Aug 09 2017

Deadly Gardens

Dead bee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Dead bee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today’s important message is late for this year’s growing season but we can always take action right now.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the dangers to honeybees from neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides used heavily in agriculture since 2008.  What you might not realize is that this pesticide may be in your garden whether you put it there or not.  Here’s why.

What are neonicotinoids?

Nicotine kills insects but it breaks down too quickly for modern agricultural use. Neonicotinoids (“neonics”) are chemicals similar to nicotine specially formulated to last a long time.

Neonics are nervous system disrupters that, depending on dose and exposure, cause confusion, hyperactive behavior, severe tremors or death in insects.  Low doses kill slowly through chronic exposure because the chemical lasts so long (5 months to years).

Neonics are “systemic” poisons because they are water soluble.  Plants suck up neonic-laden water and distribute it into roots, leaves, pollen, nectar, everywhere.  The entire plant is poisonous to a wide range of insects including “bad” insects that suck juices and eat leaves (aphids, stinkbugs and Japanese beetles) and “good” insects that collect pollen and nectar (bees and butterflies).  Bees and butterflies visit poisoned flowers and die elsewhere.

How do neonicotinoids get into your garden?

Neonicotinoids are primarily delivered via soil treatments and seed coatings.  Garden treatments contain doses 40 times higher than agricultural products.  These pathways may surprise you.

  1. Pesticides you bought to kill bad insects, especially soil treatments. Check the label!
  2. Potting soil:  If treated with neonics, the plants grown in the soil are poisonous. Check the label!
  3. Plants or seedlings you bought at the store:  They’re already grown, but how? If their seeds were coated with neonics or the soil was treated, the plants you bought are poisonous.

What can you do?

Read the label. Ask questions. Here are the chemical names to look for.
* Acetamiprid
* Clothianidin
* Dinotefuran
* Imidacloprid (fact sheet)
* Nitenpyram
* Thiocloprid
* Thiamethoxam

Practice reading labels:  Many companies have neonic products. This example is from the “Bayer Advanced” product line containing Imidacloprid.  Scroll down below Quick Facts to see Active ingredients.
12-month Tree & Shrub Insect Control
2-in-1 Systemic Rose & Flower Care
2-in-1 Insect Control and Fertilizer

Labels tell you some of the insects the product kills but never all of the insects affected.

Don’t panic.

If you’ve learned something new, don’t worry, don’t blame yourself. Time is on your side. Start now to change your garden.  Remember this Chinese proverb …

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.

 

(photo of dead bee from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

 

Additional Resources:
A blog for home gardeners: potting soil and nursery plants Skowhegan, Maine, 2013.
News about pesticide-laced potting soil WRAL, Raleigh, NC, 2003.
Backyard Pesticide Use May Fuel Bee Die-offs. WIRED, 2012.
Risk Assessments Are Missing Harmful Effects of Neonics on Honey Bees Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013.
How neonicotinoids affect honey bee queens. Sub-lethal effects. The Journal Nature, 2016.
Bayer sold Bayer Garden and Bayer Advanced product lines to SBM (based in France). October 2016.

6 responses so far

Aug 08 2017

Count Turkeys In August

Wild turkey with juveniles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Wild turkey with juveniles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Silent songbirds and hot weather make birding less interesting in August.  Here’s a project to get you going in Pennsylvania:  It’s time to count wild turkeys.

Every August the Pennsylvania Game Commission conducts a wild turkey survey to determine breeding success.  Everyone from biologists to birders can help.  Two factors add interest to the count:

  1. Juvenile turkeys, called poults, are only half grown so you can tell (and count) the difference between adults and this year’s young.
  2. You’ll also get practice identifying adult males versus females. (You can ignore the adult/juvenile tail-clue because juveniles are just plain small in August.)
How to sex and age wild turkeys by sight (screenshot of PGC poster)

How to sex and age wild turkeys by sight (screenshot of PGC poster)

 

The guidelines for the survey are pretty simple:

  • Record turkey sightings during the month of August.
  • Count “big birds” (adults) and “little birds” (poults).
  • Record the sex of all adults.  Here’s the full size poster that describes the difference between males and females.
  • For adult females, separate the count “with young” and “without.”
  • Note where you see the birds. When you submit your observations (online here or download the app), click on the embedded map and the form will automatically fill in the location details.
  • Submit a separate report for each flock of turkeys observed, including those without poults, and lone turkeys.
  • Try NOT to report the SAME flock MULTIPLE times. Duplicate flocks bias the results.

Download the app to use in the field or click here for the Turkey Survey form.

 

Thanks to Mary Ann Pike for passing along this news.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Did you know you can sex turkeys by the shape of their droppings?  Learn more at PGC’s Turkey Biology FAQ page.

2 responses so far

Aug 07 2017

Get Ready For The Solar Eclipse, Aug 21

Map of the Total Solar Eclipse on 21 August 2017 (image from NASA)

Map of the Total Solar Eclipse on 21 August 2017 (image from eclipse2017.nasa.gov)

By now I’m sure you’ve heard …

Two weeks from today on 21 August 2017 there will be a total eclipse of the sun across the United States.  The moon will pass between Earth and Sun, casting its shadow on our continent.

In a narrow band 70 miles wide, from Oregon to South Carolina, the sun will disappear completely for about two minutes. Folks eager to witness the total eclipse have made plans to visit sites in its path including Nashville, TN and Charleston, SC.

Pittsburgh will see only a partial eclipse but there will be plenty to watch. The moon will move across the sun from 1:10p to 3:55p with maximum coverage resembling the crescent below at 2:35p.  Don’t watch without special glasses and, for your scope and camera, special filters!  See below.

Mockup of partial eclipse at maximum as it wil be seen in Pittsburgh on21 Aug 2017 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Mockup of partial eclipse at maximum as it wil be seen in Pittsburgh on 21 Aug 2017 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Where to watch the eclipse in Pittsburgh, 21 August 2017 … some of the many locations.

  • On your computer: See the entire eclipse from coast to coast on NASA’s Eclipse Live Stream. The shadow begins in Oregon at 9:04a PDT (12:04p in Pittsburgh) with totality from 10:16a PDT (1:16p here) to 2:48p in South Carolina.  You don’t need filters to watch online.
  • At Carnegie Science Center: The weather won’t matter at Carnegie Science Center. Outdoors, watch through special solar observation equipment.  Indoors at Buhl Planetarium. Click here for info & directions.
  • Sidewalk Astronomy: Weather permitting 1:30p to 3:00p outside the Staghorn Garden Cafe, 517 Greenfield Avenue, Pittsburgh, 15207.   John English will set up his scope to project the sun’s image on the wall so you can watch its shadow without looking at it.
  • In your own backyard:  Prepare in advance! Read Eclipse2017: Who, What, Where, When and How and get …

Special solar eclipse glasses, filters or pinhole viewers to watch the solar eclipse.

Don’t risk going blind or damaging your camera or scope by viewing the eclipse without protection! Click here for NASA’s list of safe viewing methods including solar eclipse glasses, pinhole viewers and filters for your equipment + how to use them.

Solar eclipse glasses are inexpensive (only a couple of dollars) at the Carnegie Science Center Gift Shop or online but only buy from reputable vendors listed at American Astronomy Society! Sunglasses and fake glasses won’t protect you.

Here’s an example of the real thing from B&H Photo Video on the reputable vendor list.

Lunt solar eclipse viewing glasses from B&H Photo

Lunt solar eclipse viewing glasses from B&H Photo

I hope it isn’t cloudy on Monday August 21!

 

(photo credits: Click on the images to see the originals. Globe from eclipse2017.nasa.gov. Partial eclipse image from Wikimedia Commons. Lunt solar eclipse glasses from B&H Photo Video)

One response so far

Aug 06 2017

Stiltgrass is Everywhere

Published by under Plants

Japanese stiltgrass, late July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Japanese stiltgrass, late July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

This summer I’ve found a lot of stiltgrass in western Pennsylvania.

Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is a native of Eurasia that grows in both sun and shade.  In the 1900s it was used as packing material for shipping porcelain from China to the New World.  Inevitably, it took root in Tennessee in 1919 and is now present in 24 states and Puerto Rico.  In Pennsylvania it’s invasive, especially in the woods.

Though grasses are notoriously difficult to identify, stiltgrass has three characteristics that help you figure it out.

(1) Each leaf has a shiny central rib, as shown above.

(2) The rib is off center on the leaf, easiest to see on the underside.

Back of the leaf: Japanese stiltgrass (photo by Kate St.John)

Underside of the leaf shows the off-center rib on Japanese stiltgrass (photo by Kate St.John)

(3) Unlike native grasses, stiltgrass forms a dense carpet on the forest floor that chokes out all other plants.

Japanese stiltgrass, late July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Japanese stiltgrass, late July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

When you see dense grass like this, check it for shiny off-center ribs.  Watch this video for more identification clues.

This year I’ve seen stiltgrass at all the bike trails and even in the woods in Schenley Park.  It looks like a nice carpet until you realize it’s invasive.  It’s everywhere!

How do you get rid of it?

Deer don’t eat it.  But goats do.   Hmmmm.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Aug 05 2017

Now Blooming: Hog Peanut

Published by under Plants

Hog peanut vine and leaves (photo by Kate St.John)

Hog peanut vine and leaves (photo by Kate St.John)

On a sunny day last week I went to Jennings Prairie to see the wildflowers.  My old favorites were there — dense blazing star, tall sunflowers, culver’s root — but this plant was new to me.

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is a member of the Bean family (Fabaceae) but its leaves caught my eye because they share some field marks of poison ivy.

Like poison ivy, two of hog peanut’s three leaves are asymmetrical and have no stem, the middle leaf has a stem, and the vine is hairy.  Unlike poison ivy, hog peanut leaves are egg-shaped and have smooth edges.  See the difference for yourself by comparing these photos of poison ivy leaves and vines.

Hog peanut got its name because it produces edible beans that are eaten by ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasants, mice, voles and — apparently — hogs.

Most of the beans are produced by its insect-pollinated flowers shown below but some come from self-fertilizing flowers that grow on runners along the ground.

Bumblebee on hog peanut flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Bumblebee on hog peanut flower (photo by Kate St. John)

Although hog peanut is an annual, chances are good that you’ll find it in the same location year after year because its ground-based flowers go to seed.

Look for hog peanut in wooded areas along streams and seeps and on floodplains.  I found this one at the “Detour” bridge at the prairie.

 

(Note: The big bridge on the Blazing Star Trail is under construction.  The detour is obvious and easy.)

(photos by Kate St. John)

No responses yet

Aug 04 2017

The Better To Fight With, My Dear

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Rick St. John)

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, PA, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Rick St. John)

On an evening walk in our neighborhood my husband and I found a large beetle, more than an inch long.  My husband’s closeup (above) and my cautious far-away photo (below) provided enough clues to determine its identify.

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Pittsburgh, 1 Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Its size and shape place it in the scarab beetle group.  Its large mandibles mean it’s a stag beetle, one of 1,500 species in the world, four in eastern North America.  This one is a reddish-brown stag beetle (Lucanus capreolus) because it has bicolored legs dark at the tips and yellow at the base.

Basically harmless to humans, reddish-brown stag beetles eat rotting wood as larvae and sip sap as adults.  The larvae develop for two years, then emerge as adults during the summer.  Like other scarab beetles they’re most active at night and attracted to lights.

Stag beetles were named for their head gear which they use like antlers, not like teeth.  Just like stags (or deer) the males fight each other with their horns!

In the video below, watch male stag beetles in western Europe (Lucanus cervus) fight for dominance. “The goal is to throw down the opponent” !

What big “teeth” you have!

The better to fight with, my dear.

 

(photos by Rick and Kate St. John. video from YouTube)

p.s. regarding the loud bird sound in the background of the video filmed in Europe.  Is it a Eurasian magpie?

One response so far

Aug 03 2017

Where Are Birds’ Ears?

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Barn owls, western Pennsylvania, July 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Barn owls, western Pennsylvania, July 2017 (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Birds hear really well — especially barn owls — but where are their ears?

This vintage article from July 2010 reveals where they are.

Anatomy: Under the head feathers

 

p.s. Did you know barn owls’ ears are lopsided?
Their left ear is opening higher than their right one!  Learn more in A Ranger’s Random Walks blog post from November 2014.

 

(photo of barn owls, July 2017, by Anthony Bruno)

One response so far

Aug 02 2017

Common Mullein: Wait Until Next Year

Published by under Phenology,Plants

Common mullein (photo by Kate St.John)

Common mullein (photo by Kate St.John)

In July these green and yellow flower spikes tower along our roadsides and waste places.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a Eurasian native of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) that was introduced to North America.  Because it’s biennial both forms are visible right now.

In its first year of life, the plant is a basal rosette of velvety blue-green leaves, 4-16 inches long.

In its second year the rosette sprouts a flower spike, blooms in the summer, sets seed, and then dies.

Here it is in the spring of its second year. The basal rosette is beginning to flower.

Basal leaves with flower bud on common mullein in June (photo by Kate St.John)

Basal leaves with flower bud on common mullein in June (photo by Kate St.John)

And here’s a closeup of the flowers:

Common mullein flowers (photo by Kate St.John)

Common mullein flowers (photo by Kate St.John)

Though common mullein only reproduces by seed it’s very good at doing it.  Each plant produces 100,000 to 180,000 seeds that are dispersed by wind or animals.  If the seeds don’t land in a hospitable place, no problem.  They’re viable for 100 years!

Consequently, common mullein is listed as invasive in 20 states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Because it only spreads by seed, this plant can be eradicated by hand pulling before the seed sets, then bagging it and disposing of it.  Unfortunately, it’s too late in the season to do that now and other methods, such as poison, will only spread its seeds when the plant falls.

We’ll just have to enjoy its flowers and wait until next year.

When it comes to weeds, I love procrastinating!

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

No responses yet

Aug 01 2017

Eaten By A Fish!

Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Barn swallow in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen fish jump to catch flying insects above the water but African tigerfish do much more than that.

Back in 2011, scientists conducting a telemetry study of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) in South Africa were surprised to find that their subjects were being eaten by fish!

African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) are aggressive animals up to 3.5 feet long with very sharp teeth.  During the study at Schroda Dam, the fish jumped out of the water and ate low-flying birds.  In 15 days they ate 300 barn swallows!

African tigerfish (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014 scientists used high definition video to record the fish in action. Click here to see.

 

Fortunately, there’s someone on hand to eat the tigerfish.

Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Crocodile eating an African tigerfish, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Watch out, barn swallows!  Don’t fly too low!

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

2 responses so far

Jul 31 2017

Who Chewed The Doorknob?

Published by under Mammals

Tooth marks on the doorknob (photo by Kate St. John)

Tooth marks on the doorknob (photo by Kate St. John)

Last week four of us hiked the Redbank Trail near Lawsonham, Pennsylvania.  At our turnaround point we stopped at a picnic shelter and lean-to that had a new pit toilet restroom with a shiny green door.  As I left the restroom I noticed tooth marks on the doorknob.

Then I noticed tooth marks all along the bottom of the door and even at the top. See the red arrows.

Door with many tooth marks (photo by Kate St.John)

Door with many tooth marks (photo by Kate St.John)

The animal apparently propped its upper teeth against the edges and scraped with its bottom teeth.

Tooth marks on the left side (photo by Kate St.John)

Tooth marks on the left side (photo by Kate St.John)

It scraped the hinges.

Door jamb with tooth marks (photo by Kate St. John)

Door jamb with tooth marks (photo by Kate St. John)

And it ate the aluminum door jamb!

An animal ate the metal door jamb (photo by Kate St.John)

The animal ate metal (photo by Kate St.John)

 

Who did this?  What Pennsylvania wild animal eats outhouses and chews metal?

The North American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum.

Here’s one eating an outhouse in the Western Arctic National Parklands, posted by NPS on Flickr.

Porcupine eating an outhouse (photo from Western Arctic National Parkland on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Porcupine eating an outhouse (photo from Western Arctic National Parkland on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Porcupines eat outhouses?  Yup.  They crave salt and there’s a lot of salt in urine so they try to eat their way in.  There’s also salt on the doorknob from our sweaty hands.  I learned this from Matt Miller’s Cool Green Science blog.  Read more here!

 

Years ago Pennsylvania’s porcupines only lived north of I-80 but for more than a decade they’ve been expanding their range southward. When they reach Pittsburgh they’re going to find a lot of doorknobs.  😉

 

(door photos by Kate St. John. Porcupine-outhouse photo from Western Arctic National Parklands on Flicker, Creative Commons license; click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Porcupines are already south of Pittsburgh in the Appalachian Mountains of Maryland but they prefer to live in heavily forested areas.  I can’t imagine them moving into cities … but you never know.

p.p.s.  See the comments. Porcupines have been seen in the metro area. Uh oh!

5 responses so far

« Prev - Next »