Almanack Contributor Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.

You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Monster Mosquitoes

Psorophora ciliata

As the Dalai Lama once said, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Really all it takes is one or two of the little whiners in your tent to spoil a night’s sleep. I’m convinced their ear-buzzing is an adaptation to raise a victim’s blood pressure so they fill up faster. Makes you wish you could return the favor somehow. 

Well if mosquitoes actually slept, there is something that would likely keep them up at night: The Mosquito Monster! Or rather, the monster mosquito, Psorophora ciliata (sore AH fur uh silly AHT uh). In addition to terrorizing campers and picnickers, this hulking menace, which is two to three times the size of most species, regularly dines on its smaller kin. 

Such inter-family cannibalism only goes on in the larval stage, but I like to imagine that when an adult Psorophora ciliata touches down, the average mosquito would back away slowly, saying “Hey, this arm’s all yours, buddy. I was just leaving anyway and please don’t eat me, heh,” or a pheromone message to that effect. 

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Thursday, September 2, 2021

Yellowjackets: Anarchy Is Bad for Picnics

yellowjackets

I’m not one to shed a tear when authoritarian rulers die, but once they’re gone, picnics become a lot more dangerous.

Toward the end of summer, just in time for Labor Day picnics and County Fairs, the original queen in every yellowjacket wasp colony dies. It’s not the stuff of Hamlet or some far-reaching conspiracy, it’s just that having a few thousand babies in the course of one season is enough to tire any Queen Mum to death. 

The colony anticipates this loss, however, and raises a few additional queens as the old one starts to forget the names of her offspring and where she left her reading glasses.  But when the feisty new regals emerge, the young queens are no good whatsoever to the nest which lovingly produced them. No, they run off with the nearest male wasps and after an orgy of mating, go hide in rotten logs or nearby attics for the winter. 

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Friday, August 20, 2021

Distressing (not quite) fall colors

early fall color

Being first isn’t always a good thing. For example, trees that are first to have their leaves turn color are definitely losers. Premature autumn leaf color change is a reliable indicator of failing health, and the worse a tree’s condition, the sooner it begins to turn. Although the display of colors that our hardwoods produce each autumn never fails to fill me with awe and appreciation, when it starts in late July or early August, it worries me.

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

Spruce Blues and Wet-Weather Woes

blue spruceWhen I’m asked to diagnose tree problems, folks naturally want the remedy. Sometimes the only solution is tree removal; other times it’s a cable brace, pest management, corrective pruning or fertilizing. But increasingly, the diagnosis is climate change. If anyone knows how to solve that through an arboricultural practice, please let me know. 

With rising temperatures, a novel weather pattern has taken hold with longer and more intense dry and wet periods. In 2012 many areas had the lowest soil moisture ever recorded. Nonstop rain in 2013 led to flooding and farm disaster relief. A drought in 2016 set more records in some places, and catastrophic flooding hit in 2017. Drought followed in 2018, and 2019 was another massive flood year. Prolonged dry spells cause root dieback, weakening trees for several years afterward. But unusually wet seasons are just as bad for trees.

(Photo at left: Mundhenk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Metal Heads and Canine Compasses

scooby dooAs the title of the animated American TV series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! suggests, getting lost was a frequent premise. From 1969 to 1985, the cadre of teen gumshoes spent about half their time looking for young Shaggy, who always disappeared to smoke a joint (so it was implied), and then to satisfy his raging munchies afterward. His dog Scooby-Doo of course tagged along for the food. I recall one episode where Shaggy attempts to navigate a forest by looking for moss on the north sides of trees. He should have just asked Scooby to point North.

A 2013 paper published in Frontiers in Zoology suggests that dogs line up with Earth’s North-South axis when they defecate. Researchers took two years to observe 1,893 poop events, somehow accounting for a range of weather factors, before concluding that the number one element that influenced how dogs did a Number Two was Earth’s magnetic field. Perhaps the hound-winding pre-poop turning dance most dogs perform is to calibrate their internal compass.

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Sunday, August 8, 2021

Oak wilt: No laughing matter

leaf and whole tree symptoms of oak wilt in a red oak treeIt’s normal to tune out all the Chicken Littles (such as yours truly) who run around squawking about this or that invasive forest pest or disease that pose a threat to trees. I mean, how many times can the sky fall, anyway? But the real danger is when we feel so overwhelmed that we throw up our hands. Thinking we can’t make a difference could result in more harm to forests than the pests themselves.

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Monday, July 26, 2021

When Trees Go over the Hill

bur oak treeSenescence is the decline in vigor that happens to all creatures great and diminutive as they approach their species’ life-expectancy limit. Individual genetics matter, too, as does environment. For us, eating and sleeping well, cultivating gratitude, and laughing a lot can keep us healthier for longer. But at some point, even the best-preserved specimen can’t avoid the end.

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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Happy as a clam? Science is mixed on that one

Happiness may be elusive, but it has sure spawned a lot of aphorisms and similes. Folk-wisdom indicates one can be happy as a pig in poop – or in mud, which makes me wonder if those two hogs are equally content, and if they had other options. It also suggests you can have a whale of a time, and be pleased as a pig in a peach orchard, which would make sense unless harvest season was over. Additionally, one might feel happy as a pup with two tails, a monkey with a peanut machine, or a clam at high tide.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The ‘fungus among us’

toxoplasma gondii a parasite found in cats

We humans fancy ourselves the masters of our own destiny, or at the very least, feel that we make choices of our own free will. The idea that someone or something might be able to control our thoughts and actions is terrifying. We desperately hope that “mind control” is limited to Jedi mind tricks in Star Wars, or mass brainwashing in The Manchurian Candidate; pure fiction. Yet the clichéd phrase “the devil made me do it” suggests that from time to time, we might fall victim to outside influences.

Well, real-life research has shown that if we act against our better judgement, the cat might be to blame. Even more bizarre is the fact that, beyond a doubt, our intestinal bacteria can strongly influence our emotions and behavior. That’s right; it could be that faulty feces are at fault. And for insects, their excuse is “a fungus made me do it.”

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Saturday, July 3, 2021

Hoping to be HAB-Not

Not only does it form the basis of the aquatic food web, algae have the power to put a lid on bovine burps. Algae can also be made into a substitute for fossil fuels, and is a heathy and tasty food supplement for humans. But from mid-summer through early fall, certain algae can spread toxins through freshwater lakes and rivers, posing a risk to people, pets, fish, and more. Be on the lookout in northern New York State this summer for harmful algal blooms (HABs).

The term algae itself has no strict definition. It may refer to any number of photosynthetic organisms, many of which are not even closely related. Everything from single-cell microbes to giant kelp measuring 150 feet long can be labeled as algae. Worldwide, there are more than 5,000 species of algae, and nearly all of them are beneficial.

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Monday, June 28, 2021

Pitch-mass borers serve as reminder to procrastinate

In my line of work the list of boring topics is endless. There’s the emerald ash borer, lethal but oh-so aesthetically pleasing with its metallic-flake green paint job and subtle copper highlights. A handful of powder-post beetle species love to tunnel into floor joists and dead trees to mine talcum powder, leaving behind a field of microscopic holes perfect for anyone who has a sewing needle collection they need to organize. On the other end of the spectrum are fearsome Asian longhorned beetles that chew galleries in tree trunks faster than a Black & Decker cordless drill, leaving tunnels big enough to hide a Mini Cooper.

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Saturday, June 26, 2021

Animal intelligence 101: Which ones are top of their class?

bees on honeycomb

When the topic of animal intelligence comes up, we might argue whether a crow or a parrot is the cleverer, or if dolphins are smarter than manatees. Seldom do we ascribe smarts to life-forms such as insects, plants or fungi. And it is rare indeed that we question our intellectual primacy among animals. It is true that no other species can point to monumental achievements such as the Coliseum, acid rain, nerve gas and atomic weapons. But that does not mean other species are bird-brained. Metaphorically speaking.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

In recognition of Pollinator Week, it’s time to make some changes

bees on honeycomb

The old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” has been a great comfort to me over the years, since I figure that means the road to heaven is paved with bad thoughts, which are all too easy to come by. Since ancient times, we’ve built chemins, highways, byways, boulevards, terraces, turnpikes, tow-paths, and bike paths. But given the astonishing pace at which our native pollinator populations are dwindling, it’s a critical time to blaze a new kind of road. A pathway, to be specific.

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Monday, June 14, 2021

Money Trees

nickel treeIf money grew on trees it seems that could result in vast monocultures, with ruinous environmental impacts. I suppose it depends on currency. If the money tree produced only Iranian rials or Venezualan bolivars, we’d likely consider it a noxious weed.

On the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, there’s a rainforest understory tree that doesn’t bear money; it is money. More or less. The milky sap of Pycnandra acuminata is 25% nickel, the exact same percentage of the shiny metal that the US has been putting in its nickels for the past 155 years (for perspective, nickel ore of 2% is high). To me, the fact a tropical tree can bleed money is nowhere near as strange as the fact that the thing is alive at all, given that even small amounts of nickel – we’re talking below one percent – will kill most plants.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Construction Damage: the Root of the Problem

rootsIf April showers bring May flowers, then May flowers bring backhoes. Sure it doesn’t rhyme, but as posies push up, construction crews and equipment also emerge, so maybe it’s true.

Those considering an outdoor project this season should be aware that for landscape trees, soil compaction or/ and disturbance is the root of all evil. I suppose chainsaws and forest fires aren’t exactly kind to trees, but when you spot a sickly tree in a park, yard, or on the roadside, root damage is the ultimate cause in nearly all cases.

It takes minutes to inflict lethal damage to a tree by adding soil, driving, or excavating within its root zone. But several years can pass before the tree gets the memo that it’s dead, as fatal root damage shows up over time.

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