Secret Language of Mushrooms

 

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was chock-a-block full of whimsical characters such as a hookah-smoking caterpillar and a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts playing-card. Although animals and some objects in the story are able to speak, somehow the idea of a talking mushroom was too far-out even for Carroll’s rich imagination. The book depicts a colorful hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom on which Alice dines (without so much as a parental warning) to become large or small. But while the Cheshire cat is chatty, the mushroom remains mum.

As proof that reality can be stranger than fiction, scientists believe they have recently found several species which are able to communicate in complex phrases. Not species of talking cats, but mushrooms endowed with the gift of language. It’s old news that fungi transfer information chemically under the ground. This new discovery suggests that as fungi decompose wood, they might also be composing sonnets, love-poems or grocery lists.

It may seem odd that language is “just” a theory. This is quite different from a hypothesis, which is an unproven theory. Language, gravity, climate change, evolution, and nuclear energy are all theories. We have overwhelming evidence they exist, yet we continually study them because we recognize there is always more to know.

Humans once believed we had a monopoly on language. But scientists popped our ego-bubble by pointing out that before Homo sapiens appeared on Earth some 350,000 years ago, a related species called Homo erectus had been roaming the landscape for two million years with some form of spoken language. This is inferred by the complexity of the cooperative activities Homo erectus were known to engage in, such as boat-building and navigation. Apparently, none of their early Tik-Tok videos survived, so we’re not sure what they sounded like.

Yet human language is not defined by speech alone. Deaf children learn sign language at the same rate as hearing children learn to speak. And for centuries, we have communicated over long distance: first with written letters; later by Morse code through the telegraph system, and now by ones and zeroes which are transmitted digitally and converted to voice, text, and images. 

Where non-human animals are concerned, it’s clear that a great deal of communication happens: woodpeckers drum on dead trees and tin roofs to define territories; wolves howl to maintain integrity of their pack. Even trees share information about insect pests by transmitting chemicals through root grafts. But it’s often hard to draw the line between communication, which may be genetically coded and inflexible, and language, which is acquired, as well as malleable.

Honey bees engage in a Miley Cyrus butt-waggle interpretive dance which imparts a wealth of detail about food quality, quantity, and location. Unfortunately, we can’t tell if they are also bragging about personal-best pollen loads or gossiping about the queen.

Some animals clearly have a form of spoken language. Whales, for example, have what biologists call unique “acoustic name tags” (and what we’d call “names”) for themselves. These names are recognised within their kinship clan. Each group has its own dialect which is learned by baby whales through imitation.

Dogs communicate by vocalising, though mainly through smell and body language. However, experts have found that dogs can learn the meaning of 150 human words on average. Exceptional breeds like Border collies can be trained to recognise up to 250 words, equivalent to the vocabulary of a two-year-old child.

Well move over, Rover: a recent UK study found several kinds of mushrooms that appear to be communicating in complex phrases using a vocabulary of about fifty “words.” Not as bright as Bowser, who knows 150 words, but hey – they’re fungi, not smart guys.

These fungi “talked” using electrical impulses, which is not as weird as it sounds. It’s long been known that fungi generate minute electrical charges in response to stimuli. Certain species have very intricate responses, with pulses grouped differently depending on the situation. More than fifty discrete pulse-groupings have been identified, and these groupings are used in various ways within longer strings of pulses. All of this suggests a possible language of sorts.

An April 6, 2022 article in The Guardian highlighted the work of Andrew Adamatzky, a professor at the University of the West of England who works in their Unconventional Computing Laboratory. By inserting microelectrodes into fungal mycelia, Adamatzky analysed the patterns of electrical spikes generated by four species of fungi. Enoki, split-gill, and ghost fungi were used, and in a potential nod to Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar fungus also made the list.

The author of the article, Linda Geddes, writes that the fungal electrical pulses documented in the research were often grouped in ways that resembled patterns of human speech. As quoted in The Guardian, the professor admitted “We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech.” But Adamatzky was adamant that “Whatever these ‘spiking events’ represent, they do not appear to be random.”

He hypothesizes that the fungal “language” may help maintain the integrity of the fungal colony, analogous to vocalization by packs of wild canids. It also could be a “report” to the rest of the colony that a distant hypha (fungal thread) has encountered a food source or a hazardous situation, according to the professor.

But in a comment that clearly explains why Adamatzky is in the sciences and not in marketing, he added, “There is also another option – they are saying nothing.” It took a few seconds for me to realize this remark doesn’t mean he’s saying fungi have no language. I bet we all can think of politicians and others who talk a lot but say nothing.

Adamatzky’s research is published in Royal Society Open Source. You can find the full report here: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.211926

Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension educator. His words are occasionally electrifying but seldom impulsive.

Security Lights Threaten Faerie Lights

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

As a kid, many a June twilight was spent trailing the beacons of fireflies in the deepening dusk to try and catch them in my hands. I was endlessly enthralled. Endlessly until Mom called to clean up for bed, at least. It pleases me that my own two children went through this phase, presenting me with Mason jars of flashing green magic before they released “their” fireflies outdoors.  

For the longest time, I remained enchanted by those shimmering, summer-night faerie lights. These days I’m charmed only by the memory of such. They’re nearly gone from our farm now, a paltry few flashing in a meadow that once hosted a Milky Way of moving lights.

With 2,000 known species, fireflies are native to both the Americas and Eurasia. In the larval stage, they’re carnivorous, and eat many insects we consider pests.  You may see young fireflies, grub-like “glowworms,” in the lawn or flower bed. Larvae also feed on worms, slugs and snails before wriggling down into the soil or other protected space to overwinter. After a short pupal stage, they emerge to mate. Adults mainly subsist on pollen and nectar, though a few don’t eat at all in their brief grown-up phase.

Among the reasons fireflies have been well-studied is that they produce the most efficient light in the world, with 100% of the energy in the chemical reaction used for illumination. When the enzyme luciferase hits luciferin in the presence of magnesium, oxygen, and ATP, it results in light devoid of any heat (that comes later when they find a mate).

Flash patterns and colors vary from one species to another, and among the sexes. It is more common for females to stay put and send out their Morse code while the guys work up the nerve to approach a mate.

Occasionally, flashes among disparate sexes and species will synchronize temporarily, something for which there is no explanation as yet, other than to flummox biologists. I have to say it’s “pretty cool,” technically speaking. The most common color of light is yellow, although it can be green, or even red, depending on species. In certain light conditions, some shades of green can be perceived as blue.

Although the orgy of glitzy flashes in late spring and early summer is mainly to signal for a hookup, there are other reasons fireflies light up their butts. Both larvae and adults contain a bitter toxin which is closely related to the stuff toads make. Just as nothing eats toads – or at least not twice – due to their toxicity, predators don’t knowingly eat fireflies.

It is believed that juvenile light-shows are to advertise that they’re unpleasant to eat, thus avoiding predation. Biologists call overt markers such as this and the bright colors of poisonous frogs “honest signals.” At least one type of cannibalistic firefly mimics the flash pattern of another species, luring those males in with the promise of sex only to eat them. I’m guessing this would be a “dishonest signal.”

Fireflies’ light-emitting chemicals are used in medicine to detect blood clots, tuberculosis, diabetes, and some cancers. For most applications the chemicals are now synthesized, but a small percentage is still harvested from fireflies, a practice which must soon be halted.

I highly recommend the superb and heartbreaking 1988 Anime film Grave of the Fireflies, which is based on a true story. For the younger of the two child-protagonists, fireflies bring joy. Her older brother, though, sees in fireflies the souls of the war-dead rising to heaven, as well as the daily barrage of firebombs which has left them homeless orphans.

While not as poignant as children suffering the effects of war, the story of today’s fireflies is sad nonetheless. The eerily glowing beetles are at risk worldwide, and according to entomologists, many firefly species may soon be extinguished altogether.

A year-long Tuft University study, published in February 2000 in the journal BioScience, surveyed firefly populations in North America, Central America, Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. It found that in every region, fireflies are in trouble.

But it’s not only fireflies. Insect populations are in freefall everywhere: Between 1996 and 2016, Ohio lost a third of its butterfly population. German scientists have documented a 75% drop in the number of flying insects in nature preserves in just the past 27 years. Not surprisingly, this has contributed to the loss of insect-eating songbirds. The causes of this alarming insect decline are complex, but pesticide use, climate change, and habitat loss are driving this die-off to a large extent.

Where fireflies are concerned, though, it turns out that exterior lighting is the second-most important factor in their decline, right after habitat loss. Most of us can’t individually make a dent in global warming, put a stop to urban sprawl, or curb the use of agricultural chemicals in the next 24 hours.

But we can, literally, help fireflies overnight – by turning off exterior lights. Motion-triggered security lights can replace floodlights that run constantly. We can use lower wattage bulbs, and do away with outdoor lights which are used for aesthetic purposes only.

Being mindful of how we illuminate the outdoors is a small bother compared to losing fireflies. Perhaps if we can work to reduce light pollution in our communities, we’ll one day see thousands of shimmering Tinkerbells on summer evenings again. Maybe our kids and grandkids will have the privilege of catching magic in Mason jars, and watching the procession of lights heavenward when they let the fireflies go.

For more information, see the report “A Global Perspective on Firefly Extinction Threats” at https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/2/157/5715071

Paul Hetzler, not the brightest bulb in the package, has dimmed his outdoor lights as well. He’s a former CCE educator.

Thanks to Marie-Line Bourdy for suggesting this topic.

 

 

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

As a kid, many a June twilight was spent trailing the beacons of fireflies in the deepening dusk to try and catch them in my hands. I was endlessly enthralled. Endlessly until Mom called to clean up for bed, at least. It pleases me that my own two children went through this phase, presenting me with Mason jars of flashing green magic before they released “their” fireflies outdoors.  

For the longest time, I remained enchanted by those shimmering, summer-night faerie lights. These days I’m charmed only by the memory of such. They’re nearly gone from our farm now, a paltry few flashing in a meadow that once hosted a Milky Way of moving lights.

With 2,000 known species, fireflies are native to both the Americas and Eurasia. In the larval stage, they’re carnivorous, and eat many insects we consider pests.  You may see young fireflies, grub-like “glowworms,” in the lawn or flower bed. Larvae also feed on worms, slugs and snails before wriggling down into the soil or other protected space to overwinter. After a short pupal stage, they emerge to mate. Adults mainly subsist on pollen and nectar, though a few don’t eat at all in their brief grown-up phase.

Among the reasons fireflies have been well-studied is that they produce the most efficient light in the world, with 100% of the energy in the chemical reaction used for illumination. When the enzyme luciferase hits luciferin in the presence of magnesium, oxygen, and ATP, it results in light devoid of any heat (that comes later when they find a mate).

Flash patterns and colors vary from one species to another, and among the sexes. It is more common for females to stay put and send out their Morse code while the guys work up the nerve to approach a mate.

Occasionally, flashes among disparate sexes and species will synchronize temporarily, something for which there is no explanation as yet, other than to flummox biologists. I have to say it’s “pretty cool,” technically speaking. The most common color of light is yellow, although it can be green, or even red, depending on species. In certain light conditions, some shades of green can be perceived as blue.

Although the orgy of glitzy flashes in late spring and early summer is mainly to signal for a hookup, there are other reasons fireflies light up their butts. Both larvae and adults contain a bitter toxin which is closely related to the stuff toads make. Just as nothing eats toads – or at least not twice – due to their toxicity, predators don’t knowingly eat fireflies.

It is believed that juvenile light-shows are to advertise that they’re unpleasant to eat, thus avoiding predation. Biologists call overt markers such as this and the bright colors of poisonous frogs “honest signals.” At least one type of cannibalistic firefly mimics the flash pattern of another species, luring those males in with the promise of sex only to eat them. I’m guessing this would be a “dishonest signal.”

Fireflies’ light-emitting chemicals are used in medicine to detect blood clots, tuberculosis, diabetes, and some cancers. For most applications the chemicals are now synthesized, but a small percentage is still harvested from fireflies, a practice which must soon be halted.

I highly recommend the superb and heartbreaking 1988 Anime film Grave of the Fireflies, which is based on a true story. For the younger of the two child-protagonists, fireflies bring joy. Her older brother, though, sees in fireflies the souls of the war-dead rising to heaven, as well as the daily barrage of firebombs which has left them homeless orphans.

While not as poignant as children suffering the effects of war, the story of today’s fireflies is sad nonetheless. The eerily glowing beetles are at risk worldwide, and according to entomologists, many firefly species may soon be extinguished altogether.

A year-long Tuft University study, published in February 2000 in the journal BioScience, surveyed firefly populations in North America, Central America, Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. It found that in every region, fireflies are in trouble.

But it’s not only fireflies. Insect populations are in freefall everywhere: Between 1996 and 2016, Ohio lost a third of its butterfly population. German scientists have documented a 75% drop in the number of flying insects in nature preserves in just the past 27 years. Not surprisingly, this has contributed to the loss of insect-eating songbirds. The causes of this alarming insect decline are complex, but pesticide use, climate change, and habitat loss are driving this die-off to a large extent.

Where fireflies are concerned, though, it turns out that exterior lighting is the second-most important factor in their decline, right after habitat loss. Most of us can’t individually make a dent in global warming, put a stop to urban sprawl, or curb the use of agricultural chemicals in the next 24 hours.

But we can, literally, help fireflies overnight – by turning off exterior lights. Motion-triggered security lights can replace floodlights that run constantly. We can use lower wattage bulbs, and do away with outdoor lights which are used for aesthetic purposes only.

Being mindful of how we illuminate the outdoors is a small bother compared to losing fireflies. Perhaps if we can work to reduce light pollution in our communities, we’ll one day see thousands of shimmering Tinkerbells on summer evenings again. Maybe our kids and grandkids will have the privilege of catching magic in Mason jars, and watching the procession of lights heavenward when they let the fireflies go.

For more information, see the report “A Global Perspective on Firefly Extinction Threats” at https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/2/157/5715071

Paul Hetzler, not the brightest bulb in the package, has dimmed his outdoor lights as well. He’s a former CCE educator.

Thanks to Marie-Line Bourdy for suggesting this topic.

 


Saving Face

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Apparently, if you suck face for too long, you can become part of that visage, fused forever. And by “you” I mean all the Demodex folliculorum skin mites that read this essay.

It was news to me that our faces are like high-rise condos for microscopic skin mites which live in our hair follicles and suck out the yummy, gummy skin flakes that accumulate within. I guess they’re like remoras for people. As if that was not unsettling enough, these tiny critters haul themselves out of our greasy pores at night to crawl across our sleeping mugs and fornicate.

Unlike all other mite species, the male D. folliculorum has a penis in the middle of his back, toward the front, like a wee dorsal fin. The menacing score from the film “Jaws” would set the stage perfectly as a male emerges under a female mite in slow-motion (which happens to be their top speed) and does the mite-baby dance right under our nose. Literally, in this case.

Outside of the unfortunate detail that you’re now aware of these facts, Demodex folliculorum generally do not cause us any harm. Although in rare instances people can develop an allergy to them, scientists think skin mites actually help us by keeping pores open.

But here’s the creepiest part: There’s good evidence to suggest D. folliculorum will eventually become a part of our faces. In an article published on June 21, 2022 in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, authors G. Smith and A. Manzano-Marín et al tell the world that skin mites are in the process of merging their DNA with ours. Compared to that, the Vulcan mind-meld is a big yawn.

If there was only one thing in the world you could eat and you found a place that served it for free, it’s logical that you might want to live there. Dead, sloughed-off skin cells from humans is the sole item on Demodex folliculorum’s menu. They cannot survive on cat dander, and dogs won’t do either. But while moving into a 24-7 eatery makes sense, becoming part of the establishment itself is downright weird.

One feature of skin mites that makes this probable is that they have a bare-bones genome (but no actual bones). After a bazillion generations on people-faces (and to a lesser extent, chests), free of predators and competitors, and with food right outside their door, the cushy lifestyle of D. folliculorum has led it to strip away unneeded genetic material. In example, they come out only at night because somewhere along the line they dropped the genes which code for UV-protectant pigments. These guys are in the same boat as vampires in terms of exposure to sunlight.

Skin mites also went right to the bottom where mobility is concerned. Their eight legs, which are all clustered near the head, are operated by single-cell muscles. This makes me feel a lot better about my own scrawny pins. They also have fewer kinds of proteins than other similar species.

Here is perhaps the strongest evidence pointing to a human-mite meld in the distant future:  An organism like this has what’s called an incomplete life cycle. It matures in discrete stages, molting or shedding its skin as it moves on to the next phase. Normally, there are more cells in each successive stage. However, our face-dwelling friends do it backwards.

Not like Benjamin Button exactly, as the intermediate (nymph) phase is bigger than the larval stage. But adults have considerably fewer cells than nymphs. This means little to me, but to biologists it signals that D. folliculorum has taken the first evolutionary step toward becoming internal human symbionts.

Don’t fret, though. Researchers point to our long association with skin mites as evidence that they play a small but beneficial role in our lives. Mites clean our pores, which might otherwise become infected. Years ago, we didn’t know how vital a robust and diverse gut flora was to our mental health, as well as physical.  Perhaps there are other benefits of skin mites yet to be discovered. There mite be.

The full journal article can be accessed here.

Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension educator. He washes his face a lot more after this revelation.

A big thanks to Laurent Dubois of Sainte-Cécile-de-Masham, QC for suggesting this topic.

 

The Giant Joro Spider

 

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

First your car catches fire, and then your house. Worse yet, your date kills you and devours your flesh without so much as an apology. Yeah, spiders are creepy (I’ll explain).

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, reportedly affects from three to six percent of us worldwide. In fact, it’s the most common phobia among humans (I assume the fear of humans is the most prevalent phobia among other animals, spiders included). Experts aren’t sure why we’re so scared of web-spinning arachnids, although evolutionary selection and family genetics are likely involved.

Cultural conditioning plays a role as well. In the US, for example, up to 15% of the population have some degree of arachnophobia, more than twice the global average. And a 1991 study in the UK found that 78% of Londoners surveyed expressed a general dislike of spiders.

Here in the northern latitudes, we currently have no resident species of venomous spider, although that may eventually change as the climate warms. On rare occasions, the northern black widow (Latrodectus variolus) has been found as far north as southern Ontario and Québec. But the northern black widow is not aggressive, and its bite, while unpleasant, is not deadly.

The much-feared and potentially more dangerous brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) lives far to our south. “Snowbirds” returning north in the spring have sometimes inadvertently brought home a brown recluse in their luggage, but we are fortunate that neither the spiders nor the snowbirds can survive the winters here. But these points are unlikely to sway the opinion of the spider-phobic. Like any phobia, logic does not make a dent in one’s fear of spiders.

I would argue, however, that perhaps we should be afraid of spiders, although not because they are hairy, leggy, or venomous. For one thing, spiders are remarkably adept at causing fires.

Yellow sac spiders, common throughout North America outside the Arctic, weave dense little nests in which to lay their eggs, caching these cute tufts of silk in safe, cozy spots. The fuel vent lines in certain Mazda vehicles were apparently the Goldilocks-perfect size and shape for spiders to fill with nursery-nests. Unfortunately, this led to some gas tanks rupturing from high pressure, resulting in fires. In 2014, Mazda was forced to recall 42,000 of its vehicles to fix the problem.

A year prior to that, a guy in Seattle lost his house to fire while trying to kill spiders in his laundry room with a blowtorch. And at a Michigan gas station in 2015, a man found a spider on his gas cap, so naturally he tried to kill it with a lighter (notice you don’t hear about women doing this kind of thing). I’m not sure about the spider, but the guy wound up torching a pump island, narrowly escaping injury.

Well don’t look now, but Asian spiders the size of your palm are expected to move into northern US and southern Canada, possibly within a few years. Native to Japan, North and South Korea, Vietnam, and parts of China and India, the giant Joro spider (Trichonephila clavata) is a type of orb-weaver. Adult females are about 10 cm long including the legs, and their webs can be more than three metres wide. They’re colourful, being largely bright yellow on their backside with alternating bluish-grey bands, and having a splash of red underneath. Their legs are banded black and yellow.

Joro spiders likely entered the US in shipping containers, showing up in 2014 in Georgia. Since then, they have been spreading at a rate of about 16 km per year. In a March 09, 2022 article on the NBC News website, author Adam Larson (identified as a ‘science communicator’) declares the Joro could make it to Canada “in a matter of months.” I have not been able to find other evidence to support his claim, although many sources note the spiders are proving more cold-hardy than first thought.

However, a 2022 Penn State Extension bulletin states that Joro “…spiderlings are capable of moving tens to hundreds of miles via ballooning, so a storm blowing in the right direction at the right time of year may move them in large jumps. Additionally, as they increase in numbers, the risk of human-mediated transport to new areas also increases.” So maybe the assertion about an imminent invasion up north is not entirely far-fetched.

The good news is that not only are Joros very shy; their fangs are said to be too feeble to puncture human skin even if you encounter a grumpy one. Better yet, Joros eat a lot of mosquitoes and agricultural pests, more so than other types of spiders.

There is evidence they could prove invaluable as a control for brown marmorated stink bugs, an invasive pest which has devastated many crops, grapes in particular. While other predators want nothing to do with stink bugs, Joros seem to really like them. Now we just need a spider big enough to catch and eat feral swine. Wait – no we don’t. 

One downside of these leggy giants is that if you’re a single guy in Japan who believes in old legends, you might accidentally date a spider who is disguised as a comely maiden, thus making your first date your last date ever. The Joro spider derives its common name from a series of ancient Japanese legends about Jorōgumo, or “entangling bride.” The premise of these tales is that after 400 years, Joros get magic powers, able to appear with a human upper body, their spider legs hidden beneath a dress. Always check the ankles before taking her out, guys.

As with any newly arrived species, the real risk is not yet known. It remains to be seen whether Joros continue to be good neighbours, or if they become the next kudzu debacle.

Paul Hetzler thanks his wife Marie-Line, who is definitely not a spider, for this article idea.

 

 

Daycare Forests

 

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Although the Grimm Brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel surviving alone in the woods after being abandoned by their parents is based on a grim reality – the famine of 1315-1317 – there are compelling reasons to take kids into a forest today. As long as they are kept out of the clutches of evil witches, and are brought to their respective homes right afterward.

Research on the health benefits of being in a forest environment is so compelling that urban daycares in Finland “built” forests for kids to use. As part of a study on childhood immune systems and overall health, these ersatz woodlands were made by spreading topsoil over play yards, which had been either gravel or concrete. The soil was then planted with native trees, shrubs, and flowers. For obvious reasons, gingerbread houses were not included in the forest plots.

The idea that immersion in nature helps us feel good is old news, of course. Patients in rooms with tree views have shorter hospital stays and report less pain as compared to those who do not have access to a natural vista. University students have been found to score higher on cognitive tests when their windows face natural settings.

Evidence goes far beyond casual observations, however. Over the past two decades, real-time brain imaging with functional MRI and PET scans, as well as blood-cortisol levels, and heart rate and blood pressure measurements have been used in a host of studies on the benefits of being close to nature. Science has demonstrated that spending time in the woods is so helpful that many doctors are now recommending “forest bathing,” which is simply 20 minutes a day spent in the woods. Forest immersion is prescribed along with medications to treat anxiety, pain, high blood pressure, depression, and other ailments. Controlled studies have also revealed that after just an hour in the woods, memory performance and attention span improve by 20%.

Older research has shown improvements in the eyesight, brain development, and mental health of children exposed to nature. But it seems that no one looked closely at the effect of nature on children’s immune systems until a couple of years ago. A four-week study conducted in 2020 through the University of Helsinki compared a number of immune markers in 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds at ten daycares throughout the urban core of Helsinki. Four of the ten daycares had been greened-up with mini-forests, while the rest were conventional city play-lots, either paved or covered in gravel.

After just 28 days, the gut and skin microbial communities of children who played in nature was more diverse than it was at the beginning of the project. A higher diversity of skin microbes is correlated with stronger immune systems. To be specific, and maybe too technical, the “nature kid” group had lower levels of a protein called Interleuken-17A, which is linked to autoimmune diseases. They also had elevated blood T-cell counts as compared to their initial baseline and to the group that didn’t get a chance to play in the woods and eat dirt, or at least get dirt on them.

The University of Helsinki study, which you can find in the journal Science Advances, includes a statement by the authors that “The results of this study support the hypothesis that low biodiversity in the modern living environment may lead to an un-educated immune system and consequently increase the prevalence of immune-mediated diseases.” There we have it: among other perks, the forest educates our immune systems.

While the research is definitely Finnish, it’s not really finished. The scientists agree more work is needed. They recommend a larger study (this one had 75 children participating) to confirm their findings, and also say that while they’ve shown being in nature gives kids healthier immune systems, they do not yet know exactly how or why it happens.

We need to think of communion with nature as an essential part of our health, and act accordingly. I encourage everyone to start forest-bathing as soon as possible for lower blood pressure and smarter immune systems. And we should get Hansel, Gretel and all other children out in the woods more often, too. Just don’t leave them there.

Paul Hetzler is relieved to have another excuse for a dirty house. He thanks Laurent Dubois for suggesting this topic.

 

Nature’s Dental Plan

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

The vast majority of people have no dental coverage, or at best have a less-than-stellar plan which only pays if you use their provider in the Outer Hebrides who works on alternate Tuesdays in April, although you’re still on the hook for a $5,000 deductible. Given a few recent discoveries, however, it looks like insurers could give us perfect teeth and yet save piles of money in the long run by taking cues from nature.

With a single up-front procedure, we could get self-replacing or unbreakable teeth like those found in certain animals. Of course, this would require the use of a gene-editing tool such as “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” or CRISPR. The acronym is fitting: one of its first miracles was an apple that stays crisper even if sliced and left out for ages. Nature’s answer to the Twinkie, I suppose.

Having shark teeth might be great. We’d have a never-ending supply of new choppers ready to move forward whenever we broke an old one biting a killer whale or opening a beer bottle. I imagine they’d be a hot item for punk rockers. Shark teeth ought to be a handy persuasion tool as well – just grin at your boss and watch how fast they approve your raise. Dating would suffer a bit, as we couldn’t smile on our profile pics, and there’d be awkward moments at meals when an old tooth falls onto your plate or stays behind in your pizza slice after a bite.

Metal is another option. After all, the villain “Jaws” in The Spy Who Loved Me film had steel teeth, and when thrown to his presumed death into a shark tank by James Bond, “Jaws” bit the shark, killing it. Sort of a riff on the rock-paper-scissors theme, where endless sharp teeth are deadly, but metal is more so.

Nature has endowed a number of invertebrate species with teeth made of zinc, iron or copper. With a little gene editing we’d have a choice of materials in addition to a self-sharpening, virtually indestructible mouth. Metal heads first came to my attention in leafcutter ants, who pass their time snipping leaves into lace doilies or other inspired shapes. The ants then hike their leaf scissor-art to their underground nests and inoculate it with a fungus upon which the whole colony feeds.

Researchers long knew that leafcutter ants could shred foliage as well as human flesh with apparent ease, and that ant jaws stayed razor-sharp throughout their lives. How they kept their chops tip-top was a mystery for a long time because the working edge of an ant’s jaw is too fine to see with an electron microscope.

Dr. Robert Schofield, a biophysicist at the University of Oregon, was able to crack the case using cutting-edge technology, you might say. In 2021 he enlisted Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s atom-probe tomography to reveal that ant teeth are made of protein fused to individual zinc atoms to form a nanoscale blade. Mechanical loads are evenly and perfectly distributed along the jaw.

Bristle worms, found throughout the world’s oceans, have a different take on dentistry. There are about 10,000 species of these annelids, which originated some 500 million years ago and are mostly in the 10-cm size range. Like all segmented worms, their primary distinguishing feature is “creepiness.” But last year, Professor Christian Hellmich and others at the Vienna University of Technology found that bristle worms’ jaws, typically infused with iron, though sometimes with magnesium or zinc, are unbreakable.

But Hellmich says the fact there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its freakish strength. Turns out the baby worms ooze a protein-metal flux while still in their cribs or wherever they sleep. This goo hardens into a bullet-proof (probably) amalgam that will deform under pressure, but flex back to its original shape. Hellmich expects that studying bristle worm teeth will lead to high-strength materials being made “… more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today.”

An April, 2022 article in the journal Matter describes another oral overachiever: the bloodworm. Reaching 36 cm long, these residents of intertidal zones are both blood-colored and bloodthirsty, using their fangs of copper to impale prey. As article co-author Herbert Waite, a biochemist at University of California-Santa Barbara, put it, “These are very disagreeable worms…ill-tempered and easily provoked.”

A grumpy predator is bad enough, but this one keeps its head tucked inside its body until it’s ready to pounce, whereupon its jaws shoot out like the creature from the film Alien to bite its victim. Oh, and it’s venomous as well. Its gross-factor may be off the charts, but it gets high marks for mechanical engineering, too. Given their five-year lifespan and their inability to grow new teeth, bloodworms need durable dentures.

This is the first instance where melanin, which we know as a human skin pigment, has been documented as a structural material. Early in life, bloodworms make a slurry of proteins and melanin, which they infuse with copper scavenged from marine sediments. The result is a scimitar-shaped tusk that would have made any Bronze Age metalworker jealous. According to Waite, bloodworms could be a blueprint for “…how to make and engineer better consumer materials.”

Personally, I’d go for the bloodworm-teeth gene edits, as long as it doesn’t make my head retract in between meals. One thing about CRISPR editing is that changes to your genome are heritable. If you sign up for shark teeth, your kids will get them too. But maybe that’s better than having them go without dental coverage their whole lives.

Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension educator. He takes excellent care of his tooth.

 

 


Trees for a Changing Climate

 

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

My ex-wife gave me a shirt that reads “Change is Good. You Go First” when our divorce was finalised, a much-appreciated bit of humour in the midst of a challenging time. It’s hard to find the mirth in some changes, especially when we don’t have a say in them.

Climate change is a good example. Global temperatures are rising at an ever-increasing rate. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe with time, and no amount of denial will make it go away. We have to learn to roll with this one.

We can’t stop climate change tomorrow, but we can “trick” it by updating the kinds of trees we consider for home and community planting.

A warmer world affects trees in myriad ways: Record wet seasons like in 2013, 2017, and 2019 allow normally weak foliar pathogens to spread and flourish, becoming primary agents of mortality. Needlecast diseases are killing more conifers than ever before, while anthracnose of maples, walnuts, and other deciduous species is also on the rise.

Recent drought years (e.g., 2012, 2016, 2018) caused the lowest soil-moisture readings ever recorded. Root systems died back greatly, making trees more vulnerable to pests and diseases for 3-4 years afterward. In some places, extensive death of red oaks and sugar maples occurred when drought years followed on the heels of defoliation by tent caterpillars or spongy moth. Longer seasons and milder winters allow invasive forest pests to move north faster than was thought possible. Hemlock woolly adelgid, oak wilt, and emerald ash borer are but a few examples.

Solutions: Sometimes it’s important not to do stuff – I always like that strategy. 

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) is incredibly vulnerable to needlecast diseases. In fact, about ten years ago, a senior Cornell Extension educator suggested all Extension educators tell the public not to plant them, period. Katsura trees (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) are one of my favorites, but can’t weather even moderately dry conditions. They’re also very salt-intolerant, making them especially bad for street planting.

The majority of white-barked landscape birches are sitting ducks for bronze birch borers, which are lethal unless caught early and treated systemically. European weeping birch (Betula pendula), white or paper birch (B. papyrifera), and grey birch (B. populifolia) should be used only rarely in most landscapes.

More Solutions: Thinking outside the box-elder is a key strategy. Years ago, I was firmly in the “Native Species Only” camp. It took a while to realize that taking a hard line on native plantings was no longer wise in our fast-changing climate. Below are some non-regional trees and tough local characters that deserve to be more widely planted.

The ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) can withstand severe drought, high soil pH, salt, and air pollution. Once trained, it is low-maintenance in terms of pruning. The Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) is another familiar urban tree that is often underrepresented in our landscapes. Aside from its lush blooms, it is perfect for under utility wires. In addition, it is largely pest and disease-free, and requires little maintenance pruning.

The Norway spruce (Picea abies) is not drought-tolerant, but is very resistant to needlecast diseases that are decimating Colorado blue and other spruce species, and is OK with marginally wet sites. The ever-popular crabapples (Malus spp.) face much higher disease pressure from apple scab and fire blight. It’s imperative to get disease-resistant varieties exclusively, and to only plant on full-sun sites.

In spite of its name, the Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioecious) is cold-tolerant to USDA Hardiness Zone 3b, and is fantastically drought-resistant. It also withstands air pollution and soil pH up to about 8.2, and occasional waterlogged conditions.  Plus, its coarse bark and ascending branch habit give all-season interest. While the northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) also developed a bit to our south, it is nonetheless good to Zone 4a. It is moderately drought-tolerant and will survive intermittent flooding as well.

The thornless common honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis) is overplanted in some urban locales, and possibly with good reason. It laughs at deicing salt, drought and occasional flooding alike, and manages fine in compacted soils too. The native hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is hardy to at least Zone 3b. Often passed by because they lack conspicuous flowers and flashy fall color, hackberry trees handle severe drought and occasional flooded soil.

The bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) may top my list of favorites. With a species lifespan of 800+ years, it is a true legacy tree. It’s super drought-tolerant, yet fine with seasonal flooding. It can be hard to get established, so the smaller the better for transplant stock. River birch (Betula nigra) are variously listed as hardy to Zone 3b or 4a. In any case, they are a good substitute for white-barked birches, as they are more accepting of landscape conditions and are rarely attacked by bronze birch borers. Not drought-tolerant, but great for seasonally wet sites.

Attention to Detail: Choices around planting make a difference, too. Everyone wants fast results, but large-caliper trees are an even bigger gamble today than they used to be. New research indicates that 5 cm (2”) should be the largest caliper size considered for planting.

Studies show removing wire and burlap in the planting hole is more important than we once believed. We also should emphasize to customers the need for multi-year supplemental watering for transplants. And finally, remember that we are planting for future generations!

First published in Ontario Arborist magazine, Summer 2022.

Paul Hetzler is an ISA-Certified Arborist and a former Cornell Extension educator.

Call the dogs off the lions

 

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

 

Why do we hate lions? For reasons that are beyond any logic I can see, we have been convinced that dandelions are posies non grata in our landscapes. Yet they are a critical food source for native pollinators, vitamin-packed culinary delights, and multi-purpose herbal remedies. I’d say that’s not bad for a “weed.”

In fact, dandelion is so well-respected that it bears the Latin name Taraxicum officinale, roughly meaning “the official remedy for all disorders.” It has many reported health benefits, including as a liver support, for alleviating kidney and bladder stones, and as a poultice for boils. I don’t pretend to know every past and present medicinal use of the plant, and I recommend consulting an herbalist, as well as your doctor, before trying to treat yourself.

That said, the University of Maryland Medical School website says this about dandelions:

“Preliminary animal studies suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (good) cholesterol in diabetic mice. Researchers need to see if dandelion will work in people.

A few animal studies also suggest that dandelion might help fight inflammation.”

You can buy dried and chopped dandelion root in bulk or in capsule form at most health-food stores or you can get it for free in your back yard, providing you don’t use lawn chemicals.

Dandelion’s common English name comes from the French dent de lion, or lion’s tooth, referring to the robust serrations along their leaves. Leaves vary widely in appearance, though, and aside from their yellow mane, not every dandelion is as leonid as the next.

The French common name, pis en lit, reflects the diuretic action of the roots, which probably shouldn’t be taken at night.

Dandelion greens are best in early spring before they’re done flowering. Harvesting late in the season is kind of like picking lettuce and spinach after they have bolted—edible, but not at their best. If you had a few dandelions take root in your garden last year, they are probably ready to uproot and eat right now. Sort of a new twist on the phrase “weed-and-feed.”

Young greens can be blanched and served in salad, or else boiled, but I like them best when chopped and sautéed. They go well in omelets, stir-fry, soup, casserole, or any savory dish for that matter. Fresh roots can be peeled, thinly sliced and sautéed. A real treat is dandelion crowns. The reason they flower so early is that fully-formed flower bud clusters are tucked into the center of the root crowns, whereas most flowers bloom on new growth. After cutting off the leaves, take a paring knife and excise the crowns, which can be steamed and served with butter.

Roasted dandelion roots make the best coffee substitute I’ve ever tasted, and that’s saying something because I really love coffee. Scrub fresh roots and spread them out on an oven rack so they don’t touch, and then roast them at about 250 F until they’re crispy and dark brown throughout. Honestly I can’t say how long it takes; between 2 and 3 hours.

I always roast them when I have to be in the house anyway, and check frequently after the two-hour mark. Use a food processor or mortar and pestle to grind them. Compared to coffee, you use less of the ground root per cup.

The beverage tastes dandy, but as mentioned above, it’s more diuretic than coffee or black tea. I’ve never found this a problem, but if your morning commute involves traffic snarls, choose your breakfast drink accordingly.

I haven’t tried dandelion wine, a tradition that dates back centuries in Europe, and so have no first-hand experience to report, but scads of recipes populate the Internet. Friends and family members have tried it, with negative and positive reviews pretty well split.

Given all the virtues of dandelions, it’s amazing how much time and treasure our culture puts into eradicating them. It seems to verge on an obsession with some people, who drench their lawn with selective broadleaf herbicides like 2,4-D, dicamba and mecoprop. These all come with serious health risks, not to mention price tags.

For those who perhaps take the whole lion connection too far and can’t sleep at night if there are dandelions lurking on the premises, I’ll share a secret to getting them out of the landscape. Set the mower to cut at 10 cm. This will vastly reduce the number of weeds, and will lessen disease pressure and grub damage as well.

I say we give tax breaks to lawns full of dandelions, and criminalise the use of herbicides for cosmetic purposes. It’s the least we can do for pollinators. Let’s stop trying to kill the only North American lion not in danger of extinction, and learn to appreciate it more.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist and ISA-Certified Arborist and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension

 

 

 

 

Counting on Arthropods

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Whether one has owned a pet cat, dog, chinchilla or what-have-you, or merely admired the grace and beauty of a horse or deer, most of us develop positive links with at least one four-legged animal. But for everyone except maybe scientists, warm and fuzzy feelings evaporate when you move up to critters with a thousand or more legs.

Insects, all of which have six legs, seldom elicit an oxytocin feel-good rush. I mean it’s unusual for folks to get doe-eyed over a mosquito, yellow jacket or cucumber beetle. On the whole, though, insects are nowhere near as creepy as eight-legged beasties. The term arachnid, I’m pretty sure, is Latin for “things with too many legs for my comfort level.” It includes ticks, which can transmit around a dozen serious illnesses to humans, as well as spiders. These latter, of which we seem to have an innate fear, are equal parts by weight of legs, eyes and hairs, by my estimation at least.

As if eight appendages weren’t enough, the forces of nature saw fit to make invertebrates with loads more. Centipedes are a great example of un-cuteness. While their name means “hundred legs,” they can have anywhere from thirty to almost 300. They have a pair of long spindly legs per body segment, and reportedly all have an odd number of segments. This means you’ll never find a centipede with exactly a hundred legs – so much for truth in advertising.

Carnivorous, venomous, and fast-moving, centipedes are way up there on the creepiness index even though they pose no danger to us. These somewhat flattened, soft-bodied predators sometimes invade homes. Typically, they clear one’s living space of things like spiders, cockroaches, peace of mind, and restful sleep. If you find such characters indoors, the best way to get rid of them is to eliminate whatever crawly things the centipedes are eating.

At the time when biologists named millipedes, a word meaning “thousand legs,” it was well-known that these elongate, slender, hard-shelled arthropods did not have that many limbs. It’s just that there wasn’t a concise Latin name for “several hundred but they’re real small and we keep losing count.” Unlike the bloodthirsty centipedes, millipedes are detritivores, eating rotten stuff like decayed leaves and wood, and fungi as well. They are highly beneficial in gardens and compost piles. Once in a while, millipedes briefly show up in houses during weather extremes, especially in times of drought but also after extended rainy periods.

In our region, millipedes tend to be quite small, from less than a half-inch long to perhaps 1.4 inches or three centimetres. Just south of us, the American giant millipede can reach about four inches or ten cm in length. Not surprisingly, this species is moving northward out of its historic range in the US mid-Atlantic states.

On December 21, 2021, livescience.com reported on a fossilized millipede found in the UK dating back 326 million years to the Carboniferous Period. Researchers estimate that the individual they unearthed was roughly 8.5 feet long (2.6 metres) and in the flesh would have weighed approximately 110 pounds (50 kg). For sure this thing would make a real dent in your compost pile.

In terms of living novelties, a millipede actually having a thousand legs was discovered in Australia in December 2021. This newly found species, Eumillipes persephone, is only about 0.04 inches (0.9 mm) across and 3.74 inches (95 mm) long, but they get the stride prize. After taking enough Adderall (I assume), a researcher was able to count the legs on a single specimen; all 1,306 of them. Sure hope this species isn’t prone to joint pain. The blind, fungus-grazing millipedes were found deep underground – as much as 197 feet or 60 metres down – in a number of exploratory boreholes drilled by mining companies years ago. As organic matter falls down the boreholes and decays, Eumillipes persephone munches the fungi that colonize the detritus.

Unable to bite or sting, millipedes are very docile. When I was a kid, I thought it was neat how they coiled up like a watch spring if disturbed. It turns out they make good pets, as they are easy to care for and can live five or more years in captivity. Some pet stores hawk African giant millipedes, which can get ten inches or twenty-five cm long. I’m all for low-maintenance animals, but whether it’s their army of legs or their lack of fur and expressive eyes, it might take me a few minutes to warm up to such a pet.

Paul Hetzler, a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, has a dog but is still looking for the right arthropod.

Merci millipede fois to my friend Laurent Dubois of Masham, Québec for kicking this idea my way.

Where There’s Smoke

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

An upswing in woodstove use might sound yawn-worthy, but recent findings about the dire health effects of wood smoke might mean the long-term future of wood as a heating fuel is in question.

As someone who grew up with wood heat, I assumed  it was hands-down one of the most sustainable, eco-positive fuels for home heating. Like many other widely shared conventions, it turns out the veracity of that assumption depends on a lot of things.

How many people burn wood in a given locale is an obvious factor. The number of homes using wood heat rose sharply in the years following the 1998 ice storm which left residents without power for weeks on end. Also no surprise, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of wood heat.

My neighbor, who is a longtime chimney sweep, told me he’s noted an increase in the use of wood heat in the past eighteen months. The much-publicized exodus of urban dwellers to the country has meant additional work for him, and he said “I don’t need any more business right now.”

This frenzy of wood burning is ill-timed, however. As reported in The Guardian on 1 January 2021, health-care professionals now say wood smoke “…may be damaging every organ in the body, with effects including heart and lung disease, diabetes, dementia, reduced intelligence and increased depression. Children and the unborn may suffer the most.”

The referenced article notes that “Dr. Nick Hopkinson, medical director at Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation, said both indoor and outdoor pollution caused by wood burning stoves caused serious health issues, from breathing problems to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer.” The story also states that “…wood-burners triple the level of harmful particulates inside the home as well as creating dangerous levels of pollution in the surrounding neighbourhood.”

The fact is that these fine particulates, smoke elements less than 2.5 microns in diameter that remain suspended in air almost indefinitely, are the real concern. They are tiny enough to lodge in the alveoli, the deep lung tissue, and accumulate there. This can reduce lung function permanently in adults, and arrest the full development of children’s lungs. Other harmful pollutants in smoke include volatile aromatic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), both of which are known carcinogens.

Again, having grown up around wood smoke and being mostly not dead yet, I could brush off such reports as hyperbole. But I had lived in a remote area with only one neighbor within a mile. Population density matters a lot.

In terms of places where wood-smoke pollution can be significant due to population, let’s look at Montréal. The public health department estimated that on the island of Montréal, wood smoke causes nearly 1,000 premature deaths, over 6,000 childhood bronchitis cases, and at least 40,000 asthma attacks annually. In addition, a city-wide wood-smoke study released in 2000 found that in winter, levels of fine particulates and other dangerous air pollutants were higher in Montréal’s residential neighborhoods than in its urban core. Considering that children are at higher risk of smoke-induced health complications, the grim warnings sound less like exaggerations.

Going back to my friend the chimney sweep, he has a few thoughts on the future of wood burning. Given his profession, he’s not against it, yet he contends “There are greener ways to heat your home than with wood.” First of all, he urges everyone to get an energy audit of their home. In addition, he’s a big proponent of thermal pumps, which he feels are an underutilized yet readily available technology. He also brought up the issue of forest management, saying that imprudent harvesting is neither sustainable nor “green.”

Today’s catalytic-combustion woodstoves emit little to no smoke when run properly. They also deliver more heat per wood volume burned, so they will save you big on firewood costs. One catch is that burning firewood of less than 20% moisture content is a requisite for the modern breed of stoves to work right. Typically that means at least twelve months of wood being cut, split, stacked and sheltered from rain in a well-ventilated space. I asked my neighbor if he thought the recently arrived ex-urbanites had a decent grasp on woodstove operation. He laughed. “Most haven’t got a clue.”

This is where education comes in. He told me that although cleaning soot and creosote pays the bills, his real passion is educating folks about the importance of burning wood right. Yes, fire is an amazing tool that has been with us since the Stone Age, and back when there were six people on the planet, all that mattered was keeping it lit. Today we have a ton more neighbors, and we just found out that we’ve grossly underestimated the health effects of wood smoke.

It’s imperative to burn clean, burn less, and explore ways to conserve energy and make our homes more efficient. It will keep children healthier, save firefighters from risking their lives at house fires caused by improper wood burning, and save tax dollars. This doesn’t mean entirely giving up on wood-burners – they’re here to stay. As this veteran chimney cleaner told me, “It gives people a sense of empowerment. Plus there’s nothing quite like the warmth from a wood fire.” Amen to that, sir.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996 and is a former Cornell Extension Educator. 

 


All That Glitters Isn’t Green

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

 

We’re told that diamonds are eternal, but it turns out that glitter, which is just as sparkly and way cheaper, could be equally enduring. Parents, teachers and day-care providers know that despite their efforts to wash the stuff down the drain, glitter will inevitably wind up in their breakfast, their eyes, or on the lapels of their business suit worn to a crucial meeting with the boss.

I never would have imagined that glitter could be a pollutant of concern. At my age I need glasses to find a postage stamp – it’s a long shot that I could help pick up glitter. It seems fair to ask whether there aren’t bigger fish to fry. Apparently that’s exactly the problem: microplastics have become one of the most serious threats to marine and freshwater ecosystems. Defined as plastic shards measuring five millimeters or less in diameter, they pose a danger to aquatic organisms as well as to human health.

Microplastics, which can act as carcinogens and endocrine disrupters, have made their way into much of our food supply. They’re even found in many bottled water brands and public water systems. Glitter is especially bad, as each plastic square is bonded to a fleck of metal as well as to a toxic pigment. In 2020, the British newspaper The Guardian ran a story headlined “Glitter Is an Environmental Abomination,” and The Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation released a statement calling glitter “A Sparkling Nightmare for Oceans.”  It seems that glitter is anything but green.

Fortunately, the glitter problem will soon have an elegant solution inspired by bird feathers and insect wings. In a study published in the journal Nature Materials on November 11, 2021, researchers from Cambridge University in the UK detailed how they made nontoxic, biodegradable plant-based glitter by copying nature.

It has long been known that some birds like indigo buntings and hummingbirds don’t actually have pigments in their feathers – the red, green or blue cannot be chemically removed or leached away. Their flashy “paint job” comes from the way light reflects off of microscopic structures in their feathers. This phenomenon is called structural coloration.

Led by Cambridge University professor of chemistry Silvia Vignolini, a team at the University’s Photonics Lab used wood pulp to make multicolored glitter. They were able to engineer nanoparticles of cellulose into helicoidal forms shaped somewhat like a spiral staircase that reflect and refract white light at various wavelengths.

While her team used wood pulp for convenience, Professor Vignolini believes that any plant-based fiber such as banana peels or crop waste can be used to make structural colors in this way. She also projects that many toxic dyes and inks will soon be replaced by her team’s safe and sustainable technology.

The research team figured out ways to influence the size of the “steps” within cellulose helixes as well as to regulate how tightly the spirals are coiled in order to make a spectrum of structural pigments. Sheets of their manipulated cellulose were then ground up into pieces of appropriate size.

But their new product is not mere colored confetti – it sparkles as effectively as traditional plastic-metal glitter does. This is due to the fact that light is constantly striking the helicoidal forms at different angles. And as an observer moves, even slightly, relative to the structures, it makes them appear to twinkle as well. This will be the first truly green glitter: biodegradable, compostable, renewable, and utterly nontoxic. Maybe now only diamonds will be forever.

Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator. He probably should replace the glitter engagement ring he gave to his wife.


Fungal Homes: Much Room, No Mushrooms

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

For some reason, mushrooms have spawned more than their fair share of puns. As a kid I learned that they’re all fun-guys, and that the only rooms you can’t enter in a house are mushrooms. The last one might not work these days, as entire buildings are now being made of fungus.

Given that mold inside our homes can make us ill, you wouldn’t think that being surrounded by the stuff would be a great idea. But just like so many other things in life, “it depends.” As a building material, fungus is cheap, ubiquitous, and a renewable resource. But that’s not the best part. By dry weight, walls made of fungus are stronger than concrete and have better insulation value than polyurethane foam. They are weather-proof, practically non-combustible, and oddly enough, resist getting moldy.

Just to define a few terms, mushrooms are the visible spore-bearing structures of a given species of fungus, the main body of which is hidden from sight in nearly all cases. They range from familiar culinary types like Shiitake to woody conks found on tree stumps to oddities like the gossamer lion’s-mane prized by ’shroom hunters in regional forests. Please don’t build a house from these – you may be well-fed, but you’ll also be cold and damp.

The fungal body, a mass of tangled filaments collectively called mycelium, is what is actually used for purposes of construction. In spite of its name, mycelium is good for walls, but not overhead (in other words, not for the “celium”). Organic matter, often sawdust, grain chaff or other readily available by-product, is packed into a form and inoculated with a desired fungus. In this way, fungal building blocks of many sizes and shapes can be grown in-place.

Once inoculated, bricks of sawdust become infused with thread-like filaments that firmly bind the organic matter together. The fungus is only allowed to grow to a certain point before being intentionally killed, however. This can take days to weeks depending on fungal species, substrate, block size and temperature. A builder chooses the endpoint that provides the best combination of strength and insulation properties. If allowed to continue, the mycelium would become nearly solid and lose its heat-holding value.

One of the most impressive aspects of building this way is that just prior to being “mature,” mycelium blocks can be stacked on top of one another and allowed to fuse together before the growth process is halted. The resulting wall effectively becomes one piece. Entire mycelium panels akin to pre-fabricated walls are also being grown. These can either be bonded to a non-fungus exterior skin like wood or fiberglass for greater durability in the weather, or used bare.

In 2014, a whimsically shaped and imposing mycelium tower was built on the grounds of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I encourage you to do a web-image search (unfortunately the Museum no longer has pictures available on its website) – you’ll be suitably wowed. Other websites showcasing fungal construction include https://www.certifiedenergy.com.au/emerging-materials/emerging-materials-mycelium-brick  and https://criticalconcrete.com/building-with-mushrooms/ 

As you may have guessed, there are limitations, or your friends and neighbors would likely be building this way already. Although stronger than cement by weight, mycelium does not have the same compression strength, so at the moment, high-rise buildings are out of the question. And because it is such a novel material, it will probably be some time before being widely integrated into building codes.

Heat-cured mycelium blocks are quite durable and water-resistant, but are not infinitely so. It is estimated that in temperate regions with plenty of annual precipitation, fungal-block walls exposed to the weather will probably last twenty years before starting to degrade. To be fair, though, the same can be said of an unpainted wood wall, so it stands to reason that protective coatings will extend this considerably.

Today we can buy mycelium faux-leather wallets and accessories, and increasingly are getting mycelium-based materials rather than bubble wrap and Styrofoam when we order from major companies. I hope it’s not too long before fungal houses begin popping up in the landscape – it’s the morel way to build.

Paul Hetzler, a former Cornell Extension Educator, is trying to be a fun guy. In fact, he might buy a spores car.

Pantry Pests

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Even if you have a top-notch security system, you could still return from vacation to find that your prescription drugs, tobacco products, rice, dog food, or other items have vanished. And you’d be on your own to solve this crime because the police would tell you to bug off.

While not as prevalent as they were a couple generations ago, there are perhaps a dozen insect species in our climate that dabble in home invasions to pilfer meals. Collectively they’re called pantry pests, although some of them have fetishes for leather – I’ll spare you the details – and other things not normally found in kitchen cabinets.

The first time I heard about drugstore beetles (Stegobium paniceum) it conjured an image of giant bugs hanging around a 1950s-era corner drugstore in muscle shirts as they shook down school kids for pocket change and smoked with their cousins the cigarette beetles (Lasioderma serricorne). I figured these characters must have wound up in reform school, disappeared when the Vietnam draft kicked in, or got into a batch of drugs laced with DDT.

In reality, drugstore beetles were named for their habit of eating pills of all kinds back in the days before secure packaging. They munched medicine not for the drugs (or so they probably claimed), but for the corn starch, guar gum, and other edible compounds which are still used to bind tablets into shape. In addition to the fact the law requires it, another reason to keep drugs in their original containers is to avoid drugstore beetles. I mean, good luck convincing a doctor that bugs ate your painkillers, right?

Cigarette beetles love all manner of tobacco products, but they and their drug-seeking relatives will eat anything from cayenne pepper to garlic powder to leather upholstery and dried fish. Both species are about an eighth-inch long, oval-shaped, and light brown in color.

Wool rugs and carpet pads look like dinner to the four species of carpet beetles (Attagenus spp.) which are found in NY State. But they won’t go hungry in an apartment with hardwood floors – carpet beetle menus are diverse and include beans, dead insects, cotton, feathers, and more. Round to oval, highly varied in color and and roughly a quarter-inch long, they sometimes find their way indoors on items gleaned from rummage sales, flea markets, or the trash.`

Of course other insects make babies in flour, cornmeal, breakfast cereal, and the like. The confused flour beetle (Tribolium confusum) gets my vote for its name if not its behaviour. There are four closely related flour beetles which all have essentially the same bad habits. Adults are more elongate, and range from one-eighth to one-half an inch long. Most are brown, though one species is blue.

One of the most common pantry pests in North America today is the Indianmeal moth (Plodia interpunctella), which Microsoft Word has decided to call the Indian meal moth. A native insect, it does not occur in India, but at least it’s a moth. The slender adults are about a quarter to five-eighths of an inch long. With their brown and beige two-tone pattern they’re aesthetically appealing, but their miserable maggots will infest nearly any kind of dry food. These are just one of the critters that leave webbing behind in the rolled oats or rice as a calling card.

Over the past twenty or so years the snack-food industry wised up to bugs and invented a bag that requires a chainsaw to open. I’m sure the military uses the same technology in tank armor. But pantry pests look at ordinary plastic bags the way Freddy Krueger views a screen door – “You seriously think this will keep me out?” I’m confident researchers will one day photograph the smirk on a flour beetle’s face as it slashes though a bread bag and steps inside. Molded plastic containers and glass jars with tight-fitting lids are the safest way to store dry goods.

If you buy in bulk for economy, consider getting a chest freezer in which to store excess flour, grain, spices and pet food. These things will stay fresher, but more importantly, a week at zero degrees F (-18 C) or colder will destroy any pantry-pest adults, pupae, larvae, or eggs that may be present.

If an infestation does occur at home, stay away from insecticides! Not only are they ineffective against pantry pests, most are highly toxic and remain so for weeks or months after application. They should never be used around food. Infested or suspect items can be discarded, or placed in a below-zero freezer for a week. Products such as rice can also be heated to 180 F (82 C) for three hours to destroy any insect life stages.

For more information on how to identify and manage pantry pests, see the New York State Integrated Pest Management web page at https://nysipm.cornell.edu/whats-bugging-you/pantry-pests/ or the Cornell Insect Diagnostic Lab website at http://idl.entomology.cornell.edu/

Paul Hetzler, a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, no longer hangs out with drugstore beetles. Read all about trees at https://www.paulhetzlernature.org/tree-care-articles (updated Sept. 2021) Paul's books of humorous nature essays live at: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B09DN16VYC and: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B08BR6NHDY 

 

Happy animals

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Describing happiness attracts animals: Apparently, we can have a whale of a time, be as pleased as a pig in a peach orchard, or feel as happy as a pup with two tails, a monkey with a peanut machine, and a clam at high tide. Given all this, it’s natural to wonder if non-human animals can feel happy.

Many biologists caution against ascribing human-like emotions to animals. This is a hilarious warning, because we are after all a species of animal. Gauging critter-happiness is a challenge, but it’s easy to tell when animals are miserable.  Cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by vertebrates in their adrenal glands in response to stress, can be measured in saliva or blood.

So we can tell if a deer, goat, or cow feels stress rather than bothering with surveys, which were only ever returned by dogs anyway, and even then they were drool-covered and blank. Aside from basic requirement like food, water, exercise, and adequate protection from weather, most animal species have an intensely strong need for social bonding.

In fact, the need for socialization is on par with that for food and water. In recognition of this, in 2008 the Swiss government made it a federal crime to isolate social animals. This certainly gives perspective to the fact that an estimated 90,000 US prisoners are now kept in indefinite solitary confinement – in a very real sense, itself a crime.

More than 70 years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a “pyramid of human needs,” basically a checklist of items essential to happiness. Physical requirements form the base of his pyramid, with freedom from violence on the next tier. Social needs are third-most essential, followed by what he calls self-actualization. He argued that each level’s needs must be met before those of the next tier become of concern.

We all get the first three layers where other animals are concerned, but self-actualization may not be relevant for species like slugs (perhaps it’s just too hard to tell them apart to know if any are status-seekers). Unless a universal translator is invented, the debate over animal glee is likely to remain unresolved. One sticking point of course is the subjectivity of how happy a particular animal is – to be fair, we can barely understand our own feelings much of the time.

Common beliefs about our well-being that once seemed a matter of opinion are now able to be quantified. For instance, the old saw that money can’t buy happiness is generally true. Obviously we need a certain amount for survival, and a bit more to go from survival to comfort. Recent biological and sociological studies show that above about U.S. $75,000 annually, additional income actually reduces one’s sense of life satisfaction. This is based on both self-reporting and chemical markers for stress.

Occasionally, though, bucks do buy bliss. Writing for Psychology Today in August 2017, Dr. Mark Holder cited research showing that when money is given away, subjective happiness goes up, and cortisol levels and blood pressure go down. In another 2017 study, this one published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a survey of thousands of subjects across all social strata found that people who paid others to do chores they were able to do but disliked (weeding, car maintenance, etc.) “bought” happiness in a small way. Voilà.

I can prove satisfaction is not entirely in one’s head, though. It that was true, no one could ever be happy as a clam, an animal characterized by a distinct lack of head. Just elated to do my little bit for science there.

Paul Hetzler, a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, is happy he’s not a clam.

 


Painting our way out of a corner

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

It’s normal to tune out all the Chicken Littles (such as yours truly) who run around squawking about this or that invasive forest pest or disease that pose a threat to trees. I mean, how many times can the sky fall, anyway? But the real danger is when we feel so overwhelmed that we throw up our hands. Thinking we can’t make a difference could result in more harm to forests than the pests themselves.

There’s a pithy fable about a child who rescues starfish from the beach after storms, and some busybody informs the kid that they can’t save all the starfish. The child responds by hurling another starfish into the sea and quips “yeah but I saved that one.” Right now we have the chance to help save oaks from a devastating new disease, not by tossing them in the ocean, but by adopting some painless and cost-free practices when pruning or harvesting oaks.

Oak wilt (Bretziella fagacearum), a virulent pathogen first identified in 1944 in Wisconsin, has moved into New York State with a vengeance, mainly in the past decade. This disease, which is of unknown origin, will turn a lush, healthy red oak to a crispy critter in just two weeks. Tree pathogens don’t get much nastier than that – I suppose if it also caused oaks to burst into flames, that would be worse.

Oak wilt spreads through root grafts as well as spore transfer. Underground tree-to-tree spread, while an important pathway near active outbreaks, is less important than airborne transmission. This latter route is where we come in.

Healthy red, black, pin, scarlet, and other “red-type” oaks succumb in a matter of weeks, while “white-type” oaks such as bur and swamp-white oaks don’t bite the dust so spectacularly, taking a year or two to die. After a red-type oak is killed, the pathogen makes mycelial spore pads under the bark, causing small bark splits. A spore-laden ooze, reported to smell like Juicy Fruit gum, is secreted, which attracts insects, the most significant of which are sap beetles in the family Nitidulidae.

Nitidulid beetles feed on sugars from the sapwood of newly cut or wounded hardwoods. Normally, not a problem, unless the beetles have recently wallowed in disease spores at an oak-wilt spore pad. Though spore pads develop only on red-type oaks, all oaks can be infected by a spore-covered beetle if it finds a fresh wound during the beetles’ flight season.

So here’s the big news: Paint is your friend.

From April 1 - July 1, the risk of spreading oak wilt is extreme, and from July - September 30 it’s moderate. Any exposed fresh wound on an oak, whether a stump after a tree removal or a pruning wound, puts them at risk. Rule One is never to cut oaks, or allow them to be accidentally wounded, from March through September. OK, now stop laughing – that’s not a rule.

Although it would be ideal not to prune or harvest oaks all spring and summer, it’s impossible. The work-around is to paint each wound or stump immediately after cutting. Spray paint is easiest, but it can be any cheap, leftover exterior product – whatever you have. But use it right away, as nitidulid beetles can find fresh oak sap in under an hour. On pruning wounds, paint the whole thing (Having spent years trying to convince people not to paint wounds, this is hard for me as an arborist). With stumps, only the sapwood needs to be covered.

It would be fair to ask why a stump should be painted. It’s because depending on how many root grafts are interconnected with that stump, spores deposited on a cut stump could infect many nearby oaks through grafts – roots extend three times the branch length.  

Painting oak stumps and pruning wounds between March 1 and September 30 must become standard practice in the forestry, utility-clearing, and tree-care industries, But Jane Q. and John Q. Public have a role to play as well. Demand this practice from any arborist you hire, and put it in the contract if you have a woodlot harvested. If there are oaks in your landscape that you prune yourself, follow the same guidelines.

Oak wilt is not hundreds of miles away from us. It’s as close as the first idiot who brings firewood home from visiting his buddy whose dead tree he helped cut up. (History shows that most such idiots are guys; hence the gender exclusion.) Don’t move firewood long distances!! Here is our chance to hold a very important line. Implementing these strategies will vastly reduce the risk of seeing oaks go the way of the American chestnut. Let’s do our part to prove Chicken Little wrong.

If you suspect oak wilt, please report it to your nearest NYS Department of Environmental Conservation office. See: https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/owfactsheet2.pdf for more information.

Paul Hetzler, an ISA Certified Arborist and former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, is presenting a free program on oak wilt this Thursday, August 12 at 6 PM at the Indian River Lakes Conservancy in Redwood. For details, see https://indianriverlakes.org/upcomingevents/

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996 and is a member of NYS Arborists and the Society of American Foresters.

 

 

 

 

 

Curb Your Enthusiasm

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

With their marvelous interpretive-dance routines, complex social life, and delicious honey, honeybees are widely respected, but they’re anything but sweet to wild pollinators.

In fact, a surfeit of honeybees is a big threat to our native bees and butterflies.

A July 24, 2021 article in The Guardian reports that professional beekeepers in the UK are asking the public to moderate the current outbreak of hives because it puts native bees at risk in some cases.

The London Beekeepers’ Association issued a statement that reads in part: “The prevailing ‘save the bees’ narrative is often based on poor, misleading or absent information about bees and their needs. It can imply that keeping honeybees will help bees.” London-based beekeeper Dale Gibson explains that “Honeybees are very efficient, almost omnivorous consumers of nectar and pollen; they are voracious. There is no off button. They will carry on consuming what’s out there.”

Andrew Whitehouse of the insect-conservation group Buglife adds to this point: “We know the main reason native pollinators are in decline is a lack of wildflowers in our countrysides and urban areas. To increase competition for limited resources puts a huge pressure on the wild pollinators.

The populations of those wild pollinators are reduced; you have less abundance and less diversity.” Too many honeybees also bring diseases to native pollinators. Dr. Jane Memmott of Bristol University says honeybee hives can be “little ecosystems of plagues and contagion.”

Closer to home, Dr. Scott McArt, a bee specialist at Cornell’s Dyce Laboratory for Bee Research, says there are an estimated 416 species of wild bees in New York State. When I estimate stuff, it tends to be less exact, such as “more than three but less than a thousand,” just so I can be right, if not helpful. But I’ve met Dr. McArt, and I trust him on this count.

Dr. McArt is quick to point out that wild critters take care of things just fine in most places. A multi-year (2013-14) Cornell University study of apple orchards throughout NY State assessed (among other things) the impact of honeybees on pollination rates. The conclusion? Honeybees have no appreciable effect on pollination. The 110 species of wild bees cataloged visiting apple blossoms orchards did the real work.

In sterile, impoverished settings like California’s almond plantations and North American suburbs, wild bees cannot find enough food to survive. But outside of these environments, wild bees and other insects do a bang-up job pollinating crops, provided there’s enough variety of wild plants (i.e., messiness) around to keep them fed the whole season.

Beekeeping is a rewarding hobby in many ways, but we need to remember that the wildflowers in any locale are already spoken for by native pollinators – it’s not some uninhabited land that honeybees are free to use without consequence. Backyard beekeepers absolutely must help compensate.

Another thing needed to save bees of all stripes is a change in mindset regarding aesthetics. Increasing the entropy on one’s property is as easy as falling off a log (which of course is an example of increased entropy). Pollinators need flowers which bloom at all different times, grow at various heights, and have a multitude of shape.

For greater abundance and diversity of wild flowering plants, all you need to do is stop mowing everything. Choose some places to mow once a year in the late fall, and others where you’ll mow every second or third year. Stop using herbicides, both the broadleaf kind and the non-selective type.

Coltsfoot and dandelions, essential early-season flowers, will come back. Asters and goldenrod (which by the way do not cause allergies), highly important late-season sources of nectar and pollen, will likewise return. Milkweed will begin to flourish, attracting monarch butterflies.

However, you may choose to help this process along by sowing perennial or self-seeding wildflowers like purple coneflower, foxglove, bee balm, mint, or lupine. You’ll not only get more wild pollinators, you’ll also see more birds. Redstarts, tanagers, orioles, hummingbirds, catbirds, waxwings and more will be attracted to such glorious neglect – no feeders required.

Honeybees provide us with food, medicine, educational opportunities and more, but this comes at the expense of native pollinators unless backyard beekeepers provide additional forage through planting and/ or by letting much of the landscape go wild.

Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator. He’s a poster child for entropy.

 

Size surprises

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

As a tall person, I’m a bit size-conscious, ducking to get through doorways, wondering when I’ll find another decent shoe in a sixteen – stuff like that. One thing which came as a surprise is that I can’t operate most mid-size SUVs unless I either remove my left leg, the driver’s door, or the steering wheel, all of which seem like bad options. Yet there’s plenty of legroom in a little Nissan Micra. Size does matter in some cases, but not always in the obvious direction. This is especially true when buying a tree.

For years I have passed along the nugget that smaller transplants will embarrass larger trees by overtaking them within a few years, and that unless you’re older than ninety-five, it’s best to avoid the lure of an instant forest in your landscape. Smaller trees will continue to thrive better than the big guys planted at the same time, even after they win the altitude race. However, this was based on observations and backed up by scientific modeling; there hadn’t been bullet-proof research until recently.

In June 2021 I heard a live talk on transplanting by Dr. Nina Bassuk, Director of Cornell University’s Urban Horticulture Institute, and something of a legend among arborists in the Northeast. Dr. Bassuk’s research has produced C-U Structural Soil l®, a system for constructing roads that allow tree roots to pass underneath with no damage to asphalt or roots. She also pioneered the protocol for bare-root transplanting of large trees. It’s fair to say her work has made a real impact on the world of tree care in my lifetime.

For over two decades, a cooperating tree nursery in western New York State has hosted Cornell University research. Dr. Bassuk’s transplanting study there involved comparing the health outcomes of a number of oak species in three different size classes: 4-inch, 3-inch and 1.5-inch. In arborist-speak, trunk diameter is called dbh or “diameter at breast height.” It’s a deeply non-inclusive unit of measurement, as it assumes everyone’s breast is exactly 4.5 feet off the ground. In the nursery trade, where separate jargon is required by law, stem diameter is referred to as “caliper.” This seems unduly martial, as very few trees will ever become gun stocks when they grow up.

The nitty-gritty of this project is that trees were harvested with a tree spade, a cool machine which cuts off 80 to 95 percent (depending on tree caliper) of a tree’s roots and puts the remaining root ball in a burlap-lined wire basket. This is termed “ball and burlap,” the kind of B&B that doesn’t serve breakfast. Trees were then moved over a few feet and replanted. In essence, this was the kindest and gentlest transplanting a tree could hope for: no long-distance transport, no baking in a garden-center lot, and they could hop right back into the same soil they grew up in.

Rating the trees’ progress was no beauty pageant; appearance was not a metric of success. The parameters considered in the study included hydraulic root conductance, leaf surface area, shoot elongation, percentage of dead branches, and of course mortality. Sorry that I already spoiled the ending of the story, but the data fell into a nice straight line, with the best performance by the smallest size and the worst by the biggest. This makes sense. Tree roots extend 2.5 times the branch length and 60% of roots are outside the dripline (crown projection). So when a young tree is harvested, more of its roots are captured in the root ball as compared to an older tree with a longer root system.

After five years, the difference between the size-classes was stark. In fact, none of the 4-inch caliper bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) survived, even with the pampered relocation service described above. To be fair, this species is known to be difficult to transplant. But only half of the 4-inch scarlet oaks (Q. coccinea) survived. Even the swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), considered the easiest oak to establish, showed significant mortality in the 4-inch class. Deadwood is another issue, and a lot of the large-caliper survivors had so many dead branches that they were disfigured.

When buying a tree, patience is a virtue that will pay off in your landscape as well as your wallet. Tree size matters – inversely.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator.

 

Spruce Blues and Wet-Weather Woes

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

When I’m asked to diagnose tree problems, folks naturally want the remedy. Sometimes the only solution is tree removal; other times it’s a cable brace, pest management, corrective pruning or fertilizing. But increasingly, the diagnosis is climate change. If anyone knows how to solve that through an arboricultural practice, please let me know.

With rising temperatures, a novel weather pattern has taken hold with longer and more intense dry and wet periods. In 2012 many areas had the lowest soil moisture ever recorded. Nonstop rain in 2013 led to flooding and farm disaster relief. A drought in 2016 set more records in some places, and catastrophic flooding hit in 2017. Drought followed in 2018, and 2019 was another massive flood year. Prolonged dry spells cause root dieback, weakening trees for several years afterward. But unusually wet seasons are just as bad for trees.

About twenty years ago I noticed a rise in the incidence of a spruce ailment called Rhizosphaera needlecast, arborist-speak for “spruce needles turn brown and fall off.” This native fungal pathogen was always considered weak and opportunistic. Historically, it only showed up when spruces (and rarely other conifers) had been planted too densely, allowing the needles to remain wet long enough for this wimpy microbe to enter foliar cells. The answer was to thin out the trees to make space between them so air could circulate, and remove spore-infested dead branches. This remedy was kind of like drinking lemon-honey tea and getting lots of rest until your cold clears up – simple, but it usually worked.

I was curious as to why Colorado “blue” spruce (Picea pungens) was much harder-hit than other species. The reason has to do with its origins: Colorado spruce is adapted to an arid environment. In fact, its foliage is actually green, and the blueish appearance is due to a heavy layer of wax (which you can rub off) that the trees make to retain moisture. So when a pathogen like Rhizosphaera that needs copious moisture for extended periods to become infectious meets a tree designed to hold moisture, an unhappy relationship ensues.

With more and more calls coming in about this issue, by 2010 I was advising people to only plant Colorado spruce on open, preferably elevated, sites. But when I began to see needlecast disease in windy, full-sun environments, it was clear a “new normal” had emerged – extended wet periods were allowing pathogens to access trees in open, ideal settings, not just those packed too tightly together.

Cornell’s Plant Pathology Lab was also dealing with higher numbers of samples, and they identified Stigmina needle blight and Cytospora canker, native pathogens that work in concert with or in place of Rhizosphaera to cause needle drop. The rate of disease advancement can potentially be slowed through a series of three fungicide applications each spring. For a mature tree, this is likely in excess of $1000 per year for the remainder of the tree’s life, an expense few can afford.

Around 2017, many Cornell Extension Educators began to advise against planting Colorado spruce, a position I heartily endorse. White spruce (Picea glauca), once deemed moderately resistant to needle disease, is now being severely affected as well. Fortunately, there’s still a contender in the ring: Norway spruce (Picea abies). Every native conifer species, whether hemlock, balsam, white pine or spruce, all face relatively new and very significant threats. As much as I prefer native species, I think it’s important to plant more Norway spruce – we need the diversity.

I recommend planting a broad range of tree species, but only those which are still appropriate for our climate. To paraphrase some good marriage advice I once got about choosing between happiness and needing to be right, “Do you want to be happy, or do you want a blue spruce?” Let’s leave them in Colorado.

For more information, see:

https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/60599/BranchingOut_Sp...

Paul Hetzler wanted to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. Having gotten over most of his self-pity concerning that unfortunate event, he now writes about nature. Including bears, once in a while. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon

Metal Heads and Canine Compasses

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

As the title of the animated American TV series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! suggests, getting lost was a frequent premise. From 1969 to 1985, the cadre of teen gumshoes spent about half their time looking for young Shaggy, who always disappeared to smoke a joint (so it was implied), and then to satisfy his raging munchies afterward. His dog Scooby-Doo of course tagged along for the food. I recall one episode where Shaggy attempts to navigate a forest by looking for moss on the north sides of trees. He should have just asked Scooby to point North.

A 2013 paper published in Frontiers in Zoology suggests that dogs line up with Earth's North-South axis when they defecate. Researchers took two years to observe 1,893 poop events, somehow accounting for a range of weather factors, before concluding that the number one element that influenced how dogs did a Number Two was Earth’s magnetic field. Perhaps the hound-winding pre-poop turning dance most dogs perform is to calibrate their internal compass.

We all assume that many, if not most, non-human animals can find their way around without asking directions or checking their phones, but science has proven that we have innate homing abilities as well. The mechanisms are not as yet entirely understood, but one thing which may be helping humans to navigate is the fact we have metal in our heads. That’s right – move over, Magneto. Some people have more brain-iron than others, and most of us know at least one individual we suspect of having rust between their ears. The truth is that we all have ferrous-rich cells located in our cerebellums and brain stems which can help us orient to North.

Without question, other animals are much better at non-GPS navigation than humans. When we talk about critters which can expertly find their way around, the homing pigeon probably comes to mind. Homers have an uncanny ability to accurately find their way back to their owners even when taken more than a thousand miles away. True story: in New Zealand, a “Pigeongram” service ran from 1898 to 1908, complete with special stamps. Homing pigeons were also vital leading up to the Normandy invasion when radio silence was essential.

Bird navigation has been well-studied, but much is still a mystery. Although birds use a variety of mechanisms to find their way around the planet, such as landmark recognition and solar orientation, sensitivity to Earth’s magnetic field is critical. Many bird species migrate only at night, so landmarks and solar position can’t help.

Luckily for us, Earth is a kind of induced magnet thanks to its rotating core of molten iron. If it weren’t a giant magnet, we’d all be fried to a crisp by solar radiation. Recently it has come to light that animals employ a protein molecule called a cryptochrome to sense the planetary magnetic field. This involves being attuned to blue light wavelengths, those between 400 and 480 nanometers. A corollary to this fact is that cryptochromes only function during the day. So what about those night owls?

Birds, it turns out, are serious metal-heads, having (as one researcher elegantly put it) “iron-containing sensory dendrites in the inner dermal lining of the upper beak.” There you have it, clear as a bell.

Ferrous-rich nerve cells were detected first in homing pigeons, but all bird species are thought to have them. Long-distance migrants need these most, but even poultry and resident birds are known to be endowed with an inner compass. In a research paper published in the journal PLOS One in February 2012, principal author G. Falkenberg writes “Our data suggest that this complex dendritic system in the beak is a common feature of birds, and that it may form an essential sensory basis for the evolution of at least certain types of magnetic field guided behavior.”

Heavy metal is not just for the birds. Bacteria, slugs, amphibians and loads more species are unconscious collectors of iron as well. A recently published study on human responses to magnetic fields found most subjects reacted to lab-generated magnetic fields. As observed on real-time functional brain scans, subjects could even detect when the polarity was reversed as part of the study. In the March 18, 2019 issue of the journal eNeuro, lead author Connie Wang writes “We report here a strong, specific human brain response to ecologically-relevant rotations of Earth-strength magnetic fields. Ferromagnetism…provides a basis to start the behavioral exploration of human magnetoreception.”

What really caught my attention is a new study out of South Korea. In a paper published in PLOS One in April 2019, Kwon-Seok Chae et al. found that male subjects who had fasted for an entire day seemed to orient themselves in a direction they keenly correlated with food, even when blindfolded and wearing ear plugs. That I can believe.

As a last resort we can always ask “In which direction would Scooby-Doo doo?”

Paul Hetzler wanted to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. Having gotten over most of his self-pity concerning that unfortunate event, he now writes about nature. Including bears, once in a while. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon

 

Hoping to Be HAB-Not

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Not only does it form the basis of the aquatic food web, algae have the power to put a lid on bovine burps. Algae can also be made into a substitute for fossil fuels, and is a heathy and tasty food supplement for humans. But from mid-summer through early fall, certain algae can spread toxins through freshwater lakes and rivers, posing a risk to people, pets, fish, and more. Be on the lookout in northern New York State this summer for harmful algal blooms (HABs).

The term algae itself has no strict definition. It may refer to any number of photosynthetic organisms, many of which are not even closely related. Everything from single-cell microbes to giant kelp measuring 150 feet long can be labeled as algae. Worldwide, there are more than 5,000 species of algae, and nearly all of them are beneficial.

As an example, research ongoing since 2017 at the University of California at Davis concluded that feeding a small amount of marine algae to cattle reduced their burps, a.k.a. methane emissions, by 99%. That may seem like a useless piece of trivia, but according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, cattle contribute more to global warming than all forms of transportation combined, because methane (CH4) is twenty-three times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). Needless to say, algae may turn out to be one of our strongest allies in the fight against climate change.

For more than a decade, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has been researching single-cell algae as a fuel, calling it “one of the fuel sources of the future.” Even though it is not yet a profitable endeavor, several private companies such as Florida-based Algenol and Sapphire Energy of California are now producing algal-based fuels. A DOE website adds that “since it [algae] takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, it is a nearly carbon-neutral fuel source.” Not bad for pond scum.

Freshwater algal blooms differ from those in marine environments, such as the infamous “red tides” that bring potent neurotoxins. When folks report an algal bloom in our neck of the woods, they are talking about cyanobacteria, often called blue-green algae even though it can appear brown or reddish (never mind that most biologists do not recognize cyanobacteria as true algae). While not as dangerous as marine algal blooms, freshwater harmful algal blooms still pose a risk. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) emphasizes that because there is no good way to tell a HAB from a benign one, people should avoid swimming in areas with visible algae, and keep pets out of such waters and off the beach as well.

The problem is that blue-green algae secrete microcystin, a toxic substance which in humans can cause rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, and in a few individuals, a life-threatening reaction. Dogs are particularly vulnerable to HAB poisoning because they may pick up objects on the beach which have come in contact with harmful algae. Symptoms of canine microcystin exposure include unsteadiness, seizures, or difficulty breathing. An exposed dog should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

HABs can also threaten drinking-water supplies. The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) states that “Toxins from harmful algal blooms are increasingly contaminating source waters, as well as the drinking-water treatment facilities that the source waters supply.” In August 2014, dangerously high levels of microcystin forced the City of Toledo to issue a “Do Not Drink” order to more than 400,000 residents, leaving them without water for three days. The Ohio Health Department advised residents not to even brush their teeth with water from the faucet. The problem was a small HAB near the city’s intake pipes in Lake Erie.

Harmful algal blooms seem to be occurring more often than they did historically. One reason is that water bodies tend to be warmer: summers are hotter than in the past, and the temperate season is longer than it used to be. A NYSDEC web page says HABs “are likely triggered by a combination of conditions that may include excess nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), low-water or low-flow conditions, and warm temperatures.” As you enjoy the great outdoors this summer and fall, please report any suspected harmful algal blooms to the NYS Department of Health at [email protected] or contact your local health department.

Paul J. Hetzler is a former Cornell Cooperative Extension educator.

 

Gypsy Moths

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Like a B-grade horror film sequel, the aliens have awakened once again. Perhaps we felt a glimmer of hope at the end of the 2020 version when an entire generation of ruthless monsters died off in droves and left us in peace. But remember that closing shot of their disgusting, furry egg-mass blobs cleverly hidden out of sight? Well they’re hatching now.

If you missed last year’s gypsy moth performance, you have a better chance of catching it this season. Unfortunately. Based on egg-mass sampling, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation predicts that areas in central and western NYS which saw moderate to severe gypsy moth outbreaks last year can expect heavy damage this year. NYSDEC’s gypsy moth page can be found here.

Native to Europe, the gypsy moth’s range now extends throughout Africa, Asia, and North America. Its genus, Lymantria, means “destroyer,” an apt designation, and its species name, dispar dispar, reflects the disparate color of males vs. females. It might as well stand for “despair, despair,” since that’s how many of us feel as we watch tree leaves vanish into the maws of gypsy moth caterpillars.

Their introduction in 1868 was especially tragic, as it was deliberate. Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a French artist, astronomer and so-called scientist, imported gypsy moth egg masses to his Massachusetts home. He thought they could be used to make silk, despite good evidence to the contrary, and without a thought to their potential impact on New World ecosystems. Glass herbariums were safe but pricey, so he raised these fearsome defoliators the woods behind his house. What could possibly go wrong?

Today, gypsy moths are one of the most destructive forest pests in eastern North America, stripping the foliage off at least 300 species of native woody plants. They prefer oaks, but will feed on apple, pine, basswood, spruce, willow, and when population densities are high enough, almost any tree species. In an ironic twist now that EAB is here, gypsy moth caterpillars generally avoid ash. Butternut, walnut and balsam are typically off the menu, too.

Hatchling larvae are black with long hairs, or setae. As the larvae grow, they molt, shedding skins every time they advance to another phase (instar). Later-instar caterpillars develop pairs of raised blue (nearer the head) and dark red (toward the rear) spots along their backs, reaching maturity in early July. After a 14-17-day pupal phase, the adult moths emerge. The mostly-white females can’t fly from where they emerged, and just call out to the boy-moths, which are mottled brown, using pheromone come-on signals. Mated females lay on average around 500 eggs in a “blob” or mass, which they protect with buff-colored hairs taken from their underside.

These oval-shaped egg masses, tan to cream in color and about 0.75 x 1.5 inches (19 x 38 mm), can be found tucked away near whatever hiding spot the female pupated in. Very often laid on tree trunks and notably under flaps of loose bark, egg masses are usually in sheltered spots, but may be just about anywhere. Right now in early May, tiny hatchlings can be found clustered on these masses – it’s a great time to seek and destroy.

Natural predators include blue jays, robins and catbirds, but these have no measurable effect on gypsy moth numbers. The white-footed mouse, the primary reservoir of the three species of Borrelia spirochete bacteria that cause Lyme disease, has redeemed its reputation: it’s the most important vertebrate gypsy moth control, as it loves eating their egg masses. Shrews and other small mammals enjoy hearty breakfasts of gypsy moth eggs, too.

More significant agents are weather, viruses and fungi. As with the tent caterpillar species, prolonged wet, cool weather can lead to hatchling starvation, and a sudden cold snap in late fall or early winter can kill eggs before the embryos inside can winterize their cells. Cool temps also favor infection by fungal pathogens, as explained below.

An endemic soil fungus, nicknamed Entomophaga maimaiga for short, kills gypsy moth caterpillars as their populations rise. But NPV (nucleopolyhedrosis virus) is our MVP when it comes to knocking defoliator numbers down. The catch is that this naturally-occurring virus usually takes two years to precipitate a gypsy moth population crash.

In addition to egg-mass mashing, we can smother eggs that we can’t reach with a shot of dormant-oil spray. This is a very light, highly refined horticultural oil. Some people use aerosol non-stick cooking oil such as Pam, although strictly speaking this might not be legal. (I promise not to tell.)

Applications of Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki, or Btk to its pals, will protect foliage. Found at any garden center, preparations of Btk contain a natural toxin produced by these bacteria. It is highly specific to caterpillars, and considered safe for other terrestrial and aquatic life. It must be ingested to have an effect. It does wash off, so re-apply after it rains.

Wrapping trunks with a 6” fabric strip, and then smearing it with a sticky compound made for the purpose of trapping insects (Tanglefoot and other brands) will trap larvae, which tend to commute down to the ground at night and back to the treetops in the morning. A “skirt” of burlap tied around trunks will draw caterpillars to take shelter under the fabric, and they can be squished or knocked into soapy water daily. (Caution: the hairs can cause skin rashes and sometimes upper-respiratory irritation.)

Also, don’t move firewood! Unless it’s from the woodpile to the house – that’s OK.

Healthy deciduous trees can re-foliate after being stripped of leaves, but at great cost to their energy budgets. Pines and spruces, on the other hand, are not endowed with re-foliation powers. They’re left with only a smattering of green razor stubble with which to photosynthesize; thus gypsy moths can cause such conifer species grave harm. When defoliation occurs in successive years, tree mortality becomes a concern.

Don’t be shy about scouring the back yard in the coming days for egg masses to squish, and it’s probably a good idea to stock up on Btk before the June rush when everyone begins to notice the caterpillars. Let’s hope there’s no remake next year. For more information, see NYSIPM’s gypsy moth resource page.

Paul Hetzler is an ISA-Certified Arborist and a former Canton Cornell Cooperative Extension educator.

Do Nothing about Invasive Plants

BY PAUL HETZLER

Until recently, ignoring problems in hopes they’ll go away hasn’t served me well. However, a decade-long study done by Cornell University researchers has clearly shown that avoidance is the best way to manage garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata), a pernicious exotic plant. Evidently I’ve been doing a great job in the fight against this aggressive and troublesome invader.

Native to most of Europe and parts of western Asia and northwestern Africa, garlic mustard is in the cabbage and broccoli family (Brassicaceae), and indeed was imported to North America as a culinary herb in the early 1800s. It’s not entirely evil, as it has the spicy tang of mustard with a hint of garlic, and can be used as a base for pesto and sauces, and to flavor salads, soups and other dishes. Unfortunately, eating it has not worked well as a control strategy.

Garlic mustard is a biennial that begins as an inconspicuous first-year plant (rosette). At a glance, its rosettes look similar to wild violets, having triangular, somewhat heart-shaped leaves that have coarsely toothed margins and wrinkled leaf surfaces. In the second year it sends up a tall flower spike, the four-petal white flowers developing into slender pods (siliques) bursting with tiny round seeds. This is one of garlic mustard’s unpleasant features, as it loads the soil with seeds that remain viable for ten or more years.

Like all invasive plants, garlic mustard is not browsed by herbivores (if you don’t count vegetarian humans), and has no effective insect pests or diseases to keep it in check. As mentioned, it gets high marks for reproduction, and can form thick monocultures in forest environments. Its roots exude compounds that alter the soil chemistry to favor its survival at the expense of other species. Known as allelopathy, this mechanism also harms mycorrhizae, symbiotic root fungi which contribute greatly to tree health. When dense armies of these plants compete for water, nutrients and sunlight, natural forest regeneration is curtailed and native ground cover is stressed.

Sounds like we should gather a posse and rise up against this intruder; pitchforks, torches, and pikes at the ready. Well, yes and no. If garlic mustard has just appeared at a location in the past one or two years and their numbers are low, yes – yanking them out by the roots is the thing to do.

But according to Dr. Berndt Blossey, a Cornell University conservation biologist who specializes in invasive plants, pulling up large swaths of garlic mustard is not only futile, it is worse than leaving it alone. It bears echoing: When well-intentioned people rip out this stuff, it actually prolongs the infestation period because the plant self-limits (more on that below) if undisturbed. Also, these mass garlic mustard-ectomy events do more damage to the ecosystem than the target species itself does.

There are cases where research seems pointless because cause and effect are so obvious: maple sap flows up from the roots during the day; goldenrod causes allergy symptoms; and garlic mustard wipes out native wildflowers and adversely affects salamanders. These assumptions make sense, given the “evidence,” but upon close examination, all of the above statements are false.

Dr. Blossey has long contended that deer abundance and non-native earthworms are the drivers of garlic mustard infestation. Garlic mustard only establishes after earthworms have invaded a site for some years, he says, and although how deer spread earthworms is not yet known, they apparently do, as exclusion plots show. I first heard Berndt’s idea that well-established garlic mustard should be left alone in 2014 at a talk he gave at Cornell. I was surprised, and admittedly rather skeptical. But he and his team have now done enough controlled trials and amassed enough evidence to back up his assertions.

It turns out that while garlic mustard competes with native species, it does not displace them where deer are excluded or drastically reduced in number. And it is earthworms, not our maligned invasive plant, which make a neighborhood less attractive to salamanders. Furthermore, garlic mustard dwindles in biomass, plant vigor, and site prevalence over time. Within ten to 12 years it becomes scarce as a species, the remaining plants greatly stunted.

Side-by-side controlled trials showed that where garlic mustard is “managed,” the plants are considerably larger, and cover a much higher percentage of a site (at times by an order of magnitude) than the sections where nothing has been done. Not only that, but biomass on the managed sites tended to be roughly stable over the ten-year time frame studied, whereas it declined year after year in the unmanaged plots.

Pulling garlic mustard where it is abundant prolongs its run. It also robs a great deal of nitrogen, macro- and micronutrients, and organic matter from the ecosystem. Mass-removal also results in the site being trampled, and runs the risk that soil and native plants might be inadvertently removed.

A much better use of our time and energy, Dr. Blossey advises, is to scout sites that aren’t known to have garlic mustard yet, and also to kill as many deer as possible. Especially the latter.

An interesting side note is that if deer were managed to 5-7 per square mile, not only would it drastically reduce the rate of garlic mustard spread, Lyme disease would cease to be a human-health threat (this from Dr. Paul Curtis, the NY State Extension Wildlife Specialist at Cornell University). I say amen to that!

Professor Blossey’s February 26, 2021 talk “When Doing Nothing is the Best Invasive Plant Management Tool” can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRQal0Hq5nM

A former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, Paul Hetzler is often in a recliner, helping to fight garlic mustard.

 

Science is lunacy

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

As if today’s war on science wasn’t bad enough, it seems researchers have been courting further bad press by admitting they’ve spent countless hours on lunacy studies. To clarify, this research is on lunar effects on our behavior and sleep – I don’t know of any work being done to analyze sheer foolishness and irrational acts, the other kind of lunacy. Given the events that dominated the news this January, though, maybe that would be a fair line of inquiry.

The idea that phases of the moon impact human behavior goes back a long way; indeed the term lunacy was coined in the 16th century to describe this very effect. In modern times there are myriad anecdotes from law enforcement, emergency room workers, and others that more crimes, injuries and/ or psychiatric hospital admissions occur around the full moon as compared to other times of the month. It is a sad fact that lunacy was once (and occasionally is yet today) used in the pejorative to disparage episodes of mania or psychoses wrought by severe mental illness. There is now strong evidence that the moon really does affect how such disorders manifest, and it also makes a difference to all of us in terms of sleep.

Although older scientific reviews of lunar influences on our lives led to mixed conclusions, that has changed. In January 27, 2021, scientists from the National University of Quilmes in Argentina, the University of Washington, and Yale released a paper showing that their experiment, the largest, most in-depth study on lunar cycles and sleep ever done, proves the moon has a very significant effect on sleep. Until now, all investigations done on the subject had relied on self-reporting of sleep experience, a major weakness.

Conversely, this collaborative study used wrist monitors to record brain activity and other factors to evaluate sleep patterns of 98 people across several 29.5-day lunar cycles in three Argentine villages. One town was on a modern electric grid, while a more rural hamlet had a crude electrical system, each house with perhaps one or two lights. A third, very remote settlement had no electricity at all. In every case, participants had notably altered sleep, based on the phase of the moon.

Lead scientist Dr. Horacio de la Iglesia said the research team saw “…a clear lunar modulation of sleep, with sleep decreasing and a later sleep onset in the days preceding a full moon. …although the effect is more robust in communities without access to electricity, it is present in communities with electricity.” On average, participants went to bed 30 minutes later in the three days prior to a full moon. More remarkable yet is that even in well-lighted homes, subjects lost an average of 45 minutes of sleep per night during this time. In the village with no electricity, participants slept a whole hour less on each of the pre-full moon nights.

The team feels that the changes they recorded might be an ancient adaptation for making use of additional natural light during each full moon. Regardless, they say that this phenomenon must be taken into account in all sleep studies going forward, a very important point.

But moonlight is not the only factor that varies with each lunar cycle – there’s that whole gravity thing that sloshes our oceans around. Lunar pull varies on a roughly two-week pattern. The strongest pull is the 14.8-day “spring-neap cycle” caused by the joint gravitational force of the Moon and Sun when they’re aligned, and a lesser 13.7-day “declination cycle” that depends on how close the Moon comes to Earth’s equator each month. Being that we are “…giant bags of mostly water,” as humans were once described on Star Trek, it seems foolish to contend that the moon does not tug at us in some way. The question, though, has always been in what fashion and to what extent we are influenced.

An April, 2018 article in the journal Molecular Psychiatry sheds light on the connection between certain mental illnesses and the moon’s position. Dr. Thomas A. Wehr, a scientist at the National Institutes for Mental Health’s Intramural Research Program in Bethesda, Maryland, conducted a two-year study on potential lunar effects on bipolar illness involving seventeen patients with the disease.

Dr. Wehr found a distinct pattern of body-temperature and sleep-cycle changes in these patients, as well as a tendency for them to rapidly switch between the manic and depressive stages of bipolar illness, that coincided exactly with lunar phases. He even verified significant changes in the duration of his patients’ mood cycles that precisely corresponded to the so-called “supermoon.” This is when a full moon happens within 24 hours of perigee, the time that the moon comes closest to us in its monthly orbit around Earth.

The patients in Dr. Wehr’s study did not always flip to depression or mania during each and every declination (13.7-day) or spring-neap (14.8-day) lunar cycle, but when the subjects went through a mood switch, it tended to happen in one of these lunar-tide phases. Although he does not claim the moon caused mood oscillations, Dr. Wehr did say the data suggest a “…possible biological mechanism through which lunar gravimetric cycles might control mood cycles.”

Another thing is that the movement of salt water across the face of our planet creates small but measurable electric currents. We don’t understand as much about all the ways we might react to electrical changes due to the moon’s position, but we do have some information.

In a report by Linda Geddes of the BBC, published on July 31, 2019, Dr. Joachim Fisahn with the Max Planck Institute of Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany admits that the electrical field changes induced by tidal flows are “incredibly small.” Nonetheless, he points to experiments proving that these tidal-based current variations affect plant root growth, asserting this is supported by “over 200 publications.”

Admittedly, we’re not plants, though we can sometimes feel rooted to our seats during this Covid-19 era. But electrical fields are known to alter human brain function. In a March 18, 2019 article in The Journal of Neuroscience, a research team from the University of Tokyo and the California Institute of Technology revealed that even minute electrical fields can reduce human alpha-wave brain activity. Alpha waves are those associated with a relaxed or meditative state.

Knowing that we all lose sleep as the full moon approaches, we should try to avoid lunacy by exercising a lot more patience in the way we conduct our relationships, motor vehicles, and other things that have a high hazard potential should something go awry.

A longtime North Country resident, Paul Hetzler is an arborist, naturalist and author. He now divides his time between Canton NY and Val-des-Monts Québec. His book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World, is available on amazon.