Spotted lanternflies pose a threat to plants' photosynthesis
By Mary Stickley-Godinez, May 25, 2020, The Daily Progress
The adult spotted lanternfly is a beautiful moth-looking creature, silvery gray with charcoal highlights and bright red accents.
Covid-19 is not the only thing that has come to us from Asia. Nor are Asian hornets.
In the past few years, the Mid-Atlantic region has been tracking another pestilence. Unfortunately, in an age of worldwide commerce, we should expect more and more pests and diseases to traverse the oceans and take up new residence in a region that lacks existing predators to keep these interlopers in check. The result is often an explosion of population and rapid expansion into new territories.
Such is certainly true of the spotted lanternfly. This creature was traced to have entered the country around 2012 via the port of Philadelphia through an egg mass that was on a shipment of ornamental stone. Those eggs hatched, and the young quickly found trees and shrubs to feed on. They quietly spread into neighboring counties but were not noticed at first. It is believed they stayed up in the tree canopies until populations reached a point where they ran out of prime real estate and moved downward to trunks and ground in multitudes of biblical proportions.
The adult, in the leaf hopper family, is a beautiful moth-looking creature, silvery gray with charcoal highlights and bright red accents. Juveniles look like little long-nosed frogs that, depending on their age, are black or red with white polka dots. I actually find them to be rather cute.
Egg masses look like smears of pale yellowish clay or concrete and contain 30 to 50 eggs each. They are laid on any smooth-trunked trees, stones or even vertical man-made surfaces. They hatch at this time of year, and the juveniles quickly scamper out along branches, poke their straw-shaped mouth parts into the stems, and start drinking sap. They will feed and grow until July-ish, when they will mature into adults. Adults mate and start laying eggs, which will winter over and start the cycle again next spring. Because they are so new to the area, not only are natural predators absent, but our native trees and shrubs are not equipped to handle the onslaught.
The loss of sap dramatically weakens the plants — so much so that they are dying of other diseases or weather extremes that usually they could easily resist. Another problem comes from mold. When sucking insects drink in sap, there is too much sugar for the animals’ metabolisms to process. Therefore, they poop out the excess in a sticky, sugar-filled liquid called “honeydew.” Under lanternfly-infected trees, this substance spatters down like rain, soaking the surfaces of everything beneath the plant. Other insects, like ants and bees, will feed on this. Thus, you might notice them hovering around, looking like they are foraging in areas lacking flowers.
Which brings us to the mold. “Sooty mold” is a fungus that only grows on honeydew. It is quite distinctive and is a fabulous indicator of sucking insects on your plants. It also usually causes no problems to any plants it might grow on. But in the case of the lanternflies, there is so much honeydew that the sooty mold grows in a thick mat, covering everything. It is so thick that it blocks the plants’ abilities to carry out photosynthesis.
Add to all this the varieties of plants the insect attacks, and we now have a major problem. The ailanthus tree, or Tree of Heaven, is a host plant for the creature, even in its native land. And, thus far, lanternflies first colonize those plants when they invade new areas. But from these trees they spread out into other trees and shrubs.
They especially love grapes and are causing major losses in the wine industry. They also feed from apples, peaches, plums, cherries and apricots. And in the ornamental industry, they can be found on maples, magnolias, walnuts, birch, willows, lindens, sycamores, hickories, black gums, sassafras, service berries, poplars and ash trees.
Spotted lanternflies have spread into the eastern counties of Pennsylvania. In Virginia, there is also a colony that has established in Winchester. Adults hitch rides on vehicles and packaging, and they are also spread by accidentally moving items that have egg masses on them. The Virginia State Extension service is watching carefully for them in other areas of Virginia. If you see an insect that might be one of these, please contact your local Extension office to report its location.
Submitted by Charlene Uhl
Community Commentary/Opinion: Nature connection –
a vital mental health resource during the COVID-19 crisis
CAROLYN SCHUYLER, Monday, May 18, 2020 Charlottesville Tomorrow
A woman wearing rubber gloves sits near the Rivanna River at Riverview Park on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The warm weather drew many community members to parks and forests as the area adjusts to growing fears about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nature is currently receiving a surge of media attention as an antidote to the emotional challenges of the current COVID-19 crisis. It is good news in a time of alarming headlines. The rich sensory experiences nature provides are proven to help in the recovery from stress. A 2020 literature review of studies determined that just 120 minutes of nature exposure a week contributes to improved wellbeing. Wilderness immersions are not required to receive the benefits. Research has found that nearby nature in schoolyards and neighborhoods promotes emotional resilience. Even window views of trees and green landscapes buffer against the ill-effects of stress.
As the pandemic has triggered a historic rise in mental health problems, now more than ever we need restorative green spaces to invite play and nature connection. A University of Pennsylvania study found that “greening” urban lots reduces rates of depression in urban neighborhoods. Adding benches, inviting signage and small gardens can transform small underused urban areas into destinations for “green microbreaks” to boost mood and reduce mental fatigue. Working to improve green areas is a timely public health project given the relative ease of maintaining social distance outdoors.
With extended school closures and play equipment off-limits due to COVID-19 risk, it is particularly important to create neighborhood play areas that give children outlets for creativity and exploration. Providing a collection of rocks painted to look like animals or piles of branches for fort building is a start to welcoming children and families into green areas. Rotating signage suggesting running games or encouraging a scavenger hunt may encourage new engagement with open lawns. The time and minimal expense needed to create special outdoor play spaces is worth the investment not only for the joy they provide. Nature play creates a foundation for academic success by fostering stronger attentional focus, increased creativity, and emotional self-regulation.
Over the last two decades, play has steadily declined as childhood has moved indoors and in front of screens. COVID-19 has exacerbated this trend with worsening consequences for children’s wellbeing. In an effort to protect time for play in childhood, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has long declared play an international human right. Every community must assess whether children’s right to play is adequately protected through access to quality neighborhood play spaces and allocation of time for child-directed play. Given the disparities in access to play spaces and green areas in our community, counteractive efforts are critically important in helping all children to thrive.
Locally, several organizations are working to create and maintain restorative natural spaces, outdoor play areas, and greenways that are the building blocks for public health. The efforts of the Piedmont Environmental Council, Albemarle County and Charlottesville Parks and Recreation departments, Ivy Creek Natural Area, Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, Tree Stewards, The Grove, McIntire Botanical Garden and Wildrock are essential in this time of rising mental health needs.
Nature connection has always helped people find solace, inspiration and joy in hard times. COVID-19 has helped us to see how much we need our community green spaces and the organizations that promote and protect them. In the pandemic recovery and rebuilding period ahead, green spaces must be fully appreciated as critical social determinants of health.
Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, is founder and executive director of Wildrock, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting nature play for health and happiness. During the pandemic, Wildrock has offered timed trail walks at its Blue Ridge Foothills Nature Play and Discover Center. Wildrock works collaboratively with local nonprofits and public schools
“It’s certainly surprising,” says Lars Chittka, a behavioral ecologist at the Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved. “We’re only at the beginning of exploring this phenomenon.”
Researchers at ETH Zürich chanced upon the discovery when they noticed curious bite marks on leaves while studying how bees respond to plant odors. They had added bumble bees to a research greenhouse and observed them cutting holes in the shape of half-moons. What was going on? At first, the researchers thought the insects might be feeding on fluid from the leaves, but the bees didn’t stay long enough to get much. Nor did they appear to be taking any part of the leaves back to their colonies.
A key observation—that bumble bees from colonies with less food were more avidly damaging the leaves—suggested another goal. The researchers wondered whether the damage triggered the plants to flower sooner, providing pollen to the hungry pollinators. After all, some plants speed up their flowering when they are stressed by disease or drought because these threats provide an incentive to reproduce sooner. But no one had ever shown that a pollinator can stimulate flowering. “I thought it was a long shot,” recalls Mark Mescher, an evolutionary biologist at ETH Zürich who co- led the research.
The researchers set up a greenhouse experiment with black mustard (Brassica nigra), a crop they had been studying. Ten plants were put in mesh bags with bumble bees that hadn’t eaten any pollen for 3 days; they proceeded to nibble five to 10 holes in each plant. On average, those plants flowered after 17 days; undamaged plants that had not been exposed to bumble bees took an average of 33 days, the researchers report today in Science. In a similar experiment, tomato plants sped up their flowering by 30 days. “The magnitude of the effects is huge,” Mescher says.
Hunger seems to be driving the bees: Another lab experiment showed that pollen-deprived bumble bees cut about four times as many holes as bumble bees that were fully fed. When the researchers put potted plants and a colony of bees on a roof at the ETH Zürich campus in early spring, before flowers were blooming, the bumble bees cut holes in the leaves. But as spring progressed, making more pollen available, the bees made fewer new holes. The researchers also noticed two wild species—red-tailed and white-tailed bumble bees—puncturing leaves, suggesting the behavior may be widespread. “That was superexciting,” says Consuelo De Moraes, a chemical ecologist at ETH Zürich who co-led the research.
To find out whether the leaf damage alone triggers the plants to flower sooner, the researchers cut similar-size holes in leaves. Those plants flowered earlier than controls, but not as early as the ones bitten by bumble bees. An intriguing possibility, Chittka says, is that bee saliva might contain chemicals that prompt flowering—similar to chemicals in the saliva of plant-eating insects that prompt plant defense responses. The researchers hope to investigate that idea and to study chemical signaling inside the plants after they are bitten. “It would be a horticulturist’s dream if you could find some relatively low-cost biochemistry that would actually speed up flowering,” Chittka says.
But researchers are still puzzled about how such behavior, which may also benefit the plants by attracting early pollinators, evolved. It’s unlikely worker bees learn the trick: They live only 1 month and wouldn’t have enough time to see the results of their handiwork. If the behavior is instinctive, it’s hard to understand how it would have started, Chittka says. What initial benefit, for example, would damaging leaves have brought to the bees? Finally, to help their own colony (rather than distant ones), bees would need to keep their nibbling close to home. “For all of this to somehow have come about by evolutionary trial and error process,” Chittka says, “it’s surprising.”
Posted in: People & Events doi:10.1126/science.abc9348
A new study reported this week by evolutionary ecologist Lynn Adler at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Rebecca Irwin of North Carolina State University, with others, suggests that flower strips – rows of pollinator-friendly flowers planted with crops – offer benefits for common Eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) colony reproduction, but some plants do increase pathogen infection risk.
As Adler and colleagues point out, pollinator declines affect food security, and pollinators are threatened by such stressors as pathogens and inadequate food. Bumblebees feed on pollen and nectar they gather from such plants as sunflower and milkweed. But bumblebees are also likely to acquire a gut disease pathogen, Crithia bombi, from some of these plant species more than others, the authors note.
Until now, the effect of plant species composition on bee disease was unknown, they add. Study details appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In earlier work on flowers and bee infection, Adler explains, “We evaluated 15 plant species by putting the same amount of C. bombi on each, letting a bee forage, and then seeing whether and how bad an infection it developed. We used that to designate plant species as ‘high- or low-infection’ for this study.” Low-infection plants include sunflower and thyme; high-infection plants include swamp milkweed and purple loosestrife.
Read more at University of Massachusetts Amherst
Thu 21 May 2020 06.30 EDT
Deer, bobcats and black bears are gathering around parts of Yosemite national park typically teeming with visitors.
Earlier this month, for the first time in recent memory, pronghorn antelope ventured into the sun-scorched lowlands of Death Valley national park. Undeterred by temperatures that climbed to over 110F, the animals were observed by park staff browsing on a hillside not far from Furnace Creek visitor center.
“This is something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes,” said Kati Schmidt, a spokesperson for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We’ve known they’re in some of the higher elevation areas of Death Valley but as far as we’re aware they’ve never been documented this low in the park, near park headquarters.”
The return of pronghorns to Death Valley is but one of many stories of wildlife thriving on public lands since the coronavirus closures went into effect a month and a half ago. In Yosemite national park, closed since 20 March, wildlife have flocked in large numbers to a virtually abandoned Yosemite Valley.
More than 4 million visitors traveled to Yosemite last year, the vast majority by way of automobile. On busy late-spring days, as visitors gather to see the famed Yosemite, Vernal and Bridal Veil Falls, the 7.5-mile long valley can become an endless procession of cars.
But traffic jams seem a distant memory as the closure approaches its two-month mark. Deer, bobcats and black bears have congregated around buildings, along roadways and other parts of the park typically teeming with visitors. One coyote, photographed by park staff lounging in an empty parking lot under a rushing Yosemite Falls, seemed to best capture the momentary state of repose.
A handful of workers who have remained in Yosemite during the closures, who have been able to travel by foot and bike along the deserted roadways, describe an abundance of wildlife not seen in the last century. “The bear population has quadrupled,” Dane Peterson, a worker at the Ahwahnee Hotel, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not like they usually aren’t here … It’s that they usually hang back at the edges or move in the shadows.”
Similar behaviors have been documented in other national parks including Rocky Mountain, in Colorado, and Yellowstone, in Wyoming. “Without an abundance of visitors and vehicles, wildlife has been seen in areas they typically don’t frequent,” said the National Park Service spokesperson Cynthia Hernandez, “including near roadways, park buildings and parking lots, spending time doing what they usually do naturally: foraging for food”.
The human-free interregnum is rapidly coming to an end, however, as the park service ramps up its phased reopening. While Yosemite, Death Valley and a number of other California national parks remain closed, on Monday, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks – which collectively received nearly 8 million visitors in 2019 – reopened their gates for the first time since late March. To protect visitors and staff, the park service has hired seasonal workers to disinfect high use areas and installed plastic barriers at tollbooths, visitor centers and permit desks.
But few if any protective measures have been put in place for wildlife. The consequences of the reopenings
may be especially hard on young animals born in the calm of the closures, according to wildlife experts.
“Individuals who have lived in the national park area will likely readjust pretty quickly to the return of recreators after quarantine,” said Lindsay Rosa, a conservation scientist with Defenders of Wildlife. “But newcomers, particularly juveniles born this spring, may take a bit longer to learn since they haven’t yet had the opportunity to encounter many humans.”
Visitors to the re-opened parks should be particularly wary of amphibians, says Rosa, many of which are beginning their migration to breeding grounds. “[For them], roads remain a particularly fatal obstacle.”
By Erik Stokstad
May 20, 2020
A deadly virus is spreading quickly among wild rabbits in southwestern North America, threatening populations and possibly endangered species. Last week the virus, which causes a hemorrhagic disease, reached Southern California. “The outlook right now is so unbelievably bleak,” says Hayley Lanier, a mammologist at the University of Oklahoma. “We’re
simply left to watch the wave spread out and worry about imperiled species in its path.”
Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus first spread worldwide in the 1980s, devastating domestic rabbit populations in China and Europe. It raced through Australia, where feral rabbits had flourished after being introduced in the 18th century. Populations began to recover, but then a new strain emerged in France in
2010 that also kills wild species.
Strains of this new pathogen—rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2 (RHDV2, also called L. europaeus/GI.2)—are more prone to recombination, which could explain the broader range of hosts, says Joana Abrantes, a researcher in virus evolution at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources in Portugal. The new strain is less deadly in adults, but unlike its predecessor it also kills young rabbits. After the virus hammered populations in the Iberian Peninsula, killing 60% to 70%, two predators that depend on rabbits also declined: the Spanish imperial eagle by 45% and the Iberian lynx by 65%. Both types of RHDV are extremely infectious. They also persist in the environment, surviving in dead animals for at least 3 months.
Predators and insects can spread it through their feces. The virus is now poised to spread throughout North America, says Robyn Hall, a veterinary virologist and epidemiologist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, where RHDV2 sped cross-country in 18 months between 2015 and 2016.
The virus was first detected in North America in 2018, in domesticated rabbits in Canada, followed by three U.S. states, but not in wild species. In early March, biologists in New Mexico began to find dead wild rabbits. One of the first known victims was discovered by Gary Roemer, a wildlife biologist at New Mexico
State University (NMSU), Las Cruces, while walking his Chesapeake Bay retriever in the desert. The dog “never catches jackrabbits, they’re just too damn fast,” he says. But the rabbit must have been sick and weak, he guesses. Since then, Roemer has found 18 carcasses in 1 half-square kilometer.
Biologists and wildlife veterinarians in neighboring states were on the alert and began to receive reports of multiple dead rabbits in many locations. “This is very, very unusual and what happens when we have a disease that is brand new to the landscape,” says Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “We would never see tularemia or plague spread like this in rabbits.”
She has sent several carcasses to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC), which is helping with necropsies and preparing samples for genetic testing. Because RHDV is a foreign virus, only a high containment laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Plum Island off the Massachusetts coast is allowed to test for the virus. USDA has sequenced genomes of RHDV2 samples collected from 2018 to the present, according to a report submitted to the World Organisation for Animal Health on 5 May. The viral strain in the southwest—the same strain has been found in both domestic and wild rabbits there—differs from samples from other U.S. states and Canada, which suggests a single introduction to the desert region.
The genomes will be published as soon as possible, a spokesperson told ScienceInsider. Knowing more
about the strains, and possibly their virulence, could help biologists know what kind of impact to expect in wild populations,Justice-Allen says. Challenge experiments, in which rabbits are intentionally infected with the virus, would also help. In 2017, researchers at the Plum Island lab showed that RHDV2 can kill
eastern cottontails, a wild species, but experimental infections are not planned for other wild species.
Concern for endangered species
In the meantime, USGS has warned that all North American species of lagomorph—which include rabbits, hares, and distant relatives called pikas—could be susceptible. Biologists fear the virus could have an especially negative impact on some species that are already struggling. Overall, just two species of North
American lagomorph are considered stable; the rest are declining because of threats such as climate change or habitat degradation from livestock grazing. Other species are not well enough studied
to know their status, Lanier says.
Species of particular concern include the pygmy rabbit, which has populations at risk, such as those in Washington state. The virus is already affecting species in northern Mexico, a center of lagomorph diversity that is home to rare and endangered species such as the volcano rabbit and the Davis Mountains cottontail. “We are very concerned,” says Jesús Fernández, a mammologist at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, Chihuahua. “We believe that [the virus] can pose a serious threat.” Fernández and
colleagues have been telling local cattle ranchers they should burn any rabbit corpses they find, bury them 1 meter deep, and report any with bloody faces. Fernández and colleagues are organizing sampling work to figure out which species in Mexico can be infected and how the populations are faring. A future worry
is that if rabbit and jackrabbit populations plummet, coyotes may hunt cattle instead, which might cause ranchers to use poison to kill the coyotes. Poisoned carcasses could in turn endanger scavengers such as eagles and vultures.
Roemer says there are not a lot of data on rabbit populations in the U.S. Southwest. He has done surveys in three parts of New Mexico for several years and hopes to find funding to determine the impact of the virus on rabbits and their predators. He and other researchers would also like to know whether certain species
act a reservoir for the virus, which could lead to it becoming endemic. “There’s so much we don’t know that it is extremely difficult to make a prediction,” says Matt Gompper, a wildlife ecologist at NMSU.
Could a vaccine help?
If the virus does become established, some researchers hope a vaccine might help protect populations. Commercial vaccines for domestic rabbits, available in Europe, can’t be used in wild species because they must be injected. “The stress induced by animal capture and manipulation is often lethal,” Abrantes notes.
And the vaccines are made from inactivated infectious viruses, which raises concerns the vaccines themselves could spread problematic pathogens.
Four institutions in Portugal are working on a different approach. Project Fight 2 aims to develop an oral vaccine for RHDV2, incorporated into bait, for the wild rabbit populations of the Iberian Peninsula. The project, which began in October 2018, has a budget of about €120,000 to develop a prototype vaccine
based on viruslike particles that mimic viruses without being infectious. The group expects initial results on the effectiveness by the end of 2021. If successful, it could take two to three more years to license the vaccine, they say.
One drawback: Like the vaccines for domestic rabbits, boosters will be necessary every 6 months, and cost could be an issue. Robert Dusek, a wildlife biologist at NWHC, sounds a note of caution: “That’s a long road to go down and pretty expensive.” Carlos Rouco, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Córdoba, is
also skeptical. He says the best hope is to prevent the introduction of the virus. “I don’t consider myself an alarmist person, but the virus is unstoppable.” Once it reaches a population, managers should try to reduce other stresses on the population, such as supplying water if necessary. A certain percentage of the population should be resistant to the virus, he says.
In Arizona, Justice-Allen has her hopes. “We are still seeing live rabbits in areas where the outbreak has been going on for more than a month. So that is reassuring.”
Posted in: Plants & Animals
By Linda Duncan
The topic of my student presentation for my Master Naturalist class was the Shenandoah
Salamander. Unable to present the class with a live specimen I created a Papier Mache’ sculpture, about
15 times larger than the actual Shenandoah Salamander. Read about the Shenandoah Salamander (an endangered species) and Linda's creation of Sal (Here)
By Margaret Renkl
Contributing Opinion Writer, New York Times
May 18, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
NASHVILLE — One day last fall, deep in the middle of a devastating drought, I was walking the dog when a van bearing the logo of a mosquito-control company blew past me and parked in front of a neighbor’s house. The whole vehicle stank of chemicals, even going 40 miles an hour.
The man who emerged from the truck donned a massive backpack carrying a tank full of insecticide and proceeded to spray every bush and plant in the yard. Then he got in his truck, drove two doors down, and sprayed that yard, too, before continuing his route all around the block.
Here’s the most heartbreaking thing about the whole episode: He was spraying for mosquitoes that didn’t even exist: Last year’s extreme drought ended mosquito-breeding season long before the first freeze. Nevertheless, the mosquito vans arrived every three weeks, right on schedule, drenching the yards with poison for no reason but the schedule itself. And spraying for mosquitoes isn’t the half of it, as any walk through the lawn-care department of a big-box store will attest. People want the outdoors to work like an extension of their homes — fashionable, tidy, predictable. Above all, comfortable. So weedy yards filled with tiny wildflowers get bulldozed end to end and replaced with sod cared for by homeowners spraying from a bottle marked “backyard bug control” or by lawn services that leave behind tiny signs warning, “Lawn care application; keep off the grass.”
If only songbirds could read. Most people don’t seem to know that in this context “application” and “control” are simply euphemisms for “poison.” A friend once mentioned to me that she’d love to put up a nest box for bluebirds, and I offered to help her choose a good box and a safe spot for it in her yard, explaining that she would also need to tell her yard service to stop spraying. “I had no idea those guys were spraying,” she said.
To enjoy a lush green lawn or to sit on your patio without being eaten alive by mosquitoes doesn’t seem like too much to ask unless you actually know that insecticides designed to kill mosquitoes will also kill every other kind of insect: earthworms and caterpillars, spiders and mites, honeybees and butterflies, native bees and lightning bugs. Unless you actually know that herbicides also kill insects when they ingest the poisoned plants.
The global insect die-off is so precipitous that, if the trend continues, there will be no insects left a hundred years from now. That’s a problem for more than the bugs themselves: Insects are responsible for pollinating roughly 75 percent of all flowering plants, including one-third of the human world’s food supply. They form the basis of much of the animal world’s food supply, as well. When we poison the bugs and the weeds, we are also poisoning the turtles and tree frogs, the bats and screech owls, the songbirds and skinks.
“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney, Australia, told The Guardian last year. Lawn chemicals are not, by themselves, the cause of the insect apocalypse, of course. Heat waves can render male insects sterile; loss of habitat can cause precipitous population declines; agricultural pesticides kill land insects and, by way of runoff into the nation’s waterways, aquatic insects, as well.
As individuals, we can help to slow such trends, but we don’t have the power to reverse them. Changing the way we think about our own yards is the only thing we have complete control over. And since homeowners use up 10 times more pesticide per acre than farmers do, changing the way we think about our yards can make a huge difference to our fellow creatures. It can make a huge difference to our own health, too: As the Garden Club of America notes in its Great Healthy Yard Project, synthetic pesticides are endocrine disrupters linked to an array of human health problems, including autism, A.D.H.D., diabetes and cancer. So many people have invested so completely in the chemical control of the outdoors that every subdivision in this country might as well be declared a Superfund site.
Changing our relationship to our yards is simple: Just don’t spray. Let the tiny wildflowers take root within the grass. Use an oscillating fan to keep the mosquitoes away. Tug the weeds out of the flower bed with your own hands and feel the benefit of a natural antidepressant at the same time. Trust the natural world to perform its own insect control, and watch the songbirds and the tree frogs and the box turtles and the friendly garter snakes return to their homes among us.
Because butterflies and bluebirds don’t respect property lines, our best hope is to make this simple change a community effort. For 25 years, my husband and I have been trying to create a wildlife sanctuary of this half-acre lot, planting native flowers for the bees and the butterflies, leaving the garden messy as a safe place for overwintering insects.
Despite our best efforts, our yard is being visibly changed anyway. Fewer birds. Fewer insects. Fewer everything. Half an acre, it turns out, is not enough to sustain wildlife unless the other half-acre lots are nature-friendly, too.
It’s spring now, and nearly every day I get a flier in the mail advertising a yard service or a mosquito-control company. I will never poison this yard, but I save the fliers anyway, as a reminder of what we’re up against. I keep them next to an eastern swallowtail butterfly that my 91-year-old father-in-law found dead on the sidewalk. He saved it for me because he knows how many flowers I’ve planted over the years to feed the pollinators.
I keep that poor dead butterfly, even though it breaks my heart, because I know what it cost my father-in-law to bring it to me. How he had to lock the brakes on his walker, hold onto one of the handles and stoop on arthritic knees to get to the ground. How gently he had to pick up the butterfly to keep from crumbling its wings into powder. How carefully he set it in the basket of the walker to protect it.
My father-in-law didn’t know that the time for protection had passed. The butterfly he found is perfect, unbattered by age or struggle. It was healthy and strong until someone sprayed for mosquitoes, or weeds, and killed it, too.
The hornets, which are over two inches long, were first spotted in the state in December last year, and generally become active in the spring, researchers from Washington State University said in a post published in early April. "They're like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face," Susan Cobey, a bee breeder at WSU's Department of Entomology. "It's a shockingly large hornet," added Todd Murray, a specialist in invasive species at the university.
While generally not aggressive towards people or pets, the hornets can attack if provoked, officials say, and have killed humans in extreme circumstances. In 2013, between July and October, the insects killed 41 people and injured 1,600 in Shaanxi province during a particularly bad hornet season, the BBC reported.
Their main target, however, is the hives of honeybees, which they attack and often will destroy, largely by decapitating the bees in the hive, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).
"Asian giant hornet attacks and destroys honeybee hives. A few hornets can destroy a hive in a matter of hours. The hornets enter a "slaughter phase" where they kill bees by decapitating them," the department said. "They then defend the hive as their own, taking the brood to feed their own young. They also attack other insects but are not known to destroy entire populations of those insects."
Scientists are keen to make clear that people should be extremely cautious around the insects. Such is the threat posed by the giant hornets that the WSDA has an entire web page devoted to reporting sightings of the insects and instructions on how to trap them. The site displays a large red banner warning people to be careful near them. (Washington State Department of Agriculture)
"Don't try to take them out yourself if you see them," said entomologist Chris Looney from the WSDA in a blog post on the WSU website. "If you get into them, run away, then call us! It is really important for us to know of every sighting, if we're going to have any hope of eradication."
(blog entry submitted by Charlene Uhl)
Trippy documentary celebrates the wonders and possibilities of the fungal kingdom
(published in Sierra magazine, May/June edition)
By Wendy Becktold
When he was young, Paul Stamets had a severe stutter that left him dreading social interactions. As a result, he spent a lot of time looking down at the ground. What he saw there piqued his curiosity and started him on a journey that continues to this day.
The documentary film Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us (playing in select theaters and available to rent or buy via fantasticfungi.com) chronicles Stamets's journey and the object of his fascination: mushrooms and their fungal networks. Stamets, now a world-renowned mycologist, calls mushrooms "the grand molecular decomposers of nature," whose function is to regenerate forest and field by breaking down organic matter.
Thanks to the time-lapse, high-speed cinematography of director Louie Schwartzberg, viewers witness this process up close. Mushrooms sprout from leafy debris, rise out of fallen trees, and latch onto the body of a dead rodent, then devour it. Schwartzberg perfected his technique by leaving a camera rolling 24/7 for the past four decades in his home studio (the close-up nature scenes are actually filmed indoors).
But Fantastic Fungi is as much about what happens beneath the surface, hidden from human view. A mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus, most of which grows underground as a mycelium, a tangled mass of threads that absorb nutrients from the environment and can stretch for hundreds of miles. Stamets believes that vast networks of mycelia form a kind of consciousness, functioning something like the brain of the planet. His mission is to discover how this system communicates with the ecosystem around it and what, exactly, it's saying.
Starting to sound a bit out-there? For sure, Stamets is an unconventional figure with some unusual ideas. He also, despite having never formally trained as a scientist, holds five patents for biopesticides, all of which make use of fungi's natural defenses to repel termites, wasps, and other pests. Turns out that fungi produce enzymes to ward off competition for food and that these can be harnessed by humans to fight not just insects but also diseases. The best example is penicillin, but the potential for future discoveries is enormous. "We have barely tapped into the fungal genome," Stamets says.
Fantastic Fungi is an ambitious film with threads that, like mycelia, stretch in many directions—science, history, medicine, spirituality, and modern-day environmentalism. According to Stamets, mushrooms are a kind of environmental cure-all that can detoxify soil and even be used to clean up oil spills.
A broad cadre of academics and other experts (including food writers Michael Pollan and Eugenia Bone) appear on-screen to extol the wonders of the fungal kingdom. We learn that fungi emerged from the ocean 4 billion years ago to generate the soil that made terrestrial life possible (a lava bed in South Africa hosts a mycelium fossil that is 2.4 billion years old—the oldest record of a multicellular organism). The film also delves into the theory that certain mushroom varieties' hallucinogenic effects may have catalyzed changes in the human brain that led to the development of language.
Fantastic Fungi examines the impact of psychedelic mushrooms in modern times too, pointing to research that suggests they have untapped potential to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer's disease, and alcoholism. In perhaps the most moving sequence, terminally ill patients recount how ingesting psilocybin, a chemical found in psychedelic mushrooms, in carefully supervised settings helped them find peace in the face of death.
The 1.5 million species of fungi dominate Earth in ways humans still barely understand. When we trash our forests, Stamets warns, we risk losing not just potential cures for disease but also a primal connection to something far bigger than us. Fantastic Fungi is an invitation for a shift in consciousness—one we need to undergo if we are to save ourselves from destruction. After all, fungi have survived all the great extinction events. Most likely, they'll survive the next one, even if we don't.
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