Woolly Bears’ Picnic

White woolly bear on sunflower leaf by PPJ (2018) CC-BY-SA 2.0

In the children’s song, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a group of Teddy Bears has a party in the woods when their humans aren’t looking. (When I was 4, I found this song particularly terrifying. Maybe was the idea of toys sneaking off into the woods, or the minor key or the scratchy record it was playing on in my preschool classroom.)

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find a party of fuzzy caterpillars (colloquially known as “Woolly Bears”) hanging out on the undersides of various plant leaves in the garden.

As cute and fuzzy-appearing as they are, I avoided petting them. The spines in the caterpillar fur can sting or cause allergic reactions in humans, which is a pretty useful self-defense mechanism.

I’ve posted photos on iNaturalist to see if I can get more specific id’s, but I suspect these are probably some variety of Tiger Moths (Family

In other more terrifying caterpillar news, I also observed a hornworm (Sphinx Moth larva) on my tomato plant being parasitized by brachonid wasp cocoons.

The female wasp lays her eggs inside the hornworm caterpillar. (She also injects some venom and a symbiotic virus that inhibits the caterpillar’s immune response and prevents metamorphosis.) The baby wasp larvae feed inside the caterpillar’s body, then form cocoons on the outside of the caterpillar. It’s like the hornworm caterpillar is the babysitter, who has to house and feed the babies dinner (from its own hemolymph). Of course, when the adult wasps emerge from their cocoons, it usually kills the hornworm.

This is probably has helped my tomato plants, by slowing how much damage to hornworms can do by nibbling. We got a great crop delicious cherry tomatoes. On the other hand, I recognize a certain pathos in the doomed caterpillar.

More about how braconid wasps parasitize Manduca spp. caterpillars.



Zinnias and Marigolds with Bench by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0

On my way home from work in Ann Arbor, I stopped at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to spend a few minutes of quiet contemplation to end a busy week. When I entered the Gateway Gardens (the first section visitors encounter from the parking lot), I was blown away by the pops of exuberant color in “ordinary” garden flowers like zinnias, marigolds, and nasturtiums.

“Whoa!” I thought. “This is what I would do if I had a yard. Rip out all the manicured grass and replace it with a wild riot of summer color.” These plants are not hard to grow at all in Michigan, and have been frequent residents of my community garden plots alongside the edible plants. I just love how bright and cheerful they are, as well as how humans are not their only admirers.

Bee on cup-plant by PPJ (2018) CC-By-SA 2.0

Images of color-drenched gardens swarming with pollinators have been dancing in my head every since my visit.

Tangent: For more Ann Arbor “Zinnspiration,” check out the chalk art of local artist David Zinn .

Summer time pause

Sunflower selfie!

An excellent time to slow down for a minute. An exhalation, a summer time pause. A chance to share some of my garden pictures.

Dirt rental Summer 2018 at Van Buren Township Park Community Garden

Summer is brief and bright and busy!

Snow pants, ready!

These steps may be closed for winter, but the outdoors are wide open! Steps closed for winter by Protopian Pickle J (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

retro legwarmers

One of the things that I have learned since moving to Michigan is that cold & snowy weather is not really an excuse for staying inside. Instead, you wrap your shivering limbs in multiple layers of warm clothing, then top everything off with an insulated and waterproof shell of coat, gloves, boots and snowpants.

Photo left: A good first step. Now to get off the couch and get outside! Retro legwarmers by Protopian Pickle Jar (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0.

(Also important: hats, scarves or other face covering, but need not be waterproof if inside your crunchy tardigrade*-shell of outer gear.)

Tangent: Tardigrades are microscopic animals, also known as water bears, that are tolerant of extreme cold, dessication and other environmental insults. I also think they are extremely cute. Photo below : Water Bear by Aditya Sainiarya (2015) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Between the ages of 1 and 6, I lived with my family near Milwaukee, WI, where a similar winter climate necessitated my adult caregivers bundling me up in many layers of protective insulation. At some point, I must have learned how to bundle myself, because I remember pulling on bib-style snowpants, “moon boots,” lovingly-knitted wool hats, and those mittens that would clip to the inside of your coat sleeves with metal alligator clips.

tardigrade baby
Bundled baby in the snow. Cute snowsuit provides slight resemblance to a tardigrade. Public domain via Pxhere. https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1345198

Maybe my early years in Wisconsin are the source a vague sense of nostalgia I felt when pulling on my snowpants and snow boots to staff winter break camp at the Nature Center. During first week of January 2018, daily highs hovered around 10 deg F (-12 deg C). To determine a safe amount of time we could spend outside in the cold, we referred to the NOAA windchill chart. As long we were in the “safe zone” with regards to air temp and wind speed, we could let appropriately bundled kids stay outside up to about 30 minutes.

Our day was a mosaic of inside/outside transitions around planned activities.

  • Kids Arrive: Take off coats, snowpants, boots etc for morning stations and welcome circle indoors.
  • Morning Activity: Put on snowpants, coats, boots etc. for morning hike outdoors.
  • Warm-up interlude and snack: Remove boots, coats and snowpants.
  • (Repeat with additional indoor/outdoor activities, warm up interludes including lunch and afternoon snack, until 5:30pm when parents arrive to pick up kids.)

Which leads to the following exchange:

New Camper: This is my first time at winter break camp! What do we do here?

Me: Well, we have a lot of cool activities planned. But we mostly put on and take off our snowpants.

Our nature center, accordingly to popular acclaim, hosts one of the finest sledding hills in Ann Arbor. This means that we incorporate sledding as an outdoor activity whenever possible during the course of the day’s activities.

Memories of an Ancient Shallow Sea

Running low on salt, by A. Drauglis, (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr.

This morning, I woke up to the rumble of salt trucks and snow plows. Southeast Michigan is experiencing the first significant snowfall of the season this week. The mood is varied (depending on who you ask) with emotions of delight, annoyance and resigned acceptance (sometimes all mixed together).

While the kid part of my personality checks the school closings for a snow day first thing (810 today in Metro Detroit!), the grownup part (with the driver’s license) is very grateful for my car’s snow tires, the snow removal crews and copious amounts of rock salt sprinkled on the roads. Salt, when added to the wintry roads, keeps the slush and melted snow from re-freezing by depressing the freezing point of water. When salt molecules dissolve in a film of liquid water on top of ice, these dissolved substances alter the way that water molecules can line up to freeze. It takes a lower temperature to freeze water with stuff dissolved in it.

Much of the rock salt used this area is actually mined from salt deposits 1100 feet beneath Metro Detroit. (For more about the history and mining process of the Detroit Salt mines check out The Detroit Salt Co. page.)

These salt layers are what remains of a shallow saltwater sea that once covered this area around 410 million years ago. This ancient “Great Lakes region” (which is a little confusing, because the Great Lakes wouldn’t form for another 400 million plus years), was located near the equator. Coral reefs allowed some water in, but limited exchange with the larger ocean. The seawater got saltier and saltier as the water evaporated in this hot climate.

salt deposits at the Dead sea
Maybe the salty sea looked something like this. Halite deposits on the western Dead Sea coast, Israel. by Mark A. Wilson (2012) CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADead_Sea_Halite_View_031712.jpg

Eventually, the salt (and other minerals) would precipitate in layers from the super salty water that sank to the sea bottom. By the end of the Silurian period (390 mya), this inland sea completely dried up, leaving only the salt deposits behind. (I highly recommend checking out MSU Prof. Randall J. Schaetzl’s online resources about Great Lakes geology.)

I like to think about how the salt spread on the local roads (even though it contributes to potholes, cars rusting and water pollution) is a connection in deep time to sunny days on an ancient sea. Right here, in this place (but not this latitude), now and 400 million years ago.

Fall Migration

Morning at Mariner Park 1 by Protopian Pickle Jar, (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/ykM8Cj

Last night around sunset, we noticed a steady stream of gulls flying south against the pinkish-purple sky. Every time we thought the flock was done, for a few heartbeats of open sky, the procession started again with a new wave of gulls. “They’re going south for the winter,” Toby observed.

I didn’t get a picture through the window blinds, but today went searching for some potential identities for these Laridae migrants.

Per the MSU Extension, possibilities include the Ring Billed Gull(Larus delawarensis)and Bonaparte’s Gull(Larus philadelphia).

While both Ring-Billed Gulls and Bonaparte’s Gulls migrate through southeast Michigan, open water and abundant landfills may provide incentive for some populations to stay here through the winter.

Gulls on Detroit River, Mariner Park by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015), CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/ykVTL2

So how do the gulls know where they’re going? Ring-billed gulls have a built-in sensitivity to magnetic fields that can help them navigate. Even 2 day old “chicks showed a preference for magnetic bearings that would take them in the appropriate direction for their fall migration. The gulls also rely on landmarks and high-altitude winds to provide directional cues.”

In my work as an environmental educator, we’ve been teaching our PreK students about animal survival strategies for the winter: Migrate, Hibernate and Stay Active. One adorable 4 year old, when asked about the word that describes birds flying south for the winter, shot up his hand.

“They retire to Florida!” he announced proudly.

Makes sense to me!

Time lapse

Over the summer, I diligently more-or-less managed to water my garden and to document its growth on my camera phone.  Even though I have worked with gardens and growing things for awhile, it is still really exciting to be able to see the changes over the course of the season. I also know that annual plants are supposed to produce seeds, wither and die at the end of their life cycle. But it’s still always a little sad to witness the green garden I nurtured turning brown and crumbly.

My contract with the community garden stipulated that I had to vacate my plot by October 15th. I finally got around to pulling out the dead plants two weeks later, and putting their considerable biomass into the dumpster at the park. In an act of minor rebellion, I left my sage (which was still abundant and green) and the still-blooming sweet alyssum (which had grown huge and floofy.)

The days here in Michigan are turning colder and rainier, which gives me the opportunity to upload and organize all those summer garden photos. I was trying to use Flickr to arrange photos taken of the same of angle of the garden in chronological order, to show the planting, growth and decline of each section. I’m ambivalent about the results, but readers are welcome to check them out here.

I think it may be better to just showcase specific plants in their various life stages. Even the dried-out sunflowers make me pretty happy (I used to see goldfinches eating the seeds, but my camera skills are not strong enough to get a good picture of the birds).