Saturday, July 30, 2011

Counting on Bees

For the last couple of summers I’ve been participating in the Great Sunflower Project. It doesn’t take much time – only 15 minutes each day I observe (I aim for 2 days a week) – and it allows me to become personally acquainted with the bees in my neighborhood. There are quite a few: fat & fuzzy bumblebees, carpenter bees, metallic green bees, tiny sweat bees, honeybees from my neighbor’s hives (located down the road and around the corner) and more.

Bees, it turns out, are easy to watch. They are so intent on their labors – slurping nectar and gathering pollen to take back to their hives or nests – that they pay no attention to a sunburned gardener tallying sightings on a dog-eared index card. This is good, because one of every three bites I stuff into my mouth comes from plants pollinated by wild bees.

Gretchen LeBuhn, a scientist at San Francisco State University, invites curious naturalists across the nation to help her learn more about the free “ecosystem services” that wild bees provide – free pollinating services worth at least four billion dollars a year. And that’s just in the US.

Scientists have noted pollinator decline in certain wild and agricultural landscapes. But, says LeBuhn, little is known about urban pollinators. Her most recent data suggests that urban bee populations may be on the slide as well.

While the loss of these pollinators is important, LeBuhn says it is more important to understand what effect these losses have had on pollinator services. To do that she and other scientists need to know a lot more about how healthy bee populations survive in cities and suburbs. Her ideas is to have as many people as possible help her count bees.

So far, she’s learned that on average a gardener is likely to see a bee pollinate a flower every 2.6 minutes. This means that if you’re seeing more than 3 bees in 15 minutes your garden is doing better than average.

It’s easy to get involved and you don’t even need a garden – you can count bees on flowers at a park or botanical garden. To learn more go to
If you want to watch a bee at work, check out this video from You-tube:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Stars Falling Out of the Sky

This summer the Perseid shower is going to be hard to see because the full moon will obscure all but the brightest meteors. Don’t despair, though – according to the EarthSky folks there will be stars falling out of the sky for the next two weeks while the moon is dark.

OK – not real stars falling out of the sky, but meteors – small bits of rock bits from crumbling comets or other space debris that streak through the atmosphere as they speed earthward. Some of them move at a mighty clip, a couple hundred miles per hour or faster. Most of them burn up before they hit the ground, but in 1982 a 6-pound meteorite hit a house in Connecticut.  Scientists figure it was traveling more than 1,000 miles per hour.

One of the biggest dents left by a meteorite is in Winslow,Arizona. About 50,000 years ago a chunk of asteroid traveling 26,000 miles per hour collided with the earth. It left a crater nearly one mile wide and more than 500 feet deep.

Most meteorites are small, leaving only a streak in the sky. From now through August 4 you’ll have a chance to see a few, maybe 15 to 20 an hour. Though they come out of the southern sky, near Pegasus, they’ll arc across the sky so you should be able to see them even if you can’t find the constellation. Best sky-watching time is between midnight and dawn.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Butterfly Season

Baltimore Checkerspot
A couple posts ago I mentioned a chrysalis I’d found – a Baltimore Checkerspot. The adult emerged on July 4, Independence Day for everyone I guess. When I got home from the parade it was hanging out on my porch, drying its wings.

Now I see Baltimore Checkerspots everywhere, checking out the milkweeds and Black-eyed Susans growing wild in my garden. This time of year they’re also checking out egg-laying sites: the narrow-leaved English plantain and the common plantain that make up lots of what passes for my lawn. Their caterpillars – orange-and-black-banded with black spines sticking out – will nosh on plantain leaves until fall and then they’ll find a cozy spot beneath the leaf litter to spend the winter.

Meanwhile, the Checkerspots and other butterflies are flitting about collecting nectar. If you sneak up close, you can watch them unroll their long tongues to reach the nectar in flowers. They also spend a fair amount of time basking in the sun – the Baltimore Checkerspots hold their wings open so you can see their beautiful colors.

Butterflies also hang out in “puddle clubs”. You can see them at the edges of mud puddles, usually a whole bunch of them, and it looks like they’re licking the mud. That’s how they get the minerals they need.

Besides the Baltimore Checkerspot, here are a few of the other butterflies people are finding in back yards of upstate NY:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Black Swallowtails
Eastern Tailed-Blue
Summer Azure
White Admiral
Pearl Crescents
Orange Sulphur
Common Wood-Nymphs
Silver-spotted Skippers
Dun skippers
Great Spangled Fritillary
European Skippers
Bronze Coppers
Banded Hairstreak

What do you see in your back yard?
If you're looking to get involved with butterfly projects, check out project Butterfly Wings, Monarch larva and journey north projects - links are listed under "Get Involved in Real Science" in one of the right-hand columns.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: A Butterfly is Patient

A Butterfly is Patient
By Dianna Hutts Aston; illustrated by Sylvia Long
32 pages, for ages 4 -10
Chronicle Books, 2011

I loved An Egg is Quiet and A Seed is Sleepy. So when I learned that Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long were teaming up for a butterfly project, I knew I had to get my hands on this book! The art is awesome, the writing wonderful – A Butterfly is Patient is definitely a book that will draw children back for second and fifth looks.

The front spread shows a diversity of caterpillars: some smooth and green, some black with red spikes, some long-horned, others fat with eyespots, and some with thin cactus-like spines. At the end of the book the last spread features the adult butterflies: small blues, bright oranges, spotted and dotted and eye-spotted butterflies and even some with zebra stripes.

And the pages in between? That’s where you learn about a butterfly’s life. “It begins as an egg beneath an umbrella of leaves…” writes Aston. In lyrical prose she accurately details the life cycle from caterpillar through metamorphosis to adult.

She also shows how butterflies help flowers by carrying pollen from one flower to another, and how butterflies protect themselves using camouflage (wings that resemble dried leaves) or boasting bright colors that warn predators it tastes yucky.

A couple weeks ago I interviewed both the author and the illustrator.

Dianna Aston, who wrote the book, said that butterflies hold special symbolism for her – especially yellow butterflies that help her remember her father. On the fifth anniversary of his death, Aston was visiting a remote village in Mexico. “Suddenly, a blizzard of yellow butterflies rose and swirled around me,” she said.  

Aston does a lot of research for her books: reading articles, watching butterflies and putting some beneath a microscope to get a closer look. She learns new things every time she writes. While working on A Butterfly is Patient she discovered butterfly “puddle clubs”. One day at a pond she saw “butterflies of every size and color feasting on the minerals in the mud,” she said. “They let me hold them and walk around with them … I felt as if they trusted me.”

Artists do research too. Sylvia Long says she’s lucky because one of her friends builds temporary enclosures around the butterfly pupae (chrysalides) that she finds in her garden – and Long got to observe them up close. Once the butterflies emerge, she removes the enclosures so they can fly free.

The paintings, Long says, are watercolors and she paints them the size they’ll be in the book. Butterflies may be patient – but they don’t sit still long enough for a painter to capture them on paper. So Long used photos to help her illustrate the book.

“Each illustration goes through so many stages,” she explains. She begins with research, looking for imagery to complement the text. “Then I do rough sketches and often many revisions before finally doing an approved, detailed pencil or ink drawing prior to painting with watercolors.” Long, a full-time illustrator, says such detailed nonfiction books take about a year to complete. 

The best part about researching A Butterfly is Patient, says Long, was spending weeks searching out photos of the most intriguing and gorgeous butterflies. She learned a lot about metamorphosis – and monarch migration, too.

“An adult Monarch makes the whole 3,000 mile trip [to Mexico] and then stays for the winter,” Long said. “That’s incredible enough, but the return trip along the same route is made by four or five successive generations of Monarchs!  How is the route information transferred to the next generation? An intriguing mystery, don’t you think?”

This post is part of the Nonfiction Monday Round-Up hosted this week by proseandkahn; review copy provided by the publisher.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Waiting for Wings: life inside a chrysalis

While weeding the onions I discovered this tiny chrysalis. The neighborhood butterfly expert says it’s a Baltimore Checkerspot – a butterfly that has mostly black wings (with some white spots) that are rimmed with orange. I’d seen them flying around, and even caught sight of one of the bristly caterpillars hanging out on plantain – a weed I was pulling from the onion beds.

I want to watch the butterfly emerge, so I taped the onion leaf to a protected area on my porch. Every day I run out to check it, to see if “my checkerspot” has got its wings.

A chrysalis is the “pupa” of the butterfly. The caterpillar (larvae) spins a silk pad on the underside of a leaf – or in this case, an onion leaf shaded by weeds – and then hangs upside down and begins changing form.

What we see on the outside is this: the case that holds the metamorphosing butterfly within. It may look as though it’s resting, but there are a lot of changes going on inside. The caterpillar's tissues break down and completely reorganize.

Groups of cells, called “imaginal disks” give rise to things like wings. Or legs. Even antennae. The dissolving caterpillar provides a nutrient-rich fluid for these cells. They begin growing really fast, differentiating into muscles, heart, nervous system.

All this happens inside the chrysalis – so when the butterfly is finished forming and ready to emerge, there’s a lot of waste products in there too. That’s the reddish-colored liquid that sloshes out after the butterfly emerges.

If you go hunting chrysalides (that’s more than one chrysalis), make sure you check protected spots: the undersides of leaves, shady stems, even the sides of rock walls. You can make a net cage to protect chrysalides from predators, but make sure you’re around to release the adults once they emerge and have dried their wings.