Saturday, April 30, 2011

Natural Insect Repellent

Imagine finding a highly efficient insect repellent that could actually kill insects as well.  Then you find it is safe for children, in fact it is safe enough to drink!  And it tastes good.

Marlyss Simmons sent me a story on the development of a natural insect repellent with real teeth.   NPR carried the story --- you know, the NPR whose funding is being threatened.

Repelling Bugs with the Essence of Grapefruit by Richard Knox describes research on nootkatone, a substance found in grapefruit and Alaskan yellow cedar trees.  It has been approved as a food additive and is already used in Squirt.

Nootkatone is effective against ticks which cause 30,000 cases of Lyme disease yearly and mosquitoes which carry West Nile virus, not to mention malaria in tropical climates.  It is nongreasy, pleasant smelling, and dries quickly.  In a 2% solution it is long lasting.

As for its insecticide properties, it kills quickly.  It affects the insect's nerve cells so "they basically vibrate them selves to death".  Just imagine watching a tick quivering before it falls screaming to the ground!  Further good news --- it is rapidly biodegradable and therefore not a threat to pollinators.

The CDC holds the patent on nootkatone and has contracted with two companies to begin production.  The bad news is the cost.  It is currently $4,000 per kilogram for food grade, but that level of purity would not be required as a repellent.  There is also some hope that a similar chemical which is called nootkatol will be effective.  This is currently a virtually free waste product.

This site discusses the business aspects of production by Allylix.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fierce Turtle

Click to enlarge
My neighbor Mark Bower shared this picture with me from his morning ramble in Bull Creek valley.  Three-toed box turtles generally refuse to pose for me, preferring to clam up.  This turtle apparently had been reading Wikipedia which says that "They can be shy about being watched while eating, and may stop and stare back motionless if this happens."

If you enlarge this picture, you can see that the Three-toed Box Turtle is halfway through eating a millipede, probably Apheloria virginiensis.  While I think of them as eating our strawberries when I was a kid, they actually are omnivorous and are known to eat green vegetables, slugs, insects, earthworms, and even quail eggs on occasion.  All these have in common is their slow speed.  There is even a suspicion that they can eat poisonous mushrooms and subsequently poison what ever tries to eat them.

Tom Johnson's book* answered a question I have always had.  How do two slow moving reptiles manage to mate to produce their eggs at the right time of year?  It turns out that a female box turtle can carry her fertilized eggs for up to 4 years before depositing them underground.

We maybe witnessing an interesting reversal of the normal food chain in this picture.  According to Wikipedia this millipede, secretes cyanide as a defense mechanism.  It can be very irritating if you handle one and then rub your eyes.  This could mean that the turtle may be the next link down the food chain, returning to the soil in death.  On the other hand, that may be why it has paused - the whole event may be leaving a bad taste in its mouth.
Millipede defense

Millipedes are detritivores, eating only dead plant material.  They are slow moving and have two pairs of legs from each body segment.  Their other defense is curling up in a tight ball with only their leathery back exposed.

Centipedes are easily distinguished from millipedes.  In addition to having only one pair of legs on each body segment, they move much faster than a millipede.  They sport a pair of venomous claws in front which can deliver a painful and potentially severe bite to humans.  They are primarily predatory and eat plant material only when nothing else is available.

Francis Skalicky has more information on box turtles and why they don't make good pets in today's News-Leader article.

Past millipede blogs on millipede in general and millipede mass migrations into houses

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Periodical Cicadas

Periodic Cicada- MDC
This month's Missouri Conservationist magazine prepares readers for an exceptionally loud spring.  In the News and Events, Jim Low writes that The Cicadas are Coming.  This is the year of the return of hordes of 13 year cicadas.

There are 2,500 plus species of cicada (Latin for "buzzer") around the world.  In many countries they are considered a culinary delicacy, usually skewered,  fried in deep fat, or stir fried depending on the culture.   Note to the Outdoor Cooking Class.  

Following mating, the female cicada slits the bark of a tree and lays its eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae emerge and fall to the ground where they burrow down from 1-8 feet.  After a period of time, 2-5 years for most species, they emerge ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood.

We have all seen their exoskeletons clinging to trees, something for kids to collect every summer.  In some cultures these are thought to have medicinal properties.  Cicada pump body fluids into their thorax, expanding it until they split out of their exoskeletons.  They then pump these same fluids into their wing buds to expand them before drying.

The male then sets about courting with his strident and insistent song, the loudest in the insect world.  Held close to your ear, he can reach 120 decibels, louder than a Lead Zeppelin concert.  The call is made by contracting muscles on its membranous tymbals, a mechanism Jim Low likens to the " sound of a plastic soft drink bottle popping back into shape after being compressed."  The call prompts every other male in earshot to join the chorus.  It makes you wonder how a female can ever decide on which one to mate with.

The 13 and 17 year periodical cicadas are particularly interesting.  No one knows how they keep track of time, but they have it down to a fine art.  There was an unusually large brood in 1998 so biologists are expecting a loud spring, starting in late April through June.

What is the advantage of a sudden mass emergence?  For one thing, it swamps their predators such as birds, cicada killer wasps and even fish.  They can't possible eat all of them and therefore there is a successful mating season.  Jim says that fish get used to feeding on them and will hit any lure resembling a cicada.  Time to head to Bass Pro again.

This Missouri Department of Conservation site has more information and a recording of the cicada chorus for those who never venture out of doors.  Shame on you!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Local Plant Research

Orobanche riparia- **
You don't have to leave Springfield to find interesting research on newly described plants.  Dr. Turner Collins, professor emeritus at Evangel University described a new species of a fascinating genus of plants.  And I learned about it locally as well, in the Friends of the Garden Newsletter!

Dr. Collins has been researching Orobanche riparia for 40 years and recently confirmed that it differed from O. ludovicana in an article from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.  As described in the article by George Freeman, editor of Greene Magazine,*:
"Collins discovered the differences in these plant 'cousins' in 1970, but DNA confirmation came only recently.  You may be asking, "So what?"  It is the same question asked all too often about rare species, often too late. The answer may come from Chinese reseachers who are doing cancer research on the various seeds of Orobanchaceae in its many forms."
This is the type of plant that could disappear without ever providing any possible medical benefits it possessed.  It lacks chlorophyll and can grow in dense stands of other riparian plants, hidden from view.  "How does it get by without sun, you ask?"  That is what makes it so interesting!  Its reproduction depends on its association with several plants, especially Giant Ragweed.  (Yes, that giant ragweed!)  The genus of Orobanche, common name Broomrape contains over 200 individual species.  They are all parasitic, obtaining their energy from other plants.
"As they have no chlorophyll, they are totally dependent on other plants for nutrients.  Broomrape seeds remain dormant in the soil, often for many years, until stimulated to germinate by certain compounds produced by living plant roots.  Broomrape seedlings put out a root-like growth, which attaches to the roots of nearby hosts.  Once attached to a host, the broomrape robs its host of water and nutrients."  Wikipedia
Jim McCormac has a very enjoyable description of a search for O. riparia  including a great set of pictures on his blog.

Greene Magazine is entering its third year of publication.  It contains the FOG Newsletter in each issue.  It is available at the Botanical Center at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park.  It comes by mail for free with a Membership in our MN Partner organization, Friends of the Garden.

**Picture from confluence of Great Miami River with Ohio River, Hamilton Co., Ohio, USA, photo.  Jim McCormac 04.09.2010

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ambush Bugs Click to Enlarge
When you stop to think about it, our current technology is amazing.  Just ten years ago I would have to go to the books to see a small picture of an ambush bug.  Now I can carry in my pocket a camera capable of 12x zooms, macro photographs and even videos of insects.  A few clicks on the computer (or even smartphone) can bring up detailed pictures and information.

An example of this came across my screen from George Deatz of FOG.  He sent a one line email with a link to, with incredible pictures of a painted lady butterfly in the grips of an ambush bug of the "Phymata species".  The technology allows mouse-over enlargements of an already extreme closeup and animation of serial pictures.

A quick click of Google took me to Wikipedia where I could confirm that Phymata is the genus and the species isn't determined by the photographer.  On the same screen I see a link to a video of a day in the life of an assassin bug which has fantastic close-up footage 

I wasn't sure about the difference between an ambush bug and an assassin bug such as our wheel bug.  This University of Kentucky site explained this below.
 "Technically, ambush bugs are a type of assassin bug, but there are a few differences. Assassin bugs are usually dark-colored, with combinations of gray, green, and black. Assassin bugs also have long, narrow heads compared to ambush bugs.  Ambush bugs are usually stoutly built and typically have bright colors: yellow, red, or orange. Ambush bugs have thickened front legs which are used to capture prey.   Assassin bugs will also use their front legs to capture prey, but their front legs are not as thickened as those of ambush bugs."
And in 2011, I can put this together with a few clicks to share these incredible resources with you.  What a great time to be a "Naturalist."  Anyone want to buy a 35 mm camera --- cheap?

For more great pictures from, check out his hummingbird nest series.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

More Than A Morel

Click to enlarge
There are few things more thrilling that finding a good sized morel,  but here is one.  I was hunting in the bottom of a drainage among some old tangled tree trunks when I spotted a nice morel at the base of an ash tree.  When I bent down to cut off the beauty, I heard a sound familiar to anyone who has seen many old westerns.  I turned cautiously without moving my feet and saw what you see to the right.

After a few seconds, I was able to find the business end looking at me from a few logs above and to the right about three feet from me.  After looking around to be sure it didn't have a nearby mate, I carefully stepped back another foot and started taking pictures.  When I stepped on a slender log, a side branch twisted to the side toward the snake and it struck at it.  I was able to use this to get the video below.

Click to enlarge
This Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, was a real colorful beauty, as big as my wrist in diameter (no, I didn't put my wrist down on it to take a measurement), and between 4 to 5 feet long.  It didn't move away but just rearranged itself in a more safe position while I took pictures.  As you see below, it preferred to be coiled so it could attack if it was in danger.

The Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is native to the Northeastern United States.  Previously found throughout Missouri, they are no longer seen in some counties due to habitat loss and persecution by humans.

My snake was doing just what the textbooks say it should.  They prefer rocky slopes in deciduous forests which face the south.  They spend sunny spring and fall afternoons basking in the warmth while looking for rodents and small rabbits which they will paralyze with their venom.  It was no more interested in biting me than I was in being bitten.  Their warning rattle will suffice to discourage most of us.  Wikipedia has this to say about their danger:
"Potentially, this is one of North America's most dangerous snakes, due to its long fangs, impressive size and high yield.  This is to some degree offset by its relatively mild disposition.  Before striking, they often do a good deal of preliminary rattling and feinting."
In Missouri, because of our more varied terrain we also have two other rattle snakes.  The Western Pigmy Rattlesnake is much smaller, the state record being barely over 20 inches.  They are very shy and said to be infrequently seen although we see them more often than timber rattlers on Bull Creek.  They have a faint rust-colored stripe down their back, tiny rattles and a faint sound.  To appreciate any  of these features you have to get closer to them than you would probably like.

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is a bottom land and wet prairie snake, in between the pigmy and timber rattlers is size and has almost been extirpated from the state.  It is tan-brown with darker brown blotches, quite distinctive from its cousins.

The MDC Field Guide has more information on these snakes as well as a sound file so you can hear what I heard.  The full set of my pictures are at my Picasa site.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dancing Peacock Spider

You are probably familiar with the risks that some male spiders take to mate.  The Black Widow is famous in popular culture for eating its mate but actually this behavior is frequent in other common species of spiders.  Many female spiders will eat the males during or after mating or frequently instead of mating. 

This remarkable video by Dr. Jurgen Otto describes the many dance maneuvers that a Peacock Spider in Australia goes through to attract the female's attention.  This is the first time the behavior has been filmed.

The Peacock Spider (Maratus volans)  is a tiny Australian jumping spider, less than a quarter inch in size.  Like many spiders, the male is colorful, a useful trait in advertizing his species and gaining favor with the ladies.  While its dance moves are impressive, its finale is especially dramatic.  Watching its colorful "tail" flair up (actually the dorsal surface of its abdomen), it is easy to see how it got its name.

While this Australian arachnid's moves are especially dramatic, many of our common male spiders have less exotic motions they go through to show that they are looking for love rather than a spider meal.  Unfortunately, the female spiders don't always reciprocate, leading to a potentially lethal encounter that gives a whole new meaning to the term "dinner date".

More original footage from is on this video.
Complete information on Maratus volans  is at 
Thanks to Dr. Chris Barnhart of MSU for sharing this information with us.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Poop on Poultry

Poultry Litter- Big Time
When a watershed organization talks about turkey and chicken raising operations it usually isn't good.  Here is a good news story from David Casaletto of Ozarks Water Watch, writing in the latest Ozark Waters newsletter.

He describes brainstorming in the past about how poultry "waste" could be packaged and shipped to those who could use it in agriculture.  Now the White River Fertilizer Supply has just such a product.
They take broiler and turkey litter, compress it into a 4' x 4' bale that is plastic wrapped and then transport it by flatbed trucks where ever it is needed. Not only do they sell the baled litter but also have the equipment to move and spread it. It seems baled litter has many advantages over raw litter:
  • Easy to transport and quick to unload
  • Can be stored on-site
  • No odor problems and no gas emission from decomposition
  • No leaching solves water quality issues
  • 99% E coli kill rate after 110 hours of being baled (according to studies)
  • Can be stored long term - no need for storage shed
Ozark Water Newsletter
There are even special bale spreaders to simplify spreading it on the fields. The video from White River Fertilizer Supply is interesting although I still wouldn't want to be the guy opening the bales from underneath. Making this a reliable and economical product can go a long way to reducing pollution in the Ozarks.