Sunday, August 28, 2011

Night of the Polyphemus Moths

When I was growing up in the 1950s, we used to find lots of the Giant Silk Moths (Saturniidae), such as Cecropia, Luna, Polyphemus, Ailanthus, etc. -- even in the city, where their caterpillars fed on leaves of street trees, and the moths came fluttering to the windows.    But in recent years their populations have declined, due to loss of habitat, insecticides and, some scientist believe, night flight confusion caused by light pollution.  When we moved to the country in 1988, I was looking forward to maybe seeing them again, but even here, sightings are few and far between.

So you can imagine my delight when, in the spring of 2005,  I found a Polyphemus cocoon under a birch tree in our yard.   I put the cocoon in a bed of dead leaves (simulating its natural environment) in an empty fish tank with a screen top, and awaited the emergence of the moth.

Female Polyphemus Moth
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
On June 30, 2005 she emerged -- but the weather was so cold and windy (with 50 mph winds) that I could not release her.  The storm continued thru Saturday night, so I attempted to release her on Sunday at dusk, which was around 10:00 PM here in the midsummer northland.  I took the top off the cage, put it in the upstairs window with the screen open, and expected her to sail off into the woods the way butterflies do when I release them in the daytime.  Only the moth would not fly away.

What I did not know is that a female Polyphemus does not fly until after she mates.  So she just sat there in the open cage, giving off her pheromone mating call -- and wow, did it work!  Around midnight I went upstairs to see if she was gone, and the room was full of polyphemus moths!  The female had flown, all right, leaving behind six suitors who were still sitting in her cage and on the walls, getting high, I suppose, on the lingering smell of female moth.

That was more of these big moths than I had seen in many years.   I was surprised but also pleased, because it indicated the local population was bigger than I had thought.  I later read that a male can detect a female from a mile away -- or even more.  Whether or not there were other females in the same radius sending out their mating scent to other males, I do not know.  But six males on my land in one night was certainly beautiful!  I carefully picked up each moth and put them out the window, watching them fly off into the night.   Two years later, in May 2007, I found an empty Polyphemus cocoon under the same tree.  I like to think it was descended from  the Night of the Polyphemus Moths.

In more recent years, I have found empty cocoons of Cecropias and an occasional Polyphemus or Luna, but have not seen many of the adult moths.  Still, it's nice to know they are still out there.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

To collect or not to collect -- is that really the question?

A while back, I had a conversation with a vegan who thought it was wrong for children to catch fireflies in jars.  Her reasoning was, that the flashes were mating signals and we would be interrupting their love lives.  "How would you like to just fall in love and then somebody grabs you and puts you in a cage?"  Interesting anthropomorphism, and a perfect example of how our society confuses sex with love.  But I highly doubt that fireflies actually fall in love.   A Black Widow spider certainly doesn't -- she EATS her mate.  So does a praying mantis sometimes. Nature in the raw is often far from romantic.

Still, the question remains:  Is it ethical to allow children to collect living things from nature?  My vegan friends say no, we don't need zoos or bugs in jars, the kids can learn from watching nature videos.  But TV just isn't "real" in the same way as seeing the actual live animal.  Things happen fast on nature shows because they edit out the long hours of waiting for the "action."  But actually stalking a frog takes focus and patience!

Thinking back to my own childhood, we regularly caught fireflies, watched them flash in the jar in our rooms after lights out, then released them in the morning.  I can't say what effect this had on the fireflies, but I do know that my sister and I learned a lot from watching the various bugs, toads, snakes, and other things we caught and kept in captivity for a while.   From our "catch and release" activities, we discovered a lot about nature firsthand.

We learned that you can't just throw any old leaves in with the caterpillars, you need the right species of plant and a way to keep the leaves fresh (which we accomplished by covering the mouth of a small jar of water with foil, then poking holes for the plant stems.  The food stayed fresh without caterpillars falling into the water and drowning.)   We learned what toads, snakes and turtles eat, and how they eat it, where to find it.   And we also learned how to look up and identify the things we found.  By 5th grade, I was reading college-level biology books.   And I must admit that I also collected insects in the usual way, mounting them on pins in boxes and attracting the attention of the high school biology teacher, who invited me to go on a museum entomology field trip.   Although I no longer collect, I still love entomology.

So I find myself wondering if kids today, who are often  forbidden by well-meaning parents to do this kind of hands-on learning, are  really discovering very much about the outdoors.  Have we gotten so politically correct about nature that we are defeating the purpose by creating a barrier between children and nature?  Lately there has been a public service ad running about "discover the forest," where two kids wander into the woods, turn over a log and look at some bugs, and then Shrek come along and eats one (a bug, that is, not a child!)  A cute fantasy, but in real life, how many parents would let their kids turn over a log in the first place?  (If you do, please teach them to put it back as it was when they are done, so you don't destroy the homes of things that live there.)

When I was a kid, there would have been no need for such an advertisement.   You could hardly keep me out of the small suburban woodlot we called our "forest."  Contrast that with my 8-year-old grandson, who has been spending daycare time with us in the country this summer, and who, although he has 15 acres here to play and explore in, rarely goes outside on his own.   Too boring.  When he first came, he could not tell a daisy from a sunflower, but has gradually learned some basics about the outdoors.   Today, we both looked up an unfamiliar purple flower and learned it was a species of vervain.  When we are outside, we watch things happening in nature, such as bees pollenating squash flowers or wasps hunting caterpillars among the broccoli -- things he would never stop and watch on his own.   One day, I took him into the back woods and then told him to lead me home.  He did -- by following the sound of our roosters crowing and our geese honking.  "See?" I said, "You won't get lost if you pay attention to what is around you."

So is it ethical to catch and collect things?  I think it depends on how you do it.  Certainly it is wrong to pull wings off flies or leave animals starving or dying of boredom in cages.  But I see nothing wrong with letting kids keep a toad for a few days, then release it back into it own environment.  When I find a snake or turtle, I bring it in the house for the kids to see.  Who knows?  Maybe the snake benefits spirtually from having helped a child learn more about the world.   In the long run, maybe a little reptilian inconvenience now might well save that snake's home in the future.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on death while burying a pet chicken

One of my old hens died last night.  She apparently went peacefully in her sleep, because I found her under the roost where she usually sat.  As I was burying her out in the woods, I found myself thinking back to when I was a child, and how my mother told me it was useless to have pets, because, she said,  "They only die anyway."  I don't know where she got this attitude.  Did she have a beloved cat or dog that died in her own childhood?  Or was she simply repeating something that she herself had heard as a child?  She never told me.  All I know is that although she eventually relented and let us have a dog, she never really bonded with him. 

The Talmud tells us that Adam and Eve felt much the same way after Cain killed Abel.  Adam was so heartbroken over this, that he didn't have intercourse with Eve for 130 years.  (see Talmud, Eruvin 18).   Why bring more children into the world if they are just going to die anyway?  But God wanted Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply," so eventually they slept together again.   And so it continues to this day.  

Unlike my mother, I have had many, many companion animals over the years.   And I have outlived all but the ones that are still with me.  The fact of the matter is, the human lifespan is much longer than that of most animals.  Which means that the individual animals who were alive when I was born 63 years ago are already dead, with perhaps the exception of a few long-lived species like parrots and Galapogos tortoises.  Why should this be?  Perhaps it is God's way of helping us deal with the impermanence of life on earth.  I have grieved at the death of each of my animals, but I have also learned, over the years, that death is not something to be feared.  It's a natural part of the cycle of life. 

Animals seem to know when death is coming.  I once had a dog named Shunka (which is Lakota for "dog") who would walk with me in the woods.   As he got older he went deaf and was somewhat confused, perhaps from a minor stroke, but he knew the trail well.  Every morning we would walk the same route, past the chicken coop, into the woods to the big oak tree, then back around to the house.  One morning, we got as far as the coop when Shunka lay down and looked at me with his big brown eyes, as if to say, "I can't do this anymore."  He then walked back to the house, and by morning he was dead.   He had lived a good long life -- 18 years -- and was ready to go.  I cried when I found his body, but I also knew that he was old and tired, and that nothing lives forever.  We had those years of happiness together, and I still cherish those memories.  Sometimes, when I walk in those same woods, I feel as if Shunka's spirit is walking with me.  Maybe he is.

So my mother was wrong.  While it is true that pets eventually die, it is not useless to have them.  While they are with us, they give us much love and joy.  And when they go, they help us accept the day when we, too, will cross that rainbow bridge and join the circle of life. 

Dawn in Pine County, MN

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Thousands of USA heat records broken -- new widget tracks them all

The weather has finally cooled down here in Minnesota -- at least for now.  Over 4000 heat records have been broken so far this summer in the USA, and the PBS Newshour site has developed this widget to track them all.   Use the scroll arrows to see records set by day, month, and year.  (You can get the widget code for your own site at:, where you will also find an informative article.   And yes, the widget will run year round, since records get broken in winter, too.)


As you can see, some of these records stood for more that 50 years.  Clearly this is a disturbing pattern -- and one that does not bode well for the future.  Global warming is here, whether the deniers like it or not.  Perhaps that's the REAL meaning of the endtime prophecy that says people will be "eating and drinking as in the days of Noah."  Maybe not gluttony as has been thought, but apathy in the face of warnings.   No doubt they laughed Noah, too: "A flood?  In the desert?  You've got to be kidding!" And we all know what happened to that generation.

And it's not just a matter of things warming up.   Climate change means weather patterns are changing, too.  Places that used to get rain are turning into deserts -- witness the drought and famine in Africa.   I remember hearing years ago that the monsoons in India were no longer coming reliably, but nobody heeded the warning.    Those same monsoons are what used to water the fields of Somalia.  And the southwestern USA (where a lot of these records are being broken even as I write) is experiencing the worst drought since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

On the other hand, Minnesota has been drowning in much more rain than usual.   Rivers reached record highs, there have been numerous flash floods and many more severe storms than usual.   Every time the Jet Stream takes an  abnormal plunge south, it sucks up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and pulls it north.   Here in Pine County, MN, it rained just about every other day (sometimes several days in a row) in July.  I ended up growing a lot of my garden veggies in containers, because it was just plain too wet to till the ground.

Down the road from me is a cornfield that never got planted.  Lots of other fields lie fallow, too.   All of which is resulting in higher prices in the supermarket.   Parts of my lawn got so out of control I just let them go to seed and will mow it down for chicken bedding when -- if ever -- it dries up a bit.  Meanwhile, I struggle to keep up the mowing around the house and trails to the outbuildings.  Wild plants in general are huge -- I've got ragweed with inch-thick stems, eight-foot-high Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes), and enormous blackberry canes trying to take over my garden.

 On the other hand, pollination has been iffy.  There were very few wild berries in spite of all the rapid growth.  And not one wild plum on my trees.  Pollinating insects don't fly in the rain.  Some don't even fly on cloudy days.  And I have not seen one single honeybee -- not one!   Whatever is causing the demise of the honeybees has apparently reached here.  This spring, when I stood under my apple trees, I did not hear the happy buzz of honeybees, although some pollination did happen from other insects, because apples are forming.  The honeybee niche seems to have been taken over by a  species of small bumblebee, which I have seen on my cucumbers and squashes in large numbers.  Something is pollinating my tomatoes also, although there are fewer fruits than in other years.   And as I wrote in a previous blog post, the Monarch butterfly population crashed here this year -- I have not found one single caterpillar.

All of this is very disturbing, to say the least.  Nature will eventually adjust to climate change -- but will we?