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Book Review: Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects  By Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson and translated by Lucy Moffatt

–Review by Pat Cahalan

This review first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Winter 2020

picture of book coverEntomologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson really likes bugs. In this book she takes us on a romp through the world of insects, delighting us with tales about these fascinating, curious, and sometimes funny creatures, delving into their anatomy, adaptability, and the myriad ways they make our world livable.

It’s that anatomy and adaptability that has enabled them to survive five rounds of mass extinction, from before the days of the dinosaurs. She tells of flies with tongues on their feet, bugs with ears on their knees (and other seemingly unlikely places), insects with vision ranging from acute to blind, and mind-boggling sex lives. The dragonfly is so well adapted to its mission as a hunter (a 95% success rate) with wings, eyes, and brain superbly suited to its task that the US Army has studied it as a model for drone design.

Svedrug-Thygeson’s point: these tiny fascinating creatures, so often either taken for granted or looked down upon by us humans, are highly deserving of our respect. In fact, we couldn’t live without them. She quotes Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who writes: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change . . . But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt the human species could live more than a few months.”

We are all familiar with the contribution of insects as pollinators. But we owe them for so much more.

Just imagine, she asks of us, what life would be like without their janitorial services: As life dies off, the insects move in to clean up, recycling the nutrients to the soil, allowing new life to grow. Without them our planet would soon be awash in dead plants, animal carcasses, and dung.Without them we wouldn’t have beeswax, silk, carmine dye, chocolate, shellac, and Shakespeare’s plays (written with long-lasting iron gall ink derived from oak tree galls).

And that’s not all. Blowfly larval therapy is being used to tackle drug-resistant bacteria, and crickets as pets can improve our mental health. One day it may even be possible to send a cockroach with a microchip in its backpack on a rescue mission in a collapsed building.

And insects may one day provide healthy, environmentally friendly food. The “livestock” reproduces rapidly using little space, food, or water. It provides a high-protein food while emitting minimal climate-changing gas. What’s more, it can be raised on our food waste. Research is already underway on using it as feed for fish, poultry, pigs, and dogs. And with proper marketing and processing, it could even become food for human consumption.

And what about all that “nonbiodegradable” plastic littering our planet? Sverdrup-Thygeson tells of one study where mealworms gobble up polystyrene, leaving behind only some carbon dioxide and a spot of beetle poo. And another where the greater wax moth ate holes in polyethylene, the kind of plastic used in supermarket shopping bags, leaving behind only ethylene glycol, familiar to us as antifreeze. The challenge is finding ways to put this knowledge to practical use.

But insects are in severe decline. Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson’s delightful, and carefully researched book, with 20 pages of chapter-by-chapter citations gives us a new respect for these tiny creatures that accomplish so much for us — and underscores the need to help them survive. She points out that “we never know which species will turn out to be useful next.”

 

Book Review – Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

— This review by Anne Raver first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2019

Robin Law Kimmerer begins Braiding Sweetgrass with the story of Skywoman, who falls from a hole in the Skyworld, clutching a bundle of branches with many fruits and seeds. She hurtles downward, in a shaft of light, where there was only darkness before, toward the murky water below. Many eyes in the sea are watching, and geese rise up to break her fall, holding her in their soft feathers. A great turtle offers his back for her to step upon, a muskrat dives deep into the water to bring a handful of mud from the depths below. Skywoman spreads the mud on the turtle’s shell, scatters the seeds in her hand, and dances the world from brown to green.

Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizens Potawatomi Nation, combines science and the knowledge of her indigenous ancestors to contemplate the devastation that we humans, particularly descendants of the first white settlers, have wrought since first setting foot in the so-called New World (which, as Kimmerer points out, was only new to Europeans and other immigrants; to native inhabitants, it was as ancient as the creation story).

Kimmerer is a distinguished professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, where she also founded and directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The center works with tribal partners and students to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with scientific research for restoration and sustainability projects.

Kimmerer also is a poet and a storyteller, and Braiding Sweetgrass weaves together many threads– stories of her childhood, of her own children, of her graduate students, of desecrated lands and healed ones—with the page-turning power of a beautifully written novel. At the same time, her mind, sharpened by both science and the observational skills of her tribal elders, is constantly analyzing the particulars of any given situation, be it the near extinction of wild salmon in the Northwest, or the chemical toxins that Allied Chemical poured into Onondaga Lake, or the day her daughter refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. (Kimmerer recalls her own childhood participation in the puzzling ritual, with its reference to God and the republic: “And you didn’t have to be an eight-year-old Indian to know that ‘liberty and justice for all’ was a questionable premise.”)

As a Potawatomi, Kimmerer considers plants and animals her teachers; she was listening to the trees long before scientists discovered how they communicate through pheromones in the air and mycorrhizae, a vast symbiosis of fungi and roots beneath the forest floor. Sweetgrass, or “wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth,” was one of the plants that Skywoman clutched in her hand, the day she fell out of that hole in the sky. It was a gift, just like all the other plants, just like the land itself, to be passed from hand to hand shared but never sold. A metaphor for sharing and reciprocity, rather than taking from the earth and others, Sweetgrass calls for a radical shift in consciousness.

As a teacher and activist, Kimmerer offers many examples of people working together to restore balance to the earth—to bring back salmon to their spawning grounds, to restore polluted lakes and salt marshes, to simply learn to listen to the plants and animals.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Natures Best Hope

– this review by Anne Raver originally appeared in WildflorRI, Spring 2020

Douglas W. Tallamy — Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard 

Doug Tallamy begins Nature’s Best Hope, published this year by Timber Press, by tipping his cap to the great conservationists of the 20th century, including Teddy Roosevelt, who helped launch the National Parks movement. Though, he points out, when Roosevelt stood at the Grand Canyon and said, “Leave it as it is,” 95 percent of the country hadn’t been “logged, tilled, drained, grazed, paved, or otherwise developed.”

Now, as national parks are being logged, threatened with oil extraction, invaded by non-native plants and insects, or otherwise degraded, Tallamy proposes the seemingly impossible: not just planting one’s own yard with native species to save the earth, but convincing one’s neighbors to do the same–to create a “Home Grown National Park.”

His first book, Bringing Nature Home, published in 2007, was revelatory. In simple terms, Tallamy explained how insects and other species co-evolved with plants to form very specific inter-dependencies. About 90 percent of insect herbivores depend upon one or very few plant species for reproduction, i.e., they lay their eggs on certain species’ leaves, and the caterpillars eat the leaves. These caterpillars are higher in protein than beef, so hungry birds feed thousands to their nestlings in one reproductive cycle. If the native plants aren’t there, the birds fail to thrive.

Nature’s Best Hope continues to pile on grim statistics: most land in the lower 48 states is privately owned, turfgrass covers 40 million acres, an area the size of New England. Much of the rest of the earth’s surface is covered with shopping malls, roads, and airports.

Small wonder that in North America, Tallamy writes, “8500 species of plants and animals (more than a third of our best-known species), including 432 species of birds” are at risk of extinction.

Tallamy summarizes the radical proposal of eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson: setting aside “half the earth as a human-free natural reserve to preserve biodiversity.”

OK, well, that seems impossible, especially considering a world population of 8 billion.

But, what then?

Nature’s Best Hope summarizes a great deal of new research about the risk of habitat fragmentation to many species of plants and animals and to entire ecosystems. Biological corridors connecting these fragments are key to their survival.

So is the size of a particular territory, and not just for food and shelter. Hooded warblers, Tallamy writes, need enough territory for pair bonding and additional space for members of other pair bonds–because hooded warblers dally with others, before the eggs are laid.

Scientists are also learning more about the keystone genera–oak, cherry, willow, for example–that host many species of caterpillars. Oaks in the Mid-Atlantic region, where Tallamy does much of his research, support 557 caterpillar species. Tulip poplars, by contrast, support only 21.

But planting an oak on a lawn is not enough. “Most caterpillars crawl off their host plant before molting to their pupal stage,” Tallamy writes. They either burrow into the soil or spin a cocoon in the leaf litter. That’s why a groundcover of “native pachysandra, woodland phlox, foamflower, ginger, or native shrubs,” he suggests, is key to completing the life cycle.

Nature’s Best Hope certainly deepens one’s understanding of successful strategies in one’s own yard. But the larger challenge to us is building those corridors to neighboring yards and convincing the owners to replace even part of their lawns, and some of their gumdrop yews and burning bushes with keystone species that caterpillars–egads, insects!–can eat.

Tallamy offers a few success stories: the woman who convinces her lawn-loving father to plant milkweed for the struggling monarchs; the garden clubs that make native plantings more presentable with mowed strips of grass.

But he also acknowledges the monumental challenge of shifting values.

Having replaced most of our lawn and many nonnative plants with native species on our corner lot in a small town, my husband and I have run the gamut of responses–enthusiasm, scorn, even orders from the town to remove plants too close to a stop sign.

We live with mow-and-blow crews on all sides, and neighbors who feel compelled to squirt herbicides on the dandelions and plantain in their over-fertilized rugs of turfgrass.

Tallamy acknowledges the difficulty of breaking through this glass wall of tidiness and fear of nature and tries to explain it–the need to belong, the tribal suspicion of anyone different, our love affair with exotic plants. Thomas Jefferson, he notes, could have landscaped Monticello with gorgeous native species but chose to mimic Europe’s grand landscapes with a greensward and plants from the other side of the world.

And then, of course, our ancient roots go back to the African savannah, where it was easier to see predators stalking us across the grasslands. And once the colonists made it to North America, they were terrified of the wilderness–killing most of the beasts and Native Americans, plundering the resources, and “taming” the land as they went.

So here we are. Tallamy exhorts us to work with garden clubs and plant societies, schools and municipal governments to plant public spaces with native species to serve as inspiring examples of beauty and vitality, no matter how small. Giving informative talks, writing articles, is key, as well.

He reminds the reader of practical resources, such as the National Wildlife Federation’s “Native Plant Finder (http://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder): just enter your zip code, to find the most valuable native plants for your area. And of course, the NWF will certify your garden as a wildlife habitat if you provide basic resources, such as shelter, food and water.

I think I need one of those signs to put up close to our corner. As Tallamy says, giving up is not an option.

 

A celebration of art and science. Entwined: Botany and Art and the Lost Cat Swamp Habitat

Announcement of exhibition of the works of Edward Lewis Peckham,  January to April 2019

This exhibition is a unique collaboration between the John Hay Library, The Brown University Herbarium, the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society. It is the first public showing of original watercolor paintings by Providence artist Edward Lewis Peckham (1812-1889). They will be shown together with specimens from the Brown University Herbarium.

The Brown University Herbarium includes around 100,000 dried and pressed plant specimens. Herbarium specimens provide a temporal and geographic record of botanical diversity. Their role is increasingly important as rates of habitat destruction increase and climate change precipitates rapid changes to species’ ranges and ecology.

The Rhode Island Historical Society (founded in 1822) is dedicated to honoring, interpreting and sharing Rhode Island’s past to enrich the present and inspire the future. The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of Rhode Island’s native plants and their habitats.

The featured artist, Edward Lewis Peckham was born in Providence, the son of Thomas and Sarah (Wardwell) Peckham. His father was the Deputy Collector of Customs for the Port of Providence for over 30 years. Edward did not attend college but in the 1830s he studied with local botanists Stephen T. Olney, George Hunt and George Thurber. His finished drawings appeared as early as 1829, and his corpus of over 500 illustrations were, according to botanist Asa Gray at Harvard University, the most perfect representations of New England plants he had ever seen. They are practically photographs, in many cases, of the entire plant, root, stem, leaf and flower. Peckham used pencil, India ink, sepia and watercolors. The Historical Society has an astonishing portfolio of Peckham’s botanical watercolors that are exacting studies of native Rhode Island wildflowers.

Stephen Olney, one of Peckham’s mentors, donated his entire herbarium collection to Brown University, in addition to his library of botanical texts, and funds for an endowed chair of natural history. Olney’s legacy formed the foundation of the Brown Herbarium and his bequest is the reason there is such a rich and important plant collection at Brown. The first professor of Botany at Brown, William Whitman Bailey, was charged with building on Olney’s donation and it was thanks to his effort, together with several other eminent botanists of the time, that the herbarium came into existence.

The exhibit matches some of Edward Peckham’s paintings with herbarium specimens of the same species. The paintings and herbarium specimens all come from the lost Cat Swamp habitat on the East Side of Providence. Freeman Parkway, Elmgrove Avenue and Arlington Street bound this area today. Some of the native species featured include: nodding trillium, marsh marigold, milkweed, sweet pepperbush and ladies tresses orchid among others.

For it’s size, Rhode Island has a relatively diverse flora. It is a meeting point for northern and southern plants. It has arboreal species more common further north in New England and Alleghanian species that extend down the Appalachian Mountains. There are also coastal plain and maritime species that add to our states diversity. It was this mixture, packed into such a small area that Peckham and his botanist friends found so exciting.

Cat Swamp, a local hotspot of botanical diversity, was destroyed following development of the Wayland and Blackstone neighborhoods in the early 1900s. The exhibit showcases the rich history of art and science in Providence and provokes viewers to consider the impacts of urban development on biodiversity. These plants may still exist in Rhode Island but they are almost certainly gone from the East Side. This is an ecological and aesthetic loss to Providence.

The exhibit will particularly appeal to those interested in nature, botany, conservation, local ecology, scientific illustration, as well as anyone interested in understanding the history of art and science in Rhode Island.

Link to Exhibit Website

The John Hay Library is located at 20 Prospect Street in Providence. It is open Monday–Thursday 10 am – 6 pm, Friday 10 am – 5 pm. Closed Saturday & Sunday. Parking is on the street.

 

Special Programs

Opening reception – Thursday, January 10 from 4-6 pm. Refreshments – Free.

Lecture: The History of Botanical Art From Early Times to the Present, presented by Pam Harrington, botanical illustration and horticulturist. January 19 at the John Hay Library. Free. Details

Botanical Illustration Class with Amy Bartlett Wright, professional artist, muralist and natural science illustrator. Saturday, March 16 at the RISD Nature Lab. Free. Preregistration Required. Details

Tour of the Brown Herbarium with Tim Whitfeld, Collections Manager.Friday, March 29, 2019. Free. Preregistration Required. Details

Book Review – Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History

by Carol Gracie, Princeton University Press 2012
This review by Pat Cahalan, originally appeared in WildfloraRI, Winter 2018

To say this book is a collection of essays on spring-blooming wildflowers of the northeastern US and adjacent Canada, while accurate, doesn’t begin to capture its appeal. Unlike so many others, this book seamlessly blends the science, culture, and beauty of these plants, illustrating it all with photographs that are almost like being in the field with a 10x lens.

The author looks at 30 or so flowers from a botanical viewpoint, letting us in on what is happening in the plant’s life and why. What’s that insect doing on that plant? Why is that bloom shaped the way it is? What’s its pollination strategy? She delves into the life stories of not just familiar favorites like trillium, columbine, and lady’s-slippers, but also less popular ones like skunk cabbage and false hellebore, saxifrage, featherfoil, and fringed polygala (also known as gaywings or bird-on-the-wing). Throughout, she relates how a particular flower compares to others in its family, citing examples not only in the northeast and other parts of the U.S. but also in far- flung lands around the world.

Gracie talks about how these wildflowers got their names, both the common and scientific, and why the scientific names are changing—how new methods of studying plants (e.g., DNA sequencing) have led to a better understanding of the relationships between plants and their subsequent reclassification. But as she says in her essay on early saxifrage, now Micranthes virginiensis, “. . . there is generally good reason for such taxonomic changes, but it can drive one crazy—a saxifrage that is not a Saxifraga!”

In many of the essays she discusses the plant’s cultural history in folklore and literature. She mentions how these plants have been used medicinally and as food by native American tribes, ancient cultures, and colonial herbalists. However, she by no means endorses these uses, pointing out the very real possibility of disastrous results from such experimentation.

In each chapter Gracie discusses the latest scientific research on that plant, and for the reader who wants to pursue the science further, she includes an extensive list of references in the back of the book. While she does use botanical terminology throughout the text, those of us who are unfamiliar with the terms will have little trouble following her, as her easy-to-read style makes clear the meanings of words within the context of the text. In addition, she includes an extensive glossary in the back of the book.

More than 500 of the author’s color photographs illustrate the book. They include both plant portraits and plants in their natural settings, and give us an intimate look at what is going on in each plant’s life. Particularly fascinating are the many close-ups highlighting the botanical details she discusses and giving us a glimpse of nature at work, including the seven photos showing interior details of a Jack-in-the-pulpit flower, a native bee hanging upside-down from the stamens of a trout lily as it collects pollen, and an ant grasping a seed of Dutchman’s breeches by its edible appendage to drag it back to its nest.

This is not a substitute for a field guide to identifying plants, nor will it tell you how to garden or landscape your property. Rather, it is simply a collection of delightful, botanically accurate stories about our spring wildflowers.