Earth Week @ Riveredge

Happy Earth Week!  There’s lots going on at Riveredge this week, and we’d love to have you join us.

Come for a walk, listen to the sounds, and enjoy nature – that alone is a great way to celebrate the earth this week.

If you’d like to do something a bit more, we  have wonderful events coming up this week (follow the links for more information about each one)…

  • A naturalist led walk on Friday at 1 pm, “Gone Hiking” – FREE for members and only $5 for non members
  • A showing of “Extreme Ice” on Friday night (a spectacular film about the melting of the glaciers) – FREE
  • And our ever popular “Work and Learn” earth day morning on Saturday – pick from all kinds of projects to help out nature and Riveredge during the morning (we have projects for all ages) and it’s followed up by a wonderful spaghetti lunch and bat program for all! FREE!

Join us for Earth Week – give time to nature and you will receive more than you can imagine!

 

Youth Tree Climbing Club @ Riveredge

Youth Tree Climbing Club

Our club is FULL for 2014!  Please check out our calendar of events to find an upcoming open tree climb.  We’d love to have you in the trees with us this season!

We are so excited about our brand new tree climbing programs that we’ve even decided to start a youth tree climbing club!  This is a pretty special experience – one where the members will climb together from June – October, form a tight knit community, and have all kinds of one-of-a-kind fun outdoors while developing a new skill, improving their fitness, and building relationships with our natural world.  Discover trees all over Riveredge, pick your own special “tree name,” and play fun games in the tree during each club meeting.  Learn more about tree climbing at Riveredge on our webpage. Youth age 7 years and above are welcome to join.

Club Membership Includes: 5 climbing days (parents and family members can climb too during the kick off meeting in June and the closing party in October), use of all equipment, tree climbing club membership card, recognition on the tree climbing club “trunk of fame” which will be permanently installed at the end of the climbing season at Riveredge.

Special Inaugural Year Perks: This year, the club members will determine the official club name and design the special tree climbing t-shirts!

Meeting Dates & Times:

  • Sunday, June 8th: 11:30 – 2:00 pm (includes a chance for family members to climb and a potluck picnic for all!)
  • Sunday, July 13th: 3:00 – 5:30 pm
  • Sunday, August 10th: 3:00 – 5:30 pm
  • Sunday, September 14th: 3:00 – 5:30 pm
  • Sunday, October 12th: 2:00 – 5:00 pm (end of year celebration: family members may climb and another potluck picnic for all!)

Price: $100 per youth member (Must be a Riveredge member to join, not a member?  Your whole family can join for as little as $40)

Can’t make a meeting or one gets rained out?  Club members who miss a meeting can sign up for an open climb as a “make-up” for the meeting missed (maximum of 2 times per season)

To enroll, contact the club leader, Jessica Jens (also the Executive Director of Riveredge) at jjens@riveredge.us/262-375-2715

Bug o’the Week – Basic Bug Design, exoskeletons

Howdy, BugFans,

 

This episode is a little chewier than usual – we’re going to plunge deep into science, but we’ll bob back up to the surface again in no time at all.  And yes, there will be a quiz.

 

Bugs!  One big difference between them and us (besides the leg count) is that they are soft on the inside and hard on the outside and we are the opposite.  Our endo – internal – skeleton holds us up and gives our muscles places to attach, which, in turn, allows us to move.  Their exo – external – skeleton does the same.  The body wall of a bug is a boneless tube, but rather than being smooth on the inside like a tennis ball can, the interior has ridges and knobs that strengthen it and provide places of attachment for the muscles.  The exoskeleton offers protection from predators, parasites, and excess water loss or gain,

 

As usual, the system is not as simple as it looks at first glance.  Starting on the outside and working our way down, the top layer is the thin epicuticle, the insect’s first/last line of defense against outside water getting in/interior water getting out.  The epicuticle is covered by wax, and the wax by a “cement layer” that keeps the wax intact.

 

Just below the epicuticle is the procuticle (which is comprised of an upper exocuticle and a lower endocuticle).  The thick procuticle contains protein strands woven together with a tough material called chitin (not chiton, which is a marine invertebrate).  The exocuticle layer can be quite stiff (sclerotized) because its proteins are hardened, while the endocuticle layer is more flexible because its protein is unhardened (we’ll see why that’s important in a minute).  Cuticle covers the outside of the insect, plus the fore and aft ends of its digestive tract, and it lines the tracheal/breathing system, too.  An insect’s color, both pigmented color and structural color (the layers of tiny, reflective plates that cause iridescence) is found in the procuticle layer.

 

Below the cuticle layers is the epidermis/hypodermis, a living, cellular layer that secretes the non-living cuticle that lies above it.  Sensory hairs originate in this layer and poke up through cuticle; the hairs give information to nerves at their base.

 

The innermost layer of the endoskeleton is the basement membrane, which supports the epidermis and separates the exoskeleton from the body cavity.

 

Exoskeleton——1. Thin, waxy epicuticle   (outside layer)

2. Chitonous procuticle—–rigid exocuticle

-softer endocuticle

3. Epidermis/hypodermis

4. Basement membrane   (inside layer)

 

Cuticle is made of chitin, and chitin (a derivative of glucose) is pretty interesting stuff.  It can be flexible (in its pure form) or stiff (mineralized with calcium carbonate, which can come from the water that surrounds an aquatic insect or from a terrestrial insect’s food).  Invertebrates like millipedes, whose exoskeletons are “high maintenance” due to the wear and tear of simply being a millipede, are tied to habitats with lots of calcium in the soil.  The muscle attachments within a bug’s body are made of a stretchy form of chitin that is six times stronger than human tendons.  Chitin is impervious to alcohol, weak acids and bases, and digestive juices, but is susceptible to some bacterial action.

 

Armored caterpillars, anyone?  “Hard on the outside” is a relative term.  Alert BugFans have probably been thinking, “But wait! – Not all insects are created equal.  A moth is much more squish-able than a beetle” (Well, if BugFans are thinking that, the BugLady hopes it is purely theoretical).  It turns out that not all cuticle is created equal, either.  The calcium carbonate and other substances that are mixed with chitin to form the exocuticle make it more rigid; the endocuticle is predominantly chitin, and so is softer.  An insect’s relative “softness” depends on whether the endocuticle or exocuticle predominates.  Soft-bodied insects or life stages (like larvae) have a higher percent of endocuticle in their exoskeletons.

 

The insect’s legs are covered by mineralized (hard) cuticle, but its leg joints (and the joints between the body segments) are made of the leathery form of chitin.  An insect’s abdominal segments typically have one hard “plate” across the top, one on each side, and several across the underside, and flexible cuticle between the plates does allow for expansion – think of a female mosquito feeding or the very gravid beetle pictured here.

x beetle gravid13 1

Very gravid beetle

 

The problem is that an exoskeleton, even though it’s somewhat flexible, can’t grow larger.  In order to get bigger, an insect must molt (or moult, if you’re British). The Greeks called it “ecdysis” (to take or to strip off) (hence the classy term “ecdysist”).

 

Molting begins with a “quiet time,” during which the epidermis builds a new epicuticle and exocuticle under the old, separates its outer self (the old, top cuticle layers) from its inner self (the new), and then uses a special molting fluid (enzyme) to dissolve its endocuticle.  It reabsorbs/recycles needed minerals from the old endocuticle to use in building the new one.  The insect sheds the old cuticle by pumping up its head and thorax with fluid or air or by increasing its blood pressure.  The “skin” splits at its weakest spot, often along the back of the thorax, and the “new” bug pulls itself out (a shed skin is called an exuvia; the plural is exuviae).  The BugLady loves finding these “empty insects” – complete right down to their eye coverings.

 

The wrinkled, new cuticle is, temporarily, so soft that the insect is virtually helpless – a limp body on rubber legs.  The insect pumps air or water under the cuticle to expand it, and after a few hours, the cuticle hardens.  The bug eats until its new suit becomes too tight (and, to recover minerals, many insects start by eating the old suit), and then the process starts again.  Most insects (except silverfish and bristletails) molt five to seven times, and only during their immature stages.  Molting as adults would be hard to accomplish without damaging the wings (although mayflies manage to pull it off on their final molt).  Immediately post-molt, insects are pale, and it may take a few weeks for their colors to “set.” Newly-molted box elder bugs are salmon in color until they darken.  Over a series of molts, an immature insect can sometimes regenerate lost or damaged limbs.

Box elder bug

Newly molted box elder bug

An insect that can’t molt successfully is doomed to suffocate within its old skin (some pesticides chemically prevent molting), but the act of molting is dangerous, too.  The dragonfly pictured here (with a marsh fly sitting on it) apparently did not have enough strength to emerge as an adult. The BugLady isn’t sure about the grasshopper, which seemed to be stalled when she photographed it but was gone the next day (or maybe some bird enjoyed a feast).  Silverfish will cannibalize their brethren if they discover them in mid-molt.  One study put molting mortality at 80% to 90% (if Mother Nature didn’t come up with these mortality factors at all stages of the game, think how many insects would there be!).

Dragonfly

Dragonfly – dead

 

Grasshopper molting

Grasshopper molting

Although a stronger exoskeleton can result in a larger species, one drawback of bonelessness is that you just can’t get very big – unless you are supported by water (just ask the Giant Squid).

 

The good news is that even if you didn’t ace the quiz, you can appreciate the magic of exuviae when you find them.

 

The BugLady

Bug o’ the Week – Spotted Nomad Bee

Howdy, BugFans,

 

Some brave pussy willows were peeking out from behind their bud scales recently, reminding the BugLady that pussy willows are grand for bug watching in the early days of spring.  https://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/pw-pollinators.cfm (it’s the male catkins, fuzzy gray in their early stages, that give the plant its popular name; their fuzz protects these early bloomers against the cold).  The lovely little bee that is admiring the pussy willows is the Spotted nomad bee (Nomada maculata) (probably).

 

The BugLady has been wading around in the murky pool of bee taxonomy again.  She is sure that BugFans recall the basics of classification – progressing from largest/broadest taxonomic grouping to the narrowest/most specific, organisms are placed in a Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species.  Some groups of insects are so complicated that further breakdown is needed in between those familiar landmarks, so we get subfamilies and tribes and subgenera and other constructions (Remember – this is all so that their classification makes sense in our eyes – the organisms themselves know who they are).

 

The bottom line is that the SNB, which is in the big, bee family Apidae, is in the subfamily Nomadinae (Cuckoo bees), and not in the subfamily Apinae, which contains lots of our familiar bees like honey, bumble, carpenter, sweat, digger, and long-horned bees (all of previous BOTW fame).  Cuckoo bees are found worldwide.

 

The BugLady’s research became extra knotty because the term “cuckoo bee” refers to a lifestyle (not a mental state) that is practiced across a variety of families of bees, many of which are in the subfamily Apinae and which are called, generically, “cuckoo bees.”  The BugLady built up a good head of research steam and then realized (to mix a whole bunch of metaphors) that she was fishing in the wrong pool.

 

The Nomada (nomad/roaming bees), one of the largest genera in the Nomadinae subfamily, are a confusing bunch taxonomically.  There are about 300 species in North America and 700 species worldwide.  The SNB belongs to an overlapping continuum of species named the Nomada ruficornis species group.  According to University Studies, published by the University of Nebraska (Lincoln campus) in 1912, “It might also be noted in passing that when the genus Nomada is monographed, it will be necessary for the taxonomist to have a very large amount of material from many localities to discover the truth in the apparently very great individual and geographic variation, and great care must be exercised in the proper matching of the sexes.  Undoubtedly when this is done, the current number of nominal species will be greatly reduced.”

 

The genus Nomada is, in a broad sense, comprised of a large complex of forms, over 270 named species and subspecies from North America alone……The group as a whole seems to intergrade at various points in practically every promising character which has been employed and tested, so that an absolute separation on these characters would place closely allied forms wide apart and bring together forms quite unalike …….the possibility of dividing Nomada into good genera seems quite remote.”

 

Why are they called cuckoo bees?  Because like European (but not North American) cuckoo birds, they leave their eggs in someone else’s nest (generally that of a small, solitary, ground or wood-nesting bee) instead of building their own.  Some species of Nomada are highly specialized, invading the nest of only a single host species.  The SMB parasitizes the nests of Andrena mining bees and some Halictid sweat bees; and both its geographic range and its flight season match that of its hosts.

 

A female SNB flies low over the ground, watching for her cousins to exit their carefully crafted tunnels in dirt or wood; searching for the scent laid down by the helpful male SNB, who hunts for tunnels in her behalf and who marks them for her with pheromones.  The host bee constructs small chambers along the sides of her tunnel, provisioning each cell with pollen to feed the larva that will emerge from the single egg she’ll lay there.  The female NB waits for the tunnel’s owner to leave on a collecting trip and zips in, inserting several small eggs into the wall of a finished or almost-finished chamber.

 

Nomad bees are kleptoparasites/cleptoparasites, which means that their offspring will steal the cache of food supplies that the host left for her own larvae.  In fact, the first NB egg that hatches dispatches its own siblings before it eats the food supply and then kills and eats the host larva.  A first instar NB larva (an instar is the feeding stage before a molt) is equipped with heavy mandibles that helps it kill its rivals.  The NB larva pupates in the tunnel and emerges in spring with what is left of the host bees from other cells.

 

Adults can be found nectaring on flowers in a characteristic “butts-up” position.  Because they do not collect pollen for their young, female NBs are relatively hairless and they lack the pollen-carrying structures that their hosts have.  Males are smaller and hairier than females.

 

The BugLady

mystery bug14 1

FYI, the BugLady photographed this mystery bug in the Bog on Sunday, near a pool of melt water.  What could it be?

Bug o’ the Week – Camouflage 102 – Mimicry

Greetings, BugFans,

Where were we?  Oh, yes – exploring the magic of camouflage.  Crypsis (of previous BOTW fame) involves melting into the background; the receiver of the signal – the predator – can’t reliably pick its prey out from the background.  Mimicry is about being a copycat; imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but this is about survival.  In mimicry, the predator sees something that it misidentifies.  An organism copies the appearance of another organism, and maybe its behavior, sound or smell, as well.  According to Wikipedia, mimicry is “the similarity of one species to another which protects one or both.”  Insects make up a large percentage of organisms that practice the various arts of camouflage.

  • In most cases of mimicry, Species B is saved from predators because of its resemblance to some other potential prey (Species A) that their mutual predator avoids, or because of scary-looking markings that make the predator think twice.  In MIMESIS (a transitional area between mimicry and crypsis), the mimic looks like something that the predator has no interest in.  Since bloodthirsty predators don’t look twice at plant parts, why not look “plant-ish” and hide in plain sight like twig-imitating caterpillars, leaf-mimic planthoppers, and thorn-like treehoppers (even on plants that don’t grow thorns)?
  • DEFENSIVE/PROTECTIVE MIMICRY: Something that is harmless sends out the same signals as something that is harmful (“a sheep in wolf’s clothing”).  In Batesian mimicry: (named after English scientist Henry Walter Bates) an animal protects itself by cashing in on another animal’s defense system.  Stinging and toxic species wear bright (aposematic) colors that forewarn predators, and their copycats mimic that coloration.  Harmless flower flies and a number of long-horned beetles wear the yellow and black of wasps and bees; box elder bugs are said to mimic milkweed bugs.

The monarch-viceroy story has long been held up as the poster child for Batesian mimicry.  Birds shy away from monarch caterpillars and butterflies because they are poisonous, so imitating a monarch is a good thing, and the (allegedly wholesome) viceroy makes a grand job of it.  But lately, scientists have theorized that viceroys don’t taste so good either.  Their caterpillars eat willow leaves, which can be very bitter, so this is probably Mullerian mimicry (named after German naturalist Fritz Muller ((there should be an umlaut over the “u” but the BugLady can’t find her umlaut setting), in which two critters, possibly at different points on the noxiousness continuum, imitate each other.  Both species benefit by the reinforcement that a larger pool of “teachers” provides.

 

  • AGGRESSIVE MIMICRY: Something that is harmful sends out the same signals as something that is harmless.  Some robber flies are bumblebee mimics (we don’t mess with bumblebees, but they are considered a harmless presence by other insects of the flower tops).  Fireflies have species-specific light signals that allow flying males and earthbound females to find each other.  After a successful liaison, female lightning beetles in the genus Photinus will “change their tune,” altering their Morse code to that of another species.  When an optimistic male approaches with romance on his mind, she will eat him – a protein shake for an expectant Mom.
  • AUTOMIMICRY: The animal imitates a part of its own body.  The tails of hairstreak and swallowtail butterflies are said to mimic antennae, fooling predators into grabbing the wrong (and more expendable) part of the butterfly.  Eyespots may serve the same function, misdirecting a predator that’s aiming at its head; and they may also scare would-be predators by making them think they’ve tangled with a much larger beast.  Monarch caterpillars practice a form of automimicry.  Not all species of milkweed are equally poisonous, and caterpillars that feed on the different species of milkweed vary in their toxicity.  The caterpillars advertise their noxiousness with their bright colors, and birds avoid them, one and all; the less toxic larvae are protected by the reputation of the more toxic larvae.

Does it work?  Not 100% – if it did, we’d be hip-deep in insects.  Songbirds eat walking sticks and black swallowtail caterpillars; aquatic predators gulp phantom midge larvae; kestrels pounce on locusts.  And, of course, in order to find out that eating monarch caterpillars makes you sick, you have to eat a monarch caterpillar.  There’s an old saying that covers it – “Nature is careful of the species but careless of the individual.”

 

And, for all the energy Mother Nature puts into camouflage, many insects don’t bother with it.  Why?

 

By the way – plants mimic, too.  Orchids, especially, are great tricksters.

 

The BugLady

Collaboration for the Greater Good

In honor of Earth Day, we, the executive directors of four local nature & ecology centers, have come together to host a talk with Gordon Hempton, Emmy-award winning acoustic ecologist and author. Having circled the globe in pursuit of the Earth’s rarest natural sounds, Mr. Hempton offers a new take on conservation: preserving the quiet places in the world.

Mr. Hempton will speak at Mequon Nature Preserve on April 22 at 7:00 p.m. and will provide a private ‘Sound Tour’ of the lands managed by Milwaukee’s four non-profit nature centers in the days following for donors to the newly launched Collaborative Fund.

The April 22nd talk is open to the public.  For more information, visit our calendar of events.

We are excited about this opportunity to communicate our shared interests. With unique geography, flora, and fauna, each nature center in Greater Milwaukee contributes to an understanding of the larger ecosystem of southeastern Wisconsin. Where Schlitz Audubon Nature Center has Lake Michigan, Urban Ecology Center has the Milwaukee River. Where Mequon Nature Preserve has the start of a restored prairie and pristine wetlands, Riveredge has a mature native Wisconsin prairie and forest. Our differences are our strengths; each of us represents a unique slice of wild Wisconsin. And, yet, as unique as we are, we are unified by a common goal to connect people to the natural world.

There is more to come on this collaboration and its goals for making a difference throughout southeast Wisconsin.

If you have ideas you’d like to share, feel free to contact one of the Executive Directors at any of the participating nature centers.   I, for one, would love to hear your ideas on how our joint efforts can be best used to promote positive change in our communities.

– Jessica Jens, Riveredge Nature Center Executive Director

jjens@riveredge.us, 262-416-1068

Bird Photography Tips

Hey Birders & Photographers (or wanna-be’s of any type) – we have a special treat for you Tuesday, offered by the Photo Club at Riveredge:

Photographers Anonymous Bird Photography (mini seminar)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 7:00-9:00 p.m. in the Riveredge barn

Birds are some of the most beautiful and fascinating creatures in the world yet they’re among the hardest to capture well on film.  Join bird photographer Greg Yahr as he shares some helpful tips on how to improve your bird photography.  Greg is the president of the Photo Club and has given this seminar to both the Camera Clinque in West Bend and the Menomonee Falls Camera Club where it was well received.

No fee & no registration necessary.

This meeting is all about taking pictures of birds! Lots of great tips and tricks will be shared along with some fantastic bird pictures. The Photo Club brings together those who enjoy photography and wish to take better pictures through practice. Meetings are free and open to the public, and you’ll be welcomed as a photographer, regardless of your skill level. They are informal and include time for “shop talk” and networking with other members. Bring any pictures you want to share (prints, album, or digital files on a USB flash drive). You do not need to bring your camera equipment or a computer.

Remembering Father Fire

Riveredge lost a dear friend during this year’s maple sugarin’ season, Ernie Pochert.  In remembrance, we offer this memoir to Ernie…. to “Father Fire.”

Father Fire

The hum of a car driving up the winding approach to the old stone house was almost a surprise.   A sunny and warm spring afternoon was a great day for an Open House, but so far no one had appeared.  I was new to the real estate business in the early 1980s and this was my first listing—a beautiful, cozy, historic old stone house on a curvy road, perfectly named Hilly Lane, way out in the country. A car door thunked shut and I stepped to the door to meet a slight, trim, grey-haired man with merry, smiling eyes.  He introduced himself, Ernie, and his friendly wife, Loretta. 

Old houses drew them out each Sunday on their search for just the right one.  I was hoping  Hilly Lane was a fit.  It wasn’t.  But this visit was the beginning of a long, pleasant, wide-ranging search together for their next home.

They lived on a hilltop in a modern house.  From their comfortable home they could see sunrises and sunsets, look down on open fields and see deer grazing, even though the city wasn’t far away.

Ernie was recently retired from the phone company, AT&T.  Their family was grown and they were ready for a change and willing to move almost anywhere in the area.  Not a single old farmhouse or stone house for sale had escaped Ernie’s notice. 

We fell into a pattern.  I called him each week with new listings.  He called me with FSBO’s (For Sale by Owners.)  Soon we were running out of old houses to look at.  A week or two might go by without a new one being listed. In the meantime they got ready to put their home on the market .

One afternoon we found it!  The perfect place was an old farmhouse with many nooks and crannies and gleaming wooden floors, sitting in the midst of fields and trees.  Ernie and Loretta were excited and we wrote an offer.  We had noticed some foam insulation in the basement.  That would need to be checked out.  

In the early ‘80s there was a ban on UFFI , a type of expanding foam used in the late ‘70s to insulate hard to reach places.  In response to the oil crisis in the ‘70s, people began paying attention to insulation as possible relief from the high oil costs.  People claimed that Urea Formaldehyde Foam insulation made them sick.  The ban was lifted in 1983, but the stigma created by the claims put it out of use.  

The news came back about their farmhouse.  The basement insulation was UFFI.  What a disappointment.  It was a deal breaker.  We needed to start over, but at the moment there was nothing to look at.

About a month later I saw a new listing on the border of Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg, but it was a ranch style—not old historic or stone.  I called to tell them about it, selling the setting, the trees and the added 370 acres of Riveredge.  It was the opposite setting of their hilltop home as this one was tucked in amongst trees.  Ernie always wanted to go house hunting.   There hadn’t been much activity lately so he said, “Let’s take a look.”

To my surprise, this was the house!  They loved it, even as they talked about redoing wallpaper and making some changes.  There was the added attraction of a small cabin-like house on the property that would be perfect for their daughter, Carol.  We wrote an offer, put their house up for sale and closed the transaction. Loretta gave me a framed homemade needlepoint of an antique coat rack—“Home is where you hang your hat.”   My gift to them was a membership to the Nature Center next door.

Soon after, Ernie became a familiar sight at Riveredge, making friends, and helping with any odd job.  A group of men called “Don’s Boys”  came each week to help with sanctuary maintenance.    Ernie could walk over any time and join them.

When Maple Sugaring time came in late February, Ernie was at the sugar bush every day, helping with the fire and making pancakes for the school children.  He also began tapping the trees in his own yard.

Volunteers often wore twine necklaces with large wooden circles.  They had names like Big Sap, Maple Mama, Syrup Slurper, Pickle Puss and Father Fire.   Ernie began to regularly wear Father Fire. 

He and the sanctuary manager, Don Gilmore, also known as Big Sap,  had such good chemistry.  An entertaining give and take developed between them as part of the school program at the evaporator.  Ernie grew a trim grey beard and really looked like an ageless, diminutive Father Christmas, still with the twinkling eye.  He became the master of the wood fire grill, knowing when it was just right for cooking the pancakes.  He made thousands over the years.

The Riveredge teachers started to incorporate Father Fire into our dialogue when we approached the Sugar Shack.  The first half of the class was spent in the woods, learning to identify maples and then tapping a tree.  The second half began when we gathered near the Sugar Shack to see how maple syrup is made.  The highlight at the end is one of Ernie’s pancakes, maple syrup and a pickle. 

As we leave the woods and approach the Sugar Shack, we stop the children and tell them that Father Fire is up there waiting for us, but he is VERY old and hard of hearing.  We don’t want to startle him and need to let him know we are coming.  The children all call out as loud as they can, “Father Fire, are you ready?”  Big Sap usually calls back to say that isn’t loud enough for Father Fire.  He can’t hear. They then muster up all their loud voices and call again.  Finally they get their answer, “Father Fire says come on up.”

The joking continues.  Big Sap tells the children that Father Fire takes a bath in Maple syrup and that’s the reason he doesn’t look like he’s over 100 years old.  The syrup acts like the beauty creams that their moms and sisters use.  The reason he doesn’t hear very well is that the maple syrup baths clog his ears.   Then Ernie perks up and approaches the children to ask, “Is he talking about me?  Don’t believe what he tells you or you won’t get any pancakes.”  By this time there are smiles all around, from the kids, the teachers and the chaperones.  It’s all fun, which lasts until the children are on their way and call out a loud, “Thank you, Father Fire.”  Ernie waves to them and says, “I always can hear the Thank Yous.”

A special treat at the Sugar Shack is sap tea.  The fresh sap collected from the trees is boiled and boiled and boiled.  It becomes sweeter as the water evaporates.  After the children leave, Ernie offers tea, knowing exactly which part of the paneled boiling pan has the perfect sweetness.  We offer a cup and he scoops the steaming sap according to our preference—very sweet, not so sweet.  A plain old Lipton tea bag completes this cup of winter cheer.  We all linger and chat, holding our tea in gloved hands, catching up on the outside world.  Over the years we learn that Ernie loves his cabin up north; he still looks at old houses for sale; his granddaughter marries a classmate of my daughter’s;  a great grandchild is born and Loretta is battling diabetes and loses a lower leg.  Ernie always has a smile, but sometimes it’s a sad one. 

Then came the day that Loretta didn’t wake up from a nap.  She had slipped quietly away and Ernie was alone in the house in the woods.   

In March of this year, I took my group of children to the fire, but Ernie wasn’t there.  His health had taken a turn for the worse. There were several Father Fires doing it their own way.  They seemed much too young.  The pancakes were made on a gas grill.   For awhile some were a little burned. The “script” didn’t work in the same way.  The children still had a good time, but many classroom teachers remembered the old Father Fire and missed him, just as we did.

After the Sugaring season, at a special volunteer day, the name and tag of Father Fire was officially retired in Ernie’s honor, after more than 20 years.  He was there to accept the Thank You’s. 

This fall Ernie had a stroke.  I hear that the little house in the woods will soon be for sale, but this time it will have some interesting history of its own. “ Once upon a time there was a Father Fire…………”

Sue Karlman

December 2009

Bug o’ the Week – Water Lily Planthopper

Salutations, BugFans,

 

The water lily community has many stories to tell, but the BugLady will wait until water lily season to tell most of them.  Here’s a “teaser” about some awesome little bugs that she met for the first time last summer.  They are Water lily/Pond lily Planthoppers (Megamelus davisi), known in more rarified circles as the Davis’s Megamelus.

 

At first, the BugLady thought they were nymphs, because of their short wing pads, but these are adults.  Adult WLPs come in either reduced-winged (brachypterous) or long-winged models (there’s a longer-winged adult on the left side in one of the pictures), and the brachypterous form seems to predominate.  A few of the water lilies hosted masses of WLPs, just before the leaves started to disintegrate; they disappeared within a week or so, but whether they lived out their appointed days or simply moved around a bit, the BugLady cannot say.

 

WLPs are found in the eastern half of the US (and the species has made a surprise appearance in Hawaii).  They like ponds and extremely slow streams where white water lilies (genus Nymphaea) grow, and they are also found on the unrelated broad-leaved pondweed (Potamogeton natans).  Most of their relatives in the family Delphacidae feed on grasses, but WLPs eat any part of the water lilies or pondweeds that stick up above the water line.  Their nymphs are meals for ravenous water treaders (Mesovelia sp.), and their eggs are parasitized by an assortment of flies and wasps.  One wasp, with the lovely name of Polynema ema (yes, they did make that up), has a range that exactly matches that of the WLP, having been introduced to Hawaii to eat WLPs there.  They are also noted in a website dedicated to “Flyfishing Entomology,” although duplicating a fish food that is less than a quarter-inch long would take dedication, indeed.

 

So, what is this little critter famous for?

 

First, members of the genus are outfitted with spurs on their hind tibias (“shins”), and in the WLP, the spurs are described as “large,” “moveable,” and even “paddle-like” flaps (calcars).  There are any number of guesses about what these flaps do for the WLP.  Are they oars that help WLPs move across the water to new plants?  Are they skates?  Maybe, according to a note in the 1923 “Bulletin – State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut,” “its large spurs undoubtedly support it when, by a mischance, it lands on the water.”  Or, queried the “Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences” (Vol. 5, 1886 – 97), “Is not the large, foliaceous spur in this species an adaptation of Nature to enable these insects to leap more readily from the surface of the water, about which they make their home?

 

Second, in the “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” category, consider the planthopper-frog connection that has been documented in New York State.  Northern cricket frogs (Acris crepitans) love to eat WLPs during the summer (they like aquatic springtails, too).  WLPs are also the primary food of cricket frogs as the frogs prepare for their own fall migrations to wintering sites.  According to the terrific New York State Conservationist magazine, “a single cricket frog might spend several hours on one lily pad, devouring planthoppers as they move by the thousands over a lily pad.”

 

In a paper called “Species decline in an outwardly healthy habitat,” forensic ecologist Jay Westerveld describes the crash of Northern cricket frog populations over much of New York State.  It seems that aerial spraying for gypsy moths in the 1970’s wiped out entire populations of WLPs.  When cricket frog numbers plummeted, investigators noted that they could find no WLPs where they had once been plentiful.  Since spraying isn’t done over public water supply areas, pockets of cricket frogs remain in some wetlands adjacent to reservoirs.  Westervelt makes the point that the WLP is a habitat specialist, and the Northern cricket frog is a food specialist.  Because the majority of WLPs are wingless, natural recolonization by the species is painfully slow, and the bugs may need to be re-introduced in order for the frog to rebound.

 

Forensic ecologist.  The BugLady is visualizing the TV series.

 

The BugLady

Bug of the Week – Fleas

Howdy BugFans,

 

The BugLady was sitting in an office watching someone scratching their leg the other day, and her first thought (occupational hazard) was “fleas.”  She hopes you enjoy this slightly reworked BOTW from four years ago.

 

Everyone’s heard a story about some poor soul who walks into their home after a two-week vacation and is immediately covered with fleas halfway to their knees (which is as high as the fleas could make it on the first leap).  This is called a “house infestation.”  The BugLady’s dog happily contributed this “single” flea (there’s actually no such thing as a single flea), and the BugLady popped it into the freezer to slow it down so she could photograph it.

 

Yes, for a variety of very good reasons they are major pests.  But, they are magnificently adapted pests, perfectly designed to live where they live (on mammals and birds) and do what they do (suck blood), and for this, they deserve a small (but grudging) round of applause.

 

Design specs: Fleas are very small and are laterally flattened – look at a flea head-on and it’s easy to miss.  Its slim body slips between the feathers or the dense fur of its host, and it’s covered with backward-pointing spines, so it’s hard to dislodge. Streamlined?  Its antennae are tucked away in grooves on a flea’s head, and it has no wings to get hung-up as it darts around.  Need to change hosts?  A flea can leap 7 inches vertically and 12 inches horizontally (200X its body length) from one warm body to the next.  Strong?  One source equates their strength to that of a human pulling 2 elephants around.  Swat-able?  Better swat hard; their exoskeletons are tough.  Bloodthirsty?  In aid of getting that all-important blood meal, flea mouthparts come equipped with 3 “piercing stylets.”

 

Fleas belong to the insect order Siphonaptera, from “siphon” (tube) plus “aptera” (wingless).  Fleas are secondarily wingless, meaning that the wings that their ancestors once had have since been lost.  Insects that are secondarily wingless have developed a lifestyle in which they are “better off” without wings.

 

Thousands of species of fleas have been identified worldwide, but the fleas that people most often encounter tend to be in the family Pulicidae.  They may have names like dog flea, cat flea, and human flea, but most don’t care about the taxonomy of their host as long as it’s warm-blooded.  The human flea, Pulex irritans, is more common on non-humans like pigs, rodents, deer, mules, and household pets, and the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) is the common indoor flea on both dogs and cats (cat fleas may bite us, but they don’t live on us).

 

A flea’s life cycle is also brilliantly fine-tuned for survival.  Flea larvae are tiny, blind, legless, wormlike scavengers that develop in dark, humid places like cracks on the floor, animal nests, bedding, etc.  There they eat organic matter including dead insects, dandruff, exfoliated skin, shed insect exoskeletons, plant material, and flea feces (a list that makes even the BugLady reach for the vacuum).  The feces of adult fleas, high in undigested blood, are the base of a larval flea’s food pyramid.  After a week or two as larvae, they spin silken pupal cases.  The silk is “tacky” and picks up debris, camouflaging the cocoon.  Fleas spend a week or two as pupae.  They may hatch immediately, or they may remain dormant in their pupal cases until they sense the approach of a host, whether by vibration, sound, heat or by the host’s exhalations.  If the host has been away from home for a while, all the pupal cases that await its return will contain adult fleas, and they’ll all pop out of the birthday cake at once.  Presto – instant infestation.

 

The (admirably) devious rabbit flea monitors the hormone level of its bunny host, and when her EPT kit indicates that the rabbit is about to give birth, the flea starts manufacturing eggs.  These she lays on the baby bunnies before migrating back to Mom and waiting for the next litter.  One reference said that humans are the only primate that entertains fleas, because humans are the only primate that beds down in the same spot night after night, allowing larvae the opportunity to return to their host’s body as adults.

 

An adult flea must “break its fast” within a week of emerging from its pupal case, but after that first meal, a flea can fast for months.  Without a blood meal, fleas can’t reproduce.  In other blood-sucking species, like mosquitoes, only the female must drink blood and the male is a vegetarian.  The BugLady didn’t find any mention of this kind of dimorphism in fleas.  A feeding flea uses its razor-sharp maxillae (mouthparts) to pierce the skin, administers a dab of flea spit which acts as an anticoagulant, and siphons out blood with tube-like mouthparts.  It may siphon blood for as long as 4 hours at a sitting, but most of that volume goes straight through it and out the other end, released onto the host’s bedding to nourish the next generation that is lurking there.

 

Fleas are disease vectors that can spread typhus, tularemia, dog tapeworms, and plague (or it may not be carrying any of those diseases).  Like mosquitoes, fleas may be more attracted to some people than to others.  If someone says that they are a flea magnet, it might be that fleas truly do seek them out based on their personal “aromatic signature,” or it may be that they are more sensitive to flea saliva and react more intensely to the bites.  At the very least, the bites can cause itching, and scratching can cause secondary infection.

 

The exterminator’s mantra is: “Treat the pet.  Treat the home.  Treat the yard.”  If you are “chemical averse,” one resource recommends sprinkling diatomaceous earth on the floor and vacuuming it up a week later.  It’s a natural product, but use it with caution – no dust is wholesome when inhaled.  It reputedly works by damaging the waxy cuticle of fleas and other floor-dwelling insects, causing them to dehydrate.  The BugLady knows someone who uses salt for the same purpose.  Lowering the humidity of the house also helps knock down the population of larvae, and regular vacuuming corrals the majority of adult fleas.

 

Who said that good things come in small packages?

 

The BugLady