Ducks

The old “MR DUCKS – MR NOT” joke has just taken on new meaning for me. Over the winter break, I kept an eye on rare bird alerts, hoping that one would pop up in my neck of the woods. I went to a nature center looking for a red-headed woodpecker, to a local pond in search of a snow goose, and a new location – a recently redeveloped lake-filled quarry – hoping to see an out-of-season orange-crowned warbler. None of the hoped-for rarities appeared.

incoming geeseBut at the last site, I was watching the flocks of Canada geese taking off and landing when I noticed smaller waterfowl scattered among them. Whether these were rare, I had no clue. All I really knew for sure was – as they say – MR DUCKS.

While I have learned over the years to identify many birds, there are gaping holes in my waterfowl knowledge. Never having lived nor spent significant time near freshwater or marine habitats, I had less impetus to learn to identify their residents than the ones in my own backyard.  Other than the mallards that I raised and released on our small farm pond as a kid, and the ubiquitous Canada geese, I really don’t know waterfowl.geese mallards

But now, staring out at all these unfamiliar birds in a place almost in my backyard, I felt a challenge rising.  2018: Year of the duck.

For me, close and persistent observation – preferably accompanied by photography, so that I can study images in depth – is the key to really learning species. On my first excursion to the quarry, distinguishing different species was mostly a matter of playing the “One of these things is not like the others” game. In a flock of hundreds, could I discern through binoculars who was different from anyone else?geese 1

Some were divers, some dabblers. Markings were clearly different, but were these due to sex? Age? I photographed lots of birds, hoping the images would help reveal identities.

Back at home, a field guide helped me sort out the various species: bufflehead, hooded merganser, ruddy, ring-necked and redhead ducks.  The next day, I went back. This time, armed with clear search images, I was able to quickly spot and identify all of the same species. The mergansers, tufted hoods prominent, swam and dove in male-female pairs, while the buffleheads dove, popped up, and joined small groupings of other ducks. The ruddy duck bobbed about among the geese like a tiny bathtub toy, head tucked under its wing.ruddy

The birds observed me from a safe distance, moving away whenever I tried to get a closer vantage point, diving and never reappearing where I expected them to be.bufflehead 2 dive

Maybe as they grow accustomed to seeing me, I will become less of a threat. While some birders aim to spot as many species as they can in a year, I am hoping simply to move my knowledge beyond MR DUCKS – MR NOT. The challenge is on.merganser pair

 

 

 

Solstice

At 11:28 AM on December 21, a long shadow fell across the frozen surface of a shallow pool. Solst…ice.solstice shadow

There is a magical quality to ice, its translucence and shimmer immediately attracting kids who then, of course, need to slide and jump on it, shatter and collect bits of it.ice glass

Ice captures and preserves pieces of the past, brings death to some things and new life to others. In the Jemicy stream, frogs, salamanders and aquatic invertebrates wait out winter in the mud below, though sometimes we find them tucked under a log or in a shallow hole, seemingly frozen solid, one with the ice.

cold frog

In my solstice shadow today, I spied movement. There were a few tadpoles wiggling sluggishly in the mud, but other creatures were swimming about just under the ice. A diving beetle made forays back and forth to a submerged log, while backswimmers scooted by near the surface. They slid along the underside of the ice, displaying their greenish ventral side, and then quickly dove away, startled by movement.

There were dozens of them active on a day when the air never got much above freezing, when the great blue heron kept one foot tucked near its warm belly as it ate lunch.

heron vole

The cold wasn’t stopping the spiders either – they were hunting small flies along the bank. I wondered what the water temperature was, and how invertebrates could summon the energy to move at all, let alone actively forage there.

spider122117a

As Sol begins the long arc back up to summer solstice, I’m glad to see ice mark the beginning of winter.

 

 

Restoration

For the past several weekends, sunshine and mild weather have lured me to the fields and forests of Irvine Nature Center. It has been a favorite haunt since the center moved to a state-donated expanse encompassing several hundred acres of former cropland, low-lying woods and wetlands. The land had been logged, drained, and cultivated over the past century for farming, then abandoned.Irvine reforestation

Every time I visit this site, I recall my first time there in 2001, volunteering with a group making preliminary baseline species counts prior to the planned nature center relocation. It was a sunny spring day, red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures circled overhead, and red-winged blackbirds made their raucous territorial displays.

We walked for what seemed like miles through old corn fields, many overgrown with multiflora rose and bordered by drainage ditches. Species counts were low, reflecting the lack of habitat suitable for the butterflies, amphibians, and birds you’d expect to find in open, wet landscape like this. How, I wondered to myself, could this overworked, depauperate tract of land ever provide the rich diversity of living things central to a nature center’s mission?

Then, directly in front of us, a bird I didn’t recognize made a gliding pass across the field, its head lowered to spot small prey, its white rump visible as it banked and veered off at another angle. I was transfixed; it was my first time seeing a northern harrier. If this bird was hunting here, I thought, then there must be more to this place than I could see.

Harriers are still here, gliding serenely amid the ongoing and monumental endeavor that is the restoration of Irvine’s 210 acres to meadow, wetland and forest. Hillsides once dominated by corn are now carpeted in milkweed, coneflower, and other native wildflowers and grasses. Slow-moving water seeps into streams, trickles into pools, and soaks the soil for new stands of sycamore and red maple. During the summer, a green heron frequented the wetlands, and a solitary sandpiper made a stopover on its journey south. Numerous tree swallows hunted here during the summer as well, nesting in the houses and tree hollows available around the site.

tree swallow

Now, even in the near-dormancy of early December, the place hums with expectation and the promise of abundant diverse organisms ready to make the most of new habitat opportunities. I paused by one of the pools, and my shadow caused several tadpoles to dart away from the sun-warmed water at the edge and bury themselves in the muddy bottom. It makes me impatient for spring, anticipating the wealth of amphibian life afforded by reestablishing a more natural flow of water through the landscape.

tadpole

As I was passing by one of Irvine’s field edges last week, I was startled by a large bird lifting off just in front of me: a great blue heron. It landed not far away and appeared to ignore me as it peered intently into the brush. I sat and watched, wondering what it was hunting. Small rodents? Its stalking motion was barely detectable.

It flew off again making a low circuit, landed, and resumed its hunting, soon joined by another. It was the first time I could recall seeing great blue herons here. Maybe they, too, were reaping the benefits of the reconstructed hydrology.

One of my personal measures of a location’s biodiversity is the length of time that it keeps me in a kind of hunting reverie, my attention captured and held at every step by the life around me. In the early days of visiting Irvine, I might wander along the forest edges watching raptors sailing over the fields, then leave still feeling unsatisfied. Today, I am left more like the land itself: restored.

12-3-17-36

 

Fungus among us

“I found a really weird mushroom!” is an announcement heard almost daily during Jemicy’s late fall recesses. Salamanders and frogs have buried themselves in the stream mud for the winter, buckeyes are long since collected by kids or squirrels, and foliage no longer obscures the surfaces and crannies of logs.

There are certain seasons when a “weird mushroom” can mean an edible morel or chicken-of-the-woods that I will likely spirit away to savor at home, but in mid-November, it is something to be wondered at, photographed, used for a spore print, or simply observed.

In the classroom we recently studied fungi firsthand by dissecting mushrooms, experimenting with growing different food molds, and testing yeast’s carbon dioxide production.

The idea that fungi are heterotrophs like us, unable to make their own food through photosynthesis but rather silently gaining nutrients from the environment (which includes other living and formerly living organisms) can make them seem almost insidious. And indeed, the largest living thing recorded is a fungus living in Oregon (Armillaria solidipes) whose mycelium extends for 9.6 square kilometers. It was discovered when scientists went searching for the cause of a large tree die-off and found that the hyphae throughout the area all belonged to the same genetically distinct organism. A truly humongous fungus.

Like the plant blindness that afflicts so many humans living in the industrialized world, fungi are often overlooked, but even more common, it seems, is a reaction of disgust. This may be due to the fact that many fungi are decomposers, and we associate them with decay and potentially deadly toxins if ingested. We also usually notice only the mushrooms – not the primary organism but only its fruiting bodies – which produce spores for reproduction. Fear of poisoning by contact or even proximity prevents many from appreciating the diversity, complexity, and beauty of these organisms, not to mention the unseen but critical role that so many perform in aiding nutrient uptake by plant roots.

As my seventh grade classes were wrapping up our study of fungi, we watched two TED talks that highlighted new perspectives on fungi. The first, by Paul Stamets, described ways that fungi could, in his words, save the world through bioremediation and fighting disease, among other benefits. The second linked our class’s initial study of trees to fungi as Suzanne Simard discussed her experiments with plant communication through an underground fungal network.  Both talks kept the class spellbound. I recommend them as one more way to fully appreciate the fungus among us.

 

 

Knowing trees

How do you get to know a tree?

“Meet a tree” is one way – a classic introductory environmental education activity. In a wooded setting, a blindfolded student is led by a partner to a nearby tree. The blindfolded person examines and becomes familiar with the girth of the tree and the texture of its bark, and is then led back to the starting point. Once the blindfold is removed, the student attempts to identify which tree they “met.” This exercise involves considerable tree hugging; by the end, many students claim a personal bond with “their” tree.

By prioritizing a different sensory experience than we usually rely on when we encounter trees, being sightless for this activity mitigates another, more pervasive kind of non-seeing, often referred to as “plant blindness.” Plant blindness quite simply refers to the inability or tendency not to notice the plants in one’s environment, with direct implications for lacking awareness of their vital importance on a larger scale.

I know this phenomenon firsthand, though it took leaving the country to realize it. During and after college, I spent time living, studying, and working in Germany. However, it wasn’t until I returned as a tourist 20 years later, with a very different set of experiential lenses, that I realized I had been blind to the natural history of the place I felt I knew so well. My apparent fluency stopped well short of being able to name even the most common plants. I felt lost hiking well-worn trails beneath unfamiliar trees, and immediately purchased field guides to orient myself.

Something similar happened again when I traveled to Tasmania and New Zealand, with the added disorientation of being on islands in the southern hemisphere. My problem in these places was not just in failing to see trees; it was that everything I saw was utterly new and demanded constant attention and research. I was visually overwhelmed.

By the time I left New Zealand, I was beginning to recognize common species and enjoyed walking about practicing the names of trees and shrubs.  Back in the US now, without this daily habit, those names have faded, but the sensory impact of the tarata, the cabbage tree, and the pōhutukawa remains. I have no doubt that if I were to return to New Zealand, I would still know these and many other trees. This recent article on a local naturalist’s experience of tree blindness shares truths that I can attest to: once truly seen, trees remain a part of you.

One of my favorite ways at school to encourage the process of seeing and distinguishing plants is a game called Leaf Hunt. The class is split into teams that compete to scour the schoolyard for the greatest number of different species. Before we go out, I ask the class to predict how many species they think we might find. Then the hunt is on.

Only teams that bring in new species get points, so there is no replication between teams. I use my role as judge to teach as specimens come in: i.e., the same plant can produce different shaped leaves, what does and does not count as a leaf (grass and pine needles, yes; flowers, no), the difference between a leaflet and a leaf. The results far exceed the highest predictions of plant diversity.

Yellow buckeyes are the collectible products of trees that have perpetuated a visceral way of knowing trees among Jemicy students for years. They play a central role in the unique woods culture that exists during fall recesses, when kids flock to the places where they know these treasures can be found, collect them by the fist and shirtfuls, hoard and trade them for other goods.

10-20-17 sign-3
“Buckeyes – No money” (free)

There is a fascinating progression in buckeye identification skills as newcomers learn to first look up – to recognize the telltale hand-like compound leaves and yellow-orange colors that signal the sites where buckeyes fall – run to those spots, and then look down, to spy the shiny brown nuts hidden among the fallen leaves. Buckeye lore has raised the stakes for fort real estate located beneath buckeye trees.Their value becomes so pervasive that it extends well beyond the woods.”We’ll sign you for 10 buckeyes!” I heard some 4th grade boys offer a potential new player for their touch football team, as they headed in for lunch.

Acorns are another widespread collectible, but their numbers are usually so large that their value is diminished – until it’s time to process them for acorn pancakes. Then, kids have to learn how to distinguish the white oak species that produce “sweeter” (less bitter tannic acid) nuts from those that are higher in tannins. They chant “Quer-cus al-ba” while tracing the outline of their fingers, representing the finger-like lobes of the white oak. White oak acorns are collected by the bucketful, cracked and sorted by hand, then boiled, roasted, and ground into flour. Topped with syrup, sprinkles, or plain, the pancakes are, as one kid described it, “The best tree food I’ve ever had!”

This process of learning to see plant differences continues through using classification systems to identify trees. Teams of 7th graders have been roaming the campus recently photographing leaves, bark, and branching patterns of tagged trees, using a key to identify them by common and scientific name. I watched one boy who has been at Jemicy for several years stare into the crown of an oak and mutter, “I know it’s a Quercus, but which one?” One of our tagged trees was a newly planted willow oak sapling, whose small, narrow, unlobed leaves confounded many kids. “Are you sure this is right?” one asked, puzzling over the key. “It just doesn’t fit the oak pattern.” Questioning is an important part of knowing.

In 1937, when my mother was in high school, she took a botany class in which she collected, pressed, and identified numerous flowers, leaves, and other botanical specimens. 40 years later (and 40 years ago) I attended the same school and made a similar leaf collection. I no longer have my own leaf collection, but I have my mother’s, with her perfect script describing trees by name, appearance, location, fruit, etc. I took it to school to show my students. They recognized in it some of the same leaves they had identified, along with many unfamiliar ones.

DSC_0039

“Close your eyes and touch this leaf,” I suggested, when we got to one of the final pages. “It feels like sandpaper!” they exclaimed, learning in that moment a way to know slippery elm just as my mother and I had generations ago – by a tactile sensation completely contrary to its common name. When I close my eyes and run my finger over the leaf, the roughness transports me back to Ohio, to the edge of the school parking lot, to the spot where I first met this tree, now unforgettable.

Life from life

Warning: yuckology ahead.

If you spied sandwich bags hanging from the branches of trees near the science building recently, you might wonder, “What’s going on here?” Maybe your curiosity would lead you close enough to discern mouse-sized lumps of semi-liquid matter in the bags. And then, you would probably detect movement, a squirming in some of the bags. You might wish you hadn’t been so curious.

Or maybe you would be intrigued enough by this overt display of decomposition – a process generally hidden and infrequently discussed – to inquire what in the world was going on here. A seventh grader would tell you that this is a Jemicy-style replication of the first known controlled study done by Francesco Redi in 1668. Redi was trying to disprove the then-popular theory of spontaneous generation, which held – among other wonders – that flies were produced by rotting meat. It’s a simple experimental design: take two pieces of meat (in our case, frozen mice that we use as snake food), put one in a bag that is sealed, and one in a bag with holes, hang them outside, and observe for a week or so. The results are striking, and usually unequivocal. As the mouse in the sealed bag slowly decomposes, it is amazing to see how much liquid it contains. The mouse in the bag with holes also decomposes, but the process is aided by flies, which are attracted to the smell, enter and lay eggs, which hatch into larvae. Any variation on these results forces us to consider what variables we might not have controlled.

mousebag3

Most years, the smell of rotting mouse is enough to make us bury the results of the experiment immediately. This year, though, several students asked if we could dissect the decomposed mice to see what had happened to the mouse internally, and if, by chance, the control mouse contained maggots. “Please? It’s my birthday!” begged one girl. And so the team of yuckologists held its breath and did just that. When we were finished with confirming the theory of biogenesis, we buried the remains in the compost bin, where other decomposers will complete the job of returning the mouse to its mineral components and enrich the garden soil next spring.

The cycling of matter from life into death, and back into new forms of life, creates gripping narratives and inspires rituals that memorialize the former life and celebrate the new. Impromptu funeral services traditionally celebrate deceased animals at school. A dead squirrel found in a fort received a burial with handfuls of acorns, while a cicada was sent down the stream on a raft, also with an acorn, “so that wherever it lands, it can help make a new tree for another cicada.” The final moments of a goldfish’s life were observed attentively, respectfully; it was eventually buried alongside the squirrel, with its own eulogy.

The youngest students get firsthand experience with decomposition and the life it supports by setting up and maintaining a worm farm throughout the year. They supply it regularly with the composted remains of their lunches: apple cores, orange peels, bread crusts, etc. Every so often, they empty the bin to check the worms’ progress. Last spring’s discovery that the mysterious golden cases in the farm were worm cocoons set off a flurry of activity: sorting and counting them, establishing a nursery, keeping watch until the tiny wormlets finally emerged. “Babies! We have babies!”

The “yuck” factor is balanced and often overcome by this fascination of witnessing complex, dynamic living systems and the new life that emerges from them. One young girl called out to me from the playground one day, “Come see what I found on the climber! I think you’ll like it, because it’s kind of gross!”

301268_182586385152201_507954604_n

Sure enough, there was a jumping spider (Phidippus audax) with a recently caught stinkbug – and at least two species of flies imbibing bug juices. As a friend put it when he saw the photo, “The small flies have bloated abdomens like they just slurped up some liquid. This looks like a scene in the African plains where the lion has taken down a gazelle and the vultures are starting to gather.”

It’s a big lesson played out vividly in miniature: Life cycles intersect with and depend upon the decomposition of other living things.

 

 

 

 

 

Empathy

Last Friday we launched Jemicy’s all-school fall unit focusing on Japan. Instead of regular classes, kids paired up with buddies to participate in a variety of activities. To learn more about Japanese culture, geography, and traditions, students role-played, made holiday decorations, listened to stories, and placed themselves virtually in another country.

Fall Unit Friday 9-8-17-66

As I watched the 8th graders collect their 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade buddies and head off hand in hand for the day, I heard a hum of conversation between the buddy pairs, an exchange of questions, perceptions, ideas. And, for those feeling anxious or uncertain, this: “I know how you feel.” These words of assurance came from kids who not so long ago were brand new or the youngest partners in the buddy group, now offering their experience as solace to newcomers. I wasn’t the only teacher that day moved by these interactions throughout the school. We marveled: such caring, such trust.

These scenes helped to reinforce one of my primary goals for this school year in my role as a naturalist and science teacher: cultivating empathy with the many living things around us. Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things,” asserted Helen MacDonald, author of a recent article in the New York Times. However, she continued, we can learn a great deal about ourselves from them.  I thought about this article as the new school year began, and children flooded into the science room during morning recess, clamoring to hold animals. I thought about it again during afternoon recess, when kids streamed down the hill into the woods and began searching for frogs, salamanders, and crayfish in the stream.  What is this powerful need to see and touch other creatures? I am often dismayed by this initial frenzy not only to encounter animals, but also to capture, to hold, to show others, to elicit a reaction from a creature desperate to be left alone.

I decided that this fall, I would make empathy a central theme in my teaching. Like Helen MacDonald, I have only to look back into my own childhood as an inveterate collector of animals both wild and of the pet variety to recall both how vitally important they were to me, and how poorly I understood what each of them truly needed to thrive. I can only hope that over the years I have gained insight. “The more time spent researching, watching and interacting with animals,” says MacDonald, “the more the stories they’re made of change, turning into richer stories that can alter not only what you think of the animal but also who you are.”

When I arrived at Jemicy 30 years ago, I was delighted to find a thriving culture of animal care as part of the science curriculum. I gladly embraced the role of caretaker, believing that as children closely observe the empathy  that adults show for other living things, they understand that students will be well cared for here, too. This caretaker role often requires negotiating between children’s desire to engage with animals and advocating for the animals’ needs.  “Just imagine,” I hear myself saying, when a child doesn’t understand a guinea pig’s reluctance to be held, “that you are as small as this guinea pig. You are calmly eating your hay when suddenly a giant hand comes down and grabs you. You run. It chases you. Will you ever trust that hand?” Most kids concede this point, if somewhat reluctantly. The challenge, I tell them, is to teach them that you and your hand bring something they want, rather than fear.

gp

MacDonald emphasizes the importance of this kind of lesson. “The only way to know what it is like to be a bat is to be a bat. But the imagining? The attempt? That is a good and important thing. It forces you to think about what you don’t know about the creature: what it eats, where it lives, how it communicates with others. The effort generates questions not just about how being a bat is different but about how different the world might be for a bat. For what an animal needs or values in a place is not always what we need, value or even notice.”

09-06-17-46

Dozens of virtual reality products now exist for the express purpose of helping participants do just this: understand the perspective of other people, animals, and even entire ecosystems.  I welcome new tools that can enhance empathy while stimulating wonder and curiosity, but nothing can ever replace “I know how you feel.”

Fall Unit Friday 9-8-17-64

 

 

 

 

 

Camp

The five weeks of Jemicy’s summer camp rank as one of my favorite times of the year. While the campers have a full and varied schedule of classes, I get to focus my energy on woodshop projects and the outdoors.  When the kids come to us, we take advantage of the extensive woods, wetlands and stream on the Upper School campus for exploration and discovery.

Kevin
First sight of the stream

Students from Jemicy and beyond attend this camp, making it a crew of diverse experience and knowledge of outdoor settings. This campus is not my home territory, and I am just as excited as the kids each time we head out to find new treasures.

I have to acknowledge that the thrill of new discoveries, and the delight of spending time in nature with kids, are tempered by the realities of human impacts, ecological changes, and direct hazards that we face every time we go outside. A new gas pipeline left a wide scar that has just begun to regrow. The woods has a thick diverse tree canopy but virtually no understory plants, thanks to heavy deer browsing. And a warmer winter has increased the threat of ticks, so extra precaution and vigilance are required.

While these aspects of outdoor experiences may cause me concern, for the campers who bound out the door in their boots and bug repellant, ready for anything, this is simply the new normal. A few are veteran stream-waders and woods-wanderers, and they make their way over, around and through obstacles with ease. They focus their attention on the pursuit of minnows and crayfish, the collection of interesting rocks, or things that stand out as unusual – a leaf gall, a coiled grapevine tendril, a feather. They seem at home, confident in handling whatever encounters they may have here.

Then there are the kids who are new to this kind of experience. Sometimes they are nervous, unsure of what to expect. Will this be like the wild nature they’ve seen on TV?  There is a lot to process with that first step into a place where plants and animals follow their own rules. Yesterday, one boy immediately found a big stick and began slashing at anything that grew within 2 feet of the path, while another slid his hand into mine and held on tightly as we made our way down a steep hill to the stream.  Some kids are overwhelmed by sensations that bombard them, from gnats buzzing in their ears to the unpredictable slipperiness of stream rocks, to the motion of branches in the wind. Navigating this territory, with its accompanying unfamiliar names and shapes and movements, can feel like being in a foreign country.

With each group of children that I bring into the woods, I am reminded that any introduction to a new habitat can leave mutual lasting impressions.  The living things that we encounter – from the ringneck snake lying across the path, to the water striders effortlessly maneuvering around our boots, to the ferns (“Jurassic plants,” one kid called them) where ebony jewelwings perch as we pass by – are affected by our presence.  The kids’ experience will further shape their encounters with various elements of other places they visit, including whether they will want to continue exploring and how they envision their role as a caretaker of such places.

Even if natural spaces feel like foreign countries, all children’s native curiosity and sense of wonder are the common currency of discovery, and they will seek out and draw attention to the unusual wherever it occurs – like this crew of girls at camp who have made it their mission to inspect the windows and walls of the cafeteria where their group gathers each morning. You just never know what you may find.

I treasure the moments that transport me personally back into the role of puzzled traveler. On each of the five trips I made yesterday with different groups down through the woods to the stream, there were new discoveries. “What is it? Why is it like that? What will happen?” When I reply that I don’t know, and we discuss possibilities, I am – happily – a fellow camper.

gall063017

 

Moth Ball

Just before dawn in late May, it’s time to head out with my camera to document a party that’s been going on all night on the far side of our shed. It’s a quiet affair, no music to keep the neighborhood awake, just some very attractive lights in an assortment of wavelengths and temperatures to suit the tastes of my guests:  mercury vapor, blacklight, incandescent, fluorescent.

Photo: Dan Bailey

Some nights, when it’s chilly or wet, no one ventures out. But when the temperatures rise, they’ll pack the house. Or sheets, rather. I’m never sure who will be there. Will tonight bring the badwing, a pale beauty, a morbid owlet, or a confused meganola? Maybe I’ll see the cloaked marvel, a distinct Quaker, the Laugher, or even a pleasant dagger.

It’s guaranteed there will be many who are completely unfamiliar. The paparazzi will be busy.

I’ve been hosting backyard moth parties for the past 5 years or so, ever since I discovered that there was an entire nocturnal set of creatures that I was missing out on. As a kid, my only association with moths was the smell of mothballs. My mother kept precious fabric heirlooms and bedding packed tightly away with those pungent white crystalline nuggets in a wooden trunk. Because my grandmother also used mothballs, that scent always meant family, antiquity, heavy flannel sheets and hand-loomed wool coverlets. Now the old wooden trunk is mine and the mothballs are gone, but their scent lingers. Opening it delivers an immediate and direct olfactory summons to memories of early childhood. This is just how I visualize a female moth’s invisible chemistry working, pheromones wafting through the warm spring night and luring a distant male.

luna close

If the neighbors wonder at the mysterious lights shining through the night, they are even more baffled when I explain what I’m trying to attract.  Instead of packing away bedding with chemicals intended to repel moths, I’m hanging sheets as welcome banners.  Big, bold-colored moths like polyphemus or luna, the charismatic megafauna of the moth world, arrive in stunning regalia and offer the sensation of holding a fairy on your finger.  Even the tiniest moths are fantastically decked out, though often hard to spot.

Often other nocturnal animals – beetles, flies, tree hoppers, lacewings – get wind of the festivities at the lights. Spiders are notorious party-crashers, as are mantisflies, toads, and parasitic wasps.

Mothing brings a nightly treasure trove and is a notoriously addictive hobby (especially if your idea of fun is hours spent trying to discern the identity of a 5mm mystery by digging through field guides and online arrays of bugs). Thankfully, there is a large online community willing to help out and cheer on each new discovery.  National Moth Week, an international celebration of moths, supports amateur enthusiasts and uses citizen science data to gain a more complete picture of these obscure creatures.

The event breaks up before daylight to avoid predation by early-rising house wrens. The lights go off, guests are shaken from their light inebriation and sent fluttering off  to more protected places. Sometimes they return with the darkness, but usually each night is a whole new Moth Ball.

For more photos of the moths I’ve photographed over the years, please visit my Flickr album.

Insect rules

What are insect rules? Ask Jemicy’s JE students, and they might start singing new lyrics to a familiar tune: “Head, thorax, abdomen, abdomen! Head, thorax, abdomen, abdomen! Six legs and wings and antenna, head thorax, abdomen, abdomen!” These features (wings optional) are insect rules. Beyond that, almost anything goes:

from coiled mouthparts to pinchers,

wings of lace to those with eyes,

legs for jumping, and legs for skimming the water,

and antennae from feathered to beaded, long and short.

What’s been especially gratifying this spring as the younger kids have studied insects is how they have applied their knowledge of human skeletal parts – our winter unit – in this new arena. Eyes light up when they see that an insect, even with all its differences, can have a mandible, femur, and tibia – all words that they learned studying vertebrate anatomy.  Creatures that appeared completely alien now seem more familiar.

To further personalize these concepts, students designed and built their own bugs. From the basic insect rules, fantastically diverse forms and adaptations emerged, along with stories describing the insects’ natural history.

Our classroom insects help to illustrate adaptations for particular functions, but they also help build empathy for the world of wild insects that we encounter outdoors. Many of the first encounters that people have with insects are unpleasant, leading to a lasting perception that all beings with more than four legs are pests. I was not much of a fan of insects myself until I began teaching science and realized that what bothered me was based on misunderstanding or unfamiliarity.  Scariness usually serves its purpose: deterring a potential predator.

What looks like a long, pointed “stinger” on some crickets turns out to be the females’ ovipositor – a harmless tube that they insert into the soil to lay eggs. The hissing cockroaches appear to have gigantic heads and protruding eyes, but this is actually the prothorax, a plate that covers the tiny head.

12308059_965222200221945_4467755112545306699_o

And that hissing noise? What better way to scare off the monster that has just picked it up? Mealworms are not worms at all, but the larvae of small, dark beetles that scurry about in their bin amid the rolled oats, potatoes, and pupae that are still undergoing metamorphosis. These insect ambassadors teach us how to look more closely at, behave more respectfully toward, and ask better questions about a group of animals that is both ubiquitous and often intentionally ignored.

Observing insects through their entire life cycle is particularly illuminating. We recently received silkworm eggs, and over the course of the week or so that it took for them to hatch, we talked about what the new baby caterpillars would need to grow.  Mulberry leaves are the only food they will eat, and there is one mulberry tree at Jemicy whose leaves the kids can reach. The day soon arrived when a single black caterpillar the size of this line _ came crawling out of its egg. silkwormOne child ran to get a leaf for it, we put it under a microscope to observe, and instantly it began to chew while the excited audience cheered. A day later, nearly all of the 100 eggs had hatched.silkworms

Within two days, we had to move the babies (which had doubled in size) into a much larger container. We considered: “If a one-day old caterpillar can eat one leaf in one day, how many leaves will we need to feed 100 growing caterpillars for a month?” This will be an interesting lesson in exponential consumption and growth. Fortunately for the silkworms, mulberry is an abundant invasive in this area.

Insects are both opportunistic and exquisitely adapted to very specific niches. One afternoon, I was called over to the big hollow tree trunk situated next to the playground. This trunk, the remains of a beloved oak named Erma, lies gracefully decomposing while serving as a popular climbing and hiding structure. The boy who called to me was jumping up and down with excitement: “There’s a gigantic beetle in the bark!” Sure enough, a shiny black abdomen protruded from a section of thick bark. We pried the bark up to find a magnificent Bess beetle working to dig herself deeper into the wood. When I picked her up, we could both hear her give a characteristic squeak of protest.

bessWe examined her carefully, noting her short but sharp curved mandibles, the lines on her abdomen, her six strong jointed legs. We released her back under the bark, but it wasn’t long before I was called again – this time to see several pale insects under another section of bark: termites. I visited that old trunk at least five more times over the next half hour, as this one curious child discovered numerous species: ants, a weevil, a lady beetle, the hollow abdomen of a long-dead  beetle, and some unknown larvae working their way through the century-old sapwood.

Insects show up virtually everywhere at school. Inside, brown marmorated stinkbugs have slipped into corners, light fixtures, bookshelves. In the stream, we find aquatic larvae of dragonflies, crane flies, mayflies, fishflies, and stoneflies in the spring and adults in the fall when we return to school.

On the playing field, we see butterflies nectaring on clover and dandelions. So far this spring, we’ve spotted sulphurs, cabbage whites, American ladies, tailed blues, and spring azures. Security lights and white exterior walls attract moths, and caterpillars show up as instant furry fort pets.

Of the 260 species (including plants, animals, and fungi) that the Maryland Biodiversity Project has recorded for our school site, 160 are insects. This high percentage of insects reflects, I believe, not only the general abundance of insects in an area with multiple conducive habitats, but also the growing awareness and appreciation that my students and I have for the amazing diversity of insect species. We now routinely document any and all sightings during regular searches while exploring and playing in the woods.

Every time we find a familiar insect, we reinforce what we know about its habitat and behavior. With each discovery of a new species in its particular niche, it feels as though we’re the visitors to a new planet meeting one more intriguing inhabitant. And on this planet, insects rule.10278860186_2fdef6436f_o