  My kids wig out every time they happen upon a spider unexpectedly as it is.  I can usually dismiss their worries without even budging.  However, if I happened to know that a Black Widow had just spawned a bunch of baby minions in the vicinity, I would perhaps have to encourage their vigilance and keep checking the spiders each time they met.

Roll on dilemma.

I considered relocating the spider.  I could get it and its egg sacs into a jar and take them outside and release them … where?  Where, in all conscience, could I transplant a Black Widow to?  Not to the garden because then it would be an even more unexpected encounter between it and the kids.  Do I just deposit it in a park or something? But what if I subsequently read that someone had been bitten by a Black Widow and it might possibly have been “my” one.  No, that would never do.

All of the guides I read online about how to “deal” with Black Widows said to exterminate them.  They were emphatic on that point in fact.  However, when you’ve lived your whole life in a country where no critter can kill you beyond a sheep or deer lurching in front of your car, it is very hard to wrap your head around actually taking the life of an animal.  I did poison ants when we lived in Essex because they were getting into all of our food but invasion is an act of aggression, right?  So I was only defending myself.  This spider wasn’t even giving me a nasty sideways glance.  Well, that I could tell.  I wasn’t risking getting close enough to its many eyes to determine that.  Could I deal with killing a spider and its unborn spiderlings?  Could I have that stain on my conscience?  It was a genuine ethical dilemma.  Regardless of the fact that Black Widows are not endangered, I had to give it some deep thinking.  I couldn’t just snuff out a living thing that easily.  So I let the spider keep on squatting in the garage for another 24 hours.

Reader, I confess.  I killed the spider.  It was the egg sacs that troubled me the most.  It was the thought of all those spiderlings ranging out across the garage, probably entering the basement, and my four sons perhaps being bitten.  Not all at once.  I know Black Widows don’t attack in herds.  Like velociraptors.  I know the possibility was slim but, as a parent, I didn’t want there to be even a slim possibility.  The spiders had to be eliminated.  I put my wellies on – just in case – and reminded my kids that the emergency number here is 911 and not 999 – doubly just in case – and I headed into the murk of the garage to commit my foul deed.  Insecticide was the weapon of choice.  I took no pleasure in directing the spray at the web but I was thorough.  I killed a spider and its unborn spiderlings and I am not proud and it doesn’t sit easily with me.  

This was not a “first experience” I relished.  I hope it was a first and last.

I also hope it really was a Black Widow.

Catching Fireflies

As a follow up to my recent blog post about fireflies, here are some photos of my kids out in the garden catching fireflies.  They loved it.  Even though they are now seeing them every single night, they are still as excited by it as they were the first time they saw them.  They want to go out into the garden every single night with a jar and collect enough to make it glow like a lantern.  They think it is completely magical.  Every.  Single.  Time.  What I am also enjoying are the bats flying overhead, swooping around and probably eating the lightning bugs but, you know, circle of life and all that.  We used to get bats in our garden in Scotland too so it is lovely to see them here in Pennsylvania.  Even though these ones might have rabies.  Less welcome are the mosquitoes that bite me constantly.  I am allergic to bug bites so I swell up into hot, throbbing, red patches of grossness every time one nibbles on me.  Definitely not magical.  However, this is all about the enchanting wonder of fireflies so here are some pictures of my sons in their jammies collecting the lightning bugs.

 

PS  A friend from back home in Scotland informs me that she has sometimes seen fireflies just a few miles from where we lived.  I lived there for over a decade and never once saw them.  Glowing little blighters.

 

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Small Differences: Fireflies

The other evening, while watching TV with Mr Pict, my eye kept getting drawn to flashing lights in the garden.  However, every time I asked Mr Pict to look, he could never see anything.  I knew my eyes were not deceiving me, that I was not experiencing either an optical malfunction or a hallucination, so the next evening, I kept one eye trained on the windows.  Not necessarily the most comfortable way to watch telly.  As soon as dusk settled into darkness, the flashing started again.  The kids had only just gone to bed so I got everyone to gather in the playroom to look.  Sure enough, this time everyone else could see what I was seeing: flickering lights gliding upwards from the grass into the sky.  And the lights got stronger and more numerous as it grew ever darker.

Fireflies.

Despite the fact we do have fireflies in Scotland, they are rare so I had only seen fireflies once before – and that was in America too –  but my kids had never seen them.  It’s not often that one gets to use the word bioluminescence in general conversation but I gave up on trying to teach the kids the science behind it mid-sentence anyway so that they could just watch and enjoy the spectacle.  A teeny weeny wee bit of subsequent research, however, has revealed to me that Pennsylvania has it’s very own firefly – Photuris Pennsylvanicus if we want to be all Sunday name about it – and that the male beetles can fly but their lady friends, who they are trying to impress into getting jiggy with them – remain on the ground.  That explained why I had been seeing lights flickering at both levels: it wasn’t that they were moving upwards into the sky but that some were remaining on the grass while others flew around to be show-offs.  Some other things I learned about these fireflies is that they are quite fond of munching slugs and have, as such, evolved the ability to track slug slime trails.  It makes me think of aeroplanes looking for the airstrip.  Also, the larva bites its prey and injects it with saliva that turns the prey’s insides into soup.  Pretty cool, eh?

Magical.  That was the best thing about watching the fireflies.  They were simply magical, like a special effect from nature.  We were all completely enchanted.

Meeting the bugs at the Insectarium

Today we went on a family trip to the Insectarium on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  

My four boys and I love all things creepy-crawly.  Back in Scotland, we loved to go on minibeast hunts as part of our nature rambles.  Of course, in Scotland there was nothing poisonous or venomous in the bug world so we could happily scoop things up into our hands to study them.  That’s going to be a learning curve here.  Our favourite was the dor beetle, a type of dung beetle with a matt black upper carapace but a beautiful, metallic underside the colours of petrol in a puddle.  Despite the fact they were abundant so we were always likely to find them on any walk, we were always happy to encounter them.  There were also a plethora of dragonfly species where we lived and we loved to see them darting around, dashes of bright colour, in the warmer months.  As well as wild insects, for a period we also had pet cockroaches.  Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches to be precise.  Having them in a tank was a bit like having fish: they don’t cuddle on your lap and you don’t have to take them for a walk (bonus!) but studying them can be fascinating and almost meditative.  I got them used to being handled so they were more interactive.  You can’t pick up a fish and stroke it.  So my boys are very much “slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails” boys and I’m their bug lovin’ momma.  This trip was, therefore, very much our cup of tea.

My husband, on the other hand, has a bit of a love-hate relationship with spiders.  If he happens upon one unexpectedly or if one suddenly scuttles across the floor late at night, he has been known to release a piercing scream.  And he swears one wolf spider tried to attack him with its “fangs”.  But the same dread they fill him with has also led him to be fascinated by them.  He is always drawn to spider exhibits in any display of captive beasties.

The Insectarium is a funny wee place.  The Insect Museum, it turned out, is housed in the same building as an extermination business.  In fact, the two operations are run by the same people.  So in the same shop where one buys tickets to go and marvel at the wonders of insect and arachnid life, there is also someone advising how to search and destroy insects who are running amuck in houses.  Love and hate.  Diversification in a business is a good idea, of course, but that’s quite some mixed message.

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The first floor of the Insectarium is devoted mainly to specimens of insects.  The walls are lined with butterflies in frames and there are glass cabinets filled with cases of bugs and spiders.  It reminded me of a Victorian curiosity cabinet or the dusty sections of an old museum.  One of my favourite museums is the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  It had a remodel a few years ago but when I was little it was pretty much arranged as it had been for centuries and on one of the top floors there was a musty room filled with wooden cabinets, each covered by a leather flap which, when raised, revealed hundreds of insects, butterflies and arachnids pinned in serried rows.  The Insectarium was like a hobbyist’s version of the same.  

The boys loved seeing the glow-in-the-dark scorpions under the ultraviolet light, a hive full of live bees that was a glass panel so that they could see them buzzing around the hexagonal cells and a display set up like a kitchen with live cockroaches milling around.  They also got to vote for their favourite baby insect.  Three of them were loyal to our former pets and voted for the baby roach but the littlest Pict voted for the baby leaf insect.

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The upper floor, however, was the main event: tanks upon tanks filled with live beasties.  Highlights were the Black Widow Spider, the Goliath Tarantula, the chubby scorpions and – for me at least – the variety of cockroach species.  We were also amused by a tank full of decorated shells, painted in bright colours, for the hermit crabs to choose from.  Pimp my shell.  The boys and I also got to hold various insects including a fancy Leaf Insect and a beetle that feigns death, on its back, legs up the air and everything, as a defence strategy.

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We had a fun day.  Everyone enjoyed the trip: the boys and I got to indulge our love of seeing and handling insects but in a way that is safer than just shoving our hands into someone leaf mulch in the wild – at least until such time as we have learned to identify venomous bugs – and my husband was excited to see a Black Widow, which he loves.  And hates.  And for my next insect pet, I would like a Glorious Beetle.

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