The Little Things We Can Do

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A hairstreak butterflies in a Florida backyard. Photo © Bill Spitzer / TNC Photo Contest 2019

If you are fortunate enough to have a yard of your own, consider this suggestion by Charles Fergus:

Create Wildlife Habitat Around Your House

By itself, a plain grass lawn is stark and visually unappealing—which is why most homeowners add shrubs, flower beds, and specimen trees. Today, there’s a new movement afoot known as natural landscaping: using native trees, shrubs, and low plants to add textural diversity to a yard while attracting and benefiting wildlife.

Research has shown that seeing wildlife around your home—hearing birds sing, glimpsing brightly colored butterflies and dragonflies, seeing a garter snake slither into a stone wall— makes life more enjoyable.

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Common milkweed growing in Illinois. Photo © Timothy T. Lindenbaum / TNC

Many of us have a visceral need to be in touch with wild creatures and to acknowledge that we ourselves are part of nature, even if we live in suburbs and other settings where housing is dense. Continue reading

Foraged Wild Foods

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this brief story by Maia Stern, which expands our knowledge of foraged wild foods:

The first insect that Pascal Baudar ever tried eating was an ant he found in his kitchen. The verdict? “It tasted like some kind of chemical,” says Baudar.

Most people would have probably given up on the bug-eating experiments right there. But Baudar? He’s made it part of his life’s calling. Continue reading

Join The Butterfly Count

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Sir David Attenborough launching the Big Butterfly Count in July 2017. Photograph: Butterfly Conservation/PA

Thanks to the Guardian for bringing this to our attention:

Sir David Attenborough urges British public to join butterfly count

Veteran broadcaster encourages people to take part in Big Butterfly Count and highlights mental health benefits of wildlife

Watching nature provides “precious breathing space” from the stress of modern life, Sir David Attenborough has said, as he urges people to take part in the world’s biggest butterfly count.

While the UK’s butterflies are basking in the best summer conditions in more than a decade, if the hot weather becomes a drought it could be catastrophic for the insects as plants wither and caterpillars starve.

The public are being encouraged to take part in the Big Butterfly Count over the next three weeks to help experts see how butterflies are faring and to enjoy the mental health benefits of watching wildlife. Continue reading

Butterflies Bear Bucolic Benefits

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Milkweed was first mentioned in these pages  so long ago I had forgotten their importance to Monarch butterflies, a seemingly perennial topic for our contributors. So thanks to Margaret Renkl for keeping that tradition going in her Monday op-ed, and reminding us in the process that while it is not all good news out there, it is also not all bad news:

Monarchs in My Garden, at Last

NASHVILLE — I was pretty proud of myself the spring I planted my first organic garden. It was the mid-1980s, and I was a first-year graduate student in creative writing, a program entirely unrelated to horticultural mastery. But I had taken a college course in environmental biology, and I knew the basics: The more chemicals you use in a garden, the more chemicals you’ll need in the garden. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, more reliable than the seasons.

At my house, companion planting — marigolds in between the broccoli, tomato vines encircling the spinach — would repel bugs the natural way. Any lingering pests would be dispatched by beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. One evening I watched happily as cabbage white butterflies flitted over silvery broccoli leaves. Those little white butterflies pausing in the gloaming on the water-beaded broccoli made for a tableau of bucolic harmony. Continue reading

Moths Worthy Of Art Galleries

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A collection of Gowin’s photographs from “Mariposas Nocturnas,” taken in February, 2007, at the Integral Forest Otonga, El Reventador, and Otongachi Reserve, in Ecuador.Photographs by Emmet Gowin / Pace/MacGill Gallery / © Emmet and Edith Gowin

k11112We have occasionally “discovered” the inspirational aspect of moths in all their variations, but had not thought so much of their beauty.  Thanks to Andrea K. Scott for bringing our attention to the photography of Emmet Gowin, whose “Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity” will be published this month by Princeton University Press. Also we thank her for mentioning that an exhibition of Emmet Gowin’s work will be shown at Pace/McGill Gallery from September 28th through January 6th, 2018:

The moth doesn’t enjoy the same charmed reputation as its lepidopteran cousin, the butterfly. Continue reading

Resolving a Politically Fraught Problem By Natural Means

Texas officials release reed-eating Arundo wasps into a thicket of the invasive weed Arundo donaxa, also called carrizo cane, in an effort to weaken or eradicate the plant.Photograph by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty

With all the talk about building a wall along the US/Mexico border, it’s rather refreshing to read about this joint program between the U.S.D.A. and Customs and Border Protection to attempt to tear one down.

The problem is a fast growing invasive grass that sucks up water resources, crowds out native plants, and can grow as tall as a 2-story building, . The elegant solution of using stingless wasps whose larvae happily munch on the vigorous plant is elegant compared to options such as bulldozing or aerial spraying of herbicides.

Someone wandering along the banks of the Rio Grande, on the American side, in the summer of 2009 might have been startled by a small cardboard box plummeting to the ground. Neatly sealed with blue packing tape, its paper wrapping crisp and clean, the box would have felt light, even empty. But then, on further inspection, an observer would have noticed the platoon of tiny black insects exiting a slit on one end. Slightly larger than a gnat, the insects would have buzzed off, one by one, into the South Texas heat. Continue reading

Bayer, Bees Beware

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Researchers monitored the health of these wild bees, from the species Osmia bicornis. They nest inside small cavities, such as hollow reeds. Courtesy of Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Thanks to National Public Radio’s special forces, aka the salt, for their ongoing search for interesting news and stories related to the intersection of nature and food:

Pesticides Are Harming Bees — But Not Everywhere, Major New Study Shows

In the global debate over neonicotinoid pesticides, the company that makes most of them has relied on one primary argument to defend its product: The evidence that these chemicals, commonly called “neonics,” are harmful to bees has been gathered in artificial conditions, force-feeding bees in the laboratory, rather than in the real world of farm fields. That company, Bayer, states on its website that “no adverse effects to bee colonies were ever observed in field studies at field-realistic exposure conditions.” Continue reading

Moths, Inspiring Innovation

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Deilephila elpenor, commonly called the elephant hawk-moth, has specialized eyes that don’t reflect light. Such moths inspired scientists to invent an anti-glare coating for smart screens. Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

We have lots of reasons to believe in biodiversity, and here is one more important case in point. Thanks to Madeline K. Sofia at National Public Radio (USA) for this:

If you’re standing in the blazing sun struggling to read this on your cellphone, there may be some relief in sight.

And you’ll have a moth to thank. Continue reading

Ladybugs, Awe & Design Inspiration

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After ladybugs fly, they tuck their wings into a sliver of space between their abdomen and the colorful outer wings for which they are best known. Credit Jean-Michel Labat/Science Source

Even without words this item from the Science section would tell a full story just with the gif below, which captures what any of us might remember being awed by as a kid. Thanks to Joanna Klein for this:

Ladybugs Pack Wings and Engineering Secrets in Tidy Origami Packages

The ladybug is a tiny insect with hind wings four times its size. Like an origami master, it folds them up into a neat package, tucking them away within a slender sliver of space between its abdomen and the usually polka-dotted, harder wings that protect it. Continue reading

From Ew To Wow, To OMG

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When it comes to biopesticides, one of the most widely used fungi is Beauveria bassiana. Above, a kudzu bug killed by Beauveria bassiana, seen growing out of the cadaver. Courtesy of Brian Lovett/University of Maryland Entomology

Thanks to the salt, at National Public Radio (USA) for their sharing the creepy- crawliest news from the realm of mycologists working on clean solutions to some massive, dirty challenges, and changing the rules of pest management along the way:

Fungal Pesticides Offer A Growing Alternative To Traditional Chemicals

When it comes to biopesticides, one of the most widely used fungi is Beauveria bassiana. Above, a kudzu bug killed by Beauveria bassiana, seen growing out of the cadaver. Continue reading

Massive Scale of Discovery In Remaining Forests Inspires, Raising The Stakes For Conservation

Can Beetles Stop the Hemlock Woody Adelgid?

Headlines from news sources responding to a pair of scientific articles from 2013 that highlighted the importance of scale in assessing the effect of invasive species. Photo by Diana Lutz.

Headlines from news sources responding to a pair of scientific articles from 2013 that highlighted the importance of scale in assessing the effect of invasive species. Photo by Diana Lutz.

Five years ago this month, I wrote in a post titled Preventing Invasive Fire that, “Absolute regulation of invasive species is not possible. We cannot search every inch of soil that enters a country for microorganisms, dormant insect eggs, or plant seeds. But controls must be imposed, and more severe ones than currently in place. The intensely focused damage (biodiversity loss) that a male and female zebra mussel, emerald ash borer beetle, Asian carp, or fire ant can have on a vulnerable ecosystem is much greater than the thinned-out costs of higher taxes or more stringent customs inspections.”

The following year, I discussed the merits of Integrated Pest Management in helping eradicate or at least control pests, which are sometimes introduced from other countries. Reading today about a plan in North Carolina to use beetles as a predator of the hemlock woody adelgid, an aphid-like invasive species from east Asia, I am reminded of those two posts from the past, inspired by Cornell courses in environmental governance and entomology.

Continue reading

Novel and Efficient Mosquito Control

The predator cues emitted by the Backswimmer, a mosquito larvae predator, trigger a stress response in the mosquitoes, which impairs their immune system.
Photo © E. Van Herk

Two weeks ago we saw a chemically-baited, solar-powered trap for mosquitos implemented in Kenya. New research – conducted only in the laboratory so far – has shown the potential for another chemical cocktail to be used in a very different way for mosquito control, hopefully in a manner that can reduce quantities of pesticide applied in eradication efforts. From the EurekAlert press release by the Belgian University of Leuven:

Existing strategies for mosquito control often involve the use of pesticides that harm the environment. These pesticides are increasingly less effective as well, as insects can become resistant to existing products relatively quickly.

Biopesticides are a possible alternative. The most commonly used biological pesticide is the Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) bacteria. Unfortunately, mosquitoes are already developing a resistance to this pesticide as well. This means we have to keep increasing the dose of Bti to kill mosquitoes, so that this biological substance, too, is beginning to harm the environment.

Continue reading

Superlens from Spider Silk

(a) Nephila edulis spider in its web. (b) Schematic drawing of reflection mode silk biosuperlens imaging. The spider silk was placed directly on top of the sample surface by using a soft tape, which magnify underlying nano objects 2-3 times (c) SEM image of Blu-ray disk with 200/100 nm groove and lines (d) Clear magnified image (2.1x) of Blu-ray disk under spider silk superlens. Images © Bangor University and Oxford University, via EurekAlert

We’ve seen silk made without spiders, photomicrograph competitions, and the development of a new underwater microscope, but never thought that a strand of spider’s silk could be put under a normal microscope to then magnify an image even more than previously possible with current technology. But biologists from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University provided the silk know-how for engineers at the Bangor University’s  School of Electronic Engineering to create a natural superlens:

Extending the limit of classical microscope’s resolution has been the ‘El Dorado’ or ‘Holy Grail’ of microscopy for over a century. Physical laws of light make it impossible to view objects smaller than 200 nm – the smallest size of bacteria, using a normal microscope alone. However, superlenses which enable us to see beyond the current magnification have been the goal since the turn of the millennium.

Continue reading

New Mosquito Trap Tested With Mixed Success

A mosquito trap that runs on solar electricity and mimics human odor as bait. Credit Alexandra Hiscox via NYTimes

We’ve seen solar power used for many things here, but not yet as a source of power for insect trapping.  On the island of Rusinga in Lake Victoria, Kenya, scientists from the Netherlands, Kenya, and Switzerland tested new traps that use electricity from solar panels to release a chemical similar to the carbon dioxide we exhale (which attracts mosquitos) and a blend of chemicals that mimic human odor (which also draws in the blood-suckers) as bait for the disease-bearing biters. From the New York Times:

Although the traps appeared quite effective at lowering mosquito populations, they had some significant drawbacks.

Because they need power from rooftop solar panels, they are relatively expensive. Still, the panels appealed to residents who could also use them to power a light bulb or charge a cellphone.

Continue reading

Grubby Animal Feed

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Source: The Guardian

Two Georgia Tech graduates (who also happen to be cousins), Sean Warner and Patrick Pittaluga, are breeding and selling an insect many people consider revolting in order to provide a more sustainable substitute for animal feed (if you are about to eat a meal, I recommend postponing this article for a later, food-free, time). The insect they are growing is larvae, specifically black soldier fly larvae. Grubbly Farms, the name of their company, dries the larvae and sells them whole as chicken treats. This is a more sustainable protein and fat source for chickens, pigs and farmed seafood compared to the more popular animal feed that is based on fish, called fish meal.

Around 75% of the fish used in [conventional fish meal] are wild-caught species of small fish such as anchovies, herring and sardines. Demand for these species will likely increase as the world relies more on fish farming – and less on depleting wild fish stocks – to feed the growing appetite for seafood.

Grubbly Farms’ business plan isn’t just about creating more nutritious and sustainable animal feed, Warner said. It’s also looking to tackle America’s billion-dollar problem with food waste – produce and leftover foods being tossed away by businesses and homes and clogging up landfills at the rate of 52m tons per year. Warner is feeding the larvae fruit and vegetable pulp from a local juicery, and the company has also recently started working with a bakery to add days-old bread to the mix. Warner estimates that once production is up-and-running, they will use around two tons of food waste a day.

Continue reading

Ants & Agriculture

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Tiny nurse ants tending to white ant larvae are dwarfed by the queen ant in the upper right. All the ants feed upon protein-rich food produced by a white-grey fungus that they cultivate underground. (Karolyn Darrow)

Thanks to the folks at Smithsonian for this one:

Were Ants the World’s First Farmers?

A new study shows that a group of ants have been conducting a subsistence type of farming since shortly after the dinosaurs died out

By Jackson Landers

Humans have been practicing agriculture for about 10,000 years. But the attine ants of South America (which include the well-known leafcutters) have us beat by a long way.

According to a new paper co-authored by entomologist Ted Schultz, curator of ants at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, attine ants, which farm on an industrial scale similar to humans, have been carefully cultivating gardens with a complex division of labor to grow an edible fungus. Schultz’s team found that the ants have been doing this far longer than previously believed—up to 65 million years—and that we have much to learn from them. Continue reading

Camouflage by Debris

Specimens preserved in amber. © Wang et al. in Science Advances, 2016.

We’ve featured posts here concerning camouflage plenty of times, whether in birds and their eggs, in beach-dwelling crabs, plant-mimicking insects, or strange caterpillars. That last example is the closest to the subject matter of Ed Yong’s latest post on Nat Geo’s Phenomenon blog, where he writes about insects that cover themselves in debris to hide from predators or prey alike:

Every year, in northern Myanmar, thousands of farmers pull tonnes of Cretaceous amber out of the ground, and send the glistening nuggets to local markets. For six years, Bo Wang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues have visited the markets and sifted through 300,000 of the glistening nuggets. It was a lot of work. Then again, it takes a lot of work to find animals that spent their whole lives trying not to be found.

Continue reading

We Never Tire Of This Clever Creature

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Scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden have shown that dung beetles use mental “snapshots” of the Milky Way to navigate. E. Baird / Lund University

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this story, which we link to even though we just recently linked back to some earlier stories on the same.

And speaking of NPR, one of the podcasts that originates on its New York City affiliate WNYC–Radio Lab, which was featured in some of our earliest posts–this episode featuring another beetle may have been the greatest of all time.

Dung Beetles Navigate Poop-Pile Getaways Using Celestial ‘Snapshots’

It’s not easy being a dung beetle.

Besides the obvious fact that they eat, well, dung, the act of just getting a meal is an involved process.

In the most elaborate carry-out scenario, the dung beetles must first stake claim to their piece of poop at the main dung pile, then shape it into a sphere for easy transport, fend off other dung beetles trying to steal it, and then — using the stars to navigate — determine the fastest way to roll their prize away to a safe spot for consumption. Continue reading