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Dangling Deadwood: Dangerous, but … Firewood!

The Local Wild is moving! Please read this same article on deadwood and environmentally-friendly firewood gathering practices at http://www.mountainowlink.com/post/dangling-deadwood-dangerous-firewood


A few years ago I toured George Washington’s Mount Vernon while on a vacation to our nation’s capital. The grounds and buildings of Mount Vernon were spectacular, as was the history of the place. But what stuck with me? Oddly enough, it was something the tour guide mentioned about our first president’s logging practices: Washington ordered that the grounds be cleared of fallen wood before any tree cutting be done. This gave the property a cleaner appearance, saved effort from felling live trees (which also require drying, aka seasoning, before burning), and also encouraged healthy trees to grow bigger while also clearing the earth below for walking, riding, hunting, and working.

Firewood was needed for heating and cooking in Washington’s day and, though I’d always envisioned cutting healthy, live trees as a necessary evil, hearing the tour guide’s spiel on the former President’s wood-gathering practices gave me a sigh of relief. I’d not before considered collecting deadwood on a large scale as an option. Wasn’t that only a chore for children, to gather dried sticks as kindling and to clear paths? Apparently not!

Wood has been used to heat homes since the days of cave-dwelling Neanderthals. George Washington lived at Mount Vernon until his death in 1799—well before the widespread use of coal around 1885—so trees had to be used intelligently lest they be overused and none were left for the next season’s heating needs.[i] (Washington did have at least one coal burning stove grate, a “cutting edge” heating technology of the time, used from about 1780-1796.)

Today, wood burning is still a primary heating source, especially in rural areas. A wood fuel survey sponsored by MN DNR taken for the winter of 2014-2015 concluded that “45 percent of wood burned was burned for primary heat.”[ii] But how to collect wood that also improves our woodlands and maintains our trees? The answer was in Washington’s orders: Use already dead or downed trees and branches.

It takes up to a year to fully season freshly cut wood for burning, so cutting live trees is best done in late spring or early summer. But Pioneer-types and arborists claim dead, standing trees make the best firewood,[1] and it’s more convenient! Gathering firewood from downed or dead trees can be done any time of year.

In my mind, autumn is not only the best time to gather firewood for heating, but it’s also the best time to check trees for deadwood because (1) the snow isn’t yet in the way, (2) consistent subzero temperatures haven’t taken hold yet to make the task all the more dangerous, and (3) leaves are mostly if not completely fallen, giving firewood scavengers clear sight of any dangerous (and thoroughly dry!) lumber dangling overhead. And with one cord of wood costing anywhere from $100-$200 and it taking upwards of 3 cords to heat a home through the winter season, gathering firewood prepped by Mother Nature in our local wild is one way to also gather in the savings.

Looking around my own property this fall, I’m reminded of Mr. Washington’s orders to his household. Fallen branches large and small crowd the edges of our woods and yard. Looking up from our son’s sandbox today I found myself cringing, as precariously dangling overhead was a sizeable branch just waiting to drop! Nearby, I knocked another hefty branch down with barely a nudge from a long stick. It crashed and snapped as it hit the ground. A fork of wood speared into the earth 1-3/4 inches and the heaviest piece easily weighed over 25 pounds—enough to cause considerable injury or death to anyone below.

In the local wild, dying and deadwood that has reached the ground is necessary to a healthy ecosystem. Grounded deadwood provides housing for small animals; shade for light-sensitive plants and fungi to flourish; and the crumbling, decomposed wood acts as a mulch and fertilizer for soil. According to PennState College of Agricultural Sciences, “Messy woods are good for wildlife – creating snags, cavities, brush piles, and other structural elements that protect and provide cover and resources for a diversity of wildlife.”[iii]

In the air, however, deadwood is quite dangerous to humans and wildlife alike. Tree fall accidents are rare but, according to Reiff Law Firm, “over 100 people [are] killed by trees every year in the U.S.”[iv]—and that only counts reports made by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Such fatal accidents include a jogger who was crushed by a 30-foot branch and a 12-year-old who was struck in the head by a falling tree while playing in her own yard. Trees and branches can fall on animals just as well as people, and birds or small animals who choose to nest in seemingly stable hanging deadwood will be in for a surprise when a gust of wind fells their home. Fallen branches can also fall across wildlife paths and trails, which isn’t deadly to wildlife but certainly troublesome.

Even though injury or death from skyward wood seems unlikely, the Australian Journal of Outdoor Education thinks the issue is still worth addressing. They report that though tree fall incidents “are likely to be regarded as ‘freak’ accidents, the possibility of such incidents is certainly foreseeable, and most are preventible in the sense that they are associated with specific, recognisable hazards.” [2] [v]

Preventable? Indeed, and with reward paid in firewood!

But please do so safely, and smartly. As always, try to avoid wilderness outings on your own in case of injury or trouble, especially when cutting and gathering wood. Collect deadwood that is leaning or freshly fallen, including those you’ve cut or knocked down yourself. Avoid wood that is sitting on the ground, as it likely has rot and moisture that makes it no good for burning and a wonderful home for wildlife if left alone. If you’re need help cutting dead trees or knocking down dangling deadwood, contact a local tree professional—or a crowd of pioneer-ish friends—for help.

For more on Washington’s interesting, naturalistic, local wild-friendly landscaping practices, visit the Mount Vernon website at www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/gardens-landscapes/ten-facts-about-the-landscape-at-mount-vernon/.

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[1] According to a forum on ArboristSite.com, a forum for the arborist industry.

[2] It should be noted that the report makes clear that “About half outdoor education/recreation related deaths occurred when a tree or branch fell on a tent” and the other half of deaths “occurred during or immediately after windy or wet conditions”.

[i] “A Brief History of Home Heating”, Shipton’s Heating and Cooling LLC, No published date. URL: https://shiptons.ca/shiptons-blog/a-brief-history-of-home-heating/21. Accessed: 11Nov2019.

[ii] “Minnesota Residential Wood Fuel Use: Minnesota Residential Wood Fuel Survey: Results from 2014-2015 Survey”, Wilder Research, March 2015. URL: www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/aq-ei4-46.pdf. Accessed: 09Nov2019.

[iii] Finley, Jim. “Fall Woods Cleaning”, The Pennsylvania State University, 26September2011. URL: https://ecosystems.psu.edu/research/centers/private-forests/news/2011/fall-woods-cleaning. Accessed: 09Nov2019.

[iv] “Over 100 People Killed By Trees Every Year In The U.S.”, The Reiff Law Firm, 2019. URL: www.reifflawfirm.com/100-people-killed-trees-every-year-united-states/. Accessed: 09Nov2019.

[v] “Preventing death and serious injury from falling trees and branches”, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 11(2), 50-59, 2007. Brookes, Andrew (La Trobe University, Bendigo. URL: www.latrobe.edu.au/education/downloads/brookes_a_preventing_death_serious_injury.pdf. Accessed: 09Nov2019.

We’re Moving!

We’ve updated our parent company’s website and our Local Wild page — including the Le Mieux comic strip and all Mountain Owl Ink articles about writing — is coming along for the ride.

The new site is located at www.mountainowlink.com/thelocalwild.

There will be a few more posts here on WordPress while we make the transition, but by 2020 this page will disappear. Please consider visiting our new page and following there to stay abreast of fun and informative Local Wild topics.

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Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

The Local Wild is moving! Please read this same article on the Rusty Patched Bumblebee at http://www.mountainowlink.com/post/rusty-patched-bumble-bee.


In our land of 10,000 Lakes, we have a state bird (Loon), a state fish (Walleye), a state flower (Pink Lady Slipper), a state tree (Norway Pine)… We pretty much have a state anything (milk is our state drink!). But did you know that we also have a state bee?

The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (bombus affinis) is a cute little fellow, and one literally bumped into me at Riverside Park in Cannon Falls a few weeks ago. With the tiniest little ‘thump’ on my sleeve and a delicate little ‘plop’ onto the sidewalk, there it was: a distinctly furry and quite adorable rusty patched bumble bee, our beloved—and endangered—state bee.

The rusty patched bumble bee was adopted as the state bee not so long ago in May 2019. There was even some celebration at the State Fair on August 29 at the Department of Natural Resources’ exhibit, where people “celebrated the benefits of designating the rusty patched bumble bee, a federally endangered species, as the Minnesota state bee.”[i] The rusty patched bumble bee made the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list in 2017 after environmentalists counted around an 83% decline in the species’s population. But, other than vastly declining numbers, what makes the rusty patched bumble bee so special?

First, it’s helpful to examine the differences between bumble bees and honey bees. Here are the big ones: (1) bumble bees can sting multiple times, while honeybees can only sting once; (2) bumble bee colony populations hover in the multiple hundreds of bees, while a honey bee colony can be upwards of 10,000 bees; (3) bumble bees are characteristically more ‘rotund’, their bodies rounder and less aerodynamic than those of honey bees; (4) bumble bees live underground while honey bees create nests in hollows above the ground—like tree hollows, wall interiors, or (of course), man-made hive boxes.[ii]

Rusty patched bumble bees are native to the northeastern and eastern United States and some Canadian provinces. Prior to the mid-1900s, these bees occupied areas across 31 states and provinces; today, they are down to 14, less than half. They live underground in large, undisturbed grasslands and prairies and forage for nectar and pollen within about a 0.6-mile radius of their nest. New queen bees seek out a new nest site each spring to start their colonies, often choosing an abandoned small mammal burrow[iii] or a big clump of uncut grasses at the edge of an open field. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the following as threats to the rusty patched bumble bee population: intensive farming practices, disease, pesticides, and global climate change.[iv]

Bumble bees have a specific type of pollination technique called “buzz pollination”, where the bees “grab the flower’s antlers and vibrate their wing muscles to release pollen that would otherwise not be reached. Buzz pollination is imperative for important crops such as tomatoes, peppers and cranberries.” The most telling distinction of the bumble bee? That, while bumble bees don’t depend on one flower species to survive, “there are some [flower] species that depend on just them [bumble bees]![v] In essence: We lose the bumble bee, we lose some species of flowers.

Bumble bees grab the flower’s antlers and vibrate their wing muscles to release pollen that would otherwise not be reached.

There is an ongoing debate about the global bee population, whether it is “dying” or “safe”. It seems the answer depends largely on what one means by “bee population”—managed (farmed) honey bees? Wild bees? Every kind of bee (of which there are honey, bumble, leafcutter, mason, mining, plasterer, woodcarver, flower, stingless, and long-horned[vi])? An article from Farm Journal in 2015 makes claim that the global bee population is actually on the rise, although in reading the article it appears they are specifically referencing managed/farmed bee populations and not wild bee colonies.[vii] On the other end of the spectrum, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (aka FAO) expressed concern on World Bee Day (May 20) that “the global decline in bee populations poses a serious threat to a wide variety of plants critical to human well-being and livelihoods”.[viii]

Whatever your stance on the current and future bee population, we can all agree that where bees are happy, the local wild is happy! Minnesota legislators agree, and in 2020 our state will begin offering grants to property owners who plant “bee friendly” gardens and yards. The Lawns to Legumes program—which is “focused on planting residential lawns with native vegetation and pollinator friendly forbs and legumes to protect a diversity of pollinators”—has $900,000 to dish out. Individual homeowners can obtain up to $500 each. More information on the program can be found at https://bwsr.state.mn.us/lawns-legumes-program-your-yard-can-bee-change.

Other ways you can help benefit our state bee: plant bee-friendly yarsd that include flowers, herbs, vegetables, as well as pollen-producing trees like oak, cherry, and dogwood; avoid pesticide use; make undisturbed plots of soft soil available along garden edges for nesting real estate.

As our local wild creeps into freezing temperatures, the queens of next year’s rusty patched bumble bee colonies are going into hibernation. They’ll emerge in the spring in search of new nesting sites and, with the help of brand new happy pollinator gardens and the work of folks like you, they’ll have more real estate options than they’ve had in a long while.

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[i] “State Fair event highlights new state bee designation”, MN Department of Natural Resources, 29August2019. URL: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/news/2019/08/29/state-fair-event-highlights-new-state-bee-designation. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

[ii] “Honey Bees vs Bumble Bees”, Western Pest Services, © 2019. URL: https://www.westernpest.com/pest-control/stinging-insects/bees/honey-bees/vs-bumble-bee/. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

[iii] “Rusty Patched Bumble Bee”, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Last updated: 29May2019. URL: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/Endangered/insects/rpbb/lifehistory.html. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

[iv] “Fact Sheet: Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis)”, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Last updated: 29May2019. URL: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/insects/rpbb/factsheetrpbb.html. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

[v] Statman-Well, Zoe. “Rusty-Patched Bumblebee (Bombus affinis)”, U.S. Forest Service, no publication date. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

[vi] “Types of Bees”, BuzzAboutBees.Net. © 2010-2019. URL: https://www.buzzaboutbees.net/types-of-bees.html. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

[vii] Syngenta, “Bee population rising around the world”, 19Jan2015. Farm Journal, Inc. URL: https://www.agprofessional.com/article/bee-population-rising-around-world. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

[viii] “Declining bee populations pose threat to global food security and nutrition”, FAO, 20May2019. URL: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1194910/icode/. Accessed: 12Oct2019.

A map indicating the general range of the rusty patched bumble bee. / Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Pokeweed: Friend or Foe?

The Local Wild is moving! Please read this same article on Pokeweed at www.mountainowlink.com.


Manicured rows of a mystery plant about six feet tall rushed past us as my son and I were escorted in a golf cart across a friend’s backyard early last week. On the plants grew grape-like clusters of dark purple berries. “I have no idea what this is,” our friend said, hopping out of the cart. He plucked a berry cluster with his bare hand and brought it over for me to inspect. “The Hmong use this field. I don’t know what they grow these for.”

So I took the sample home to investigate.

pokeweed-berries_jessica-woken-sept2019.jpg

A sample sprig of pokeweed berries plucked from a nearby Hmong farm. Note the bright pink stem. / Jessica Woken, 23Sept2019

Turns out the mystery plant is native pokeweed, a plant considered very poisonous (many children are taken to the hospital after eating the dark berries that they’ve confused for wild grape!), but the resident farmers decided it was—for some reason—worth cultivating and taking to the farmer’s markets up in the cities.

Other names for pokeweed, ranging from sounding terrifying to beautiful, include: American nightshade, cancerroot, crowberry, inkberry, and red ink plant.[i] But pokeweed, like anything on this beautiful planet, becomes less frightening the more we learn about it. Let’s start with erasing the scary with a little bit of knowledge.

First, let’s not ignore the fact that all parts of the pokeweed plant—from taproots all the way to the berries—are toxic. However, though they have the capacity to harm, many indigenous and herbalistic cultures know that such plants, at low concentrations of ingestion, have the power to heal. One such group are the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico, who “routinely use potentially harmful plants to treat ailments ranging from headaches to chest pain…many of which contain compounds that pharmacologists consider highly toxic.”[ii]

And medical researchers are taking a hint. A chemical in pokeweed conveniently named Pokeweed Antiviral Protein, or PAP, is being researched as a treatment for cancer.[iii] It has been “shown in nonhuman studies to have anti-tumor properties and to have activity against herpes viruses and HIV.”[iv]

While adventurous horticulturalists and herbalists may decide to consume various parts of the pokeweed plant (after a liberal boiling… twice!) to remove toxins, I’d still suggest proceeding with caution. Even for me, I don’t want to mess with eating something toxic unless (1) I’m literally starving to death or (2) I have a very knowledgeable guide instruct me in the cooking and detoxifying process. As for exploring the land and foraging as you hike, Poison.org states “Children who eat a berry or two are not likely to develop symptoms. Eating several berries, though, can cause a lot of stomach distress: pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.”[v] So, how to distinguish between a wild grape and a pokeberry? The easiest way is by the color of the stem. Grapes have a brown, woody stem, while pokeberries have a bright, fuchsia-colored stem.

pokeberries-look-like-grapes-but-are-poisonous-3

Comparison of grapes and pokeberries. / Poison.org. URL: https://www.poison.org/articles/2012-aug/pokeberries-and-grapes-look-alike

So what good are pokeweed for harvesting purposes? Well, aside from consumption, pokeweed’s berries make an excellent dye or ink. You can do a simple extraction of the juices using salt and vinegar, but the dye will brown over time. (In fact, if you see Civil War-era writing that looks brown, it probably started off as bright purple pokeberry ink!) Fermented dyes retain the signature fuchsia color for a longer period of time. For a recipe for fermented pokeberry dye, visit www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/topic/120765-making-fermented-pokeberry-ink/.

pokeberry-ink_Kelly-Taylor-Flickr

A girl paints using bright fuchsia pokeberry ink. / Kelly Taylor via Flickr, 03Oct2007 (All rights reserved)

Conclusion: Pokeweed is neither friend nor foe… it just IS! And it’s beautiful. If you stay away from eating them, pokeweeds pose no threat and actually serve as an excellent source of food for local wildlife.

Traversing nature need not be scary, but as always it’s good to be well-informed and remain alert. Many thanks to my curious friend who introduced me to yet another local wild treasure: the pokeberry!


[i] “Pokeweed”, Drugs.com. Last updated: 01April2019. URL: https://www.drugs.com/npp/pokeweed.html. Accessed: 26Sept2019.

[ii] “Food, drug, or poison?.” The Free Library. 1993 Science Service, Inc. 26 Sep. 2019. URL: https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Food,+drug,+or+poison%3F-a013787076. Accessed: 26Sept2019.

[iii] Johnson, Terry W. “Out My Backdoor: The Wondrous Pokeberry”, GeorgiaWildlife.com / Georgia Department of Natural Resources.  https://georgiawildlife.com/out-my-backdoor-wondrous-pokeberry. Accessed: 26Sept2019.

[iv] Hack, Jason, M.D. “Toxicology Answer: Can This Toxic Plant Treat Certain Illnesses?”, ACEP [American College of Emergency Physicians] Now, 25Sept2018. URL: https://www.acepnow.com/article/toxicology-answer-can-this-toxic-plant-treat-certain-illnesses/. Accessed: 24Sept2019.

[v] Soloway, Rose Ann Gould (RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Clinical Toxicologist), “Pokeberries: A Grape Lookalike”. National Capital Poison Center. URL: https://www.poison.org/articles/2012-aug/pokeberries-and-grapes-look-alike. Accessed: 26Sept2019.

A Local Wild Photo Short: Milkweed Tiger Moth Caterpillar(s)!

In addition to the hearty appetites of monarch caterpillars, you may have noticed a fuzzier little dude (or two… or three…) chomping at the succulent leaves of the milkweed plants this past summer. You can see one in the background in this photo:

monarch caterpillar and milkweed tiger moth caterpillar / Jessica Woken, 23Aug2019

A monarch caterpillar hangs from beneath a partially eaten milkweed leaf. A milkweed tiger moth lurks in the background. / Jessica Woken

I was struck speechless (and grossed out) by a herd of newly hatched milkweed tiger moth caterpillars all hanging out (literally) on the underside of a milkweed leaf not too many weeks ago. Here’s that creepy-crawly image:

milkweed-tiger-moth-caterpillar-brood_Jessica-Woken_21Aug2019

Yuck. But we can at least rest in the knowledge that these fuzzy guys will eventually morph into the beautiful milkweed tiger moth (aka milkweed tussock moth). You’ll know it by its brownish-gray wings and strikingly gorgeous body stripes. It almost looks like its wearing a long orange and black striped stocking… just in time for Halloween!

Hunt, Store, Eat: Keeping Meat Without Refrigeration

My sister and I were in full childhood reminiscion mode this past week, playing the card game variety of the 1980s-era computer game “Oregon Trail” over a little wine and a lot of hysterical laughter. Originally designed to teach school children about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail[1], the game involves facing “lots of peril” (as my sister put it), like typhoid, dysentery, broken wagon wheels, bad water, freezing temperatures, deadly snake bites, and starvation. The game involves the player(s) maintaining a stock of clean water, clothes, ammunition, and, of course, shelf-stable foods for your traveling party. Food may also be gained by hunting (at the expense of ammunition, of course).

Oregon-Trail-deer-hunting

“The Oregon Trail” makes a game of the real-life challenge pioneers faced about preserving their hunted meats before refrigeration became the norm. / (screenshot) J. Woken, via ClassicReload.com.

While that was all fun and games, it occurs to me that this week we’re entering deer hunting season. Though I’m not planning on hunting, our friends do. They generally keep a good-sized chest freezer to store all the collected meat, but—problem—pioneers didn’t have freezers. They didn’t even have ice. So the question is raised: How did pioneers keep meat?

Surely not everything was eaten immediately (a single deer offers upwards of 60 pounds of meat). They couldn’t have dried leftover cuts into pemmican or jerky every single time. Dry aging large cuts of meat requires pretty specific humidity and temperature conditions. So what’s the amateur pioneer to do?

How to preserve meat without means of electricity is still an important thing to know. The significance of that information may especially come into play when the power goes out for a length of time for any number of reasons (e.g. storm, grid overload (aka “blackout”), other power line damage). Here are a few ways to preserve your meats, the pioneer way, without relying on electricity!

  1. DRY IT.

This includes methods of salting, smoking, air drying, and freeze drying. According to USDA, “Drying is the world’s oldest and most common method of food preservation…

“The scientific principal of preserving food by drying is that by removing moisture, [bacterial, fungal, or naturally occurring autolytic enzymes from the raw food ] cannot efficiently contact or react with the food [and] preventing this enzymatic action preserves the food from biological action [i.e. spoilage].”[2]

Dry_salting_leg_of_lamb

A leg of lamb being dried using salt (aka dry salting). / Jan in Bergen, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

  1. PICKLE IT.

Sound gross? Well, if you’ve ever enjoyed corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day or pickled herring at a Christmas gathering, you’ve enjoyed a couple of the more popular pickled meats around. Pickling (aka Brining or Corning) is simply soaking and covering over a food in a brine. Brine can be vinegar-based (as for many pickled veggies, like cucumbers or carrots) or water-based, but both methods require adhering to a recipe of salt, sugar, and sometimes spices to get the flavor palatable.

  1. STORE IT IN FAT.

It may sound unappetizing, but storing meat in fat is a delicacy in other countries. In France, it’s called confit, and is a method used to preserve meats as well as produce. This method keeps cooked meat moist while also preventing pathogens from making a ruin of your provisions. Modern recipes sometimes utilize olive oil instead of good ol’ fashioned lard (pork fat), but either way the meats are cooked then stored, completely covered in fat to create an air-proof seal.

Confit_de_courge_sucrine

A jar of squash confit (squash preserved in fat). / Varaine (photographer), Wikimedia Creative Commons.

If and how you decide to store your meats is a matter of preference these days. We obviously have the technology nowadays to refrigerate and freeze at our leisure, but, as so many instances have shown, that relatively modern-day tech is fickle compared to the resilience of Mother Nature’s local wild.

So, just as an exercise in self-preparedness, I’m going to try my own hand at a pioneer-type of meat preservation. Maybe I’ll hunt some rabbit. Maybe I’ll buy a leg of venison off my neighbors. Regardless, I invite you to do the same with me this season as we all (or many of us) hunt, store, and eat our local wild meats.


[1] The Oregon Trail may be played for free online at https://classicreload.com/oregon-trail.html.

[2] “Jerky and Food Safety”, Food Safety and Inspection Service, US Department of Agriculture, 03Nov2016. URL: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/fsis-content/internet/main/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/meat-preparation/jerky-and-food-safety/ct_index. Accessed 12Sept2019.

Giant Water Bug

I shared a photo of a recent insect find on my Instagram account and, to my great amusement, a friend commented:

“I found one of those last summer. It was absolutely horrifying.”

I was more horrified that I thought it was a cockroach. However, upon closer inspection, what I really had stumbled upon (almost literally, as the creature was resting center-sidewalk) was Minnesota’s largest insect, the Giant Water Bug!

Maxing out at 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, the giant water bug is 2 square inches of buggy awe. They have a handful of daunting nicknames like “toe-biters” and “alligator ticks”, and those are well-earned: These largest members of the scientific order Hemiptera are predatory insects which feed on tiny fish, amphibians, snails, crustaceans, and even baby turtles and water snakes! If provoked, giant water bugs will bite people, but it’s less a bite with pincers or teeth and more a severe poke with it’s oversized, mosquito-like rostrum, a sort of syringe to both inject its prey with a pre-digestive toxin and to suck down the juices as it eats. (Note: While the bite itself is painful to humans, the giant water bug’s toxin is harmless.)

A giant water bug rests in the crack of the sidewalk just outside of Nick’s Downtown Diner (Cannon Falls, MN). / Jessica Woken, 08July2019

The water bug should not be confused with water beetles. Why? Though they are all aquatic insects, beetles are not bugs and bugs are not beetles. The word “bug” isn’t just slang for creepy crawlies that give us heebie-jeebies, but “bug” is also an actual category of insect, more accurately referred to as the “true bugs”. True bugs number around 80,000 different species, of which our own giant water bug (Lethocerus Americanus) is one, as well as our last Local Wild discussion subject, the very vocal cicada. Giant water bugs and cicadas make up a large portion of the insects commonly eaten by humans.

True bugs are distinguished from other insects in a variety of ways, but two in particular stand out. First, unlike beetles, bugs are hemimetabolous, which means they do not have a larval stage (they don’t start off as grubs) and do not pupate (they don’t metamorphize inside a cocoon). Instead, giant water bug nymphs (juveniles) hatch from the egg as miniatures of their adult form and shed out of their exoskeletons about 5 times before reaching their full size.[i] The second notable difference is that bugs eat a liquid diet using their straw-like rostrum while beetles possess sharp mandibles that grasp, cut, and crush solid food or prey.[ii]

Another distinction between the giant water bug and a water beetle (of which Minnesota has 6[iii]) is that of the beetles two sets of wings, the first is generally considered the beetle’s “shell” since it is hard and serves to protect the more delicate flying wings laying beneath. Water bugs also have two sets of wings, but they’re just sort of… soft. All over.

And that fact, combined with the giant water bug’s ferocious nicknames and impressive size, actually does give me some heebie-jeebies.

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[i] “Giant water bug”, Alimentarium Foundation. URL: https://www.alimentarium.org/en/knowledge/giant-water-bug. Accessed: 18Aug2019.

[ii] NLN, Laura. “What’s the difference between a bug and a beetle?”, NaturallyNorthIdaho.com, 26Sept2014. URL: http://www.naturallynorthidaho.com/2014/09/whats-difference-between-bug-and-beetle.htm. Accessed: 17Aug2019.

[iii] “Images by Category: Aquatic Invertebrates”, MN Department of Natural Resources, 2019. URL: www.dnr.state.mn.us/minnaqua/leadersguide/lg_online/images_category/invertebrates.html#beetles.

A Local Wild Photo Short: Monarch Caterpillar

The milkweed around my home is being voraciously eaten by a variety of larval insects, evidenced only by the slowly disappearing leaves on the big plants. I’ve been keeping my eye out for a monarch caterpillar and — hooray! — I have been rewarded with my persistence by this healthy little guy hanging upside-down from a leaf.

monarch caterpillar and milkweed tiger moth caterpillar / Jessica Woken, 23Aug2019

A monarch caterpillar hangs from beneath a partially eaten milkweed leaf. A milkweed tiger moth lurks in the background. / Jessica Woken

Behind the monarch caterpillar, you can spot another, hairier variety of milkweed caterpillar lurking: A milkweed Tiger Moth! I’ll be doing a column on that creepy-crawly very soon, so please keep posted!

Hello, Cicadas!

Discounting their irritating noise and their mind-boggling swarming habits, cicadas are pretty darn cute (if you can think of bugs as being such a thing). With their oversized, toddler-esque heads; prominent, wide-set, often colorful eyes; and a pair of huge wings draping their backs like royal capes, broods of these insects emerge every 17 years, some every 13 years, and still some annual varieties are seen every year. But, whether seen or not, you’ll definitely hear them: Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world, with some species even capable of overpowering the noise of a wailing fire engine at over 120 decibels.

Luckily, the only type of cicada to live in the Minnesota’s local wild are of the annual variety and these are much milder in presence then some of their North American cousins. Typically goldish-brown with dark green wing veins, these cicadas are referred to as dog-day cicadas because they pop up and make noise during the hottest “dog days” of summer.

A [quiet] dog-day cicada rests on a cucumber vine. / Jessica Woken

That was certainly true for the little cicada I spotted resting on a length of cucumber vine a couple weeks ago on one of the warmest afternoons yet this summer. It was a pretty little specimen and, even though it could see me with its two big compound eyes (and maybe even its three simple, jewel-like ocelli in front of its head, used primarily to discern light from dark), it stayed still enough for me to get a close-up shot with my phone’s camera before scooting around the vine and hiding beneath the cover of a cucumber leaf.

Active July through September, these big bugs max out at just over 1¼ inches in length. That’s pretty big, but not bigger than Minnesota’s largest insect (to be discussed next column!). The dog-day cicada’s call—said to sound like the high-pitched whine of a power saw cutting wood—is on the quieter end of the cicada noise span, hitting just over 80 decibels and lasting around 15 seconds per song. Only males make the robust, irritating sound in order to attract females.

Other than their impressive noise, certain cicadas show up in impressive numbers. Dog-day cicadas are of the annual variety, meaning some show up every year, so we in Minnesota don’t experience the massive swarming that other cicada broods are so infamous for imposing upon their resident human populations. This year, a 17-year brood of cicadas known as Brood VIII (8) is expected to show up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.*

In other cultures, cicadas’ sound is less an irritation and more of the ringing of Mother Nature’s dinner bell. Many cultures globally (and some in the US) regularly enjoy cicadas as food, and the songs of the swarms signal an opportunity to go out and gather a free meal (or more) from the local wild. In an article for Lancaster Online, Isa Betancourt, an entomologist from Drexel University, argues that since “[people] regularly eat the arthropods of the sea and those are the shrimp, lobsters and crabs” why not eat cicadas, because they’re arthropods, too?[i] Indeed, nobody complains about gathering up swarms of crawfish—another arthropod—and putting on a festival in their delicious honor! (The 7th Annual Minnesota Crayfest was held just a couple weekends ago, on August 3, at the Smack Shack in Minneapolis.[ii])

From the same article, University of Maryland entomology professor Mike Raupp suggests cicadas “taste a lot like shrimp” and if you’d eat “an oyster or a clam out of the bay [which] lives on the bottom of the bay and filters [feces], but would not eat this delectable insect that’s been sucking on plant fat for 17 years (a cicada)”, that’s just plain weird.

The five eyes of a cicada: two compound and three central jewel-like ocelli. / Doug Bowman, Flikr under Creative Commons license, 24Aug2005.

Even if it does sound off-putting, eating cicadas does make sense nutritionally as well as in the concept of food maximization. Though being an entomophage (a person who eats insects) is taboo in America and other Westernized countries, for many cultures around the world insects are a part of a regular meal and can make up as much as 20% of their diet. Even the United Nations in 2013 put out a report titled “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security” in an effort to encourage entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food.[iii] Are you convinced? Not me, but if I’m ever hungry and in the woods and I hear a cicada calling, you’d better believe I’m hunting him down (and his friends) for a meal!

Aside from cicadas, other regularly eaten arthropods of the insect world include grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, termites, as well as next edition’s “largest insect in Minnesota”, the giant water beetle. Until then, I hope you get a chance to enjoy listening to the cicadas singing, as their song indicates the peak of summer and the oncoming cooler months just ahead for our local wild.

*An interactive chart of cicada broods can be viewed by visiting www.cicadamania.com/where.html.

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References:

[i] Lattanzio, Vince. “17-year cicadas are edible, taste a lot like shrimp”, Lancaster Online. URL: https://lancasteronline.com/news/year-cicadas-are-edible-taste-a-lot-like-shrimp/article_fc7849ba-7950-5759-92ce-ad744f852799.html. Accessed: 09Aug2019.

[ii] 7th Annual Minnesota Crayfest by Smack Shack. Event URL: www.eventbrite.com/e/crayfest-2019-tickets-57550002607#.

[iii] “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security”, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, 2013. URL: http://www.fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf. Accessed: 09Aug2019.