Caterpillar Cuisine: How to Grow Bugs and Feed Birds

Professor Douglas Tallamy came to town last summer and gave a great lecture, with stunning bird images, at Toledo Zoo on the valuable role we can all play in providing clean, native garden spaces for butterflies, which lay eggs, which hatch into what I call picky-eater caterpillars, (they much prefer to eat certain native plants), which are then fed to hungry baby birds.

Native bugs have evolved over time, along with native plants, to co-exist with their toxic defenses.  Such bugs are called ‘specialists’ by the entomologists.  Native plants, such as Milkweed which has a special relationship with the Monarch caterpillar, are vital to the survival of these specialist insects.  Other plants, like the native Oak tree can host over 100 different species of caterpillars.  But 90 percent of butterfly and moth larvae eat only particular plants or groups of plants.  Desiree Narango, a doctoral student with the University of Delaware says: Nonnative trees may support insects, but they do not support the insects that the native birds want and need to feed to their young.
So I’m sorry to be losing my spectacular alien Tree of Heaven bug (Ailanthus Webworm), see photo below – such is the price of progress!

The key fact is that we need to have native plants if we want native insects to survive.
Tallamy says: While adult birds may eat a wide variety of seeds and insects, their babies only thrive on fresh insects and caterpillars.  According to Dickinson (Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1999), 96% of the terrestrial North American bird species feed their young with insects and other arthropods.  So if we plant only lawns of alien green grass, or if we spray a hybrid cultivar flower garden with insecticides, we will have no butterfly eggs, no caterpillars and hence no food for the next generation of baby birds, and therefore no more adult birds.

Some of the butterflies are spectacular, as are some of the caterpillars.  Here are a few that I found in my native garden last summer:

Incidentally many of these hairy ones should not be handled. Their hairs are like glass or asbestos fibers and could reportedly harm us!

Some are very hard to find, but when you see holes in leafs, or empty chrysalis cases, then you know some nibbler, or its metamorphosis, can’t be far away.

This little one went totally unseen, until it moved – like an inchworm – along the flower stalk.

The caterpillar camouflages itself with flower parts stuck to its back.

This colorful caterpillar was not so lucky:
While I was trying to get a good photo, a wasp (alien European Paper I think) landed, stung it, stripped off and rolled up the caterpillar’s skin, leaving the digestive system full of fresh leaf juice on the leaf, and then flew off with the meat, presumably to its nest, all in the space of a few minutes.
There is no end to the variety:


I’m told this one is an Ohio native Giant Silkworm Luna Moth caterpillar.  It was at a nature show and not in my garden. I’d love to see it there:
Farmers are prisoners to the economics of cost-effectively producing the food that we so selectively and cost-consciously purchase.  They fertilize and spray as needed to produce a commercially viable crop.  By contrast, we home-owners have a totally free choice as to what we can do with the little bits of vacant land around our houses – or perhaps it is not a ‘free’ choice but rather a huge moral obligation to do the right thing: stop poisoning the earth and stop driving species into extinction at a rate greater than that of the great asteroid impact crater: Chicxulub, Gulf of Mexico, about 66 million years ago, and start saving our native species before they are lost forever.

The answer is simple: make room for native plants by removing the aliens.  The native plants will grow native bugs which will be fed to the native baby birds. You don’t need artificial fertilizers (nobody is measuring the cost effectiveness of your yield) and you certainly do not need insecticides.  Yes, there will be considerable manual work involved but we will all be physically and mentally the better for doing it.

So I’m extirpating (by hand) Myrtle, Chinese Tree of Heaven, Japanese Honeysuckle, English Ivy, Wild Strawberry and more before they cover my garden.  Replacements with Jewel Weed, Milkweed, Wild Senna, Cardinal Flower, Jacobs Ladder and others are slowly taking deep root.  Another blog will show some more of the colorful fauna they have already encouraged.

This moment made all the work worthwhile.  A local Junco was so happy to find native Prairie Dropseed grass seeds in the snow covered garden:

If you need more details I happily recommend Doug Tallamy’s classic book on the topic: “Bringing Nature Home” or “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”, published by Timber Press.

A Bewildering Barometer

I bought an old aneroid barometer at a local estate sale many years ago.  It still works well.
Full barom_0723 (2)The convex glass cover was cracked so I replaced it with a piece of very old window glass, after slowly drilling a hole for the pointer.

The aneroid mechanism became popular in the early 1900s.  It uses a sealed and flexible bellows chamber that changes size with variations in atmospheric pressure, instead of the mercury filled fragile glass tubes of older designs.

I thought the case must have been changed at some time because the face references a thermometer (“Thermomètre selon Réamur”) and yet there is none present.  There are no markings on the wood case other than a cryptic “#61” engraved in the back surface. But the dial is very interesting:Dial_0721 (2)

For many years I wondered, and have repeatedly asked guests, what the scale reading from “28” to “31”, and in divisions of 1/12s, could represent?  It must surely be inches of mercury – sea level atmospheric pressure is about 29.5 inches of mercury – but why would the scale be subdivided into twelfths instead of the usual tenths?  None could explain.

The language on the face is surprisingly all in French, although the fine print says “P. F. Bollenbach” and “Barrington, IL”– not a known US francophone location.

At last Philips’ friends, Geoff and Dave, with a little help from King Google, have cracked the code: Before Napoleon’s time, and France’s great conversion to the metric measurement system, it seems the French used an inch measure, called a “pouce” (not the similarly sounding “puce”. That is a French flea!) which they subdivided into 12 “lignes”.  A ligne began about 1,200 years ago with German button makers and was “…the measurement of a round wick, folded flat…”.  It is still used today by some button and snap makers, and a few French and Swiss watch people, according to Google.  Around the same time England was actually dividing their “inch” into 10 subdivisions.  The English inch was then defined as 3 medium size dry barley corn grains laid to end to end, but that turned out to be about 12.6% longer (depending no doubt on the year’s harvest!) than the French inch.

A recent estate sale (it’s hard work being retired!) yielded a fine 1969 Nicholas Goodison 388 page book, “English Barometers 1680-1860”, for a few dollars.  It shows a 1772 Ramsden mercury barometer with a dual scale of quote “..both English and French inches divided into 1/10in. and 1/12in. (i.e. 12 ’lignes’) respectively..”

Ramsden 1772_0728 (2)

The other scales on it are Fahrenheit and Réamur thermometers and a conversion scale.

The earliest example of 1/12 divisions that I can find is the scale on this beautiful Robert Hooke 1665 wheel barometer. The scale here somewhat mysteriously reads “M, N, O, P” for the main divisions, but each gap between letters is subdivided into sixths and twenty-fourths.  Hooke was not French but he did come from the Isle of Wight so perhaps there was a little vin rouge nearby to help his studies?
Hooke Wheel 1665_0725 (2)
The final evidence comes from eBay where a few hundred $ might get you this very fine 1749 Louis XVI instrument.  It also has 1/12 divisions in the scale.Ebay old Barometre 27-29 12 div_0584 (2)So it seems that very old French barometers used the 1/12 divisions when most of the English ones were using the 1/10 parts of their fine scale.  My, perhaps 50 to 100 year old, Illinois instrument appears to have used French wording and one twelfth divisions to give an antique air to a modern aneroid mechanism.  I note too that the face is simple printed paper rather than the engraved metal of genuine antiques. I shouldn’t complain, Goodison’s book says that for accuracy an old mercury barometer needs periodic maintenance by “boiling” (sic) the mercury to remove absorbed water and oxygen!

Isn’t it ironic that despite being partly decimalized before continental Europe (as shown by the tenths divisions on their old mercury barometers) England stubbornly held on to their colorful, but so confusing to me in my school days, non-decimal: fathoms, firkins, furlongs, fortnights, farthings, etc., etc.  (Did you know there are about 5,600 “scruples” in one “strike”, whatever they may be measuring?).  France dropped it’s “lignes” in Napoleon’s time and went metric, or so they claim.   But they have yet to fully adopt the ‘true’, internationally agreed decimal system, “S.I.” (System International).  Although France does agree with the rest of the world that the current inch is now exactly 25.4 mm, many French people will insist on writing it as “25,4 mm”  This can be very confusing if you want to write a dimension of say 1 meter plus 1/4 millimeter (or metres and millimetres depending on whereabouts you happen to float in the Atlantic ocean) in millimeters (thank you very much David for pointing out the ‘mm’ omission) into an international technical drawing:  in SI it should be written “1 000.25 mm”; in France it is often written “1.000,25 mm”; and here in the US it is typically shown as “1,000.25 mm”.  So no wonder that international space probe crashed into Mars a few years back, while trying to land, because its computer thought the planet’s surface was further away than it really was! When flying above the surface of planet Earth it is very important to know what your barometer is actually measuring because that is the instrument which gives you your height above ground.  On the ill-fated trip to Mars I imagine other types of instruments, than mercury filled barometers, were used but sadly they did not give correct final values!

Winter Holiday Puzzles

I.  The squirrels here love to eat the many fallen walnuts (as well as the roots of my freshly planted native plants!) even though the meat inside is protected by a very hard shell.


But the squirrel has sharp teeth and manages, with great effort, to chew right through.

Gnawed Nuts_5064The puzzler is the many perfectly split walnuts which were lying on the ground near the end of April.  The inside meat has all been eaten without a trace of tooth marks on the shell:

Split Nut 5063I’d never noticed these hemispheres before.  The plane of the north-south split is fairly flat, smooth and almost polished.  How it happens I have no idea.  I took some whole walnuts, soaked them and froze them, and hit them with a hammer –  all to no avail, they refused to be smoothly split.  There is some secret cleaving process at work, and I’m certain the squirrels would love to take advantage of it if they could?
II.  The younger looking of a pair of bald eagles
2Eagles_8602has been putting sticks against this tree on Garden Island out back for a year now without getting one of them to stay in place.  This clip (click the white triangle in the middle of the picture below to play the video)
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shows the bird hard at work, but at the very end the stick sadly drops to the ground once again, wasting all the effort.

It would be so beautiful to have an eagle’s aerie right here but the problem for now is how do I get the process to start?  It is not an easy tree for climbing!

III.  This winter’s weather has been so mild that my bees were actually gathering pollen on December 23, when the temperature was 50 F (10 C), who knows where this one found the bright yellow food packed onto her legs?
Pollen_8702I’ve found nothing in bloom anywhere nearby.  Ever tried following the “bee line” as they leave the hive on their way to their hidden food source?  I could not make it work.

It was so unseasonably warm that the Sandhill Cranes, who we haven’t seen for 10 years since Inez was last here from Spain, stopped by for the week of Xmas on their very late migration south.
Cranes 8746This photo was taken through a closed back window yet we could still here their unique chattering, clacking bills: sounded like humans squabbling about climate change.

IV.  Einstein very neatly showed that something with enough mass can visibly bend a ray of light. (Without any math, he simply stated that we could not tell the difference between the force of gravitational attraction and the force of accelerating a mass with inertia. So when a nearly horizontal beam of light from one wall to the other of your room seems to droop, it means either the room is accelerating upwards, or the room is being pulled down by a gravity field, which is also pulling the light beam down).

The sun at a distance of about 550 AU (Astronomical Units – 1 AU is the distance from earth to the sun) is massive enough to act as a “Solar Telescope” to form an image, of what might lie far, far behind it.   The enlarged image of a bright spot behind the sun becomes an arc or a circle.  A Black Hole would have a similar effect as the sun. (Radio waves are similarly bent.  A good receiver at the focus spot could listen to the radio programs from another galaxy, if any planets there happened to be broadcasting!)

APOD (Nasa’s Astronomy Picture of the Day) often shows images magnified by gravitational lenses.

Einstein Rings:  In the image below the gravity of a close luminous red galaxy (LRG) has gravitationally distorted, into a ring, the light from a much more distant blue galaxy which was directly behind the red one.
Einstein RingsMy Puzzle is that I can’t understand how this works, in even the simplest terms:

An ordinary glass imaging lens (convex) works by bending light rays to come together to form a convergent image.
Convex LensMy problem with the gravitational lens is that the light rays are more deflected the closer they pass to the massive gravitational object.  This results in a fanning out or diverging series of light rays and not the convergence of the rays needed to make a visible image.  The rays shown below, from a star, apart from the red one which is swallowed by the BH, have an increasing bend or deflection the closer they pass to the BH.
Black Hole LensThus the massive object acts as a rather strange concave lens.  I know a regular concave lens looks like this:
Concave Lensbut its effect on a bundle of light rays should show a similar, non-imaging, divergence!

A simple point of light, in this case one quasar far beyond the focusing mass of a faint spiral galaxy, is often shown forming an “Einstein Cross” as 4 spots, rather than an arc or a circle.
Einstein CrossThat too I fail to understand!

Perhaps a clue lies in the gravitational images formed, not by a point mass, but by a cluster of galaxies:
Gallactic Cluster LensThe cluster CL2244-02 above is composed of many yellow galaxies and is lensing the image of a very distant blue-white background galaxy into a huge arc.
Here the rays of light from a bright spot far behind the cluster mass might come almost straight through the gravitational center of the cluster with little or no deflection.  The next adjacent rays would be somewhat deflected, and the next ones a little more so.   Thus the central area of the galaxy cluster could conceivably act as a converging lens, but further away from the center and outside the cluster, the rays will be deflected away from each other resulting in the concave lens effect sketched above.  So could there possibly be an imaging process, but only in the center of the cluster?


Any solutions to any of these puzzles will be gratefully acknowledged.


Happy Solstice, Winter Holiday, Xmas and New Year 2016 to all.