There is, so far as I know, but one creature that is excited, quite literally vibrating, over these long stretches of 100+ degree days.
We hear him, and legions of his friends, singing from the leafy tops of our trees beginning around 9:30 or 10 in the morning and ceasing only after darkness has fallen. In the hottest part of the day, their songs reach such a fever pitch that you can hear them, even indoors, with the windows and doors shut, the air conditioner and ceiling fans running at full blast. Nothing can drown out the dog day cry of the cicada.
Have a listen:
Some days, this song sounds to me like lemonade and grandmothers fanning themselves on porches, barefooted children running through sprinklers and fiddle music.
On others, on those days when the heat has drained my spirit, it sounds like a funereal dirge.
The cicadas don't seem to be bothered much by the moods of their listeners though, they sing on.
So, as their music is the anthem of our summer days, and because we have a rapidly growing collection of their shed skins, we thought we'd better find out more about these rather vocal critters.
Here's what we've learned:
Cicadas are fairly large insects with big eyes that are set rather far apart. They come in an astonishing array - 2,500 or so known species.
They are born from eggs that a female has deposited in a small cut that she makes on a twig. They burrow into the ground and live the bulk of their lives there feeding on root juices.
Finally, they emerge from the ground, shed their skins and fly to the tree tops to sing and mate. Some species spend only a year underground, others as many 17 years.
They are not, as is commonly thought, locusts. That's a whole 'nuther beast.
It is the male cicadas that make all the noise. I tell my boys that they are singing love songs to the ladies. This elicits much eye rolling. My middle son said during a particularly loud performance, " Man, they really, really, REALLY want to get those girls attention, don't they? Can the girls not hear very well, or what?"
Here's an excerpt straight from wikipedia about the interesting way in which arduous young cicadas make their intentions known,
"Male cicadas have loud noisemakers called "timbals" on the sides of the abdominal base. Their "singing" is not the stridulation (where two structures are rubbed against one another) of many other familiar sound-producing insects like crickets: the timbals are regions of the exoskeleton that are modified to form a complex membrane with thin, membranous portions and thickened "ribs". Contracting the internal timbal muscles produces a clicking sound as the timbals buckle inwards. As these muscles relax, the timbals return to their original position producing another click. The interior of the male abdomen is substantially hollow to amplify the resonance of the sound. A cicada rapidly vibrates these membranes, and enlarged chambers derived from the tracheae make its body serve as a resonance chamber, greatly amplifying the sound. They modulate their noise by wiggling their abdomens toward and away from the tree that they are on. Additionally, each species has its own distinctive song"
Interestingly, the cicadas have made their way into cultural iconology. Throughout the ages, the cicada has been seen as a symbol of youthful short-sightedness. Other animals are diligently making preparations for the winter while the cicada is lazing the day away singing songs to his lover. Ah, young love.
Turns out cicadas are also seen as delicacies to some Asian and Latin American palates.
We have yet to see one actually IN his skin though... so I'm not sure how those chefs manage to get them from leafy heights to chilled plates. I guess that's a question for further research. (You can see a really neat photo of one here)
We'd also like to know if it is a particular temperature that triggers their singing to begin and then to end. So if you need us, we'll be out back with our clocks and thermometers waiting for the music to start.
This past weekend we spent a huge amount of our time at the beach...which is fine with all of us. We might as well just set up camp there as I have a feeling we'll be there most of the summer. The shoreline continues to provide us with new adventures every time we visit. This time there were multiple tide pools, which we have never gotten to see before at our particular beach. What fun tide pools can be!
Our time is spent digging, wave jumping and treasure hunting. Of course the treasure hunting is this biology majoring mama's favorite. We lazily walk along the beach naming the items we see: mermaid's purse, slipper limpet shells, oyster shells, whelk egg casings, etc.
But once in awhile we get a real treat...the moment any great scientist waits for...the day you discover something for the first time, something that might have never been discovered before. Such was this day.
While walking, looking at the seaweed washed ashore, we came across a white ball about the size of a baseball. We picked it up and were surprised at how light it was. Upon closer inspection, the ball looked to be made of smaller, paper thin individual "pods". We had no idea what it could be, but made using the scientific method, we made some initial some initial hypotheses. One guess was that it was the egg casing of some sort.
Could it be the egg casings of the molecrabs (see photo above) we had been seeing so many of?
At least that was our theory.
When we got home, like we always do, we couldn't wait to get to the computer to put in what we did know about what we had seen...color, texture, location, etc.
What we had found was in fact a sea wash ball. Once we had a positive identification. We searched for "sea wash ball" and found out the information we had been looking for.
A sea wash ball is a mass of egg cases from the common whelk. Within each capsule is up to 10 baby whelk. But only one of the baby whelk will survive as the first to emerge from its egg sack will feed on the others. Ewww...
The egg case masses earned their name when sailors from long ago used them as make shift sponges to wash. Apparently, if you scrub with the ball, it produces a lather similar to soap. My boys were totally disappointed that I made them use regular soap in the bath that night.
The butterfly obsession continues... and as fascinated as my boy is by his winged friends, I am equally fascinated by watching the scientist in him emerge and take flight. He is learning so much, and so am I... there's so much more to know about butterflies than I ever imagine possible. So prepare yourself, I'm going to be very long winded today :-)
Our most recent adventures in lepidopterology began when we found some very tiny (about 3/8 of an inch) Black Swallowtail caterpillars on our parsley. (Like Eren's!) This was a triumphant moment because my guy had planted the parsley not for culinary use, but specifically to attract these caterpillars. He was so impressed with himself that it worked!
His caterpillars grew by leaps and bounds, shedding their skins at least 3 or 4 times and eating us out of house and home. Interestingly, some got quite fat before going into their chrysalides, while others were not so large.
We're wondering if this has something to do with the sex of the caterpillar, or the availability of food vs. the number of caterpillars present. Maybe it's the age of the caterpillar or could it be that when other caterpillars are forming their chrysalides it sends some signal to the others that it is time?... Ready or not, here we go? We're thinking on ways to test out our theories in the future.
See, my young scientist is finding that there is no satiating a hunger for knowledge. The more nature teaches him, the more he craves to learn from her.
But back to the caterpillars... My boy's favorite thing about these guys is their funny defense mechanism.
See those orange "horns"? They are not always visible. They come out when the caterpillar is alarmed. It is an osmeterial gland that forms a dual purpose - the first is to look frightening. The caterpillar throws it's "horns" about in a very threatening manner. It also looks a lot like a snake tongue, don't you think? The second purpose of the osmeterial gland is to create a very foul smell that wards off potential predators. And does it ever stink! You can't imagine what a LARGE odor can be made by such a very small critter!
Now about the time all the caterpillars formed their chrysalides, we had begun working on planting a butterfly garden. My guy found himself with even more questions... what would attract our local butterflies? Where could we find those plants? How should they be arranged.
He also wanted to know if butterflies preferred a certain color flower.
So he began devising ways to find out. This involved lots of sketches of elaborate butterfly houses that he would build over our garden, so that he could sit and watch, make notes about which flowers the butterflies visit. But how to keep a constant supply of different colored flowers blooming and at the ready?
Eventually he decided that it would be easier to conduct an experiment with some sort of faux flower set up. Again... elaborate plans, this time for silk flowers and misters, or pumps, or manually dropping sugar water in each flower.
Finally we read up on existing research about butterfly color preference, and found our study model in Martha Weiss, a Georgetown University Professor, and lauded scientist, who studies the interplay between plants and insects, and also the learning capabilities of butterflies and wasps.
... paper flowers with a pipette in the center that has been filled with sugar water.
That original set up soon morphed a bit because he thought it was hard in such a small space for the butterflies to land accurately. He thought the flowers should be flat against the box to give them the ability to land and just walk onto the flowers.
We also wrote to Ms. Weiss and were so crazy excited that she wrote back. Imagine the squeals and excitement preteen girls give the Jonas brothers, and you'll come close to how my boy felt when a "real live butterfly scientist" wrote to him. Not only did she write, but she treated his interest and his experiment so respectfully. She spoke to him as another scientist.
Ms. Weiss graciously gave him some tips for conducting his experiment. She even explained how to hold the butterfly and, using a straight pin, unroll its proboscis and dip it into the sugar water, teaching it that these flowers are a good food source.
He's done this three times so far, about a day after each butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. Each and every time that the he gets a butterfly to drink on its own, he glows with such pride... his experiment just might work, his babies are eating, he has accomplished something really special. Real science. We have seven more caterpillars pupating at the moment, so there is more of that wonderful feeling to come.
It's been less than 24 hours, so we've got no definitive color preference results, but we're hopeful. Each of the caterpillars will spend a couple of days under evaluation (we will be making note of how often each different colored flower is visited) and then the butterfly will then be set free.
It looks as though we may be learning about far more than flower color preference through our butterflies though...
See how the butterfly on the right is much more colorful and larger than the other? It is a female, and the one to the left is a male. In most animals it is the male that is more showy right? Well we have learned that female butterflies don't judge their mate by his coloring. One interesting study found that females did not even mind if their mates were dyed various colors. In the case of butterflies it is the MALES who seem more moved to action (wooing or fighting) on the basis of color.
We've got parsley in with our pair now and are watching carefully to see what we can learn from them about mating behavior and (fingers crossed) egg laying.
And yes, I'm a little worried about where that might take us, but also so excited to see what comes next. Stay tuned!
It depends on the kind of shell you're looking at. Some shells, like those of abalones and keyhole limpets (like the pinkish shell on the left above), have holes in them naturally, and function to aid in water circulation through the animal, as well as respiration and reproduction. Other shells, like clam shells or oysters (like the others pictured above) you might find on the beach, may have holes in them due to predation. Moon snails and oyster drills, for example, drill holes into clams and oysters and then extend a mouth part called a proboscis into the clam to feed.
We find moon snail shells pretty often on our beach walks too, so, we're making a bet that this is the culprit of the holey shells we find.
On our recent trip to the beach, we romped in the waves, caught hermit crabs, fished and hunted for shells and otherwise ignored the lowly seaweed all around us.
We DID notice that it brought in a good deal of jellyfish, their long tentacles entangled in it's twisty branches.We noticed too, on an early morning walk, that there was FAR more seaweed on the beach than we had seen during our other, later in the day, beach walks.
and we soon discovered why...
There are people that handle such things before most folks reach the beach.
(As an aside, I have to say, I don't think that it would be such a bad job to have.... waking up with the sun each morning, starting up my tractor and taking a long slow ride down the beach while the rest of the world stirred their coffee.)
It wasn't until we got home and began looking back on our photos, the notes that we had made, and the questions we had jotted down in our journals, that we began to seek out more information about that weedy gunk that washed up on our sandy shores.
Turns out there's a great deal to know and love about seaweed!
First, we learned that "seaweed" is a sort of loose term that covers about 18,000 species of marine algae, many with endearing common names like "Merman's Shaving Brush," "Mermaid's Hair," and "Sea Lettuce."
(the above is a glimpse at the Golden Guide to Seashore Life, linked below)
We learned that "OUR" seaweed is actually Sargassum, named for the Sargasso Sea where it originates.Those little "berries" that you see in the photo are not really berries at all, they are air bladders that help to keep this living plant afloat and adrift at sea.
This particular seaweed is notorious for floating in great masses in which several species of unique, found nowhere else, marine plants and animals live out their lives.
We learned that seaweed plays an important role for US too! Seaweed has long been a food source for those lucky souls that live near its source, but many of us land lubbers eat a great deal of seaweed too, whether we realize it or not! It's found in salad dressings, baked goods, dairy foods, desserts and sodas. It is used in dental molds, wound dressings and it may even help to alleviate arthritis, thyroid problems, intestinal worms and tumors. We use it in fertilizers, adhesives, explosives and more.
You can bet that we will be looking MUCH more closely at seaweed the next time our toes reach sand!
We have a new found appreciation for those sloppy piles of leafy goo that wash up on our shores. Knowing what we know now, it is so easy to find the beauty in the floating gardens that all too often go unnoticed.
You can also visit wiki articles here and here for more info about seaweed and Sargassum.
Another must read is The Seaweed Book and this sweet and inspiring article about its 100 year old author, Rose Treat. Mrs. Treat's amazing story and body of work has got us so fired up to add some seaweed to our herbarium!
On hot summer evenings near lakes and rivers, sometimes you see a fast little whiz go by you. Dragonfly? Damselfly? I have heard both of these terms used interchangeably. "They are the same thing, aren't they? I heard a friend say last week. I answered, "I don't think so, but I am not sure of the difference."
So, we had to look it up.
No, they are not the same. They both belong to the order odonata ... we've brgun talking about how animals and insects are classified and some of the latin words are really fun to say...like odonata.
Because both the damselfly and the dragonfly belong to the order odonata, they have the following things in common:
Both have large heads and eyes compared to their bodies.
Both have two pairs of wings with lots of veins visible
A long thin abdomen
However, there are differences between the two.
Dragonfly eggs are round. Damselfly eggs are cylindrical.
Dragonflies are faster.
Damselflies have hinges enabling them to fold their wings together behind them when resting, dragonflies do not. Dragonflies hold their wings open and to the side when at rest.
Dragonflies are larger and fatter in most cases.
Can you guess with photo above is the dragonfly and which is the damselfly?
Yes, the top photo is the dragonfly and the bottom one is the damselfly.
My oldest is completely bonkers, plumb over the moon, about moths and butterflies.
He keeps copious notes about their habits and spouts names (Zebra Heliconian! Eastern Tiger Swallowtail! Great Purple Hairstreak!), like nobody's business.
Up to now, he has always thought he'd grow up to be a farmer, but now he's thinking that his farm should include a native wildflower area and butterfly preserve.
He's also been looking into how entomologists make their living too. After some careful thought, he tells us that he's particularly interested in one day helping to research ways to restore native vegetation to urban areas, and helping farmers to use natural farming methods that don't harm beneficial insects.
Can I just tell you how much I love this kid?
He's a mean karate machine with a heart full of butterflies, a love for the land, and he makes a smokin' omelet too.
Anyhow, I'm hear to tell you about the butterflies, not the kid who loves 'em right?
My man has been saving his money for thrifted fish tanks and native plants, all in the name of the butterflies. He likes to bring the caterpillars in to raise them to maturity, not just because it's fun to watch, but also because then they can develop without fear of predatory birds, wasps and the like.
In this tank he has a pupating White-lined Sphinx Moth (in the jar in the top left corner of the tank), a mystery moth (also in the jar) and 5 Gulf Fritillaries (gifted to him by a very sweet white-haired older gentleman that is also a little butterfly crazy).
For the love of the fritillaries, my young man called half a dozen nurseries until we found one that carried Passion Vine.
Who knew that following your kids passion led to having passionflowers in your garden!
Over the last few days we had the awesome privilege of seeing these fellas grow fat, and go into their chrysalides. This weekend the very first emerged. Take a look:
As potentially pokey as they look, they are harmless. Their little spikes don't hurt at all.
After they are sufficiently fattened, they attach their rumps to the top of the cage with silken threads and hang in a "J" formation. They begin to swell a bit, and two sections behind their heads turn white and bulge with fluid. See the white parts, just behind the head, in the hook of the "J" ?
In a matter of hours, they look like a gnarled, wilted leaf. Brilliant camouflage, right?
In a week and half to two weeks, those frightening looking caterpillars emerge lovely and delicate.
We like their undersides best. All those large white spots are not white at all. They are metallic silver! They catch the light and flash as the butterfly flies. Isn't that neat?
This fella's siblings are all still safely tucked away in their chrysalides... for now.
My little man has been so happy to witness the process, but was a bit bummed that he had no caterpillars left.
That is until the parsley that he planted just to attract Black Swallowtails paid off... six wee caterpillars are now chomping away in the tank once more!
Nature— the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful— offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity. —Richard Louv