Cheatgrass and cow-killer lessons

Cheatgrass is the bane of Oggie’s life. On the Westwater trails it’s mostly beaten down by foot traffic, but she still picks up the seedpods on her feet.

Whenever she stops and frantically chews on her paws, I try to pull out the bristles, also called awns, but our progress is slow and the walk long.

Cheatgrass is a perfect name since it’s a tender green in early spring and cattle and deer browse on it, but when it dries to a straw color it becomes dangerous.

The seed pods have flexible barbs that stick to animals’ fur; burrow into their skin, mouth, eyes, and ears; and sometimes migrate to other parts of their bodies, including their organs.

Some veterinarians call it the evil weed because it’s so harmful to domestic animals, but I’ve often wondered how wild animals escape its wicked ways.

Cheatgrass is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa but has spread to nearly every other continent and is especially invasive in the West’s sagebrush ecosystem.

It’s successful because it produces profuse seeds which, under the protective thatch of the dead grass, germinate quickly. The seedlings send down shallow main roots and widely branching lateral ones, so they absorb surface moisture easily and outcompete native plants with deeper roots.

The grass also creates a tinderbox, a situation especially dangerous with the current dry conditions, heat, thunderstorms, and high winds.

An herbalist once told me she’d never met a plant that didn’t serve some positive purpose, but I doubted the evil weed was good for anything.

Despite my strong prejudice, I found it is a major food source for chukars and grey partridges, and, according to Medicinal Herbs and Natural Herbs, an enterprising healer can make a poultice from the seeds to relieve chest pains, and a creative chef can boil them to make gruel or roast them to make coffee.

More importantly, in an effort to lessen fire danger, ranchers have found that cattle will browse on the grass after the seeds have fallen off, which saves them hay money.

A protein supplement encourages the cattle to graze on the cheatgrass, and after several years, the thatch shrinks and native grasses return, thus reducing the risk of catastrophic fires.

A few days ago, as Oggie and I were heading up the final slope, she stopped once again to gnaw on her paws. I pulled out the awns and then walked ahead where I spotted a velvety, claret-colored insect scuttling across the trail.

I had just focused my cell phone camera on it when Oggie came running up, stepped on it, and stopped. After I pulled Oggie to the side, the insect hurried toward safety.

When we returned home, I showed the pictures to Ted who told me it was a cow-killer.

Cow-killers are sometimes called velvet ants because they look like large ants with black, narrow waists, but they’re actually wasps.

The female is often brightly colored and wingless, but with a formidable arsenal to ward off predators. In fact, she sounds like an insect version of a Sherman tank.

The larger males, on the other hand, are winged and stingless though they pseudo-sting when threatened.

Undeniably gorgeous, a female cow-killer wasp defends herself in a variety of ways: First, her intense color is a warning to predators that she’s dangerous.

Second, like stink bugs, she emits an unpleasant odor when picked on.

Third, she squeaks, warning potential predators to back off.

One entomologist, Justin O. Schmidt, says if a predator tries to eat a squeaking female, it feels, “like a mini jackhammer going zzzzzzzzzz” against its tongue, a sensation that might allow the wasp to escape.

Fourth, she’s muscular, so she can squirm her way out of a predator’s mouth, and she has a tough exoskeleton, so Oggie’s thirty-something-pound weight didn’t faze her.

Finally, her stinger is the longest in the insect world relative to body size.

In the name of science, Schmidt allowed himself to be stung by various insects, including the cow-killer, to evaluate their painfulness, creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.

On his scale, one is mild, and four is excruciating. He rated the female cow-killer’s sting as a three and added the following description of the pain, “Explosive and long-lasting. You sound insane as you scream. Hot oil from the deep fryer spilling over your entire hand.”

Fortunately, a cow-
killer wasp can’t actually kill a cow or a mule (another of her names) because her venom isn’t highly toxic to mammals. Nevertheless, I’m grateful she continued hurrying toward safety rather than stinging Oggie.

Despite the explosive pain from the cow-killer’s sting, Schmidt appreciates her elegant power.

“They are such masters of life,” he says. “They really have figured how to survive and do everything right.”

In the days since our cow-killer encounter, I’ve pondered Schmidt’s view of the insect. Master is a title usually bestowed on someone having transcendent skill.

But in his 1979 book about quantum physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Wu Li meaning “patterns of organic energy”), Gary Zukav gives several definitions of a master, including, “The Wu Li Master does not teach, but the student learns.”

In that way, perhaps the cow-killer and even cheatgrass can be considered masters if we let go of our prejudices and learn about the beauty and complexity of the natural world.

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