For most folks, the sight of a webby mass clinging to the branches of a deciduous tree brings on thoughts of tent caterpillars. I learned early on in my youth that if you see this mass in the spring, it is tent caterpillars, but if it is late summer or fall, you are looking at fall webworm, an entirely different insect. If you’re still not sure, you can verify which insect it is be monitoring the movements of the caterpillars. Fall webworms stay within their webby nest all the time, eating and sleeping there. They do not leave until they are ready to pupate. Tent caterpillars, on the other hand, only use their webby nest for shelter at night and during inclement weather. When they get hungry, they must leave the nest to forage on nearby leaves. » Continue Reading.
Last month I was asked why we aren’t seeing any monarch butterflies this year. I had no answer. Well, I had an answer, but it wasn’t the answer this person was likely seeking. I looked back through my records of when monarchs are first seen each year, and discovered that when I first started keeping track, we didn’t really see monarchs until mid- to late summer; in other words, mid-July and August. Two years ago I saw my first one at the end of May.
This year, however, July came and went with only a couple monarch sightings. Now August is chugging along towards the halfway mark, and I can still probably count on one hand the number of monarchs I’ve seen. Milkweed plants are conspicuously unmunched, as are the butterfly weeds all around my gardens. » Continue Reading.
I know that most gardening columns are filled with advice on how to get rid of weeds. But I want to put in a good word for them. I’m looking at one really huge one right now just outside my kitchen window: the Box Elder tree (Acer negundo) that is wildlife Grand Central Station all year long, right here in the middle of Saratoga Springs. Of course, that could be because of the seed and suet feeders we hang from its boughs, and the discarded Christmas trees we cluster around the trunk in the winter, and the birdbaths we keep filled in every season –- including a heated one providing liquid water through 25-below-zero nights. But I’ve also read that — even without our additions — the Box Elder tree is ranked among those with the highest value to wildlife.
That ranking is probably because of its seeds that, unlike those of other members of the maple genus, hang onto the boughs until well into the winter, providing food for squirrels and birds when most other seeds are gone. Another positive attribute is its ability to spring up from seedling to tree in a hurry, or as some might say, “grow like a weed.” That’s what our neighbor (who actually owns the ground this Box Elder grows from) said about this tree when he wanted to cut it down. “Just look at the mess it makes — bugs in the summer, seeds all over the place, leaves plugging up the gutters.” Well, we begged and pleaded and pointed out how its boughs provide privacy for his tenants, and he relented. Sort of. He cut down about half of it, but what do you know, it grew right back to its original height (and more!) in just about a year. Ha!
Here’s the thing: if you love the birds and butterflies and want to have them around, you just have to learn to love bugs and weeds. Some people think I’m kind of a nut about that. Two years ago, I led a wildflower walk in downtown Saratoga’s Congress Park, a park more known for its Olmsted-designed formal gardens than for anything allowed to grow wild. But (oh happy fault!) there are geologic faults that run right through Congress Park, creating the springs that Saratoga is famous for, as well as steep banks and marshy spots where the mowers just can’t mow. And there’s where the wildflowers grow, dozens and dozens of beauties most often overlooked: Birds-eye Speedwell, Canada Anemone, Willow Herbs Northern and Hairy, Buttercups, Forget-me-nots, Cuckoo Flowers, Cattails . . . I could go on and on.
And I was going on and on, extolling at length the virtues of one particular plant that spreads through the grass, Ground Ivy. I had read in a wonderful book by Hannah Holmes (Suburban Safari: A year on the lawn) that patches of this lovely little flower, as pretty as any orchid (click on photo above), are sought out by crows in molting, when their new feathers are poking through skin and causing them pain. Apparently, this Mint-Family plant has both analgesic and antiseptic qualities that soothe their pain and prevent infection, and the crows will roll around in it. Now, I found that pretty fascinating and was sharing my enthusiasm for Ground Ivy when I was interrupted by “Ugh! That’s Creeping Charlie! [Another name for Ground Ivy] I can’t get rid of it in my lawn! That’s a weed!”
Well, yes. It is. But such a nice one. I don’t think she thought I was nice when I responded to her revulsion: “Why would you want to get rid of it? Get rid of the grass instead.” Because, you see, that really is my ideal. Why would anyone prefer plain old grass to deliciously herby Ground Ivy (what a pungent, minty scent it emits when mowed)? Or to Speedwells of every kind, dainty little striped blooms in shades of blue from royal to mist? Or to Violets, white or purple or yellow? Or to Strawberries, Buttercups, Daisies, Clover. . . good lord, even Dandelions! All carpet the ground no taller than ankle-high, so they don’t need frequent mowing. All grow without needing to poison the soil with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. All thrive without being watered. All provide food for butterflies, caterpillars, ants, worms, birds, and bees. All are as pretty as pretty can be. And every single last one of them is a weed.
Let’s hear it for weeds!
Black Tupelo. That name evokes images of the Deep South, where Black Tupelo trees share gator-infested swamps with Bald Cypress and Loblolly Pine. So what the heck are they doing up here on the edge of the Adirondacks, sharing the Hudson River banks with White Birch and Swamp White Oak? That’s not the first question I asked myself upon finding this tree about 15 years ago. My first question was: “What the heck is this?” In all my years of wandering the woods and paddling the waterways of both Michigan and northern New York, I had never come across a tree quite like it. But here it was — glossy green in summer, radiant red by early fall – and whole bunches of them were growing in a marshy area of the Hudson near Glens Falls. Its Latin name (I later learned) is Nyssa sylvatica, which means “water nymph of the woods.” I can’t imagine a more appropriate name, for, in my desire to know this tree, it became like some kind of spirit beckoning me ever deeper into the woods. I trace my present fascination with all that grows to my first encounters with that beautiful tree.
I became a bit obsessed by the subject, asking several so-called naturalists what they might know about Black Tupelo. Not much, it seemed, for time and time again I was told that it did not grow around here. The ones I had found, they said, must have escaped from cultivation. So imagine my excitement (maybe ten years ago) when I saw a notice that the Adirondack Mountain Club was hosting a lecture by a forestry Ph.D. student named Neil Pederson and the topic was Black Tupelos. Pederson did acknowledge that tupelos typically would not be found this far north or this far inland. But then he explained that the low-lying nature of the Hudson River/Champlain Valley allowed for the penetration of moist, warm air, creating a nearly uniform climate farther inland than would normally be expected. And he showed us numerous weather-pattern and plant-distribution maps to prove it. Hah! Told you so!
At that same lecture I learned that Pederson had taken core samples of Black Tupelos growing in Lincoln Mountain State Forest in Greenfield, N.Y., just south of Corinth. That’s right next door, almost, to my home in Saratoga Springs. Here in a state-protected unspoiled swamp, about 30 specimens had grown to a very old age. How old? Well, Pederson’s samples indicated that at least one of these ancient trees was 554 years old. Five Hundred and Fifty-four years! According to his calculations, that tree first sprouted in 1448. That’s 44 years before Columbus set sail. I guess those trees had not escaped from cultivation.
For years I tried to find a way to visit those trees. I obtained a topographical map of the area, but was warned that the swamp was almost impenetrable and of course there were no trails or markers and I was sure to get lost. Then just last winter I met a man who not only knew all about those trees, he also lived on the edge of the swamp where they grow, and knew how to get to them. Vince Walsh is a nature educator, a New York State licensed guide, and owner of Kawing Crow Awareness Center in Greenfield, his property abutting that Lincoln Mountain State Forest. Vince claims that these tupelo trees have been sampled again in the years since Pederson’s findings, and this time the samples indicate some trees are more than 800 years old. Just imagine! If what Vince told me is true, then these trees began their lives at the time the Crusades were going on across the Atlantic. But even at “only” 554 years, that tree would be the oldest one in all of New York State.
Vince took me to see those trees this past March, while ice still covered the frozen muck and we could make our way without sinking up to our knees. It’s hard to describe what I felt gazing up the huge trunks to the gnarled twisted branches high overhead. I’ve actually seen taller and bigger trees (these tupelos are around 70 feet high, maybe 36 inches across at shoulder height), but these trees exuded a presence. We just sat in silence among them for a long, long while. What had they witnessed over the span of 800 years? And how had they escaped the logger’s ax? Vince told me these trees hollow out from the top as they age, making such ancient trees as these unsuitable for ships’ masts or building lumber. By the time Europeans would have discovered them, they already would have been at least 300 years old.
Unfortunately, what age or loggers didn’t bring down, the beavers may. Back in that Greenfield swamp, we found one ancient tree that beavers had girdled – certain death in just a short time for that one. And along the Hudson River at Moreau, in one swampy spot where dozens grow, every single one has the bark gnawed off all the way around, to a height of about three feet. It’s really a mystery to me why the beavers do this. They haven’t toppled a single one to get at the treetop branches. Is the heartwood too hard for even a beaver’s teeth? Or are they deliberately killing these trees so that trees they prefer will take their place? I know that beavers are very smart and capable of strategizing. Are they actually capable of such deliberate dendrocide?
So it could be the days are numbered for “my” Black Tupelos, the ones along the Hudson I visit in every season, as if in pilgrimage to my totem tree. A few here and there remain undamaged, so I’ve asked the naturalists at Moreau Lake State Park to devise some way to protect them. What a loss it would be to not find that vivid glossy green in summer, that radiant red in the fall! These trees start to redden many weeks earlier than others, starting as early as now. Often, only half of its leaves turn color at a time, so that red and green leaves may populate the same branches at the same time. Male and female flowers occur on separate trees, and only the female trees bear the blue-black fruits that are craved by many kinds of birds, especially woodpeckers and thrushes. The fruits should be ripe by late September, early October, when the trees are as fully ablaze as the one in the photo above. I urge you to find a way to see these trees. As we now know, they’ve thrived around here for a very, very long time. But maybe not forever.
Severe thunder storms. Stuck in the house. So what else is new this summer in northern New York? Now, nature addicts like me don’t mind a little rain. That’s what Gore-tex is for. But crashing branches and slashing lightning? No way am I hiking or paddling in that, and it’s driving me nuts.
Where comes this craving to be out in the woods in all weathers (except severe thunder storms or maybe freezing rain)? It started when I was just a small kid, maybe 9 or 10, growing up in a boatyard on a lake in Michigan, with a dad who had lots of chores for me and who wasn’t all that nice about getting me to do them. But he had taught me how to paddle. And a winding creek ran between our lake and another, the banks lined with marsh and forest. And canoes were there for the taking. I soon learned that two turns of the creek carried me beyond the sound of my dad shouting about unfinished work. So the woods and the waterways became my refuge, my place to get lost on purpose.
And so they still are. For 15 years I worked as a nursing assistant for Hospice, traveling all over Saratoga County to care for people in their own homes, people dying of every illness the human flesh can fail by. And I couldn’t fix it. Each day I had to walk into the heart of suffering. And stay there. Friends asked me, “How can you stand it?” One way was to go to the river, push off in my little canoe (a 10′ Hornbeck Black Jack, weighing 12 pounds), and as soon as I felt that smooth silken water bearing me up and smelled the sweet scent of mossy banks, I sensed that all was well. I could really believe that some great goodness lay at the core of creation, that death and change were just part of the scheme of things, and that all would be well, indeed.
It’s funny. I thought I’d enjoy such nature magazines as Outside and Backpacker, but when I leafed through a few issues, I found the articles were mostly about surviving nature — enduring thousands of mosquito bites, falling off cliffs, freezing in the mountains, struggling across deserts, that sort of thing: Nature as something that had to be challenged or overcome. Not for me. I preferred to go to nature for its power to heal. During my work for Hospice, I witnessed this power in the lives of others, as well. Let me tell you about two of these folks. While it’s true they both eventually died, I know that their final days were enriched by getting them off the couch and out the door.
Dan, a Polish-American retired paper mill worker, wanted nothing to do with me. No, he didn’t need a shave. No, he could shower without my help. No, he didn’t want to chit-chat. “Just siddown and be quiet. I wanna watch ‘The Price is Right’.” Now, to spend an hour doing nothing was bad enough. But to have to spend it watching “The Price is Right” — torture! So I busied myself making his bed and nosing about for something to read. And there on his bookshelf were several field guides for mushrooms. I interrupted his program: “Dan, do you like to hunt mushrooms? You know, we could go look for some.” It was late autumn. There might be a few late fruiters. Click! The TV went dark. “Could you really take me?”
Indeed I could. We drove to a site where he knew some Late Fall Oyster mushrooms might be found. While he sat in the car, he sent me off into the woods. It must have been angels (plus Dan’s good directions) that led me right to them. A whole bunch. I gathered a gallon or so, and you know, it might have been gold I laid in his lap, he was so delighted. And after that adventure, off we would go nearly every day until the day he died. He’d sit in the car with his oxygen tank (he had terminal heart failure), and we’d drive along the Hudson and Hoosick Rivers, visiting all the haunts of his youth. We found where he used to hide his canoe. We found where wild asparagus grew. He recalled how his father was gassed in the war. He remembered his mother’s struggles to run their tavern. He confessed how he started drinking young and how mean he had been to his wife when he was drunk. And he found at last the courage to ask for his wife’s forgiveness before he died. And he died in her loving arms.
Then there was Eleanor. I’m not sure what Eleanor’s illness was. Terminal crankiness, probably. She lived in an assisted living facility, very nice, lots of social events, classes, good meals. She never left her room. She wanted her meals sent up. She wanted her shades pulled down. The one pleasure she allowed herself was to sit on the porch in her wheelchair on pleasant days. One day I rolled her down the ramp: “Some Blue-eyed Grass is blooming near the parking lot,” I told her. She reluctantly consented. She had never seen (nor ever cared to see) Blue-eyed Grass, but that day her eyes were opened. A sea of radiant blue covered a vacant lot, studded with bright yellow Small Sundrops and snowy Wild Strawberry. “Oh my! How pretty,” she said (in spite of herself).
All summer we walked and rolled, on into the fall. If the day was rainy, she waited for me in her raincoat. She couldn’t get over the beauty of Blue Vervain (“How can that be a weed?”) or the tiny pink blossoms of Northern Willow Herb (“Wouldn’t they make a darling dollhouse bouquet?”) We picked gorgeous bundles of Panicled Dogwood (burgundy leaves, waxy white berries on hot pink pedicels) mixed with the dark maroon seed sprays of Curly Dock. Then we got in trouble for bringing in armloads of Goldenrod. Her daughter threw it all out: “Get those weeds out of here! They’re dropping pollen all over!” I heard that cranky tone and marveled: that’s how Eleanor used to sound. She didn’t anymore.
When the editors of Adirondack Almanack asked me to take over Ellen Rathbone’s garden columns while Ellen is on vacation, I couldn’t help thinking, they have got to be kidding! Me, write a garden column? I guess they don’t know that I’m more of an anti-gardener. Not anti in the sense of “against” (I love other people’s gardens), but in the sense of “antithesis of.” In short, I’m a weed-loving wildflower nerd who will risk drowning and broken bones and heart attacks and Lyme disease pursuing additions to my wildflower “life list,” but I faint at the thought of cultivating the plot behind my house. » Continue Reading.
A friend of mine in college had a pet skunk named Cauliflower. We heard tales of this unusual household companion, but sadly only got to meet her on the occasion of my friend’s funeral. The year before, while I was interning at a nature center near Syracuse, someone brought in an “abandoned” baby skunk. One of the staff worked with a rehabber and took temporary custody of the little animal until the end of the day. After giving it a meal of Similac, I volunteered to babysit. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a baby skunk nestled in your bosom for the better part of a day (I had to keep it somewhere warm and secure). Needless to say, I developed a fondness for skunks.
In the ensuing years I have discovered that the mere mention of the word skunk causes cries of “pee-eeww” to leap from the mouths of every child, and even some adults, in the vicinity. Noses are pinched tightly shut, even though no actual skunk is nearby. This reaction amuses and baffles me. I guess some lessons are learned early and persist for a lifetime, whether legitimate or not.
Striped skunks (there are, by the way, nine other species of skunks) are known to scientists as Mephitis mephitis. Once grouped together with weasels in the family Mustelidae, skunks now have their own family, Mephitidae, which is shared only with stink badgers, an animal found in the Philippines and Indonesia. It is easy to see why skunks were combined with weasels, for like skunks, weasels have many scent glands and can be quite aromatic. However, only skunks use their scent as a mode of defense.
If one encounters a skunk, and does not threaten it in anyway, the skunk is liable to trundle along its merry way without a second glance. If harassed, it will give plenty of warning to leave it alone. First, it will stomp its front feet. If this doesn’t work, it will make little charges towards it’s harasser with its tail raised over its head. Should the intruder continue to bother it, the skunk will bend its nether regions around to the front, so both its nose and rump are facing the same direction, and let loose a stream of yellowish liquid, a potent musk that can be fired up to twenty feet away. The skunk can manage six to eight squirts before its supply is gone, after which it will require about a week to recharge. The active compound in the spray is butylmercaptan, Mother Nature’s answer to tear gas. While it will burn and sting the eyes, it will not persist (and the recipient will not go blind). Unlike man-made tear gas, the odor can persist for weeks and can be smelled up to a mile away.
In short, it’s best not to bother a skunk.
And why would you want to? After all, skunks provide a valuable service to those who grow crops, and they do it at night when we are asleep. They eat many grubs and grasshoppers and insects of all stripes that are considered pests to the farmer. True, skunks have been known to chicken eggs and sometimes even a hen, but these instances are considered rare. Skunks are true omnivores, consuming berries and bugs, mice and roadkill all with equal relish. That said, invertebrates make up the greatest portion of the skunk’s diet.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, skunks were routinely trapped and bred in captivity for the fur industry. Believe it or not, their pelts were the second most popular fur in the business. But after about 1915 the demand for skunk fur started to decline, and all the skunk breeders had to find a new outlet. Skunks as pets became the next rage. Today pet skunks are hard to come by, mostly because they are illegal in most states due to the fact that skunks are the number two carrier (in the wild) of rabies. Red foxes, incidentally, are listed as number one.
I have been asked several times by local folks why Newcomb has no skunks. My pat answer has been that it’s simply too cold here for them. However, I have learned from long-time residents that Newcomb used to have a good number of these black and white animals. Pursuing this, we discovered that skunks seemed to disappear about the same time that coyotes moved in. Hm…interesting. Part of me wonders, though, if it has more to do with the lack of open space than it does with the presence of coyotes. Skunks are traditionally animals of open spaces, preferring to live near agricultural lands and open woods. Sometimes they inhabit dense woodlands, and have even been found at elevations over 2000 feet, but this is not where they thrive best. Since Newcomb has reverted back to forest over most of its acreage (believe it or not, at one time most of this area was cleared for farms), I suspect this is what has driven the skunks from our fair village.
We could learn a lot from skunks, who are truly pacifists at heart. They waddle their way through life, minding their own business, consuming pestiferous insects to help out (unintentionally) their human neighbors. We could all use a few more neighbors like this.
This last winter one of our local residents came in with a photograph of the strangest looking tracks in the snow. There were no distinct foot prints, and no well-defined gait pattern. What it looked like was a beautiful serpentine zig-zagging design; it reminded me of rickrack. And it looked familiar. I grabbed one of my tracking books and quickly thumbed through. Sure enough, there it was: porcupine tracks. » Continue Reading.
One of my favorite plants is one that is often overlooked by people, possibly because it frequents roadsides and waste areas and is therefore considered a weed. But this “weed” is responsible for the survival of one of our most beloved insects, helped save the lives of many World War II sailors and airmen, and has a sneaky reproductive life. I give you The Milkweed.
Milkweeds are members of the dogbane family and come in 140 varieties, of which I am familiar with about four: the dusty pink common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the muted magenta swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), the brilliantly orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and the creamy yellow whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata). I suspect the latter is only in gardens, however. » Continue Reading.
The purple triangles seen hanging on trees along Adirondack roads are traps designed to lure and capture emerald ash borers (Agrilus planipennis). Emerald ash borers are small (half-inch long) metallic green insects that are coming to us from Asia via Michigan and wreaking havoc on the ash trees of North America.
Recently I wrote a piece on the American elm and its decline thanks to an insect and a fungus. The same thing is happening today with the American beech. But the emerald ash borer (EAB) acts alone. This insect overwinters under the bark of the ash tree (black, green and white ash are all susceptible) and emerges as an adult in the spring. After mating, the female lays her eggs in the crevices of the bark and about ten days later they hatch. The larvae now begin their devastating work, tunneling under the bark, eating as they go. When winter comes, the larvae become dormant, waiting for spring to arrive, at which point they emerge as adults and the cycle begins again. » Continue Reading.
One of the advantages of walking with one’s eyes cast to the ground is that one is likely to find all sorts of interesting things that exist at ground level: wildflowers, fungi, snakes, scats, tracks, bodies. Bodies? Sure – things are dying all the time in the woods, and if we are very lucky we might find them. The big question, however, is: “Why don’t we find them more often?”
Believe it or not, there is a lot of competition out there for dead things. You’ve got your vertebrate scavengers, like raccoons and coyotes, vultures and ravens, which sniff out and eat tasty morsels that haven’t been dead too long. Then you have your invertebrates that are looking for a good body to eat or to use for a nursery for the kids: assorted flies, ants and beetles. Underground there are soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria that would also like their share. No carcass goes unwanted, and thank goodness.
Last summer I came across a hairy-tailed mole right outside the Visitor Center. It was obviously dead, but as I watched, it seemed to reanimate! The body was moving! My curiosity piqued, I examined the body more closely and found not one, but two beautiful black and orange beetles working furiously at the body. They turned out to be a male and a female burying beetle (Nicrophorus carolinus), one of 46 species of carrion beetles found in North America. In the amount of time it took me to go inside for the camera, they had the body partially buried. Within half an hour it was gone.
Carrion beetles come in to general varieties: Silphinae and Nicrophorinae. The major differences between these subfamilies are behavior and morphology. The Nicrophorinae are the more interesting of the two (in my opinion) because they actively bury the carcasses they find.
First, the beetles must find the deceased, which they can do from up to a mile and a half away, detecting the fine chemical scent of decay (often within an hour of death) with their antennae, which can have some pretty nifty structures. Some have knobs, others fans or combs. These antennae are highly specialized to pick up long-distance scents. Once the body is found, the male and female beetles work together to bury it. Some may carry the body a short distance for burial, while others get right to work excavating beneath the corpse, which to the observer looks like it is slowly sinking into a miniature bed of quicksand. And just to show you how clever Mother Nature is, take note that the bodies of these beetles are flat, the perfect adaptation for scooting easily underneath a carcass, thus facilitating burial.
Why do these beetles bury the carcass, where as those in the subfamily Silphinae don’t? It comes down to a matter of taste. Nicrophorinae don’t like maggots. Flies are equally adept at homing in on death and for the same reason: they want to lay their eggs on the body, providing a nutritious food source for hatching larvae. Nicrophorinae will eat fly maggots, but they don’t like it when there are too many of them. In fact, they have been known to abandon a carcass if the maggot infestation gets too high. Silphinae, on the other hand, love to eat the maggots, so they are less picky and don’t bury the body. The more the merrier.
Once the body is safely secure underground, the female burying beetle lays her eggs on it and within a couple days the eggs hatch. Here is where another defining difference between the subfamilies comes into play: the adults will feed and defend their larvae. And before you know it, the larvae grow up, pupate and become adults, ready to find carcasses of their own.
As ubiquitous and common as carrion beetles are, they are not often found by the average person. This is partly because they (the beetles) are mostly nocturnal, but also because they do their jobs well and dead bodies are not around long enough for most people to encounter them. If you really want to increase your odds of finding some carrion beetles (and they are some of the largest and most colorful of our insects), you can investigate roadkills, or you can establish an abattoir on your property. I did this successfully, albeit unintentionally, the first year I began the losing battle with rose chafers. After collecting a quart of said pests (drowned in a mason jar), I left the jar out in the sun with the lid on for several days, forgotten. When I found it, I dumped the putrifying contents out on the ground. A few days later I came across the mess of rotting chafer bodies to find it alive with carrion beetles – beautiful yellow and black specimens as large as the end of my thumb. If only I could convince them to eat the live chafers…
So let’s all give three cheers for carrion beetles…and all the other creatures that work to keep our woods, waters, roads, deserts, etc. clean and healthy. If they weren’t out there consuming the bodies of the deceased, diseases would surely run rampant, or, at the very least, the world would be a smellier place. I, for one, am happy to share the planet with them.
Now is the time for the ultimate light show. I’m not talking about the fireworks that lit up the sky over the 4th, nor those gossamer curtains that dance across the heavens when sunspot activity is just right (although, I must say that northern lights are a real contender). No, I’m referring to fireflies, those dancing lights that must’ve been the inspiration for many a faerie legend.
First off, we must set the record straight: fireflies are not flies. They are beetles. It may be a small thing, but it is important that we start off on the right foot. Insects with hard wing covers are beetles. Fireflies have hard wing covers. Insects with two wings are flies. Fireflies have four wings: the two forewings are the wing covers, and beneath them are are the two delicate back wings. Still, to suddenly start calling them “firebeetles” would probably confuse a lot of folks, so we’ll stick with tradition and call them fireflies. (We could go with their alternate name, lightning bugs, but we run into the same problem: they are not bugs. Bugs are actually a specific Order of insects known as True Bugs. But I digress.)
So, you find yourself standing in your back yard on a balmy night in June or July. The sun has long set, and there above the grass, above the shrubs, you see a flash of light. Then another. A couple flashes glint from down in the grass. Some of the lights zigzag, others form an ephemeral “J”. Some go up, others go down. Some flash high in the air, some flash at medium height, and some flash close to the ground. Some flash all night, some flash for only a few minutes. The more you watch, the more variations you see. What does it all mean?
Perhaps it is best we start simply. Only male fireflies fly. Therefore, any flashing you see above the ground is a male firefly. The females do not fly (they don’t have wings), so they flash from the ground.
Now it gets more difficult, for there are many species of fireflies and each has its own flash pattern, which can vary in color, brightness and timing. Some species flash early in the night, while others prefer a later hour. Each species also claims a preferred height above the ground at which to make its display. If you learn all these characteristics, you are well on your way to knowing which fireflies like your yard.
Let’s take a look at a very common firefly, Photinus pyralis (sorry – they don’t have common names). You can recognize this firefly’s pattern easily: it is bright yellow and its flash is an upward rising light, forming a “J”. In the early part of the night, P. pyralis flashes close to the ground, but as the night progresses, he moves higher. He starts off by giving a set of flashes, each about six seconds apart (depending on the temperature; the warmer the night, the closer together the flashes will be). The female will respond with a flash about two seconds after the male flashes. If he sees this, he flies towards her, the two repeating their sequences until they meet.
After a tete-a-tete, the female will be off to lay her eggs (in some species the eggs glow), from which will emerge larvae that we call glowworms. The larvae lurk underground until spring, hunting voraciously for subterranean prey. Some species will stay as larvae for a second year. Anyway, come spring, they pupate and emerge as adults.
But what about that light? Where does it come from? Does it burn? The glow of the firefly is a natural light called biolumenesence. Biolumenesence is a cool light, meaning that the energy that is released in its making goes almost entirely into making light – little to no heat is produced. If only mankind could replicate this! In these insects the light is the result of a chemical reaction that takes place within the light organs on the underside of the abdomen. The firefly produces two of these chemicals: luciferin and luciferase. Added to these is ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a chemical that all living things have. The final ingredient is oxygen, which the firefly acquires through small openings along its abdomen. Once in contact these chemicals and voila! there is light. It’s like magic.
Seeing fireflies in your yard, catching fireflies in a jar, it’s a kind of rite of passage that every child should enjoy. This summer it seems like we have an abundance of fireflies, which is a wonderful thing. Some areas, though, are suffering a derth of fireflies. The southeastern US has seen a decline upwards of 70% in firefly populations. Biologists have been researching the cause for this, and light pollution seems to be the culprit. Street lights and house lights are huge contributors to this, but the new fad of solar lights along walkways and gardens seems to have been the “one straw too many.” Now even those dark(er) corners of yards have been lit up. With all this light, fireflies either a) don’t know it is night and therefore are not signaling for mates, or b) can’t see the lights of potential mates because they are overpowered by all the artificial lights man has turned on. If there is no mating taking place, there will be no future generations of fireflies.
It is a blessing to live in the Adirondacks, where we still have a fair bit of dark sky and can see the fireflies and stars before we go to bed.
We see them darting about over streams, ponds, and lakes. Sometimes they are cruising the parking lots, or hanging out on the tops of hills or mountains. Dragonflies: they are a marvel of engineering and the “latest thing” to identify.
Every summer I assign myself something new to study. Unfortunately, I find myself distracted by all the options and never settle on just one new thing. But this year I really want to work on my dragonfly identification skills. Afterall, we see them everywhere, and if we can ID warblers and sparrows, how hard can a dragonfly be?
There are two good books out there for beginning dragonfliers: Cynthia Berger’s Dragonflies, part of the Wild Guide series, and the Stokes Beinnger’s Guide to Dragonflies. You can also try Dragonflies Through Binoculars, but I found that one to be a bit more of a challenge. » Continue Reading.
I am easily impressed, I admit it. Still, the sight of a mature American Elm (Ulmus Americana) can send me into transports of delight. This stately tree, once ubiquitous east of the Rockies and synonymous with street side plantings, was nearly exterminated by the 1970s thanks to the fast work of an invasive insect and its associated fungus.
This pathogenic pair lived harmlessly in Asia, where the native elms were resistant to the effects of the fungus (Graphium ulmi). Somehow they made their way to the Netherlands, where in short order they did in the elms that held that country’s famous dykes (and hence the disease was named Dutch Elm Disease, or DED). From there DED migrated to England, taking out the stately English elms. Still, the US was protected; we were an ocean away and all ports of entry were watched and imported woods were thoroughly inspected. Or so we thought.
Suddenly in 1930 an outbreak occurred in Ohio. The “sanitary forces” were called in and the outbreak was eliminated. But in 1933, 3800 diseased elms appeared in New Jersey, and another 23 in Connecticut. The DED sleuths fanned out and the source was finally located: a load of English elm veneer wood, swarming with Scolytus multistriatus, the elm bark beetle. Forty years later, millions of elms across the US had succumbed to the disease.
Here’s what happens. The beetle (there is a native elm bark beetle as well as the invasive Asian species; both are now known to be carriers) snacks on the tree, chewing through the bark at the crotches of the twigs. Through these wounds the fungus’s spores, carried by the beetle, enter the tree. Once in the inner bark, they germinate, spreading fungal threads throughout the tree’s vascular system, essentially clogging it and preventing the transport of water and nutrients. Before long, the tree dies.
Mature trees were hit first, but folks were hopeful because seedlings and saplings were plentiful. Unfortunately, once saplings reached 4” dbh (diameter breast height, a measurement taken at 4.5’ above ground), they succumbed as well. So how is it possible that today I find mature trees?
It turns out that there were isolated pockets of mature trees that were never exposed to the disease, and other individuals exhibited resistance (a benefit of sexual reproduction). Today you can purchase varieties of resistant elms, such as “Valley Forge” and “New Harmony,” from various nurseries and breeders.
But what I enjoy is finding that lone wild elm, with its classic vase-shaped form. We have one here in Newcomb, prominently located at the Memorial Garden by the town’s Scenic Overlook. It is a breathtaking sight, this tall, graceful tree. Sadly, few people who see it probably realize what it is. Now that elms are few and far between, the specter of Dutch Elm Disease has been relegated to the halls of learning, where forestry and horticulture majors are about the only ones who learn of it.
This hit home for me about ten years ago when I worked at a zoo that had a magnificent specimen in one of its enclosures. No one else knew what it was and one day they decided to cut it down so they could expand the exhibit. I had to step in, crying “NO! It’s an elm – they are almost extinct!” It had a stay of execution that day, but by now it may be gone.
When American elms were plentiful, they played an important role in our history. Famous speeches were made under elms; treaties were signed; states were formed. So many historical events have been associated with elms that Donald Peattie wrote in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America:
“If you want to be recalled for something that you do, you will be well advised to do it under an Elm – a great Elm, for such a tree outlives the generations of men…”
Elms can grow to over 100 feet in height, with diameters exceeding four feet and crowns stretching up to 150 feet! If it avoids DED (or elm yellows, the other major disease that affects elms), it can live for several hundred years. In the classic form the tree resembles a fountain: the lower trunk exhibiting no branches, then suddenly splitting into multiple stems from which the branches fan upwards and outwards. This arching, vase-like form made it the perfect street tree, for its branches would meet those of the elm across the street, uniting over the pavement and shading the cars below in a tunnel of green. Likewise, it was perfect for planting in the yard: no lower branches would hit you in the face for all the branches were up high, reaching over your house to cool it in the heat of the summer with its dappled shade.
Sure, there were some folks with a utilitarian eye who claimed the tree was useless. C.A. Sheffield wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1948:
“They are the most useless piece of vegetation in our forests. They cannot be used for firewood because they cannot be split. The wood cannot be burned because it is full of water. It cannot be used for posts because it rots in a short time. It can be sawed into lumber but it warps and twists into corkscrews and gives the building where it is used an unpleasant odor for years.”
Yet despite this, the American elm (aka: white elm and water elm) was plenty useful. Early settlers learned from the Natives that the bark could be easily stripped and made into cordage, baskets, and even canoes. Whips were made from the braided bark to urge recalcitrant oxen to their duties. Because the wood is so strong, supple, and shock resistant, it was ideal for the hubs of wagons used to carry heavy loads. It was also used to make agricultural tools, sporting goods, flooring, and was even used in ship building. Barrel staves and chopping bowls were routinely made from its wood. And, because it held screws better than any other wood, it was ideal for making boxes and crates.
Young elms can be found where mature elms once lived. I have an elm sapling that reaches into my yard. Learning to identify the asymmetrically heart-shaped and toothed leaf, with its sandpapery texture, is fairly easy. Scope out places where historic elms once grew (like The Elm Tree Inn in Keene), and you will likely find some youngsters growing quietly nearby. If you want to add an elm to your yard, then hop on-line and do a search for nurseries and breeders who have resistant varieties for sale. Every home should have an elm grace to grace its yard…and maybe a revival in street trees will take root, restoring the elm to its coveted place in our towns and cities.
There you are, enjoying a pleasant stroll among the flowers, when your eyes suddenly land on a black and yellow banded insect getting a meal on a flower. “A bee!” your mind screams, and you hastily blunder your way out of the garden in full panic mode. When you reach the safety of the house, you contemplate grabbing a can of Raid and eliminating the unwanted insect. If, however, you had taken the time to look at the insect, you might have noticed two things. One, the “bee” only had two wings (most insects have four; flies have two), and two, the body was not fuzzy. This is no bee. It is a beneficial insect called a Syrphid, or Hover, Fly.
Syrphids are nifty, harmless flies. Although they may look like a bee or yellowjacket, they have no stingers. Their cryptic coloration fooled you, though, as it was supposed to. By looking like a bee or wasp, this insect is able to trick predators that might otherwise want to make it a meal.
Like our friend the housefly, Syrphids are equipped with sponge-like mouthparts, which they use to mop up meals of pollen and nectar. As such, they are very important pollinators, flying from blossom to blossom and transferring pollen as they go. But the benefits of these boldly colored insects don’t end here. Their larvae are also important.
The larvae of some species of Syrphids feed on decaying vegetation and fungi, making them important cogs in nature’s recycling system. Others seek out the nests of ants, termites and bees. But the ones that are dear to the naturalist’s (and gardener’s) heart are the ones that seek out and destroy aphids. In these species, the female adults lay their eggs singly near a herd of aphids. In days the egg hatches and the legless, slug-like larva oozes its way towards its prey. When an aphid is encountered, the larva raises its head, clamps onto the juicy body, and sucks it dry. Over the course of its short life, the larva can consume upwards of 400 aphids (provided their ant protectors don’t evict it first), providing relief to the host plant the aphids were draining.
The next time you find yourself walking through a field of flowers, along a roadside, or in your garden, keep your eyes peeled for these bright, bi-winged insects as they hover over the blossoms. Take a few moments to observe their behavior. You never know what else you might discover.
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