Wasps, a Summer Time Caution By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Everyone knows and fears wasps or waspers as my family calls them.   What you may not know is that the wasp family includes other stinging insects in our area, including yellow jackets, hornets, and dirt daubers.  They are all in the insect family vespidae, and are referred to as vespid wasps.


Some vespids like dirt daubers are solitary, while others live in colonies and show some degree of social behavior.  This ranges from groups of cooperating fertile females, to a caste system in which there is a single fertile queen and a large population of smaller female workers.  Here is a short discussion of the two most common Vespid members


Paper Wasps:  There are several species in our neck of the woods, but all of them have long legs, a very narrow waist, and are mostly reddish brown to black, with one having yellow stripes. Adults feed on nectar and juice from crushed or rotting fruit, while the larva feed on insects provided pre-chewed by adults.  The paper wasp lifestyle goes like this: In the spring several females work together to construct a paper nest made of wood that is chewed and regurgitated. It consists of a single circular tier of cells attached by a narrow stalk to the undersurface of a ceiling.  One female becomes the dominant queen.  The first few generations of eggs are all females, cared for as larvae by unmated female workers.  Unfertilized eggs produce fertile males, which mate with females in late summer. Only mated young queens overwinter under leaf letter or stone piles.  Old queens, workers, and larvae all die. Paper wasps are more tolerant of people and minor disturbances than are hornets and yellow jackets, but sting they will and it is pretty painful. It seems to me they get meaner the hotter it gets.


Yellow Jackets: Our variety is the Eastern yellow jacket.  These mean little guys are ½ – ¾ inches long with black and yellow bodies.  They usually nest in the ground or at ground level, constructing a multi-tiered, covered nest of paper. Adults feed on nectar, while the young larvae feed on insects pre-chewed by the adults.  In the spring a mated female constructs a small nest and daily brings food to the larvae until the first all female brood matures and serve as workers, extending the nest and tending the young.  In late summer, males develop from unfertilized eggs and mate. With winter, everybody dies except mated females, who overwinter under leaf litter and in the soil.  Yellow jackets can be pests at picnics, being attracted to food and sweet beverages.  Females sting repeatedly at the least provocation, and will chase you great distances.


Wasp stings normally just involve pain and some swelling, and can be treated with an ice pack, and perhaps taking an antihistamine for the swelling. If you develop abnormal swelling, difficulty breathing, or other unusual symptoms, you may be having an allergic reaction and seek medical treatment immediately.


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The Why of Wind By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

We’ve had some pretty blustery weather lately, demonstrating how powerful wind and weather can be.  Maybe you haven’t thought about it since 8th grade science, but it might be interesting to review why we have wind at all.


Wind is movement of air molecules, which like other particles in nature, always move from high concentrations to lower concentrations, seeking equilibrium.  The Sun warms the atmosphere, unevenly. Some parts of the Earth like the equator receive more direct sun rays and are always warm.  The further north you move the sun’s rays are more indirect (at an angle) and the atmosphere is cooler.  The warmer air has fewer air molecules in it and so is lighter in weight, and is called a low pressure area or system.  Air in a cooler atmosphere has molecules that huddle closer together, thus making the air more dense (higher pressure), and is called a high pressure system. So basically wind is air molecules moving north and south to try to equalize the air pressure between high and low pressure areas.  This north/south movement is dragged towards the east by the Earth rotating under the atmosphere, and so the prevailing winds in our area are more or less out of the west.  That’s how your average everyday winds come about.


What causes wind to get lively and change direction is when those warm and cold air masses move around and bump into each other.  These bumps where the two air masses collide are called fronts.  TV meteorologists are always talking about either cold or warm fronts moving through our area and bringing some changing weather, rain usually, but always with increasing winds that change direction as the front passes.


A warm front is a warm air mass moving into an area with a cold air mass, and as they collide the warm air rises over the cooler air in a slow gradual incline.  As the warm air rises and cools, moisture in it condenses to form flat looking stratus clouds that may eventually drop low intensity rain that can be long duration. As the warm front approaches winds are generally out of the east (high pressure to low pressure remember) and as the front passes the wind will shift to coming from the south/southeast.  Wind speeds are higher but usually not enough to cause concern. So think of an approaching warm front as the warm and cold air masses greeting each other with a slow kiss.


An approaching cold front on the other hand is more like a punch in the mouth.  Here a cold air mass moves into an area with a warm air mass.  The cold air has a steeper slope in front of it, so when it collides with the warm air mass it pushes the warm air up very fast and clouds develop as tall puffy cumulus and can go to stormy cumulonimbus size in a hurry.  This rapid rise of air causes very unstable conditions that can form violent weather, including  short duration heavy rains, hail, high winds, even tornadoes.


Paying attention to the wind was how people predicted the weather before satellites and such.  So if you’re attentive, wind can tell you things as well.


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Dealing With Blisters By: Steve Roark Tennessee Division of Forestry

A blister is your body’s way of telling you to ease off on what you’re doing, whether it’s a long hike or chopping wood.  They are of course the result of too much friction, possibly from poor fitting shoes or not wearing work gloves.  There are several opinions on how to treat them.

The first thing to decide is whether or not to drain the fluid from the blister, which depends on its size and location.  If the blister is small and not located where it will cause discomfort, you could just leave it alone.  If the blister is causing some pain, or if there’s a chance of  breaking it through use and perhaps causing more pain and injury, then you may want to drain it.


One way to do this is to prick the side of the blister with a sterilized needle.  Another way is to use a sterilized razor blade to carefully make an incision just deep enough and wide enough to squeeze the fluid out.  Either way, it is very important to sterilize the instrument.  The simplest way is with alcohol, but you can also heat the needle or blade until it is red hot and let it cool.


A mistake often made after draining a blister is to remove the skin over it.  This will leave a raw, very tender area that will take longer to heal, so leave the skin on to protect the wound.  It will eventually dry out and fall off on its own.


Next, treat the area with an antibiotic ointment.  A dressing to protect the area while it is healing is a good idea.  A Band-Aid is fine if it’s big enough, but if not use sterilized gauze pads.  Give the blister some air nightly by removing the dressing when you’re inactive.  Be alert for signs of infection:  redness, swelling, heat, and increased pain.  Other danger signs are that the fluid coming out of the blister is not clear, or has some odor to it.  If any of these signs are present, head for the doctor.


Preventing blisters is the best way to walk that extra mile or hoe that last row.  If you’re prone to get blister on your hands, wear gloves.  For your feet, always wear socks when wearing shoes.  Applying baby powder to your feet before putting on socks can help reduce friction.  Also, petroleum jelly applied to blister prone areas such as the heel is also good.  Fitted socks (those with a heel) are recommended rather than tube socks.


If you hike, hunt, or do any activity that requires a lot of walking, carry some moleskin with you.  This is a thin pad with a real sticky back that you can apply to areas that may be rubbing and hopefully prevent blisters from forming.  It can be cut to size and is available at the drug store.


A good book on first aid is “Home Remedies”, published by Rodale Press.


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Fear of Snakes By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t respond in fear when they stumble across a snake in the woods or the tool shed.  The usual reaction is to jump back and express a four letter metaphor.  I do it myself, even though I know that snakes are mostly harmless, and the poisonous ones rarely strike a human unless really provoked.  But all that logic goes out the window when I first see a snake, and I’m instantly in a “get out of here” mode.

So what is it about snakes that generate such a universal fear?  There is endless debate on the subject in the science world, and it generally comes down to two thoughts: is the fear a learned response, or are we genetically hard wired to fear slithery things?  There’s been lots of research trying to figure this out, and the results are pretty gray.  My best spin on the matter is that it may be a little of both.  Very young children usually do not fear snakes at first, and yet they can pick out a snake in the background of a photo quicker than anything else.  And they show a predisposition to learn to fear snakes from a bad experience or being exposed to other people’s fear reaction.   Wild-born monkeys fear snakes, while those raised in a lab do not. They’ll reach over a life-like rubber snake and get a peanut without a second thought. But when the lab monkey is shown a video of a wild monkey reacting in fear to a snake, the lab monkey then became afraid.  Sounds like snake fear is learned.  But when the video was altered to show a monkey reacting in fear to a flower rather than a snake, the lab monkey (who had never seen a flower or a snake) did not develop a fear of flowers.  So now what?  The answer may be that fear of snakes is instinctive, but must be triggered by something… a bad experience, being told scary snake stories, or television/movie drama.   And once triggered, the instinct is locked in.


The strangeness of a snake probably has something to do with fearing them.  No legs, cold blooded, scaly skin, beady eyes, tongue lashing out; they’re unique creatures.  In a survey the two things people fear most about snakes is that some are poisonous and that they are able to remain unseen.  That pretty well sums it up.  We do have poisonous snakes in our area (copperheads and rattlers), and they are excellent in the art of camouflage and stealth.  I rarely see snakes in all the stomping around I do in the woods, but I have almost stepped on a copperhead a couple of times because it blended in so well with the leaves on the ground.


Snakes do not live up to the hype often given them. They are not out to get us; the vast majority are not poisonous; the poisonous ones only strike as a last resort (usually being stepped on); if you are bitten, only one in 1000 snake bites result in death.  They play an important role in keeping mice and rat populations down.  My wife has told me that she would tolerate a snake in the house if they would get rid of mice.  So go ahead and fear snakes a little, you can’t help it. But don’t let that fear grow to where it prevents you from enjoying the outdoors.  If you see one, wait for the adrenaline rush to settle and simply give them some distance.  Don’t kill them just because they are snakes, as they belong here too.


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Buckeye By: Steve Roark TN Dept Agriculture, Forestry Division

Buckeye is fairly common in our area, normally found in mountain hollows along with yellow poplar, beech and other moisture loving trees.  It is one of the species used to indicate a very diverse forest type called mixed mesophytic, the most diverse forest type in the United States, and second only to the tropical rain forests on the planet. It’s found only in portions of the Appalachian Mountains, including ours.

Buckeye got its name from its seed, which is a shiny brown nut with a large pale spot that reminded someone of the eyeball of a deer.  Yellow buckeye (Aesculus octandra), also called sweet buckeye, is the species found in our area.  It is easy to identify by its leaf, which is compound and made up of five leaflets that attach to the leaf stem at one point, splaying out like fingers on a hand.   The bark of buckeye is dull white to beige in color, smooth when young, but later forming flat thin plates.  The twigs of buckeye are thicker than most trees, with a large bud forming in the winter that is easy to see from the ground.  Buckeye has showy yellow leaves in the fall, which drop off early.


The buckeye fruit is formed in a thick 3-sided husk.  The shiny nut is pleasing to look at, but beware that they are poisonous to humans and domestic farm animals.  Young leaves and shoots also have the same poisonous property, which is one reason to keep cattle out of the woods.  Squirrels somehow are able to eat the nuts and get away with it.  Some folklore contends that some portion of the nut is not poisonous and the squirrels are able to smell the edible portion.  I’m undecided on this theory, but I have never seen a buckeye totally eaten, usually half or better is left, which makes one wonder. Indians were able to consume the nut by roasting, pealing, and mashing the meat, then leaching the resulting meal with water for several days to eliminate the glucoside chemical poison. The nuts are carried in the pockets of Kentuckians for luck and by Ohioans for rheumatism.


Buckeye wood is not considered good for lumber, being soft and rather weak.  It is a popular carving wood for hobbyist and is used for crate material due to its light weight.  The woods softness was popular with early pioneers for carving bowls, spoons, and other kitchenware.


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Listen to the Mockingbird…All Night By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Two incidents happened to me recently that both involved a mockingbird, so I took it as a sign that I should to write about them. Recently I was in bed with the TV on, and it was like 11 at night.   A mockingbird in a tree outside the window began singing loud enough to be heard through the wall and over the television, and he kept it up for quite some time.  So why was a daytime active bird working a second shift? The other incident involved a mocking bird mocking me.  When I call our dogs, I always whistle a three-note “tune” if you will.  While in the garden the other day I heard someone whistling my whistle…perfectly…it sounded like a recording of me.  I walked around the yard a little spooked, and finally figured out it was a mockingbird adding my call to his song repertoire.  This begs another question: why do mockingbirds mock?

First here’s a review of bird behavior.  Birds mostly sing for two reasons: to impress and attract a mate, or to announce their territory and warn competing birds to keep out.  A bird’s vocal organ is called a syrinx and is located where the trachea splits off to each lung.  This allows different areas of the syrinx to vibrate separately and allows some birds to produce more than one sound at the same time.  A song is a consistently repeated series of notes that form a pattern. A call is a short sound with no pattern, such as a simple chirp.


Most bird singing is done by the male, which brings us to why mockingbirds sing well into the night.  It’s mostly unmated males that do it, so it’s possibly done out of desperation, or perhaps to demonstrate to a listening female that this dude has stamina and would be a desirable mate. Unmated males sing more than mated ones day or night, so it’s the things you do for love I guess. It has to be exhausting.


The mockingbird’s claim to fame is their ability to mimic other bird calls, and can ramble off long strings of borrowed songs and may even throw in a squirrel squawk or two.   But living among humans, they are known to mimic doorbells, sirens, cell phones, a rusty gate, you name it. Mockingbirds are in the “mimic thrush” family, which also includes other mimicking species such as catbirds and brown thrashers. You can tell a mocking bird from a thrasher by listening to the number of repetitions of each song fragment.  Mocking birds repeat themselves 3 or 4 times in a row, while a thrasher does only one or two repetitions.


A male mockingbird may learn 200 songs in its lifetime.  So this brings up the second question of why do they mock so many songs and sounds?  Males that know a large variety of sounds and can put them together to form a complex song demonstrates to the female that this dude is experienced in the ways of the world and would probably make a good mate.  It’s comparable to a turkey fanning his tail and strutting about showing off how big and bad he is; only the mockingbird does it with singing.


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Enjoy a Local Rare River By Steve Roark TN Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Division

The Powell River is truly one of our area’s most unique natural areas and one that is greatly underutilized. It offers fantastic scenery, fishing and paddling opportunities, wildlife viewing, and a wide array of tree and plant species to enjoy. To truly appreciate the river, you really need to float it.

The Powell is one of the largest, free-flowing rivers in Tennessee and Virginia, winding through beautiful mountain forest and farmland scenery. It is predominately a quiet flatwater river that is suitable for beginning paddlers. The EPA and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service both identify the Powell as one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the United States. This diversity includes many rare and endangered fish and mussel species, along with a large diversity of trees and plants that grow on the complex soils, cliff lines, and other terrain features that border the river.

An opportunity to enjoy the Powell River is coming up on April 29th, when the 3rd annual Powell River Regatta will take place in Claiborne County near Tazewell.  This 12 mile float will let you compete (if you wish) for cash prizes in various age groups and canoe and kayak styles (single or double). If you don’t want to compete, you can still get some exercise while enjoying some memorable scenery.  Blue heron, ducks, kingfisher, and even osprey have been seen during past events. Boat rentals will be available.

The event is a production of the Claiborne County Chamber of Commerce. The entry fee ($30 for single and $50 for double) goes to benefit the Powell River Blueway Trail project, whose goal is to establish more boat put in sites along the river to allow more public use an amazing natural area. For more information or to register for the Regatta go to www.PowellRiverBlueway.org, or  ww.Facebook.com/PowellRiver Regatta.


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