A Spooky Tale: The Deathwatch Beetle

A Spooky Tale: The Deathwatch Beetle

By Steve Roark

With a nod to the season of Halloween, I would like to share a tale about something that has creeped people out for centuries. A superstition that came across with settlers from Europe and established itself here in the eastern U.S. It involves death and a bug.

Back in the day people did not die in hospitals, but in their own beds, and it became a tradition to watch over the dying until the end and this became known as the death watch or vigil. During this time the house was kept very quiet, with limited activity and conversations held in a whisper. With the house this still, a tapping sound could often be heard that seemed to come from all over the house, and occurred often enough that the sound became synonymous with impending death, and superstitions arose as a result.  One thought was that the tapping sound was the grim reaper tapping his bony fingers impatiently waiting for the loved one to die.  Another was that it was the sound of time ticking off the dying person’s last moments. Records of the phenomena date back to the 17th century, so it was a spooky occurrence that’s been around a while.grim-reaper.jpg

 

The science of entomology eventually identified the sound as not paranormal, but sexual. There is an insect (Xestobium rufovillosum) that was named the Deathwatch Beetle because it was the source of the tapping. It is a woodboring beetle that sometimes infests the structural timbers of old houses, with larvae hatching from eggs boring their way into the timber, eating and digesting wood with the help of enzymes in their gut. They stay at it for quite a while, feeding for up to ten years before finally pupating and emerging as adults with a desire to mate and lay eggs to start the life cycle over. To attract mates, the adult beetles go about it the hard way by literally banging their heads against the inside of the bore hole, making a series of tapping sounds so they can find each other. The sound resonated throughout the house, which was somewhat unnerving. The taps are normally about 6-8 taps long, but are sometimes only three, which according to the death watch superstition meant that death was imminent. And once again the association of old houses with spooky phenomena lives on.

A version of the death watch lives on today among some mountain people in the form of a wake. This was an old Celtic tradition in Ireland where family and close friends should stay awake through the night with the deceased in order to offer protection from evil spirits until burial occurred. While the evil spirits part is no longer considered, the ritual of staying up with the body before the funeral lives on in many families, and I was told stories of my grandparents doing it decades ago.

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Boxelder Bugs

Boxelder Bugs

By: Steve Roark

Boxelder bugs can make a nuisance of themselves by gathering around the house in large numbers.  They usually do this in the autumn in preparation to move into protected areas to over-winter.  While they do not cause physical damage to the house, they may stain walls and curtains with brown fecal matter.

Boxelder bugs (Leptocoris trivittatus) are flat insects about ½ inch long, dark brown to black in color with three red stripes behind their head.  Their lifecycle goes like this: Adults over-winter in cracks and crevices in walls, rock piles, tree holes, and other protected places.  In the spring the females emerge and lay eggs in crevices of tree bark and other objects near host plants.  Eggs hatch in 14 days, with nymphs appearing about the same time new tree leaves develop.  In July new adults lay eggs that result in a second generation by early autumn.

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The bugs feed primarily on boxelder trees by sucking sap from the leaves, tender twigs, and developing seeds.  They also sometimes feed on maple, plum, cherry, apple, peach, and grapes, causing some scarring or dimpling of the fruits.

Boxelder bugs seldom develop into nuisance populations unless they can feed on seed-bearing boxelder trees.   If you’re having trouble with the bugs, chances are you have boxelder trees nearby.  Removal of these trees should eliminate high populations.  Other preventive actions involve making your house tighter, especially around doors and windows.  Repair any holes where the bugs can enter.  Eliminate potential hiding places such as piles of boards, rocks, leaves, grass, and other debris close to the house.

Controlling the bugs themselves mostly involves using insecticides. To prevent potentially large populations in the autumn, spray boxelder trees near the home with an approved pesticide (always follow label directions).  In the Fall when they gather on sidewalks and walls, treat the area they are occupying with the same insecticides.  A non-chemical control method involves the liberal use of a vacuum cleaner.  For more information on controlling problem bugs, contact your County Extension Agent.

 

 

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Plants That Use Dinner Bells

Plants That Use Dinner Bells

By Steve Roark

It’s nice to think that plants produce fruit for our pleasure and that of other creatures.  They do want us to eat them but have an ulterior motive of getting their seeds dispersed to other areas.

If all the fruit that a parent plant produces were to simply fall to the ground, few would survive.  The adult plant already has a claim on the available sunshine, soil, water and nutrients needed for healthy growth.  Since plants are not mobile, they use other means to get their seeds dispersed and thus continue the species.  Many do it through bribery, providing a tasty food source that a mobile animal eats and then moves on.  The hard seeds inside of fruit pass through the animal’s gut undigested, and eventually get deposited somewhere with fertilizer to boot.

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To assure their fruit is seen for consumption, many plants display what is called pre-ripening fruit flags, going through a series of color changes as they ripen.  Fruits like blueberries, cherries, mulberries, blackberries, and raspberries all start out a green color.  As they mature, they turn a pink to red, then purple, and finally black or blue when fully ripe.  This color change serves as a signal to animals that fruit is about to ripen, encouraging them to stay in the area and feed.  This ups the chances of getting the seeds dispersed.

Another trick some fruiting plants use is to go through an early leaf color change in the fall.  The bright red or yellow leaves are very distinct against a predominantly green background and are thus attractive to animals (especially flying birds) from a distance.  This early flush of color is called foliar fruit flagging, and is used by poison ivy, Virginia creeper, sassafras, blackgum, wild grapes, dogwood, and spice bush to announce ripe or nearly ripe fruit.

The next time you enjoy wild fruit of some kind, keep in mind you are being played, but in this case both sides win.

 

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House Dust

House Dust

By: Steve Roark

Those trying in vain to keep a house clean detest house dust.  It floats in sunbeams and accumulates on furniture.  Most assume the dust comes from outside, and about 60% of it does in the form of dirt or pollen, but much of it is generated inside the home. If you look at floater house dust under a microscope, it appears to be small flat plates, usually six sided and slightly wrinkled on the surface.  It’s is mostly skin cells from us or from pets.  We shed them constantly in fantastic amounts, and it’s the body’s way of keeping itself clean and free from invading pathogens.

Surrounding us is a cloud of shed skin cells too small to be seen with the naked eye.  The formal name for this cloud is “dander” and the only time you may notice your own dust cloud is if you wear black and see white flakes on your shoulders.  We call that “dandruff” and treat it with medicated shampoos like it’s an ailment. But skin cells and tiny hairs are shed from every square inch of our body except the palms of our hands and soles of our feet.  We produce a constant rain of dust that settles and accumulates everywhere we sit or stand.   house dust.jpg

Nature is very efficient, and if there’s something to eat, there’s usually something to eat it.  And so we have living with us in our house, dust mites (Dermatopyagoides farinae) too small to see.  They live in the carpet, in our bed, and on all our furniture. Having tiny live-in vacuum cleaners wouldn’t be such a bad thing except for one problem.  They are so tiny we unknowingly inhale a mites or mite parts, and there are lots of those in our house too.  Some dust allergies are caused by an allergic reaction to dust mites.

Getting rid of dust mites in your home is impossible, as is getting rid of house dust.  All you can do is vacuum regularly and try to forget the mites are there. But it is interesting that the indoors has its own version of wildlife.  Disturbing, but interesting.

 

 

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Meat Eat

Meat Eat

By: Steve Roark

The average American diet includes one of three meats, either beef, pork, or chicken.  I always thought we ate more beef than anything, but chicken has of late given beef a run for its money.  And if you look at it on a global scale, it turns out that beef is not always “what’s for dinner”.

Play a guessing game with me.  Take a minute and jot down what you think are the top 10 land animals killed for food on the planet, based on the number of animals, not pounds of meat.  You got it? So what’s your number one?  If you picked chicken, give yourself a drumstick.  A staggering 50 billion chickens are consumed annually. Considering how many ways you can eat chicken in a Chinese restaurant, that’s not surprising.  How about your number two?  The surprising answer is ducks, coming in a 2.6 billion.  Number three: pigs at 1.3 billion, so take that, McDonalds!  Fourth place goes to another surprise: rabbits at 1.1 billion.  Next is turkeys at 630 million, sheep are 5th at 520 million, and goats are 7th at 400 million.  So where’s the beef? Eighth place at 293 million cows, followed by water buffalo, and finally camels.

I know the rankings would be different if they were based on pounds of meat rather than number of animals, but it does demonstrate how incredibly vast the world of animal husbandry is.  It’s certainly a big deal economically, as rearing animals for meat consumption is a big chunk of most national economies.Beef cuts.jpg

Farming animals, especially the big ones, is starting to strain earth resources, what with over 8 billion mouths to feed.  So the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is pursuing ways to promote the consumption of another protein source: insects.  According to studies they can be farmed more cheaply and on much less land than traditional meat producers.  Species like beetles and crickets are pretty nutritious, and a serving of small grasshoppers has about the same protein content as ground beef.  Insect eating is nothing new, as at least a thousand species are regularly consumed by humans somewhere.  Australian aborigines like to eat certain ants because they provide a refreshing “lemony flavor”.  And if you can fight through the gag reflex, toasted locusts dipped in chocolate ain’t bad.  The word to impress your friends with today is entomophagy, the practice of insect eating.

Oh, and let me put a plug in for trees as a protein source.  Nuts are an excellent source of protein and other nutrients.  Black walnut nutmeat has almost as much protein per serving as a good old grilled steak, and it even beats out grasshoppers.

 

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Who Sees the Best Rainbow

Who Sees the Best Rainbow

By Steve Roark

Humans are apparently hard-wired to love seeing rainbows, as proven by all the Facebook photo postings that pop up whenever one appears in our area.  But have you ever wondered if, say your dog sitting beside you, sees the same rainbow you do? Or how about other animals? Let us delve into color vision by various residents of our planet.

Let’s start with us.  A rainbow to us has 6 colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. Remember the ROYGBIV memorization trick? Some contend that on really clear days folks with really good vision can see 7 colors, with another shade of violet thrown in (ROYGBIVV). Now back to your dog sitting beside you. His rainbow would start out as blue, then green, a sliver of yellow, and… that’s it. A dog’s rainbow is only half as thick as yours. So he’s sitting there smiling and panting like he’s enjoying it, but in reality he’s thinking “what’s the big deal?”

The difference between us and dogs is that they only have two photo receptors in their eyes, which if you remember from biology, are called cones. They only have blue and green sensitive cones, while we have three including a red one. You wouldn’t think one kind of receptor would make much difference, but three is way, way better than two because it allows a bunch of other colors to become visible.  Mix red with blue and you get purple, red with yellow gives you orange, and so on.  The additional cone allows us to see about 100 different shades of color, 97 more than your dog can see. He should be envious, but his sitting there licking himself indicates that he could care less.

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What about the sparrow flitting around in the tree behind you as you enjoy your rainbow? It varies among bird species, but sparrows can see into the ultraviolet color band and also have more sensitive red cones than we do. Their rainbow would start out extremely red, very red, red, orange, green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet. A much broader rainbow than ours, so perhaps we should be envious of sparrows.

But hold on, what about that swallowtail butterfly feeding on a thistle flower at your feet? Turns out they have 5 kinds of photo receptors, so there’s would be an amazing rainbow with multiple shades of all the colors we see and bunch we don’t.  So wow, hats off to butterflies.

This leads up to the question of what animal sees the best rainbow ever? The present champion is the mantis shrimp, which lives on coral reefs with shallow, clear water, and so could, were it so inclined, see a rainbow. These guys have 16 kinds of color receptors, and their rainbow would be unbelievable. They would start out like super-duper ultraviolet, 6 more shades of ultraviolet, then violet, violet-blue, blue, blue-green, green-green, green-blue, bluey-blue, blue, and on it goes until they hit red and blowing our rainbow out of the water.

Of course, our human advantage is that we have the cognitive ability to see and appreciate the beauty of rainbows, even if ours is more diminutive than what is seen by other animals. Still, wouldn’t seeing a 24-layer rainbow be awesome! Information for this article came from a radio program called “Rippin the Rainbow” produced by Radiolab.  Look up the podcast online and listen to it, as it’s very entertaining.

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Spikenard: Connecting Our Mountains with the Bible

Spikenard: Connecting Our Mountains with the Bible

By Steve Roark

As a botany nut I’m always amazed at the diversity of plants we have in the mountains, as I’m constantly coming across plants I don’t know.  One I’ve observed for a number of years but only recently caught it in bloom to identify it is Spikenard, which is mentioned in the Bible several times. The most familiar one is its use to anoint the head and feet of Jesus just prior to His crucifixion.

The ointment spikenard mentioned in the King James version (and as “nard” in other Bible translations) was derived from a plant by the same name that grew in the Himalayan mountains and so had to be shipped long distances to the Holy Land. An essential oil that was distilled out of the roots was very aromatic and had numerous uses. The Romans used it as a medicinal to make perfumes. It was used as an incense offering by the Hebrews in the Jerusalem Temple.  In Old Testament times pungent perfumes and oils were used to prepare a body for burial, which was why the act of anointing Jesus’ head with spikenard prior to His crucifixion was highly symbolic. Because it was imported from distance lands and extracting the the oil was complex, it was very costly. Spikenard or nard is mentioned in Mark 14:3, John 12:3, and Song of Solomon 14:13.Spikenard.JPG

The plant used in biblical times is not even closely related to American Spikenard found in moist forests of our Appalachian Mountains. The Himalayan plant is small with flowers similar to red clover.  Our Spikenard looks more like a bush but is actually a herbaceous perennial. It is often wider than it is tall and can reach three feet in height and width.  It has compound leaves that are twice divided, and each leaflet is roughly heart shaped with a toothed edge. The stem is a purplish color. The flowers are a spike of small, white blooms that form in round clusters, and bloom in late summer.  I was curious as to why our local plant was given the same name as the biblical variety but couldn’t find a definitive connection, but I think I can offer a possibility. The roots of both species are very aromatic, with a smell described as “balsamic”, which I take to mean medicine-ey or perhaps resinous. To me our native Spikenard has a spicy smell. Another similarity is that both roots have a cluster of black tendrils near the root crown that look like a clump of hair. I’m assuming whoever first discovered the American Spikenard saw the resemblance and named it accordingly.

American Spikenard is in the same plant family as ginseng and has similar chemical properties.  It has traditionally been used as a medicinal plant to treat coughs, asthma, lung ailments, rheumatism, and kidney ailment. Native Americans used a root tea for menstrual irregularities, lung issues and cough, and to flavor other medicines. The root was also used as a poultice to treat infections, swelling, and wounds. As a flavoring it was used to make a flavorful tea, root beer, and a spice.

 

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