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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
If 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.
They’re devilishly intriguing, but fireflies, or lightning bugs as they are sometimes called, are angelic to watch. I have yet to hear of a single person who isn’t fascinated by the show that these glow-in-the-dark beetles put on. In the right location it can seem like a swirling, blinking Milky Way has come to visit. They are able to generate their cold-light flash thanks to a pair of chemicals they produce called luciferin and luciferase. Aside from the obvious and unfortunate name association there, the two light-emitting molecules are exemplars of morality and goodness in the chemical world.
The more we learn about nature, the more distressingly clear it is that nature doesn’t pay that much attention to the stuff we’ve spent decades writing about it. Recently it was established that animals play for sheer enjoyment – it’s not an evolutionary ruse to get them to practice real life, as we asserted for hundreds of years. Real life includes jubilant fun for the majority of animal species.
We once held up “mate for life” critters like penguins and swans as exemplars of marital fidelity, only to later realize that while couples do stay together, you can bet the farm that in nesting season, both partners are slutting around like James Bond on ecstasy. And whitetail deer jumped out of the “herbivore” box we assigned them, caught on video with mouths full of carrion, or pulverizing mice to death for a snack. Despite lacking decent equipment to kill and consume prey, hippos, giraffes, and other “strict herbivores,” as we had described them, routinely break their vows of vegetarianism.
Fungi, whose job it is to decompose organic matter, also flunked biology class, because many common species hunt or trap live prey and then eat them. If I was vegan, I’d worry that chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), which has a texture and flavor similar to that of chicken, or beefsteak shelf fungi (Fistulina hepatica), with the look and feel of raw beef, might be gateway foods back to meatland. What would really blow my mind, though, would be deciding whether it was OK to eat mushrooms that thoughtlessly kill and consume animals.
Like a B-grade horror film sequel, the aliens have awakened once again. Perhaps we felt a glimmer of hope at the end of the 2020 version when an entire generation of ruthless monsters died off in droves and left us in peace. But remember that closing shot of their disgusting, furry egg-mass blobs cleverly hidden out of sight? Well they’re hatching now.
If you missed last year’s gypsy moth performance, you have a better chance of catching it this season. Unfortunately. Based on egg-mass sampling, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation predicts that areas in central and western NYS which saw moderate to severe gypsy moth outbreaks last year can expect heavy damage this year. NYSDEC’s gypsy moth page can be found here.
One of my favorite plants is either highly versatile, or confused. On one hand, professional herbivores like deer refuse to touch it, but many people, myself included, gladly eat it every day it’s available. While contacting it is painful, it has been proven to relieve certain chronic pain. It is steeped in over a thousand years of folklore, at one point imbued with the power to cleanse away sin, yet medical science recognizes it as a legitimate remedy for many disorders. Some gardeners consider it a bothersome weed, while others cultivate it.
The stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but has been widespread throughout North America from northern Mexico to northern Canada for centuries. Experts disagree as to the number of species and subspecies worldwide, as nettles freely hybridize.
Nettles sprout little hypodermic needles on stems, leaves, and even flowers. Called trichomes, these glass-like, silica-based needles inject a mixture of irritating chemicals upon contact. The cocktail varies by species, but usually includes histamine, 5-HTP, serotonin, formic acid and acetylcholine.
Until recently, ignoring problems in hopes they’ll go away hasn’t served me well. However, a decade-long study done by Cornell University researchers has clearly shown that avoidance is the best way to manage garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata), a pernicious exotic plant. Evidently I’ve been doing a great job in the fight against this aggressive and troublesome invader.
Native to most of Europe and parts of western Asia and northwestern Africa, garlic mustard is in the cabbage and broccoli family (Brassicaceae), and indeed was imported to North America as a culinary herb in the early 1800s. It’s not entirely evil, as it has the spicy tang of mustard with a hint of garlic, and can be used as a base for pesto and sauces, and to flavor salads, soups and other dishes. Unfortunately, eating it has not worked well as a control strategy.
No offense, but Franklin D. Roosevelt should maybe bug off with his assertion that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” because fear is good for gardeners and farmers.
According to entomologists Nicholas Aflitto and Jennifer Thaler of the Cornell University-based New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSPIM), it can be harnessed as a weapon against destructive pests. Turns out it’s possible to scare harmful insects out of gardens and crop fields.
Ascribing human feelings to bugs may be a stretch, but if something makes the critters run away and hide, it seems fair, not to mention simple, to call that fear instead of “a consistent generalized avoidance response in reaction to certain stimuli” or some such thing. After all, it took biologists a few hundred years to establish that various animals from elephants to birds and turtles really and truly play, and for no other reason than to have fun. Perhaps one day we’ll figure out that invertebrates have emotional lives, too. I suppose that might raise ethical issues around pest control, but let’s not go there just yet.
In general I’m rather positive about immigrants, but not the six-legged kind. Many of the insects which have made themselves at home here over the past few decades show up with interesting and colorful names like emerald ash borer, velvet longhorned beetle, and spotted lantern fly. Amusing monikers or not, this is a ménagerie of mischief-makers, and one of the more recent arrivals is quite a foul character indeed.
Native to eastern Asia, the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), or BMSB to its pals, made its North American debut near Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998. The BMSB sucks the life out of many fruits and vegetables with a stout, straw-like rostrum or beak, leading to heartbreak for home gardeners and severe economic losses for commercial growers. Not only is the BMSB hard to control with pesticides, it has no effective enemies here, and as a result its populations can build up rapidly under the right conditions.
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