Bioblitz results

Well, it’s a little belated to report, but the 2019 Indiana Academy of Science (IAS) Bioblitz is a wrap! On June 29-30, we had over 30 scientists come from across the state (actually, as far away as North Dakota) to count & collect as many species as they could in 24 hours.

Dr. Jeff Holland, a Purdue forest beetle entomologist, was the bioblitz chair for IAS. I wish I could work with him every day! He is seen here 2 weeks prior to the event, setting up beetle pheromone traps that he would examine the day of the blitz.

This event was a dream of Sr. Mary and myself since the day I started 3 years ago. We were so honored to be selected as hosts for this special event.

When you see this license plate, you know that you’re hangin’ with the right crew.

Lindenwood graciously opened up their doors to host scientists so that they could be well-rested after some brutally hot hours in the field. Our dining services prepared a great evening banquet that the scientists enjoyed out under the tent on the MoonTree prairie. MoonTree staff rolled out the red carpet on snacks, set-up, tear-down, and all manner of logistics. I couldn’t have asked for a better team!

The temperature soared to 90 degrees, but we kept the ice water flowing and made sure folks took breaks.

We gathered at noon on Saturday and made introductions, looked over property maps, and split into teams according to taxa.

Over at the kids table, my little ones were busy painting with plants and making music with natural instruments, thanks to Elsa, one of our Maria Center residents.

From mid-afternoon through the evening, we had tours and talks scheduled for the public. We wanted to provide opportunities for people to engage with scientists in a relaxed environment.

Despite a lot of planning & great efforts made by our marketing staff, we just didn’t have much of a crowd. It was a little discouraging, but I was reminded that our primary goal was to facilitate the work of the scientists and make sure their quality work can go down in the literature for future students of our natural communities. That is something our team did very well, so I was pleased.

Jeremy Sheets, Senior Wildlife Biologist with Orbis Environmental Consulting, shows off the net he uses to trap and study bats.

After dinner, I put the drone up to take a few shots from above.

I even happened to come across the cows going back out to pasture after taking a drink. It made for an interesting aerial shot. I’ve noticed some very interesting patterns in vegetation at the border of grazed and ungrazed areas that are separated by a fence. Another thing to study someday!

We got ready for the evening by – what else? – making some s’mores. MMMm!

As the light died down, the efforts continued. The entomology team set up a couple lights, including a giant 1,000 watt light on a 10 ft pole at the highest point on MoonTree. What happened next was breath-taking (and, you had to be careful not to open your mouth when it happened!)

As much as we might dislike having creepy crawlies inside our home, they are indispensable members of the web of life (outdoors), and human life would simply not be possible without them.

There is increasing evidence that insect populations are facing severe challenges worldwide. It’s ever more urgent that we advance education on insects and press for their preservation.

Dr. Holland reported that this bioblitz was probably the best night he had ever had with the bug light. That made me incredibly happy and certainly made all the effort in setting up this event worthwhile!

The plant team surveys the western shore of Lake Galbraith on Sunday morning.

Sunday morning saw the field crews out and about again, while some others spent the morning looking at specimens under field microscopes in the tent.

Spiders, spiders everywhere! We estimate around 80-100 species sampled from just a small area.

Dr. Holland mounted up several beautiful specimens for us to see under the microscope, like this Ghost Tiger Beetle.

We used the iNaturalist smartphone app to encourage people to log their sightings on our shared project. We could then look at each other’s observations at a single online location. 15 observers logged a total of 120 species, as shown in this screenshot.

We had a great naturalist by the name of Carl Strang, who put in a great effort to survey the singing insects. His meticulous records and photos are a valuable contribution to the scientific record. He recorded a new species for Marshall County in the process, the eastern striped cricket. He also picked up counting the Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), as we didn’t have anyone counting those. Be sure to see his reflection (and photos) on his blog here.

Grape plume moth (Geina periscelidactylus) by Carl Strang
The Hebrew (Polygrammate hebraeicum) by Carl Strang

Tim Rice counted and photographed birds for us. You can see his photos on his Flickr page here.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) by Tim Rice

We gathered one final time, at noon on Sunday, to talk about preliminary species counts and interesting observations. Unsurprisingly, we found that with the cold, rainy spring, some species seemed to be appearing later in the season than average (we heard a Fowler’s toad calling, which was very rare for late June).

We finished the weekend exhausted, but thankful that we could see so much of Creation on display, in the nooks and crannies and hidden places that we are often too busy to see.

I’ll have to leave you in suspense for the final species count. We won’t really have a good idea until the data can be reviewed during the rest of the summer. Eventually, we’ll put it all together and publish a report in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science

Until then, keep your eyes and ears open! Expect the unexpected.

The Unexpected Cycnia (Cycnia inopinatus) feeds on Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) at MoonTree Studios.

talking prairie plants on WNIT’s Outdoor Elements

I had the pleasure to take a trip to Potato Creek recently and share about native prairie plants with WNIT’s Outdoor Elements team. Our segment aired recently and is available online here. WNIT has put together some really great programing, all of which is published online.

Vince Greschem, one of the co-hosts, is a MoonTree Studios elder. He got started in his career at Potato Creek and worked closely with Sr. Mary in restoring the prairies on the property. It was great to look out over her handiwork and appreciate the folks who have maintained those systems in a healthy condition over time

While you’re here, I think I’ll post a few photos of the species we discuss in the program.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) attracted this Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), who wasn’t sharp enough to spot the Ambush Bug ( Phymata sp.) who was lurking in the petals. Can you see it? Watch out!
My camera doesn’t do it justice, but this is a Dogbane Leaf Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) that I found at home on my Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum). It’s color seems to change according to the angle at which you view it. Dogbane is in the same plant family, Apocynaceae, as the milkweeds (Asclepias spp.).
Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle) caterpillars on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) at my home. I never tire of seeing these fuzzy things! The monarch prefers to spread her risk by only laying an egg or two per plant. This moth does the opposite, mobbing a single plant with dozens of individuals, which can devour whole plants.
We didn’t discuss grasses in the show, but I thought the dew-drenched spiderwebs on this Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) were pretty neat.


bees from above

My child, eat honey, for it is good,
   and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste. (Prov. 24:13 NLT)

We do have a couple hives of bees at our greenhouses for honey production. More on that later. But something happened at home that I thought some readers might find interesting.

Sometimes in life, you get a free-bee.

European honey bees (Apis mellifera) quickly became naturalized on the American continent after European contact. My understanding is that many indigenous communities found (and exploited) these strange new insects before they even knew of the existence of the white man. They were known as the “white man’s flies.”

Most native bee species have a few individuals hibernate underground, while the majority of the colony dying off as the chill advances. Honey bees overwinter as a whole tribe by consuming their stockpiled honey and vibrating their wings for warmth. If they survive and enjoy a good spring with ample nectar flow on the landscape, they can split in two hives (or sometimes one just decides to move).

Like many hive-hosts, we’ve had mixed success getting ours to overwinter. Our last colony died and our supers (boxes) just sat empty. But I saw some activity at the entrance the other day. Not wanting to get my hopes up, I presumed it was just more pirates from another colony looking for a free honey snack stock-piled from the previous set.

But my friend Michael from Vintage Honey Bee confirmed that a new hive had indeed moved in. He found several indicators: dead bees and old frass (poop) were found ejected at the entrance, lots of drones (stingerless males apparently good for nothing except sperm), female workers arriving back at the nest laden with full pollen sacs, and guard bees patrolling the entrance.

I’d like to think that the flower-buffet we’ve laid out in the yard made the spot more attractive and put these boxes on their new home short-list. Either way, it’s just a free gift of abundance from the sky, swarming with excess.

kids at Moontree Studios

While I do plenty of traditional land stewardship activities on our property – like prescribed fire, habitat restoration, and invasive species control – I try to also make connections with the broader community. Sometimes that means taking the show on the road, and sometimes it means hosting.

Last month, we had the privilege of hosting a group of kids from the Plymouth Parks Department summer camp program. We set them lose on the flower-filled grounds of Moontree Studios.

who doesn’t love Moontree?

I love working with kids (as long as chaperones are present!). The wonder and joy of exploring creation is still right at the surface and doesn’t take much (if any) coaxing.

Look closely…

Our first activity was giving them a blank sheet of paper on a clipboard and asking them to pretend they were pollinators in search of flowers. Did we have enough flowers on the landscape? Were their different shapes and colors? Pretend you’re a bee… now buzz off!

With such an open command, each child’s individuality came through. Some drew flowers in a single color, focusing on form. Others wanted more true-to-life shades. Some counted the flower species up exactly. Others just got distracted by a cool bug.

Next, we gave them a strip of duct tape that we put around their wrist as a bracelet, sticky side out. Find a flower petal or two, and make a pretty bracelet. They didn’t take much prodding.

As I was drifting from group to group, I would briefly engage with kids and look at the plants with them. I spotted a spittle bug (watch this great video!), and I showed them how this little creature makes a bubble-bath home to protect himself from predators.

The best part came 10 minutes later, when one boy found a spittle bug all on his own.

This and many other wonders were known to so many kids of the Boomer generation, who grew up in close contact with wild spaces. Many of these spaces are gone, along with the footpaths, kids bicycles, and play forts.

At its most basic, it doesn’t take a lot of complicated planning to connect kids to nature, it just takes our commitment and prioritization. With as much as we know about child development and natural communities, we should see their right to explore and connect on par with the need for education, nutrition, and healthcare.

a trip to Whiterock Conservancy

I took some time off recently to attend a family gathering in Iowa, where a few generations ago my family first homesteaded on the prairie. We decided to stop a couple places on the way to take advantage of having everyone in the car for a road trip.

Our first stop was at Starved Rock State Park, just off of Interstate 80. It has some interesting geology that is unique for northern Illinois. There is a nice system of trails, though with the heavy traffic the park receives, it was a little worse for wear. We somehow managed 3-4 miles in mud and stairs without any ticks, medical emergencies, or emotional breakdowns.

Can you spot the groundhog? He made quite a show of his rock climbing abilities for us

Highlights included a water snake, a giant millipede, and lots of beautiful streams and canyons.

The earth paints slowly, with liquid gravity.

The next day we stopped for a long break at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, which we hadn’t seen since we started a family. The refuge is thousands of acres of habitat located in the heart of corn country, and is one of the largest tallgrass prairie restorations on the continent. They have an active “friends group” (non-profit) that participates in programming and fund-raising, and their prairie learning center is top notch. Suffice it to say, I was a little excited!

An educational display on prairie restoration tools.
Plant plugs in a demonstration/learning greenhouse.
The incomparable roots of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Neal Smith has 700 acres of it’s restoration fenced in for a few dozen bison and elk. Other than rounding them up annually for vaccinations, they leave them be. We didn’t get a close up, but we saw them on the hill.

We lodged that evening at an old farmhouse at Whiterock Conservancy, an organization I have been eyeing for a couple years.

Home, home on the range… a morning filled with the songs of grassland birds.

Whiterock Conservancy is a 5,500 acre non-profit land trust that balances sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection and public recreation on the landscape… Whiterock Conservancy was formed ten years ago to manage one of the largest land gifts in the history of Iowa generously given by the Garst family. Today it stewards 5,500 acres along the scenic Middle Raccoon River Valley near Coon Rapids, IA. The gorgeous Whiterock landscape that attracts visitors from all over the state, region and nation is a mix of savannas, rolling pastures, native and restored prairies, wetlands, riverside bluffs, fishing ponds, crop ground, and unique historic, geologic, and archaeological sites.

Trailhead signs to orient visitors.

I appreciated the simplicity and focus of their mission and the way they integrated the various aspects of the land community. Far from any metropolis or large natural area, it was a very unique place.

Educational signs for field days and tours.

The Prairie Strips project of Iowa State is research that I’ve been following for several years, and I was very pleased stumble upon this demonstration site. “The STRIPS project is composed of a team of scientists, educators, farmers, and extension specialists working on the prairie strips farmland conservation practice. Our research shows that prairie strips are an affordable option for farmers and farm landowners seeking to garner multiple benefits. By converting 10% of a crop field to diverse, native perennials farmers and farmland owners can reduce the amount of soil leaving their fields by 90% and the amount of nitrogen leaving their fields through surface runoff by up to 85%. Prairie strips also provide potential habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and other beneficial insects

Demo site. I saw several researchers in the field as I was sipping my coffee on the front porch.

This is where I’m supposed to write something snappy to sum it all up… but that’s enough commentary and photos. More later… Have a nice weekend!

the return of the Tortrix: Year 3

May 26, 2017 had brought a “plague” of webworm larva to a beautiful plum tree outside of Lindenwood. I wrote about the saga a few weeks after it happened (part 1 and part 2), and the lesson in biodiversity that it offered us. The tree re-foliated nearly completely that summer.

I noticed that the worms were back in 2018. I remember taking a picture, but can’t find it at the moment.

Unsurprisingly, I saw on June 5th that they are back again for the 3rd year in a row (at least).

It looks like we are going to see how resilient this tree is! Until then, we wish a happy feast for all the fat baby bluebirds and red-headed woodpeckers.

Solarize Marshall County

We try to not only demonstrate renewable energy technology through our own operations (like solar panels and electric vehicles), but also to help encourage and facilitate its adoption throughout the community.

So it is with great excitement that we seeing a Northern Indiana Solarize program launch in Marshall, St. Joseph, and Elkhart counties. It is being led by the intrepid and tireless Leah Thill, Senior Environmental Planner for the Michiana Area Council of Governments.

If you are a home or small business owner interested in learning more, please join us in Culver on June 19th.

an heirloom corn trial at Moontree

Perhaps our grand societal experiment in social media will eventually prove to be a huge waste of time, a determinant to our mental health and spiritual satisfaction, and the death blow to civic discourse and democracy, but occasionally it can be quite useful!

I have just enough Spanish fluency to be dangerous (read: to sound like a babbling 3-year-old), and I saw a Spanish-language posting on Facebook looking to recruit folks to plant some heritage/heirloom Mexican corn varieties, for the purpose of amplifying the seed stock.

Corn is an amazing plant. It is thought to have originated from a Mexican/Central American grass named teosinte. Maize (as it’s called outside of U.S., and maíz in Spanish) has been cultivated (domesticated) by humans over the last 9,000 years or so. Through annual cycles of trial and error, humans help create hundreds of varieties of this important grain, suitable for many purposes, soils, and climates. “Corn was ground and made into flour, cornmeal, tortillas, cornbread, hominy, grits, and polenta. They grew flint, dent, and flour corn varieties for these purposes and some of these are still available today” (Growing Heirloom Corn).

I’m pretty sure you have to shuck a minimum of 12 ears of corn per summer or you officially lose your Indiana residency. Bonus Hoosier points if you get a laundry basket full.

Indigenous Americans, at least in the Midwest, appeared to have practiced something like slash-and-burn corn cultivation, where nutrient-rich clearings grew corn for a few years. Without synthetic fertilizers, the fields had to be temporarily abandoned for a number of years or cycled to other crop. Because human populations were much lower than today, this extensive agriculture was not a threat to biodiversity at large In fact, this periodic disturbance, combined with fire and grazing animals, gave rise to a diversity of habitat types across the landscape and thus a diversity of organisms.

You can read more about heirloom corns here. Its history and diversity is not unlike other domesticated crops. When I lived in Bolivia I learned that the Andean people had over 500 varieties of potatoes in circulation.

With the continued trend of commercialization and simplification of our food system (and commercial ownership of the underlying genetics), we are losing the genetic diversity not just of wild species, but also of our cultivated varieties of food.

Thinking more holistically, each generation in the post-industrial West has also become more disconnected from food diversity and food production systems. So I thought a small foray into this project would be well worth the effort. A small bet, as we like to say.

I connected with a seed saver in the Michiana area who had several samples of various heirloom corns. He graciously offered to ship me two lots for seed amplification. We are growing these not for food (this year), but to increase the seed source and try to recruit new people to participate in maintaining this genetic diversity. Corn is a cultural as much as a genetic resource, and has to be maintained over time.

I planted the first block of ~200 seeds the other week. It is called Tabilla de Ocho and is from the Sinaloa region of Mexico. There are some pretty substantial differences in climate, soils, and day-length between here and there, so it’s a bit of a gamble. But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

Now, the cultural connection I will admit is a bit of a stretch. I don’t have indigenous or Mexican heritage myself. Eventually, I’d like to find a way to connect this project (if it turns into a project) to our neighbors of Mexican heritage. The most recent round of immigration into Marshall County includes Mexican families who came for agricultural work. Most of these jobs, I believe, are gone and have been replaced with factory and service work. I’m curious to see if there is interest.

I invited Sister Yolanda (a PHJC who is visiting from the Mexican community of Sisters) to join me to sembrar. As we planted, she told me about her experience planting and tending corn as a little girl.

Before long, we were done. We covered the seeds in a layer of thick compost.

A week later I caught another break in the weather to plant the 2nd set of corn, Bear Island Chippewa, which is an Ojibwe variety from the Great Lakes region. Without knowing much else, I expect that it will do better than the Sinaloan corn, being that it is adapted to this region. The seeds were a beautiful rainbow of colors.

These are open-pollinated varieties, meaning that if they happen to tassel (pollinate) at the same time, I could get cross-contaminated seed. But… taking an optimist’s viewpoint, I could just be creating a brand new variety of seed. (These aren’t the very last lots of these varieties, otherwise this would be a much more controlled environment).

After 7 days, the first planting of Tabilla de Ocho had already sprouted. And the first weed seedling emerges between the rows, so I had to take care of those too.

Sitting back and enjoying the (small) fruits of my labor for a brief second, my thoughts of course turned to the rest of the growing season… I had just committed myself (and a couple other co-workers) to regular weeding, emergency watering, and fertilization (corn is a very nitrogen-hungry crop). That’s all if the raccoons and deer don’t destroy everything in a single night’s raid.

I suppose that’s kind of the point. Corn is a human invention, a species that has been domesticated to suit our purposes. It requires our intervention, discernment, attention, and resources.

But considering that we (Westerners) have plowed, drained, and chemically treated 99% of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in pursuit of this grain… perhaps it is in the fact the corn that has domesticated us!