the late season flower rush

Fall is definitely here. Leaves are changing. Temperatures are dropping… though not by much yet it seems. But there’s a good chance of our first freezing temperatures Friday night.

For many creatures who make their living during the “growing season,” the rush is on. Time to fatten up, migrate, mate, and/or reproduce ASAP.

You can now see the last of the late-season flowers on the landscape. Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and Asters (Symphiotrichum spp.) are two abundant native taxa. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is our last woody species to bloom, usually in late fall but their subtle blossoms have been reported as late as Christmas time. Heck, my apple tree even flowered last week! I think it’s confused.

The blue-winged wasp (Scolia dubia) is a beautiful and common late-season insect, feeding here on some Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) in my front lawn in late 2017. The mamas lay eggs on Japanese Beetles grubs, which their larva will consume.

I’ve been watching insects frenetically mob these decreasing-number of flowers and plants. Lots of bumblebees, blue-winged wasps (photo above, plus see this great link), and last night, a couple migratory Monarch butterflies (who flew away before I could get a photo).

But anyway, the flower that inspired this post was this beautiful red Dahlia:

Bumblebee nectaring on Dahlia flower, Oct 9, 2018.

Now, I am very passionate about my ecological beliefs, but I try not to be “fundamentalist” about it. I like to extol the many benefits of getting native plants on the landscape, plants which evolved complex relationships with the rest of the web of life, but non-native plants certainly provide a level of ecosystem services.

I like Dahlias for several reasons. They are beautiful, require little care, need no fertilizer, and don’t seem to spread or seed. They have long and late bloom periods, and I always find bumblebees on them. This perennial is not not cold-hardy in our area so I just grab the tubers before the hard frosts come and store easily in a bucket in the garage. Come spring, I just lazily plop them in spare spots around the yard and wait for them to pop up and surprise me! This is just a little extra work, but beats having them spread out of control where I don’t want them I suppose.

Fall is a desperate time for pollinators, so I really like the consistent and abundant blooms of the Dahlia. Bumblebees don’t seem to much mind which flower it is, as long as the nectar and pollen are available.

As one last aside, I had a student worker gather acorns recently, which we’ll sow on some degraded land. I came into the office this Monday to find these little grubs crawling all over my office. Apparently there was some insect that had laid eggs inside the acorns of this White Oak (Quercus alba).

Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice (Ps. 96:12)

public report on study of Lake Galbraith

Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ will receive the final results of a Lake Gilbert LARE Grant Study by Cardno, a natural resource and ecological consulting firm, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

The results of the Water Quality Management Study for Lake Gilbert, (aka Lake Galbraith), will be shared, along with ideas for the lake, at a meeting on October 16, 2018, at 7:00 p.m. EDT in MoonTree Gallery, 9638 N. Union Road, Plymouth, IN 46563.

This Water Quality Management Study enables the Poor Handmaids to immediately begin implementing more Best Management Practices and Wetland Functional Quality Improvement Plans for the watershed area surrounding Lake Galbraith, which is part of the Flat Lake Watershed.

The public is invited. Flat Lake stakeholders and landowners are encouraged to attend.

wildflower tour with Maria Center residents

So this is a little belated, but I thought I’d share some July photos from our “wildflower tour” with Maria Center residents.

Many of the folks now in retirement have had rural or agrarian childhoods, so it’s always a great time of mutual sharing of personal memories and observations about life outdoors.

Some of our residents are very active walkers and cyclists, but others hadn’t seen the full extent of our property and what we have growing.

We discussed the ecological (and aesthetic) importance of having flowering plants in patches across the landscape, with varying bloom times from early spring to late fall.

I remember that one resident remaking, “I had no idea… I just thought they were all ‘weeds’.” You could imagine the smile on my face!

(Click to the photos to enlargen)

BIG news for NW Indiana

I know I’m behind on blogging, but there was some big news that dropped yesterday:

NIPSCO Eyes Plan for Cleaner, Lower-Cost Energy Future

Northern Indiana Public Service Company LLC (NIPSCO), a subsidiary of NiSource Inc. (NYSE: NI), announced today as part of its future electric supply planning process, that analysis shows the most viable option for customers would include moving up the retirement of a majority of its remaining coal-fired generation in the next five years and all coal within the next 10 years. Likely replacement options point toward lower-cost renewable energy resources such as wind, solar and battery storage technology.

Here’s the full press release, and the presentation slides if you really want to geek out.

Sunrise over Moontree, Sep 14, 2018

It’s clear now that the trend is inevitable (it’s been already clear to energy analysts for some time). Very few technologies will be able to compete with free fuel. It’s now a matter of finding the right mixtures of various fuel types, integrating that with usage patterns across a grid, and deploying them. The politics and social dynamics are probably the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

We already know we will make the transition to renewable, low/no-carbon energy this century. So… why not do it quickly? The science is telling us that to avoid the worst of ecological degradation, we have to do it fast, much faster than the current pace.

This means rapid deployment of renewable energy and increased research and development.

It means the complete electrification of the transportation system. We know that electric vehicles produced today will continue to get cleaner for every year of their ~20 year lifespan. Further investment in any fossil fuel infrastructure runs the risk of becoming obsolete, as well as morally dubious.

If that sounds drastic, that’s only because of how slowly we’ve been adjusting our frames of mind to the challenges that scientists are continually revealing to us. In this light, rapid transformation is the most conservative, cautious action we can take; doing nothing becomes radically irresponsible.

As always, I return to the words of Pope Francis in Laudato si’ (2015), a beautiful synthesis of science and faith:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the less harmful alternative or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition. In recent decades, environmental issues have given rise to considerable public debate and have elicited a variety of committed and generous civic responses. Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world. Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities. (par. 165)

The news isn’t always so cheery, but yesterday was a good day for our children’s world.

(Bonus: Also yesterday we saw this from our neighboring state: “AEP Ohio filed plans for the single largest clean energy development in Ohio history – at least 900 megawatts of new wind and solar generation, would more than double the amount of utility scale clean energy in the state.”)

first solar array tilting

Our solar arrays were installed this June by Ag Technologies of Rochester, IN. Their SolarCAM(R) system allows us to tilt the arrays four times per year to maximize solar production. As the sun appears lower on the horizon in the fall and winter, we tilt the arrays up (steeper) to be perpendicular with the rays.

We actually like that the system is not automated. That would mean moving parts and motors, parts that will inevitably fail and need to be replaced. If you can put up a pop-up camper, you can tilt these arrays.

Interestingly enough, the tilting schedule is not evenly spaced across the year. We tilt on or around August 24 (37 degrees), October 7 (45 degrees), March 20 (back to 37 degrees), and April 18 (12 degrees). This is a function of the sun’s altitude on the horizon. All of these values can be calculated for any zip code, at any date in the future at this Navy website. Your tax dollars at work!

I’m blessed to have an ecological intern this fall from Ancilla College’s Earn to Learn Scholarship Program. I’m looking forward to working with Trace, providing him with a diverse set of experiences, and getting some extra jobs done that have been on my to-do list. We didn’t waste any time… after we met each other yesterday, we went right out to the fields to get tiltin’…

habitat update: fire effects, new bees, and an Unexpected Cycnia

Lots of odds and ends here… I apologize for the random nature of things, but I thought you’d enjoy hearing about this and that.

1) “Iron plant”

Sr. Mary and I were at the Moontree Lodge the other day and she pointed outside and said, “What’s that purple plant down there? I’ve never seen it there.” I took a look, it was Ironweed, (a Vernonia species, I forgot to check which one). “Did you plant that?” “Nope, it just showed up!”

Just before the tree line are several ironweed plants topped with deep purple flowers.

Ironweed is often found in pastures. We don’t hardly need to seed it, as it’s pretty common on the landscape and manages to show up often. However, this spot was just burned this spring. I have a hunch that the spring burn, which damaged the European cool-season grasses we are trying to eradicate, gave an edge to the ironweed and it took off.

The plants were a good six feet tall!

The more flowering species, the better. If we have dozens of species, there will always be something providing nectar and pollen throughout the long growing season. Sure enough, there were several Monarchs nectaring on the Ironweed. (It’s been a great year for Monarchs, if you hadn’t noticed).

Read more about this plant at this great ecology blog: A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

2) The (honey) bees are back

Speaking of all those flowers, we thought we could turn some of that nectar and pollen in honey. We found a new friend who needed a flower-rich space to put his bees for the season. In return, we get pollination of our flowers (which leads to seeds we can harvest in the fall). Honey bees aren’t native to this continent, but these “white man’s flies” have been naturalized her for several centuries.

I’ve been playing around with my smartphone’s slow-motion video feature. It’s actually just a video shot at 120 frames per second, then you can do some editing afterwards. Anyway, I’m not a great photographer, but I thought I’d throw up my first take:

3) Unexpected Cycnias

You learned about these somewhat rare moth caterpillars from Cassaundra Bash’s recent guest post. So did I… I had never heard of them!

Imagine my surprise then when I found some of these the very next week, munching away on some butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which is an orange-flowered native milkweed species. Since I’ve scanned hundreds of milkweed plants for Monarch and Tiger Moth caterpillars, it is probable that cycnias have passed before my eyes… but I had never truly seen them. This is a reoccurring part of ecological education. Once your eyes are opened to a particular plant, or your ears opened to specific birdsong, etc, you start finding it everywhere. Imagine what else we are missing right in front of us!

That was… well, Unexpected!

As I was researching some basic facts about these guys, I found a researcher’s 2015 blog post, where she was soliciting observations of the Unexpected Cycnia from across the continent. Of course, I e-mailed her and was now doubly pleased to contribute a very small piece to our body of knowledge about this incredible world.

4) More Butterflies

Ok, thanks for reading this far. As a special gift, check out this slow-motion sequence I observed in my backyard. After you click the link, pause the video. Hit the gear icon and change the settings so that you are watching in HD (720p), then click to open in full screen. The real big surprise comes in at about 23 seconds!

 

more to milkweeds than just monarchs! (guest post)

Please enjoy this guest post by the Ancilla College Director of Library Services, Cassaundra Bash. I was very pleased when I learned that Cass was an insect enthusiast, and I’ve learned a lot in conversations with her. She graciously offered to write up a post to share with you all.

Have you ever wandered past a big stand of milkweed, thinking how peaceful and quiet it is, with perhaps only a monarch butterfly or two flitting over it?  Ever thought that perhaps the only thing out there munching away like hermits are monarch caterpillars?  Monarchs are synonymous with milkweed in most people’s minds, but there is another common caterpillar that relies heavily on the plant.  They may not have the stateliness of a monarch, but the milkweed tiger moth, also known as the milkweed tussock moth, makes up for it with another trait we humans find endearing.

Fur.

Alright, it’s technically hair, and some people can be allergic to the hairs.  (I myself seem to be sensitive to it, but only after they shed it to make their cocoons, meaning that handling the crawling caterpillar is safe for me, but I wear gloves handling the cocoons or risk itchy, irritated fingers and palms.)  And like any insect that partakes of a milkweed meal, these caterpillars, like monarch caterpillars, have learned to incorporate the milkweed’s poisons into their own defenses.  Like monarchs, any animal that eats a bitter-tasting milkweed tussock moth is likely to feel ill afterwards—and they learn to leave these caterpillars alone.  And if taste isn’t enough of a deterrent, these caterpillars bear some of the typical insect “danger” colors: black, orange, red, and yellow are all colors that insects use to warn other animals that they are dangerous in one way or another.  The black and orange of a monarch adult is so successful that the monarch mimic, the adult viceroy, “borrows” the color scheme and general pattern to fool birds into thinking it’s a monarch.  (Viceroy caterpillars mimic bird droppings, as some other caterpillar species do—but that’s a topic for another post.)  The black and orange mixed in with the white, so similar to cat lovers that I’ve heard some people call these caterpillars “calico”, is just a continuation of the warning coloration.

Ironically, the moth isn’t all that colorful and, aside from an orange body, the wings are pretty much a soft grey or brown (depending on who you ask and perhaps on color variations in the population—mine tend towards the grey), but then that makes sense—they’re nocturnal, and their main predators are bats, which aren’t known for being sight hunters.  But these moths have, as adults, one trick that they’ve developed that works as well for the adults against bats as the coloration warning works against birds when they’re caterpillars.  The moths have the ability to create a clicking pattern that the bats can hear and, after eating a distasteful tussock moth adult, will learn as a future warning against eating more of this species.

 

While monarchs lay their eggs singly, preferring to spread out their offspring across an entire field of milkweed, the milkweed tussock moth lays her eggs in clusters on a few plants.  This means that an entire milkweed plant may have dozens of tiny furry caterpillars, all eating and growing together.  This may provide some protection from predators and parasitic species that might want to pick out an individual among the crowd; it’s a lot harder to do that when the caterpillars are bunched together, even before they get their warning colors (very young ones are cream-colored, as seen below).  Eventually, as they get closer to the time to make their cocoons, they will start to separate and spread out, but by then, they’ll have gotten their distinctive warning colors.

 

You may be worried about competition between monarchs and milkweed tussock moths, but fear not—neither one is aggressive towards the other and I’ve raised both monarchs and milkweed tussock moths in the same tank.  While competition over a single plant means that the small herd of tussock moths will crowd out an individual monarch, both species, as caterpillars, can and will move to a fresh plant if necessary.  As long as there is enough food, the caterpillars will feed around each other, and in fact some scientists have pointed out that it seems as if the tussock moth prefers the older, tougher leaves on the bottom while the monarch prefers the tenderer leaves on top.  But that’s another reason why it’s so important to have large stands of milkweed; both species are native and deserve the opportunity to flourish and thrive, and without milkweed, it won’t happen for either.

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that there is a third, less common (at least here in Indiana) moth caterpillar that relies on milkweed: the unexpected cycnia.  I kid you not; its name really is unexpected cycnia.  Most years, I never see them, but every so often, in late summer or early fall, I’ll find their caterpillars, usually on a special species of milkweed that monarchs and tussock moths use as a last resort because all the other milkweed species have turned yellow and dropped their leaves.  This milkweed species is called the whorled milkweed, and it looks like a small, spindly pine tree that saps like a milkweed if damaged.  Unlike other milkweed, this species sends out tough, shallow roots like strawberry runners, popping up a stem every so often.  And since it grows tall and narrow, I let mine come up anywhere it likes in my pollinator garden, because it doesn’t compete much with any of the other plants for sun or water, and it’s extremely drought-tolerant, which is why monarchs and tussock moths fall back on it in times of need.  Like the tussock moth family, the cycnias also have fur, but not so much that it completely covers the orange warning color of their bodies.

 

In addition to these three species, I’ve also found giant leopard moths and banded woolly bears feeding on milkweed—though not exclusively or even commonly, as they tend to be general feeders of various other native plants including plantain, violets, honeysuckle, dandelions, stinging nettle, and many others.  In addition to caterpillars, at least two types of beetles also eat milkweed exclusively, and milkweed is a favorite of the appropriately-named milkweed aphid, which in turn draws ants that “milk” the aphids for the sweet honeydew they produce, ladybugs that eat aphids, spiders, pollinating bees, and parasitic wasps and flies that look for hosts for their young.  While a stand of milkweed may look like a calm and lonely spot, it’s really quite the bustling metropolis of the insect world.

first impressions of two solar installations in northern Indiana

Our solar arrays have been in for over a month now, so let’s check in on the systems.

Moontree Studios (7.1 kW DC power)

So far, things are performing as expected. As much as I want exciting things to happen, the panels are actually kind of… boring. No moving parts to lubricate or replace, just electrons flowing. And boring infrastructure is good, because that means it’s working and we can focus on other things.

Photo (and install) by Ag Technologies of Rochester, IN.

Our intention with Moontree is not to take the buildings “off the grid.” While interesting in an experimental sense, there’s not really an advantage in doing so for us. We partner with the grid with a bi-directional exchange of electricity, allowing us to deploy renewable energy at a cheaper cost (therefore, to install more of it). We didn’t spend any money on batteries. At the peak of the day, we are credited for excess electrons that are sent back to the grid and will feed the next available building. When we are running a deficit, we draw from the grid. This arrangement is called “net metering.”

In the end, we expect the Moontree Gallery and Shop to be 40% solar powered, 25% wind, and the remaining 35% by the grid (that’s another post, but you can see real-time grid data here).

Nevertheless, I thought it would be neat to see the solar and wind production data on a single chart. The two systems are from different manufactures, running different software, so it was… tricky. But nothing that a little time with an Excel sheet couldn’t fix! (Just don’t ask me to do this for each day).

Don’t worry too much about the units on the vertical (y) axis. Just looking at the relative values across the course of one 24-hour day.

The orange line shows solar production. The “perfect” curve of solar production we would get on a day with no clouds… the power output steadily rises until midday, plateaus, then descends with the setting sun. On this day, there were clearly a few clouds starting around 11:30 AM.

The wind is a little less predictable. Some days have virtually no wind at lower altitudes. Others are quite productive. For this day, the wind starting picking up around 3:30 PM and provided power through midnight. Again, the nice thing about net metering we as individuals don’t really care when the power is produced, just how much total by the end of the month or year. Each day’s chart will look different.

Wastewater Plant (75.52 kW DC power)

Our less visible solar installation is about 10x the size of the Moontree array. We located it in an adjacent cattle pasture, which we determined was better than any of the alternatives we had examined (roofs, parking lots, etc). Sheep routinely graze under solar arrays in Europe, but cattle are simply too big and powerful (and curious). So after the install was complete, we put up the fence. It was a team effect, and we all learned a little something. The solar production has already “paid off” the financial cost of the fence, and probably the ecological debt of the metal panels and wooden posts.

Following the example of some pioneering solar installations, we plan to eventually replace the pasture grasses under the panel with low-growing native wildflowers to give a boost to pollinators, including the honey bees just down the road at our greenhouse. Solar honey… what’s sweeter than that?!

I took a few readings of the electric meter to make sure everything is tracking properly. We have been pushing on to the grid about 45% more electricity than we have been pulling. That’s a good feeling! And it was as-designed… we will use up these credits on our bill as the days get shorter and cloudier and production begins to drop. After a year, we expect the system to cover about 80-90% of our energy needs for the plant.

Photo by Ag Technologies, right after installation.

Killowatt-hours and voltages and such can get a little confusing. So let’s put it in a more tangible way: in the the first 5 weeks of production, the wastewater arrays have produced enough energy to run my home for about 2 years. Cool!

I look forward to coming back next year with a full year of data. My home array just had it’s first anniversary, so I’ll be posting that data soon.