Category Archives: Plants

It’s good to have friends to lean on: how salt hay gets its licks.

The Great Marsh,
Northeast Massachusetts

It’s August and that means the marsh is a sea of cow licks. In a previous post, I’ve written about how cow licks happen. The short version is this: the salt hay grass (Spartina patens) has weak ankles and when it gets pushed around by the bullying tides it leans on its neighbor.

Cow Licks, Sweeney Creek, Ipswich, Massachusetts (9)

Cow Licks, Sweeney Creek, Ipswich, Massachusetts (8)

Marcescence – the art of not letting go

I think this is the alpine hairy cap moss, Polytrichastrum alpinum
I think this is the alpine hairy cap moss, Polytrichastrum alpinum

I was in Denmark, Maine, this weekend doing very Maine things. Shoving sclerotized sunshine (wood) into the belly of an iron wood stove. Walking alongside a mountain brook with moss-covered rocks licked with a verglas (ver-glaze) of ice. The verglas an art of steely-eyed primeval monsters frozen in time or a hundred fingers overlapping each other to grip the rock. For a time the ice held my imagination as it held the rocks.

I, for the first time in my life, enjoyed a superheated sauna. And once my body reached the right temperature, a local convinced me to jump in an icy brook. The mercurial abuse I gave my body made me superhuman. It detoxified my spirit and I bravely walked in the nighttime air shirtless, immune to deep fall’s icy breath. It was the crunch of snow under my tender feet that reminded me that I was a mortal.

Absorbing the painful joy of steep hikes on a snow-dusted mountain, I took in the tinkling spread of sunshine of moss that held tiny bits of ice, like tinsel on a tree. It was the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), however, that drew most of my attention. On its branches were papery brown leaves – leaves that will loiter on the branches all winter unlike the rest of the foliage that was now underfoot. Marcescence is the term for deciduous trees that do not shed their leaves though they’ve lost their color. Throughout the mountainside was a forest of leaves that refused to fall despite the namesake of the season.

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, Denmark, Maine (1)

The American beech. Onto its leaves it holds.
The American beech. Onto its leaves it holds.

The hypotheses about why a tree may keep its leaves throughout the winter range from deterring the nibbling deer to preserving its nutrients. I am too lazy to do the research on the science of marcescence. Fortunately, my good friend David Haskell (another great wordsmith scientist) has done that work already.

I have my own marcescence, hanging onto things that I should have long ago shed. In my closet loiters a pair of jeans that I won’t wear because they are more holes than jeans, but keep because they are extremely comfortable. I say I will fix them one day. No. No, I won’t. I should dispose of these vagrants.

My mind holds onto memories that I don’t need. From worthless minutiae about the fact that I had only one egg with my pancake last Wednesday (I only had two eggs left and I broke one of them trying to flip it for over-easy and I threw it away frustrated – why do I need that taking up space in my brain?) to painful memories of anger. Of recriminations. Of hurt and of heartache.

And it is my heart that is the guiltiest of marsescence. I have lingered too long in relationships where we enjoyed a hopeful spring that erupted into a frenzied summer that then reached a fall withering. In the winters of those relationships I have held onto the leafy reminders of those summery days, hopeful of their return when I should have let those dead leaves drop.

It is not yet clear why the leaves of the beech do not drop. Maybe the beech is like me. It simply cannot let go.

To be a bee or not to be a bee? Oh. Mimicry.

A fly takes a sweet drink
A fly takes a sweet drink

A warm mid-October day has invited the flies and the bees to get a last sip of supper from the white daisies that bob their heads in an autumnal zephyr. The six-legged sippers dance and swirl on a yellow stage of the flower disks at the center of the white-petal apron. The tongues and siphon mouths probe each floweret for nectarel treasure. I pull out my camera to sip the nectar of the scene. I focus on a fastidious honeybee who doesn’t mind a close-up, or is too concentrated on tasting each floweret to notice. I watch her letter-opener of a tongue plunge and retract. The large, dark oval of her eyes are set on either side of her fuzzy head of dingy yellow hairs. The wings attached to the fuzzy tennis-ball of her thorax. Her abdomen appropriately the color of light-honey. She hop-flies to another flower.

 

I find another bee.

 

She is turned away from me so I only get a shot of her abdomen and wings. I change my angle. Another shot, but still not her head. A few more shots and she turns to me. My mind tells me something’s not quite right, there is a subtlety of appearance that my mind can’t reconcile. Then with the clarity of focus, I see it. Instead of two eyes set on the side of the head, two eyes cover most of the front head like grossly-oversized aviator glasses. I look at the insect again carefully. The abdomen is darker and wider than the honeybee’s. The thorax is fuzzy, but not as hirsute as the bee’s. I am not looking at a bee. I am looking at a fly wearing a honeybee costume. This is the hoverfly, Eristalis tenax.

 

In a gathering of flies, the hover flies almost always show up in costume. This may startle guests because the hover flies are costumed as bees and wasps.

 

In its history, the hover flies have co-evolved with their hymenopteran kin to mimic the motorcycle sleek vespid form of the wasps or the fuzzy patterns of the bees. The hover fly not only mimics the bees and wasps, it also mimics its behavior to clearly signify its bee-ness. The advantage of this mimicry is that other species conduct themselves around a harmless dipteran as though it was a stinging, noxious hymenopteran. The fly gets the benefit of the protection given to a behavior and a pattern that announces danger, without the energetic investment into poisons and stingers.

 

Had I not taken the time to admire the bobbing beauties of the daisies and their six-legged sojourners, I would have simply assumed all the ‘bee-looking’ insects were indeed bees and been careful to avoid an injection from an agitated nectar forager. My childhood lessons of Ozarkian ecology in Arkansas taught me to avoid danger signs. Many a harmless watersnake, which are not pit vipers but look like cottonmouths, which are venomous pit vipers, did not find itself in my hands because I dared not get close enough to its face to see if it had pits or a cottony mouth of white.

 

Being a harmless animal while looking like a dangerous one is called Batesian mimicry and is thought to protect mimics (in this case the fly) from predators who have learned the danger of attacking the model (in this case, the bee). Danger-bluffing may also confer a competitive advantage in the search for food. Bees and wasps can be aggressive and attack other species, particularly during foraging forays. As a result, less aggressive species are less likely to land on a flower already occupied by a hymenopteran bully, or what it thinks is a hymenopteran bully – such as the hover fly. Thus, a hover fly can dine at the daisy’s dinner table with plenty of elbow room.

 

As I watch the fly use its permanent Halloween costume to trick others so it can delight in floral treats, I am confused further. The honeybee is the European honeybee, Apis millefera, which arrived in the United States with the English colonists in the 1600’s. 400 years is not nearly enough time for an American hover fly to adopt the fashion of a European bee. Later I learn that the hover fly is the European hover fly and introduced to the U.S. in the 1800’s. It was, therefore, in Europe that the hover fly, like an evolutionary little sister who wants to do just as her big sister does, began following the honeybee’s fashion sense. It was to the hover fly’s benefit to arrive after the honeybee because the bee-costume might not have worked. Mimicry is predicated on predator’s learning which color patterns are danger and which are food. Without the stinger of the honeybee first arriving, predators would have gobbled up the bee-looking fly.

 

****

 

I have since learned that I have met this fly before, and it was wearing a more grotesque costume.

 

While sampling for invertebrates in a salt marsh pond in Ipswich a new form caught my eye among the wriggling fish, the water beetles, and the dragonfly larvae which look like flattened, alien grasshoppers. A small, dirty white pill of a maggot with a tail twice as long as its body whiplashed awkwardly at the bottom of the bucket like an anemic sperm. I held it in my hand, fascinated by its strangeness and slightly disgusted by its maggotiness. I had heard the term ‘rat-tailed maggot’ before and what wallowed in my looked both rat-tailed and maggoty. I failed to confirm the identity once I returned to the lab. Had I done so, I would have found that I was holding the larval stage of the hover fly.

Upon reflection, it’s strange to find fly larvae in the marsh ponds, which is not an easy way of life. It’s incredibly briny and low in oxygen. For the hover fly, however, a marsh pond is perfect habitat as they thrive in low-oxygen pools and sewage lagoons regularly. And on occasion, in the anus of bipedal mammals who drink water infected with drone-fly eggs.

The maggot is able to live in fetid habitats because the ‘tail’ is a snorkel that it can periscope above the filth for fresh air. Like the mosquito, the low oxygen of tire water, a sewage lagoon, or a marsh pond is not a problem because it gets oxygen from the air, not the water. This also permits the maggot to take up a rectal residence. The snorkel protrudes not only from its anus, but also of the host.

 

We’ve come a long way from the florid prose of daisies of the beginning of this essay, haven’t we?

 

In its evolution, the hover fly has dabbled in two interesting life strategies. As a larva, use a long snorkel so you can live in habitats that most would not dare to occupy. As an adult, don a mask of venom without investing in such.

 

***

I have returned to the daisies. Today is warm again, hot even at 73 F. The hungry mouths of flies and bees and flies that look like bees lap at the daisies. Today’s warmth mimics that of late summer. But, as with the hover fly, there are clues that signal the autumnal truth. The trees are flashing their oranges and reds and yellows like slow turning stoplights. The daisies reside here at Tendercrop Farm and on every shelf of the outside patio orange pumpkins have blossomed. The calendar tells me that in two weeks many of us will wear a costume and a mask to hide the truth of ourselves for a day.

But, if you’re like me, some last longer than a day.

I consider the masks I wear. The mask of bravado and humor for my sister and brother and mother. One that hides the anxiety and fear. The mask of knowing in a conversation with a colleague or superior to hide my blatant ignorance. The tense smile and ‘It’s okay,’ to hide my utter frustration and irritation with a partner. I costume myself in these lies for the same reason the hover fly wear’s its bee-costume, for protection.

****

Okay, let’s play a game. Which is the bee and which is the fly? If you hover your mouse over each pic it will tell you the answer (look in the bottom left corner of your screen).

Honeybee, Apis millifera, Newbury, Massachusetts (3)

European hover fly, Eristalis tenax, Newbury, Massachusetts  (2)

European hover fly, Eristalis tenax, Newbury, Massachusetts  (1)

Honeybee, Apis millifera, Newbury, Massachusetts (7)

European hover fly, Eristalis tenax, Newbury, Massachusetts  (4)

Honeybee, Apis millifera, Newbury, Massachusetts (1)

Yankee Redneck Engineering: making a boat out of invasive weeds

Salisbury, Massachusetts

The Mighty Phragmites awaiting her maiden voyage.
The Mighty Phragmites awaiting her maiden voyage.

 37 degrees F. That’s how warm the north Atlantic is in February. And this is where I stand with my Yankee friends with a boat made of invasive weeds. 

For you Yankees who think I’m talking baseball, I’m not. I’m from the South and I still say “ma’am” and “sir” and call anyone from the north a “Yankee”. (oh, did you notice my use of capitalization? That was unconscious but I’m not fixin’ it).

My friend John, a Yankee and middle-school science teacher, has made a boat out of weeds and we’re out here to test its sea-worthiness. The weed? Phragmites australis, or known better as Phrag (pronounced ‘frag’).  Phrag is an aggressively invasive reedy weed that towers up to 20 foot tall, its tufted head swaying in the wind. Phrag invades marshes and wet grasslands throughout the country and is of particular concern in salt marshes as it displaces native grasses. It’s so aggressive that attempts to poison it, cut it, freeze it, dig it up, graze it, and burn it have done nothing but left us exhausted. In the local Great Marsh, the concern of Phrag has prompted the creation of the film Danger in the Reeds for public awareness of the reed presence. 

John stands among the tall Phragmites.
John stands among the tall Phragmites.

The idea to build a boat out of an invasive weed started first as a challenge by John to his students to make something useful out of this nuisance plant. Maybe if we can monetize this aggressive reed we can do a better job of controlling it, he reasons.

The students made spears and pens and decorations. John had another idea when he walked into his neighbor’s yard where the reed grows 20 foot tall. Some of the reeds had a natural bend in them, presumably due to a persistent wind. He thought, “I wonder if I can make a boat out of that?”

After two-weeks worth of work stretched out over a number of months, John harvested the tall reeds and lashed them together with hemp rope. He used the natural bend in the reeds to form the curved bow. His Mighty Phragmites (this is a name I have given it) raft looks like a single, curved pontoon.

I hadn’t  seen the finished boat and shot him an email to see if he’d set it on its maiden voyage yet. He hadn’t but would in the afternoon if I could make it out. And now I stand with three of his 7th grade students, his son and his son’s friend and one of John’s friends. The cold Atlantic licks the beach hungry for warm blood.

John claps his gloved hands together and says, “Let’s do this!” As the bow bounces over the first small wave, we whoop and holler –  we are all teenage boys today. Those of us in wetsuits jump on and paddle and surf it. I am only in waders in February water and stay in the shallows. I do make a brief surf in and almost roll the thing. 

After two hours and a near sunset, we haul it back. It is much heavier and is like what I imagine carrying a dead small walrus is like. As we grunt and walk over the uneven snowy terrain with our dead walrus I say, “Y’all may be Yankees, but that was redneck stuff right there.” A boat made of weeds and then thrown into the ocean to see if it floats? Yeah, that’s pretty redneck. All we need now is a trolling motor and a six pack.

John’s Mighty Phragmites may not lead to the eradication of Phrag, but it may require that kind of redneck ingenuity to control it. After all, in Louisiana they’re trying to turn the big rat that is nutria into a delicacy. Maybe we can feed the nutria Phrag…

Science Communication Pt. 2 – freelance ain’t free?

Byfield, Massachusetts

Remember in the last post I began with thinking I should write about trees and their leaves?  Well, I went from thoughts to paper!  A newspaper even!  I just published an article about leaf-color change in the Daily News, a daily newspaper in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Below are pretty pics for your viewing pleasure.  The article can be found here.

As I shared this wonderful news with my writer friends, I was repeatedly counselled that it’s okay to build up a resume by writing pro bono, but not to let it get out of hand.  David Berreby reminded this David Samuel Johnson of the words of Samuel Johnson.

None but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.

Well, fit me a square hat then because I got no money for the piece.  I got the joy, but no money.  As a scientist I may have been raised this way.

Scientists are complete morons when it comes to monetizing their talents.  Probably because that’s not our goal.  None of us went into science for the money.  For the fame and the sex appeal, maybe, but not for the money.

We constantly write for free.  The model for academic publishing is mind-numbingly and creativity-stealingly absurd.  We write the grants to fund our science (yes, some of our salary is covered by the grant but it’s not quite the same as getting paid to write), then we write the papers/articles on that research and submit them to journals who DO NOT pay us to publish in their journals (if the paper is accepted).  In fact, some publishing companies require US to pay THEM to publish (I’m looking at you Elseveir with severe and narrowed eyes).  And then…AND THEN!  We then have to buy our article back from the journal that we just published in.  The publisher gets FREE! content from scientists and then charges us to view what we just gave them.  It’s a strange bondage of  an intellectual serfdom as service to publishing feudal lords.  Though maybe my economic metaphor doesn’t work because at least feudal lords owned the land the serfs worked, publishers don’t own my data.  Running with the imperfect metaphor:  this intellectual servitude is reinforced by our peers and administrations because publications are the currency that we need to get jobs and promotions.  If that isn’t the most bass-ackward thing you’ve ever heard of, I don’t know what is.  For being smart, we scientists sure do have our heads straight up our ignorant keisters when it comes to publishing models.

I get it.  Freelancing ain’t free.  And I should follow the helpful advice from my friend Sarah White who has been a freelancer for the past decade.  Regarding writing for free, she blogs (in what I imagine is a stern ‘mom’ voice and stamping her foot):  “Right now. I mean it. Stop.”

Sigh.  It’s hard.  I say this as I write a blog without asking any payment from you.  Your support and kind words are all the currency I need right now.  But if you want to send me a big box of cash, my address is The Brilliant Dr. David Samuel Johnson, 297 Newburyport Turnpike, Byfield, MA 01922.  Remember to send large bills.  And some synthetic wool socks (size 9.5 shoe).  It’s getting cold up here.

But not all my writing is paid in love.  Some has real cash.  Like my essay on fracking in Arkansas published earlier this year in Sage Magazine.  Got me rent money it did!

Okay, now back to where I began.  I got published.  Take a look.  No charge.

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