Hymenoptera

I sometimes tell people that while in university I unofficially minored in bugs.

As a biology student I had many options for my options, but my interest veered sidelong into a course of courses in the entomology department. I exited with a bachelors degree in genetics, but the extra educational suitcase I had brought along was stuffed full of souvenirs from my study of insects.

Packed in that suitcase, I’ve always adored the word Hymenoptera.

hai - muh - NAAP - ter - uh

Or, the order of insects that contains wasps, bees, hornets, ants and other similar six legged critters.

The summer of 2021 was apparently a good year around here for a particular kind of yellowjacket wasp.

Popular opinion was that there was more than just an uptick in the aggressive insects population over the last few months. Call it a surge. A bumper year for hymenopterans. Nearly everyone had a story of being stung, dealing with a nest, or even the consequence of the crop of pandemic puppies encountering angry bugs for the first time either in their campsites or own backyards.

A nearby neighbour must have had a nest in their yard and for a couple weeks solid the little drones took over a corner of my backyard and harassed the dog (who never did seem to figure out that they were never going to play nice with her.)

I reluctantly put a trap on a tree and caught a few hundred, but to be honest it neither made much of a dent in the population nor made me feel good about myself.

There is a balance to everything, and I noted this most acutely when (after dealing with weeks of wasps and yellowjackets in and near the city) we vacationed in the mountains and hiked for hours without seeing so much as a hint of those black and yellow stripes.

Our attempts to control and manicure the local suburban ecosystem with the species of plants and critters we think we like, the ones that are pretty or simple or tasty, has a side effect of throwing into chaos the nature tug-of-war we can’t quite see, and which manifests as weeds and coyotes and mosquitos and wasps terrorizing those same spaces as we eliminate natural predators or encourage invaders to take refuge in the vacuum.

The mountain ecosystem, by contrast, has seemingly still not tottered onto its side and the result is that we were able to hike without much fear of being stung.

Eaten by a bear, maybe, but stung… less so.

Yet now, twenty years after graduating from university I don’t do much with or recall many facts from my biology education but I have this vague sense that I can see the loose threads of the ecosystem imbalance, that I can talk and write about it with some confidence, and that one of the hundred dollar words I can always lean on is Hymenoptera.

Half Ha Ling

This month marks a year and a half since our local area got caught up in the global pandemic that, among many other things, made world travelling near impossible.

We’ve made up for this by trying to find some room between the bad news, ever-shifting-work-life, and many cancelled plans to get away on some local escapes.

This summer was no exception, and over my blogging break we found ourselves in Canmore, a small town nestled into the Eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, where numerous small adventures were had, including a certain last minute attempt to climb a very tall mountain.

for whatever one photo is worth:

Stand on the main street of Canmore, Alberta and look towards the towering range of mountains standing to the south of town and you wont help but see a prominent jag of rock protruding high into the sky, standing with a sentry-like pride over the valley below.

That peak had borne many names over the years and stirred it’s share of controversy for the same, but locals now almost uniformly refer to it as Ha Ling Peak.

We spent the better part of a full week in Canmore in July.

We’d rented a small hotel room near the center of town.

We wandered on foot to grab groceries or breakfasts or beer or silly thing tourists buy when they visit small towns on vacation.

We loaded up the car to drive into the wilderness to tackle family-friendly hikes with the puppy and the teenager.

We hiked, relaxed, and ate, avoiding the heat and smoke as much as possible, while trying to make the best out of a local vacation in an admittedly beautiful place to be trapped during a global lockdown.

On the last night of our trip, sitting on a patio eating an early dinner, looking down that same main street, my wife asked me if I’d done everything I’d wanted to on our little family getaway.

”I’d like to climb Ha Ling … someday.” I replied. “But I guess we’re out of time.”

Most people set aside a full day, starting early to climb to the eight hundred meter saddle, and a further slog up to the summit and peak. It was just after five pm and we had at best four hours or daylight left.

“How far could we get tonight?” She asked.

”I’m staying at the hotel with the dog.” The teenager objected.

”We could go up as high as we can and give ourselves an hour to come back down before sunset.” I suggested.

Shortly after six my wife and I were standing at the trailhead in our hiking boots.

There are inherent risks in trying a new trail of moderate difficulty outside of the normally travelled hours. If something goes wrong while you are up and alone on a mountain with an encroaching night… well, that’s bad news.

We knew we wouldn’t reach the summit, but being fit and adventurous we gave ourselves two hours to go up as far as we could then come back down. We agreed: we’d hike until my GPS watch read exactly one hour then we’d turn around and hike back down leaving a good thirty to forty-five minutes of cushion for the sun to set behind the mountains.

And off we went.

About thirty minutes in we’d reached the first viewpoint.

At exactly an hour I could see the second a hundred meters or so ahead on the path.

We reached the half way point up the mountain and a few minutes over the half way point of our agreed time. We took a blurry selfie with light failing on the the smoky vista behind us. And we hiked back down along the slippy path, found the car, and were back at the hotel before the last sliver of sun had vanished behind the rocky crags in the distance.

It may have only been half a goal but it was easily a full adventure.

Reminder: Blogs are not a replacement for professional advice. Please read my note on safety and safe participation.

Casting Call

Our recent camping trip north of the city opened the door for a few good opportunities to toss a line into the lake. I brought along my new fishing rod, rigged it up for the ready, and leaned it against an out of the way tree in case the mood or moment struck.

Our campsite was a sixty-second walk to the shoreline, and on a good choice of visit I often found empty a small wooden dock protruded five meters out into the murky lake water.

On a less-good choice of visit I found the dock occupied and myself instead needing to trudge through the spongy layer of grasses and mosses growing from the loamy sand to find a spot clear enough to edge up to the waterside to be able to cast out without tangling my line in the vegetation.

Conversation Starter

It also turns out that a fishing rod is something of a lakeside invitation to chat.

Strolling to the shore, invariably someone would comment on the potential for a catch. “How’s it looking?” someone would call out. “It might be a little hot for them out there right now.” Someone else would add, noting the 30C heat still lingering from the day.

And “Any luck?” not just someone but everyone would ask as I strolled back to camp empty-handed after an hour of tossing my lure into the water.

As it turns out the most inviting pose a guy can take (by far) when visiting the lake is to sit by oneself at the end of a narrow dock, dangling one’s feet over the end, holding a fishing rod with a line threading outward into the water. This must project some magnetic signal to other campers inviting them to wander up, sit down and chat.

I found myself playing host to all manner of random characters telling me their tales as I sat holding court with my fishing rod patiently dangling outwards.

Catchless?

At the end maybe the weather was too hot or I was too impatient or perhaps my small collection of lures was not in agreement with the fish swimming through the murky lake water that weekend.

I didn’t catch so much more than a few clumps of weedy grass.

I did however catch a moment of peace, and a few curious stories.

Local Big (Part Two): Kielbasa

A couple weeks ago as I was getting ready for my summer posting schedule, I wrote about the local “world’s biggest” attractions that are dotted all around the rural countryside near where we live.

As it happens, we took the scenic route home from a weekend camping trip, driving for two an a half hours along the twisting and turning secondary highways connecting various small communities throughout the province.

One of our stops brought us to a giant sausage.

Yes, that’s right.

In the town of Mundare, Alberta lives the world’s largest sausage, or kielbasa to be precise.

The forty-two foot tall fiberglass structure beckons from a roadside park across the street from a gas station and nearby to a locally famous smoked and cured meats company (sadly, closed on Sundays!)

We pulled to the side of the road, parked, and wandered around the odd monument to the rich history of Ukranian immigration to the area. A hundred years ago the settlers who left eastern Europe to settle in the middle of the Canadian prairies staked their future on this sliver of their culture.

And today (well, yesterday) I am able to park beside an obscenely oversized statue of tube of garlic-seasoned meat and ponder why this is among the tallest human-made structure for a hundred kilometers in any direction.

I could probably write an entire series on the odd time-capsule-like effect created by mass immigration to Canada over the last hundred years, how cultural heritage seemed to have frozen-in-time as large groups of people moved here with their unique memories of “back home.” What started as serious traditions or means of income, have continued to be acted out in the foods, styles, dances, and other artifacts of their ancestry, having changed or evolved little, practiced almost exactly as they were from the moment they stepped on the boat, train, plane or whatever vehicle took them from their original lands. As such there is this entire pocket of people who come from, say, one region in eastern Europe in the early twentieth century embracing a cultural identity deeply rooted in the wonderful indulgences of, say, sausage and perogies and pysanka. Meanwhile (at least from what I’ve observed travelling) the generation of cousins who stayed behind have shifted and grown and evolved their culture… as humans are wont to do.

In other words, I have no idea if modern Ukrainians are as deeply connected to sausage, perogies, and pysanka as their Canadian relatives, but I somehow imagine that connection is much more multidimensional over there than over here.

I don’t mean to call out any of my friends of Ukrainian-ancestry because that sentiment seems true of most everyone here who “colonized” this place… well, besides noting that I just drove past a forty-plus foot tall statue tribute to garlic sausage in pretty much the middle of nowhere on the Alberta prairie.

If I come across a sixty-foot tulip, or a wheel of gouda as big as my house, you can bet I’ll be posting some pictures here.