Monday, June 20, 2011
Last week the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and Image Matters LLC unveiled their new online Native Plant Center. The new site provides a very user-friendly way to identify and/or select native plant species for the Bay watershed.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I had checked for them each day since late April. Tent caterpillars particularly like the native cherry leaves, and often you can find their huge webby tents in the park where those trees sprout up with abandon. But my morning walks this spring resulted in the discovery of only one bedraggled caterpillar, all alone… sans tent and tent mates.
Tent caterpillars, those little black insects with the sky-blue stripes down their backs are sometimes mistaken for the much more destructive gypsy moths. But they are also beloved by suburban children who like to gather them up on warm, sunny days and treat them like teddy bears. Perfect content for a nature class, I had assumed, because they are both benign and abundant.
What I didn’t anticipate was the variability of spring weather. The caterpillars don’t like to leave their tents when the weather stays cool and damp, and this spring that phrase pretty much described the entire month of May. Cool and damp. Those insects were only really out for a couple of weeks, and in many places their populations did not really reach their typical numbers. There weren’t the usual masses of them to be seen in many local parks.
A friend finally came to the rescue when her kids up in
John Lill, who studies caterpillars at
This can be especially true for those which he refers to as the “ephemeral” species in our area. Until I heard him use that word for caterpillars I had only ever heard it used in reference to certain plants. But as Lill described it, there are some caterpillars which are like those spring wildflowers -- they only appear for a few short weeks each year before they quickly form cocoons and turn into moths. This category includes the beloved and friendly-looking tent caterpillar. It also includes the hickory-horned devil, a huge, green creature with red and black horns which Lill called the “holy grail of caterpillar scientists” because it is so difficult to find on local trees.
Lill discussed hunting for the hickory-horned devil and many other aspects of studying moth caterpillars in the eastern forests of the
I really enjoyed his talk, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I were listening to Dr. Who describe aliens from outer space. There were descriptions of caterpillars who ambulate without obvious legs, and others which look like sea urchins and sting like jelly fish. There were some who give painful pricks with their spines to evade the mandibles of wasps. Others he’s been studying can secrete liquids from hidden holes in their skin, or are covered with white hairs that look and act like spun glass.
“I am completely obsessed with these lately,” Lill said with great warmth as he worked his way through photos of slug caterpillars. His enthusiasm was equal only to that of the five-year-olds in my nature class, so it was easy to assume he must be very popular when he visits classrooms each year throughout
When asked about collecting the insects with kids, Lill emphasized three things:
1) Only collect the caterpillars you find on foliage. Never take a caterpillar home from black top or sidewalks, because you will have a tough time figuring out what your study subject needs or likes to eat. Most caterpillars are very specific in their dietary needs and habits, and will restrict their munching to one or two kinds of plants or trees. Without the right kind of leaf they will quickly die.
2) Figuring out what they like to eat is important, because caterpillars can eat a lot in one day! In fact, some species can eat enough to gain more than 10,000 times their own body weight over the course of development. This would be, Lill says, “like a child becoming as large as an elephant just a few months after its birth.” You should gather a lot of fresh leaves on a frequent basis.
3) Poking air holes in the lid of a jar isn’t as important as most people think. In fact, the amount of air most caterpillars need is pretty small and the air can be refreshed each day just by opening and closing the container’s lid. But what caterpillars DO need desperately is moisture, which is often released in a jar with lots of air holes. Lill says you can even use a zipper style plastic bag to keep the caterpillar moist, happy and healthy. He also likes to use recycled plastic deli tubs for his study subjects in the lab and for his school visits.
Although the tent caterpillars I described earlier are only around for a short time each spring, there are many caterpillars which become more abundant as the summer wears on and fall approaches. Lill will lead a walk sometime in late summer for the Friends of Sligo Creek, in order to teach people about these dynamic creatures. Keep your eyes on the Friends of Sligo Creek website for more details.
This piece was published in the June 2011 Voice newspapers of Montgomery County, Maryland where Alison Gillespie is the author of the Sligo Naturalist column.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Sunday, June 5, 2011
I was thrilled to read an article in the most recent update from Conservation Montgomery about the street tree budget in Montgomery County.
As someone who has advocated hard for the street tree program, I had become very worried about the huge backlog of maintenance the county's Department of Transportation had acquired in the last two years. Without funding, trees inspections were not happening in a regular or timely manner either, which seemed like a big safety problem waiting to happen.
According to Conservation Montgomery, about $2 million in county street tree maintenance funding will be restored to the FY12 operating budget which was approved by the Council. Although that is a meager portion of the overall budget, it will help to alleviate the backlog of work which has built up regarding the county's 425,000 right-of-way trees. And in this tight budget time, it seems miraculous.
Visit Conservation Montgomery online to read more.
In the past this has led to garlic mustard recipe books and kudzu cook-offs, and even artwork made of vines. Such efforts, however, seem to barely make a dent in the huge amount of green stuff pulled from our parks in order to save the trees and native plants.
So I was really excited to read last week about a paper recently published by the American Chemical Society on a potential new use for honeysuckle. Writing in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, two Chinese researchers say they’ve found a way to use honeysuckle to boost fabric’s ability to block UV rays. This new discovery could potentially improve the design of so-called “sunblock shirts” by making them more effective and more sustainably produced.
The researchers note that honeysuckle has long been used to treat colds and fevers in Asia, and that it is currently also used as a food preservative. Some cosmetic makers also use the plant in products which are touted to make customer’s skin look younger.
There’s a down side to all of this, however. The initial research was conducted on fabric made of wool, and most of us are searching for sunblocking clothes which are both lightweight and UV protective.
Still, it would be nice to find a good use for all that stuff strangling the trees out there in the park. And I wonder what it smells like, too… sweet, or wooly?
This June, Brookside will once again hold concerts each Tuesday night. These concerts are free!!! And I’m told that the garden staff is willing to bend their usual strict rules against bringing food – they’ll look the other way so long as you take all of your own trash home with you. So bring a picnic and a date! (And a garbage bag...)
For a full concert schedule, visit the park online: