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.
The Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy gets a lot of attention when it completes a landscape-scale protection deal like the 161,000-acre Finch Pruyn purchase, or when it buys a place with a hallowed name like Follensby Pond.
But for decades it has also been working among the little farms and forests of the Champlain Valley with a larger picture in mind.
“The goal is to provide safe passage for species—a way for a moose, say, to go from the Adirondacks to Vermont with little risk of being struck by a car, or a salmon to make it far enough upstream to spawn without being blocked by a dry culvert,” Michael Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said in a press release Monday. “Where are the most important habitat linkages and how do we work do we protect them? To date, we’ve raised several hundred thousand dollars in grants for this initiative in the Champlain Valley, which is a critical piece of a larger effort.” » 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.
Adirondack Park Agency Visitor Interpretive Center on Route 28N in Newcomb is hosting the Summer 2009 Huntington Lecture Series. Each lecture on Thursdays at 7:00 PM. Here is the remaining schedule:
July 23 – Wilderness Pioneer Bob Marshall’s Adventures in the Adirondacks
Phil Brown – Adirondack Explorer
July 30 – Where, How Fast and How Far do Adirondack Deer Move? Exciting New Insights from GPS Collars
Matthew Smith – Graduate Student, SUNY-ESF
August 6 – Coyotes, Deer, and the “Landscape of Fear”
Dr. Jacqueline Frair – SUNY-ESF Faculty and Robin Holevinski – SUNY ESF Graduate Student
August 13 – Minerals of the Adirondack Highlands
Michael Hawkins – New York State Museum
August 20 – Vernal Pools: Teeming with Life and Mystery
Mary Beth Kolozsvary – Biodiversity Research Institute at NYS Museum
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.
There are few things as equally hair-raising and awe-inspiring as a chorus of coyote calls. My first experiences with these were of the hair-raising variety when I worked at a summer camp in Lake Placid for three years right out of high school. We spent the summer living in canvas tents that were draped over wooden platforms. At night we could see the fire reflected in the eyes of the “coydogs” that lurked in the trees between the junior and senior camps. And then we would hear the howls…no, the wails…no, the…the… Words fail to describe the sound these animals make when they all sing together, but it was enough to make me wish that we had a lot more between us than a flimsy canvas wall.
These days I find myself enthralled by the coyote chorus that drifts through my bedroom windows at night. I poke the dog awake and we lie there listening to the music. However, there are admittedly still times when I am out walking the dog and we hear them, and they give me pause. Like the evening a couple years ago when we were coming home along the golf course and ran into a Wall of Sound. It was as though hundreds of coyotes had made a road block just around the bend in the road. I was fully convinced that we were about to see dozens of wild canines at any moment. I should’ve taken better note of the dog’s reaction, which was nil. Sound travels well in the cooler, damper air of evening; those animals, which sounded so close, were obviously further away than my imagination placed them.
The history of the eastern coyote seems to be shrouded in mystery. Where did it come from and how did it get here? A hundred years ago, there were no coyotes in the Adirondacks (or New York State). A hundred and fifty years ago we still had wolves. Foxes were our only other wild canid. So how did we end up with this large animal that has so nicely filled the gap left behind by wolves?
The basic theory is that the western coyote moved eastward. First it came to the plains and made a pretty good life for itself there. The plains coyotes, sometimes called brush wolves, were sometimes taken in by native people to work as beasts of burden. Because coyotes never really specialized, like wolves or foxes, they remained quite flexible in their behaviors, a trait that makes them highly adaptable to a wide range of habitats. It also makes them prolific breeders. As their population expanded, so did their range.
The evidence suggests that when the coyotes crossed the Mississippi River, some went northward into Canada, circumventing the Great Lakes, while others went east and south. The frontrunners found themselves in new territory that had no other coyotes around with which to mate. Most animals mate exclusively with their own kind, but canines seem to be the exception to this rule, and those early coyotes found nothing to mate with but wolves. The influx of wolf genes helped create animals that were larger than the originals and that started to show some of the social structure found in wolf packs.
So what about coydogs? To this day, children and adults alike talk about the coydogs they’ve seen. If you try to tell them that coydogs don’t exist, you’d best be prepared for a heated discussion, for they will not give up that notion. “My dad said that’s what it is” is a very difficult argument to refute. The first reported coyote-dog hybrid was in 1885, but whether this was scientific fact or anecdotal is conjecture. The first successful captive breeding of a coyote and dog was in 1937 and all the pups died. Captive breeding programs over the years demonstrated that coyote-dog hybrids end up with skewed breeding cycles, which result in pups being born early in the year when it is still quite cold and food supplies are low; most do not survive. Today eastern coyotes can certainly find plenty of other coyotes with which to mate, so there is no reason for them to set up housekeeping with feral dogs. Therefore, the likelihood of finding genuine coydogs in the 21st century is slim.
It wasn’t until 1944 that the first coyote was recorded in Quebec, but it seems that after that it didn’t take long for them to appear along both sides of the St. Lawrence River. Accounts of “wild hybrid canids” being trapped and shot in the Adirondacks were showing up in 1942 and 1943. The 1950s found these mountains to be fairly well populated with the new eastern coyote.
Today eastern coyotes are quite common throughout the Adirondacks. They have fairly good-sized home ranges (about 10 square miles), travel 10 to 15 miles a day, live in family units averaging three to five individuals, and eat a variety of foods. Many people suspect that coyotes are responsible for deer kills, and as a large predator they can and will take deer, but most of the coyote’s diet is made up of medium-sized prey, such as snowshoe hares and voles.
I have been fortunate to actually see coyotes on a couple of occasions. The first was a large specimen who was crossing my yard in the early morning twilight about eight years ago; it looked so much like a German shepherd that I had to do a double take. A couple winters ago a smaller coyote crossed the road in front of us as the dog and I were headed home from our evening walk. In both cases the animal glanced at me, took note of my presence, and then slipped into the forest and vanished. And that’s as it should be – a brush with wildness that leaves you with a memory and a yearning for more.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Bogan, PhD candidate at Cornell University, and Dr. Paul Curtis, DNR.
Today marks the anniversary of one of the worst storms in Upstate New York history. During the early morning hours of July 15, 1995 a series of severe thunderstorms crossed the Adirondacks and much of eastern New York. Meteorologists call the phenomena by the Spanish “Derecho” but locals often refer to the event as the Blowdown of 1995. A similar weather event / blowdown occurred in 1950.
A Derecho is part of a larger family of storms called a Mesoscale Convective System (MCS), a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms and which includes phenomenon like lake effect snow. An MCS can sometimes act in ways similar to a hurricane and can produce torrential downpours and high winds. Aside from the remarkable power of the weather event, another unique thing happened – a shift in public policy with regard to salvage logging of public lands. The State’s decision to forgo salvage logging was in stark contrast to federal policies at the time that allowed federal lands to be logged in similar salvage situations. » Continue Reading.
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.
Loons are the quintessential symbol of wilderness. Just watch any TV show or movie that has a “wilderness” scene and you will hear loon calls in the soundtrack (even if it is in the desert). A stroll through any gift shop in the Adirondacks, Canada or Maine proves that they are probably the number one animal associated with the outdoors (competing only with moose and bears). There is nothing quite like the mournful wail of a loon floating through the night air as you lie in the dark trying to sleep. It is easy to see how people might once have associated them with unhappy or restless spirits. » Continue Reading.
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.
A new exhibition at The Wild Center looks at how humans are tackling problems by uncoding natural solutions to problems in the wild. From MIT to the University of Tokyo scientists equipped with new tools that let them look into the nano structure of nature are discovering the secrets to some of the most elusive tricks in the world. Their sights are aimed at everything from making energy from sunlight to replicating the way spiders forge a material stronger than steel at room temperature.
David Gross, head curator at The Wild Center, which will showcase some of the breakthroughs this summer, has spent more than a year researching where the new science is headed. Gross is a biologist, and his lifetime of observing animal behavior turned him on to the bio-based discoveries. “Most of these new breakthroughs are happening because people saw something in nature, and were curious about how it happened. How do spiders make silk? How does a burr stick to a dog’s fur? In the last decade we have developed the tools to see and work at tiny scales, where nature works, so we can start to build things in a revolutionary new way.”
This relatively new science, coined biomimicry, (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Basically, after 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us are the secrets to survival.
Biomimicry is gaining in recognition throughout the world. A recent article in the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph highlighted this truly international movement. A fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip, modeled on the human inner ear that could enable wireless devices capable of receiving cell phone, internet, radio and television signals has recently been developed by scientists at MIT. A National Geographic article highlighted biomimetics in April 2008.
Here are some examples of how looking at nature can help solve some of the problems of humanity.
Locusts Don’t Crash
Locusts fly in swarms but never crash. How do they avoid having multi-locust pile-ups? Car manufacturers like Volvo and Nissan are studying locusts, and other insects like bees, to discover their crash-avoidance systems to see how they can be incorporated into our vehicles, making our roads safer.
Frozen Frog Hearts
Organs used for transplants can last as little as five hours. Keeping hearts and other organs on ice can significantly damage the tissue making the organs not viable. So how does the wood frog manage to freeze in the winter and thaw itself in the spring with no damage to its internal organs? Scientists are working on ways to mimic their non-toxic antifreeze to prolong the life of transplant organs.
Shine a Light on Moths and Butterflies
Moths, unlike cats, have very non-reflective eyes, a trait that protects them against nocturnal predators and helps them see at night. Their eyes have a series of bumps that help keep the light from reflecting. Using a silicon coating on solar panels that resembles the texture of moths’ eyes improves the solar collecting efficiency of solar panels by as much as 40 percent, bringing the price of solar down.
Scientists recently discovered that butterflies harvest the warmth of the sun through small solar collectors on their wings. Their wings are covered with an intricate array of scales, arranged in such a way that the light reflects off of other scales rather than bouncing off the wing where the warmth would be lost. Chinese and Japanese researchers designed a solar cell based on the butterfly’s intricate design and converted more light to energy than any existing solar cell at a lower fabrication cost.
The Whale’s a Fan of the Owl
Plane’s wings have streamlined edges so they can cut through air more efficiently, right? One of the biggest animals in the world, the humpback whale has extremely unstreamlined edges and can still fly through the water. Scientists have determined that the tubercles, or bumps, on the edge of the flippers produce more lift and less drag than sleek flippers. This discovery has implications for wind power and ceiling fans. Owls fly silently through the night, stealthily approaching their prey before capturing their next meal. Would mimicking the design of owl’s wings silence the noise of the fan in your computer? Engineers are studying the tips and curvature of owl’s wings and have created a quieter and more efficient fan blade design.
Gross says the promise of this kind of science is huge. “I’ll use the spider example. They can make seven different kinds of thread, do it all at room temperature, and it’s not just stronger than steel, it’s stronger than anything we have invented. And at the end of the day the spider can eat its own web and recycle the material. Imagine if we could make buildings out of tiny beams that required no mining, no smelting, and minimal energy, and could be entirely recycled again at room temperature? Or if we could figure out how plants photosynthesize, we could solve all of our energy needs.”
Why the Adirondacks? “One thing about these inventions is that you need to be able to watch nature to see what it’s up to, and it makes the Adirondacks a living lab. You can see the wood frogs that freeze solid and thaw, right here at The Wild Center. If you pay attention at The Wild Center you can begin to look at things differently when you’re outside and learn from them.” Gross says the inventions are everywhere. “The real breakthrough is that we can start to see the molecular structure and even the chemistry lab inside a spider, that’s what is fueling the breakthroughs.”
On a walk at The Wild Center Gross points out subjects under study. A bee buzzes by. “We know they vote. They can come into a hive and present a case for a new hive location, and elect which option to choose, and the bees all head to the new location. Computer companies are trying to figure out how so much information is shared and acted on so accurately and quickly.”
The Wild Center’s exhibit, throughout the 31 acre campus, is the first of its kind in the world. It will feature 51 stories of how humans are studying nature and discovering a better way to do things. How does nature make colors without using toxins? How do loons desalinate salt water? How can dogs detect cancer cells just from sniffing a person? A trained sniffing dog, a robot that can scurry over almost any object based on a cockroach and a silent fan modeled on an owl’s quiet flight will be on display. From the moment visitors enter the parking lot, until they leave, they will discover amazing ways that nature has solved its own challenges without using high heats, harmful chemicals or overusing its own resources.
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.
“There’s a deer in the hummingbird garden,” our intern said in a stage whisper. “It’ll probably be gone by the time I get there,” I said, as I grabbed the camera and made a dash for the door. Lo and behold, the deer stood there, ripping through our hosta as though it was so much buttercrunch lettuce, completely ignoring me as I stepped closer and closer snapping one shot after another.
While this certainly gave us a wonderful wildlife encounter, it isn’t really the type of wildlife we want to see in our butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Already it has pruned the hollyhocks, and who knows what else it will munch on next. We’ve had little problem with deer before now, but once they’ve discovered the choice produce aisle, it is hard to keep them away. What is a gardener to do? » Continue Reading.
While hustling a group of first and second graders along the trail to get them back to their bus on time, I hit the breaks when my eye was caught by masses of white fuzz in the alders along the boardwalk. I zoomed in on the fuzz, with the kids right beside me. What could it be? When I got close enough, I knew what we had: woolly alder aphids (Paraprociphilus tesselatus).
Usually we see these insects in late summer and early fall when the bits of white fuzz start flying around. They are kind of pretty, in a fluffy faerie sort of way, with just a hint of pale blue showing through the fuzz. But, they are aphids, after all, and we all know that aphids tend to be bad news for plants.
In preparation for writing this post, I read up on woolly alder aphids, and it turns out that, like so many things on this planet, they are pretty interesting characters. For example, let’s look at that glorious white fuzz. It’s more than just a pretty covering. This cottony fluff is actually a waxy substance that the aphids exude to protect their juicy grey bodies from predators. After all, if you were looking for a mouthful of tender insect, and instead you got a mouthful of waxy fuzz, you might think twice about snacking at this location.
But every problem has a solution, and indeed there are two major predators of these aphids: the larvae of green lacewings (Chrysopa slossonae) and the caterpillar of a butterfly appropriately known as the Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius). This caterpillar, by the way, is one of the world’s only predaceous butterfly caterpillars. Both these predators adapt a pretty interesting hunting strategy: they cover themselves with the aphids’ own waxy fuzz. Thus disguised, they become veritable wolves in sheep’s clothing, hunkering down among the aphid colony and munching away.
But wait…the story doesn’t end here. The disguise adapted by these larvae isn’t so much to hide them from the aphids as it is to hide them from the aphids’ body guards. Like many aphids worldwide, woolly alder aphids have an arrangement with Ant Protective Services. If you find a colony of aphids, look closely and you will surely find ants nearby. These ants may look like simple shepherds, herding flocks of aphids and “milking” them for honeydew, but the arrangement isn’t quite so bucolic. Sure, the aphids squeeze out droplets of super sweet liquid (a by-product of the sap they sucked from the plant – more on this in a moment) when stroked by the ants’ antennae, and the ants then tote these droplets home for dinner, but in exchange for this the ants protect the colony from all intruders. Go ahead and stick your finger among the aphids and see what happens. Quickly your finger will be attacked by the nearest ants. So the clever costumes used by the lacewing and butterfly larvae do a pretty good job of tricking the ants. If you don’t believe it, consider this: some researchers introduced undisguised larvae to an aphid colony and the ants patrols effectively removed them from the scene.
The aphids get an additional benefit from the “milking” process mentioned above. As we all know, a steady diet of sugars isn’t nutritionally balanced; even aphids need some protein, especially when it comes time to reproduce. In order to acquire the necessary nutrition (nitrogen), the aphids consume more sugary sap than they need. Their systems then separate out the minute traces of nitrogen and excrete the excess sugars (honeydew). The nitrogen is then utilized in making the necessary proteins for reproduction.
And this brings us to the life cycle of the woolly alder aphid. When you gaze upon a colony of aphids coating the twigs and branches of your alders, you are looking naught but females. There won’t be a male in sight. This is because these insects reproduce asexually, via a process known as parthenogenesis. This system of reproduction is actually a lot more common than you’d think. Unlike many insects, the virgin female aphid gives birth to live young (no time and energy wasted in making eggs), all of which are daughters. In almost no time at all, the daughters are squeezing out girls of their own. This reproductive strategy has the advantage of producing individuals perfectly adapted for the host plant and its immediate environment. Some researcher with nothing better to do once calculated that one female aphid could give rise to over 600 BILLION clones of herself over the course of a single season! Thank goodness for predators, parasites, diseases and limited numbers of host plants, eh?
But, even this sort of perfection has its limits, and towards the end of the summer, the host plant may be weakening, or the colony just needs to move on (perhaps the host is getting too crowded). Things become stressful and suddenly a generation is produced that has males. You will know this has happened when the formerly stationary insects have produced models with wings. The resources are now available for sexual reproduction, which results in the mixing up of genetic material. This in turn produces offspring that may be better able to survive conditions in other locations, so off they go. Natural selection will then determine which ones will survive.
What an amazing world we live in. Every time you turn around there is something new to discover. Who knew that white fuzz on a shrub could turn out to be so strange and exotic! I love science fiction, but part of me really believes that we don’t need to travel the expanses of the universe to find bizarre lifeforms: they are already here and living among us. So go forth, ye citizens of Earth, and see what fantastic lives you can uncover right in your own back yard!