Archive for the 'Science' Category

The Nature of Nature

October 9th, 2009

I never realized that grasshoppers exhibit adaptive coloration, at least right here where we see them all the time.  In August and September they are so prolific in the grass that they fly up everywhere bonking into me as I ride along on the tractor.  Birds and other critters prey on the grasshoppers, and even the young boy loves to catch them.  Most of our resident grasshoppers are colored with varying shades of brown and green.  But this particular ‘hopper was sitting on a log I was cutting up, near a wood pile, and didn’t seem to mind the noise or ruckus.


I was surprised at how brown it was, and had not noticed one like this before. There even appear to be differing shades of brown to its color. Is this true crypsis in terms of the grasshopper blending into the woody background? Or is this just a genetic coloration variation of the many resident grasshoppers we have? Or is the answer simply, “Yes.”  I need to appreciate the young one’s inquisititiveness more at certain times… I think that’s genetic too.

Among the many beautiful native and non-native landscape plants we have are a series of grasses.   Ornamental grasses have become very popular in recent years due to their wispy appearance and minimal need for care.  Many of them are fairly drought tolerant as well.  But there is a problem.  Like many other introduced plants and animals over the decades, some may respond differently than expected within the environment and become invasive.  This grass forms beautiful seed heads in the fall, and looks really nice in the landscape.  Unless you didn’t put it there.  


This particular grass popped up along the shoreline of the pond all by itself, with a few others in various places, coming from seed heads of larger ornamentals further away.   I don’t like that… and can’t imagine how these huge grasses could change the landscape.   Can you imagine trying to fish or walk the shoreline of a pond surrounded by six foot high grasses everywhere?  So off with their heads!  I cut them back, and used a small amount of herbicide to try and kill the plants.  Be careful what you plant out there.   To borrow an oft-quoted line from Jurassic Park,  “Nature finds a way.” 

This is the only sun we’ve had for the past two days- a brief red dawn.  We’ve had 36 hours of non-stop rain!  Hope that’s not a sign of winter to come…


Lots of Acorns and Big Ugly Goobers

October 2nd, 2009

It’s a heavy year for the “mast” crop of acorns all across Missouri, and probably adjoining states. That’s good news for wildlife populations, especially in the Ozarks.  Deer, squirrels, rodents and the many predators such as foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls will benefit from the robust forage available this year. Looking forward, the next two years should produce increasing populations of these animals, depending upon the severity of winter weather.


During the previous two years the combination of drought and early spring freezing weather negatively impacted the acorn production from the oaks.  I combed area forests last year and the hickory trees had produced an abundance of nuts everywhere I went, yet there were very few acorns from the oak trees.  And now while our red and white oak trees have produced a huge amount of acorns this year, our hickory trees did not produce many nuts at all.  Isn’t that interesting?


I wish I had a picture, but I actually saw a Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying around the pond yesterday.   It’s not that unusual to see a kingfisher around water, but it is unusual to see one here in our upland forest area. I’ve heard their rattling call a few times in as many years, but always wondered if I was just hearing things… so it was fun to see a bird I usually only see while hiking or hunting in bottomland forests or canoeing on Missouri’s various rivers.  While I don’t really appreciate the visiting heron’s voracious appetite in eating our pond’s bigger fish, the kingfisher can have all it wants!


We’ve also had a few interesting insect critters in recent weeks.  I call ’em Big Ugly Goobers, my acronym for BUGS.  A pair of Wheel Bugs (Arilus cristatus) were either in the pre or post phase of mating near the barn door last week.  They are strange looking things, and true bugs as only one of the 32 some-odd Orders in the insect world.  A little research indicated that no one really knows what the spiky-wheely-thingy (forgive my entomological void) on their back is for.  They’re in the assassin bug family, preying on other insects, and stick a huge straw-like proboscis into whatever they can catch to feed upon, after liquifying the insides.  Sort of a bug milkshake perhaps?  “Ewww…!”  Sorry…  Apparently their bite is really painful, so I’m glad I just looked at them and took a picture.  Maybe that spiky wheel is all for show… it’s a bad looking bug!  And yes the male is the smaller of the two…



If that didn’t dissuade your romantic contemplation of our pastoral lifestyle here at Fox Haven,  here’s something that might.   A new population of European Hornets (Vespa crabro) decided to show up this year.  I had never seen them before, but in July I started seeing a huge reddish-waspy-thing (another fine technical description!) in various places zooming by while I was outside working.  After some research I pretty much knew what it was but hoped they weren’t really here.  Sure enough though, one morning I came outside the house in late August with a cup of coffee, and heard a droning hum around one of our ash trees.  The sun wasn’t even up and I looked into the tree branches above to see more than a dozen huge hornets flying around.  My coffee grew cold as I stared at the size of these things.   They were landing on the branches, stripping bark or something.   To confirm the identification, I got out some trusty wasp spray that would shoot fairly high in the tree and dropped one to the ground (I left it there for a good twenty minutes to make sure I wasn’t going to be stung).

Yep… they were European Hornets. I thought their populations were much further south, but obviously not.  I then began seeing these guys everywhere for a few weeks… probably in the same manner as when you’re looking for a new car or similar product?  Once your interest is focused in a certain direction, you begin seeing that kind of car everywhere.  Anyway, for more exciting encounters, one night at nearly 10:00 pm I walked out near a floodlight turned on above the garage and two of these hornets were smashing into the light and flying all around.  I then read of them banging into people’s windows at night, attracted to the lights, and scaring the bejeesus out of them.  These guys can even hunt at night!


Last week I saw the big hornet in the photo above at the base of an oak tree near my bee hives.  It may have been a queen investigating its next meal or a warm place to overwinter this year… in any event it became another specimen for my collection, and didn’t get the chance to bring others nearby.  (That big yellow round mass is actually spray foam insulation that I sprayed into the base of that tree.  The tree is slowly dying (right behind the barn) and I was trying to seal up some small cavities around the base.  It’s a lost cause as the tree continued to lose half its leaves this year.  Next year I’ll probably cut it down). 

The hornets are considered non-aggressive unless threatened.   I had no intention to find that out first hand or to test how painful the sting was, but upon closer examination I found that the stinger is about 1/4 inch long!   Here’s a AA battery and one of the recently deceased hornets for a size comparison.  I think it actually shrunk a bit- they are huge when flying.


Obviously these creatures fulfill a positive role as predators in eating other insects, and we should appreciate that.   Yet these were an introduced species first being reported in the U.S. around the 1840’s presumably arriving on ships from across the Atlantic.  They have since marched slowly west…  I wonder if their presence in the food chain has displaced other insect predators such as paper wasps, yellow jackets, praying mantis, etc?   Or what form of adaptation has occurred within the environment in response to their presence and behaviors?    

Of course if we go down that road we can bring up our favored Honey Bee as an introduced species a couple hundred years earlier.   But now that the hornets are actually resident in our area, I’m not going to put out a welcome sign.  If they do build a nest somewhere around our house they are going to want to defend that nest, and I’ll want to defend the house.  So I’ve told a few of them to go tell their friends and relatives to build their nests somewhere else thank-you-very-much.   I’ve got enough stinging and biting critters around at this point.

But hey the cooler weather has really arrived and the insect populations are dwindling fast for the year.  The chigger, tick and skeeter populations are fading, and it makes working outside in autumn a little more enjoyable.  Okay, a lot more enjoyable!  Compared to so many other regions of the world though, we really don’t have too many pesky insects.  If you love the outdoors it’s all part of the experience and the beauty of our living natural world.  Thankfully my least favorite insect was not very abundant this year with all our cool summer weather!

The Honey Harvest – Part II

August 22nd, 2009

It is fitting that I share Part II of our honey harvest today- the first ever National Honeybee Awareness Day.  The USDA issued an earlier press release highlighting the critical role of honeybees to agriculture.

“Bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value and is an essential component of the production of more than 90 food crops – particularly specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, fruits and vegetables.”

“Honey bees are critical to the process of pollination of our crops throughout our country and an important part of maintaining a stable and sustainable ecosystem,” Secretary Vilsack said. “Honey Bee Awareness Day will help highlight this important role, as well as the significant threat honey bees now face from the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.”

It is no surprise that people have become more aware of the plight of the honeybee by media reports and tv specials in recent years.  We even read about how to save or help honeybees, and companies such as Haagen-Dazs have extended their influence and financial support as well  (I love Haagen-Dazs ice cream!)-  they even have a cool flash-based site at HelptheHoneybee.com .

Certainly the threats to the honeybee are real.  Many researchers believe we’re seeing a cycle of change with the bees especially in regards to human-based chemical influenced threats that may compromise their immune systems.  There have been cycles of losses in past years of course where the honeybee faced similar threats of disease.  Yet with the abundance of immuno-chemical challenges within the environment, and coupled with physical threats due to mites, hive beetles, bacteria, and viruses, the honeybee today must overcome greater challenges than ever before.

The honeybee is even attacked by other critters!  A Bald-faced Hornet hovers in front of this hive, just before grabbing one of the workers to take back to its own colony.  The Bald-faced Hornet is actually in the yellow-jacket genus made up of  predatory social wasps.


So do the bees just stand there and let themselves get picked off by predators?  Usually, yes- they are not bothered normally from such threats and appear unsuspecting. But the bald-faced hornet is sneaky, and grabs a bee very quickly, or knocks it to the ground and then carries it away in its legs.   Sometimes however, the bees react quickly too and they “ball” the other insect such as the bald-faced hornet, or an intruding bumblebee, and eventually they kill it (sometimes they ball a drone or a queen bee within the hive as well).  In this picture the bees “balled” a larger insect that I couldn’t determine for sure- researchers believe the heat and carbon dioxide produced inside the “bee ball” kills the intruder… and sometimes a few bees die as well.



Today there’s an increasing trend focusing on natural and organic methods of beekeeping, in a similar fashion to gardening and healthier living choices.  This trend is tailor made for the small and part-time hobbyist beekeeper with relatively few bee hives.  Yet it doesn’t come without risk- trying to shepard hives of thousands of bees through the various seasons is an inexact science, and involves a great deal of art and intuition born only of experience.   There are no guarantees, and it can become an expensive hobby.   And if I do find disease with the bees, do I just let them struggle with it?  Give them chemicals to fight it?  We’ll see.

While the bees are facing challenges, does that mean we can’t find them anywhere?  No.  You can still purchase live bees from many companies around the nation, but it helps to order early (meaning during early winter) in order to get on the list and receive bees throughout the spring.  By mid-summer it’s difficult to find package bees for sale to start new hives. Then you’re off to the races, learning how to take of them and wondering what you got yourself into along the way.



Ah, but beekeeping does come with its own rewards!  Eventually (in the second year for most new beekeepers), you’ll find yourself harvesting honey from your very own hives.   It’s a rich reward like no other, and brings a satisfaction and pride at the work these amazing creatures have performed.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to gather our honey, and what I take from my hives is pure, natural and raw. The bees produced it on their own, in a challenging spring and summer season of rain and cooler weather this year.  Most of it is from wildflowers and trees in the area. Blackberries, elderberry, maple, clover, dandelion, mulberry, aster, locust, basswood… many more than I can count.  One of the hives is a lot stronger than the other- producing around 35 pounds of honey to the other hive’s 10 pounds this year.   In some parts of the country, the weather really hurt the honey yield, so I’m thankful for how well these bees did this year.

A beautiful frame of capped and filled honeycomb.


Working with bees in 85-95 degree summer weather is a pretty warm affair though.  Especially dressed in such fashionable, clunky apparel. It’s hot, sweaty work- and I don’t think the bees appreciate some big, sweaty human prodding around in their home. That’s where the smoke helps. I use a little smoke from burning grass or burlap and waft the smoke around the entrance or the top of the hive, and it calms the bees. Not only does it mask the odor of the beekeeper, but the bees have an instinctive response to fill up on honey in case a fire threatens the hive and they need to leave. Not all of them bury their heads in cells to suck up honey at the first whiff of smoke… most just seem hang out and continue doing whatever they were doing.

But when I open their hive without smoke they tend to get a little defensive and “ping” off my veil or coveralls more quickly. A hive of more defensive or aggressive bees will come pouring out at you in a heartbeat, seemingly with stingers first! So a little smoke goes a long way, and keeps the bees under control. That’s kind of important really, and while some people advocate not using smoke, I believe it actually aggravates the bees less, and helps you get finished a whole lot faster so you can close the hive back up and let the bees get back to their work.

Uncapping a frame of honey.


I mentioned before about an old honey extractor from years ago?   My folks kept that old extractor through the years for some reason.  It was laying in a corner of the barn… beat up and kind of rusty.  I pulled it out to look at it last year and frowned,  “No way…” I thought.  After pricing new extractors this year I reconsidered.

So what the heck I thought, and I did a little experiment… I removed all the parts and conducted reverse electrolysis in a 55 gallon drum with a battery charger and some iron rods.  It was amazing- the rust came off that thing in less than 24 hours!  I then hand-cleaned, bleached and scrubbed the extractor ’till it was nearly sparkling, and painted it inside and out.  I finished by completely coating it with two coats of food-grade epoxy- a clear, hard coat finish that nicely sealed it top to bottom.  Finally satisfied that it was in good shape to use for extracting honey, I still didn’t know if it would work very well.


I soon found out that they made things pretty well a hundred years ago however, and the extractor worked like a dream.  It was made by The Standard Churn Company out of Waupenka, Ohio sometime around 1910.  My grandparents were kids back then, and I can’t help but wonder how much honey this old extractor has seen.  The company made butter churns mostly, but I’ve found references for their extractors in old farm manuals.

After uncapping each frame by using a knife to remove the top wax cappings on the cells,  you put two frames in the extractor and crank one side for a minute- then take the frames out and turn them around.  Crank some more for a couple minutes, then take the frames out and turn around one more time.  Crank again for a while and that about does it.  The honey came out easily, taking a little time of course, but I can’t argue with the results.   As the honey spins out of the frames, it drips down the sides of the extractor and out into a bucket with a strainer set up at the top.  The honey is lightly filtered to remove bits of wax and sealed in a food-grade bucket ready for bottling.  No heating, no super micron filters… raw, natural and ready to eat!  That afternoon we hand-cranked about 20 medium frames of honey with that machine, two frames at a time- it was actually kind of fun.

Over three days we pulled supers and frames, extracted the honey and then began filling up the pre-washed half-pound glass bottles.  Lots of helpers- the boy loved it, and Memaw pitched in too :) I was like a kid in candy store… moreso with so much honey around.   It’s not a huge amount for the first real honey year- nearly five gallons in all.  Maybe more if we get a good flower bloom this fall.  I’m still looking at various designs and names for a label of some kind too, but it’s just not there yet.

I’m still amazed by the process- and the honey!  It’s exquisite… a beautiful amber gold that tastes incredible.  I filled up a few honey bears too, and the young boy got to have one all his own.


I like to think the flavor is enhanced by the time spent working with the bees, and watching them dance around the flowers, surviving through the pace of the changing seasons.   The other morning I watched the sun rise, enjoying the colors of dawn.   I heard a bee zooming by as I enjoyed the morning.   They’re up early too when it’s warm out, and the flower sources are a little scarce right now.   I smiled, marveling at the wonders of nature.  We help them have a home, the bees do their thing, and we receive a little honey in return.  I sipped my coffee and thought of how many more things we could do if we really wanted to.

There are three hives now at Fox Haven- not very many, but a lot from my perspective.  Earlier this month I requeened the weaker hive, and split off a new hive from the strong colony, starting it with its own new queen.  That’s another way to increase the number of hives you have in your apiary, and it’s also a story for another day.   If you missed it before, here’s a link to read about The Honey Harvest Part I.

Memories of Spring, Rare Plants and Rare People

April 1st, 2009

On this first day of April I finally feel like spring is here.  The days are warming up and flowers and leaves are coming out everywhere- and the birds! When you walk out the door at sunrise, the singing is amazing.  Cardinals, Phoebes, Towhees, Sparrows, Bluebirds… it’s a wild cacophony of twittering and song.  Well, twittering means something else to most people these days…  but for me it’s the birds.

It is a lovely time of year though.  It reminds me so much of exploring the forests when I was younger.  I remember a spring in the early 1980’s when I really learned about the plants and wildflowers throughout the Ozarks.   I was taking a botany class in college, and wouldn’t you know it- most of what we had to do was hike and walk around looking for plants to identify.  My kind of class!  One time we were hiking throughout the northwestern Arkansas Ozarks and the professor had us gather around to examine a plant.  He gingerly held something up and asked if we knew what it was… no one answered.  He handed it to one of the guys, and said “Feel the little hairs on the stem, and tell me what you think…”  Within a few moments the young gent dropped the stinging nettle yelling “Owww!”  It only stings and itches for a short time, but we thought that was pretty funny- and I never forgot the plant.

On another trip to some beautiful highland slopes above a river, we wandered along below a bluff admiring the landscape.  One of my classmates found a neat little bush with white flowers, and was about to pull some off… “Don’t touch that plant!!!” the professor screamed, as we all jumped wondering what was the matter.  He ran up and we gathered around as he excitedly described that the plant, Alabama Snow-wreath, was very rare and only found in a few places across the southern states.

Alabama Snow-wreath (Neviusia alabamensis A. Gray) GFDL Kurt Steuber


He knew of only two places it was growing at the time, one of them where we stood.  There were just a few bushes in a small circle, covered with white flowers.  The plant is still classified as threatened and is very rare, but has also been found in Missouri and a few other southern states.   Oddly, some have propagated the plant for gardens as it’s similar to spirea, but it’s still very uncommon.  I remember admiring the wispy white flower heads and standing in awe that the plant I was seeing only grew in a few places in the entire world.  As startled as I was by the professor’s response at first, I had to wonder how many other plant and animal species across the globe had a similar distinction.   The more I learned about plants and wildlife, the more I appreciated his convictions.   Perhaps that awakened the realization that the world is much smaller than it seems.

The journeys I would later make throughout the world became an exploration of nature too, and proved just how small the world really is- even while at times I felt torn watching the machinations of mankind against the backdrop of world politics.  I felt a greater responsibility than being a mere instrument of political will, and sought balance within myself through the years.  Nothing was ever as black and white as it seemed, but I am thankful for having made the journey.

Spring was never quite the same for me after those early days in school however.  Instead, the season after winter became a quiet revelation of the wonders of the natural world, instilling a sense of appreciation and mystery that has always remained.   How can one describe the joy and excitement of finding a new flower, plant or bird in a place you haven’t seen before?  Not everyone appreciates that mystery and beauty… to some it’s the same old thing.  But to those of us who feel the pulse of nature quicken in our hearts, it is everything.

A year or so after that botany field trip I was somehow chosen to pick up none other than Jean-Michel Cousteau at the airport one day, to bring him to the school for a speaking presentation on the environment.   I barely remember the event or what he did after I brought him to the school.  I do remember waiting at the little airport, wondering how I could be picking up the son of the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau… the man I grew up watching on television and dreaming of the adventures and explorations he made throughout the world.

I wish I could even remember our conversation as we drove for a half hour to the school campus.  It was unremarkable, and he was tired from his journey.  I was young and wanted to make a good impression… mostly by not having an accident while driving the van on the way to the school!  I do remember that I tried to share a bit of the beauty of spring that year- he agreed, brightening a bit and  saying something like,  “Ah, oui! Yaas, ze vorld iz a beootiful place, non?” I remember wishing I could see the places he had seen, and travel to faraway lands.    Eventually I would, but in such a different way!  His life of course has become a celebration of environmental awareness and education, especially in terms of water and ocean issues- and a testament to his father’s life and research.


Speaking of water and another spring ritual, our Koi Carp have become active once again in the pond.  They’re not true Nishikigoi or Japanese Koi, but rather a hybrid carp of sorts grown here in America.  But they’re placid fish, cruising around the pond, and I enjoy seeing them.  In November or December they seem to disappear- and all winter long I wonder if they are doing okay, especially under the ice.  They go into a near hibernation or stasis of sorts in winter, finding a deeper, muddy place to wait out the cold months.  In mid-to-late March they reappear near the shorelines, and begin cruising around in the shallow warmer waters.

Those in our pond are very large fish now- between 2-3 feet long.   Most are orange and black in coloration- but this one is a mottled white.  We call the very orange ones “Orangey” and the ones with a large black spot, “Spot.”  Very orginal, huh?! I haven’t been able to get close enough to tell them apart, but this year I’ll try to get more pictures like this.  We may call this one Motley or Patch…  That’s the tip of a bluestem plant in the foreground- the fish probably weighs 20-30 pounds or more.

Koi Carp

We had five at one point- beginning with three about 8-12 inches long, and stocking two smaller ones about 6-8 inches long a year later.  One of those disappeared, and we’ve seen the same four large Koi Carp together now for the past couple of years.   I don’t feed them- they help control the vegetation and subsist on a natural diet.  Thus far they seem to be doing just fine, and based on their life cycle, may still be here long after we are gone.

Little Wonders in Spring

March 23rd, 2009

Lately our weather is so variable, with each day different from the rest- sounds like spring!  Today it’s cool and windy with some heavy rain the forecast.  It’s such a great time of year though- and we’ve been enjoying the time outdoors.  A walk through the forest yields some interesting sights, especially down at ground level.  We found ourselves admiring several of the Bryophytes… non-vascular plants that we call mosses.   We wander around and try not to step on them, and really have no idea what species or type they are… “Dad, what kind is this?”  “Ah… it’s one of the mosses.”  “Yeah, but what kind?!”  “Oh, there’s really so many…”  “So, you don’t know, is that it?”  “Ah, well, yes- I really don’t know, because…um, there’s so many… oh, Hey! Would you look at that bird over there!”

A bright green patch of moss looks so soft and inviting- there’s a rock in the middle of this patch.  Soft moss, soft moss, soft moss… reminds me of Tiger and Kipper.  Did you ever watch Kipper the dog?  Great little British cartoon.


The tiny sporophytes sticking up from this moss species look like strange hairs on some green beast. 


Another moss species has a different look and shows what we might call “moss flowers” but instead they are perichaetia – essentially organs in which the reproductive cells develop and fertilization occurs.  Very different from flowering plants with seeds.  Each little “tree” below is only as wide as a pinky finger, and as tall as a thumbnail- about the same scale as the fingertips in the photo above.  It’s very soft too…


We also found the first wildflower on our property last week- a wild Bluet. This is a tiny little flower found growing in patches- the young boy noticed it first and I was surprised I was sitting next to quite a few of them.  Well, not so suprising without my reading glasses since they’re tiny!


Wild Bluet (Hedyotis crassifolia)

Here’s my three-inch pocketknife for a sense of scale- these are really little.


It’s fun to get outdoors in spring and see the many changes. Soon we won’t be able to keep up with it all. Leaves are starting to emerge, and the trees will be covered in a months time. The purple martins and barn swallows should be returning over the next few weeks too.

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