“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” - Albert Einstein
Color an icicle: First rub an icicle with salt (coarse salt like kosher salt works best) to give it a rough and interesting texture. Then add drops of food coloring or watery paint to the icicle to get a wonderful effect. Let the colors run into each other – or keep them separate – or paint a picture. If you don’t have an icicle, color ice on a puddle or a sidewalk, but be sure it’s a surface that you don’t mind dyeing.
Make an ice balloon: Put a few drops of food coloring into a collapsed balloon. Then fill it with water and tie the end. Put the balloon outside on a frigid day and wait for it to freeze. It may take all day. Bring the ice balloon inside and use scissors to cut the knot and slit the balloon open. Peel the original balloon away.
Experiment with the ice balloon. Put it in water to watch how it melts. How much of the ice balloon is above water and how much is below? (This is true of icebergs too.) Add salt to the surface that floats above water. What happens? What else can you do with the ice balloon? Use a fork, a magnifying glass, or a flashlight to experiment further. What could you do with it outside? What could you make with ice balloons?
Freezing Fun for older children
Lower the albedo: The amount of sunlight reflected by a surface is known as its albedo. Ice and snow are bright surfaces with high albedo, reflecting about 70% of the sunlight falling on them. So ice on water, or snow on land, keeps the Earth cooler than it would otherwise be. A rise in the temperature of Earth can trigger a feedback. First there is melting of some snow and ice, leading to the exposure of low‑albedo land or water surfaces. That increases the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth’s surface and leads to a further rise in temperature as a result. This is known as the ice‑albedo feedback.
On a cold, sunny day, fill two square cake pans with snow. Cover one with black paper. Place both pans in direct sunlight. Ask children to guess which pan of snow will reflect the most sunlight and which will absorb the most sunlight – in other words, which pan of snow has the highest albedo. Ask them to predict which pan of snow will melt first. If the outside temperature is too cold for melting to occur, you can do this experiment inside in front of a window that receives direct sunlight.
Consider the future of our planet: Scientists have made direct measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for over 50 years. In addition to this, scientists investigate earlier CO2 levels by collecting samples of air trapped in ice cores extracted from the Antarctic ice sheet and from suitable glaciers around the world. The ice core data show that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher today than it’s been for at least 800,000 years, and the rate of increase has been 100 times faster than any previous change in the ice core record. (Statistics posted by the Science Museum in London.)
Discuss the effect of increased CO2 (carbon dioxcide) in the atmosphere – the greenhouse effect that contributes to climate change. Ask children to list ways that individuals, institutions, governments, and corporations can reduce the amount of carbon that we discharge into our atmosphere.
Make an icicle: On a freezing day, give older children a large bottle of water and a turkey baster. Let them devise a method for making an icicle – or enlarging an existing one. Can they make an icicle longer, fatter, or oddly shaped?
Make an ice sculpture: Have children research online to see photos of fantastic ice sculptures. Don’t overlook ice hotels! How are ice sculptures made? Have children make an ice sculpture – or a snow sculpture.
You can help wild birds survive the winter – or an extremely cold winter night – by providing a variety of rich, high-energy foods for them. A study in Wisconsin found that when chickadees had access to bird feeders, they were much more likely to live through the winter. (With feeders, almost 70 percent survived. Without feeders, only 37 percent survived.) But once birds become used to finding food at your feeder, it’s important to keep feeding them through the winter because they will depend on the food you give them.
Favorite winter foods for wild birds:
Suet and bacon grease
Sunflower seeds (they are high in fat)
Greasy crusts and crumbs, donuts
Small birdseed, such as millet, canary seed, chicken feed, and cracked corn
Large birdseed, such as sunflower seeds, wheat, oats, corn, buckwheat, and soybean
Peanut butter, nuts (high in fat)
Fruits, such as chopped apples, bananas, and raisins
COOL experiments for young birdwatchers:
Collect several disposable plastic containers, such as margarine tubs. Fill each container with a different kind of bird food and label each one with the name of the food. Fill one container with water and try to keep the water from freezing solid. Remove ice from the surface and add more water as often as you can. Place the containers outside for birds. (You might want to nail the containers to a board to keep them from being tipped over.)
There are lots of experiments you can do with this setup:
Watch how much food is left in each container to see which kinds of food are most popular with your winter birds.
Watch one container at a time to see which birds eat what.
Watch one bird at a time to see if it will try more than one kind of food.
Watch the container of water. How many of the birds that come to the feeder drink water? Are more birds attracted to the water on frozen days when puddles and ponds have turned to ice?
Keep a written record of your observations. Include the date, the time of day, and notes about the weather. What did you learn about the birds that visit your feeder?
Nature activity from A Kid’s Winter EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
Guess the temperature
The next time it snows, see if you can guess the temperature by observing the snowfall. If the snowflakes are large and sloppy – like falling popcorn – the temperature is probably near the freezing point of water, 32 degrees. If the snow is like fine sugar, glittering and dry, the temperature is probably much colder. Check an outdoor thermometer to see how well you guessed the temperature.
Experiment with freezing things
On a frigid day when the temperature is near zero (on one side or the other), put a variety of things outside to freeze. What happens when you freeze a raw egg? Try one in the shell, one out. What about freezing a rubber band, a plastic cup filled to the top with water, a wadded-up piece of wet cloth, a wet piece of paper, a banana? Fill several plastic cups partly full, each with a different liquid – water, milk, coke, vinegar, etc. Is there any difference in the way they freeze? Try adding something to each of several cups of water before freezing them – sugar, salt (at least 1/4 cup), corn starch, honey, lemon juice. Keep experimenting.
As you walk in snow, listen carefully. Do you hear a crunching sound or do you hear a squeak? Snow squeaks under your weight if the temperature is around 14 degrees F or colder. Scientists haven’t yet found an explanation that fully explains why this happens.
Is this a good day for snowballs?
You probably already know that it’s harder to make a good snowball on a very cold day (when there is less moisture in the snow) than on a warmer day. Try making snowballs on different days with different temperatures. Write down your observations. What did you conclude?
Look for ice
Look for ice in icicles, puddles, creeks, or ponds. Look for other frozen water. How do the different forms of ice compare? If you observe a frozen pond, look for animal tracks, especially if the ice is covered with snow. Don't walk on the ice!
Winter statistics at minus 3 degrees
Date: Saturday, January 6, 2018
Morning temperature: Minus 3 degrees
With wind chill: Minus 15
My outdoor clothing: Heavy cotton cami, long underwear, knee socks, heavy wool socks, jeans, sweater, padded jacket with hood, wool scarf, heavy mittens, knee-high boots
Jazzy’s outdoor clothing: Purple dog sweater, plaid dog coat, long belly hair and amazing toe tufts
Time it took to dress us both: 15 minutes
Bird food: 2 scoops of dried corn, 2 scoops of wild bird seed, 2 scoops of sunflower seeds, 1 suet block, 2 apples that froze in the garage
Cost of bird food: 50 lbs of dried corn from local feed mill, $6.75; 25 lbs of black sunflower seeds, $14.75 from feed mill; 40 lbs of premium bird seed, $19.20 from feed mill; suet blocks, $.89/each from Ollie’s
Time it took to feed birds: 3 minutes
Time it took for birds to arrive and begin eating: 2 minutes!
Time it took Jazzy to remember why we were outside: 3 more minutes
Total time outside at minus 3 degrees: 8 minutes
Time it took to undress us both: 4 minutes
Renewal: The nature of nature
All my life, I’ve loved the idea of new beginnings. I like the first day of a year, or the first day of a season or month, or even the first day of a week. I make resolutions and plans and design elaborate projects for renewal. I daydream about going away for a week alone just to focus on new ideas and progress -- a week that I imagine would transform every aspect of my life. But right now that isn’t practical.
Couldn’t I find moments in each day to cherish renewal? Wouldn’t one step lead to the next? Could I resist working from a “List of Things to Do” and just let life be an adventure, which will unfold on its own? We don’t have to travel extensively or explore exotic places (although that’s certainly fun!) in order to renew our sense of wonder. We can discover new aspects of ourselves, try new activities, read new books and listen to new music. Just when I think I know our woods and its wildlife by heart, we discover something new: miniature bird’s nest mushrooms with spore packets that look like tiny eggs; a hummingbird moth that looks just like a little hummer; the tangy taste of a spicebush twig. It’s our nature – and the nature of nature – to be constantly renewed.
Happy New Year to you all!
Project FeederWatch begins November 11 and continues through April 13. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, Project FeederWatch invites you – and the children in your life – to observe and count the birds that turn up at your bird feeder. You can contribute to a nearly 30-year database that helps scientists understand bird biology, population trends, and migrations. New participants receive a FeederWatch handbook, a full-color poster of common feeder birds, a bird-watching-days calendar, the annual report on Winter Bird Highlights, and a subscription to the Cornell Lab newsletter. Membership costs $18.
Explore Project FeederWatch and the FeederWatch Cam.
I’ve been feeding birds daily at our feeder for thirty-five years, so you can imagine that they know my schedule and my voice. But two years ago, it occurred to me that I could call the birds by whistling. I whistled a three-note call, my best attempt at a birdcall, and they came immediately. Birds, like other animals, are curious, so it wasn’t surprising that they came to investigate. But in just a few days, they responded to my whistle by flying in from all directions. I can watch them land in the trees around me, quickly coming nearer, until they dart into the feeder, so close I can hear the soft whoosh of their wings. It’s thrilling to have this sense of communication and understanding!
The first step in partying with pumpkins is to choose a pumpkin. The most fun is to roam a field of pumpkins and pull your choice off the vine, but a pumpkin from the supermarket will work too. The second step is to carve your pumpkin or paint it, so that it’s transformed into a jack-o-lantern!
Draw a face or a Halloween picture on the pumpkin with a black marker. Or you can draw your design on lightweight paper. Tape the paper against the pumpkin, design up. Transfer your design to the pumpkin by poking a toothpick into the pumpkin along the lines of your design. (When you remove the paper, the toothpick holes will show you where to cut.) You can cut a simple face in the pumpkin with a paring knife, but for more elaborate designs, you might buy a little “pumpkin saw” that can cut curves. Design templates and pumpkin carving tools are sold at craft stores.
Before carving or painting, cut a notched lid from the top of the pumpkin and remove all of the pumpkin seeds and stringy pulp from inside the pumpkin with your hands. Separate the seeds from the pulp, wash them, and set them on paper towels to dry. Then fry them in a little oil until they are crisp and golden brown. Add salt. Eat and eat.
When your pumpkin begins to sag and pucker and collapse, it’s time to put it on your compost pile. (Be careful of analogies. We’re not going there.) When I’ve done this, three things have happened. Birds and animals feed on the pumpkin. Any remaining pumpkin creates nutrient-rich compost. And some of the seeds winter over, so that pumpkin vines appear on the compost pile the next summer. Three good things.
But when tons of pumpkins end up in landfills, it’s a different story. As they decompose, the pumpkins release methane gas, which contributes to climate warming. And the pumpkins, which are 90% water, may contaminate groundwater. This is when the pumpkin party gets really interesting – when it’s time for a Pumpkin Smash!
In the Chicago area, 93 tons of pumpkins have been diverted from landfills and converted to compost when SCARCE (School &Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education) has held community pumpkin drops. Volunteers smash the pumpkins during a variety of games before the pumpkin slush is delivered to a compost site.
A pumpkin party can occur at any time in the life cycle of a jack-o-lantern – during the carving and creating, when the seeds are cooked and eaten, when the jack-o-lanterns are lit for Halloween, and when it’s time to smash the pumpkins to smithereens!
Shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a Japanese therapy for reducing stress and finding a sense of wellbeing. (See my October 3 blog, Forest bathing.) Forest bathing can be done in a group with a facilitator or alone with your own thoughts to guide you. We benefit most when we walk slowly and attentively with all of our senses engaged until a feeling of peace replaces the pressure of daily demands.
I live in a forest and walk daily on paths through the trees. Over the years, I’ve taught myself to be more observant of the tiny, incremental changes that mark the seasons. Spring is filled with promise; summer is extravagant; fall is surprising and otherworldly; and winter is quiet and bleak. (The seasons in Japan, where I spent my childhood, and the seasons in Pennsylvania are almost identical.)
Thinking of Japanese forest bathing and Japanese seasons makes me think of Japanese haiku, a short form of nature poetry. So … this blog is an invitation to find peace with images and poetry of fall.
Photo copyright for all photos: Toni Albert
Fall is a very flowery time. The gardens in our area are bright with marigolds, zinnias, dahlias, cone flowers, salvia, and chrysanthemums. My favorite fall wildflowers are tiny delicate asters (white, lavender, or deep purple) and goldenrod, which sometimes grows taller than I am and fills entire fields with gold-yellow feathers.
Knowing that winter promises a long frozen desert without any flowers at all, I always look for ways to save the flowers I love. Here are some ideas:
I love to press flowers and leaves. Lay your flowers – flat and facedown – between layers of newspaper or another type of unglazed paper. Place the layers in a flower press or under a heavy object (or a pile of heavy books) to keep them flat. Let the flowers dry for two weeks. You can preserve flowers for years with this method. After you remove the flowers for display, keep them out of direct sunlight so they don't fade. Spraying the flowers with hairspray or clear floral spray will strengthen them.
Use pressed flowers to decorate bookmarks, cards, or note paper, or make a collage to frame. Just apply a little white glue to the back of a pressed flower to place it permanently.
It’s great fun to pound flowers. Place a piece of fabric or rough watercolor paper on a board. Put flower heads, leaves, and grasses face down in an arrangement that you like. Cover the flowers with several layers of paper towels. Then use a hammer to pound the flowers flat. When you remove the paper towels, you’ll see surprising colors (not always the color of your flowers) and a wonderful design.
Note: Your designed fabric can’t be washed without ruining the design.
Push flowers into clay
It’s fun to add a natural design to any clay project simply by pushing flowers, leaves, and grasses into the soft clay and then removing them. This is a great way to enhance a clay bowl or cup or even just a slab of clay. You can paint the clay too after pressing a design into your project.
Today I’ve been forest bathing. Well, I’ve bathed in the goodness of trees all my life, but I’ve just recently learned about the practice of shinrin yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Developed in Japan in the 1980s, shinrin yoku is catching on stateside. Many studies are confirming what we might already know intuitively – we feel less stressed, happier, and more peaceful in the presence of trees. I read on the shinrin yoku website:
“The idea is simple: If a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way, there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved."
In Japan, forest bathing, or “forest therapy,” is often practiced for its health benefits, including lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol; boosting the immune system; increasing energy; and improving sleep. All from spending time under the canopy of a living forest.
To me, forest bathing is a new way of describing the experience of appreciating the strength and beauty and color and texture of trees, enjoying shade and shadows, hearing birds and insects or wind and rain on leaves and limbs, breathing fresh oxygen provided by the trees, and feeling protected and at home in the world.
When Bob and I first bought our wooded land, we spent an entire summer clearing a road to our home site. The road winds its way around the trees that we couldn’t bear to cut. One night after we had built our road and our house, as we were falling asleep, Bob asked me, “How many of our trees do you know by heart?” I readily answered, “Well, the big white pine is one of my favorites. And the maple with yellow blossoms – and the dogwoods, of course.” He said, “I like the tulip poplar with the double trunk and the ash tree that was hit by lightning.” I said I loved the snag where the woodpeckers nested. He said he really liked the big oak and I said I liked the bark on the cedar. He liked the red bud in the spring – and I fell asleep.
When I remember that sleepy, dreamy conversation, it reminds me that when we really observe a tree, especially over a period of time, we get to know that tree like a friend. Maybe forest bathing is just spending time with good friends.
Taking a Sock Walk is one of my favorite fall activities to do with children. I have “sock walked” with many, many groups of kids.
There is nothing like a Sock Walk
Fall is a time for harvesting, but it is also a time for sowing. As the days grow cooler and the sunlight wanes, many small plants complete their growing cycles and die back. But they ensure the survival of their species by producing seeds, which will sprout in the spring. The seeds will be most successful when they are scattered – or “sowed” – away from the parent plant, so they don’t have to compete with each other for water and sunlight. Some seeds are scattered by the wind, some by water, and some by animals. If you observe a seed closely, you may be able to guess how it will travel.
One of the best ways to collect seeds is to take a Sock Walk. First put on your shoes and socks – in that order. Pull a large pair of old socks over your shoes and as far up your legs as they will go. Then take a walk through a field of dry grasses and wild flowers. Those seeds that are scattered by sticking to animals will stick to you. You’ll be surprised at how many seeds have tiny hooks, barbs, anchors, and spikes just so they can hitch a ride. When you return from your walk, take your socks off and look at the seeds through a magnifying lens. Don’t they look mean?
Don’t try to remove the seeds. It’s easier just to plant the socks! First, lay both socks on a tray and pour water over them until they are soaked. Find two shallow pans, and partially fill them with sterile potting soil. (If you use dirt from your yard, it will probably have some seeds in it and ruin your experiment. You can buy sterile potting soil or sterilize your dirt by baking it in the oven.) “Plant” one sock in each pan by laying it on the soil and covering it lightly with half an inch of soil.
Place one pan in a light, warm spot and keep watering it. You’ll be amazed at the little plants that come up. Place the other pan in the refrigerator for two weeks. Many seeds are scheduled to rest through the winter and sprout in spring. The “wintertime” in the refrigerator will trick the seeds into germinating when you take them out. After two weeks in the refrigerator, place the second pan near the first and keep it watered. How do the two sock gardens compare?
A Sock Walk is one of dozens of nature activities included in A Kid’s Fall EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
There is something almost magical about mushrooms. They seem to appear from nowhere, popping up overnight and then popping down again. Actually, a mushroom is only the fruit of a fungus. The true fungus is typically a tangle of fine threads, called a mycelium, which is found underground. The fungus fruit, or mushroom, contains spores that are like tiny seeds that can produce more fungi and more mushrooms. The mushroom pops up out of the ground to spread the spores.
One year in late August, we were hiking in a deep forest with my dad, a life-long mushroom enthusiast. He veered off the trail and we followed him into the shady, secret, steamy understory, where lush ferns grew on crumbling, mossy logs. The forest floor was carpeted with layers of damp leaves. We saw some familiar brown mushrooms, delicate and long-stemmed. Then we saw a large white mushroom. Then a lemon-yellow mushroom with white scales, a flat red mushroom on a curved white stem, a bright yellow mushroom with a pleated cap, a completely blue mushroom, a waxy green mushroom, leathery purple bracket mushrooms growing on a tree trunk, a sticky orange-yellow mushroom with branches like coral, and a colony of tiny red cuplike mushrooms. We seemed to be walking in an enchanted garden with very odd flowers – leathery, feathery, slimy or wooden, velvety or crumbly, stinky and musty, tiny and large. Mushroom-flowers.
One thing I learned was that fall is a wonderful time to look for mushrooms. Bob and I have been mushroom hunting in our woods all week. This is what we found.
All photos, copyright: Toni and Robert Albert
How do we talk back to Harvey, Irma, and Jose? Is there anything we can do in the face of hurricanes with 185 mph winds, “rain bombs,” rising sea levels, and devastating wild fires?
One thing we can’t do is wait – wait for our politicians and policy makers to act or wait for our government to catch up with other nations who are already working to address climate change. We can work individually and in our communities to limit global warming by reducing carbon emissions.
The following suggestions for tackling the climate crisis are culled from Al Gore’s “Averting the Climate Crisis,” (see the TED Talk) and National Geographic’s “14 easy ways to reduce your own carbon footprint.”
How to tackle the climate crisis
Reduce carbon emissions from the energy use in your home by using efficient insulation and green electricity. Make sure your lighting is efficient. LED light bulbs use up to 80% less energy than traditional lighting and they last longer. (See Karen Johnson's guest blog, "Smart people use smart light.")
Adjust your thermostat up in warm months and down in cold ones, especially when you’re not home.
Use cold water for washing clothes, then line-dry them.
Consider getting solar panels for your home or buying renewable energy credits.
Reduce emissions from your car and other transportation. Save on gas with an electric, hybrid, or super fuel-efficient car.
Maximize fuel efficiency, no matter what model you drive: Keep tires inflated, avoid speeding, keep your trunk free of excess weight—and above all, avoid driving when you can walk, bike, carpool, or take public transit.
Reduce your flight travel where you can, and remember that, unfortunately for your personal comfort, first- and business-class seats have a higher carbon footprint than economy ones.
Be a green consumer. Buy the most energy-efficient appliances and other products you can find.
Replace old appliances, such as refrigerators, washing machines, water heaters, and clothes dryers with smarter models. Look for ENERGY STAR certification.
Eat less meat. By one estimate, consuming a pound of beef gives off more carbon than burning a gallon of gasoline.
Make a decision to live a carbon neutral life.
To find out how, go to climatecrisis.net or https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/ to use the carbon calculator to find out what your carbon emissions are and what you can do to reduce them.
Recycle. The EPA estimates that recycling glass, aluminum, plastic, and paper could save 582 pounds of CO2 per year, equivalent to more than 600 miles of driving.
Reuse. Bring your own bags and buy in bulk when possible to reduce packaging. Pack lunches or picnics in reusable containers. Consider the global impact of acquiring more stuff.
Buy and use less plastic. Reduce your consumption of bottled water and other packaged drinks. In general, driving up demand for plastic means doing the same for fossil fuels.
Make your business carbon neutral.
Integrate climate solutions into all your innovations, whatever you create and do.
Invest sustainably in companies and funds that are part of the solution.
Become a catalyst for change. Learn about reducing your carbon footprint. Talk about it.
Raise awareness in your community.
Become politically active. Speak up. Contact your elected officials. Make our democracy work.
Urge the US to join the rest of the world community by committing to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Rebrand “global warming.” Call it climate crisis or planetary emergency. Al Gore suggests this as a way to help depoliticize the subject. We have been arguing over the cause, even the existence, of global warming for too long. Now we must face the effects of a climate crisis together.
“Divers, scientists and photographers around the world mount an epic underwater campaign to document the disappearance of coral reefs.” - Netflix
“An emotional race against time.” – NY Times
“Chasing Coral is not impartial. It’s staunchly pro-life, in the truest sense of the term.” – Sam Fragoso, The Wrap
Winner of a Sundance Film Festival Audience Award
To produce Chasing Coral, divers, photographers, and scientists spent 650 hours underwater in 30 countries to capture and document the worldwide collapse of coral reefs. Director Jeff Orlowski focused on the effects of climate change on the oceans, which absorb 93% of the heat produced by greenhouse gases. Reef-building corals thrive when the temperature remains between 74 and 78 degrees F, but we now see ocean temperatures as high as 95 degrees. When water temperatures rise even two degrees, the distressed corals may eject the tiny single-celled algae living inside their bodies. Without the algae, corals appear bone-white, or “bleached.” And without the algae, corals begin to starve and die.
The goal of the Chasing Coral crew was to create a powerful and impelling video by showing changes to reefs in real time, using time-lapse photography to document the effects of too-warm water. The result is stunning. We see colorful, healthy, gorgeous “gardens” of corals – then ghostly-pale, sick corals – then dead, disintegrating corals covered with slimy, hairy algae.
Near the end of the documentary, the time lapse video of bleaching and dying corals is presented at the World Symposium on Coral Reefs in Honolulu, Hawaii. As the camera pans the audience (an audience of people who study and love coral reefs), we see people slowly shaking their heads as if they are saying, No, oh, no! Many people have their hands over their mouths or eyes; the corners of their mouths are visibly drawn downward; there are tears. (Their tears and my tears.)
The collapse of coral reefs is serious. They are the foundation of a huge, intricate ecosystem. One-quarter of all marine life is found on coral reefs. Half a billion to a billion people rely on reefs for their food; their culture, economy, and way of life rely on reefs. Many new drugs and new products and foods come from the sea. Reefs provide a breakwater that protects shores from dangerous storms. Coral reef communities are like underwater rainforests teeming with abundant and diverse life.
The loss of reefs (along with rising sea levels, violent storms, and famines) is too important to be politicized. We can address the warming of our planet and reduce the rate at which our climate is changing. Chasing Coral ends by reminding us that we have the money and the resources and the intelligence to tackle climate change. They provide ideas at chasingcoral.com.
“It’s not too late for coral reefs … indeed, for many other ecosystems that are facing challenges from climate change. It’s still possible to reduce the rate at which the climate is changing, and that’s within our power today.” – Dr Ove Hoegh-Guldberg – July, 2017
As a visiting author to schools, I often told students that research is not a bad word. Research means reading books and articles and watching videos about a subject that fascinates you; it means exploring the web for more and more insight and information; it may include interviewing interesting people; it may invite you to try something new, to explore a museum or historic site, or even to travel to another city or country.
Since my books are often used by teachers, I research meticulously. I over-research. You would know how much if you could see my office. Ultimately, my research leads to hands-on adventures – or even hands-on-bugs adventures (for Busy with Bugs). To write The Incredible Coral Reef, I drew on a lifetime of snorkeling off the coasts of Florida and Hawaii and throughout the Caribbean.
To prepare a new edition of The Incredible Coral Reef, I wanted to get my eyes on a healthy reef. Sadly, in the last few years, I was shocked by a dead reef off the island of Grenada and a diminished reef off the coast of Panama. Last week, I snorkeled at Cozumel, Mexico, for a refresher – and refreshing – course.
If you’ve never seen a coral reef, I’ll try to describe the experience, but it’s like describing a dream. I’ll try.
First, the color of the water is swimming-pool aqua, neon blue, brilliant turquoise. It sparkles with light and foams with waves. When you enter the water, there is no sense of transition, because the temperature is exactly right for human comfort. The water is almost as transparent as air; you can easily see into the underwater distance. As you look around, you are amazed at the activity of swaying sea fans and soft corals, schools of fish, and crawling creatures. It’s like an underwater city built on complex structures of living coral animals resting upon the skeletons of their ancestors. It’s like a colorful garden of intricate texture and design. It’s like a dreamscape filled with strange unworldly creatures, each exquisitely patterned and recklessly painted. It’s like nothing on earth. It’s the Other, the Strange and Wonderful.
I didn’t really go to Mexico for the research. I went for the reef.
Twenty years ago, I wrote and published a book called The Incredible Coral Reef, a companion book to The Remarkable Rainforest. Both ecosystems were already alarmingly threatened and both are homes to the richest, most diverse wildlife on our planet.
The Remarkable Rainforest continues to be used by teachers and home schoolers across the country as a complete curriculum about rainforests , but interest in teaching about coral reefs seemed to wane and we let The Incredible Coral Reef go out of print.
With coral bleaching episodes occurring around the world, there is a new urgency to protect reefs and a new interest in their fate. In the last 30 years, we have lost 50% of the world’s corals. Most of the heat (93%) trapped by greenhouse gases is transferred into the oceans, and the delicate corals can’t tolerate the rising temperatures – especially in conjunction with other threats, such as overfishing, pollution, and the pressure of tourism.
We may think we can accept the loss of an individual species, but what about seeing the collapse of an entire ecosystem? When corals die, it’s exactly like cutting trees in the rainforest. All of the complex and perfectly balanced relationships of animals and plants break down. Without trees, a forest is reduced to brush. Without corals, a reef becomes a rocky mass of coral skeletons. The unnumbered, even unnamed, life forms that depended on a tree-structure or a reef-structure are lost.
What can we do? For me, the answer always begins with education. I find that children love nature and want to learn about our natural world. I find them to be eco-smart too, unjaded and undiscouraged, willing to tackle the most difficult environmental challenges. If we give them facts to work with and encourage creative problem solving, we can trust them to take better care of our Earth than we have (because they must!).
I love working on The Incredible Coral Reef. The first edition won a Teacher’s Choice Award and a Parent’s Choice Approval, so I have a good foundation for the new edition. I’ll blog as I work, so that readers can follow the making of a book. I hope you find the process interesting.
This week, guest blogger Karen Johnson enlightens us about making a smart choice for efficient, cost effective, environmentally friendly lighting. Karen gives weekly tips for sustainable living in her newsletter, Earth For All Ages.
For us humans, light helps us see and influences our health and wellbeing. Different aspects of our internal chemistry are triggered by light and darkness. It’s not accidental that we wake and become alert when the sun comes up, and settle down as the sun sets. Lowering light levels in the winter send many people into the winter blues while spring sunshine makes many people feel happy and contented. Even a few minutes in the sun can lift our mood.
How about the lights we use in schools? Experiments to evaluate the impact of light on learning show that some levels of brightness and color are good for general lessons, while cooler colors support increased concentration during tests and warmer colors can help calm down hyperactive children. Imagine schools in the future where lights can be modulated throughout the day to support a calm, focused learning environment. That may not be too far off!
Since we humans can’t create our own light, we have to put light into our environment. And that starts with a light bulb. Kind of like the single light in a firefly.
However ... producing light bulbs is a complicated technological feat. Unlike the little firefly that is born with a light, when we create a light bulb, we mine metals, create glass, build factories for production, and enlist all kinds of transportation to deliver parts and materials from around the world. The energy used to actually light the bulb involves burning fossil fuels (until we come up with something better) in giant facilities, which produce emissions that go back out into the atmosphere. We then must dispose of the used bulbs. That adds up to tons of wasted material, some of which is toxic and seeps from landfills into our rivers, streams, and oceans, where it enters the food chain and potentially lands back on our kitchen table!
So it matters what we choose at the individual level, because it will add up at the global level.
What is the average person to do? Get some information and make a simple, wise choice.
When buying a new bulb or switching out an old one, choose an LED bulb. These are the newest generation light bulbs, and are different in many ways from the older incandescent bulbs (the glass ones with the little filament inside) or more recent CFL’s (Compact Florescent bulbs, the curly white ones.)
Why change to LEDs?
1. You can save MONEY. Yes, they cost a little more at first, but they last so much longer. Each LED bulb is rated to last over 100,000 hours. That means if you left it on all day, 24 hours a day, it would last for 24 years. You save money by not paying for new bulbs or the cost of having someone install them. The older incandescent bulbs only last about a year before they need replacement.
2. LED bulbs are very efficient, requiring considerably less energy to operate. That means you save on your monthly electric bill.
3. LED lights are better for the environment. Why? Because when electrical energy is produced and consumed, carbon dioxide is released into the environment. Less energy needed equals less CO2 produced and released into the atmosphere. Fluorescent lights release small amounts of mercury into the environment while in use and CFLs have mercury in the bulb itself. This is a problem if the bulb breaks in your home, and if it breaks in a landfill, the mercury seeps into the soil and leaches into the global water supply. LED lighting, however, does not contain mercury.
4. LEDs provide better light. All light is not created equal. Some lights are considered “warmer,” some “cooler,” and some more like natural light. Different types of light affect color perception, our moods, and even our ability to concentrate or relax. LED lights are available in warm and cool tones.
5. LED’s improve safety and decrease liability. Well-lit areas reduce the risks of both injury and crime. Because LED light bulbs last so much longer, there is less risk of bulbs burning out, leaving an area in the dark.
This week, guest blogger Karen Johnson talks to children about animal-light (bioluminescence). Next week she’ll write for adults about people-light (LEDs). Karen gives weekly tips for sustainable living in her newsletter, Earth For All Ages.
Isn’t it nice that we can turn lights on in our houses? With a flip of a switch, we can have light coming from our TV, computer, and even our car, so we can see at night as well as during the day. But what about the other creatures? They must live by natural daylight, moonlight, or – their own light, which is called bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence is the ability of an organism to create its own light. It is one of nature’s most amazing accomplishments – like something straight out of a science fiction movie.
On land, fireflies and some fungi can make their own light, but bioluminescence is actually more common in the deep sea. Bacteria, jellyfish, starfish, clams, worms, crustaceans, squid, fish, and sharks are some of the groups of marine animals that have bioluminescent family members.
Bioluminescence (nature’s way of bringing your own light) may help creatures find food or a mate, or it might help with self-defense.
Check out this TED-Ed video for kids.
On a summer night, tiny lights blink on and off in the grass and the woods. They are either fairies carrying lanterns or fireflies creating their own light through bioluminescence – depending on your state of mind. They are equally magical.
Kids love to catch fireflies, but they’re fun to watch, too. Notice the location of the lights blinking around you. The male firefly is the one in the air, flashing his green or yellow light to attract a female. When the female firefly (perched on a blade of grass or a shrub) finds a male that she takes a shine to, she flashes back.
Notice the rhythm of the blinking. Different species of fireflies have different signals. Each species has its own pattern of flashes and pauses. A female predator firefly called Photuris can mimic the flash of other firefly species. When a male blinks, she blinks right back in the same pattern, but when he comes to her, she eats him!
See if you can attract a firefly with a small flashlight or penlight. Watch a firefly carefully. Two seconds after it flashes, give a quick flash with your penlight. Keep responding to the firefly to catch its interest.
Fireflies can’t be kept as pets, but you can catch them, put them in a jar with a wet paper towel for moisture, enjoy watching them, and then release them. You can also look for firefly eggs or larvae. They both glow too! The larvae, which look something like meal worms, are called glowworms. Look for glowworms in moist places under leaf litter or decaying bark.
Riddle: How do fireflies start a race?
Answer: Ready, set, glow!
Next week, guest blogger Karen Johnson will explain the science of bioluminescence for us.
If the world held a Bug Olympics, we would be amazed by astounding athletic feats and new and different world records set by tiny competitors. Of course there would be gold medals for strength and speed and agility, but there would be new categories of competition, too, like the most explosive bug and the best glue stick….
Please send me your favorite bug athletes. I’ll add them to the list.
Email me at email@example.com.
Best glue stick: Weaver Ant larva
Weaver Ants build their nests by rolling up leaves and sticking them together. They get the “glue” they need by picking up a larva and squeezing its abdomen to make it produce a sticky silk thread. The larva isn’t hurt and doesn’t struggle. Maybe it likes being a glue stick.
Worst dressed bug: Assassin Bug nymph
The Assassin Bug nymph dresses itself in sand grains and dead ants. Its outfit isn’t very attractive, but it provides good camouflage and attracts other ants, which the Assassin Bug nymph is glad to eat.
Most explosive bug: Bombardier Beetle
When a Bombardier Beetle is threatened, it squirts burning chemicals from the tip of its abdomen in a series of explosions of heat, color, and noise.
Fastest sprinter: Tiger Beetle
A Tiger Beetle, the fastest insect on earth, can run two feet per second, which is only 1.5 miles per hour, but if the beetle were as big as a horse, its speed would be 250 miles per hour.
Best gymnast: Springtail
A Springtail can jump 40 times its own length to escape predators. As it flies through the air, it does one or more back-somersaults.
Coolest bug: Wooly Bear Caterpillar
A Wooly Bear Caterpillar can survive an Arctic winter with temperatures as low as -90 degrees. The caterpillar produces a natural antifreeze that enables it to slowly become frozen except for the very innermost part of its cells. In the spring, it thaws out and crawls away.
Best weight lifter: Rhinoceros Beetle
A Rhinoceros Beetle, which is as large as a mouse, may be the strongest animal on earth. It can lift about 850 times its own body weight.
World’s smallest insect: Fairyfly
Fairyflies are tiny, tiny wasps less than .2 mm long, the size of a period at the end of a sentence.
World’s largest insect: Titan Beetle
The Titan Beetle can reach more than seven inches in length. It can inflict a painful bite, too.
Best sleeping pill: Pill Millipede
When a Pill Millipede is attached, it oozes a special chemical that makes its attacker sleepy. The Pill Millipede can put a Wold Spider to sleep for 12 hours. Maybe it should be called a Sleeping-pill Millipede.
Best soldiers: Army Ants
Tropical Army Ants march in an army of millions, up to 65 feet across. They eat almost anything in their path, including small animals.
Best snorkeler: Whirligig Beetle
Whirligigs have compound eyes that are divided into two, with one pair above the water and one pair below. Since they can see both above and below the water surface, they can watch for enemies such as a heron or a fish at the same time.
Most numerous: Leafhoppers
There are more leafhopper species worldwide than all species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians combined. In a field full of leafhoppers, there may be several million per acre.
From Busy with Bugs by Toni Albert. Check it out!
Important note: Don’t pick up a spider. Many spiders bite and two are really dangerous –the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse. A Black Widow is shiny black with a red hour-glass on its underside. The Brown Recluse is yellow-brown and has a dark violin on top.
Spiders have spinnerets on their rear ends, which spin out silk. A single spider can spin different kinds of silk for different purposes: for traps and nets, ropes for binding prey, safety lines and parachutes, egg sacs, and nests and sleeping bags. Spider silk is stronger than steel of the same thickness. It’s stretchier than rubber.
When I walk in the woods, spider webs often catch my eye -- especially after a shower when the webs are lined with water droplets. A newly made web is perfect and precise, just right for catching the spider’s prey. An orb web is made to trap flying insects. A funnel web or a sheet web catches crawling insects. And a cobweb may net both flying and crawling insects.
Look for spider webs in corners or around windows in a basement or garage. Look around the foundation of your house. Look in grass, shrubs, or trees. When you find a web, take a photo of it. You can make a photo collection of different kinds of webs. Jiggle the web with a tiny twig to draw the spider from its hiding place if you want a photo of the spider too.
To collect a spider web, you’ll need a large piece of sturdy paper, a can of black spray paint, and a can of spray adhesive. (You can find spray glue at a home improvement center.) Find a web that can be reached from both front and back like a web between two trees or two posts. Scare the spider away with a twig. (Don’t worry, it will make a new web.) Lightly – very lightly! – spray one side of the web with the black paint. Then spray the back side of the web with spray adhesive. Bring your paper against the sticky side of the web, so that the web sticks to the paper. To protect the web, you can cover the paper with clear contact paper when you get home.
Bees and pollinators
When we admire flowers, we usually look at their colors and shapes, but the most interesting parts of a flower are in its center. That’s where all the action is. The center is like a factory where seeds are quietly made. The trick is getting the male part of the flower – the yellow dust called pollen – to the tiny seeds-to-be in the female parts of the flower. Most flowering plants can’t make seeds without outside help. Bees, butterflies, flies, wasps, birds, and bats brush pollen onto the female parts of the flower as they land on the flowers and move around. They act as pollinators.
Bees and pollinators and us
A third of our food supply depends on pollinators. They’re essential to food production. When we lose bees and other pollinators, we lose more than honey. We lose apples and pumpkins and cranberries and strawberries and avocados and more than 140 other fruits and vegetables. In the US, we could lose more than $15 billion a year in agricultural production. Pollinators also support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soil, and support other living things, both animals and plants.
Bees and pollinators and us and them
Last year we lost 44% of our honeybee colonies. Since 1990, almost 970 million Monarch butterflies have vanished. Diseases, pests, and climate change are contributing to the decline of pollinators, but growing scientific evidence points to pesticides containing chemicals called neonics as the biggest culprit. The largest neonic producers, companies like Bayer and Syngenta, coat seeds and provide pesticides for crops, which result in killing pollinators as well as pests.
Bees and pollinators and us and them and the future
What can we do to help protect pollinators – and apple pie and guacamole?
Friends of the Earth – BeeAction.org
The League of Conservation Voters – Stop the Bee-pocalypse!
Bees and pollinators and us and them and the future and our new backyards
It’s fun to plant with pollinators in mind. Whether you’re planting a potted plant for a city roof garden or landscaping a backyard, consider pollinators and their favorites.
Honeybees – anise hyssop, aster, beebalm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, columbine, coneflowers, goldenrod, lavender, sage, thyme, yarrow
Common Eastern bumblebee – clover, rosemary, sunflower, willow
Hummingbird moth – phlox, bee balm, honeysuckle, verbena
Native bee – anise hyssop, blazing star, fruit crops
Pollen wasp – Western wildflowers
Karner blue butterfly – butterfly weed, leafy spurge, blazing star
European honeybee – sage – lemon balm
Monarch butterfly – milkweed
Hoverfly – yarrow, wild mustard
Bee fly – Desert and alpine flowers
Drone fly – alyssum, cosmos, Queen Anne’s lace, lupine
From Martha Stewart’s Living magazine
A brilliant idea
Katie Martin-Meurer teaches a three-dimensional design course at the University of Wisconsin. She wanted her students to design bird houses for a local park. But then she found out that there might not be enough insects for the birds to eat. In the last 35 years, the number of insects, worms, and other small creatures has almost been cut in half – mostly because of loss of habitat and the use of pesticides on plants.
So Martin-Meurer had another idea. She had her students build bug motels. She asked Daniel Young, an entomologist (someone who studies insects), to help them. Their assignment had two parts: they had to build a correct habitat for a particular insect or bug and they had to provide information on why that little animal is important in nature and needs to be protected.
Isn’t that a wonderful idea? When the students’ bug motels were finished, all 90 of them were placed at nature centers and hiking trails throughout the state. Each one has a QR code, which visitors can scan to find out about the bugs that might make their homes in that bug motel.
Build a bug motel
If you’d like to build a bug motel, think of some of your favorite bugs. Find out what kind of natural habitat (home) they need. Then find out why we should protect them.
Here are some ideas to get you started. A good motel room (habitat) for daddy longlegs, millipedes, and pill bugs might include a layer of soil topped with leaf litter. Add a piece of damp, rotting log or bark. Add an apple core for food and always keep the room moist with a mister.
A motel room for cicadas, click beetles, and grasshoppers could include a few inches of dirt with some leafy branches to climb on. Add plants and some pieces of leafy vegetables. Keep a moist paper towel in their room.
Crickets like a motel room with two inches of sand and a container of wet sand for egg laying. Add things to hide in like small sections of toilet paper rolls. Load their frig with lettuce (for water), dry cat food, and vegetable scraps. Keep their room warm but away from direct sunlight.
Why do we care?
All living things are important to our environment, but partly because of their great numbers, bugs are especially important. Bugs provide food for many animals, including birds, bats, lizards, frogs, and fish. Some bugs are decomposers, which clean up everything from dead leaves to dead bodies. Others, especially certain flies, bees, and wasps, are pollinators. Bugs also help keep nature in balance. They keep “invader plants” and insect pests under control by eating them.
What can we do?
Like all animals – including us – bugs are harmed by polluted air, water, and soil. So everything we do to take care of our Earth helps us all. You know what to do: recycle, turn off lights, don’t waste water, etc.
Don’t use pesticides on your lawn or garden. They kill good bugs as well as bad ones.
Don’t buy mounted butterflies or beetles collected in rainforests.
Plant a butterfly garden or a caterpillar garden or any kind of garden. Any garden will be a habitat for bugs.
Bugs are little animals
When I was writing the book, Busy with Bugs, I had a surprising thought: Bugs are little animals. And getting to know them helps us understand the entire Animal Kingdom. Bugs live in every kind of habitat: mountains, deserts, rainforests, caves, rivers, oceans, fields, backyards – and our houses. Some bugs are predators; some are prey. Some are diurnal (active during the day); some are nocturnal (active at night). Some bugs hibernate; some migrate. Bugs fly, hop, crawl, and run. They eat, drink, rest, hide, communicate, build homes, raise young, attack, fight, die. They are little animals.
And since bugs are animals, we must treat them with respect and care. If you’re interested in catching and keeping live bugs, you’ll need to handle them gently and take care of them responsibly. By learning to love and protect all living things on our planet, you’ll become a better caretaker of our Earth.
Keeping bugs alive
Whether you catch a bug with a bug trap (see “My 5 favorite bug traps”) or find a bug when you’re exploring, use a paintbrush to push the bug into your collecting jar. If you find bugs under a rock or rotting log, gently replace the rock or log in its original position after you collect your critters.
Make sure your collecting jar has openings to let in fresh air. And put a damp, crumpled paper towel in the jar. That will keep bugs from losing moisture and give them a place to hide. These two simple steps will keep your bug alive. You can learn so much more from a living bug than from a dead one.
Taking care of a pet bug
How many children put a bug in a jar and give it grass to eat? But that doesn’t work, because each kind of bug has its own diet. It would be like putting you in a room and giving you grass to eat. You’d probably say, “Don’t they know that I like french fries?”
You can’t feed a bug until you know its name. You can start by counting its legs. All insects have six legs – and two antennae and three body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen). Other creepy crawlies, which I call bugs, may have eight legs (like spiders or daddy long-legs, which are not spiders) or fourteen legs (like a pill bug) or two pairs of legs on each body segment (like a millipede). Your job is to observe your bug, describe it carefully, then look online or in an insect field guide until you can identify it. You may need some help from an adult.
Once you know your bug’s name, you can find out more about it. Google “What do ladybugs eat?’ or “How can you keep a cricket for a pet?” Sometimes you can take a shortcut if you find a bug on a plant and see evidence that the bug has been eating that very plant. A feeding caterpillar will leave big holes in the leaves of a plant and also frass (caterpillar poop). Then you know exactly what to feed that caterpillar.
I worked very hard to make a Keeping-Bugs Chart for my book. It tells exactly what kind of food and shelter is right for different kinds of pet bugs. It also tells how to provide water with a damp paper towel, a mist or spray, or a certain diet. It even tells which bugs can be kept together in a terrarium. Working on the chart made me understand that you can’t keep a bug as a pet unless you know exactly what it needs.
But … once you’ve done your research and set up your bug’s home, it’s not difficult to care for a pet bug. And it can be extremely interesting. Suppose you’re keeping several crickets in a terrarium. You might observe them eating, chirping, kicking, head-butting, wrestling, establishing territories, or laying eggs. Be sure to keep notes and take photos. It might take care of your science project next year!
Have you ever spread a picnic on the ground and then wondered how so many bugs could suddenly find you? Our world is filled with insects and bugs. More than a million species of insects have been described and classified. Scientists believe there are millions more. If you spent your entire life counting bugs on Earth, you wouldn’t have time to finish. You would have to count a billion billion bugs!
But if there are that many bugs around us, why are they so hard to find when you want one? Suppose you're all ready to go bug hunting. You have a bug container and a magnifying lens and maybe even a field guide to insects. But you can’t find any interesting bugs. Well, you need a bug trap.
In my book, Busy with Bugs, there are directions for making ten different bug traps. Sometimes they work – and sometimes they don’t. (It depends on where you live and the time of year and when and where you place the bug trap.) But m y five favorite bug traps are practically guaranteed to catch bugs.
Make a Beat Sheet by putting a white cloth under a tree or shrub. Beat or shake the branches. Did any bugs fall on the sheet? Scoop them up into your collecting jar. This is a good way to find cicadas, ladybugs, or beetles.
Note: A good way to collect bugs without harming them (or being harmed) is with a paintbrush. Use the brush to gently push bugs into your bug container.
Creep-Under Bug Trap
Spread a thick mat of grass clippings in a shady place. Lay a large plastic garbage bag or a piece of lumber on top of the grass. (If you use a garbage bag, secure it with rocks at each corner.) After a few days, lift the trap carefully and see who moved in.
Fly-Right-In Bug Trap
To catch flying insects, put bits of ripe fruit in a wide-mouth jar. Or at night, put a glow stick in a jar to catch insects that are attracted to light. Place a funnel in the jar opening with the small end of the funnel pointing down. The wide mouth of the funnel balances on the rim of the jar, so that when bugs fly into the jar through the funnel, they won’t be able to get out again.
Note: Ripe banana attracts fruit flies.
This couldn’t be simpler, but it works for me almost every time. Put a clay flowerpot on its side in a deeply shaded area where small plants are growing. Check the flowerpot every day to see if a daddy longlegs is resting in it. You may also find snails, slugs, millipedes, or pillbugs.
On a warm summer night, if you provide a light, the night will provide bugs. You can easily observe moths, beetles, and many kinds of flying insects with a Shining Sheet. Hang a white sheet over a railing or between two trees. Set up a flashlight behind it. Then sit quietly in front of the sheet and watch for visitors.
I don’t try to catch moths (or butterflies), but I love to see them. If you do this experiment every few days during the summer, you’ll see the most amazing variety of flying insects – new ones each week.
Have fun catching bugs!
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”