The Chinese zodiac, yellow jackets and snake killers

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The Chinese Zodiac is based on a 12-year cycle, with each year related to an animal. I was born in 1931, the Year of the Sheep. Sheep people are said to be “wise, gentle, compassionate, fond of quiet living, and frugal.” All those characteristics accurately describe my personality profile, but some others I consider problematic. I am alleged to be a worrier, shy, pessimistic, moody, and timid. Sheep people are also said to believe strange theories and to have improper eating habits, which lead to “burdens on their stomachs.”

If Lee County had an animal-related Zodiac, I would suggest that 2012 be designated either the Year of the Copperhead or the Year of the Yellow Jacket, because both of these critters seem to be unusually abundant this year. I have written previously about copperheads and Chuck Browne mentioned the yellow jacket problem in a column he wrote recently for the Opelika-Auburn News.

The increase in numbers of copperheads being seen is, I suspect, the result of the precipitous decline in the number of kingsnakes, which formerly kept copperhead numbers to acceptably low levels.

Why large numbers of yellow jackets are being seen so early in the season this year is a mystery. The droughty weather and record-breaking hot temperatures may be factors. Since the year began, rainfall amount is 12 inches below normal, and 2012 is the third consecutive year the area has suffered from drought.

As nearly as I can determine, two species of yellow jackets inhabit Lee County, the native species and the German yellow jacket, which first appeared in the U.S. in 1975 and is now the dominant species in several areas of the country. The two are similar in appearance and habits, but with one notable difference. Whereas the native species nests in underground cavities, the German yellow jacket may build its nests above ground, in tree hollows, wall voids, or in outbuildings.

Several years ago, a lady asked me what she should do about a yellow jacket nest inside her tool shed. I investigated and discovered a nest the size of a bushel basket. I told her to wait until after dark and spray it liberally with Sevin, which she did and reported that her problem was solved. Not long afterward, a man from Macon County called about a yellow jacket nest in his barn. “It’s darn near as big as a Volkswagen,” he said. I referred this case to a professional entomologist, who investigated and told me later, “That man wasn’t exaggerating about the size of that nest. It was huge.” I assume that in both of those cases, German yellow jackets were the ones that had built the nests.

The Chinese Zodiac designates 2013 as “The Year of the Snake.” Speaking of which, a friend of mine, Bill Finch, wrote a humorous commentary in the July 2001 edition of the Mobile Press-Register titled, “The Southern Snake Killer: A Brief Natural History.” A few excerpts follow.

“Unless you find a snake killer with a snake in his possession, he may be difficult to identify with any certainty…But a male snake killer is unmistakable when engaged in the typically elaborate post-killing display ritual, his head thrown back, chest swollen, swaying to and fro with a dumb grin on his face.”

“Female snake killers are unusually cryptic and seldom caught with a snake in hand. But if discovered in the vicinity of a snake, they may be distinguished from males by their slightly more histrionic behavior. Since they play a primary role in raising young snake killers, it would be useful to identify and control the females before they become gravid.”

“Various subspecies of snake killers may be distinguished by the way they misdescribe their helpless prey. Inland varieties…generally regard all of Alabama’s 60-odd species of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes as ‘ground rattlers.’ Lowland and swamp-dwelling varieties of snake killers tend to regard all snakes as poisonous cottonmouth water moccasins, even though their prey is almost inevitably the non-poisonous green or brown water snake.”

“There are records of snake killers being successfully brought into captivity. Males seem to adapt readily to the family room sofa, where they can live placidly on a diet of football and fast food, harmlessly entertaining visitors with heroic fabrications of snake-killing exploits.”

“Females…are more unpredictable and may never overcome their snake-killing hysteria, thrashing about and howling even at the mention of a snake. A supply of comforting food, baited with chocolate, may sometimes placate them for brief periods, but it is probably wisest to simply give the mature females a wide berth.”

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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