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.

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)
YouTube Preview Image
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.

Some Fierce Finns and a Few Ferocious Fliers

In June a Eurail pass took us around Finland.  Dogs are welcome in their own section of the train:eDogsOnTrain_6009

But I saw they are treated even better in Washington Dulles airport:

e 6463 HydrantOne very remote station close to the Russian border was so small there was no platform, or even rail staff – just this dog guarding everything:


On seeing us he looked happier thinking fresh meat might have arrived:

eSmilingStnDog_6259 copy

That station was only about 10 km from the Russian border where Rubles seem to have leaked across judging by the size of the Dachas, some with trilingual “Keep Out” signs in their gardens in Russian, English and then finally Finnish.

A fine trail through the woods, where we fed the meat-eating mosquitos,eMosquito_6230

had this surprising sign:

eNo Ski_6233

I’d thought we were in the original home of cross country skiing?  Or perhaps the sign just means don’t squat when skiing?

The Finns have a great new (to me) “nano-material” waxless ski base which is reportedly very effective between and freezing and -10 C snow temperatures. The material feels like the finest texture seal skin with its one way slide and stick in the other direction.  It totally replaces the large fish-scale waxless surfaces of old.  I found some in overstocked sports stores because, thanks to last winter’s climate change, the Helsinki snow was so sparse that I had more days skiing in Toledo, Ohio than they had.  I was thrilled to find a great set for about 300 Euros, and tried to ship them Fed Ex because we were flying with just hand baggage.  The only problem was that Fed Ex would have wanted 800 Euros just for the shipping!

Way north, at the Arctic Circle the sun never set on June 20th.  This photo taken at 11:00 pm searched for a small gap in the leafy trees to show the sun’s position, without over-saturating the iPhone’s pixels.

ePinholeSun_6025 Turning around, to face due South (think about it!) the tree acted as a pinhole light source and gave this nice sharp shadow.


Even at 2:00 am this view looking due north shows an ever-present sun:

e2 am_6083

The irony was that right then there was a huge solar storm with Northern Lights visible elsewhere (at night) as far south as Atlanta, Georgia.  Of course, in Lapland in June we saw absolutely nothing because there was no darkness to the night!  In their long nights of winter they typically see the lights weekly.

Near Santa’s village right on the Arctic Circle there is a line in the ground to prove it.  Sorry I forgot the check its accuracy with my phone GPS!  We were still only about ¾ of the way from the equator to the North Pole (about 22 more degrees of latitude needed).

eArctic Circle_6050

We met “Rudolph”. He did not look too fierce, but was definitely grumpy,


so we only fed this young one:


The reindeer are herded in for tourists for a few months and then turned back out into the Taiga to keep them “fresh”.

This young herder is drinking his coffee from his traditional birch wood “kuksa”


– same design as the one this delicious (reindeer!) soup was served in,

eReindeer Soup_6016

followed by (pseudo) Lichen and ice cream:


Magnificent Lupins were everywhere, alongside highways and railroad tracks:


Some Finns say they come from Russia and are not always welcomed!  Only in the special sand of Oak Openings can we grow them in Ohio. I have repeatedly demonstrated they do not like the Maumee River clay of my garden.

The trip included my presenting a paper on breaking glass (spandrels) at the big biennial GPD meeting in Tampere.  The noisy end-of-conference party nearly added some more broken glass. Click the link below to see:

10 sec Bartender

Back home in Perrysburg my bees are doing battle with small hive beetles, robber bees from some other hive, an emerald color fly, and wasps.  My best hive only had a few beetles, but the other hive had swarmed, taking the queen with them.  It now looks like the rascals went to my neighbor’s empty hive about a quarter mile away.  The remaining large number of workers seemed unable to keep the beetles out without a queen to guide them, or to keep out robber bees who stole almost all the honey.  I’m not in favor of monarchies but on occasion it seems that they might have some utility!

At this time of year the hives smell of honey, especially on a sunny hot day, and it attracts others.  Here are three clips of the fights you see at the front door as others try to enter, including pretty rough treatment of a darker color alien robber bee from another hive. Amazingly the attacked bee seems to suffer no damage and usually eventually flies off.  I think bees do have little teeth. They certainly can shred a newspaper barrier when I put one between different levels.  I would have thought their bites to antennae and wings would do damage?

Mobbing a Robber

I like the speed of the emerald color fly, but I don’t think he succeeded in entering.

Green Robber Fly

The half dead wasp was easily handled:

Robber Wasp