Winter Moth Returns

I originally wrote this piece in the fall of 2008, when there were enormous numbers of moths out right around Thanksgiving. I sent it around to colleagues at school where it was well received. Originally it referred to a couple of people by name. Here I just use initials. Tonight (Nov 21, 2012) moths are out in force in my yard, in the headlights of my car.  Time to repost!

photo by F. Lamiot, 2006, from Wikipedia commons

Enquiring Minds have been asking…

Leaving west campus in the dark of early evening, I have been bombarded by clouds of fluttering moths at the glass entrance to the building. They lie in the wet of the sidewalk, bang against my face, tap on my hands as I flick them away. You have seen them too, I know, because I hear the tidbits of lunch room speculations, references to the movie “The Birds”.

Will they take over? Will Hitchcock’s legacy live on in some dreadful horror flick in which  staff and faculty are battered to death by moths? Moths in the eyes (Ta dum ta dum) the mouth (the horror!!)? -JM running screaming into the building, beating back the flurry of powdered wings , GC found frozen in terror, covered by moths, almost to his car at the chapel lot….

Possibly. I can’t really speak to that. But if you wondered, they are males of the winter moth(Operophtera brumata), a  European species introduced about a decade ago that has taken over the Thanksgiving and Advent periods in eastern Massachusetts for the past several years.  The larvae are those light green inchworms that so devastate your crabapple and oak trees in the spring, leaving only skeleton veins of those first juicy leaves. The house sparrows love them.

But only males?  Yup. The females are flightless. If you look closely at walls and doors, you will see what look like  mutant moths, just bodies with tiny wrinkled vestigal wings. They are supposed to be like that. They sit there and send out chemicals more powerful than the best Christmas present perfume, that call to the males, “come find me” and apparently it works, except for all the males lost trying to get to the lights through the glass doors at west campus, or feebly pulsing in the puddles that I pass.

Winter moths are similar to the native fall cankerworm. It comes out at the same time, and also has flightless females. But cankerworms don’t build up the huge numbers we have been seeing during this season weeks. So these are almost certainly the European winter moth.

So, if you have been wondering, there you have it. If you haven’t been wondering, get out and notice while they are still around! U Mass extension says we may be in for more winter moths than usual if the winter is mild.

More information is available through UMASS extension for those who really want to know…

Still Life: An Apple Performance

This was originally written in the fall of 2011 and just published in a Gordon College column called Faith + Ideas Nov 2012. I include it  here.

By Dorothy Boorse
I enter my office and straighten the decoration resting on the faux maple desk. A white plate with two blue lines, six dried bits of tiger lily flower, one drying apple and a fork. I call it my “still life,” an image I can’t help but recall as we anticipate Thanksgiving meals.The goal of a still life is to capture a moment in time. For some artists who paint or draw them, it is an attempt to depict perfection, others a glimmer of ordinary life, for still others something caught in death. The stillness is the timelessness, the moment trapped.But my still life has been here for months. The apple is drying. Cracks and dimples are appearing on its surface. It does not smell, except of dried fruit and is not repugnant. Six weeks ago, when it was already probably a month old, a colleague passed, wrinkled his nose and looked quizzical.

“Performance art,” I said. “It represents contractionism, an early understanding of how mountains and valleys are formed on the earth. People pictured the earth as a drying apple. “

Contractionism has long been abandoned for the concept of plate tectonics, but the idea of my apple, slowly wrinkling, representing a metaphor of a forgotten era of science, is appealing. The apple has not rotted, something that has surprised me. Is this because it was washed, coated with wax, some other treatment? Is it because the air is dry and relatively cool?

Today the apple has a small spot. Bruised and wetter than the rest of the skin, an area the size of a dime shines on the Western side of my earth. It looks like Montana, Washington and part of British Columbia are sinking and darkening. Either an asteroid hit the earth, or bacteria have breached the apple skin.

It is possible, I think, that this is a step change. Here on the stage of my plate, the drying apple play is getting to the second act. Still Life I is being exchanged for Still Life II.

I encountered performance art when I was in graduate school. Almost anything could qualify. One of my friends saw a naked man on the street crouching by a car, investigating it as if he were a cave man and had never seen a vehicle. This was not grounds to call for mental health care or the police. It probably helped someone qualify for a degree.

But nature as performance? I wonder. We can imagine the drama of a bird’s flight, the dance of bees, or the exuberant mating ritual of snails being a performance. This is Art, as it were, for an audience of sowbugs and snakes, mosses and the nodding heads of columbines. Performance art does not have to be beautiful. Neither does a still life. Can a tableau be both a still life and performance art? Both a moment stolen and timeless, and an action showing some idea? Maybe if you move slowly enough.

In fact, all still lifes are not really still. Time never stops, even for the painter, even for the photographer. Even in the time you take to carefully place the apple and lay out the palate, the brushes, the tinctures of red and brown, the apple performs infinitesimally.

Maybe, just as there is no still life, there is no performing either. Maybe the apple is a myriad of still lifes in order, a film of stop motion scenes. Maybe when I leave my office, the apple stops. All change stops. Maybe it changes only as it is observed and otherwise hangs like a film waiting on one frame, to be moved forward by observation. Flash—the apple is wrinkled but its skin unbroken. Flash—the upper western states and parts of Canada are brown mush.

I pick up the apple and turn it to the unbroken hemisphere. It is wrinkled but free of mold or rot. I sniff the pleasant smell of dried fruit. Musing, I bite, breaking off a divot the size of Europe from the sphere. The meat is somewhat dry but tastes fine. The center is white and clean. “Apple dries on desk: Still edible,” the headline could read. I take the apple into the lab where I place it in a terrarium. It sits beside a coiled millipede, ready to make a new still life performance.

This Thanksgiving, may we all enjoy eating apples (hopefully not drying on our desks) and look at them as if we’ve never seen them before.

see at:


Who’s that ladybug?

photo by Bruce Martin, from Wikipedia Commons.
The Asian Ladybird Beetle sometimes has other names, including Asian multicolored lady beetle.

We all know the scene- a warm fall day and you are standing at a window daydreaming when you realize there is an insect on the screen. You look around and – then you see them, dozens of live and dead small, crunchy beetles from yellow to bright red, usually with scattered black spots. They are clogging the windowsill, drying in your light fixture, flying and dying in droves. ARRG!  What is happening?

These are most likely Asian Ladybird beetles (Harmonia axyridis), a species that has spread throughout North America after arriving from Eastern Asia. These lovely “ladybugs” have a large extended family- about 5,000 species worldwide, 450 in North America. The family, Coccinellidae, is often called the “ladybird beetle” or “lady bug”. Its name (Latin coccineus) means “scarlet”, and the English “lady” of lady bug and lady bird, is Mary, the mother of Jesus often depicted in red in medieval paintings.    This particular species was introduced in to the US several times in the early twentieth century in an attempt to control other insects, but did not take off until the late 1980s.   Now it occurs in large numbers across a swath of US states.

In the fall, Asian ladybird beetles can gather in large groups, moving from fields to the cracks in warm houses. What they are trying to do is find a warm crack to hibernate in, and they use pheremones to call each other into large groups. They love the warmth of dark screens, and crave the sunny side of houses with hiding places. Once hibernating, a warm mid winter day in the sun might wake a few, and you might be surprised by a January beetle flying around.

But the fall is when we see them most. They crawl over walls, and get into windows, their caselike outer wings lift and their thin membranous underwings unfurl and lift them buzzing, around the room. Before you reach for some type of insect spray, however, think twice. The ladybird beetle’s voracious larvae clean fields of aphids and sweep across those horticultural beauties you so lovingly tend around your house and lawn- eating pests and protecting plants.  They save the lives of pecan trees in the south, and chow on pests decimating soybeans in the midwest. They won’t bite you,(well actually they will, but only if you grab them and you have to admit, if something a thousand times larger than you grabbed you, you would bite too). They don’t carry disease, and won’t eat your food, plants, rugs or books.  Although they are non-native, and  compete with native ladybird beetles, they are at least somewhat beneficial. *So enjoy the travels of the gentle ladybug, a flying red beetle with spots, who represents the virgin Mary in European lore, and saves your roses and those Thanksgiving pecans,  by devouring aphids.

*They also let out a smell when frightened. If you find them too much to bear, simply vacuuming is a good option.

for more:

R. L. Koch (2003). “The multicolored Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis: A review of its biology, uses in biological control, and non-target impacts” (PDF). Journal of Insect Science 3: 32. PMC 524671.PMID 15841248

“Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet”. Retrieved 2010-07-03.



Highlighted Book: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating By ET Bailey

Last summer, on a whim , I  took the book the Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books 2010) from the Beverly Library.   On my own, without kids or pressing work, I sat in my car under the shade of a maple by the library parkinglot  and read the entire tome. I was transported into Bailey’s world of chronic illness, where given a snail on a small violet plant, she crafts for herself a tiny microcosm of nature and studies it. One woodland snail comforts her as she lies  on her bed most of the time, stricken by a rare condition in which her body is not able to adjust to sitting or standing upright.  As she navigates the losses and changs this illness brings to her active life, Bailey is drawn into the world of the small and slow moving. The eating, hiding, and eventual reproduction of her snail bring her joy . As she recovers slowly from the most debilitating effects of illness, Bailey holds herself between two worlds.- connected to the fast paced mammal world by people and books, and tied to the cold blooded slower paced world of the snail through her observations and her own physical limitations.  As she notices the tiny snail, Bailey ponders both the wonder of snail and the what it means to be human.

The book is reminiscent of the Diving Bell and Butterfly by french journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby (Vintage International 1997) . In that book,  Bauby describes the experience of locked-in syndrome, in which he can only control one eye, and communicates by blinking.  While Bailey has more abilities than Bauby, the severe contraints her illness places on her life force her to a similar degree of deliberateness  and observation.   What makes the Bailey’s book unusual, however, is the other topic- snails, and  the degree of natural history.  If you were ever that kid squatting to watch a line of ants, or poking a berry with a stick only to be startled by the sight of a snake coiled ever so carefully in the raspberry canes, or that child who had a drawer full of rocks and bones, and the broken shells of robin’s eggs, if in fact, you love to just know some little fact about a creature that makes it different and interesting- you will like learning about snails.  I was such a child, and assume many people are.  I loved the beauty, wonder, and humor that Bailey brings to the book.  Hope you like it!


Red Headed Pine Sawfly

Several Weeks ago I saw these  hidden in, and eating, the needles of a Scotch pine. (I’m reasonably sure on the tree, if you know otherwise, say so)



Oct 12, 2012:

At first I thought there were only a few of the yellow-green spotted  larvae tucked into the pine needles. Each one has a sweet scent of pine, and they look like caterpillars.  However,  they are not , they are the Redheaded  pine sawfly (Neodiprion lecontei). Sawflies look like flies as adults and like caterpillars as larvae but they are neither flies nor moths and butterflies.  In fact they are in an order of insects more closely related to primitive wasps than anything else.  Unlike Wasps, they have a wide waist. Unlike true flies, adult  sawflies have two pairs of wings.

Why “sawfly”?  The females have a serrated ovipositor they use to saw a hole in a plant to lay eggs.  Most eat plants, and some, like this one, can kill a tree.

As I peered, I saw more and more. They reared up in unison, curving their backs and rearing their three pairs of legs, in the front. They, like caterpillars, cling with what look like extra legs- but they aren’t. Lacking joints, the extra stubs are called “pro-legs”. The rearing behavior is a defense mechanism.

Sawflies can kill a tree by eating all the needles if they do it a couple of years in a row. But these are unlikely to.  As I follow their progress ove rthe next week, they eventually eat about a sixth of the tree’s needles  and I knock them to the ground over a period of days-  calling it “Integrated Pest Management” each time.   Some I know will survive for next year.  Nice to see a new insect I has not noticed before, and to protect the little pine!


Welcome to the Wonder of Everyday Nature

I am writing this blog because I am so compelled by the wonder of nature around me.   Many of my favorite books are about people living extraordinary lives of observation. Annie Dillard spent a year in the Wilderness writing A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Thoreau escaped to Walden to live in a cabin. Henry Beston lived in a shack on the beach described in  in The Outermost House, braving the fierce howling winds of winter. One of my new favorites, Elizabeth Tova Bailey wrote The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, while on a sickbed. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey escapes civilization to the red canyons and shimmering air of the hot southwest. Some writers like Julie Zwickefoose, who wrote A year in Eden live on farms, or in wild places.  They have pets, and move slowly, and write of homemade bread and jam. Birds flock to their feeders and they know them all.

Well, world- I live here, not there, now, not then. I live on a third of an acre on a busy street, here where the salt from the winter plows kills the edge of my grass. Here in a place of privilege- a larger lot than many in the heart of cities will ever find, and yet an infintesimal plot compared to the great unreached farms of Australia where cattle wander in search of water, small compared to the wild reaches of Appalachia, small compared to the national park where I would want to go- to have a year if I were such  a pilgrim. How vast are the reaches I would hike, how closely I would watch the creeks, how cold and warm and tired and boundlessly energetic I would be were I to take a year to go and be.

The call of my real life, my two sons, my spouse, one pet and two jobs, holds me here with ties I have chosen and love. And so my pilgrimage is broken into a mosaic- a glimpse of the transcendent here and there, the windows into truth and beauty are flashes in the everyday. Heart stopping joy and the crazy fun of curiosity, the morbid fascination of the odd, all here- where I am. And I share it with you now, in the hopes we will travel together, for I suffer an overwhelming love of the fierce and wild, the real, the live and dead the complex and messy world and the One who loves all.

Beech Drops

I wrote this for the community at school- on  Oct 9, 2012,

photo from Wikipedia commons, taken by Cody Hough

Monday morning I was walking along the driveway loop overlooking the marsh restoration and parking lot when something caught my eye. A fine mist rose from a bed of ochre mulch and yellow pine needles, forming  a shimmering haze as I looked toward the parking lot. Sunlight dappled through the leaves of  beech and oak, through  the boughs of pine, landing on a rock here, a pine bed there, a scattered clump of what looked like dry weeds throughout the otherwise groomed embankment.

These plants caught my eye and might catch yours if you walked by. They are not weeds and neither are they dried and dead, but  rather, living and one of the most interesting features of New England forests.  In the fall, when leaves blaze, a texture of browns emerges  in the understory.  As you looked, you might see a  shape emerge from the mottled background- tan stems and flowers,  with slight reddish brown edges,  hiding in plain sight.  It is no fungus, although you might be easily confused by their pallor. In fact, they, as all flowering plants, produce pollen and eggs and reproduce with seeds.

These are beech drops  (Epifagus virginana), one of a few species of parasitic flowering plants that have lost most of their chlorophyll and survive by taking nutrients from other plants, in this case, the roots of beech trees. Their lovely tube-like flowers, out between August and October, would not be noticed by anyone looking for showy blooms, but they are one of the quiet,  wonderful parts of the world we share.

I hope you enjoy walk along the driveway loop, on this overcast fall day. Look toward the parking lot, and see something neat on the hill.

Why Be an Aquatic Ecologist

I met a TV writer at a conference of over the summer. He asked what I did. “I am an aquatic ecologist, ” I answered.

“Why?“ he asked blankly.

In that moment I knew of two answers I could give- one short and one long. In the longer one I could try with words to convey the beauty of a marsh in the sun, the power of water cold and tidal, the depth of rivers, the joy of creeks and crayfish, the smell of rotting vegetation and sound of popping bubbles in drying mud. I could extol the sound of gabbling ducks during their flight overhead, or the raucous call of the red winged blackbird fighting for his territory. I could describe the wonder of a copepod, the rare ephemeral fairy shrimp, the hidden recesses of water lily rhizomes, the pithy length of cattails rising in the breeze.

I could have tried to explain the screaming rapture of green, green, green plants  in rings in a June prairie pothole, or the way you could lose yourself if you stared too long at the cool sage color  of rice cut grass or the profusion of smartweed flowers, or the quick beating breast of a flitting goldfinch.

I could have told of water, the power and imagination of it, the movement and currents, its fast scrabbling gush  over sloping soil, is slow drip into the cool underreaches deep below.

Perhaps I could have told of the joy of science, or learning, the reading and joining and conferring, the questions and tentative answers, the signal arising from the noise. Science is pontillism in action.   But mostly I would have talked about the mystery of watery lands.   I could have told these things and hoped he would understand them.

Or, as I did do  microsecond later, I could give the second much shorter answer. “ Why?” I echoed him equally confused. “ Who wouldn’t? I mean,  if you could?”

He stared at me for a second, and I saw his first uncertain frown turn to easement  as if, in that one short answer my longer answer was transferred as well. A thousand words and pictures, a million moments  impossible to detail, conveyed to another in a simple phrase. ”Well, OK ,“ he said, as,  satisfied, we turned to other topics.

Leaves So Beautiful My Heart Stopped

As I drive in the morning past the industrial park by the highway, past the assisted living center, by the ice cream stand, (the one with rum raisin ice cream in small cones so large you cannot finish them), I see the trees.  Two trees by the road send their flaming yellows and reds skywards. Their maple arms held high,  their jostling  flags flare in the morning sunlight like flaming pentacostal tongues.

They are the bright ones, the counterbalance to the low baritones of the bronze and maroon  oaks of my yard, the yellow and brown platelike elm leaves tattered before they fall, the curling tissues of the grapes where they have overtaken the arbor. My small native garden looks abandoned, leaves gathering at the feet of the seven foot ironweeds, the dried seed cases of evening primrose high above the ground, the soft cotton of milkweed flying and catching on Spirea, falling to the ground to catch wetly on the tumbled remnants of hickory leaves.

Today (I wrote Oct 24, 2012)  I saw a tree so lovely , its yellows, russets,  and salmons so true, my heart stopped.  I cannot think for the orchestra of light the fall colors bring.  I imagine a disease for which the only cure is the collection of fall leaves. My heart will start again as the early fall with its blue skies, turns to the  damp chalky gray of later fall, and I  need this golden  memory to guide me through the dusk.