Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Fun: Find the frogs

Here are two photographs from my recent backyard frog-spotting expeditions with Kerm. Can you find the frogs? They like to hide!

(Note: You can zoom in on the second image and get a pretty good look at the frog. See its striped legs? I wonder if it really is a Spring Peeper? I can't find pictures of any frogs common to my region that look quite like that.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Our nocturnal neighbors

Birds aren't the only animals checking out our backyard. The other night, Itinerant Cryptographer let the dog out back and promptly announced to me that I needed to take a look outside. This is what I saw:

Only I didn't just see one frog on the outside of the sliding glass door. I counted fourteen of them! Each one was tiny, about the size of the tip of my thumb. They weren't real keen on me taking photographs of them, though. I think the flash scared them.

The next day, Kerm and I walked around in the backyard to look for the frogs to try and identify them.

I didn't get very good photographs, but I think they are treefrogs, possibly Spring Peepers. Spring Peepers are noctural treefrogs common to wooded areas in the Northeastern United States. The most distinguishing feature of a Spring Peeper is the "X" on its back, which you can almost see here (or could if I had worked my optical zoom a bit better!):

Note how tiny these frogs are! I have small hands for a human, but my fingers are giant-sized from their perspective. Can you imagine hopping around with clovers as tall as your head?

Kerm and I were tickled to see so many frogs in our backyard. But then we discovered that something else was interested in our frogs. Can you imagine what predator might like our frogs? Find out for sure next week!

Photo credits: Mama Joules

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A new neighbor?

Years ago, Itinerant Cryptographer purchased this birdhouse for me on one of his many trips to California. For the past several years, we had placed it on a low-hanging branch in front of our house. One year, a bird finally showed interest and filled it with twigs. Unfortunately, said bird also spotted our dog, loud and barking, and fled soon after. I emptied out the twigs, but the birdhouse remained vacant.

After we moved, I hung the birdhouse out back. We don't have any trees in our yard, so a wooden slat was the closest thing that I could find. After hanging outside for a year, I finally noticed a medium-sized songbird taking an interest in the birdhouse. I called to Kerm excitedly.

"Look! Look at that bird! He's checking out our birdhouse."

Kerm and I watched the bird for some time. He went inside the birdhouse and poked his head out, scanning this way and that.

"He's checking out the house, just like we did!" said Kerm.

The bird climbed on top of the birdhouse.

"Look, he climbed the stairs," announced Kerm.

On the roof of the birdhouse, the bird craned its neck to take a good look around and poked his head through the slats of the fence.

"He's checking out the neighbors!" said Kerm, laughing.

I'm not sure if our visitor will be back. I walked back to the birdhouse tonight and peeked inside. The house is still vacant. Like so many other homes today, this one may require several "walk-throughs" before we get a permanent resident. But if we do, I'll follow up with another picture. Next time, I might even manage to identify the type of bird!

Photo credit: Mama Joules

Friday, July 24, 2009

Babies understand dogs

Gibson, an obviously happy dog

Have you seen the media response to the July 2009 article in Developmental Psychology on babies & dogs? "Infants’ intermodal perception of canine (Canis familairis) facial expressions and vocalizations" by authors Flom, Whipple & Hyde is taking the world by storm, with coverage in DiscoveryNews, LiveScience®,, and more.

The researchers describe how they showed babies (ages 6-24 months) unfamiliar with dogs two pictures: one dog with an aggressive expression and a second photo of the same dog with a non-aggressive posture. Before hearing the barks, the babies showed no preference for either photo and stared around the room at other things in addition to looking at the pictures. But after hearing the barks, babies as young as six months understood the connection between the pictures and the sounds. In older babies, their first look went toward the correct dog picture upon hearing the bark. The study showed that babies responded to the information differently as they got older. Younger babies spent more time staring at the pictures, apparently trying to figure out what was going on.

Jeanna Bryner, Senior Writer for LiveScience®, recently covered the study and interviewed one of the authors. You can see examples of the pictures the babies were shown (the aggressive dog pictures are scary!) and the researcher's (sometimes humorous) thoughts about the study in her article, Babies Grasp Dogs' Emotions.

As our baby approaches the six month mark, I often wonder what she is thinking. She responds to our smiles with smiles of her own. Clearly, understanding emotion is a priority for the little ones. "[These] new findings come on the heels of a study from the same Brigham Young University lab showing that infants can detect mood swings in Beethoven's music," reports I wonder if babies ever smile at dogs?

Our Princess often startles from loud noise, but our dog's bark has never bothered her. She even sleeps through our dog's (sometimes protracted) barking jags. Somehow, knowing that Princess senses our dog's mood makes me feel better about them sharing her Boppy® pillow.

Photo credit of happy dog Gibson: Mike McCune, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cricket ears are amazing

A department store recently used this fact -- Crickets have ears on their knees! -- to peak interest in an email ad. I thought the claim sounded bogus (can you just picture a little cricket with tiny ears sticking out of its legs?), so I took to the Internet to investigate.

It turns out the ad is correct (my apologies to Kohl's). The University of Arizona Center for Insect Science Education Outreach states in their Cricket Information sheet that when the male chirps, "the resulting chirping sound is picked up by the female's ears on her front legs."

Still, I figured that these "ears" would be simple structures, nothing that would even come close to rivaling the complexity of the human ear. But again, I was mistaken. The book Artificial Neural Networks: Biological Inspirations – ICANN 2005 includes a paper entitled "New Ears for a Robot Cricket". The authors, Torben-Nielsen, Webb & Reeve, state that a cricket has "at least four body openings" used in hearing and describes the cricket's auditory system in this way:
[It] consists of two ear drums ... located on the forelegs and connected through a system of tracheal tubes. One extra sound opening on each side of the cricket body ... is also connected to the tracheal tubes.
In short, the cricket's auditory system is nothing less than amazing. The female cricket uses all of this auditory information to track down the location of the chirping male to mate with him.

Male crickets have an equally complex system for "singing", the noise they generate when rubbing their wings together. As scientist Axel Michelsen explains in the fascinating paper "The Tuned Cricket" (News Physiol Sci 13: 32-38, 1998), "a scraper on one wing hits a series of cuticular teeth on the other". (That's the male cricket's instrument!) The male cricket's wing then acts as a "loudspeaker" to amplify the sound so that the female can hear it. The song is optimized to account for the fact that crickets are low to the ground and the resulting frequency of the vibration ensures that the noise can be picked up and heard by the female.

According to Professor L. C. Miall in House, Garden and Field: A Collection of Short Nature Studies, both male and female crickets can hear:
The male cricket hears the sound which he produces, and the female hears the call of the male.
But only male crickets can sing, a fact I learned from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. They have a nice page about crickets that includes a coloring sheet, the formula for predicting the temperature based upon the number of cricket chirps in a given amount of time, and a recipe for (eeew!) chocolate-covered crickets.

If bugs are your thing, be sure you drop by The Center for Insect Science Education Outreach. Their website has advice for Using Live Insects in Elementary Classrooms for Early Lessons in Life, with lesson plans, information sheets about various insects (including crickets), and tips for caring and raising the little critters.

Photo credit: Larry Page, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fortieth anniversary of landing on the moon

We're very busy right now with guests, but we just couldn't let this day go by without comment. Forty years ago today (July 20, 1969), two human beings (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) landed a spaceship on the moon, and eventually got out and walked around a bit. A third astronaut, Michael Collins, stayed in orbit around the moon.

It's always seemed strange to me that we don't celebrate this day (July 20) as a holiday, along with April 12 (when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth). I like to think that centuries from now, when only serious historians know who John Kennedy or Barack Obama were, or for that matter who George Washington was, school children will still know who Neil Armstrong was, and what he did.

Putting people on the moon with 1960s technology was right on the edge of what was even possible. The Soviet Union never managed it, despite having a space program that was in close competition with ours. Nobody else has even come close.

NASA has a photo album of the Apollo 11 mission, and a nice history of Apollo 11. And there are many more resources, no further away than your favorite search engine.

There are some great documentaries about the US space program out there. An excellent place to start is by watching the movie Apollo 13, about a later mission to the moon that didn't go quite so smoothly. Or you might just look up at the moon, and remember that once, people walked there. I wonder when people will walk around up there again.

Image Credit: NASA

Monday, July 13, 2009

Take a deep breath ...

As you go about your scientific discoveries today, don't forget to ...

stop to look around,

cultivate a sense of wonder,

and enjoy the road you're on.

Photo credits: Mama Joules

Friday, July 10, 2009

Reduce comes first for a reason


Earlier this week, I was telling Itinerant Cryptographer how impressed I was with his most recent purchase.

"You bought reusable water bottles for the boys. That's great!" I enthused. "You don't normally buy stuff like that."

"It wasn't my idea," he responded. "The boys made me do it. They wanted their own water bottles. And they wanted to write their names on them."

I've been recycling water bottles for years -- lots and lots of water bottles -- generating lots and lots of material to be recycled. During those same years, I've recited "reduce, reuse, recycle" without giving much thought to the order of the words.

"Reduce" is first for a reason. Reduction of waste -- reducing our footprint upon the earth -- should be the first step. Once we reduce what we use, we don't need to reuse or recycle nearly as much. And I have an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old to thank for that realization.



Interestingly enough, as I was posting this, I found this in my in-box from my friends at Celebrate Green:

... We've been asked "What is the biggest money saving green tip you can give us when celebrating during the summer?" The answer is, tah dah ... do not buy beverages bottled in plastic. Filtered tap water anyone? Fresh, homemade lemonade?

What do you suppose people did before we had plastic? They used jugs, often of glass or glass bottles. Before you purchase anything in plastic for your picnic or barbecue, think about this: Every year Americans buy 50 billion single-serving plastic beverage containers. Most plastic bottles (approximately 77%), end up in landfills. Add to this the expense as opposed to making your beverage or filling jugs with filtered tap water and this is an eco-idea that's a no brainer ...
For more eco-friendly tips, head on over to Celebrate Green. You can enter your own "wee green tip" in their Wee Glee gum contest. You could win eight boxes of "all-natural, gluten-free chewing gum."

Image adapted from a photo taken by Kristen Holden, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Learning to keep bees: Meet a beekeeper! Part 4

Today, we close our interview with beekeeper Michele Bennett Decoteau, of Blue Hive Journals. (If you're just joining us, here are the links to part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this interview.)

Welcome back, Michele. If someone wants to start keeping bees, what's the best way to begin? Do you have any organizations that you'd recommend for a novice beekeeper?

If you are interested in becoming a beekeeper, the best thing you can do is find a mentor. Check out your local beekeeping organization and start attending classes and meetings. If you are not sure where to find one, call your local bee inspector. Every state has at least one bee inspector in the state agriculture department.

[Note from Mama Joules: Other countries have their own beekeeping organizations, too, like The National Bee Unit in the U.K. Be sure to check your local laws first. Some locations, like New York City, prohibit beekeeping -- not that it stops the New York City Beekeepers Association!]

I also suggest [that] you read a lot. There are many books for beginners on beekeeping. Look for a book written locally because every region has its own variations. I really like Backyard Beekeeping [by C. N. Smithers].

Once you've started keeping bees as a hobby, how much work does it take to care for the bees? How often do you spend working with them? Are you afraid of being stung?

I check my hives weekly from about the end of March through October. Sometimes it is a bit more frequent if I need to do something like change frames around or add medications in the fall. Each check takes anywhere from a half hour to a couple of hours. In addition to checking my bees, I go to the monthly meetings of my local beekeeper's organization so I can learn new stuff.

I love my bees and the time flies. Most of the time I have to remind myself not to go bug them too much! I'd be in the hive every day! Unfortunately, it takes about three days for the hive to settle back down each time I bug them so I try not to disturb the hives if I don't have to.

I am not afraid of getting stung. Getting stung does happen, but it is a reminder to me that I am not doing something right. You don't get in the way of bees doing their job, you move slowly, you take your time, and you don't often get stung. It can be very zen like.

It still hurts to get stung. When you get stung, the first thing you need to do is scrape out the stinger. I find that chewing up English Plantain, a common weed, and putting that on the sting, takes the bite out. Many people say that getting stung from time to time helps their joints stay supple. I have not found that to be the case for me - I tend to swell up where I get stung!

What are the benefits of beekeeping?

Honestly, I just love being with my bees. Working the bees forces you to calm down - it can be quite meditative.

I feel like I am more in tune with my local environment. For example, when the bees were coming into the hive with white pollen all along their backs in March, it took some detective work to figure out that the skunk cabbage was blooming. I tend to be more aware of what is in bloom and for how long.

Of course, honey is a nice bonus along with beeswax. I made beeswax hand cream last year that was great for winter-chapped hands. My goal this year is to try to make lip balm too. Our honey tends to be very light, which is my taste preference.

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences of beekeeping with us, Michele! If you'd like to learn more about backyard beekeeping, please visit Michele and her bees online at Blue Hive Journals.

* * *

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Meet a beekeeper!

Meet a beekeeper! Part 2: The intelligence of bees

Meet a beekeeper! Part 3: Colony Collapse Disorder

National Pollinator Week 2009

Photo credits: Jon Mitchell (top) and Nigel Wedge (bottom), through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Colony Collapse Disorder: Meet a beekeeper! Part 3

Continuing our interview with Michele Bennett Decoteau, of Blue Hive Journals, today's topic is Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, a serious condition that is severely impacting honeybees in the United States. (If you're just joining us, here's part 1 and part 2 of the interview.)

I read recently that nearly one-third of the honeybee population died last year due to CCD. What is Colony Collapse Disorder and how can we help save the honeybees?

CCD is a scary new thing beekeepers are facing. What happens is that beekeeper will open a hive and find healthy larvae and honey but essentially no adult bees. Under typical disease circumstances [only a few adult bees leave and don't return and] there is a decline in bees that is reflected in the larvae and honey. Most diseases show their influence in the larvae [not the adult bees]. The question is where the [adult] bees are and why are they not returning to their hive.

I don’t think a single cause will be found. Some suspects are pesticides, pollution, transporting bees, and disease.

Some pesticides disrupt a bee’s ability to navigate home. One potential culprit is Imidacloprid. When bees get a good dose of this pesticide they act drunk – they cannot fly well, they don’t orient to home, and they get lost easily. This pesticide is banned in other countries but can be purchased [commercially] here in the US. (Mama Joules' sidenote: "Imidacloprid and nicotine have similar activity in the nervous system," according to a 2001 "Insecticide Factsheet" in the Journal of Pesticide Reform.)

Bees are also transported around the country to pollinate large crops. First bees pollinate almonds in California, then they go to Texas to pollinate squash, then maybe over to Georgia for peaches and head up to Maine for blueberries. Bees are eating one single crop at a time and are fed sugar water in transit. This doesn’t sound like a good life for a bee to me. For one thing, the queen and larvae get chilled during transport. I think that all this moving around and single crop feeding is a challenge to the bee’s immune system.

Pollution may affect bees in an unexpected way. Bees use pheromones to communicate within the hive and even to some extent between hives. Pollution can disrupt a bee’s ability to smell and [the bee] may get lost [due to] high levels of pollution.

Disease and bugs that bite bees are an ever increasing issue. Many of these pests come from other countries and were introduced into US bee populations from unmonitored imports of bees. Today, beekeepers use a number of pesticides to deal with these bee-pests.

I am a hobbyist beekeeper and generally we are not affected by CCD. Since we don't know what the cause of CCD is, it is unclear why hobby beekeepers don't see it often. Perhaps it is because we don't transport our hives and feed them a single nectar source or stress them other ways. Stress decreases every being's immune system and a weakened immune system might allow some disease to attack bees. Until we know more about what CCD is, we won't know for sure.

Nonetheless, even hobbyists do keep a close watch on diseases and pests in the hive. Essentially we are just big worker bees taking care of the colony!
Michele's top five things we can do to help the honeybees:
1. Become a beekeeper
2. Buy local honey – Check out farmer’s markets and beekeeper’s organizations
3. Plant native plants for pollinators – Check with your local nursery for ideas
4. Grow organically – Stop using chemical pesticides in your flower and veggie garden
5. Buy organic – The fewer pesticides in use in the environment, the better for bees!

Thanks so much for the insight and advice, Michele! Join us next time as we conclude our interview by learning how to start beekeeping (read the next part of this interview here). Be sure to check out Michele's blog, Blue Hive Journals for more ideas and tips about keeping bees.

Michele says, "Take time to try different honey. It’s OK to have more than one jar of honey! Every honey tastes different. I love lavender honey made from lavender nectar."

If you liked this post, you might like:

Meet a beekeeper!

Meet a beekeeper! Part 2: The intelligence of bees

Meet a beekeeper! Part 4: Learning to keep bees

National Pollinator Week 2009

Photo credits: Michele Bennett Decoteau (top photo); Ryan Wick (bottom photo, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)


[10/2/09: Updated to include links to the rest of the interview. Deleted phrase "native honeybees" because it is factually inaccurate. Honeybees were imported to the United States.]

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Take the lead out of gardening

Did you hear that lead was detected in soil from the White House vegetable garden? I wasn't surprised. Although lead is not widely in use today, prior to 1978, it was a common additive in paint and gasoline. Lead was widely deposited in urban soils through car exhaust and flaking paint from building exteriors. In rural and formerly rural areas, lead may be present in soil from the historic use of lead-containing pesticides like lead arsenate. (If your neighborhood has streets with names like "orchard" or "farm", you probably live on former farmland.)

Since lead is a metal, it is persistent in soil. Unlike a volatile compound (think gasoline fumes), lead tends to stay put. Some of this lead may be bioavailable, meaning it can enter your plants and, ultimately, you and your family.

But don’t let your concerns about lead exposure dampen your enthusiasm for gardening with your kids! There are easy steps that you can take to limit this problem:

• Locate your garden away from roads and buildings. This 1995 study showed that soils in some inner-city front yards in Washington, DC were contaminated with lead; the source was traced to paint.

• Consider importing fresh topsoil for your garden. You can work this soil into your planting beds or use containers and elevated planters.

• Make sure that you and your children wash your hands after gardening and remove your shoes before coming into the house. Wipe the feet of pets that have been in the garden with you.

• Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them. Ingesting contaminated soil poses a greater human health risk than eating foods grown in contaminated soil.

• Studies have shown that leafy greens (like lettuce) and roots (such as carrots and onions) are the most likely to uptake metals. If you are concerned about the soil in your garden, you may want to grow fruits, like tomatoes, which are less likely to become contaminated.

At 93 parts per million, the lead levels found in the White House garden are actually quite low for urban soils; values over 400 ppm lead might raise an eyebrow. To learn more about the possible risks of lead exposure from gardening, check out:

"Leaden Gardens" from ScienceNews

"Lead in the Home Garden and Urban Soil Environment" from the University of Minnesota Extension Office

And to learn more about lead and lead poisoning, visit:

"Blood-Lead Level Basics: What You Really Need to Know" from Washington Parent

Public Health Statement for Lead from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

A portion of this article appeared previously in Natural Family Online.

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,