Signs of Spring 5: Waterfalls and Frogs!

Two Penn State professors at Ohiopyle, PA

Photo by D. Sillman

Rob, Michele, Deborah and I went to Ohiopyle last Saturday to see if there were any new (or different) signs of spring down there. In particular we wanted to see if the wood frogs that we saw two years ago (on a warm afternoon in late March 2013) might be back!

Frogs help to sing in the spring all over western Pennsylvania. The Spring Peepers (Hyla crucifer) will begin their group choruses as soon as we have some warm evenings, and the gray tree frogs (Hyla versicolor) will start their resonating trills soon after. The tree frogs may even continue to call through the rest of the summer! The first frog of spring, though, and the one we are looking for down in the cool, wet woods of Ohiopyle, is the wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). This frog neither peeps nor trills. Instead, it announces the start of spring by quacking like a duck!   Have a listen:

We walked out onto the Ferncliff Peninsula at Ohiopyle. The day was almost warm, and it felt good when the sun occasionally came out from behind the clouds. The first part of the hike was over the far shore’s rocks and boulders along the Youghiogheny River right at the Ohiopyle Falls. The picture above shows Rob and I working our way along the rocks and debris. The water level had recently been quite high! The debris layer extended well up onto the shoreline and made each footfall a bit of an adventure. The gray-green water was rushing past us and roaring as it went over the rocky falls.

Last week an unfortunate person slipped off of the rocks on the shore just across from us. He had climbed over a guardrail to pose for a picture not realizing that the rocks were covered with ice. He fell into the river, went over the falls, and has not yet been found. We stayed well away from the edge!

Back in the 1880’s this peninsula was the site of a large hotel and a thriving tourism/resort industry. In addition to the Ferncliff Hotel there had been a boardwalk, a dance pavilion, a bowling alley, tennis courts and ball fields all nested into the rocky terrain. Some of the foundations of these buildings are still visible up along the Fernwood Trail, but the peninsula has returned to a remarkably pristine, natural state. Fifty years ago the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy purchased the property of the peninsula and the surrounding hills and then sold it to the state of Pennsylvania to make the Ohiopyle State Park.

The isolated pools up and around the shoreline rocks were all barren of life. There were no insects, no amphibians and no growing algae. No signs of spring along the shore just the accumulated, plastic debris from the long winter.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The trail climbed up away from the rocks and headed out along one side of the peninsula. The deciduous trees were all bare, but the rhododendrons, hemlocks and the scattered white pines were a welcome green. Evergreen wood fern was scattered about in the undergrowth, too. It added a rich, green highlight to the overwhelming brown of the scattered, dead leaves.

We walked for a couple of hours around the peninsula but saw very little in the way of “spring.” No colt’s foot was blooming, no comma butterflies fluttered around the dense stands of rhododendrons. Everything was very quiet.

Just before the trail junction where Fernwood Trail split off from the Ferncliff Trail there was a ten meter by ten meter fenced off area designed to keep white tailed deer away from the developing tree seedlings. Inside the fence margin poplar and birch seedlings grew in incredibly dense clusters. There must have been two hundred, three and four foot tree seedlings growing inside the fence (there were hardly any outside the fence)! The woods would look very different if there were no white-tailed deer!

Michele and Deborah took the Fernwood Trail while Rob and I continued on the Ferncliff Trail, but everything was very quiet until we got the end of the trail. Deborah and Michele were waiting for us (they walk a lot faster than Rob and I!). They had found frogs!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We climbed up to the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and followed it back toward the town. Near the trail parking area a small, vernal pool was alive with a couple of dozen wood frogs. They splashed and quacked and made us feel very welcome!

The wood frog is found from northern Georgia all the way up to far northern Canada. In fact, it is the only “cold blooded” vertebrate known to live north of the Arctic Circle! They utilize temporary pools formed by spring rains and snow melt as breeding pools and then spend most of the rest of their active season away from standing water. Adult wood frogs feed opportunistically and extensively on small insects and other invertebrates. They use their long, sticky tongues to capture prey and are said to eat “anything that they can fit into their mouths.”

The ability of the wood frog to survive in high latitude ecosystems depends upon a number of specialized physiological adaptations that include the presence of specific proteins in the blood that regulate ice crystal formation, circulatory controls that shunt blood preferentially into critical organs (heart, liver, brain), and a liver response that releases huge amounts of glucose into the blood stream and organs. These high levels of glucose act as a cryoprotectant which reduces the amount of ice formed in the protected tissues and cells.

During hibernation, 60 to 70% of a frog’s body fluids may be frozen. Cardiac function stops and blood ceases to circulate. As their bodies thaw, their hearts resume contractions and their livers rapidly clear the high levels of glucose from the blood even before all of the body’s ice is melted. Thawing frogs display some short term movement and behavioral difficulties but are soon fully functional.

We watched a couple of frogs jump out of the dense piles of leaf litter that surrounded the pool. It was like they were catapulting themselves out of hibernation! They flung themselves into the increasingly crowed water, and you could almost hear them shouting, “I’m back!!”

In the mating pools, males call to females with their “duck-like” songs. An attracted female enters the pool and is quickly grasped on the back by the smaller male (this is called “amplexus”). The male may remain in place on the female’s back for 24 to 72 hours. The male releases sperm into the pool water as the female ovulates and thus externally fertilizes the forming egg mass. A typical egg mass contains 1000 to 2000 eggs. The female moves the floating egg mass into the shallow areas of the pool in a large, communal raft. Counting these rafts in an area’s pools is an accepted, and highly efficient, way to determine the population density of the wood frog in a particular region.

Both the fertilized eggs and the developing embryos can withstand even prolonged sub-zero temperatures. The ”jelly” that surrounds them and holds the great floating masses of eggs together helps to pull water out of the egg or embryo when it freezes. This prevents freeze damage to the delicate cells. It will take quite a while (two and a half months) for the embryos to develop into tadpoles!

So, spring IS happening out in the woods! Just ignore the snow that’s in tonight’s forecast!

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Signs of Spring 4: Termites

Photo by S. Bauer, USDA

Photo by S. Bauer, USDA

When Deborah and I were in graduate school at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse (better known as SUNY-ESF!), Deborah, as a student in entomology, took the graduate level, insect taxonomy course. One aspect of the course was for each student to put together an insect collection. To make it interesting, the instructors promised to reward the best insect collection (as measured by the largest numbers of types of insects) with a bottle of wine (ah, grad school!)). Deborah dug into the collecting and pinning and displaying of her insects with great enthusiasm. There was one thing, though, that was holding back her collection diversity: there were no termites in upstate New York! The long, very cold winters prevented colonies from becoming established.

Termites, back then, were classified in their own insect order called “Isoptera.” It was important for the diversity and quality of the collection to have representatives from as many orders of insects as possible. I have just learned, however, that this classification may not be accurate any longer. It turns out that termites are evolutionarily closely related to cockroaches and are now included as a mere sub-order or super-family within the Order Blattodea! (Deborah had, mostly from living in a series of college-level apartments and houses, MANY representatives of Blattodea in her collection!).

Anyway, back to the comfortable past when termites were termites and not relatives of roaches! In order to add to a little polish to her collection diversity (and, eventually, to allow her to win that bottle of wine!) she asked a friend who was going to visit his family in (where else?) Pennsylvania, if he would mind looking around in some decaying logs or crumbling houses to find her a few termites. Pennsylvania, as many of us who live here know, is an ideal habitat for termites.

So we flash forward twenty years and Deborah and I are living amongst the termites here in Western Pennsylvania. We had seen termites in downed logs in our woodlot and orchard, and they had even shredded up some wooden posts I had used when building our dog-yard fence. They seemed, though, to be keeping their distance from the house, and almost every time I see one I think of having a nice glass of wine! Then one afternoon in our dining room, I picked up a cardboard box full of teaching handouts and cardboard cut outs of insect body parts and legs and wings, of all things, and was surprised to see movement in the box and shredding of the edges of the cardboard. We followed a trail through the gaps in the flooring down into the basement where we saw the characteristic, packed soil tubes (pictured below) of our local termite colony etched into the wood of the floor joists and extending out through gaps in the foundation. We, of course, reacted like good biologists …. actually not, we were horrified that our house was under attack and looked around for poison, any poison that we could use to dispatch the invaders.

Photo by J. Conrad, Public Domain

Photo by J. Conrad, Public Domain

We calmed down and called a termite service and signed up for a long-term, non-pesticide termite control system. Traps were placed out around the east side of the house where the termite activity was greatest. In the traps were bits of wood of a type that was proven to be irresistible to termites (the technician wouldn’t tell us what types of wood it was. He said that it was a company secret). The plan was once the termites started munching on the wood in the traps, a chemical that acted as an anti-reproductive hormone would be introduced into the wood chips. The feeding termites would take this hormone back to their main nest where the entire colony would be subsequently neutered and destroyed.

It took over a year and a half for the termites to find and begin to chew on the “irresistible” wood chips. During that time we didn’t see any more termite activity in the house (we also didn’t put anymore cardboard boxes of papers on the floor next to the east wall of the dining room!) The technician applied the hormone and we continued to see no termite activity through the remaining two years of our contract, and we have continued to not see any termites in the house for these past 18 years (although the fallen branches of the apple and pear trees in our orchard (about 30 feet to the west of our deck) are quickly degraded and decomposed by termites. I think termites REALLY like apple wood! Maybe I should pass that observation on to the termite control company!

The termite technician told us that there was a great deal of termite activity all along the towns of the Kiski River Valley. He said that they speculated that there was, in fact, one gigantic colony of termites that were feeding on the fallen wood (and standing houses) of Apollo, Vandergrift, and Leechburg. The image of a vast, highly interconnected super-colony humming along just beneath the surface of the soil was both exciting and horrifying (depending on whether I was thinking like a biologist or a homeowner).

A recent article in the New York Times (which Lisa Meyerhuber passed along to me) talked about the importance of tropical, African termites in generating a soil structure that not only resists wind and water erosion but also retains a large percentage of a site’s annual rainfall. In desert ecosystems this water retention along with the very fertile accumulation of termite feces can make the soil around termite mounds into an oasis that can support vegetation and animal life far above levels seen in the nearby, non-termite worked soil.

Photo by BBC.co.uk

Photo by BBC.co.uk

There was another African termite story a few years ago, too. In the Namib Desert of western Africa the sparse vegetation grows in great rings that can be forty feet across with extensive areas of barren soil areas in between. This odd and visually compelling plant growth pattern was finally explained as the consequence of subterranean, sand termites feeding on plant roots and altering the soil around them to divert and retain the scant rainfall of the Namib into ring-shaped micro-reservoirs. Plants then could grow roots into these micro-reservoirs and, thus, ended up growing in these unusual and very persistent rings. This explanation is quite pleasing on an ecological level but pales in scope and terror next to the native, Himba people who felt that the plant rings were either the footprints of gods that had walked across the desert or relics from the poisonous breath of a giant dragon that lived underground out the Namib.

So, are we sitting on top of a giant termite colony here in the Kiski Valley? Are these termites working the soil into a high level of fertility and stability? Is it worth putting up with a little structural damage (and cost) to have these social insects do their wood decomposition and soil burrowing activities?

What wonderful questions! Or should we look around for some dragons?

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Signs of Spring 3: The Great Backyard Bird Count

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

A month ago (February 13th) the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Birds Studies Canada and the National Audubon Society sponsored a three day, “citizen’s science” project called “The Great Backyard Bird Count.” This world wide count of birds began in 1998 and has grown in scope and participation with each passing year. Participants are asked to spend fifteen minutes either stationary at some observation point or walking through a habitat counting and identifying the birds they see. Online checklists developed by eBird facilitate the reporting of these observations, and the compilation of the data from the observers seems to be nearly instantaneous!

Here is the link to read this year’s report: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/2015-gbbc-summary/

Some highlights of this year’s count include the total number of checklists submitted (147,265) and the total number of people submitting one or more checklist (143,941). A total of 5,090 species of birds were identified and 18, 726,079 birds were counted! This was, indeed, a very robust survey of birds!

There was a distinct North America bias to this count since about 74% of the checklists came from the United States. The ten most frequently mentioned species on the lists were all North American species (led by the northern cardinal (pictured above) and the dark-eyed junco), and all but one of the top ten most numerous birds in the count were also North American species (the 1,494,937 snow geese topped this list!). The third most numerous species in the count, though, was an Eurasian bird called a brambling.

Photo by M. Szczepanek, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by M. Szczepanek, Wikimedia Commons

Bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla) are small finches that summer and breed in the northern forests of Asia and Europe. They then migrate south for the winter (to southern Europe, or northern Africa, Pakistan, India, China or Japan) in large flocks that can number over a million birds. One of these flocks was counted by a Great Backyard Bird Count checklist observer in Germany! The one million birds that this individual estimated the flock of bramblings to number pushed the species (with a total count of 1,000,047) to position number three on the abundant list (well above the 630,610 European starlings!). I think that this reflects the power of the individual even in such a high participation endeavor!

Photo by D, Daniels Wikimedia Commons

Photo by D, Daniels Wikimedia Commons

The 2015 count also revealed some interesting changes in the abundances and distribution of many bird species. One species, the pine siskin (Spinus pinus), showed up on 10.5% of the Great Backyard Bird Count checklists this year compared to only 1.2% of the lists from last year! Locally, Lynn Ramage in Armstrong County counted twenty pine siskins at her bird feeders! This “eruption” of pine siskins may be related to the cold, harsh winter which drove the birds slightly further south than usual (right into the heart of the Great Backyard Bird Count observers!), or it may be related to some as yet unknown population cycle in this species. In science, observations lead to explanations and model building, and then experimentation and model re-formulation! I did not see any pine siskins during my counting periods. Possibly, this was due to the fact that several weeks previously I had taken down my thistle (“nyjer”) feeder for cleaning and repair and had yet to put it back up! The pine siskins do love their thistle!

Pennsylvania was second only to California in total number of checklists submitted to the count. Allegheny County led the long list of participating Pennsylvania counties with 101 species and 626 submitted lists. Locally, Westmoreland County submitted 148 lists and counted 68 species, Armstrong County submitted 37 lists and counted 45 species, and Butler County submitted 133 lists and also counted 45 species.

So what is accomplished by this Great Backyard Bird Count? Tracking the pine siskins is interesting. Tracking the southward eruption of the snowy owls is exciting (check out the website!), and just knowing how many birds are out in our wide ranging habitats is important. But maybe most important is getting all of these people outside all at once to look at birds! That is the payoff that is priceless!

The species that I counted for my two Great Backyard Bird Count lists were as common as could be. They all made it onto to top ten “most frequently listed” species. My birding experience didn’t range into wild, exotic discoveries. My birds were cardinals, juncos, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, and crows, and I was very pleased to see them!

Some years ago I was giving a talk at a conference about Deborah’s and my Virtual Nature Trail and the actual, physical nature trail on our campus that was the inspiration for it. At the end of my presentation I was asked a question, “what was special, or unique about this nature trail?” I sensed an undertone to the question of “why would anyone want to go see this trail?” Usually you come up with answers to questions like this much later, but somehow I found the answer right away: There is nothing particularly unique or “special” about this trail, and this is what made it so important. It is the beauty in the ordinary, as Bill Bryson once put it “the low level ecstasy” of the common species and common terrain that make this site so wonderful. Sitting back and seeing what is around you in nature always elevates and inspires you!

And, to me, this is what makes the Great Backyard Bird Count and the sight of all of those ordinary birds that every day gobble down my sunflower seeds, corn, peanuts and thistle, so amazing.

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Signs of Spring 2: Looking for Spring

I have been reading back over some of my “Signs of Spring” from previous years to try to get ideas about the right places to look for hints of this year’s elusive spring. There has to be some positive things happening around us even in this interminable winter!

S. Williams, Flickr

S. Williams, Flickr

My first stop was my glassed-in, front porch on a sunny afternoon (outside air temperature was ten degrees). I looked for any ladybird beetles coming out from behind the aluminum siding, but they weren’t buying the day’s feeble attempt at spring-time warmth. I even looked inside the folded deck umbrellas and in the stack of empty birdseed bags for some active, brown marmorated stink bugs (how desperate is that?), but they weren’t ready to wake up either. I did find one walking stink bug on the wall in the inside hallway of the house. I dealt with him via the O’Hara Method (see blog on October 3, 2014).

I have been alert in the early mornings for the smell of skunk knowing that the males start wandering about in the middle to late winter looking for mates. My old dog Kozmo used to be a master at finding these early skunks (he just couldn’t help himself, I guess). I did come up with a very good recipe for de-skunking a dog, though, thanks to all of the trial and error opportunities he provided me. If anyone needs it, I am happy to share. Izzy has yet to see a skunk, and neither of us has detected any fresh scent out under the bird feeders or in the side yard.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The gray squirrels are acting increasingly goofy around the bird feeders. One of the squirrels will suddenly break away from its obsessive gorging on my (really expensive!) black oil sunflower seeds and start chasing one of the other squirrels around the yard. They go over and around the heated bird bath, and then up the front spruce tree. They are just saying “hello,” I am sure! We’ll watch their “winter-born” litter grow up this summer. So many more squirrel mouths to feed!

In the early morning while walking Izzy I hear the male cardinals doing their “birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie” songs all the way to completion now. Even on the very cold mornings the males are singing at each other trying to emphasize how fit they each are and that their genes are something to be greatly desired! How they can be so energetic without coffee, though, is beyond me.

The female sharp-shinned hawk has not yet come to the top of the gnarly black locust tree out back to screech for her mate. I am sure that if they are going to have any eggs this year they have at least started their courtship rituals, but the afternoons out back have been quiet. I found several blood and feather spots in the snow out and around my yard and field. The sharp-shins are preying on the feeder birds. From the feather piles I infer that they mostly take doves and cardinals.

The usual time for the robins to return to southern Armstrong County is the middle of February (usually the 13th or 14th of the month). This return date has been very consistent over the 25 years that I have been watching. There is no sign of them around my house yet this year, though. Too much snow and ice covering all of the places where the earthworms hide! It’s just been too cold for them to ease them out of the sheltered valleys and woodlots. I am very happy to report, though, that my Ecology students who are surveying the birds on campus saw a robin and several male bluebirds last Tuesday! They were down at the edge of the Nature Trail woods at the end of the soccer field. Soon the big flocks will arrive!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Spider, my box turtle has also kept his head down (or in his shell, as it were). He has moved about a bit on our few sunny days but has not taken up his “feeding” pose where he stretches out his surprisingly long neck to stare up at the top of his terrarium (food always drops in from above!). He is not thinking of strawberries and earthworms yet, but I do wonder what his winter dreams are like!

So, everything is really waiting. The signs of spring will all wash over us all at once just as soon as these arctic air masses stop pouring across us and the warm, humid Gulf of Mexico air starts its northward push. Those winds from the south will blow the migrating birds our way and the warm air will trigger the leaf buds to open and the flowers to bloom. Everything will happen all at once!

I am going to go out to the campus nature trail this week to see if the skunk cabbage has melted its way up through the snow yet. I’d rather be seeing flocks of robins and the blooms of crocuses, but I’ll take the skunk cabbage if that is all that I can get!

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Signs of Spring #1: Monarchs Waking up in Michoacán!

Carolina wren (photo by D.Pancomo, Wikimedia Commons)

Carolina wren
(photo by D.Pancomo, Wikimedia Commons)

I have wanted to start the Signs of Spring but have not “seen” very many hints that this long, cold winter was ready to give way to warmer, greener days. There are a few birds singing when I take my dog, Izzy, out for her 6:45 am walk. Titmice are pinging out their two note patterns, Carolina wrens (who have sung all winter!) cycle through their four phrase whistles, and northern cardinals make starts at their pulsating, territorial songs from the tops of the surrounding spruce and maple trees. These birds are already thinking about mating. What could be a bigger sign of spring? The blue jays are also pinging and screeching at me but they are just demanding their morning piles of peanuts and shelled corn. Another observation of the approaching spring is that it is not pitch dark at 6:45 am. I don’t have to carry a flashlight or risk being blinded by passing cars’ headlights as I walk along the roadside. We have added an hour and forty minutes to our daylight since the winter solstice on December 21. Sunrise is happening 40 minutes earlier than it did during our darkest day. Now, all of this is important, but it doesn’t quite feel like enough to start our observations of spring.

Photo by R. Kumra, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by R. Kumra, Wikimedia Commons

So, instead, I am starting with a thought experiment: I am imagining that I am in the coniferous forests of the mountains in the states of Mexico and Michoacán in south-central Mexico near the town that our good friend and former teaching colleague, Maria Franco, grew up. The branches and the limbs of these tall trees are covered with the orange and black bodies of millions of hibernating monarch butterflies, and right about now these butterflies are starting to wake up! Great clouds of monarchs are swirling around in the air!

The monarchs that have been sleeping away the winter in these Mexican forests are nearing the end of their nine month long life spans. They are starting to fly to the north drinking nectar from the early blooming flowers and mating along the way. They may get as far as Texas or Oklahoma where, hopefully, their arrival will coincide with the emergence of this season’s milkweed plants. The females will then lay their three to four hundred eggs on the milkweeds (spreading the eggs out over a large number of plants) and the overwintering generation will die.

The eggs will hatch in three to five days depending on the temperature. The emerging larvae feed first on the egg capsule and then begin to eat the milkweed leaves. They will molt five times during this larval life stage and increase their body mass more than two thousand times. The eggs and the larvae (the “caterpillars”) are under intense predation and parasite pressures. More than ninety percent of the eggs and caterpillars will fail to survive. Eggs will be eaten by ants, earwigs and snails, and larvae will be eaten by beetles and other insects (like paper wasps) or killed by parasitoid wasps, bacteria, or fungi. Since the larvae feed exclusively on milkweed leaves they accumulate the milkweed’s cardeolides (a cardiac glycoside that can cause the heart of a vertebrate to stop its contractions!) in their body tissues. These cardeolides make the larvae (and, eventually, the adults) poisonous to most vertebrates. Relatively few monarch caterpillars or adult butterflies, then, will be consumed by vertebrate predators.

Photo by T. Hall, Flickr

Photo by T. Hall, Flickr

The end stage caterpillar then forms a cocoon (“chrysalis”) within which the tissues and organs of the larvae dissolve and are reformed into the structures of the butterfly. This metamorphosis takes between nine and fifteen days. The emergence of the butterfly from the chrysalis stimulates mating and a drive to fly on toward the northeast. New adults repeat this mating, feeding, and egg laying cycle several times through the summer until seasonal conditions or some innate developmental cue triggers the adults to turn around, forgo mating, and then start the long trip back to the mountain forests of Mexico.

The above cycle is characteristic of the very large monarch population that is east of the Rocky Mountains. Almost all of these butterflies overwinter in the coniferous forests in the mountains of Michoacán and Mexico. This round trip migration to and from this very specific overwintering site in Mexico covers several thousand miles. The monarchs that live in the smaller area west of the Rockies, on the other hand, overwinter in in coastal sites in Southern and Central California. Their migratory route only measures hundreds of miles at the most. In both overwintering sites, however, the numbers of monarchs covering the trees and shrubs while they wait out the winter months in their inactive, diapause states can be truly staggering!

There are some recent observations about the long-distant, migrating, eastern monarchs. One involves the impact of the long, fall migration to reduce the parasite load of the butterflies’ population. A serious, protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) that infects monarchs is eliminated when they undergo the strenuous migration all the way to the forests of Michoacán (because infected individuals do not survive the migration!). When the monarchs bypass the long migration (by selecting to overwinter in forests of southern United States (like in Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novel “Flight Behavior”)) or when they linger too long at planted patches of tropical milkweed (which does not undergo a seasonal die-back like the temperate milkweed species), then they do not select out individuals carrying the parasites possibly with disastrous results (results that could include annihilation of the entire overwintering population!).

The trip to Mexico, then, is built into the health and fitness of the entire monarch species! Maria has promised Deborah and I that she will take us to Mexico to see the monarchs in their forests. A great January trip that will feel like a dream!

So, on this cold, wintery day I am not looking at the ice and snow around me. I close my eyes and I am in Michoacán with the monarchs. It is a glorious sign of spring!

Posted in Bill's Notes | 6 Comments

Signs of Winter 12: Blight Resistant American Chestnut Trees! (go, Stumpies!!!)

Forest History Society

Forest History Society

Last week I wrote about the emerald ash borer and its devastating assault on our eastern forests. In that essay I mentioned the America chestnut and the terrible blight that attacked it over one hundred years ago. American chestnuts were once one of the most abundant trees in the eastern United States. They were not the tallest tree in the forest, but they did have huge trunks that could be ten or twelve feet in diameter and thick, extending, shading branches that spread out over remarkably large areas (Photo of virgin American chestnut trees used with permission from the Forest History Society).

The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) also produced large numbers of extremely palatable nuts that were eaten not only by squirrels, birds, deer, and bears but also humans. The American chestnut made these nuts in abundance every year (unlike oak trees, say, that make their acorns over multi-year, boom and bust cycles). Many animals relied on the yearly production of chestnuts to sustain their populations.

Photo by B. Marlin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by B. Marlin, Wikimedia Commons

In 1904, though, the American chestnuts lining the roads and walkways of the Bronx Zoo began to sicken. Their leaves withered and great lesions appeared in their bark. The trees then died one by one. They were the first recorded casualties of Chestnut Blight epidemic that swept through the eastern United States. There is evidence that the fungus responsible for this disease (Cryphonectria parasitica) had been present in the southern U.S. since the 1820’s, but the death of the chestnuts in New York set off alarms that reverberated through the country. By 1950, the American chestnut was for all intents and purposes “gone.” It was no longer a reliable source of nuts or timber. It was no longer a tree of size and majesty.

The species, though, persisted even in the face of this awful disease. The fungus can be transported either via insects or on the wind and infects a tree through cracks in its bark. The fungal mycelia then grow into the cambium layer of the tree (the part of the tree that includes the vascular system that transports sugars and nutrients). The tree responds to the infection by sealing off the infected cambium with a dense, callus tissue. But the fungus grows faster than the callus and eventually the tree loses its ability to transport nutrients and dies. The fungus, though, does not affect the tree’s roots, and new chestnut trees are then able to sprout from the still living roots and stumps. Depending upon the site density of the chestnut trees and the abundance of the fungal spores, these new sprouts may grow for ten to fifteen years before the fungal infection kills them. They can reach heights of fifteen to twenty feet and can even produce nuts for several years before they die back. This growth and die-back cycle has caused the American chestnut to become more of a shrub than a tree!

All this, though, might be changing dramatically. Two researchers (Bill Powell and Chuck Maynard) and their teams at one of Deborah’s and my alma maters, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) (a college whose students are affectionately referred to as “Stumpies!”) have unveiled a viable and thriving, transgenetic American chestnut that is resistant to the fungus that causes chestnut blight. They are waiting for final federal review and approval so that they can begin planting these trees back into the forests of the eastern United States.

Photo by J. Grandmont, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by J. Grandmont, Wikimedia Commons

How they developed this hybrid tree is simple to explain but astoundingly complex in its actual accomplishment. Some forty years ago researchers at another institution noted that strains of pathogenic tree fungi that produce low levels of oxalic acid are far less virulent than the strains that produce high levels of this acid. So the researcher team at SUNY-ESF isolated a gene from wheat plants that codes for an enzyme (oxalate oxidase) that breaks down oxalic acid and inserted it into the genome of the American chestnut tree. It turns out that wheat and many other grass species use this oxalate oxidase as a generalized protection against their own fungal infections, and it further turns out that this enzyme is equally as effective as a fungal control agent in the transgenetic chestnut tree! The chestnut blight fungus makes large amounts of oxalic acid at the margins of those calluses (or “cankers”) that the chestnut trees make to try to seal the fungal infection off from the tree’s healthy tissues. The acid eats away the wall of the protective callus and allows the fungus to then run riot through the tree’s tissues. Breaking down the oxalic acid at this margin not only neutralizes the erosive tool of the fungus but also, via the impact of the hydrogen peroxide that is being generated as a consequence of the catalyzed oxalic acid oxidation, strengthens the lignins in the wood of the callus! The callus, then, very effectively seals off the blight fungus and the tree remains healthy!

The Chinese chestnut tree and other Asian varieties are resistant to the chestnut blight fungus through other genetic mechanisms, but it turns out that the transgenetic American chestnut with its oxalic oxidase enzyme and lignin enhanced calluses is even more resistant to the fungus than those Asian chestnut species to this disease!
The final phase of this SUNY-ESF project is to raise and plant ten thousand of these blight resistant, transgenetic American chestnut trees. This past fall, to raise funds for this effort, the Development Office of SUNY-ESF set up a crowd funding campaign called the “Ten Thousand Chestnut Challenge.” They sent emails to SUNY-ESF alumnae and to past donors to the college hoping to raise the fifty thousand dollars needed to cover the costs of this tree production program. In the four brief weeks of the campaign, they exceeded their goals and raised over one hundred and four thousand dollars!

Photo by N. Tonelli, Flickr

Photo by N. Tonelli, Flickr

A benefit of becoming a contributor to this chestnut tree crowd funding challenge was that you received a small bag of American chestnut tree seeds as a token of thanks. These seeds are not for the transgenetic, blight resistant American chestnut, but instead are from a genetically diverse array of wild American chestnut trees. The trees grown from these seeds will serve as “Mother” trees that will be crossed with the transgenetic chestnuts to greatly expand their genetic base! My zip-lock bag of chestnut seeds are in the salad crisper of my refrigerator getting their three months of “winter weather” so that they will germinate when planted in the spring. I will share pictures this summer!!

If you want to read more about this fantastic research and rehabilitation effort, check out www.esf.edu/chestnut . Happy winter, everyone, and happy chestnut forests!

Go, Stumpies!!

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Signs of Winter #11: Winter Walk on the Nature Trail

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Last week Deborah and I finished our Friday classes and office hours by noon and then planned to spend a couple of hours out on the campus Nature Trail. It was still quite cold (about 20 degrees) with a strong wind between 15 and 20 mph. After we got back from the hike, I entered the temperature and wind speed data into an on-line wind chill calculator and came up with a 4 degree F wind chill. We were a bit more sheltered from the wind down in the woods, but now I know why our hands and feet felt so numb!

There was a light, cloud cover (what we call “Pennsylvania sunshine”) so we headed out with our camera to try to re-take some of the pictures that have illustrated our winter hike on the Virtual Nature since 2001. The sunlight, though, failed us and the pictures turned out too dark to use on the web site.

To get to the entrance of the Nature Trail we had to cross the new soccer practice field. The snow on the field was about ten inches deep, well packed down by freeze-thaw cycles, and covered with a hard, thick, icy crust. Each step we took broke through the ice and sunk our boots a couple inches down into the Styrofoam-like snow. The noise of each of these steps was an impressive set of crashes and crunches. The two of us sounded like an army marching down a gravel road.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We wanted to watch and listen for birds along the trail, so we had to stop frequently to get relief from the walking noises to try to catch hints of the bird songs around us. By the time we got to the trail I realized that my binoculars were safe and warm back on my desk in my office. Oh, well. We did see and hear chickadees and titmice in the low branches around us and spotted a solitary, white-breasted nuthatch high up in the branches of a sugar maple tree. There were also some small groups of sparrows flitting around in the low undergrowth, but without binoculars I couldn’t tell if they were white-throated sparrows or song sparrows. We also heard the faint rappings of woodpeckers (downies?) back in the woods far off of the trail. We saw a lot of evidence of woodpecker activity, too (more on that later).

The snow on the trail was as crusted and as deep as it had been out on the soccer field, so walking was difficult. The snow surface in the woods was also covered with rabbit tracks! In the winter the eastern cottontail forages around looking for woody plants to consume (including the twigs, bark, and buds of oak, dogwood, sumac, maple and birch). Usually these rabbits hunt for food by themselves in the winter, but the density and pattern of the tracks made it look like a good sized group of rabbits had been collectively active out on the trail in some kind of a rabbit rumpus! It looks like we have a robust population of eastern cottontails this year!

Our boot crunching scared up a white-tailed deer (a doe) that had been hunkered down in the brush of the oak and poplar section of the trail. She leaped on ahead and was down the slope of the ravine before we could even point the camera in her direction.

Up The Poplar Tree!  Photo by D. Sillman

Up The Poplar Tree!
Photo by D. Sillman

I had descriptions of the web site photographs we were trying to upgrade, and it was very interesting looking at the trail from a “year 2001” perspective. For example, we wanted some shots of wild raspberry canes sticking up through the snow and of barberry bushes with their little red berries still attached, but these plants were not as abundant as they had been fourteen years ago. Instead, almost all of the plants growing along the trail were multiflora rose! This invasive plant, which I have written about many times before, apparently, has outgrown and out competed the native raspberry and also the exotic barberry and has greatly changed the floral composition along the trail.

Several trees have come down across the trail this winter. A white ash has fallen across the Entrance Trail, a yellow poplar is blocking the end of the Red Pine Trail, and a tall, sugar maple has fallen across the Wildflower Trail. The size of the maple forced us to detour high up into the woods as we were hiking on the blocked trail up from the bridge over the lower stream. Clean-up Day this spring will require a chain saw or two to clear the paths.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The most significant thing we saw on this snow hike, though, was up beside the pavilion at the beginning of the trail. Along the Entrance Trail are a number of white ash trees. These trees are interesting for a number of reasons including the rich growth of lichens that cover their ridged, diamond-patterned bark. Students in past years have mapped these lichens and evaluated the preference of the lichens for the complex surfaces of these trees. Today, however, the bark of all of the white ash trees along the trail were scratched and scarred with woodpecker holes. The woodpeckers (probably the downy or the hairy from the relatively small sizes of the bark tears) were in search of larvae of beetles living just beneath the bark. It was an ominous sign. It indicated that these white ash trees were infested with emerald ash borers.

The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is an exotic invasive beetle from Asia (eastern Russia, northern China, Korea and Japan). It was first detected in the United States in 2002 in a stand of ash trees near Detroit, Michigan, but it has probably been in North America since the 1990’s. The beetle has subsequently spread to twenty-four states and two Canadian provinces. There are 7.5 billion ash trees in the United States and nearly all of them (green ash, black ash, white ash, and blue ash) are threatened by this beetle. So far, 50 million ash trees in the United States have been killed by the emerald ash borer.

The adult, ash borer beetle is quite striking in appearance: it is about a half and inch long and is a bright, metallic green. Adult females lay eggs on the ridged bark of ash trees and the hatching larvae then eat their way through the tough outer bark into the living tissues of the tree. The phloem (the sugar/sap transporting vascular tissue) and the actively growing, cambium layer of the tree are consumed by the developing larvae. The larvae can so effectively destroy the sap flow of the tree that entire limbs or even the main trunk of the tree can be effectively “girdled” (or severed) thus causing limb systems or the entire tree to die.

In June 2007 the emerald ash borer was found in Cranberry Township in Butler County just to the west of Penn State New Kensington. In June 2009 it was found in Westmoreland County (the county where our campus is located) in nearby Allegheny Township. Now we know that it is here in Upper Burrell Township, too. To date, fifty-five counties in Pennsylvania have been infested by the emerald ash borer.

Sadly, these white ash trees will die. There are white ash trees all across the long ridge on which Penn State New Kensington sits and many more down in the wooded valleys that surround us. These trees are also probably infested and are dying.

Think of the carnage that has hit our forests because of exotic, pest species! The impact of the emerald ash borer may remove an entire group of tree species from our eastern forests. It may be even more devastating than the Chestnut Blight or Dutch Elm disease, two other exotic, invasive diseases brought to North America by human activity. And, remember the gypsy moth and their devastation of our oak trees? There is a large, fallen white oak out on the campus nature trail that is testament to the gypsy moth population explosions of the 1990’s! And, let’s not forget about the Asian long horned beetles that are plaguing our maples and many other hardwood species or the wooly adelgids that are destroying our state tree, the Canadian hemlock. And, most sadly, there are many more! Our forests have been and continue to be under terrible assaults by agents we have transported from afar.

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Signs of Winter 10: Cardinals! (and some House Cat Day Results!)

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Back in early December in response to the Signs of Winter #4 blog about northern juncos, Irene Wolf, a teaching colleague at Penn State, asked about the cardinals she was seeing in Cheswick. It was hard to believe, she wrote, that these beautiful birds were hardy enough to survive our harsh winters. Could they be some other species?
Nope. They are cardinals!

The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is one of the most recognizable birds in North America. The bright red body feathers and distinctive black mask of the male and the more subdued but equally elegant olive brown and red-tinted feathers of the females stand out clearly in their wide range of preferred habitats. They are very abundant in the edges of woods and thickets, in open fields, in suburban yards and gardens, and in a wide variety of urban green spaces.

The northern cardinal is found throughout the eastern United States and on south into Mexico and Central America. Historically, cardinals were most numerous in the southern portions of their geographic range, but they have been steadily increasing in numbers in the north and are even expanding their distribution northward into northern New England and southern Canada. The western boundary of their range is roughly along a line from the Dakotas to western Texas although there are cardinal populations in New Mexico, southern Arizona, and California. There are cardinals in northwestern Iowa. I remember my Uncle Harold talking about how much he liked “those red birds” that visited his farm out in Humboldt County. I remember standing out in his yard watching small groups of bright red cardinals mixed in with large flocks of cedar waxwings.

Photo by K. Thomas, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by K. Thomas, Wikimedia Commons

The expanding distribution of the northern cardinal has been described by some as another ecological consequence of global warming. Some researchers, though, feel that the increasing popular hobby of providing birds with seed in feeders may have allowed this species to thrive in regions previously too marginal or too harsh for their survival. Further, the ongoing fragmentation of natural forest habitats by human activity and the proliferation of suburban shrub and conifer plantings have created increasingly abundant “edge” ecosystems which are greatly favored by this species.

The northern cardinal eats a wide variety of seeds (including those from pine trees, smartweed, blindweed, foxtail, dock, thistle, chickweed, button weed, sorrel, and a great variety of grasses), fruits (including grapes, dogwood fruit, blackberries, cherries, and raspberries), and even the buds of some trees (including elm and chokecherry). They also eat insects and, in fact, rely almost exclusively on insects as food for their rapidly growing young.

Cardinals are also very common visitors to backyard bird feeders and avidly consume large quantities of sunflower seeds. In fact, if you put a bird feeder with a bird seed mix that does not include sunflower seeds, you are very likely to not attract very many cardinals! The northern cardinal is not migratory and will remain even in the most stressful parts of its geographic range throughout the winter if it is sustained by human-maintained bird feeders.

Our front yard bird feeders are visited by an abundant number of cardinals throughout the year. In the spring males perch on top of the tallest trees around the edges of the yard and sing their pulsing, territory songs. Mated pairs frequently have three clutches of eggs and can be seen throughout the summer frantically feeding their fledglings on every surrounding branch and fence post. The nurturing compulsion of this species is legendary. Someone once even observed a compulsive parental cardinal trying to feed seeds to surface gaping goldfish in a garden fish pond!

Photo by N. Townsend, Flickr

Photo by N. Townsend, Flickr

The arbor vitae on the west side of our property, and the spruces and hemlocks on the north and west boundaries are full of cardinal nests throughout the summer and are packed with night roosting individuals throughout the winter. In the winter we often have twenty or thirty cardinal at a time swarming the perches of the front yard seed hoppers and the piles of spilled seed on the ground below them. The red males light up the gray days and stand out electrically against the brown leaves and the scattered, white snow.

Northern cardinals are preyed upon by owls, small hawks, and house cats. I frequently find bright red feathers in piles below perches used by our pair of sharp-shinned hawks. My cats (which whom I just celebrated our third annual House Cat Day on February 2!) are both too fat and too addicted to crunchy, dry cat food to pay much attention to quick moving birds! Cardinal nests may be raided by chipmunks, blue jays, crows, and a variety of snakes. Two summers ago I described a cardinal nest built out in a spruce tree just outside my back window that was raided and destroyed by cows and blue jays. Also, cowbirds are common nest parasites, and northern cardinals complete with catbirds and mockingbirds for nesting sites.

Photo by M. Hamilton

Photo by M. Hamilton

On average, northern cardinals live for 3 years in the wild although several individuals have had life spans of 13 to 15 years. The longevity record for a captive northern cardinal is 28 ½ years! It is nice to think that the cardinals we watch each winter and summer will be around with us for several years to come!

House Cat Day results varied across the country. In the warm, sunny southwest (Albuquerque, NM) my daughter

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Marian’s cats (Binx and Mora pictured above) spent their House Cat Day lounging outside on a picnic table, seeing their shadows, but not reacting to them in any way at all. Analysis: an early spring in New Mexico.

In Apollo, Pennsylvania Mazie went out (on February 3 because of very lousy weather on the 2nd!) and immediately ran for the open porch door. Analysis: six more weeks of winter for us!

 

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Signs of Winter 9: House Cat Day III

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Two years ago in my January 21, 2013 blog (very optimistically entitled “Signs of Spring 3”) and again in last years’ January 28, 2014 blog “The Winter: Housecat Day II” I wrote about Groundhog Day and suggested that we change this early February day-of-prediction to focus not on an animal that is sound asleep in his grass-lined burrow, but rather on an animal with whom we could more naturally base an ecologically or culturally significant day of hope for the coming spring.

I went through the cases for using robins, or bumblebees, or scarlet tanagers as our symbolic animal to celebrate the anticipation of the coming spring, but settled on what was, to me anyway, the most logical species among us. That species, of course, is the housecat (Felis catus).

Cats are the most popular house pet in the United States (the Humane Society estimates that there 74 to 86 million house cats in the U.S. (as compared to “only” 70 to 78 million dogs). Housecats, usually, share the warm, dry living spaces of a house with humans (of course, they usually keep the really nice spots all to themselves!), and cats especially share with humans a hardwired, probably DNA-based fondness for sunshine, warm temperatures, and fun, fluttery organisms like birds (their “bird-agenda,” though, is often quite different from ours!).

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

So, two years ago on February 2, I took one of my housecats, Mazie (pictured above), out into the snow-covered front yard (I tried to take both of my cats, but Taz (pictured to the side) sensed that something was up and disappeared into one of her magical hiding places somewhere in the house). I put Mazie down in the yard (on a nice dry towel!), and left the front porch door open. If Mazie ran for the porch, then we would have six more weeks of winter. If Mazie stayed on her towel or starting walking around in the yard thus avoiding a dash back into the house, then spring was just around the corner.

I was amazed how fast she ran back into the house! But, that year the weather suddenly turned warm by late February. March temperatures set record breaking highs (I even remember a day when it nearly got up to ninety degrees!). Maybe our predictive model was not articulated correctly.

Last year I did the same, and Mazie responded with equal speed and agility and got back into the house even before Deborah could take the lens cap off of her camera. Last year, though, winter hung on grimly well into March. Mazie’s prediction, then, fit the observed phenomenon. The model has re-set itself?

Photo by M. Hamilton

Photo by M. Hamilton

We’ll find out on Monday, February 2 what this year will bring! Mazie returns to the front yard for her third experimental trial. If I can find Taz I will take her outside, too! Deborah will have her camera all ready before the test begins! I am sure that Mazie will do her best for us all! Our daughter Marian has her two cats (Binx and Mora (pictured to the side)) primed and ready for a New Mexican House Cat Day celebration! The Tradition is spreading! Blog followers in Washington, in Illinois, in Iowa, in California, in New York, and in Oklahoma, if you don’t have a cat of your own, borrow one! Dare to participate!! Results will be published soon!

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Signs of Winter 8: Bees!

Photo by I.Tsukuba, Flickr

Photo by I.Tsukuba, Flickr

Jennifer Wood and her husband Robert Steffes keep bees. Over the years they have been not only great sources of information about these wonderful animals, but also they have kept me well supplied with the jars of honey I need to get my blood sugar elevated enough each morning to face the new day!

Jennifer responded to the “Migrate, Mutate, or Die” blog (Signs of Winter #5) by describing the adaptive strategies their bees (European honeybees, Apis melifera) employ to survive the winter. European honeybees do not hibernate, but instead stay active throughout the long, cold winter months. The honeybees cluster around the honey combs inside of their hives and shiver their flight muscles to generate heat. The temperature inside of a bee-warmed hive can reach as high as ninety degrees F (although optimal temperatures would not be nearly that warm!). The cluster of shivering bees moves up (never down!) the honey comb so that they continually encounter fresh honey to fuel their muscle contractions and heat production. These bees also rotate individuals from the very warm middle of the shivering cluster to the less warm, more stressful outer edges in order to spread the impact of the winter’s thermal stress over the entire group.

Photo Public Domain, Pixabay

Photo Public Domain, Pixabay

European honeybees, then, are primed and ready for the first hints of spring weather and are able to move right into pollen and nectar gathering as soon as temperatures and the first waves of spring flowers allow. This ability to immediately respond to the bounty of spring is a significant selective advantage for the species.

There is a downside to this overwintering strategy, though. Two years ago I wrote about the impact of a warm, late winter on honeybees that triggered their early emergence into a world in which no plants had yet flowered. These bees spent a large amount of their limited energy reserves in futile attempts to find nectar and ended up gathering almost anything that might substitute for their natural foods (one gentleman in Latrobe wrote me about bees completely cleaning out his cracked corn bird feeder!). Without extra feeding by a beekeeper, these bees would be very likely not to have sufficient food to survive the remaining cold days and nights of the winter and early spring.

The overwintering strategy of the honeybee, then, sits in a very delicate balance between great success and absolute failure! The European honeybee, though is only one type of bee out the twenty thousand known species, and many of these other types of bees have very different “solutions” to surviving the winter,

I went to a web site that listed the common insects of Pennsylvania (insectIdentification.org ) and noted the types of bees likely to be present here. The site listed the European honeybee, four species of bumble bees (Bombus spp.), and two species of carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp).

Photo by P. Vivero, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by P. Vivero, Wikimedia Commons

Bumble bees, like European honeybees, live in colonies. The sizes of these colonies, though, are quite different. A domesticated honeybee colony can contain up to eighty thousand individual bees during the peak of summer activity. A bumble bee colony, though, usually has less than fifty individuals. Toward the end of the summer new queens (fertile female bees) and fertile male bees mature in the bumble bee colony. These fertile individuals emerge and mate, and then the males die shortly thereafter. The mated queens, though, continue to feed on flower nectar and pollen and find crevices, holes, or even sheltering flowers in which they can spend the night. They steadily build up considerable body energy reserves that will see them through the long winter.

Eventually, as the summer fades and the cooler nights of autumn signal the coming winter, these queens find more protected places (often abandoned mouse nests or burrows in sandy soils) where they can hibernate. They go into a physiological state that enables them to slowly use their energy stores as they wait out the long, cold winter months. Early in the spring, these queens stir from hibernation and begin to forage for nectar and pollen among the early spring flowers. Their large body sizes and extensive coverings of hairs enable them to retain heat even in air temperatures that would seem to be too cool for insect activity. In the early spring these great, floating bees fly about close to the soil surface in their search for flowers. They must be careful, though, not to misjudge their rate of energy use or the lateness of the day or they might get caught out away from their hibernaculae and end up freezing in the cold, night air.

These bumble bee queens eventually establish their summer colony site and begin to lay eggs. The small cohort of workers that develop, then begin to assist the nurturing and survival of the colony. A bumble bee colony only lasts one season, so it is imperative that enough food resources be gathered to fuel the production of the next generation of queens.

Photo by ysmad.com, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by ysmad.com, Wikimedia Commons

Carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.) are solitary bees (they do not form colonies although in some species the sisters and/or the daughters of a fertile female may continue to nest together in a simple social group). Adult carpenter bees drill branching cavities into wood (and can be the cause of a great deal of damage to buildings and homes), but they do not eat the wood. They discard the woody debris (or use it to make partitions inside of their woody nest) and rely on nectar and pollen for their food. Carpenter bees are important flower pollinators and many people have made the decision that the wood damage they cause to homes or barns is small price to pay for all of the essential pollinating work these bees accomplish.

Photo by ZooFari, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by ZooFari, Wikimedia Commons

Adult carpenter bees hibernate in the woody burrows in which they were born and in the spring, emerge and mate and either continue to live in those nests with their extended female family members or strike off and establish new woody burrows nearby. The male carpenter bees live solitary lives outside the nests and visit flowers to gather their individual food requirements. They do not, however, enter the nests at night or contribute to the groups’ accumulation of pollen or nectar.

Bees, then, survive winter in a variety of ways. They can be adults shivering together, waiting for warming temperatures. They can be mated, hibernating queens sleeping through the snow and cold. They can also be un-mated males and queens hibernating in their parental nest burrows.

I can’t wait to see the spring bumble bees drifting about like little zeppelins or the swarms of honeybees clustering over the first flowers of the spring! We have more winter to get through first, though! Hang in there!

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