Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

Threats to Bumblebees Fly Under Radar

Monday, June 28th, 2010

GRANTS PASS, OR--Looking high and low, Robbin Thorp can no longer find a species of bumblebee that just five years ago was plentiful in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon.

Thorp, an emeritus professor of entomology from the University of California at Davis, found one solitary worker last year along a remote mountain trail in the Siskiyou Mountains, but hasn’t been able to locate any this year.

He fears that the species–Franklin’s bumblebee–has gone extinct before anyone could even propose it for the endangered species list. To make matters worse, two other bumblebee species –one on the East coast, one on the West–have gone from common to rare.

Amid the uproar over global warming and mysterious disappearances of honeybee colonies, concern over the plight of the lowly bumblebee has been confined to scientists laboring in obscurity.

But if bumblebees were to disappear, farmers and entomologists warn, the consequences would be huge, especially coming on top of the problems with honeybees, which are active at different times and on different crop species.

Bumblebees are responsible for pollinating an estimated 15 percent of all the crops grown in the U.S., worth $3 billion, particularly those raised in greenhouses. Those include tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.

Demand is growing as honeybees decline. In the wild, birds and bears depend on bumblebees for berries and fruits.

There is no smoking gun yet, but a recent National Academy of Sciences report on the status of pollinators around the world blames a combination of habitat lost to housing developments and intensive agriculture, pesticides, pollution and diseases spilling out of greenhouses using commercial bumblebee hives.

”We have been naive,” said Neal Williams, assistant professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. ”We haven’t been diligent the way we need to be.”

The threat has bumblebee advocates lobbying Congress to allocate more money for research and to create incentives for farmers to leave uncultivated land for habitat. They also want farmers to grow more flowering plants that native bees feed on.

”We are smart enough to deal with this,” said Laurie Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership. ”There is hope.”

Companies in Europe, Israel and Canada adapted bumblebees to commercial use in the early 1990s, and they are now standard in greenhouses raising tomatoes and peppers.

Demand is growing as supplies of honeybees decline, especially for field crops such as blueberries, cranberries, watermelon, squash, and raspberries, said Holly Burroughs, general manager for production for the U.S. branch of Koppert Biological Systems Inc., a Netherlands company that sells most of the commercial bumblebees in the U.S.

One new customer is Tony Davis of Quail Run Farm in Grants Pass. He has long depended on volunteer bumblebees to fertilize the squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant he grows outdoors for sale in growers’ markets. When he started growing strawberries in greenhouses this year to get a jump on the competition, he bought commercial bumblebee hives to fertilize them.

”Without bumblebees, I would be out of business. I don’t think I could hand-pollinate all these plants,” he said.

Scientists hoping to pinpoint the cause of the nation’s honeybee decline recently identified a previously unknown virus, but stress that parasitic mites, pesticides and poor nutrition all remain suspects.

Unlike honeybees, which came to North America with the European colonists of the 17th century, bumblebees are natives. They collect pollen and nectar to feed to their young, but make very little honey.

A huge problem facing scientists is how ”appallingly little we know about our pollinating resources,” said University of Illinois entomology Prof. May Berenbaum, who headed the National Academy of Sciences report.

Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, worries that on top of pesticides and narrowing habitats, disease could be the last straw for many of the bee species.

”It definitely could all come crashing down,” he said.–AP

Invasion of the Creepy-Crawlies

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
ONE OF MY earliest memories as a boy is getting ready for a bath and finding a two-inch long hundred-legger in the tub. My reaction was to catch it and put it in a jar, but mom grabbed some tissue paper, squished it, and flushed it down the toilet.

If she had just scooped it out of the tub and let it roam the house, we would have been better off. Centipedes (2,500 species worldwide) are predators that eat all kinds of household pests. Common house centipedes, the species that appears in bath tubs or on the kitchen floor, eat all kinds of household insect pests, including cockroaches. Giant tropical centipedes, which may measure more than 6 inches long, sometimes eat small lizards and mice.

A more recent memory of a many-legged creature dates back only a few years. It was a particularly wet September, and screams from our dirt-floor basement caught my attention. I expected to find a long shed snake skin hanging from the rafters, because this happens once or twice each summer and I try to remove them before anyone else notices. But when I got down to the cellar, I immediately saw the source of the terror. OK, it wasn’t terror or even fear — it was disgust.

On the damp floor in several spots lay masses of small dark “worms.” My wife was clear: “I don’t care what they are, and I don’t even want to know. Just get rid of them. NOW!”

Linda didn’t even stick around for my interesting explanation. I’d never seen an invasion of house millipedes. There were thousands of them, and home invasions during wet fall or spring weather are not uncommon, especially in older homes with unfinished cellars.

Millipedes (10,000 species) are harmless vegetarians that typically stay in dark, damp places. They eat rotting organic matter and usually remain under rocks, logs or leaf litter. During wet periods in fall and spring, they sometimes make sudden mass migrations and occasionally find their way into cellars that are less than tightly sealed. When conditions dry up, they curl into a tight ball and die.

I knew better than to let nature take its course. That might put the basement freezer off limits for days. So I grabbed the vacuum and collected thousands of the home invaders in a matter of minutes. Sanity was quickly restored.

Centipedes and millipedes are common backyard and even household invertebrates. They are arthropods, invertebrates that have “jointed legs,” and are related to insects, spiders and crustaceans.

The centipede body consists of a head with chewing mouth parts and a single pair of long antenna, and a long, flat, slender lower body consisting of a variable number of segments, each bearing one pair of legs. Though centipede literally means “hundred legs,” the actual number varies from as few as 30 to as many as more than 300.

Centipedes hunt at night for earthworms and small insects. They subdue their prey with venom injected from a pair of pincer-like fangs that are actually modified legs on the first body segment behind the head. The only way a person might be bitten is to grab and hold a centipede, and even then the bite, if it even breaks the skin, might resemble a modest bee sting.

A millipede’s body is similar to a centipede–a head with chewing mouthparts and one pair of short antenna and a many-segmented lower body. Most millipedes are cylindrical and are often called worms. Each body segment bears a pair of legs, but a hard shield of fingernail-like material covers every two segments so it appears that each body segment has two pairs of legs. Though the name millipede suggest they have a thousand legs, some have as few as 80 and others as many as 650.

Millipedes do not bite, but if handled, they may release a fluid that can irritate the skin.

Bottom line: centipedes and millipedes are harmless invertebrates that occasionally venture indoors, but rarely warrant chemical control. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

European Hornets Are A Fall Pest

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
IF YOU ARE being menaced by huge night-flying wasps, it’s not your imagination, and you’re not alone.

At few nights ago my wife, called for help. “There’s a huge yellowjacket in the kitchen! Kill it now!” she demanded. At that point, Linda wasn’t really interested in learning about European Hornets, but after the crisis passed, she wanted to know what that beast was.

European Hornets (Vespa crabro) become bothersome in late summer and early fall. They sometimes are attracted to porch lights and fly against windows of brightly illuminated rooms. It can create the illusion that these wasps are trying to attack, but the more likely explanation is that they are hunting other insects attracted to the lights.

Like most one million-plus species of insects that inhabit the planet, European Hornets are usually beneficial. They are predators with a taste for all manner of live insects–crickets, grasshoppers, flies, caterpillars and even other species of wasps. But in the fall, their biology sometimes puts them at odds with homeowners. I first encountered European Hornets two years ago when they spent several weeks attracted to the light outside my office door.

At a glance, European Hornets resemble giant yellowjackets. They measure about 1-1/4 inches long and have a reddish brown head. The abdomen is black with conspicuous yellow markings. They were introduced to the United States sometime in the mid 1800s and now occupy the entire eastern half of the country.

It is the food habits of European Hornets as much as their size that distinguishes them from yellowjackets. Yellowjackets’ taste for people food makes them pests at picnics, fall festivals and tailgate parties. If we’re lucky enough to avoid being stung, they’re eating our burgers or drinking our beer. Hornets prefer live food, though they sometimes eat ripe apples and leave only the skin behind.

In the spring, fertilized female hornets emerge from the winter den, which might be a tree cavity, the space behind a loose slab of tree bark, a rodent burrow, or a hollow wall. Queens then establish new colonies by laying eggs in paper nests they build inside of hollow trees. (The more familiar Bald-faced Hornet, which is actually a type of yellowjacket, builds the paper, basketball-sized nests often seen high in trees.)

When European Hornets stick to wooded areas, they live their lives unnoticed by people; but when they build nests inside hollow walls of homes and other buildings, conflict with humans is likely.

The queen’s first brood emerges as sterile female workers. They take over the responsibility of feeding subsequent broods and enlarging the paper nest. They also defend the nest from intruders.

In mid-summer, fertile males and females are produced. These individuals mate and the impregnated females become the next year’s queens. By late September, a typical European Hornet colony contains 300 to 400 workers, but in large colonies the population can exceed 800.

Unlike other wasps, hornets forage at night. That’s why we see them at porch lights or striking window panes. So, if you’re seeing huge wasps around the house, you may have a hornet nest in an exterior wall. Hornets can sting repeatedly and they actively guard the nest entrance. Fortunately they are not as aggressive as yellowjackets, so if you don’t disturb them, coexistence is possible.

One word of warning: Do not plug the entrance to the nest in hopes of confining the hornets to the hollow wall. Trapped hornets may chew out another exit into the inside of the house. The last thing you want is 400 hornets in the living room.

If living with hornets is more than you can bear, call an exterminator and let a professional solve the problem. It will be money well spent.

Fortunately, the hornet colony will die off naturally in the next eight weeks. By late November, hard frosts kill all the workers. Only pregnant females–the future queens–survive the winter and old nests are not reused.

Understanding the lives of annoying creatures may not eliminate the threats they pose, but it’s usually reassuring to learn the problem is temporary. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Disappearance of Honeybees Not End of World

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Heather Smith
WHEN the honeybees disappeared this winter, the thought of losing such a fuzzy and adorable animal inspired dismay.

The fact that bees might also be useful drove us to despair. The first official reports of “colony collapse disorder” began to surface in October of 2006; seven months later, USDA officials were calling CCD “the biggest general threat to our food supply,” and newspaper columnists nervously joked about the impending “bloody wars not for oil or land or God but over asparagus and avocados.”

Experts pointed to the $14.6 billion worth of free labor honeybees provide every year, pollinating our crops. With a full quarter of them AWOL, presumed dead, who would make sweet love to the $1.6 billion California almond harvest? More precisely, who would help the almond harvest make sweet love to itself?

Few people realized that the honeybee apocalypse was already over. We may continue to associate them with childhood sugar rushes and chubby-cheeked fertility metaphors, but in real life honeybees have been virtually extinct in North America for more than 10 years, their absence concealed by a rogue’s gallery of look-alikes. The stragglers have been kept alive only by the continued ministrations of the agricultural giga-industry that needs them.

It used to be that it was hard to eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich without a honeybee showing up and doing a little dance around your head. Hives (literally) grew on trees until 1987, when a mite called varroa destructor turned up in a honeybee colony in Wisconsin. Even for a parasite, varroa is less than charming. It looks like a microscopic baked bean, with sharp fangs used to slurp tiny droplets of blood from the abdomens of unsuspecting honeybees.

Since these bites also transmit disease, like deformed wing virus and acute bee paralysis virus, an infested colony is kaput within four years. By 1994, an estimated 98 percent of the wild, free-range honeybees in the United States were gone. The number of managed colonies—those maintained by beekeepers—dropped by half.

The honeybees may have been especially vulnerable to the varroa epidemic. When the honeybee genome was sequenced a few years ago, researchers discovered fewer immune-system genes than you’d find in other insects. This despite the fact that the honeybee lives in tenementlike conditions, anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 of them crammed into a hive the size of a filing cabinet. To make matters worse, a weakened hive often becomes the target of honey-raiders from healthier colonies, which only helps the parasites to spread.

It’s possible that if the American honeybees had been left to their own devices, they would have died off in epic numbers and then evolved natural defenses against varroa (like more effective grooming), as they did in Asia. But crops had to be pollinated and no one had the time to sit around and wait.

Beekeepers opted to keep their colonies on life support with selective breeding, and by sprinkling them with medicine and insecticides aimed at the invading mites. This was no longer a hobby for amateurs. The only honeybees left—i.e., the ones that started disappearing in October—had become the cows of the insect world: virtually extinct in the wild, hopped up on antibiotics, and more likely to reproduce via artificial insemination than by their own recognizance.

If anything, it’s impressive that the honeybee has hung on in America for as long as it has. The commercial hives spend half the year sealed and stacked in the back of 18-wheelers, as they’re schlepped down miles of interstate to pollinate crops around the country. During this time, they get pumped up with high fructose corn syrup, which keeps the bees buzzing and lively, but it’s no pollen.

And if a bee happens to get sick on the road, it can’t self-quarantine by flying away from the colony to die. (In the wild, a bee rarely dies in the hive.) Add to the above the reduced genetic diversity resulting from the die-offs in the 1990s, and you have an insect living in a very precarious situation—where a new pathogen, even a mild one, could spell honeybee doom.

So what brought on this recent scourge of colony collapse disorder? Early news reports on CCD listed a plethora of suspects: pesticides, parasites, global warming, chilly larvae, ultraviolet light, not enough pollen, not enough rain, cell phones, and alien spaceships. Given the present state of the honeybee, any or all of these could have been the culprit. (Well, except for the cell phones and spaceships.)

It’s even possible the mystery disease has already shown up in years past. An 1897 issue of Bee Culture magazine mentions the symptoms of something that sounds remarkably like CCD, as do a few case studies from the ’60s and ’70s. Before bees fell victim to varroa and the ensuing stresses of modern life, these afflictions would have been easy to bounce back from. Today, the same causal agent could have more serious effects.

But is CCD such a tragedy? The honeybee may be the only insect ever extended charismatic megafauna status, but it’s already gone from the wild (and it wasn’t even native to North America to begin with). Sure, it makes honey, but we already get most of that from overseas. What about the $14.6 billion in “free labor”? It’s more expensive than ever: In the last three years, the cost to rent a hive during the California almond bloom has tripled, from $50 to $150
.

Good thing the honeybee isn’t the only insect that can pollinate our crops. In the last decade, research labs have gotten serious about cultivating other insects for mass pollination. They aren’t at the point yet where they can provide all of the country’s pollination needs, but they’re getting there. This year the California Almond Board two-timed the honeybee with osmia ligneria—the blue-orchard bee: Despite CCD, they had a record harvest.

But these newly domesticated species are likely to follow in the tiny footsteps of the honeybee, if they’re treated the same way. Varroa mites have already been found on bumblebees, though for the time being they seem not to be able to reproduce without honeybee hosts.

And bumblebees used in greenhouse pollination have escaped on several occasions to spread novel, antibiotic-resistant diseases to their wild counterparts. If things keep going like this, we may soon be blaming spaceships all over again. –Washington Post

Butterfly Tracked A Long Way From Home

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Alyson Chapman
TO THE untrained eye, a butterfly is a butterfly. But this isn’t true of Tom Collins, Texas
Master Naturalist.

One butterfly, in particular, caught the eye of Collins while documenting species for a
fauna census at the Riverside Nature Center last month. He snapped several shots of the unique butterfly and later learned it was a Variegated Skipper—a butterfly that was far
from home.

The Variegated Skipper is found in Argentina, throughout Central America and Mexico. It’s unknown how the butterfly made its way to Kerrville, Collins said.

“Perhaps it hitched its way in a cargo truck carrying goods from the Valley,” he said. “It would be difficult to believe this small, weak flight butterfly could have flown all the way up here. But we will never know.”

With a wing span of 2.4 to 2.7 centimeters, the small brown butterfly is no larger than a
Cowpen Daisy flower head.

“It’s wings were somewhat worn, but that is not uncommon for any butterfly as that is how
they age,” he said. “It probably stayed in the area as there were flowers still in bloom and it
would need nectar to survive.”

Collins submitted his find to Butterflies and Moths of North America, which maps and
details species of butterflies. The Variegated Skipper was a new county record for Kerr
County, TX.

“Even in the Rio Grande Valley, the Variegated Skipper is considered a ‘tropical stray’ with just a handful of records,” Collins said. “This will be the farthest east record for this butterfly.”

Mike Quinn, an invertebrate biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, and Terry Doyle of the Texas Lepidopterist Society identified the butterfly as a Variegated Skipper.

“All the rains that fell across Texas earlier this year is probably the main reason that we
are seeing a number of stray butterfly species in the Hill Country,” Quinn said. “The fall is
typically when most butterfly species stray north from Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley.
One of the most important yet unanswered questions concerning the Variegated Skipper
throughout its range is what plant or plants does its caterpillars feed on.”

But the Variegated Skipper was not the only record for Kerr County since October 2006
—in fact, it was one of three. A White Peacock was found in October 2006 and the most
recent was a Mimosa Yellow found on Nov. 29.

“The White Peacock and Mimosa Yellow each have been found in adjoining counties, while the Variegated Skipper has only been seen one time away from the Rio Grande Valley immediate area,” Collins said. None of these would be documented if Collins and several volunteers didn’t start the census at the nature center.

“First was to document all the animal species—birds, butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles, mammals—that can be found in an urban nature center,” he said. “By studying and documenting what species use the nature center, the staff and volunteers can better educate the visitors about the value of preserving natural areas such as this site.”To date, volunteers helping in the weekly census have documented 98 bird species and 65 butterfly species. –Daily Times

Bumble Bees Indicate Seasons

Monday, June 28th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
EVERYONE notices that autumn brings shorter days, cooler temperatures and bright fall colors.

But there are other, equally reliable indicators of the transition from summer to winter–rusty and black-banded Wooly Caterpillars crossing country roads, yellow-and-black garden spiders roosting inside aging Queen Anne’s lace umbels, and seas of brilliant goldenrod fading from the late summer stage.

It was in a field of goldenrod where just a few plants retained their bright color that I recently came upon another sure sign of fall. On an evening walk, something caught my eye about one particular still bright goldenrod. I looked closer and found a Bumble Bee hugging the underside of the leaning inflorescence. I moved the stem, and the bee responded lethargically. The chill of the evening air had already moved the Bumble Bee to retire for the evening. Upon the first hard frost, this bee, like most Bumble Bees, will die. The fate of the species resides with recently impregnated queens that winter underground.

Unlike Honey Bees, which overwinter in enclosed hives well stocked with honey, Bumble Bees rely on individual queens to make it through the winter and renew the population in the spring.

Queen Bumble Bees mate in the fall. The “lucky” males die shortly after mating, and the queens find an underground hibernaculum to spend the winter. They may use abandoned chipmunk or mouse burrows.

In the spring, the queen searches for a place to establish a new colony. It may be underground, or she may use an old above-ground vole nest or just a dense tuft of grass. She lines the nest with fine plant fibers and secretes wax from abdominal glands to form a “honeypot.”

Then she visits early spring blooming flowers and fills her crop with nectar, which she regurgitates into the honeypot. Meanwhile, she’s also collecting protein–rich pollen at the flowers she visits. The pollen is collected on her furry body and on pollen baskets on her hind legs.

Back at the honeypot, the queen sheds the pollen into a waxy mass and lays up to a dozen eggs. (Remember, she mated back in the fall.) She stays with the eggs and actually incubates them with her warm, fuzzy body. Unlike many insects, Bumble Bees can actually generate their own internal body heat via complex muscular activity.

After the eggs hatch, the queen provides additional nourishment in the form of nectar and pollen as needed. During the larva’s two- to three-week period of development, the queen builds another honeypot and repeats the process. This continues throughout the spring and summer until the colony reaches a size of 200 to 300 individuals.

Until late summer, all the queen’s offspring are sterile females. They tend the honeypots and feed each new brood of Bumble Bees. As fall approaches, the workers provide a near constant supply of food to the final generation of Bumble Bee larvae. It is these late summer Bumble Bees that develop into fertile adult males and females. That brings the colony full circle to early fall. Fertile males and females mate, the males die, and the next generation of mated queens retire to underground dens for the winter.

Pollination by most bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, bats and hummingbirds is mechanical and incidental. As pollinators visit flowers for nectar, pollen adheres to body parts, and they carry it to subsequent flowers where pollination occurs.

But Bumble Bees also use another fascinating pollination technique. Some plants require a sonic stimulus to release pollen. Bumble Bees oblige by grasping the pollen-containing anthers and producing an audible buzzing sound as they work the flowers. The sound is caused by rapid-fire contractions of the flight muscles, vibrations of which are transmitted inside the hollow anthers.

Bumble Bees act as living tuning forks and cause the pollen to be sonically discharged as an explosive cloud. Stephen Buchmann, co-author of “The Forgotten Pollinators” (1996, Island Press) calls this “buzz pollination.”

Among the 20,000 worldwide species of plants that require buzz pollination are several important food crops: blueberries, cranberries, some peppers, eggplants, kiwi fruits and tomatoes. The dinner table just wouldn’t be the same without Bumble Bees.--Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons

Monday, June 28th, 2010


By Alexei Barrionuevo
BELTSVILLE, MD—What is happening to the bees?

More than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies have been lost—tens of billions of bees, according to an estimate from the Apiary Inspectors of America, a national group that tracks beekeeping. So far, no one can say what is causing the bees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives.

As with any great mystery, a number of theories have been posed, and many seem to researchers to be more science fiction than science. People have blamed genetically modified crops, cellular phone towers and high-voltage transmission lines for the disappearances. Or was it a secret plot by Russia or Osama bin Laden to bring down American agriculture? Or, as some blogs have asserted, the rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them to heaven? Researchers have heard it all.

The volume of theories “is totally mind-boggling,” said Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University. With Jeffrey S. Pettis, an entomologist from the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Cox-Foster is leading a team of researchers who are trying to find answers to explain “colony collapse disorder,” the name given for the disappearing bee syndrome.

“Clearly there is an urgency to solve this,” Dr. Cox-Foster said. “We are trying to move as quickly as we can.”

The investigation is now entering a critical phase. The researchers have collected samples in several states and have begun doing bee autopsies and genetic analysis. So far, known enemies of the bee world, like the varroa mite, on their own at least, do not appear to be responsible for the unusually high losses.

Genetic testing at Columbia University has revealed the presence of multiple micro-organisms in bees from hives or colonies that are in decline, suggesting that something is weakening their immune system. The researchers have found some fungi in the affected bees that are found in humans whose immune systems have been suppressed by the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or cancer.

“That is extremely unusual,” Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Meanwhile, samples were sent to an Agriculture Department laboratory in North Carolina this month to screen for 117 chemicals. Particular suspicion falls on a pesticide that France banned out of concern that it may have been decimating bee colonies. Concern has also mounted among public officials.

“There are so many of our crops that require pollinators,” said Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat whose district includes that state’s central agricultural valley, and who presided last month at a Congressional hearing on the bee issue. “We need an urgent call to arms to try to ascertain what is really going on here with the bees, and bring as much science as we possibly can to bear on the problem.”

So far, colony collapse disorder has been found in 27 states, according to Bee Alert Technology Inc., a company monitoring the problem. A recent survey of 13 states by the Apiary Inspectors of America showed that 26 percent of beekeepers had lost half of their bee colonies between September and March.

Honeybees are arguably the insects that are most important to the human food chain. They are the principal pollinators of hundreds of fruits, vegetables, flowers and nuts. The number of bee colonies has been declining since the 1940s, even as the crops that rely on them, such as California almonds, have grown. In October, at about the time that beekeepers were experiencing huge bee losses, a study by the National Academy of Sciences questioned whether American agriculture was relying too heavily on one type of pollinator, the honeybee.

Bee colonies have been under stress in recent years as more beekeepers have resorted to crisscrossing the country with 18-wheel trucks full of bees in search of pollination work. These bees may suffer from a diet that includes artificial supplements, concoctions akin to energy drinks and power bars. In several states, suburban sprawl has limited the bees’ natural forage areas.

So far, the researchers have discounted the possibility that poor diet alone could be responsible for the widespread losses. They have also set aside for now the possibility that the cause could be bees feeding from a commonly used genetically modified crop, Bt corn, because the symptoms typically associated with toxins, such as blood poisoning, are not showing up in the affected bees. But researchers emphasized today that feeding supplements produced from genetically modified crops, such as high-fructose corn syrup, need to be studied.

The scientists say that definitive answers for the colony collapses could be months away. But recent advances in biology and genetic sequencing are speeding the search.

Computers can decipher information from DNA and match pieces of genetic code with particular organisms. Luckily, a project to sequence some 11,000 genes of the honeybee was completed late last year at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, giving scientists a huge head start on identifying any unknown pathogens in the bee tissue.

“Otherwise, we would be looking for the needle in the haystack,” Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Large bee losses are not unheard of. They have been reported at several points in the past century. But researchers think they are dealing with something new—or at least with something previously unidentified.

Scientists first learned of the bee disappearances in November, when David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, told Dr. Cox-Foster that more than 50 percent of his bee colonies had collapsed in Florida, where he had taken them for the winter.

“This is like C.S.I. for agriculture,” says W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Greene Infectious Disease Laboratory at Columbia University. “It is painstaking, gumshoe detective work.”

Dr. Lipkin sent his first set of results to Dr. Cox-Foster, showing that several unknown micro-organisms were present in the bees from collapsing colonies. Meanwhile, Mr. vanEngelsdorp and researchers at the Agriculture Department lab here began an autopsy of bees from collapsing colonies in California, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania to search for any known bee pathogens.

At the University of Illinois, using knowledge gained from the sequencing of the bee genome, Dr. Robinson’s team will try to find which genes in the collapsing colonies are particularly active, perhaps indicating stress from exposure to a toxin or pathogen.

The national research team also quietly began a parallel study in January, financed in part by the National Honey Board, to further determine if something pathogenic could be causing colonies to collapse.

Mr. Hackenberg, the beekeeper, agreed to take his empty bee boxes and other equipment to Food Technology Service, a company in Mulberry, Fla., that uses gamma rays to kill bacteria on medical equipment and some fruits. In early results, the irradiated bee boxes seem to have shown a return to health for colonies repopulated with Australian bees.

“This supports the idea that there is a pathogen there,” Dr. Cox-Foster said. “It would be hard to explain the irradiation getting rid of a chemical.”

Still, some environmental substances remain suspicious. One such group of compounds is called neonicotinoids, commonly used pesticides that are used to treat corn and other seeds against pests. One of the neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, is commonly used in Europe and the United States to treat seeds, to protect residential foundations against termites and to help keep golf courses and home lawns green.

In the late 1990s, French beekeepers reported large losses of their bees and complained about the use of imidacloprid, sold under the brand name Gaucho. The chemical, while not killing the bees outright, was causing them to be disoriented and stay away from their hives, leading them to die of exposure to the cold, French researchers later found. The beekeepers labeled the syndrome “mad bee disease.”

The French government banned the pesticide in 1999 for use on sunflowers, and later for corn, despite protests by the German chemical giant Bayer, which has said its internal research showed the pesticide was not toxic to bees. Subsequent studies by independent French researchers have disagreed with Bayer. Alison Chalmers, an eco-toxicologist for Bayer CropScience, said at the meeting today that bee colonies had not recovered in France as beekeepers had expected. “These chemicals are not being used anymore,” she said of imidacloprid, “so they certainly were not the only cause.”

Among the pesticides being tested in the American bee investigation, the neonicotinoids group “is the number-one suspect,” Dr. Mullin said. He hoped results of the toxicology screening will be ready within a month. –New York Times

A 17-year Spectacle Unfolds

Sunday, June 27th, 2010


By John Biemer and Courtney Flynn
CHICAGO, IL–Since 1990, they had awaited the mysterious cue. It arrived just after dusk.

Every few inches, another orange-brown cicada nymph climbed out of the soil and marched toward anything tall: a tree, a weed, a fence or a sign. The teeming mass scaled up, as high as it could go. They cracked their way through skins and stretched their ghost-white wings. Before morning, most of them had turned black and prepared to unleash an unholy sound.

In some Chicago suburbs, periodical cicadas have been crawling out of the soil and leaving piles of their discarded exoskeletons at the base of trees for more than a week. But the intensity of the emergence picked up and the areas where it is occurring spread widely after weekend rains loosened the dirt, easing the insects’ passage from the subterranean world they’ve inhabited for 17 years.

John Cooley estimated up to 100,000 surrounded a single tree at Bemis Woods Forest Preserve in Western Springs, IL. Over the last two decades, Cooley has witnessed every periodical cicada emergence in the country–three broods that appear every 13 years and a dozen that show up every 17. But the abundance he saw was, he said, “as impressive as I’ve ever seen.”

“This is pretty insanely dense,” said Cooley, a University of Connecticut entomologist who is helping to map the Illinois emergence for National Geographic. “This is as dense as you’ll ever see it. The local mass emergences have begun. There’s no doubt.”

Cicadas coated trees at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle and yards in Palos Heights, Oak Brook and Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, where sea gulls gorged themselves on an easy feast. They also had begun to emerge in suburbs north of the city, such as Deerfield and Winnetka, where the ground has been slower to warm up to about 64 degrees–the trigger, scientists believe, that pushes cicadas above earth to begin a loud and lusty month.

For many children at Winnetka’s Village Green Park, the inch-long, plentiful bugs were an amusing distraction. Daniel McNerney, 8, plucked four nymphs from the knotty bark of a nearby elm and set them atop a long, curved stick.

“I’ve named them Jim, Jimmy, Johnny and John,” he said proudly. “They look cool. It’s awesome when you get to see them fly out of their shell.” His sister, Maureen, 6, was not enamored.

Before it’s over — roughly around the 4th of July — the invasion will no doubt bug the heck out of some Chicagoans and enchant others. There are some 6,000 cicada species worldwide, but just seven species that emerge in periodic intervals. All of them are found in the United States: east of the Great Plains, south of the Great Lakes and north of Florida.

“This is the only place in the world anything like this happens,” Cooley said. “There are [no other insects] that combine periodicity with long life cycles, massive, dense emergences and these charismatic behaviors.”

And not often does such an unusual natural phenomenon occur in one’s front yard. Just after dusk, Melissa Laudadio watched her lawn come alive. So many nymphs had popped up in her River Forest front yard that you could hear them clawing toward the giant oak. Her son, Cosmo, 4, was dressed in his Batman Halloween costume and collecting them with a green net and letting them go.

“My neighbors are like, ‘What’s he still doing outside?’ ” Laudadio said. “It’s a special occasion. The cicadas are coming!”

Cicadas do not bit–they do not have jaws–and they are not known to carry diseases. But if they are nearby in great numbers, they will not be ignored.

Scientists have measured crescendos of the distinct whirring and buzzing noises made by males as they try to attract mates at 96 decibels, as loud as a jet flying close overhead, loud enough that biologists such as Cooley avoid ear pain by wearing gun mufflers used at shooting ranges. Annual cicadas that show up during the dog days of summer are louder individually, but periodic cicadas arrive in much greater numbers and collectively produce a louder racket.

For the most part, that chorus has not yet kicked in. Cicadas begin the mating call–made using structures in their abdomens called tymbals–about five days after emerging from the ground.

For now, it is just a background sound in places where some came out early, such as Elmhurst, La Grange and Bemis Woods. As more mature adults come of age, the volume will increase exponentially. On hot, sunny days, the buzzing sound will synchronize.

“This whole forest will be pulsing,” said Cooley.

And yet, the experience may pass some Chicago area residents right by. In some neighborhoods that are heavily developed or built on top of former cornfields, residents will see no sign of cicadas at all. While they’ve already overrun some suburbs, particularly those with old-growth trees, others are still waiting for their first glimpse of those beady little red eyes.

By its nature, the emergence pattern is patchy because soil temperatures vary considerably around the area, or even within the same park. Thousands of cicadas may have burst out around an isolated tree surrounded by grass in direct sunlight, while at the edge of the woods, a few steps away, thousands more wait underground.

The mass emergence typically takes more than a week, according to Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at the College of Mt. St. Joseph in Cincinnati and one of the nation’s leading cicada experts.

“It’s like the dam bursting, but all the water doesn’t go through at once,” he said. “The greater Chicago area is a big place and the kind of variation we’re seeing is not surprising. There’s no question the emergence has started, it’s started in force, and this is the slow buildup in numbers.”

By the end of June, most of those same cicadas will be dead, but the females will have tucked countless eggs into slits in the trunks and branches of trees. Later this summer, ant-sized nymphs will hatch and tunnel underground to emerge again in 2024.

“If you come down here one night in late July, early August, they’ll be raining down like rain drops,” Cooley said. “They’ll start the cycle again and most people will forget they’re around.” –Chicago Tribune

Insects: The Original White Meat

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Janet Raloff
YOU BITE into a piece of candy and find a cricket leg. Eewwww. Or notice that raisin in a bowl of cereal has legs and wings. Bam, down the disposal it goes.

Such filth in foods is supposedly illegal, but the Food and Drug Administration’s actual tolerance is far from zero. FDA rules allow up to 60 insect fragments on average in a composite of six 100-gram chocolate samples. For peanut butter, it’s OK to have up to 30 insect pieces per 100 grams. Grossed out yet?

In the industrialized world, most people find the idea of eating insects repugnant. Processed foods containing bug bits tend to reflect poor sanitation. Because bugs can host disease-causing germs, insects tainting the food supply pose a health risk

Yet in many parts of the world, diners actually desire insects. Youngsters in central Africa may down ants or grubs while at play. Urbane snack-seeking consumers throng street vendors throughout Southeast Asia to buy fried crickets. Even car-driving Aborigines in Australia’s outback may motor a couple of hours to find, and then picnic on, a cache of honey ants.

Residents of at least 113 nations eat bugs, says Julieta Ramos-Elorduy of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. This practice, known as entomophagy (en-toh-MOFF-uh-jee), makes sense, she says, because insects tend to be quite nutritious. Indeed, many scientists around the world have put insect eating on their research menus. It was also the focus of a February United Nations conference in Thailand, where researchers discussed insect-eating trends and evaluated the nutritional value of bugs and the environmental aspects of entomophagy.

“We’re not going to convince Europeans and Americans to go out in big numbers and start eating insects,” concedes conference organizer Patrick B. Durst. However, fostering respect for entomophagy could do a lot to maintain health and environmental quality outside the industrial West, argues Durst, a senior forestry officer with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s regional office in Bangkok.

He holds out hope that Westerners may become more accepting of insect protein—especially if they “don’t have to look the bug in the eye as they’re eating it.” Dutch researchers are working on just such a development—biotechnology to produce insect cells, minus the insects, as an inexpensive source of edible protein.

Almost 125 years ago, Vincent Holt published a 99-page tract in Britain titled Why Not Eat Insects? It failed to catalyze a bug-eating revolution. David Gracer, a community college writing teacher by day, has now taken up Holt’s cause outside the classroom. Not only does Gracer travel the lecture circuit, he also holds cooking demonstrations so that Americans can sample insect-based snacks and bug-laced entrees. His company, Sunrise Land Shrimp, in Providence, R.I., supplies frozen and dried insects to chefs and other individuals.

Grilled cicadas are more likely to elicit a “yikes” than a “yum” from most Europeans and North Americans. “But why?” asks Gracer. “Most of these people are happy to eat crab, lobster and shrimp—the ocean equivalent of insects.”

Shrimp, other crustaceans and insects are all arthropods—members of the largest phylum in the animal kingdom. When people appear squeamish about tasting a grasshopper or beetle larva, Gracer points out that despite lobster’s prized status, crustaceans tend to “eat trash and dead things” whereas most insects dine at nature’s salad bars.

A Matter of Taste
Edible insects fill a rather small niche market in the United States, Gracer concedes. Throughout most of the developing world, by contrast, dining on bugs is not only a time-honored tradition but often a treat.

That’s something biologist Gene R. DeFoliart has explored for 33 years, first as chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s entomology department, and more recently as host of the food-insects.com website. Since retiring 17 years ago, he has been compiling data on entomophagy. His site offers a book-in-progress with 28 chapters.

Westerners tend to consider insect eating a last resort; you choke down bugs only if there’s no chicken or beef available. Throughout the tropics and subtropics, however, certain insects, such as adult termites or various grubs, can be preferred to the flesh of birds, fish or traditional meat animals, DeFoliart has found.

Entomophagy thrives in Mexico, where Ramos-Elorduy has cataloged some 1,700 species that are eaten. Although grasshoppers are especially popular and inexpensive, diners in Mexico’s bigger cities will shell out $25 U.S. for a plate of maguey worms, larvae of the giant butterfly Aegiale hesperiaris, DeFoliart notes.

This reflects the fact that insects “now have a clear place in industrialized societies since chefs of different nationalities cook them in very sophisticated ways,” Ramos-Elorduy contends. In Mexico, she finds that “the great demand is for five-star restaurants.” Small bistros tend to serve insects seasonally, she says, but “the five-stars do it daily.”

Throughout much of Africa, mopane (moh-PAH-nee) worms—caterpillars of Gonimbrasia belina, a moth that feeds on mopane trees—are a spectacularly popular snack. In fact, people have been eating so many that biologists have begun worrying that these bugs might be headed for extinction. Sales of dried mopane worms in South Africa alone can exceed 1,600 metric tons per year, DeFoliart found.

Because the caterpillar metamorphoses in soil, it used to be “taboo to dig the worm that has gone underground,” notes O. Ricky Madibela, formerly at the Botswana College of Agriculture in Gaborone. Today, however, people excavate dirt around mopane trees for this “seed of the next generation” of caterpillars. And that, he argues, is unsustainable.

In many regions, however, once-popular entomophagy is waning. Evidence for this shift emerged in Ecuador while entomologist Andrew B.T. Smith of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa and Ecuadorian Aura Paucar-Cabrera of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, were studying the scarab Platycoelia lutescens. For the project, Paucar-Cabrera interviewed 48 residents in and around Quito about this white beetle’s role in the local diet.

Everyone recognized the Andean insect—called catso blanco—as a culinary flavoring. And the 24 people from the rural and urban working classes all said they ate the beetles at least once a year. Some took their entire families out to nearby meadows in late October or early November to catch adult beetles emerging after metamorphosis in the soil. But among the 24 wealthier families and professional adults surveyed, only one admitted trying the beetles. The rest professed no interest in ever doing so.

Similarly, teens and young adults in Kenya’s Luo tribe tend to view eating bugs as so last-century, notes food scientist Francis O. Orech of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. A Luo himself, Orech recalls eating ants and termites as a child. Now, to interview some 30 Luo about entomophagy, he and a largely Danish group of researchers had to consult people over age 45 to find individuals who still knew where to reliably find bugs, how to catch them and how to prepare them for eating.

Better Than Beef?
The five species most widely eaten by surveyed Luo were ants, termites and a species of mondo cricket. All were good sources of minerals, but the crickets were the richest and an ant species the poorest, Orech’s group reported in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition in 2006.

In fact, the team found that crickets contained more than 1,550 milligrams of iron, 25 milligrams of zinc and 340 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams of dry tissue. Traditional cuisines in developing countries often fall short of the global guidelines for these minerals. Based on analyses of Luo-caught insects, just three crickets would provide an individual’s daily iron requirement.

Gram for gram, crickets or grasshoppers can be more nutritious than an equal quantity of beef or pork, says Victor B. Meyer-Rochow of Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. One reason: Water constitutes a high percentage of meat, he says, whereas insects tend to be drier. Many insects also are richer in minerals than many meats, such as hamburger, his data show. And most lipids in bugs tend to be long-chain, unsaturated fats—healthier types than those predominant in conventional livestock.

A comprehensive survey of bug nutrients appears in the 2005 book Ecological Implications of Minilivestock: Potential of Insects, Rodents, Frogs and Snails. It reports published values for calories, protein, fat and fiber in most major species of edible insects. Additional tables summarize the potential of these bugs to contribute important amino acids, minerals, healthy fatty acids and vitamins to the diet.

The data were gleaned by Sandra G.F. Bukkens, now an independent nutrition consultant based in Barcelona, Spain. Overall, she says, “I was pleasantly surprised. Insects were far more healthy than I expected.”

Many insects had a fairly high concentration of essential amino acids—types that humans need but can’t make. These include lysine and tryptophan, two that tend to be limited in traditional diets in the developing world. The quality of insect proteins is usually good too, compensating, Bukkens says, for what is lacking in largely vegetarian diets.

Despite this upbeat assessment, Bukkens isn’t pushing insects on her family. “I’ve eaten them, but I’m not particularly keen about them,” she says. If food were limited, she would “eat anything. But since we have plenty of meat in developed countries, I don’t see why we should switch to insects.”

Even DeFoliart, whom many refer to as Mr. Entomophagy, admits to never cooking insects at home. In fact, his daughter once cajoled her mother into sampling a roasted cricket. When his daughter offered mom a second, DeFoliart recalls with a chuckle his wife’s reply: “Oh no, I’ll have to rest awhile.”

Clean and Green
Diners who want to reduce the size of their environmental footprint might reassess their aversion to bugs, DeFoliart says. Insects typically eaten by people are vegans—at least for much of their life cycles, he says—and generally “clean-living in their choice of food and habitat.” Moreover, edible insects can forage on a far wider range of plants than do traditional meat animals. As such, he says, bugs can tap food sources normally worthless in conventional meat production, such as cacti, bamboo shoots, mesquite and woody scrub brush.

What’s more, insects turn more of what they eat into tissue that can be consumed by others. For crickets fed diets comparable in quality to the feed given to conventional Western livestock, diet conversion efficiency is about twice as high as for broiler chicks and pigs, four times higher than sheep and nearly six times higher than steers, DeFoliart reports. Insects’ quick reproduction and high fecundity makes them look even more environmentally attractive. For the crickets, DeFoliart has calculated, this translates into “a true food conversion efficiency close to 20 times better than that of beef.”

Gracer likens these differences to gas-guzzling versus gas-sipping vehicles: “Cows and pigs are the SUVs of the food world. And bugs—they’re the Priuses, maybe even bicycles.”

And bugs can be raised sustainably, the U.N.’s Durst says, pointing to an industry that has sprung up in northeast Thailand since 1999. Entomologists and agricultural extension agents at Khon Kaen University developed low-cost, cricket-rearing techniques and offered training to local residents. Currently, 4,500 families in Khon Kaen Province raise crickets, as do nearly 15,000 others elsewhere around the country, Khon Kaen entomologist Yupa Hanboonsong said at the recent meeting organized by Durst.

A single family can manage cricket rearing as a sideline activity without outside help, needing only a few hundred square feet of land. The 400 families in just two local villages produce some 10 metric tons of crickets in summer, the peak yield period. As the weather cools, yields may eventually fall by 80 percent or more. Still, that translates to extra, year-round income of $130 to $1,600 U.S. a month per family, Hanboonsong says. That’s quite a windfall for residents of one of Thailand’s poorer regions.

Most of their farmed crickets go to big city markets, like outdoor stalls in Bangkok. Hanboonsong says, however, that some are exported to neighboring cricket-consuming nations, such as Laos and Cambodia. Thai families also farm ants, another popular edible insect. And her Khon Kaen colleagues have just developed new rearing techniques for farming grasshoppers and the giant water bug (a Thai favorite). Indeed, Hanboonsong’s survey of Thai insect consumers found that 75 percent eat bugs simply because they’re tasty—especially as a snack with beer.

Bug farming gets around the problem that most insects are quite seasonal, Durst says. It also reduces pressures on wild populations. But data reported at his conference didn’t turn up much evidence of insect overexploitation in Thai forests. In fact, he says there were suggestions that increased entomophagy might pay bonus ecological dividends. For instance, it might make local villages better stewards of their environment because of the potential for collecting marketable insects.

There was even talk of how people might be marshaled to harvest insects for food in areas plagued by pests, substituting people for pesticides to protect crops.

It’s not far-fetched.

Hanboonsong reported that when chemical insecticides didn’t rout locusts from corn fields 30 years ago, the Thai government launched a campaign (including recipes) to collect and eat the pests. Although locusts had not previously been among the 150 species of bugs in the Thai diet, residents took up the challenge. Today, locusts are no longer a pest, and some farmers now plant corn as bait for the bugs, which they supply to local markets.

Biotech Bug Burgers

Durst suspects that two major facets of insects continue to turn many American and European diners off: concerns over hygiene and the fact that the critters look like—well, bugs. Hygiene can be dealt with by cleansing the outside of bugs thoroughly and emptying or even removing their guts. More difficult is camouflaging their antennae, buggy eyes and legs, or perhaps the fact that some look like soft, overly puffy worms.

Dutch scientists think they may have a solution to both impediments. They’re using biotechnology to produce vats of insect cells—just isolated cells. The researchers described their efforts last year in Biotechnology Advances.

The goal, explains Marjoleine C. Verkerk of Wageningen University, is to produce a sanitized source of bug proteins that can be dried and added to breads or perhaps molded into pseudo-burgers. Her team is mass producing isolated ovary cells of silkworms, fall armyworms, cabbage loopers and gypsy moths.

Grown in a bioreactor, these cells won’t support the growth of viruses or turn on cancer-triggering genes, things they could do in a whole bug, her group notes. As the researchers analyze the nutrient content of these cells, Verkerk has also begun to survey consumer attitudes on fortifying conventional fare with insect-derived materials. It remains a bit of a tough sell, she admits.

A Japanese consortium has a more far-out use for insects: space food.

Although trained as a chemist, these days Masamichi Yamashita says, “I prefer to be called a ‘space farmer’ wishing to fly to Mars.” At 60, he’s unlikely to be called up as an astronaut. So he’s doing the next best thing. Through his work at Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Sagamihara, he’s helping design a habitat that will allow future generations to survive years aboard cramped spacecraft or planetary outposts.

Key to the effort will be integrating bugs as a potential source of food and of natural plant-waste recycling for astronauts, his team argued a few months back in Advances in Space Research. He and his colleagues are developing an ecosystem that includes pupae of silkworms and hawk moths as sources of food. These metamorphosing insects—especially the silkworms—are popular in Japan and other parts of Asia.

Their taste? “I ate soft-shell crab in Washington, D.C., once,” Yamashita says. “That might be close.”

Wildlife Comes To Residential Areas As City Grows

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

By Jeremy Johnson
HENDERSONVILLE, TN–As urban progress continues to turn once empty fields and wooded areas into subdivisions, the animals that once lived there do not always leave when the landscape changes.

From birds building a nest in gutters to Whitetail Deer eating the garden, to Raccoons turning over garbage cans, wild animals can often become pests to their new neighbors.

“Nuisance wildlife is very common and it’s been that way for years,” said Ed Warr, Assistant Chief of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Wildlife Division.

Taking simple steps to remove the elements they need most to make an area their home can usually control problem wildlife, he said.  Warr said one of the most commonly seen problems is squirrels or Raccoons nesting in the attic of a home.

“Sometimes a city itself is a good habitat for raccoons. What they need is food, water and shelter, just like anything else. You’ve got to get rid of these ingredients,” Warr said.

Pet food should not be left out in the open and garbage should be kept secure in cans that cannot be easily tipped over or access by animals, the officer said.

“Just because it is pet food doesn’t stop a Raccoon or a skunk or a possum from feeding on it,” Warr said.

Attics and garages should be kept sealed so that animals like squirrels or Raccoons cannot crawl inside, he added. For those experiencing problems with nuisance animals, the TWRA can offer advice or refer individuals to a handler certified to remove wild animals when taking steps to prevent the animal from returning is not working.

“We’ve got people that are permitted to do that if you can’t handle it yourself,” Warr said, adding he does not recommend individuals attempting to remove wild animals from their property.

The Hendersonville Police Animal Control officers do not handle removal of non-domesticated animals such as deer and raccoons that are outside a citizen’s home, HPD Captain Terry Frizzell, who added the capture or management of such animals is usually turned over to the TWRA.

If the wildlife is inside a citizen’s home, animal control officers will come by and access the situation, but will typically turn the capture of the animal over to someone better equipped and trained to handling wild animals, the captain said.

The risk of wildlife in the Nashville area carrying rabies is very minimal, according to Warr who added the TWRA has not found any cases of rabies in raccoons or possums in the Nashville area in a long time. And while some cases of rabies have been found in skunks, he said there has been none discovered recently.

“If you’ve got household pets, you should get them vaccinated (for rabies) to keep your family safe,” Warr said.

A vaccinated pet will merely get sick and have to be quarantined for a few days if bitten by an animal infected with rabies, Warr said. A pet that is not vaccinated will have to be put down if rabies is suspected. — Hendersonville Star News

Spring Is In The Air–Really!

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

By Kathy Reshetiloff
ALL AROUND, there is an eruption of life beyond the typical signs of spring like robins and crocuses. The land, skies and waters—quiet and gray throughout the winter months—now sing day and night and burst with color.

In the waters, anadromous fish, like shad, journey from oceans to rivers to spawn. The word anadromous comes from the Greek word meaning “running uphill.”

What’s really amazing is these fish return to the same area where they were born. How they accomplish this remains a mystery. Many scientists believe that this homing instinct may be due to an uncanny sense of smell and sensitivity to magnetic signals, polarized light and unique characteristics of the natal stream or waterway.

Prompted by rising temperature, shad leave the ocean to spawn from March through June. Spawning runs of the American Shad (Alosa sappidissima) are particularly famed in the Chesapeake Bay. Native Americans harvested shad and taught colonists how to catch them.

By the 1800s, fishermen caught shad by the ton. Farmers took advantage of this seemingly endless supply of fish, using shad as fertilizer for their fields. Shad are also prized for their succulent meat and tasty roe.

Meanwhile, in the understory of woodlands, another messenger of spring is appearing: creamy white blossoms of the serviceberry tree (Amelanchier spp.). The flowers often appear in mid-April, before other flowering trees, making them quite conspicuous against the background of a still gray forest.

The common name, serviceberry, is believed to come from a colonial tradition. After the spring thaw, clergy would ride a circuit through the mountains to provide services to those who had died over the winter. This usually coincided with the blooming of the serviceberry shrubs. In the East, they are also known as shadbush because they flower around the same time that shad are spawning.

There are about a dozen Amelanchier species native to the United States. They range from low-spreading shrubs to tall trees. These flowering shrubs and trees are a food source for early pollinating insects. The word Amelanchier is an ancient Celtic word for “apple.” The sweet, reddish purple fruits are an important food for songbirds, squirrels, bears and other woodland wildlife.

Besides being an important source of food for wildlife, serviceberries make excellent additions to one’s yard. In addition to the early white blossoms and dark fruits, serviceberries have brilliant fall colors of yellow and orange that deepen to red.

Also in the woodlands and meadows throughout the Northeast, spring rains are creating temporary ponds known as vernal pools. Vernal pools may be small and inconspicuous but they explode with activity as frogs and toads call to attract mates and breed.

The Greek word, amphibios, means “creatures with a double life.” Amphibians spend part of their lives living in water and part living on land. Most amphibians lay soft eggs in water. Toads and frogs eggs hatch into tadpoles, which can only survive in water. As the larvae grow, they go through radical physiological changes, a process known as metamorphosis, transforming them into adults.

Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) migrate to vernal pools early in the spring. Their call is a hoarse clacking sound, reminiscent of a quack. The wood frog is an explosive breeder, usually laying a large mass of eggs in a few days and leaving soon after.

Spring Peeper (Hyla crucifer), a tree frog, follows the Wood Frog by a week or two. Its unmistakable mating call, the peep, and large geographic range makes the spring peeper one of the most familiar frogs in North America. Its mating call can sometimes be heard up to a half a mile away.

Another familiar amphibian is the American Toad (Bufo americanus). Its habitat ranges from mountains to backyards. American Toads are found wherever there are moist places, plenty of insects to eat and shallow waters to breed. Despite their warty appearance, their mating call is a pleasant musical trill.

As the landscape gets greener and trees and flowers blossom, there is an explosion of worms, spiders and insects. And right on their heels are migratory birds.

Although they nest in North America, these birds eat foods that are not available in winter—such as insects and pollen—and must migrate to South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. As spring returns to North America, so do these species, following their food sources to the birds’ breeding grounds.

More than 360 species of birds make this annual migration, including songbirds—such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers and vireos—some raptors—hawks, kites and vultures—and a few waterfowl, such as teal.

Some of these birds are common: the American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Gray Catbird, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow and Chimney Swift. Others, such as the Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush and Cape May Warbler, may be familiar only to bird watchers.

Like frogs and toads, birds sing to attract their mates. The bold spring colors of males also help to entice females. Birds add color, song and aerial displays as they ready for nesting. –Bay Journal

Mona Squires’ Backyard Is A Wildlife Haven

Friday, June 25th, 2010

BOULDER, CO--When Mona Squires moved here from Reno, NV 14 years ago, she bought a quarter-acre lot in a typical suburban subdivision.

“The lot had one tree and all lawn,” says Mona. “That had to change!” Growing up in Australia, Mona has always wanted to be a farmer. She moved to the United States in the 1960s, but, unfortunately, never had the opportunity to own land to farm. But she has made gardens wherever she has lived. “I feel like it is our responsibility to be stewards of the land wherever we are,” she says.

Not Your Typical Suburban Lot
Mona’s property stands out like a wilderness in her “spic and span” subdivision. She has planted many trees, such as cottonwood, linden, green ash, serviceberry and a honeyberry bush—a type of honeysuckle.

“I purchased the honeyberry (Lonicera kamchatika) a few years ago and it’s been growing great. I love the blueberry-like fruits as a wildlife food,” she says. “I used to eat them myself too, but I felt like I was pinching them from the robins, so I stopped,” she says.

Her goal is not to create the most beautiful manicured landscape, but to create a wildlife garden. “This is not a backyard garden, but a sanctuary garden,” says Mona. “I grow plants to invite birds and wildlife into my yard. I stopped growing vegetables because it didn’t fit the wildlife theme,” she says.

Beside planting trees for shade, adding shrubs for nesting and habitat, and making a fish pond, Mona has turned three-quarters of her lawn into a xeric landscape. (Xeric describes habitats or plants that require little water.)

“My kids think I’m losing it,” she laughs. While there is color in the yard with flowers, such as dianthus and petunias, most of the plants are natives, chosen for their drought tolerance, such as Apache plume shrub (Fallugia paradoxa) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis). She also has a small herb garden for herself (and the bees, of course), which is filled with culinary herbs, such as tarragon and mint.

Products That Help
Mona has some favorite products that have helped her create this beautiful habitat garden. “The Barley Balls have helped keep my pond clear of algae,” she says.

“I also like to compost. In fact I’m composting all the leaves in my yard,” she says. Mona took the University of Colorado Master Composter course a few years ago and decided to try some of the Super Hot compost starter. “It did make the compost start faster and finish sooner. I also use a compost aerator to keep everything mixed up and cooking,” says Mona.

Of course, she has products to attract wildlife to her sanctuary. “The roosting pockets are great places for sparrows and chickadees to hide and nest,” she says. She has them hanging in the trees so the small birds can find protection from Colorado’s sometimes severe weather.

Because getting around isn’t as easy as it used to be, Mona is always on the lookout for products that will help make her gardening chores a bit more comfortable. “The knee pads really help with all the bending I have to do,” she says.

Inspirational Garden
Mona’s landscape has inspired others in her neighborhood to grow more xeric plants, but she doesn’t consider herself an activist. “I’m humble and I like to lead by example,” she says. “I also like to bring the grandkids here to see all the wildlife,” she says.

“Preserving the earth is something we should pass on to future generations”, she says. Although Mona has never had the chance to be a true farmer, she has cultivated every inch of her small property, not just for her own enjoyment, but to encourage her neighbors and grandkids, and to provide a safe place for nature to thrive. –Gardener’s Supply

Learning To Live With Wildlife

Friday, June 25th, 2010

By Kathy Van Mullekom
AS NEIGHBORHOODS sprawl into rural areas and shopping centers claim remaining woods in cities, a new breed of wildlife emerges.

Rabbits, Raccoons and deer aren’t so wild any more because we’re taking away their habitats and they are learning to live among us. We’ve forced wildlife to become suburbanized!

They are opportunistic and adaptive. As habitats are cut down and developments move in, they’ve had to move closer to our homes to nest and eke out a life. In many cities nationwide, those adapting animals include deer, Raccoons, Canada Geese, squirrels, skunks and rabbits—even foxes.

“The reason foxes are adapting well is that they are moving in where their food sources, such as rabbit, songbirds and the young of Raccoons and opossums, are plentiful,” says Jim Seward, assistant park services and program at Sandy Bottom Nature Park in Hampton, VA.

“A concern on the horizon is the invasion of suburbia by the Coyote, which may make the concerns of all the other nuisance wildlife pale in comparison.”

During spring, animals are particularly active because they’re having babies and searching for food and water. Often, their habits clash with ours and life becomes a little combative.

Here are some tips on how to peacefully co-exist with wild friends that may visit your yard:

Raccoons
What they like to eat: Mice and other creatures people dislike, raid trash cans and bird feeders and nibble on food remains from barbecue grills.

What they like to do: Raccoons raise their young in dead, hollow trees. But people often cut those down, so raccoons often look for uncapped chimneys to serve as nurseries.

What you can do: Avoid feeding raccoons or they will hang out all night, every night, expecting free handouts. If your chimney has no cap on the top, and you have no raccoons in it, have a chimney expert install a cap. If you have a mother and her young in your chimney, wait for her to move them to ground level, which she will do when her young are about 6 weeks old. If you have raccoon babies in your chimney and you cap it before she gets her babies out, the mother will rip out shingles to get to them.

For bird feeders, install a 2-foot-long plastic-pipe baffle that’s open on the bottom and closed at the top. Position it 4 feet off the ground; a raccoon’s haunches are not strong enough to scale it. These baffles are available at wildlife specialty stores.

Rabbits
What they like to eat: Young tender plants, including veggies and perennials; clover is their favorite; plants browsed by rabbits have a neat, clipped appearance.

What they like to do: Make baby bunnies three to four litters a year. They create nests in open places, favoring tall grass.

What you can do: To protect plants, use bad-smelling repellents such as Liquid Fence (available at many local garden centers). Black netting over plants also helps protect them; its almost-invisible look is barely noticeable in the garden.

For fencing, use 2-ft-high chicken fence supported by posts every 6 to 8 ft; make sure the bottom is either buried 6 to 8 inches deep or is staked securely to the ground to prevent rabbits from pushing underneath it.

Squirrels
What they like to eat: They can empty a bird feeder in no time and nibble on your almost-ripe tomatoes; also will chew wires and even the gas line on your grill.

What they like to do: Build nests at the top of chimneys, only to sometimes have them fall down into those cavities; or, jump down into chimneys, thinking they are hollow trees; they can’t climb out those slippery slopes.

What you can do:
Cap chimneys. If a wandering squirrel gets in an uncapped chimney, go up on the roof and lower a long -inch rope into the chimney, leaving the rest of the rope hanging off the side of the house; the squirrel will easily climb the rope and get out. Remove rope and cap chimney.

To evict a family of squirrels from an attic, use a blaring radio or put ammonia-soaked rags in the area. Strobe lights in the attic are also effective at “freaking them out,” say wildlife experts. Check to make sure you have no holes in your siding or exterior trim where more squirrels can enter.

Outdoors, use caged bird feeders to keep squirrels from raiding them. Safflower is a bird seed that squirrels seem to dislike. Squirrel baffles on feeders also help; they are available at wildlife specialty stores and garden centers. Wildlife experts suggest you feed the squirrels to keep them happy and away from feeders.

To help prevent squirrels from eating tomatoes, place containers of fresh water outdoors for them; they are usually thirsty and looking for a drink.

Skunks
What they like to eat: Grubs, mice, baby rats and Japanese beetles

What they like to do:
Spray dogs that get too close to them; get under your house and shed; skunks and cats get along fine.

What you can do: Seal up any entry points under your house and outbuildings.

To deodorize a dog, mix a quart of hydrogen peroxide, 1⁄2 cup of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of a liquid soap. Wash the dog in this concoction, rinse, shampoo, rinse again and the smell is gone. Tip: A black dog may have a few rust-colored highlights after this application. Tomato juice does not work. If a skunk sprays a dog’s tongue, there is no real way to deodorize it.

Canada Geese
What they like to eat: Grass shoots

What they like to do: Litter yards and golf courses with droppings when they land and stay on grassy areas; flock to open water for protection from predators.

What you can do: Reduce fertilizer use and supplemental water to reduce young grass shoots. Allow grass to “naturalize.” Grass that’s 6 inches high has fewer tender shoots, making the food more difficult for geese to find.

To keep them from loitering on grassy areas, establish a hedge or planting of ornamental grasses, cattails or shrubs along the edge of the water; this disrupts the clear sight line they need to have when a predator approaches them. Boulders larger than 2 ft. wide and 12 inches high can be mixed between plants.

Border Collies have been successful in deterring geese at golf courses, parks, airports and condos.

Groundhogs
What they like to eat: After a long winter nap, they fill up on most anything in a garden

What they like to do: These cautious animals generally fear people but will burrow under houses, porches and other buildings.

What you can do:
To keep them out of your garden, add objects that blow in the wind, including balloons and reflective Mylar tape.

The best solution is a 3-ft-high mesh or chicken-wire fence with two tricks built into it. The top above-ground part should be floppy, or staked loosely to wooden stakes so it wobbles if the animal tries to climb over it. The bottom 12 inches should run parallel to the ground and be secured with landscaping staples as a “false bottom” to prevent digging under it.

To encourage them to move along, put urine-soaked cat litter inside burrow entrances.

Deer
What they like to eat: Plants, plants and more plants, especially tender ones like azaleas, tomatoes and perennials

What they like to do: Strip foliage and bark from plants

What you can do:
Garden wisely, including using plants deer dislike: strong-smelling mint, geranium and marigolds; daffodils; toxic foxglove and nightshade species; fuzzy and prickly plants; ornamental grasses and ferns; salvias; asters; allium; and native plants. For a list of deer-resistant plants, visit www.yorkcounty.gov/vce/progareas/hort/hortpubs.htm.

To scare them away, use motion-activated sprinklers; battery-operated stakes feature scent lures that deliver a mild shock and teach deer to avoid certain areas of the garden.

For repellents, local gardeners and extension offices report good results with a bad-smelling product called Liquid Fence, available at garden centers.

Deer-proof fencing is the most effective method. Fencing options include plastic mesh, electrified polytape, woven wire and electric fence kits that come with a scented lure.

Tips On Living With The Wild
Here’s help on living in harmony with wildlife:

• Button up your house. Check home’s exterior and interior for places where wildlife can enter. Un-capped chimneys, holes in siding or trim and open foundation vents and access doors are entry points for animals. Birds like to build nests inside dryer and bathroom ventilation pipes. Placing screens over the pipe on the outside is an ideal way to fix that problem; if a bird and its nest are already in the pipe, wait until the family has left to remove the nest and screen the area. It takes about 21 days for baby birds to leave home.

• Seal off access to areas under decks and storage sheds. To check for animals, sprinkle a 12-inch band of white flour around the deck or shed, checking for animal footprints; you also can stuff any hole with newspaper and wait 48 hours to see if an animal pushes it away.

• Remove temptation. Songbirds are good to feed, but Raccoons are not. If raccoons raid your birdfeeders, remove the feeders at night or install stovepipe-style baffles to keep Raccoons from scurrying up the poles supporting the feeders.

• Use trashcans that Raccoons can’t open (cans with 4-inch twist-off lids are good) or tip over easily. Keep barbecue grills clean; even nonfood products such as candles, sunscreen and insect repellent can attract animals, so keep those indoors when you’re not using them.

• Make them move along. To safely make your yard inhospitable to wildlife, use rotten egg-smelling repellents such as Liquid Fence on plants. Devices that spray water, move or make noise often help; one that seems to work effectively is the motion-activated scarecrow that shoots sprays of water.

• Clean the roof. Trim branches away from your house to limit access for climbing wildlife; check limbs, chimneys and attics for occupied nests before trimming.

Learn more. For more information, visit www.windstar.org  –Daily Press

How to Create a Wildlife Habitat Plan

Friday, June 25th, 2010

A plan provides you with a clear picture of the completed project and a road map on how to get there.

The greater the number and variety of habitat components that you provide… the more wildlife you will have to observe and enjoy. Those of you with acreages or farms usually have numerous opportunities to observe wildlife in their habitat. But, for those of you who live in or near urban areas, this may be limited to several days or weekends during the year when you are on vacation.

This doesn’t have to be the case. If you are limited on being able to go where there are wildlife, why not establish or enhance the wildlife habitat where you live and bring the wildlife to you.

You will save yourself energy, money, and the frustration of having to do parts of your habitat over again if you follow a plan. It can be flexible enough for you to alter your plan as you go along, if your needs or conditions change.

And, it can be done no matter what your budget. Keep in mind that shrubs are more desirable than trees since shrubs provide habitat quicker and at less cost. Trees generally take longer to grow to maturity and cost more.

While doing your plan, you have an opportunity to really get creative and have some fun! In fact, this is a great family activity. What better legacy for your children or friends than an appreciation of nature. Creating or enhancing your wildlife habitat can lead to father-son, mother-daughter, and entire family projects.

Oftentimes, these activities produce fond memories that we carry with us for the rest of our lives – or at least until our children do the same things for their children.

Now, move ahead to Step 1:


Step 1:

What are your primary interests?

  • Bird watching
  • Teaching or sharing nature experience
  • Nature photography
  • Hunting
  • Other nature interests


Do you want to observe wildlife from a specific window or door of your home? If yes, which?

If you want to observe or make photographs, where is the best place to install a feeder station or birdbath so you can take advantage of the light and make better photographs?

What are your objectives for your wildlife habitat? For example, you might want to attract five new wildlife species to your property. Or, you may want to install within the next month, two new feeders or birdhouses and a birdbath along with planting some new trees or shrubs in the fall that eventually will produce food for wildlife.

Those of you with acreages or farms may want to set aside an acre or two and plant them to such crops as soybeans, millet, grain sorghum, or sunflowers and then leave the crop in the field over the winter rather than harvesting it. This will give wildlife food to eat during a time when it is hard to find.

Step 2:

What kinds of wildlife are already on your property?

List the different species you currently observe and those you would like to attract on separate sheets of paper. Now check which habitat elements—food, water, cover, and space—you currently have and check the elements you want to add to your habitat.

FOOD – nuts, berries, insects, fruits, grain and seeds, nectar, browse and forage plants. Providing a variety of foods is probably the most important part of your wildlife habitat.

If you can’t plant trees or shrubs on your property, establish a year-round feeding and watering station.

COVER – provides protection from weather and predators. It is right behind food in importance. Cover can be trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, rock piles, brush piles, field crops such as corn, grain sorghum, and soybeans, cut banks, hollow trees, birdhouses, burrows, bridges, abandoned buildings, fence rows and hedgerows. It is important for cover to be close to food and water.

WATER – essential for all wildlife – includes ponds, streams, plants, dew on grass, leaves, fruits, and birdbaths. You need to preserve and manage water in your habitat where it exists and, if absent, build new sources such as ponds, fountains, and baths.

SPACE – territory to roam in and to raise families in. This can range from needing 100 acres for pairs of wild turkeys to at least 300 ft. between bluebird houses. Space may be the most difficult to provide.

Step 3:

Now take a tape measure (100-ft. if possible) and a pad of paper outside so you can make a rough map of your property.

This will save you time and mistakes that can be costly later. It’s a lot easier to move elements around on paper instead of having to dig up and move plants or trees if they aren’t what you want. Start with the outside dimensions of your property. Measure and mark your map with the boundaries. Your property title or deed should list the dimensions. Now locate all structures such as your house. You can do this by first drawing the basic exterior structure outline of each building. Make sure you indicate which elements jog out from, or indent into, the main walls.

Walk around the exterior of your structures, measure each side of the outside walls and record the measurements on your rough map. Next, measure the distances from the corners of each structure to your property lines. Indicate where windows and doors are located on your house. Finally, measure, locate, and label existing trees, shrubs, flower beds, and any water features.

If you have an acreage or farm, you may want to first do a plan for just your house, yard, and buildings. Then, do a plan for your entire property on a different scale. Indicate the size of your fields, field positions in relationship to your house and buildings, what crops you are growing—also rivers, streams, fencerows, thickets, ponds, woodlots, etc.

Step 4:

Now sit down with your rough map and draw your habitat map to-scale.

Indicate directions and the prevailing wind patterns. Be sure and plot all food, water, and cover elements. You might also want to indicate where you have observed specific species.

Step 5:

Check the wildlife habitat components for each basic habitat element that you have or want to add.

If your property contains the following living plants and structural components, chances are you will have wildlife galore. But, don’t despair if you can only provide one or more – every effort helps.

Living Plants:

  • Conifers
  • Grasses and Legumes/ Nectar Plants
  • Summer Fruit & Cover Plants
  • Fall Fruit, Grain & Cover Plants
  • Winter Fruits and Cover Plants
  • Nuts and Acorns (mast)


Structural:

  • Den Trees (snags)
  • Nest Boxes
  • Rock Piles & Brush Piles
  • Cut Banks, Cliffs & Caves
  • Dust & Grit
  • Salt


After you have indicated your choices, take a look at each item as to what is practical from the following points of view: access, time, money, location, assistance needed, and what is legal.

Step 6:

Select the projects or components you want to implement.

If you are planting trees or shrubs, allow enough space for the size you expect them to be in 20 years. Sometimes it is good to set your map aside after you complete it, and, after a couple of weeks, come back and see if it still fits your needs.

Step 7:

Sketch out an action plan/schedule and budget for the projects you have selected and implement them.

If you are going to do the work yourself, be practical and realistic about the time you can devote to the work.

How To Attract Wildlife To Your Property

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Wildlife conservationists have known for years that wildlife populations are dependent on four major factors in their habitat – food, cover, water, and space. If you have an acreage, a farm, a yard, or an apartment balcony, you can usually provide at least two of these elements on your property — food and water. It then becomes important that wildlife have access to cover and space in nearby areas in order to survive.

One of the secrets in creating a successful habitat is to provide a variation within each of the four areas. Different wildlife need different combinations of elements. Having a variety in your habitat means the difference between seeing 200 or just 10 different species. Let’s examine each of the habitat elements.

Food
Food is one of the primary necessities of wildlife. Every species has its own food needs. Often, this changes as the species ages. Food includes the nutritional part of the diet as well as supplements such as salt. Also, many birds require grit or gravel for grinding up food in their gizzards.

Some wildlife eat a variety of foods and others eat only a few different kinds. These include fruit and berries, grain and seeds, nectar, nuts (mast), browse plants such as twigs and buds, plus forage and aquatic plants.

Fruits and berries are rich in vitamins and carbohydrates and are usually available in the summer and fall. These include elderberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, grapes, mulberries, and apples. Some varieties, such as mountain ash and holly, have berries that stay on the bush or tree and are available to wildlife in the winter.

One of the most popular berries for birds is elderberries. Fifty-one different bird species eat them. Other favorites are sunflowers, preferred by 46 species, and flowering dogwood, favored by 45 bird species. Fruits are also eaten by many different kinds of mammals, including squirrel, fox, deer, bear, skunk, and opossum.

Nuts are really fruits with a dry, hard exterior shell and contain fats and proteins. Acorns from oak trees are most widely available along with pecans, beechnuts, and walnuts. Squirrels and chipmunks prefer hickory nuts, hazelnuts, black walnuts, and butternuts.

Grains and seeds constitute the major food of many species of wildlife. They mature in the summer and fall but some can be found throughout the year. Seeds of conifers (evergreens) are also a good source of food.

Weeds probably contribute the most to food sources as they are so abundant and many times are favored by wildlife (not property owners) over more attractive yard plants. A good example is pigweed. It can contain nearly 100,000 seeds per plant! Other favorite weeds are ragweed, smartweed, dock, and crabgrass.

Grains raised by farmers, such as oats, wheat, barley, rye, corn, grain sorghum, and soybeans provide abundant food. In recent years, whitetail deer, which have thrived despite urbanization, cause millions of dollars of crop losses for farmers, especially to corn, soybean, and hay fields.

In Maryland the whitetail deer population has increased from 20,000 in 1981 to over 350,000 currently. Other states show similar increases.

Vegetative parts of plants are sought by rodents, browsing and grazing mammals, and some game birds. Deer, antelope, and rabbits are especially fond of alfalfa and clover hays. Also, we must not forget aquatic plants such as wild rice, widgeon grass, pond weeds, and wild celery. They are a favorite of ducks, geese, muskrats, beaver, moose, and sometimes deer.

The roots, bulbs, and tubers of plants which are underground are consumed by moles, gophers, wild turkeys, ducks, geese, and muskrats.

And nectar from plants is sought by hummingbirds, moths, and bees. Plants that successfully attract nectar feeders include trumpet honeysuckle vine, butterfly bush, cardinal bush, paintbrush, bee balm, petunias, and morning glory.

Wildlife will often use an abundant food source almost exclusively when it becomes available. Good examples are nuts and fruits. Squirrels and Blue Jays store acorns, hickory nuts, and walnuts for later use. Deer and bears develop a thick layer of fat by feeding on acorns.

Insects are another vital food source, especially for songbirds, quail, and pheasants. If you use insecticides to kill pests on your property, be careful and use with restraint.

Providing a variety of foods is probably the most important part of your wildlife habitat. Selection can be made for a diversity of food types for plants that mature at different times or for those that retain their fruits well into winter.

If you can not plant trees or shrubs on your property, establish a year-round feeding and watering station and offer your wildlife sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, and perhaps some grains such as millet or grain sorghum.

Weather impacts mightily on food sources for wildlife. Early heavy spring rains and early frosts can curtail food production. An early snow can cover all the fruit and seeds that have fallen to the ground. Sleet and ice storms make it impossible for wildlife to find food.

Plant species also vary in production from one year to another. Sometimes acorns or walnuts are almost non-existent and in other years there is an abundant crop.

Cover
Cover is right behind food in importance. It is needed for wildlife to survive and to have protection from weather and predators. Cover is critically important for nesting and raising of young. It is also necessary when wildlife sleeps or rests.

Cover provides protection through concealment and impenetrability to predators. And cover provides protection from rain, snow, sleet, wind, heat, and cold. Many plants provide both cover and food.

There are many different kinds of cover. It can be trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, rock piles, brush piles, field crops such as corn, grain sorghum and soybeans, cut banks, hollow trees, bird nesting boxes, burrows, bridges, abandoned buildings, fence rows, and hedgerows.

It is important for cover to be close to food and water. The more exposed wildlife is, the higher the mortality rate from predators. Hedgerows are one of the most valuable types of cover, as they also provide food in a protected environment. Common hedgerow plants that establish themselves naturally are dogwood, honeysuckle, red bud, wild cherry, and, unfortunately for the property owner, poison ivy.

Water

Water is also essential for wildlife. They must have it to survive. Usually a pond or stream serves the purpose, along with rain collected in the hollows at the base of tree limbs or puddles left after a rain.

Plants also provide water. Rabbits and rodents obtain it by eating leaves. Mammals sometimes get it from dew on grass. And a large source comes from fruits and all types of berries which have a high water content.

One of your biggest challenges is to preserve and manage the water in your habitat where it exists and, if absent, add new sources such as ponds, fountains, or baths. Many hours of enjoyment can result from watching songbirds take a bath in your pond or bird bath.

Space
Each wildlife species has specific needs as far as territory or amount of space to roam in and to breed. A ruffed grouse or quail pair needs about 10 acres while others, such as wild turkey, may need 100 acres of woodland

Wood ducks and purple martins do not defend territory around their nests. But, bluebirds need at least 300 feet between nesting boxes and about five acres for each pair.

The first three habitat requirements — food, cover, and water–can be manipulated by man but space may be more difficult.

Increasing a species variety can be achieved by providing a mixture of habitats with plants, trees, and shrubs in various stages of development.

An example of species variety is when you want to attract all types of songbirds because you like to watch them eat at bird feeders located near your house. This is possible by providing different kinds of seed such as thistle, sunflower, or peanut.

Or, if you have an acreage or farm, maybe you want to increase the number of pheasant or quail on your property because you like to hunt.

In order to attract the birds, you might plant a few rows of corn, grain sorghum, or millet on your property, next to fence rows or hedgerows, and not harvest the grain in the fall so it can be eaten over the cold winter months by wildlife. Make sure you also have adequate water and cover available.

You should know the needs of each species you want to attract. The result can be a stable and varied wildlife population. To attract a specific species, you’ll need to manipulate vegetation so that the cover, food, and water are less limiting for that species. If the species you want to attract requires a variety of habitat needs, you’ll also be able to plan for that.

Grow A Garden, Help Wildlife

Friday, June 25th, 2010

By Fred J. Aun
THERE would be a lot of happy little critters if every homeowner in New Jersey with a backyard embraced the state’s nickname and planted a garden, especially one containing some native plants and a little pond.

The Schiff Nature Center in Mendham, NJ opened its new Native Plant and Butterfly Garden this year, and even director Tanya Bi signano–who thought she knew what to expect–was surprised by what happened once an artificial pond with recirculating water was installed.

“We put it in the end of March last year,” said Bisignano. “We got Gray Tree Frogs at the end of last summer.”

While she said she wasn’t surprised when the tree frogs showed up –since there are many of them in the area–she was amazed one day when, while working elsewhere in the garden, she heard Wood Frogs calling from the pond.

“Wood Frogs typically like vernal pools, not running water,” said Bi signano. The surprises didn’t end there. “Two weeks later, there were toads mating in the pond,” she said.

Amphibians are hardly the only creatures enjoying Schiff’s quarter- acre creation. Birds and insects, especially butterflies, are showing up in throngs.

“The idea was to create a garden containing plants native to New Jersey that would offer some kind of benefit to wildlife, whether it’s food plants for caterpillars or nectar for butterflies or blueberries for the birds,” said Bisignano.

The garden is divided into quarters, each featuring a different habitat. There’s a wetland plant section (with the artificial pond), a specialty plant section with orchids and some unusual ferns, a berry section for the birds and a butterfly meadow containing native flowers.

The Schiff garden proves you don’t need hundreds of acres to help wildlife. However, it’s important that the right plants–and some water, if possible–be included.

“It doesn’t matter what size yard you have,” said Bisignano. “There are always things you can do to benefit local wildlife, whether it’s planting native plants or not mowing certain sections of lawn and letting them revert back to more meadow-type habitats.”

Few will suggest subdivisions beat open spaces when it comes to wildlife habitat. But urban or suburban gardens can provide food and shelter that have been disappearing even in undeveloped areas.

“Because of deer over-browsing of native plants, there are declines in some food plants that different butterfly species use,” said Bisig nano. “That’s one benefit of enticing people to plant native pants in their yards.” –Star Ledger

Foreign Invaders Threaten Gardens, Woods

Friday, June 25th, 2010

By Jim Minick
ALIEN INVASIVES don’t fly into your backyard from Neptune, nor do they have three eyes or beam hostages up into their UFOs. But sometimes they do strike fear into the hearts of those who recognize them. Or they should.

Alien invasives, those in our backyards, woods, and waterways, are non-native plants, animals and insects that get a root-, claw-, or foothold on our land. They may appear innocuous, but in reality they prove harmful to human health, the environment, and our economy. By some estimates, invasives cost the United States over $100 billion a year.

Yet every spring, the annual crop of gardening catalogs arrives full of photographs inviting us to buy these plants. You can purchase Russian olive shrubs, mimosa trees or even bittersweet, a vine that scales trees and smothers them. One catalog boasts that it “produces sunny yellow seed pods that give way to bright red, decorative berries.” The songbirds and floral industry “love” this “attractive plant, and so will you!” All yours, two for $7.99.

Every time I see bittersweet I remember a friend who labored years to eradicate it from his farm. He cut trees, burned vines, and sweated to restore his land. Ironically, my friend’s work was funded by government grants. The paradox here is that prevention — stopping these species from entering our country — is cheaper and easier than eradication. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences verifies this.

Researchers analyzed Australia’s policies regarding invasive plants. They found a screening program that prevents entry of unwanted invasives and paid for itself in 10 years while protecting that country’s environment and saving its economy millions of dollars. As David Lodge, a co-author, commented, “Screening is the next step in improving U.S. policy.”

The savings often come from avoiding the expensive measures to eliminate pests. In 2003, for example, federal and state agencies spent more than $14 million to slow the spread of the gypsy moths in a 10-state area that included much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Yet, the United States has no invasive-plant screening program. Hence, I can buy that bittersweet if I want, regardless of the consequences.

Why all the worry? Because they can spread quickly and have few predators, these invaders can wreck an ecosystem. Take garlic mustard, a biennial herb now found throughout the mid-Atlantic. Garlic mustard has two unique qualities: it tolerates shade and it kills soil fungi.

This translates into an ability to spread into mature forests and create profound changes. Scientists discovered that the fungi that garlic mustard kills are essential to dominant hardwoods like maple and ash. Seedlings from these trees did not grow where garlic mustard established itself. So what will these forests look like in 50 years when no seedlings exist to replace canopy trees as they die?

Or take the nutria, a muskrat-like mammal imported from South America around 1900 for its fur, which never became popular. The nutria escaped, produced as prolifically as rabbits, and are now found along the Gulf Coast, the Atlantic seaboard, and in the Pacific Northwest. They have decimated thousands of acres of mid-Atlantic marshland. In a single Maryland county, experts estimate nutria destroyed more than 7,000 acres of salt marsh in the last 40 years.

Or consider the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny aphid-like insect from Japan that has already killed thousands of hemlock trees in the mid-Atlantic. These miniscule creatures suck the life out of 80-foot trees. Once struck, the hemlock usually dies within five years.

We already lost the chestnut tree to a foreign blight; what will happen to our cool mountain streams once the evergreen hemlock also disappears?
Though invasives have forever altered many ecosystems, we humans can save what’s left. For starters, Congress must create an effective screening program,like Australia’s, that outlaws the sale of invasive plants and animals.

Until Congress does this, people can educate themselves and others, eradicate these invaders from their property, and stop buying these plants. Likewise, citizens can urge their state legislators to enact restrictions. For example, Massachusetts has outlawed barberry and burning bush.

One last solution: eat a few of these foreigners. Joe Franke, author of “The Invasive Species Cookbook,” claims that “it’s time to put all of those grumbling stomachs … to work in a way that benefits biodiversity conservation.” Franke provides recipes for hundreds of ways to do your ecological duty while filling your bellies for free.

As Franke claims, “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”

Maybe it’s time. –-The Capital

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Minick teaches English at Radford University, writes a column for the Roanoke Times New River Current and is author of “Finding a Clear Path,” a book of essays.

Florida Couple Creates Oasis of Nature Room

Friday, June 25th, 2010

By Steven D. Barnes

DELTONA, FL– Driving through Christy and Dennis Jefferson’s Twin Lakes subdivision, it’s clear that few if any of the large oaks and pines remain.

The couple said that, as with many such neighborhoods, nearly all of the original vegetation was removed to make room for the tidy, middle-class homes set off from the street by large swaths of thirsty St. Augustine grass.

The front of the Jefferson house looks much like other homes in the neighborhood except for a colorful flower bed that is expanding slowly toward the street. It’s not likely to get much bigger, though, because homeowner-association rules require a uniform look anchored by the ubiquitous manicured lawn.

But out back, it’s a different story.

After two years of work, the couple has turned much of their lawn — which they said provided little wildlife value — into a colorful oasis that attracts butterflies, hummingbirds, snakes and birds of prey.

“There was no wildlife when we moved in — St. Augustine has no value for wildlife,” said Christy Jefferson, 60. “It might as well have been concrete.”

Now, when the couple gaze out from their dining room, they can watch as butterflies hover over colorful blazes of native beautyberry, firebush and porterweed, and predators and prey stake out their respective places in the web of life.

“We keep binoculars by the dining area. It’s fun to look out and see a hawk chasing a squirrel,” Christy Jefferson said.

The Jeffersons are among a growing number of people in Florida who are taking the popular hobby of gardening and landscaping a step further by creating habitat for animals displaced by development, according to Ray Jarrett, an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and president of the Lyonia Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.

“It’s been a little bit of a craze in the last few years,” he said. “In Florida, people are looking for plants that are less thirsty. St. Augustine is a beautiful grass, but it doesn’t have a great deal of wildlife value.”

Jarrett said individuals willing to landscape with native plants can have a significant effect on wildlife, especially where development has disrupted natural wildlife corridors.

“By putting in some native plants, you really fill in those voids,” he said. “It makes a huge difference.”

The Jeffersons say their garden, which measures about 35 by 80 ft., was designed specifically to attract wildlife. Using information from Web sites and other sources, they have created a habitat that, while not all native, provides all of the resources experts say are needed for wildlife.

Water drips from suspended containers into basins on the ground, and a mixture of flowering and berry-producing plants provide food. Man-made underground tunnels provide habitat for amphibians, and a pair of pines knocked down by the 2004 hurricanes lie where they fell, providing habitat for insects and amphibians, which in turn provide food for birds of prey.

“We kept the snags [fallen trees] because the birds love it,” she said. “The bugs live in them and the birds eat the bugs and other stuff eats the birds — it’s the whole food-web thing.”

The Jeffersons say that in addition to bringing hours of enjoyment, replacing the lawn with more drought-tolerant plants has helped them conserve water. More than half of all water used by households in the district goes to irrigating lawns, according to St. Johns River Water Management District spokesman Hank Largin.

Dennis Jefferson, 63, said that a smaller lawn also means less time spent mowing, something that leaves him more time to pursue other hobbies.

“If it was all grass, I’d be spending more time mowing,” he said. “Now that it’s established, it’s virtually maintenance-free.”

Maintenance and water-conservation issues aside, the couple said the greatest joy they get comes from knowing they are helping to protect animals that are struggling to adapt to a habitat that has been dramatically changed by humans.

“We love the wildlife,” Christy Jefferson said. “It’s like National Geographic in the backyard.” — Orlando Sentinel

Dead Trees Alive With Wildlife

Friday, June 25th, 2010

By Jason Smith
MANY SPECIES of woodland wildlife benefit from the presence of “den trees.” Den trees, or snags, are those standing trees that are used by animals for nesting, roosting, cover, food supply and other critical functions of basic survival.

These trees are often over-mature with many defects and no financial value from a forestry standpoint. However, from a wildlife standpoint, their value is life itself.

Wildlife that inhabit these den trees, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, bluebirds, squirrels, and raccoons, are called cavity nesters. The type of wildlife that utilize these den trees will also depend on the kind, size, and location of the den tree.

There are two basic kinds of den trees: hard or soft. Hard den trees have rotten centers with a solid exterior and a few limbs. These usually make the best den trees because the center can be easily excavated to form a home. Trees that usually form good cavities are large hardwoods that decay slowly; such as sugar maple, beech, white oak, hickory and sycamore. These trees are normally quite old and may look totally healthy, but with close inspection, in and around the base of the tree a cavity, will indicate its hollow nature.

Soft den trees have softer exterior wood, and usually have no limbs. These den trees usually make good foraging sites for insect-eating birds, as well as nesting sites for woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches. These trees often have short life spans and rot quickly. Aspen would be a perfect example of this type of tree.

Evergreen den trees do not usually last as long as hardwoods, and are usually not utilized for a den tree. However, eastern white pine makes an excellent nest and perch site for Bald Eagles and Osprey when located next to water.

In general, regardless of the kind of den tree, the larger it is the more wildlife it can support. The best den trees, live or dead, are over 20-inches diameter at breast height (DBH) with a den opening of four inches or more.

Keep an eye out for trees that appear to be potential den trees and you may get a chance to view an owl looking out at you or Flying Squirrels running around. Often times, these trees have large, sprawling branches, and often are fruit and nut producers. Missing or bare branches, fungal growth, wounds, and discolored bark are all signs of a dying tree. Also, look for woodpecker holes, which usually indicate a rotting core.

Fallen logs in the forest are snags that have toppled over or healthy trees that fell, usually by a great windstorm like we had last week around here. Once these trees fall to the ground, they do not lose their value to wildlife. Fallen logs in or near water provide cover for various species of fish. Male Ruffed Grouse use fallen logs in their attempts to attract females with their springtime courtship drumming.

Hollow logs will be used by a number of species for dens, especially in winter. If the log is big enough, foxes and even Black Bears will use it for this purpose. As the log becomes more decayed it becomes home to salamanders, moles, shrews, and many kinds of insects. Eventually, these fallen logs will regenerate the forest as they return to the soil, providing rich nutrients for new plants to grow.

Many times, den trees may be difficult to locate during your hike through the forest, but once you start learning what to look for, your chance of viewing wildlife greatly increases. Of course, you never have your camera when you need it! –Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Beech Bark Disease On Eco-Invader List

Friday, June 25th, 2010

By John Flesher
SENEY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, MI – Tracy Casselman runs a hand over the smooth, gray bark of an American beech, noting the scratch marks left by Black Bears that have clambered up the tree to munch nuts rich in fat and protein.

“Take a good look,” says Casselman, manager of the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. “In five years, these trees won‘t be here.”

Scientists expect the disease eventually will kill most of the state‘s beeches, changing the environment in ways as yet uncertain. For example, it could affect populations of bears and smaller mammals that feed on beech nuts — and that hunters enjoy pursuing.

Beech bark disease has been overshadowed by the Emerald Ash Borer, a murderous insect wreaking havoc on trees in southeastern Michigan and creeping steadily northward.

“When I was in college, I could name maybe half a dozen exotics,” Casselman says. “Now I could spend 10 minutes rattling them off. I just wonder when people are going to recognize the cost of bringing all these exotics in.”

Debate continues over preventing new invasions through measures such as limits on ballast water dumping by foreign ships in Great Lakes ports. Tighter controls on ornamental plant imports would be helpful, says Michael Lusk, invasive species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who inspected stricken beech trees at Seney last fall.

Beech bark disease slipped into North America in 1890, courtesy of ornamental trees shipped from Europe to Nova Scotia. Over the next century and more, it moved across eastern Canada and south to New England, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Spot infestations have turned up even farther away, including Ohio.

Once established, beech bark disease can be spread by the wind, birds and animals that brush against infected trees.

Beech bark disease actually happens in two stages.The scale injures the beeches, making them vulnerable to a fungus called nectria that kills tissue and often entire trees.

Heavy winds sometimes cause “beech snap,” in which weakened trunks break in half. To protect hikers, authorities removed more than 200 beeches along trails at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, says Deborah McCullough, forest entomology professor at Michigan State University.

“As far as trying to slow (the disease) or contain it, not much can be done,” McCullough says. DNR forest managers are thinning large beech stands in hopes of impeding its progress.

One hopeful sign: For unknown reasons, some beech are proving resistant to the disease. Scientists are studying them in hopes of developing hardier strains that could be planted to rejuvenate the species, Heyd says.

Beech are not the most prevalent of Michigan hardwoods. They‘re found most often within areas classified as maple-beech-birch, which make up about 7.2 million acres of the state‘s 20 million acres of forestland, Heyd says. In such areas, maple and birch tend to outnumber beech.

As a timber product, beech wood is used primarily for niche items such as bowls, says Tom Barnes, executive director of the Michigan Association of Timbermen. It sometimes turns up in furniture and flooring and is prized as firewood.

But its ecological value is considerable. Cavities in the older trees provide habitat for birds, Fishers and Pine Martens. Hawks and eagles perch on their stout limbs. Triangle-shaped beech nuts are a crucial nutrient for many birds and mammals, including squirrels, deer, foxes, Ruffed Grouse, ducks, turkeys, Blue Jays and warblers.

There‘s no readily available substitute for beech nuts as a food source in the 95,238-acre Seney wildlife refuge, a patchwork of woods, fields and wetlands teeming with waterfowl. Managers acknowledge they don‘t know how the loss of most or all beech trees would affect the refuge‘s animal populations.

“Bears are omnivores, so I don‘t expect a big impact on them,” staff forester Greg Corace says, gazing at a snapped-off beech in an area infested with the invasive scale. “But some species may be less adaptable. We just don‘t know what will happen, but we suspect it isn‘t going to be good.” –AP