Today’s post is going to be a bit shorter than usual.  As you are well aware, sometimes life interferes with your plans but nature still provides a calming balm.  Hopefully, a beetle challenge is calming!

Throughout the next few days, look around as you go about your activities, on a hike, near the lake, or wherever you are.  You are looking for beetles.  See how many different types you can find. You don’t need to know what they are called.  Instead, note some distinguishing features and in what kind of environment you found them.  Keep a tally. 

Beetle Collection
Image by Frantic00 at Dreamstime.com

Beetles are the largest order of insects.  There is extraordinary diversity in this order, with more than 400,000 species. They make up about 40% of all types of insects and 25% of all types of animals.  

While they are very diverse, they all have a head, thorax, abdomen, and six legs.  Look for these as your first clues.  Its body may also appear as a hard shell, but it just looks that way.  Beetles exist in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Finally, if in doubt, beetles have sharp mandibles (chewing mouthparts). You’ll be able to identify them if you flip the beetle on its back.

During a recent walk, I found at least a dozen different varieties and that was with very little effort.  I’ll bet you can beat this easily with a little diligence.  Good luck!  And more about the natural history of beetles next week. 

This challenge is rated as easy.

I hope that you will take a walk on a beautiful trail sometime over this upcoming holiday weekend. (It is a holiday in the United States for those of you who live elsewhere.)   If you hike in an area with pine trees, look around for a fallen pine cone or two.  You will need a couple for this challenge.  

But first — and this is really important — be certain that it is ok for you to remove the pine cones.  Note that some parks prohibit taking anything but photos!  Please do not violate this important request.  

Once you have the pine cones, you will want to attach them to an outside window sill at your home.  To do that, you can use poster putty or mounting putty to secure them.  These types of putty won’t damage the wood nor the paint on the sill.  You will want the cones’ scales pointing upward. So put some of the putty on the sill and attach the base of the cone to it.

Pine Cones
Image by J Cutrer from Pixabay

Now, the pine cones will do the rest of the work. 

When it is going to be warm and dry, the scales will be in an open position.  However, when it is going to rain and the humidity is increasing, the scales will begin to close.  The change should be enough that it is noticeable. 

This happens because the cone holds the tree’s seeds.  When it is warm and dry, the cone wants the seeds to disperse as far as possible.  A breeze will generally carry those seeds further than when it is humid.  So, when it is humid, the cone will close up, reducing dispersal.  

This is in the best interest of the “parent” tree.  It wants the seeds to survive and thrive away from itself and its siblings so that they aren’t competing for the surrounding resources.

Have fun with this natural weather forecaster.

This challenge is rated as easy. 

Wrapping up a neighborhood walk just a bit after 7 pm, I noticed that the air smelled somehow differently.  It smelled clean and maybe a bit damp.  This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed a literal change in the air.  Even if I couldn’t feel it on my skin, I could tell from the way it smelled that the temperatures were dropping.  Cooler temperatures reduce the concentration of volatile compounds and as a result, the night air smelled fresher.

Naturally occurring odors can tell us a lot.  For example, that zingy whiff of ozone may be signaling an approaching thunderstorm.  

Then there are the scents produced by other living entities.  Consider the honeysuckles,

Skunk
Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

the hay-scented ferns, the musky smell of a nearby skunk, and the sulfuric odor of a stagnant pond.  Scents in nature are all around us.  

For today’s challenge, talk a walk and compile a list of the scents that you notice.   You will need to be mindful and actively pay attention to what you are smelling.  Unless it is particularly strong, we often just ignore the odors around us.  

Consider the following:

      • Can you tell something about the weather from the way the air smells?
      • Where might a specific odor be coming from?  Plant, animal, ground, decay, water, other?
      • Is the odor sharp or mild? Sweet or sour? Floral or earthy?  Pleasant or unpleasant?  Other?

In the meantime, here are a few fun facts about scents in nature:

      • Leopard pee reportedly smells like buttered movie popcorn.  
      • The Australian Potato Bush (Solanum ellipticum) smells like baked potatoes.
      • For some people, the Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii) smells like peanut butter.

Now, follow your nose to new adventures in the great outdoors!

This challenge is rated as easy. 

Sources:

First two fun facts from – https://wildlifeact.com/blog/the-smells-of-nature/

More information about the peanut buttery toad — https://srelherp.uga.edu/anurans/scahol.htm

Mushrooms are amongst the most difficult organisms to accurately identify.  Many look nearly identical.  Still, a mushroom-spotting hike is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  

First, let’s review a few facts.  As you probably know, mushrooms are fungi.  There are more than 11,000 named species in North America.  Some sources say there are 14,000 species identified throughout the world. That number seems quite low proportionately.   However, it is understandable if you also know that only 5-10% of all mushroom species globally have been scientifically described.  This suggests that many are awaiting further exploration and research.  (Discovery opportunity!)

Lots of different varieties exist in your environment.  There are more

Mushroom Forest
Image by Michi-Nordlicht from Pixabay

mushroom species than there are types of birds. So let’s go find some.  

The challenge is to spot at least one example per category listed below.   You don’t need to know what they are called, just what they look like and where they grow.  Try not to use the same type for more than one description.   This shouldn’t be a problem in a healthy ecosystem. 

Here’s a checklist for you to follow:

A mushroom that is growing on a standing tree

A mushroom that is growing on a fallen tree or limb

A mushroom that is growing in the soil

A mushroom that has only one head

A mushroom that has multiple heads or finger-like structures

A mushroom with a dome-shaped head

A mushroom that is more than one color

A mushroom that is brightly colored (not white, cream, brown, nor gray)

A mushroom that reminds you of brain or coral

Something that could be a mushroom or maybe another fungi (add description)

Any other odd or unusual finding (add description)

Find as many of these as you can.   You can repeat this exercise on almost any walk and find new specimens throughout the year.  

Lastly, remember safety first.  If you participate in this challenge, please don’t eat your findings unless you are working with a qualified expert who is advising you.  I am most definitely not that person.

Enjoy and happy searching.

This challenge is rated as easy. 

As a child, catching grasshoppers filled many of my afternoons. I lived in a city.  The house had a sparse backyard and few tall blades of grass yet grasshoppers abound.  Those were the days.

Sadly, last summer, the University of Oklahoma published a study showing that grasshopper populations in a Kansas grassland preserve have declined over 30% during the past two decades.  The report states that nutrient dilution is the cause.   Plants are lacking in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sodium.  Carbon dioxide is linked to this decline.  

Excess carbon dioxide, scrubbed from the atmosphere, is a good thing.  Further, it encourages plant growth.  However, as the plant grows if there isn’t enough nutrition in the soil, each “bite” has less total nutritional value.  Consequently, the grasshoppers that feed on the plants get less benefit and are eating relatively empty calories.  

So for today’s challenge, go and look in at least a couple of places where there is some tall grass.  See if you can find a grasshopper.  

Here are a few more facts to make the challenge more enjoyable:

  • Grasshoppers appeared more than 250 million years ago.  That’s before the dinosaurs.
  • When a grasshopper jumps, its peak acceleration approaches 20G of force.  By comparison, astronauts reach about 3-6Gs upon takeoff and reentry. 
  • They can both fly and jump.  They reach speeds of up to 8 mph when flying and can jump more than 10x their body length.  

Good luck trying to catch one.  Please remember to release it.  We don’t want to reduce their numbers any further.

This challenge is rated moderate given the insects’ relative scarcity.

Sources:

More about the nutrition study – https://phys.org/news/2020-03-reveals-grasshopper-declines-quality-prairie.html

Other grasshopper facts – http://tonsoffacts.com/28-interesting-weird-facts-grasshoppers/

It’s time to look up!  A new moon is scheduled for June 10th which means, if we have clear skies, the conditions will be perfect to view planets and the stars.  

This website is a great tool to help guide your timing to view the planets:  https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/

What I like best about this site are the details provided, as illustrated below. 


 

While we are on this subject, there will also be an Annular Solar Eclipse on the 10th.  If you live in Russia, Greenland, or the northern part of Canada, you may see a total eclipse and a “ring of fire.”  An annular solar eclipse occurs when the moon covers the sun’s center.  The visible outer edges form an annulus, or a “ring of fire,” around the moon.

In my neighborhood, we will have a partial eclipse beginning at about 5 am. Maximum coverage is achieved at 5:34 am and the show is over about an hour later.  Early risers may notice it.  (Please do not look directly at the sun during an eclipse.  It will severally damage your eyes.) 

Finally, mark June 24th on your calendar to see the Strawberry Full Moon.  The descriptive names of the full moons originated with The Old Farmer’s Almanac but seem to have caught on with a broader audience in recent years.  In July, we will have the Buck Moon and in October we will have the Blood Moon.  Each full moon has at least one descriptive moniker. 

Note that despite its strawberry name, the moon will not likely be pink.  It will most likely be a golden color for about 20 minutes after sunset.  Still a delight to observe! 

This challenge is rated as moderate.

Sources:

To see what’s happening skyward from your vantage point – https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/

Farmer’s Almanac Strawberry Moon – https://www.almanac.com/content/full-moon-june

In the United States, Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer.  By now, all the trees have leafed out.  Wildflowers are abundant.  Grasses and sedges are growing tall.  

As you look across the landscape, how many shades of green can you spot?  That is today’s challenge.  

You already know that different concentrations and types of chlorophyll influence the colors we see in plants.  Then there is the whole physics of wavelight absorption.  

Without getting into too much science, there are two types of color produced by plants.  One is a chemical pigment and the other is structural.  Chemical colors are diffuse and look the same from every angle.  This is the chlorophyll’s influence on the pigment. 

Structural colors in plants are often created by variations in thickness.  As a result, the color shifts as the viewer moves.   Structural colors can play a role in the plant’s self-defense to ward away predators. Alternatively, they are used to attract pollinators.  Sometimes they are used to optimally capture the light for photosynthesis.  Plant species have evolved to use color variations to their benefit.  

Now let’s put the knowledge to work.  Grab some watercolors and make a color chart of the different greens that you see.  You can also label which green goes with which type of plant even if you don’t know the specific name of every species.  Just label them in a way that you can identify and revisit them as the season progresses to note changes.  

In many locations, except for heavily landscaped areas, you can select as little as a square foot of land and discover at least three different hues of green.  

Give it a try.  Expand your view and you may find that you can document 20 or more.

This challenge is rated as easy.

Source:

https://academic.oup.com/aob/article/105/4/505/190572?login=true

One of my naturalist mentors once mentioned that she prefers seeking out and photographing rare and unusual wildflowers instead of tracking birds or butterflies because they don’t fly off just before you snap the picture. 

Her comment makes me smile but I do believe there is wisdom in her sentiment.  Birds typically fly off before I’ve had a chance to thoroughly study their markings.   Plants, on the other hand, allow for prolonged investigation.  

So, for today’s challenge, we will focus on finding different flower species on your next walk.  

Here is the task.  During your walk seek out wildflowers by color.   CornflowersTry to spot at least one for each color listed below.  Use the scoring method so that you can compare your success on subsequent walks.  Even folks with deep wildflower knowledge can have fun with this challenge. 

Assign 1 point each for species of yellow or white wildflowers seen; 

Assign 2 points for pink or purple ones;

Assign 3 points for orange, red, blue, green, or brownish wildflowers.

Give yourself an additional point for each one that you can identify.  Feel free to use an identification key guide.  My favorite is Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb.  There may be others more specific to your geography.

See if you can break a score of 50.  Good luck!

This challenge is rated as moderate. 

The bees are back!  Just about everything in my yard is blooming right now and the bees are doing their part.  

As you may know, bees are keystone organisms.  This means that they are so vital to the ecosystem that without them the ecosystem may not survive.  One of their key roles is flower pollination.

So, for today’s challenge, find a bee and see if you can spot its pollen ball.  If you are following a honey bee or a bumblebee, note that they have a structure on their hind legs called a pollen basket.  They place the pollen grains in the basket.  For real.  Other bees have structures too but not as well-defined. 

Here are a few tips about finding the bees.  First, bee coloration is not just shades of Bee with pollen basketyellow and orange.  In Maine, we have some that have brown or black striped sections to their bodies.  We also have one that is a bright green and some that appear as shades of blue.  Check out what kinds of bees you have in your area.

Next, note that bees have four wings.  (So do wasps, by the way.)  If you see a two-winged insect hovering over a flower, that is something else.  I like to check out dandelions, apple blossoms, and other native flowering plants.  This is where the bees will be collecting their pollen.

Finally, you will have better luck on a sunny, warm, and calm day.   Bees struggle to fly in windy conditions.

One more thought:  Did you know that bees must visit approximately 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey?  Additionally, each bee contributes only about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during its entire lifetime.  

As always, please take care not to aggravate the bees (nor the wasps) as you observe. 

This challenge is rated as medium. 

Source:

More honeybee facts at — http://www.goldenblossomhoney.com/education_bees.php

Last weekend, on a walking trail about an hour south of where I live, I saw my first Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) of the season.  Invariably, butterflies make me smile.  

Mourning Cloaks arrive in mid-spring in Maine and can sometimes Mourning Cloak Butterflybe seen sipping the sap from trees that have been damaged during the winter.  They prefer maple, birch, oak, and even poplar sap. 

Different species of butterflies and moths have a wide variety of food preferences.   Most prefer flower nectar. However, some will feast on fermented fruit, and others are attracted to the excrement found in outhouses. (Eew!)

Perhaps you’ve seen some early arrivals in your neighborhood too.   You can increase the odds of seeing butterflies and some moths by creating a source of nourishment for them. 

Here is a simple recipe to attract those winged beauties:

2 over-ripened bananas

1/2 cup of sugar

1/2 can of beer

water

jar as a container

In a bowl, use a fork to mix the bananas and the sugar.  Add water a little bit at a time so that the mixture becomes a thick but spreadable paste.  Pour this mixture into the jar and add the beer.  Shake.  You should have an easily spreadable paste.   If you think it is still too thick, add a bit more water.  

Now, you can either pour a thin coating onto a dish or use the mixture like paint and apply it to trees or rocks.  If you have a camera trap, consider how you could use these together for capturing great pictures of your visitors.  Remember, moths will likely visit at night.

Two important cautions:  First, be mindful that other winged creatures such as wasps may be attracted to the mixture.  Additionally, if you live in an area where there are other wild creatures such as bears, know that they enjoy both sugar and beer.  Please use caution.  Stay safe. 

Feel free to send along any photos of your butterfly visitors!

The recipe is adapted from The Big Book of Nature Activities by Drew Monkman and Jacob Rodenburg.

This challenge is rated easy.