Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bee Junk Food

Vincent Kessler/Reuters
Bees are in enough trouble with fragmentation, pesticides and colony collapse syndrome.  It's enough to make a bee blue.  Now they have to deal with junk food and it is discoloring their honey. reported that honey producers in France began harvesting honey colored blue to green.  It can't be sold as it doesn't meet the country's standards for color of honey, which has to range from clear to brown.  It turns out that the bees had developed a sweet tooth for M&Ms!

A nearby biogas company processes waste from an M&Ms company.  The brightly colored material apparently appealed to the bee's aesthetic sense, especially after a harsh winter reduced their normal nectar sources.  The company is now storing the M&Ms waste in airtight containers, driving the bees back to nature.

The beekeepers are now watching the hives to look for any adverse effects on the larvae that are feeding on the blue honey.  Mars Inc. isn't commenting and everyone expects the color problem to be solved.  So is it?

Bee keepers in coastal areas of North Carolina have experienced the problem of blue honey for years and are still arguing about the cause.  One theory was that the bees were getting juice from huckleberries which are common in the area.  Others blamed the berries of kudzu or southern leatherwood.  It turns out that none of these "obvious" causes are correct.

Professor John Ambrose, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, studied the problem in the 1970s.  The bee doesn't have mouth parts strong enough to penetrate the skin of these berries and the berry juices are colored white or pink.  He went on to study the bees load on the return to the hive.

Bees have a honey stomach, an organ in which they transport nectar on the way back home.  It extracts this nectar as fuel for its trip and on arrival back at the hive, younger "house bees" deposit the remainder into the cells where it becomes honey.

Ambrose extracted the nectar from the honey stomach of bees heading to the hive and found that they didn't have any blue color.  On the other hand, those leaving the hive had blue honey in their stomach.  The blue color was created in the hive!

Since then he has determined that the flowers in the coastal areas which noticed blue honey have a higher aluminum content.  The increased aluminum concentration combined with the stomach acid of the house bees is responsible for the blue honey.  Not that all the bee keepers are buying that theory.

Now what is this?
  • It was found at the Watershed Center
  • Neither plant nor animal
  • It is edible if you cook it quickly
  • It will stain your fingers black
  • Look quick as it autodigests a few hours after you pick it
  • Coming to the blog next week

Monday, October 29, 2012

Civilized Wildlife

American crow- Wikimedia
When I went out to get the paper this morning in our Springfield residential neighborhood, I was greeted by a cluster of raucous crows perching on the barren upper branches of our locust tree.  They were having a private and highly vocal argument among themselves, possibly about the upcoming election.  I walked under the tree, watched them for a minute, standing within 30 feet of them in plain sight, and then walked back into the house as they continued their debate, oblivious to my coming and going.

This would not happen just 20 miles away on Bull Creek.  There the crows keep their distance, warned by their ever present silent lookout high in a tree.  When they explore the trees off our deck they may even sit silently a few feet away.  If they detect the slightest movement in the house they fly off without a single sound of protest.

Some years ago we visited the island camp of a distant cousin in Canada.  He would walk outside his cabin, call out to "John Crow" and a crow would come in to be fed.  He swore that it was always the same crow among the many in the area.  At the time I was dubious- and probably very wrong!

Scary mask? Not to a crow.
There is now good evidence that crows can recognize individual faces.  In 2009, an NPR story by Robert Krulwich described the findings of researchers who wore a caveman mask while catching crows for banding.  They showed that these crows and their neighboring friends would gather around, cawing a warning and even dive- bombing (mobbing behavior) anyone wearing this mask weeks later.  The crows responded even if the volunteers wore the mask upside down (the birds would occasionally turn over in the air in this case!)  This didn't occur with other masks (including a Dick Cheney mask as a neutral example) and occurred regardless of the body build, sex or the gait of the wearer.  (The complete story is at this PBS link.)

A newer study recently reported in  extended their findings.  Over five years the recognition and subsequent mobbing of a mask wearing researcher has spread to the surrounding area.  Not only do the crows remember but they appear to be able to transmit this information to their young! "Even after going for a year without seeing the threatening human, the crows would scold the person on sight, cackling, swooping and dive-bombing in mobs of 30 or more."

Another report  from South Korea in April of this year suggests that a related species, the magpie, also was able to distinguish an individual researcher.  In this case the researcher was climbing trees to study the magpie nests.  The bird would subsequently attack him regardless of what he was wearing.  Another volunteer wearing the researchers clothes passed unnoticed as did the other 20,000 individuals on the campus.

There is increasing evidence that urban wildlife has grown accustomed to humans and are losing their fear of us.  Our Springfield neighbor will walk into her garden to drive the browsing deer down the block, only to have them follow her back down the street as she returns home.  In the case of civilized wildlife, it is becoming clear that familiarity may breed content rather than contempt.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

One Long Stick

Fall is my favorite time of year on Bull Creek.  In addition to the obvious changing colors, wildlife is active, moths and butterflies are flying in between cold snaps, and lots of the animals are on the prowl, preparing for the cold to come.

After the rain last evening, we took to the woods in search of mushrooms.  Apparently they had fruited out with the last rain and all we found was a scattering of jelly ears.  These soft moist mushrooms grow on the downed trunks of trees we felled in the timber stand improvement areas.  Although not edible, they always bring a smile when petting the moist rubbery surface.

The highlight of the day came when our friend Debbie asked, "What is that on the tree?"  She was pointing to a walking stick of unusual size.  Unlike many walking sticks, it had vivid red streaks along its back and bright green front legs.  Even more dramatic, it was over 5 inches long, not counting its antennae.

And what antennae they were!  They were far longer than its legs and it flailed them about, trying to determine if we were a threat.   He began "racing" up and down the trunk, turning around when I put my finger in his path.  Walking sticks are usually very slow and deliberate in their moves, but this one seemed to be trying out for NASCAR.

Male clasper
I say "he" based on the structures at the end of his abdomen.  These are called "claspers" and males use them to hold the female during mating.  This seems to be a favorite walking stick activity and many fall days most walking sticks are in this embrace for hours at a time.

While many walking sticks are hard to identify by species, this one was easy.  A quick search of showed an identical example, the Giant Walking Stick, Megaphasma denticrus.  A specimen was pictured at the Arkansas site Nature in the Ozarks.  Another photograph along with good information was posted by Ted MacRae of Taney County.

As the name implies, this walking stick is really big, the longest insect species in North America.  Females can reach over six inches, so as a male our guy was slightly shorter.  The colors can vary from tan to dark brown and our specimen was all the more impressive for his color contrasts. In addition to their size, they can be distinguished by their antennae which are longer than their legs.  They also have rows of teeth-like hooks on the underside of the middle femur which I couldn't photograph.

Adult walking sticks usually are in the highest branches of trees.  When threatened, they drop to the ground as a defense.  Those we see on tree trunks are usually making their way back up to where the leaves are.  I had never seen a walking stick scurry around like this one as seen in this video.

Monday, October 22, 2012

From Little Acorns

Why would an otherwise normal senior citizens like us spend hours collecting acorns from oak trees?  As food on a fixed income?  Actually, it is part of a research project described fully below.

It was also quite educational for me.  To reach fresh acorns before they were on the ground and potentially moldy, we had to toss a rope over branches and pull them down within reach.  I learned to look carefully first as I pulled one down and found it was supporting a large partially broken limb above which came crashing down.  It took me to the ground but the limb absorbed the momentum so I only had a few scratches.  I guess that is what is meant by the phrase "life and limb."

Leaf Press
We needed to send a branch of the leaves from each tree that we collected from.  The leaves need to be kept in a leaf press until they are dried and flattened.  Our home leaf press was quite sophisticated while the one we used at the creek was electrical, consisting of two books weighted down by a 12 volt automotive jumper battery.

I will let our friend Matt Kaproth describe below his PhD research project.

Acorn Study Harvest
Starting this winter, a team of plant ecologists at the University of Minnesota and the National University of Mexico are starting experimental common gardens to test drought tolerance in oaks. The researchers asked for collections from across the continent. Half the acorns will be cleaned and sent to Morelia, Mexico to be grown outdoors while the other half will be grown under different watering treatments in a greenhouse in St. Paul, MN.

Why you ask?  Oaks, (Quercus species) are critical components to our forests. They have the highest species richness and biomass across the US and Mexico (see the figure), but for years researchers avoided studies involving different oak species because they hybridize frequently and it was hard to find a “true” species. Recent molecular work now lets us identify species compositions, which will let us dig into pressing evolutionary and ancestral questions.

For example, we can look into which oak species withstand stresses better than others. With the recent droughts (and more predicted to come), we can identify which lineages have drought-tolerance, which can pass on this trait, and which species stand a better chance to survive with changing climates. You can’t get anything for free in nature though, and it’s hypothesized that lineages that can handle water stress have slower growth rates. Identifying this trade-off will let researchers predict species range limits and guide managers about how to care for their oaks.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Footprints and Furbearers

Dishing the dirt
The Springfield News-Leader ran an interesting front page article entitled 'Long-running footprint study shows how furbearers are doing."  For those outside the Springfield area, I wanted to give you a peek at how wildlife populations can be measured.  Game cameras featured on this blog recently are one way but another is "dishing the dirt" by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Wes Johnson's photo essay describes one method of comparing furbearer populations annually.  Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) biologists Jay Steele and Wesley Schnake sifted dirt onto an area and left a scent device to attract curious mammals.  The animals in turn left their prints in the soft soil.  This allowed the biologists to determine the species attracted to the area.  By comparing this annually for the last 35 years, they can develop population trends.

Possum tail draws the line
On this day, they found a large male possum which explored the scent, leaving a trail of wide spread tracks that helped determine its size.  You can make out the line where the tail dragged behind in the dirt.  Whether the animals come randomly or are attracted by the scent, the information is equally valuable in compiling a census.  Other sites found prints of raccoons, possums, coyotes, skunks, woodchucks, foxes and a weasel. There are many pictures of the track process on the News-Leader's News Gallery site.

The "GO! Get Outdoors" section of the News-Leader is a welcome addition to the newspaper, filled with good features and pictures including the online galleries.  We will continue to feature the articles of Wes Johnson and his guest columnists from time to time.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Day 3 at the Hole

After sending the pictures of the weasel and the groundhog from the voyeuristic game camera to our naturalist Jay Barber, he suggested that we contact him when we got pictures of a mountain lion at the burrow.  It turns out that we are part way there.

The morning after the groundhog showed up, a busy gray squirrel explored the hole at 8:31 AM, but didn't stick around.  There is an overhanging walnut tree as well as multiple hickories along the other lane and he seemed to be out collecting.  It is possible that he thought the hole was deserted and a good place to hide a nut.

Breakfast Nut

At 9:22 AM, a fox squirrel passed by within a foot of the hole, pausing for pictures before hauling off a nut for breakfast.  It seemed to ignore the hole, intent on its mission.  This field has a large population of fox squirrels which had a very successful breeding season this year.  It is seldom that we ride down the lane without having one dart out.

On October 3rd an armadillo showed up for a picture at 6:00 PM, crawling partway down into the burrow opening.  At least one armadillo had babies this year along this stretch of the 1833 Ozark Mail Trace Road.  By now, it is hard to know if this is the adult or one of the kids that have grown.  It showed up again at the burrow around 10:00 PM as seen on the infrared camera picture below.  

Early this summer we traced one of the young armadillos quadruplets to a burrow just a hundred feet away from this burrow.  We watched as the youngsters would dart in and out of the hole, running down the road in front of our ATVs.  The burrow was conveniently located in the thick hedgerow adjacent to the field overgrown with forbs and weeds.
The news at ten
Summertime teenager

Animals frequently appropriate holes left by other species so it is unclear if this was the armadillo's property or if it was just house hunting.  If it belonged to the groundhog there would just be an amusing little confrontation between two vegetarians.  If it belongs to the weasel, the groundhog might be on the menu.

Bobcat sniffing the hole
On October 4th a whole new breed of cat showed up around 2:30 AM.  There isn't an outside domestic cat within a mile and we haven't spotted any dropped off strays recently.  Its tail is difficult to see from this view.  It was relatively large compared to the other animals photographed from the same fixed game camera, much bigger than a house cat.  My diagnosis, a bobcat, looking for dinner.
Sniffing the camera
The bobcat, apparently curious about the camera, came up for a sniff and super closeup.  There is a lot more nightlife out there than we imagined so it should have some good eating opportunities.  That is unless a coyote or gets there first.   If we get many more species showing up we may have to put in a stop light on the road.  Who knows, Jay may get his mountain lion yet!

More on animal burrows can be found at this National Geographic site.
An extensive resource on burrowing behaviors is in this pdf from Current Mammology.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Big Turkeytail
Sunday was our annual Missouri Mycological Society (MOMS) foray at Bull Creek.  It was a chilly 45 degrees when we met up, hauling in potluck dishes for lunch, the real reason to never miss a foray.

The action started with a 90 minute hike in the woods, usually in pairs.  Actually it is more of a creep as we study every feature on the ground as well as on trees, standing and fallen.  We collect a specimen of every new species for later identification.  If we find edibles, they all go into the basket.

Daedaleopsis confragosa
You may recall the unknown picture on Sunday.  It was described as a "fun guy" (forgive me) which hangs around trees.  This was the underside of a shelf mushroom which grows on hardwoods.  The closeup view of the underside of this mushroom shows the pores which release its spores.  Many species have interesting patterns on top, in this case leaving ring-like ridges.  This one is Daedaleopsis confragosa.  You don't need to remember that- I know I won't.

Once back at the cabin we begin the identification process.  This requires careful examination, delving into the books, and usually asking Kenton Olson or George Lantz who speak mainly Latin.  Not only do we learn the names, but some of the fascinating characteristics.  For me this is always interesting as I forget the names over winter so each year is a brand new experience!

This white gilled mushroom looks like a lot of other white mushrooms at first glance.  Characteristics such as the attachment of the gills, their spacing, and features of the cap and stalk identify it as Aminita bisporigera, also known by its common name as Destroying Angel.  You may have guessed by the name that this isn't edible.  In fact it is considered the most toxic North American Amanita mushroom.  My lesson is never eat a white stalked mushroom growing in the soil, no matter what anyone says.

Old Man of the Woods
You can't always predict edibility by the appearance or beauty of a mushroom.  The Old Man of the Woods isn't exactly a beauty but is said to be delicious when young.  You would never know it from the picture.  Its Latin name, Strobilomyces floccopus, doesn't exactly enhance its marketability.  This specimen has been around quite a while with its background color turning gray.  Someday I hope to try a fresh one.

Mycena species
Lots of the tiny mushrooms are my favorites, beautiful and delicate.  The only thing they lack is a little fairy princess sitting below them.  You can judge the size of this Mycena species by the fingers holding it.  They grow on dead wood and it frequently pays to roll over a decaying log or strip off rotting bark to expose them.  Some are a beautiful bright orange and may occur singly or in clusters like this one.

Jack O'Lantern
Some mushrooms have bioluminescence, with a faint glow from their gills.  This requires acclimatizing your eyes to the dark over 5 minutes.  A famous example is the Jack O'Lantern mushroom, which is toxic to eat, not killing you but occasionally making you wish it would go ahead and finish you off.  We took this one into the cabin bathroom and turned off the lights and waited.

You have never really lived until you have stood in a tiny dark bathroom with two other adults for five minutes, waiting for your eyes to adjust to the dark to see if a mushroom really glows in the dark.  I bet you wish you were there with us.  If this appeals to you, first join us at MOMS and then come to a foray.  Oh, by the way, the food was great.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Do You Grow Frost Flowers?

Click to enlarge

Have you ever heard of "frost flowers"? If so you had to get out early in the morning during the first few hard frosts. Frost flowers, a.k.a. ice ribbons, are formed by super cooled water being extruded through plant stems and freezing the minute they hit the cold air. They are beautiful, delicate and transient, destined to disappear when the temperature rises – or before – if the sun hits them for a few minutes.

"Frost flower", also called "ice ribbons", occur regularly on the stems of White Crownbeard, Verbesina virginica, Marsh Fleabane. Pluchea odorata and ditany, Cunila origanoides. These are native species found in much of the eastern US,  usually found in disturbed soil and along roadsides.

There are a few vague reports of finding frost flowers on other plants, mainly coming from Europe.  I am trying to compile a list of other plant species that produce frost flowers, no matter how small the "blossoms." It is important to be able to identify the parent plants which may otherwise be unrecognizable late in the season. If you are a gardener, you likely know your plants and likely have a wide variety in your plantings.

Here is where you come in:
Visit your garden early on the morning of the first or second hard frost (below freezing through the night at temperatures below 28 degrees Farenheit) and look around the base of your plants. If you see ice ribbons on other new plants, identify the plant, preferably by genus and species and if possible photograph the frost flowers, if even with your phone. Then email me with your findings at  Your findings and pictures will be posted on a new blog at anonymously or with attribution as you chose.

We are involving Missouri Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists and Friends of the Garden as well as any other interested person.  I have been in frequent contact with several experts from Illinois and Texas who have published on frost flowers.  Their papers are found below, along with some frost flower pictures.

Your reports of your discoveries can expand our knowledge of these mysterious frost flowers.  Consider: no planting, fertilizing or watering... Just an extra cup of coffee and a warm coat for a 5 minute brisk walk in your own garden. And all in the name of science!

Check out these resources for further information on frost flowers as well as the resources page:
Dr. James Carter references:
Frost Flowers
Ice or Frost Flowers?- James Carter
JR Carter at Illinois State/ice/diurnal/
Dr.Robert Harms

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hole in the Ground

I have always been curious about what is living in the holes we come across in our hiking.  For years, I fantasized about getting a used colonoscope (I am a retired gastroenterologist) and looking into these tunnels.  The thought of viewing a startled critter head on in its home still excites me.

Is it Groundhog Day yet?
I assumed that identifying a critter at the hole provided proof of ownership.  Now I am not so sure.  I bought a better game camera and set it up right where I photographed the weasel with my old game camera.  It turns out that the hole is a very busy place.

On October first I got multiple pictures of a groundhog hanging out at the hole from noon to 6:00 PM.  He (sexually explicit pictures suppressed by editor) was seen emerging from the hole, looking around for predators, and at times posing to show his best side.

Checking out the camera
In one picture he came up close to look at the camera, or possibly he was just wanting a passport photo.


The groundhog, a.k.a. whistle pig, woodchuck, land beaver, is famous for its burrows, usually complex with several entrances.  They are vegetarians and typically live along the edge of fields where they can find a large variety of vegetation.  Our field is perfect as it has lots of weeds and native plants on 2 acres cleared for warm season grass restoration and now fallow.

Like their prairie dog cousins, they are always alert to the danger of predators and typically stand on their hind legs to look around frequently.  You can readily see their dental resemblance to a beaver (or Bugs Bunny) in the picture above.  They eat a wide variety of plants, probably including our gourds which are frequently mowed down by rodents.  They get their water through the plants they eat.

Groundhogs are one of the few mammals which are true hibernators, spending up to six uninterrupted months in their burrows.  They eat voraciously in the summer, reaching their maximum weight just before hibernation and emerge skinny and very hungry in the spring.

I owe these pictures to last week's weasel which gave me the excuse to upgrade my game camera.  You can find more on groundhogs on Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Korpella's Dogwood

Our own Bob Korpella's photograph was selected best of Plants and Fungi in the 75th Anniversary MDC photo contest.  His picture is below but this doesn't do it justice so be sure to look at page 30 in this month's Conservationist to see it and the other winners.  The story is below.

Best of Plants and Fungi - Dogwood blossom by Bob Korpella of Aurora

Korpella took this picture while hiking on private land in Barry County. “The dogwoods were almost spent, but the ones still in bloom had huge blossoms. I was intrigued by the center. It looked like a party was going on in there, so I decided to focus my attention on that portion of the blossom,” said Korpella. A Missouri Master Naturalist and Stream Team member, Korpella said one of his favorite activities is heading outside with his camera. He said he photographs in a variety of locations in both Missouri and Arkansas. “But,” he said, “it’s amazing what you can discover in your own backyard.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What is it?

This will be coming to the blog soon.
They are found in the rocky woods of Bull Creek.
These guys are fun to find and like to hang around on hardwood trees.
What is it?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Pop Goes Our Weasel

When we find a critter hole in our fields, we always wonder what is living there.  Skunks, mink, armadillo, all come to mind.  When we saw a hole near the old Mail Trace Road we decided to break out the ancient game camera and set it up.  We were surprised to find a few pictures of a weasel!

The long-tailed weasel (a.k.a. bridled weasel or big stoat*) ranges from southern Canada down to Central America.  They are said to be present throughout Missouri although relatively uncommon, mostly found in the south-central and southwest.

These voracious little carnivores eat only live creatures, usually rodents, preferably still twitching.  The are famous for taking on far larger prey.  They hunt mainly by smell, twitching their head side to side as they lope along the ground, seldom walking or running.*

A few interesting facts:
  • They breed from July to August but don't deliver until the following April to May.  Much of this 270 day period the fetuses float freely in the womb.  After developing for two weeks, they continue to float around until they are implanted in the uterus 24 days before delivery.
  • Weasels remain active through the winter, living solitary lives in shallow burrows frequently appropriated from other mammals.  They hunt day and night, their curiosity leading them around large areas.
  • They may cover an area a mile wide and two miles long over a period of days.  They may take a bird, eggs or even bats if rats and mice are not available.  
  • Although frequently blamed for killing chickens, this is not their primary food source as they eat far more rodents.  They have been trapped for their pelts but are usually incidental catches as their pelts never bring the big bucks.
Over all, they are a positive force in our ecology, causing little harm and lots of good.  Heaven knows, between rats, mice, rabbits and squirrels, there is a lot for them to consume while maintaining the balance of nature.

Incidentally, this weasel has benefited the economy as it forced me to buy a better game camera for next time.

Many of these more colorful description come from Wild Mammals of Missouri by Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz.

* How do you tell a long-tailed weasel from a stoat?  A weasel is weasily distinguished while a stoat is stoatally  different.     -Bill Nichols 
(A stoat is a short-tailed weasel)