Almanack Contributor 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


Monday, January 17, 2022

Synthetic Photosynthesis

Every so often, an obscure technical innovation really lights me up. In mid-October of this year, a team of German scientists published a report on their work injecting tadpole noggins with algae. This enabled the tiny brains (of amphibians, not researchers) to photosynthesize when exposed to light, flooding neurons with oxygen and rendering the frog-babies more intelligent. Or at least not brain-dead, which those tadpoles were before being converted to plant-imals. 

In an October 13, 2021 entry in the journal iScience, lead author Hans Straka of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich explained that he’d been happily noodling along, measuring how much oxygen that an African clawed frog tadpole brain uses. He doesn’t elaborate on why he was doing this, but I’m guessing it was simply because he found someone nerdy enough to underwrite his efforts. 

The fun part began when Dr. Straka had lunch – and maybe a few drinks, from the sound of it – with a botanist, and a crazy-cool science experiment was born. In Straka’s own words, “For many people, it sounds like science fiction, but after all, it’s just the right combination of biological schemes and biological principles.” Pretty sure this idea was decidedly scheme-heavy, at least to start out. 

» Continue Reading.


Monday, January 3, 2022

Fungal Homes: Much Room, No Mushrooms

shiitake mushroom

For some reason, mushrooms have spawned more than their fair share of puns. As a kid I learned that they’re all fun-guys, and that the only rooms you can’t enter in a house are mushrooms. The last one might not work these days, as entire buildings are now being made of fungus.

Given that mold inside our homes can make us ill, you wouldn’t think that being surrounded by the stuff would be a great idea. But just like so many other things in life, “it depends.” As a building material, fungus is cheap, ubiquitous, and a renewable resource. But that’s not the best part. By dry weight, walls made of fungus are stronger than concrete and have better insulation value than polyurethane foam. They are weather-proof, practically non-combustible, and oddly enough, resist getting moldy. 

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 30, 2021

Where There’s Smoke …

Firewood

An upswing in woodstove use might sound yawn-worthy, but recent findings about the dire health effects of wood smoke might mean the long-term future of wood as a heating fuel is in question.

As someone who grew up with wood heat, I assumed  it was hands-down one of the most sustainable, eco-positive fuels for home heating. Like many other widely shared conventions, it turns out the veracity of that assumption depends on a lot of things.

How many people burn wood in a given locale is an obvious factor. The number of homes using wood heat rose sharply in the years following the 1998 ice storm which left residents without power for weeks on end. Also no surprise, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of wood heat.

» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

All That Glitters Isn’t Green

microplastics

We’re told that diamonds are eternal, but it turns out that glitter, which is just as sparkly and way cheaper, could be equally enduring. Parents, teachers and day-care providers know that despite their efforts to wash the stuff down the drain, glitter will inevitably wind up in their breakfast, their eyes, or on the lapels of their business suit worn to a crucial meeting with the boss.

» Continue Reading.


Monday, December 13, 2021

Yule Logs

yule logs

The tradition of burning a Yule log has largely fizzled out in most parts of the world. While holiday cards often feature cute, picturesque birch rounds in the hearth, old-time Yule logs in 6th and 7th century Europe were monster tree trunks that were meant to burn all day, and in certain cultures for twelve continuous days, without being entirely used up. 

Apparently, if you didn’t have a leftover bit of this log remaining after the marathon burn, you were doomed to misfortune in the upcoming year. The remnant piece of charred wood was tucked away in the ceiling and was used to light the following year’s Yule log. I assume it was extinguished before being squirreled away in the rafters or some really bad luck would ensue.

While a birch log is charming, it doesn’t compare with many other hardwoods in terms of heat value and how long it will burn. Heat value from wood and other fuels is measured in British thermal units (BTUs), one BTU being the energy required to heat a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. If you look at firewood BTU-value charts you’ll see that few of them agree exactly. This is to be expected, as the heat value of a given species varies according to the conditions in which it grew.

» Continue Reading.


Monday, November 29, 2021

Honeybees: Posing threats for native bees?

western honeybee

With their marvelous interpretive-dance routines, complex social life, and delicious honey, honeybees are widely respected, but they’re anything but sweet to wild pollinators. In fact, a surfeit of honeybees is a big threat to our native bees and butterflies. 

» Continue Reading.


Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Mutant (crayfish) Have Landed

marbled crayfish

Sometime in the 1990s, a mutant crayfish able to conquer and degrade aquatic systems emerged as a result of secret German experiments gone awry.  The marmorkreb, a.k.a. marbled crayfish (Procambarus virginalis), is a destructive new species that first appeared aquariums in Germany. However, it’s more likely the result of too much inbreeding in captivity, rather than some mad-scientist scheme, that led to their mutation. They are now here, and your help scouting for them is invaluable.

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, November 4, 2021

Happy Animals

happy dog bark in the park

Describing happiness attracts animals:  Apparently, we can have a whale of a time, be as pleased as a pig in a peach orchard, or feel as happy as a pup with two tails, a monkey with a peanut machine, and a clam at high tide. Given all this, it’s natural to wonder if non-human animals can feel happy. 

Many biologists caution against ascribing human-like emotions to animals. This is a hilarious warning, because we are after all a species of animal. Gauging critter-happiness is a challenge, but it’s easy to tell when animals are miserable.  Cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by vertebrates in their adrenal glands in response to stress, can be measured in saliva or blood. 

So we can tell if a deer, goat, or cow feels stress rather than bothering with surveys, which were only ever returned by dogs anyway, and even then they were drool-covered and blank. Aside from basic requirement like food, water, exercise, and adequate protection from weather, most animal species have an intensely strong need for social bonding. 

» Continue Reading.


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Orange Is the New Nuisance

asian lady beetleWhat are round-ish, mostly orange and commonly found in October on front porches or near entryways? Obviously the answer is Harmonia axyridis, a.k.a. the multicolored Asian lady beetle or lady bug. This insect, although beneficial to gardens, is no treat when it gathers by the hundreds on your doors or exterior walls in autumn. And more than a few will find their way indoors.

» Continue Reading.


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Great Pumpkins

Leonardo Urenas prize winning pumpkin

Precocious, blanket-toting Linus from the Peanuts comic strip awaited the Great Pumpkin each Halloween night from 1950 to 1999. If anyone else had been stood-up that many times, they’d have thrown in the blanket for sure. Perhaps Linus’ resolute faith that the mythical pumpkin would show up was because every year brings the world a greater pumpkin. 

In 1900 the world record was 400 pounds. By 1990 it was up to 816 lbs., but that wouldn’t even get you in the door these days – you need a 2,000-pound entry just to qualify for international judging. Pumpkins have gotten so great they’ve been used as boats, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn somebody had moved into one. I suppose a pumpkin house would be a nice upgrade for the old lady who lived in a shoe (though the kids would eat the poor lady out of house and home). 

» Continue Reading.


Monday, October 11, 2021

When it comes to permaculture, we have a lot to learn

permaculture gardenI’ve never been fond of buzzwords. “Organic,” “Natural,” and “Sustainable” lost their foothold in reality decades ago when they were co-opted as marketing labels. Corporate buzzwords, cynical and empty, are often buzz-phrases anyway: “Whole-Systems Thinking,” “Trickle Down,” “Customer Journey.”

In my view, “Permaculture” has been teetering on the edge of irrelevance for some time.  Just look how it’s described in Wikipedia, which can usually be trusted for succinct and reasonably cogent (if not entirely accurate) definitions: “Permaculture is an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing ecosystems, and includes a set of design principles derived using whole-systems thinking.” Wait a minute – whole-systems thinking? I’ve heard that somewhere.

» Continue Reading.


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

When doing your best means doing nothing

Painting: Dawn Loading by Kathleen Kolb

Painting: Dawn Loading by Kathleen Kolb

“If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” David Henry Thoreau’s statement, funny in a way, also brings to mind the grave harm done to cultures around the world by Western powers in the guise of “helping” them. In a less horrific sense it applies to how we’ve “assisted” nature to disastrous ends. Cane toads in Australia, mongoose in Hawaii, Kudzu in the Southeast, and Asian harlequin ladybeetles that invade our homes each fall are a few examples of being too helpful.

I get a lot of questions from folks who’ve recently purchased a few acres of forest or home on a wooded lot and want to know if they should clear brush, thin trees, or do other things to improve the woods. It’s a fair question, and an important one.

» Continue Reading.


Monday, September 20, 2021

Fall Color Conspiracy

fall foliage

Conspiracy hypotheses, or theories as we like to call them, since “hypotheses” cannot be uttered without a lisp, seem to multiply unfettered these days, so I feel awkward birthing yet another. But you may be intrigued to learn that the wide spectrum of color in the region’s fall foliage is largely the result of a Depression-era stimulus project ushered in by the Hoover Administration.

» Continue Reading.


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. 

» Continue Reading.


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. 

» Continue Reading.



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