3•The birds & the bees, life and death, natural causes, and comedy-Part 3

This final part of the series continues with life and death, but with new shifts in perspective and concludes on a lighter note.

3•The birds & the bees, life and death, natural causes, and comedy-Part 3

Relativity, realities, and perspectives from nature

Anthropogenic death (caused by man)

All of the morbid scenarios in Part 2 were natural, even if somewhat unusual. Other causes of massive bird deaths are not.

In Philadephia, on October 2, 2020, as reported by numerous sources, over 1,000 birds died due to crashing into buildings, well over the 30-per-day average. The reasons speculated in the reports all had to do with the glass facades. The reflections of cloud cover, city lights, and the night sky celestial landmarks possibly distorted the birds' navigational abilities, especially during seasonal migrations.

The problem isn't just with sky-scrapers, but with all kinds of buildings and things such as wind turbines, power lines, even automobiles. Published studies I found dating from the 1990s claimed bird mortality from building collisions alone is between 100-million and 1-billion per year — and that's just here in the US. More recent studies put the median figure closer to around 600-million. According to one study, building collisions are the second most common cause of bird deaths, behind feral and pet cat kills, said to be up to four times greater.

Poisoning from toxins introduced into agriculture and the general environment is another concern.

These examples do not answer how, why, and where billions of other birds go to die, and the question will remain one of the great natural mysteries of life and death on Earth.


I was out shooting bees and flowers when I saw a large fly on the stonework next to me (the photo above). I glanced at it and then did a double-take.

It had no abdominal section, it was severed clean off. How? The wings were nearly intact. Whatever happened was incredibly quick, while its wings were spread and fully forward in their cycle. Maybe the fly was inside the screen backdoor. Maybe as I went outside and opened the screen door, the critter tried to fly to daylight but was cut in two when the door slammed closed behind me. Sounds plausible, but who knows?

I kept shooting the flowers and bees, checking on the fly every few minutes. It was alive and doing fine. Perhaps 45 minutes or so later, I saw it walk into the grass a few feet away. When I went looking for it a few minutes later, I couldn't find it. The injury would eventually be fatal, but I have no idea when or how it happened or how long the fly survived.

Did this qualify as an anthropogenic death?


We'd rather not think about creatures that tend to be out and about in the dark. From our perspective, they may seem mysterious, secretive, nefarious, villainous, inherently foreboding, and dangerous — to us.

We have little awareness, recognition, thought, understanding, or respect for the final act in the lifecycle of these decidedly uncuddly creatures. Most are innocuous, and many are directly beneficial. But if they occupy our space and invade our psyche, they have to go.

3• A juvenile nightcrawler crossing paths with an adult male cicada killer late one summer night.

It is quite common for the female cicada killer to dig her nest near the edges of sidewalks, driveways, and walkways. She must have been on the sidewalk, working just outside of her nest that afternoon when two neighborhood teenage thugs were passing by.

My neighbor, who saw the entire episode and was aware I was doing a series of shoots based around the nest (lying on the sidewalk tends to make people curious), said they took turns stomping on her before he could run them off. Why? Did they do it just for thrills, just because it was there and they could? Who cares, right? Or were they scared and decided this was an opportunity to prove their bad-ass manliness?

4• The female cicada killer wasp, completely benign to humans, deliberately crushed to death.

Our fears and phobias can be detrimental to all concerned. We have this perspective of fear despite the reality of many being beneficial to us. These benefits tend to be indirect and thus unrecognized and un- or under-appreciated. The consequences of this ignorance appear to be of no concern — to us — and may not be, if limited to small numbers of casualties. At least not until their fewer number have an impact we can now detect that directly affects us.

Perspectives on Conservation

A less obvious connotation of dying is a process in a critically or mortally damaged state of existence. I'm talking about reduced numbers seen of individuals of a species. Or realizing I haven't seen some species in years. The issue is of diminished or destroyed ecosystems that we likely don't notice or care about.

This year [2020], fewer butterfly species were attracted to the property, despite new plantings specifically to attract them. I had two patches of milkweed, the preferred food source for Monarch butterfly development. I saw them visited by various butterfly species, including Monarchs but not one caterpillar of any kind was seen on the milkweed or any other plants that other species utilize. Compared to recent years, the hibiscus hedge was home to a better-than-average number of aphids. This would make the hedge very attractive to ladybugs to use as a nursery since aphids are the primary food for their larvae. But the number of ladybugs drawn by them was way down.

5• This robber fly—the only one I saw all season—on my tripod ball head.

I didn't see a single cicada killer (perhaps because there were also very few cicadas).

6• A male cicada killer (who doesn't kill any cicadas) in flight, patrolling his territory, on the make for any passing female — his reason for being.

There were fewer dragonflies, damselflies, lightning bugs, and no blue bottle flies. From my photographic perspective, there were (almost) no cucumber beetles; from my gardening perspective, that was was great! I had a terrific cucumber season because of their absence.

Many arachnids and insects that usually inhabit my grapevine were not seen at all or in reduced numbers (except the damned Japanese beetles trying to destroy the canape).

But, luckily, I also have not yet seen a Spotted Lanternfly. This colorful, damaging pest, recently introduced from Thailand, attacks grapevines and has been seen here in NJ. [This was true at the end of 2020, but the situation changed dramatically in 2021. I will be doing a post on this invasive species.]

I tot I taw a hummingbird, but no, it was just an imposter clearwing moth.
One.

7• The clearwing moth

Slugs and snails? They have been decreasing steadily for years. And I haven't seen a colorful giant slug in years.

Flower flies were down in species count, individual numbers, and physical size despite no change in attractive plants.

I didn't see a single praying mantis.

There were fewer common orb weavers, jumping, and other spiders, although basilica orb weavers seemed to be holding their own.

8• female basilica orb weaver with egg case

I assume the reader is aware of the severe problem of decreasing honeybee populations and potential consequences.  Added to their problems was the threat potential of the newly-introduced giant Asian "murder" hornets that attack honeybee hives. Recent evidence suggests the threat might not be as devastating as first feared. It was nice to see an increase in the number of bee species and individual numbers around the yard, probably due to new, long-blooming, broadly attractive plants I added this year became a constant long-term food supply.

They're just bugs, you say. Why should I care? You see a bug; you swat the bug, spray the bug, step on the bug, and don't give it a second thought. We often fail to remember their role in breaking down the remnants of death, recycling them back into the biome to be assimilated into a new life. Or, in the case of bees and other pollinators, their necessity for the viability of our food supply. Or just reminding ourselves of the complexity and necessity of these organisms, figuratively and literally, below us as we continue to destroy habitat.

We don't think about and therefore don't much care about such things living and dying all around us, and they don't matter compared to our inflated sense of self-importance and dominance. Most are disappearing. Search using the phrase "where have all the insects gone" for more sources. [See also this article.]

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the author of The Diversity of Life [who died the day after I posted this], once said, "If all humankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos."

There's that perspective thing again. Here's a couple more:
As the size of creatures become larger, their structural complexity increases due to tissues, organs, and systems. These are the latent seeds of inevitable disease, corporal decay, and ultimate demise. Robins have a three, maybe four-year lifespan. Domesticated geese have lived for 30 years. Human lifespans are variable but average around 75 years. Some tortoises and other reptiles have been documented to live at least 150 years. Not bad, but...

Most bacteria reproduce by simple (sexless) mitosis, splitting into two identical iterations. That genetically defined single one-cell organism, the simplest of all organisms theoretically has lived/could live, as an infinite extension of itself — forever—backward and forward in time.

Natural causes

As we have seen, on the level of the individual, the relativity of life's reality can change in mere moments. On a broader scale, complex changes are occurring that won't become obvious for years, but we need to become aware of them now.

I'm sure you have at least heard of conservation groups such as The National Audubon Society, World Wildlife Fund, Birdlife International, and others like them. Their purpose is to raise awareness and advance animal conservation, often of "flagship species" — usually mammals and birds presented as being oh so adorable.

I'll bet you never heard of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (named after the extinct Xerces blue butterfly). Invertebrates are those creatures (other than politicians) with no cerebral column, more commonly known as a spine. These include insects, arachnids, mollusks, crustaceans, corals, worms, among others. There are approximately 1.3 million invertebrate species which may constitute 95–99% of all living animal species. About 80% are insects whose numbers alone are estimated to be around 10-quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000). A million insect species have been identified, but some say there may be at least 4 million more. They are major components of the food chain and also provide ecological balance, as noted by Wilson. Included in their numbers are those responsible for pollination and decomposition, among other vital functions necessary for life-in-general — our lives, in particular — and biodiversity on the planet.

We at the apex of the ecological and food pyramids need to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the critical biology of those at the base who support us. This is one purpose of my photography. Most of my images are not the kind people want to buy and put up on the wall, but about things we could all benefit from knowing more about if we were just a little more aware of the world we dominate.

A final perspective and reality check

Death as the cessation of life is an observable, inevitable part of living. I have often joked that the indisputable leading cause of death is birth. From the perspective of these creatures, life is a competition that depends heavily on the certainty of death-by-violence. They tend to have a predestined alpha and omega. The only question is how that demise is likely to happen and if it served a purpose.

Such is the constant relative churn and balance of life and death in the natural world around us.

Relativity.
Reality.
Perspective.

I hope you will give yours a quick audit. And then kindly pass this along to someone who might benefit from doing the same.


And now, as promised...

Mind-bending nature comedy

If you think about it, comedy often takes something commonly recognized one way redirected onto another unrelated situation.

9•

As for the "that leg's gotta hurt" line…not an issue. The bee really did fall from the top of the flower, but it was trying to use the leg to right itself.

Do you recall the image in Part 1 of the bees mating with legs up? From your human perspective, you probably assumed the legs-up were hers.

Look again. I'll wait...

She's not on her back, and those aren't her legs! I have many photos of males assuming this guard position to prevent other males from getting into a position to challenge in a mating situation and examples showing that same posture as a simple self-defense mechanism:

10• A honeybee with legs up to fend off an attacking bald-faced hornet. I wish it was sharper, but this kind of thing happens in a blink of an eye.

And now, a truth-reveal regarding the midnight meeting of the cicada killer and nightcrawler photo [3]:

Sometimes I twist perspective by tapping into human perceptions of what could seem likely, reinforcing an expectation of certain inevitability:

11• Admit it: This is exactly what you were thinking when you saw the first presentation of this image earlier.

Let not your heart be troubled for the poor nightcrawler.
Know that
1) this was a natural shot of the nightcrawler.
2) I added the cicada killer later.
3) the scene would never happen naturally.
4) the male cicada killer has no stinger, and despite what looks like an aggressive demeanor, is harmless (although I had one head-butt me in the chin).

How about twisting iconic movie characters?

12•

I hope you enjoyed having a little fun with nature. But I really hope you have developed a fresh awareness and perspectives about other life (and death) going on all around us we usually don't see or care about.