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By Bill Lawyer

Winter is often seen as a time when most of the wild insects are gone, either hibernating, or, in the case of monarch butterflies, migrating south.

But in fact, this is not the case.

If your house is anything like mine (but probably a lot newer), and if you venture down to the basement, you’ll find that some invertebrate “critters” have not gone south but rather come in from the cold.

You might use this fact as an excuse to stay out of the basement or closets, crawl spaces, and the like. Most people have no desire to encounter a crawling critter moving across their basement floor or wall at any speed.

But if you’re adventurous, you can go peek in the nooks and crannies to see what’s going on down there. For the most part, these are not noisy intruders, and you rarely see them unless to turn on a light in a dark room.

Some of the more fascinating and harmless lodgers you are likely to encounter are the millipedes. They come marching in, but their many feet make no noise that we can hear.

Fortunately, millipedes are not predatory, and in many other ways are slow and harmless compared to such things as the speedy, spooky centipedes. (I’ve often wondered why no children have devised centipede Halloween costumes.)

While worldwide there are over 12,000 species of millipedes, the only one we’re likely to encounter in our nooks and crannies is the American Giant (Narceus americanus).

While by definition a millipede means 1,000 legs, all scientists consulted agree that most species have a few hundred or less. The most ever officially encountered was a species found in the Northwest with 750 legs. Curiously, centipedes can have 50 to 350 legs, and never 100 due to always having an odd number of pairs.

The North American centipedes are about four inches long, but in tropical climates some species get as large as 15 inches The largest one I’ve seen in the wild was a yellow and black striped species in Puerto Rico, about 7 inches in length.

Millipedes have the ability to roll up into a ball for protection, the way that pill bugs do. And like skunks, millipedes can produce a nasty smelling chemical that discourages would-be predators.

While millipedes look somewhat like worms, they are not. Except for the first few segments that have one or no legs, most of their bodies are divided into segments with each one having two pairs of legs.

Like many invertebrates, millipedes have hardened plates on their segments for protection. Also like most invertebrates (cockroaches, for example), they are well adapted to the changes to the earth caused by climate change. The warmer and more moist the environment, the better they thrive.

Scientists have determined that millipedes were among the very first animals to evolve to live on land.

They reproduce using spermatophores, which are either taken by females directly from the males or collected from spermatophores deposited on or under the ground.

The females make nests and lay up to 100 eggs, which hatch in about a month. But because they have a variety of enemies, the overall population of millipedes in the environment is fairly stable.

While not recommended for everyone, a number of people keep millipedes as pets, generally the African Giant millipede, which grows to be about 10 inches long.

Meanwhile, be nice to millipedes — they help break down leaf litter and other vegetative matter, which provides free mulching and decomposing services right in our backyards.

 

A North American millipede rolled up in protective mode.

 

By Bill Lawyer

One of the pleasures of springtime in Rye is savoring the scent and color of our urban trees. Among the most lavish of these is a species of Locust, which shows off its legume-ish and multiple white flowers all over our fair city in mid-May. A few weeks later, in mid- to late June, the leaves of another species of legume-ish tree, the Northern Catalpa, open, and along with them come equally beautiful flowers, with perhaps even more fragrance.

While not native to the eastern U.S., for the past 50 years or so, Northern Catalpas have managed to hold their own in Rye. They have taken root along Playland Parkway near Milton Road and Boston Post Road across from the Jay Estate.

Their yellow-white flowers grow in clusters along multiple branches. Catalpas produce nectar from both the flowers and the leaves, and noted beekeeper Richard Underhill says, “The catalpa and the honey bee share a mutually beneficial relationship. The catalpa helps feed the honey bee, and the honey bee helps ensure reproduction of the catalpa.”

After flowering, 12- to 15-inch long pods form over the summer. They are filled with numerous seeds. Given enough room to spread out, Catalpas grow 50 to 90 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet in diameter.

There is also a Southern Catalpa tree, distinguished mainly by a slightly different floral structure.

So what’s this about a Magic Bean Tree? In part it was just a “hook” to get readers interested in this month’s column, but there is a connection.

When I was a boy, we used to find the seed pods of Catalpas all around in fall and winter — by which time they’d turned brown and dry. We had fun opening the pods and throwing the seeds around. We also discovered they made great, if primitive, percussive musical instruments.

As for the magic part, for nearly 300 years children have been delighted by some version of the English fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Jack’s mother sends him to town to sell their cow for food, but instead a man trades him for some magic beans. When Jack gets back home, his mother berates him for making such a poor choice. She throws the beans out the window and they go to bed… Well, you know the rest.

The point is that I always associated that beanstalk and the magic seeds in the story with the pods and seeds of the Catalpa tree.

In a way, all beans are magical, because within their tiny seeds they possess the DNA needed to grow ten stories high — with help from their friends, sun, rain, and good soil.

The magic part in real life is the way the world of nature continues to provide us with seemingly magical lessons that we can learn to bring about sustainability. Living in harmony with nature means that we protect Rye’s trees and green spaces, so they can provide us with what we need to be healthy in the years to come — right in our backyard.

The flowers of a Northern Catalpa

Leafy Catalpa on Playland Parkway

By Bill Lawyer

I recently spent twelve days hiking about 140 miles from Porto, Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In that time I must have awkwardly stepped over at least a 1,000 nasty chestnut “balls”. Their outer coverings are also commonly known as burrs.

Technically, the covering of the chestnut nut (actually a fruit) is a spiny, leathery <cupule> two to five inches in diameter. Along with sweet gum and horse chestnut balls, they are among the least pleasant tree fruits to walk on. But you can’t easily avoid chestnuts along the woodland trails in Portugal and Spain, as they’re everywhere.

That’s probably why Portugal is the seventh largest exporter of chestnuts in the world, despite it being one of the smallest countries (112th).

Around here, you could walk for hundreds of miles and only find one small place (about three acres) where chestnut trees are growing. And that’s a site on Westchester County’s Lasdon Park property in Katonah.

This wasn’t always the case. When European settlers came to our area, they found the forest teeming with chestnut trees. These trees didn’t have to be planted and nurtured; they functioned quite nicely on their own. Biologists have estimated that in the early 20th century there were some 4 billion chestnut trees in the United States.

Native Americans and colonial settlers used all parts of the trees — for lumber, food, fuel, fencing, tanning, shingles, furniture, and many other products. The nuts were an important food for wildlife such as jays, pigeons, wild boar, deer, and squirrels.

Chestnuts were made popular in literature and poetry as a symbol of living an upright, sturdy lifestyle. Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” sets that tone in his first stanza:

<Under a spreading chestnut-tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.>

But by the early 1940s nearly all the country’s population of chestnut trees was destroyed. How did this happen? In two words, the cause was what is known as the “chestnut blight.” It came into the United States from Asia around 1900 through what they call “nursery stock.” Slowly but steadily the blight made its way around the entire country, leaving just a few stands of American chestnuts intact.

The blight is a fungus that produces spores that are spread from tree to tree by the wind. Cankers caused by the fungal infection cause the bark to split.

The fungus enters through wounds on susceptible trees and grows in and beneath the bark, eventually killing the cambium all the way round the twig, branch, or trunk.

While not all trees die, the fungus causes them to lose their main trunk and branches, leaving just some shoots to grow back for a few years then start the cycle over again.

Chestnut trees are so rare around Westchester County that when I first saw some of the spiky shells on the ground in Portugal I had no idea what they were. It was only thanks to our trusty iPad that we were able to look up the Portuguese name and translate it into English.

But things are actually looking up for the American chestnuts.

Westchester County’s program to bring back chestnuts is part of a much larger project, being developed under the leadership of the American Chestnut Foundation. The Foundation conducts basic and applied research to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut tree for reintroduction back into forest ecosystems within the native range of this species. That’s what is going on at Lasdon Park.

So it’s very likely that in the years ahead, when we go out for a walk, we may be able to pick up some chestnut balls from nearby trees, remove the shells, and take the nuts home to become part of our next meal — right from our own backyards.

 

Chestnut tree cupules on a tree

A Chinese-American hybrid chestnut

 

Right in Our Backyard

Fireflies and Climate Change

By Bill Lawyer

Ever since I started writing articles about nature and the environment, I’ve been getting questions about the fate of fireflies, vis-à-vis global climate change.

Fireflies (which are actually a type of beetle) have always symbolized to me the delicate beauty and amazing variety of the wildlife that we have all around us.

Yes, you can go to a place like Thailand or Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico and see spectacular clusters of fireflies, but for many years all I had to do was go to one of the fields or meadows nearby (including my backyard).

I still see an occasional firefly, and enjoy watching neighborhood children trying to capture some for a close look (before returning them).

Inside their small bodies, fireflies have developed the chemical and biological attributes to produce light without producing heat.

Ironically, while scientists have come up with many ways to use their knowledge of bioluminescence, we keep destroying the open spaces that fireflies need to carry out their courtship and procreation rituals.

According to a recent issue of Science Magazine, scientists from universities in Michigan have been carrying on a survey of the firefly population for the past dozen years. During that time, they found that the population varies on a three-year cycle — increasing or decreasing. While they don’t have conclusive proof as to why this is happening, so far they’ve posited that fireflies need warm weather to function, but also sufficient rainfall.

Cornell University scientists have noted that as average temperatures rise, fireflies emerge earlier which may impact on the foods they eat (or what eats them).

Entomology Professor Michael Hoffman says that one possible reason for the seeming increase in numbers of fireflies in Michigan may be caused by wet springs, a trend that will occur with climate change in the Northeastern U.S.

Since we have just experienced a relatively wet spring and early summer, firefly populations in Rye should be growing. That’s because firefly larvae (glow worms) feed on snails, slugs, and other small invertebrates. With more moisture, the number of snails and slugs likely increase, providing more food for fireflies and insuring good populations of adults.

But many of the wetlands and meadows that would normally be providing those moist conditions are drying up or being paved over.

Other factors to consider here in Rye are the use of insecticides, and the conversion of streams into storm sewers. Increased artificial lighting has had an impact as well, making it harder for fireflies to find potential mates.

Overall, it seems as though there is no simple answer to the question of changing population numbers. Dr. Hoffman says that continued research is required, along with expanded coverage of firefly populations in other parts of the country.

My most recent close encounter with a firefly was when I was taking my dog out for a walk, and I found one on my kitchen counter. I have no idea how it got there. Luckily, I was able to get it out the door and it flew away.

As I’m writing this, at about 8:30 in the evening, I can see a couple of fireflies blinking outside my window. They don’t know about climate change, but let’s hope that they can adapt to the changing conditions. What would summer be without them?

With photo

By Bill Lawyer

If you ever find yourself complaining about walking into a spider web some evening or early morning, consider this: you’re not running into a swarm of angry fire ants, escaping from their flooded nests, as featured in a recent article in The New York Times.

During my summer evening neighborhood walks with my dog, my flashlight illuminated dozens of spider webs being constructed and utilized.

The spiders seemed determined to use any object at hand (at legs, actually) to catch unsuspecting flying insects. Along Oakland Beach Avenue a web was attached to a telephone pole, parked car, and shrub.

The night of Rye Town Park’s outdoor movie, as people were leaving, they discovered a huge web strung out at the Playland Pool parking lot — using two trees and a pile of branches.

Even on my backyard deck, I’ve had to do a sweep to remove the webs that get built every night between my house, the deck stair railing, and a deck chair.

But thanks to several generations of children brought up reading “Charlotte’s Web”, people are more likely to let the spiders do their thing.

And what they do is eat lots of insects.

How many, you ask? According to the Live Science website, scientists estimate that each year, about 27 million tons of spiders consume somewhere between 440 million and 880 million tons of insects, new research finds.

The new study, published in the journal The Science of Nature, finds that spiders’ food consumption is similar to the amount of food that all whale species (Cetacea) eat annually, biologist Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland and ecologist Klaus Birkhofer of the Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany wrote in their paper.

Spiders that weave the typical roundish webs are known as orb-weavers. Even with everything we know about them, they’re still remarkable in how they combine planning and the use of various chemicals to design, build and maintain their webs.

And of course, even without non-suspecting people barging into the webs, spiders nearly always have to spin new webs each night, particularly after a heavy rain.

Orb weavers rarely bite anything other than insects, and then — only if they’re startled. And, their venom is mild.

Among the lessons we are learning about orb weavers is what is it about the webbing that makes it work so well.

This is one example of the research that’s known as biomimicry — how we can learn things from nature that can help solve human problems while protecting the environment.

Another attribute of orb weavers is how they are able to distinguish the difference between an inanimate objects such as a leaf fragment caught in their webs, rather than insects.

And these are just a few of lessons to be learned, if we look for them, as we take our evening walks around the neighborhood.

So let’s all do our part in letting the spiders do their part, right in our backyards.

By Bill Lawyer

Several years ago I wrote an article for this newspaper in which I described the ways that wildlife could help us deal with the threats of climate change. I focused in particular on the example of opossums. These fascinating and commonplace animals can indeed teach us many lessons.

Not by communicating directly with us, of course, but in the way they live their lives.

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