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!

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