Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Backyard Creature Feature September 26, 2010

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It was the wee hours of the morning and I was perched in front of my desk typing away and catching up on some work. Yawning and sipping cold coffee, I was not the most alert when I saw a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye–a very large crawly insect was scurrying up the wall in front of me!  Who knows–maybe you have seen this before as well:

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I normally just call these “the crazy million leg bugs.” This time, however, after it scuttled away into the pile of books and folders under my desk (making my feet feel crawly for the rest of the night) I decided to finally get acquainted. After literally google searching “crazy million leg bug”–try it, it works!–I discovered that the real name for this creature is the house centipede, or Scutigera coleoptrata. At first I just wanted to know the name, but as I read on I discovered once again just how amazing the natural world is, and the many wonders hidden around us in unlikely places.

It turns out house centipedes are amazing!–even though they only have about 30 legs instead of a million. They often live in people’s  homes–sometimes for their entire lives. They are insectivores, and eat a lot of harmful pest insects that we usually want to get rid of. It can run 1.3 feet per second and has evolved so that its hind legs look like antennae–this way predators usually can’t tell the front of the centipede from the back. Their babies only have 4 legs when they hatch and grow more pairs every time they molt up until the 15. Not only that, but they can live up to 7 years, and have been shown to perform some amount of parental care.

House centipedes feed on spiders, bedbugs, termites, cockroaches, silverfish, and ants using venom stored in modified front legs. They have also been seen beating their prey with their front legs and adapt their hunting methods based on what they are hunting.

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It seems in some parts of the world these guys can pack a pretty nasty bite, but in North America at least they are basically harmless to humans.  I try to always catch and release insects I find in my house rather than killing them (Once when I was little at a time when I believed in but did not really understand the concept of heaven, I killed a spider for no reason. Later, I imagined it waiting for me in heaven, angry and plotting its revenge so it could finally get back at me for what I had done), but I have no plans on sending the house centipede out into the cold.  I like that it is feeding on insects I might not want in my house. I also like imagining it prowling the rooms at night–hunting, just like all of the larger and well-liked mammal predators, sniffing out dinner with its long antennae.

I don’t know why I was surprised to find the house centipede had such an interesting and complicated life history. Truthfully, almost everything I have ever learned about in nature is this way, and I should know by now that even the simplest creatures have an exciting back story to learn!

So here is to all of the creepy crawlies that live in our houses, backyards, and neighborhoods! May we at least do some small research before deciding what you are worth.

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I know it’s an obvious joke, but I couldn’t resist!

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Backyard Exploration August 2, 2010

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Readers, I have a bit of a confession to make. I really love nature and being outside, but I do not go out as much as I should. This is, truthfully, because sometimes I am lazy and it can be difficult to motivate myself to go. I know this is not uncommon, and something lots of people struggle with, but it is not often written about in nature blogs. I am trying to be honest here, though, to show that you don’t need to be the kind of person who is dying to climb mountains at 6 am every weekend in order to love and experience nature–although if that is what you like to do more power to you!

I should also tell you that I don’t own a single pair of those zip-off nylon convertible pants that make up the stock of most outdoor stores. I wear jeans, almost exclusively, everywhere, and for every activity. This preference is sometimes confused with inexperience, but really I’ve just always done it this way, ever since I was a kid. I usually feel more comfortable in tough jean material, which can take walking through sticker bushes and sliding down sandstone better than thinner fabrics. I’ve worn them in the woods, in streams, up mountains, occasionally to run in, and even swimming in the ocean once. I’m not discouraging the use of professional outdoor clothing at all–I have many friends and colleagues who swear by them–I’m sharing this just to show that in most cases you don’t need to stock up on any certain type of “outdoor wear” in order to explore nature. If you have a preference, please use it, but don’t let the lack of these materials keep you from checking out your backyard!

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I’ve been having a hard time being active lately–I don’t like treadmills because there is nothing interesting to look at, but when I run outside I keep thinking about how far I have to go to get back home. It’s a mental block, and I decided to solve it by just going for a walk. An exploration, really, following my feet and looking for interesting things as I went. I started today, and ended up wandering for a over an hour! Along the way, there was a great number of wonderful things–more than I ever expected to see!

My walk took me from a tree-lined street, along a highway, across a field, down a different highway, and finally on a foot path next to a golf course. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there would be much nature to see on such a journey. This is not the case, of course, especially if you look small!

To begin with, the variety of flowers and butterflies I saw was astounding! Bright pinks, whites, yellows, and purples abounded in both. I also saw bumble bees with full pollen sacs on chicory flowers, grasshoppers, and a lot of other interesting plants.

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In the field I saw these thistle plants along with some bright yellow flowers. The thistle seeds are starting to blow away on the stuff that looks like white fur. Here is a close up:

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I followed the top of a hill beside a paved footpath next to the highway and found this hidden treat growing in a ditch:

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It was also up along the hilltop that I noticed a small dirt path heading into the trees on the other side of the ditch. I broke away from the main road to follow it, and that is how I discovered a very appealing foot-path through some trees beside a local golf course.

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I saw many beautiful things on this path, including daisies, queen anne’s lace, chipmunks, and a few different kinds of insect damage. There were the usual holes on leaves where insects had chewed through, but there were also leaf mines and something called a gall, where an insect egg is laid inside a plant and then lives inside it as a larva.

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Finally, as I moved beyond the path and back through a field, I saw this small hole in the grass. I assume it belongs to a field mouse or some other small mammal.

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I had a really wonderful time on my walk! It’s amazing the things you can see when you slow down and start to really look around you. I expected to see some things, but I never expected to see the plethora of plants, insects, and animal signs that I did. It really motivated me to get out more and keep making that effort.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my main inspiration for starting Backyard Safari was to show people that you don’t need a lot of special equipment or wide open spaces in order to have a relationship with nature. All I started with today were jeans, flip flops, my camera phone, and the small patches of wilderness that make up the spaces between roads and houses in Suburbia. What I ended up with, though, was much bigger!

One of the best things about nature is how wonderful it is in all sizes. If you only have a small space to explore, try looking for the small things in it! A herd of elk or pack of wolves is amazing if you have them, but so is a passing butterfly, a milkweed pod, or a ripening blackberry. The important thing is that you get out there and see what there is to see!

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Tempest in a Teacup

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An important life lesson: Don’t put very bright lights right next to a screen door! If you do, when you open the door all kinds of things will make a break for that beautiful, mesmerizing light.

Last night a cicada (and many other small insects) came inside and buzzed around for a while before I was able to catch it under a glass. I slipped a coaster underneath the mouth of the glass and carried the whole thing outside to let it go. Before the release I took a quick video of it buzzing around in the glass. It was quite a commotion!

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We had to turn the light (a large paper cylinder) off and put it outside for a while to get all of the other insects out. The more you know!

 

Insect Mystery July 31, 2010

As those who follow me on  Twitter may know, I recently moved in to a new apartment. My old apartment balcony was made of concrete and metal, but this new one has a wooden railing.

On the first day I got the keys for the new place and went exploring, I noticed little piles of saw dust underneath some of the rails outside.

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Previous experience (having a wooden deck as a child growing up) told me that the dust was the result of carpenter bees “drilling” into the wooden rails. Not too much of a mystery there!  The mystery comes, instead, from the insect that I then saw flying around the railings.

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It was hard to get a picture of, and unfortunately this is about the best I have.  Is this a carpenter bee? In this case, previous life experience would tell me no!  All of the carpenter bees I have seen look like pretty much like other bees. For example, here is a picture from a pest control site showing what a carpenter bee looks like vs. a honey bee. There is a bit of a size and shape difference, but the coloring is very similar!

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The insect I saw, however, was all black. A google image search reveals that some carpenter bees are black, but according to the Pennsylvania State University Entomology department, there is only one species of carpenter bee in Pennsylvania–Xylocopa virginica. This species is one of the kinds with the stereotypical yellow and black “bee” markings.

There is one more strange thing about the insect I saw.  That head shape!  Again, I wish I got a better picture, but in the image above you can see that the head is much narrower than the body, which doesn’t seem to be the case in carpenter bees.

So what say you, readers?  Any ideas what this mystery insect might be? Do you think it is a carpenter bee after all? I should add that, while I saw it flying around the area with the wood shavings, it never went in any of the drilled holes. I searched for insect predators of the carpenter bee, but couldn’t find anything. I should also add that I have never seen this insect again after that first day! Could it just be a different shaped male of the same species? What do you think?

I am going to end with a picture I found on the U.S. Forest Service website during my search that I thought was too amazing not to share. It’s a picture of the smallest bee (Perdita minima) on top of the largest bee (a female carpenter bee)’s head.

Photo Credit: Dr. Stephen L. Buchmann

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Amazing!

So what do you think, nature sleuths? I’m sure we can solve this mystery together! Please leave any guesses or information in the comments! I would love to know what it was!

 

Purple Beetle Catchers July 14, 2010

* Edited to include more information*.

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Have you seen me?

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Recently, while driving around the state of Pennsylvania, I started noticing these purple boxes, high up in trees spaced out along major highways. I saw them on the way to Philadelphia, Virginia, New York, and along roads in the small rural area where I work.

Every time I saw one I wondered what it was for. My theory was that they were part of a scientific study collecting some insect to get an idea of how many were in an area. Having completed research projects myself before, this seemed to make sense–the purple boxes were spaced out fairly evenly, as if to get a solid data set, and were put along major roads I assumed because of their accessibility. I didn’t know what insect they were trying to capture/count, but with their size and height in the trees it made sense that it would be one of our six-legged flying friends.

I always meant to look up the answer but kept forgetting, as so often happens in life. Finally, on a recent bus ride, I saw a box out my window and decided to end the mystery once and for all. Thanks to the joys of 3G and my phone data plan, I was able to google search right then and there. I couldn’t find anything at first, but after trying a few different search terms before typed in “purple beetle catchers along roads” and viola! An article from a Vermont newspaper came up that explained that these purple ‘boxes’ are being used to trap the emerald ash borer beetle.

The beetle turns out to be an invasive species introduced from Asia to Michigan in 2002. It has since spread to at least 12 states and a few Canadian provinces, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. The adult beetles eat the leaves while the larva destroy the inner bark, which ruins a tree’s ability to move nutrients around. It seems this beetle has killed many millions of trees since 2002, and scientists are trying to find ways to eradicate it.

I contacted a colleague of mine at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to find out more information. He says that usually these traps contain a pheromone inside that attracts the insect, but in this case they actually contain oil from the Manuka tree, which has compounds similar to what ash trees release when they are stressed out (which in this case is because they are being eaten by the beetles). He added that the purple color is also an attractant in this beetle family, which is why the color was chosen. The traps are not supposed to eradicate the beetle, but are helping to find out where the beetle is and monitor its movements. It seems the biggest concern is spreading the borers around through fire wood. If people cut wood infested with the borers and then take the wood somewhere else, a new area can become infested. Many thanks to Jeff at PA DCNR for the information!

This post isn’t just about the emerald ash borer, or the purple traps, though. It is about trying to ask questions about the world around us and then follow through with the answers, even though we are busy and it is hard to remember. I always find it interesting to compare the differences between adult and childhood education.  As kids, we are taught many things. When we ask why, we are told that we might need it later, or that it is part of becoming a well-rounded person. When we grow up, though, this stops. Once you get out of college, especially, continuing education either stops completely or becomes pinpointed to a very specific topic that compliments our jobs and careers. Why? Do we assume that we now are well-rounded people and don’t need to learn anything else? Do we stop becoming curious about the world around us?

I thought consciously about this for the first time in 2005, when I was keeping a notebook during field work in Wyoming. For the first time I took the usual questions that often flit in and out of our heads–I wonder what that insect is? What is the name of this? Why is this happening?–and actually wrote them down and tried to find the answers later.

It can be difficult to remember to do this, but it is a great exercise and one that enriches and compliments our usual daily routines. When I finally picked the right set of search words to find out about the emerald ash borer, I was so excited–and as funny as it sounds, proud–about finally solving this mystery. Because of it, I know more about the world today than I did yesterday.

Imagine–there is a whole drama unfolding in the forests all around us! A stow-away from another land silently devouring trees from the inside out, as teams of scientists try to fight them in an ongoing country-wide arms-race between the beetle’s adaptations and our own human technologies.

And to think I knew nothing about it!

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Have you seen one of these traps near your house or in your travels? If so leave a comment or send an e-mail to askbackyardsafari@gmail.com–I would love to know how wide-spread these are!

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All the Small Things May 25, 2010

I had another great day today exploring a forested area with a group of students. They were second graders, and we spent the morning searching through the woods to see what we could discover!

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The students found a few different salamanders–this one is especially tiny! Take a look at the zoomed-out picture to see just how small it really is:

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This is a perfect example of how great kids are at looking at nature. This salamander is so small, I am not sure that I ever would have found it if I had been by myself!  I have been making a point lately to start each day by telling the kids that they have something very special that I and the other teachers do not have–they are close to the ground! They have a completely different view than most adults because of this, and can notice things that are not readily apparent to us from 5 and 6 feet off the ground.

For one of the activities I sent the kids to search for seeds. In the process I showed them how some birds, like crows, kick their feet through the wet leaves on the ground to search for worms living underneath. The kids then went out through the forest and searched–this is how they found the salamanders! They also found a lot of pine cones and acorns. One student found a very small acorn and when he took the cap off we discovered there were tiny little ants with eggs living underneath! It was really amazing to see, and gave us a chance to talk about different perspectives. Imagine all of us walking along like giants as a whole colony of ants live out their lives in a tiny acorn cap next to the path!

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The kids also found this large millipede, which I found out when I heard a bunch of screaming! I did some google searching and the only name I can find for this guy is the latin one: Apheloria virginiensis corrugata. If anyone knows the common name, though, let me know!

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Finally, the kids found some of these walnut seeds as they searched around in the leaves. If you look closely around the lighter brown edges where the seed is open you can see the little teeth marks left behind by a squirrel or chipmunk that has been gnawing at the seed!  After I noticed this I was able to pass them around and point out the tiny little lines the teeth made, which led to a talk about different ways you can tell an animal is present even if you don’t see it.

I talk a lot on this blog about looking closer and noticing the little things around you–going out in to nature with children is a great way to do just that! They found so many interesting things during our time together today, many of which I am not sure I would have seen if I was by myself. We can all learn something from these students, and try to really look closely at the world around us!

The next time I go out I’m going to try to do this–if an entire ant colony can be living under an acorn cap, imagine what else could be happening right under our noses!

 

Insects in Your Backyard May 14, 2010

Phew! Long time no post! I apologize for the delay–I have begun a series of days where I take children from kindergarten through 8th grade out to experience nature. I take one grade at a time and show them things on their school grounds and/or take them to a local nature area, like part of a creek or a tree nursery. It has been a busy few days, especially because the rain called for some impromptu in-door lessons to replace what we would have done outside. They have been a lot of fun, and I hope to write more about them sometime soon. For now, though, I want to write about something I saw on my first day out with a class early this week.

A few days ago I took a kindergarten class out to explore the school grounds and see what adventures we could find. We did an “environmental scavenger hunt,” where I told them different things to do, like find a seed, or discover if all of the yellow flowers in the yard were the same, and then they searched for answers. At one point I sent them to look for insects, and one of the students called me over to point out a leaf that had been chewed on and eaten. How clever! I was very excited that this child understood that even if he didn’t see the insect itself, he knew an insect had been there because of the holes in the leaf where it had eaten! That is exactly the type of thinking we need to foster, and could all benefit from!

We talked in the Doorways to Nature post about picking a certain thing to look for on walks (or any time we leave the house) to give a little more variety to our day and try to expand our horizons. On a recent walk I decided to look for insect ‘damage’ to see how much of it I could find. Insect damage is the term used for any kind of insect signs usually found on a leaf. It can be one of the different types of insect feeding, a place an insect has laid eggs on the leaf, or a place where an insect has changed the leaf to make a shelter.

Here is a leaf I found that had hole feeding. True to its name, hole feeding is just when an insect has eaten a hole through a leaf! It can be fairly circular, like this one, or have more irregular edges. See the lighter edges around the hole?  This is where the plant has begun to heal around the place the insect ate. This is very important, so remember it for a little farther down in the post!

Here is some more hole feeding, along with margin feeding, which is when an insect feeds along the edge of a leaf.  There is also some kind of growth on the plant–I am not sure if it is related to the insects or not, and will have to do some more research on that.

Until about 5 years ago I never really thought about insect damage. Then I helped a graduate student one summer with her research looking at insect damage preserved on fossilized leaves. We spent the summer digging up leaf fossils in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, and then searching the fossil for signs of insect feeding. The fact that not only a delicate leaf but also the signs of something living on the leaf could be preserved for so long–the leaves we were looking at had lived and died ~55 million years ago–really amazed me, and forever changed the way I look at leaves and insect feeding.

Remember the ring around the hole feeding where the plant is healing that I mentioned earlier? That ring is very well-preserved in the fossils, and is a great sign of insect damage. Here is a picture of one of the leaves we found that summer that was later used on the cover of Science:

[Photo taken by Scott Wing, Smithsonian Institution]

The dark ring around the holes in this fossil leaf are how we know the hole is from insects feeding when the plant was still alive, and not holes made afterwards from decay or damage to the fossil.

One of my favorite types of insect feeding, and one that–believe it or not–is also preserved in fossil leaves is called skeletonization.

It was difficult to get a close up of this without picking the leaf off the tree, but notice the lighter areas around the edges of the plant? This is where all of the layers of the leaf except the veins were chewed away.

When I was in Wyoming for that summer in 2005 I found a living tree that had almost all of the different kinds of insect damage on it that we were finding in the fossils. I pulled leaves off that represented each one and used packing tape to preserve them in my field journal. They have held up remarkably well so far, and the example of skeletonization is especially clear:

There are other types of insect damage as well. The list could go on and on, but the other kind that I enjoy finding the most is mines, where an egg is laid inside the leaf and an insect chews its way out, leaving its droppings behind.  I didn’t find any on my recent walk, but here is a photo example from this wikipedia page:

Searching for insect damage is a great way to learn more about the habitat around you. Are there a lot of insects feeding? Or just a few? Is there only one kind, or are there many? Take a look at the trees and bushes next to where you park your car, or by the building where you work–it could be anywhere, and you don’t have to go on long walks to find it! Let’s see what we can learn about the great drama of Life going on around us by searching for the marks that are left behind.

As always, please feel free to send me photos of anything you find! I would love to learn more about what is around you, and what adventures you have had!