Category Archives: Science

California Oak Moths—Not All Bad…

 

Carmel Valley Oaks
Carmel Valley Oaks

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

Perhaps the California Oak moth is not such a pest after all. Carmel Valley, as well as many other central and northern California areas, has been inundated with squishy worms, defoliated trees, and a brownish-gold detritus covering every surface from the driveway to the kids’ bikes. Albeit messy, the oak worm has its positive aspects.

With two breeding cycles in most years, the Oak Moth (Phryganidia californica) can heavily infest our local Quercus agrifolia, the coast live oak, every five to ten years. Locals have noted that the last infestation this severe was in 1984, yet another year of apocalyptic trepidation. During May and June, the juvenile half to one-inch multi-colored caterpillar will skeletonize the perennial oak’s leaves, cover decks and patio furniture in wormy goo, and chrysalize into many vein-winged oak moths within a few weeks.

Here in Carmel Valley where we have a unique mix of Quercus species, we are prone to these infestations. The deciduous oaks, the Holly Oaks (Quercus ilex), for example, are not eaten by the insatiable larva, but do host the female Phryganidia’s nesting requirements. Although the moths do not ‘eat,’ a job completely undertaken by the larval caterpillar stage, they do lay eggs on the underside of the deciduous oak’s leaves, ready to restart the cycle. Therefore those who have coastal live oaks near perennial oaks will suffer defoliation the most.

A completely fascinating process on its own, chrysalization encompasses the complete morph of liquefied stem cells that re-invent themselves into entirely new beings. Whose idea was that?

Distressingly, the Oak Moth may temporarily feed on other species that are not oak related. These insects will be unable to mature on this material and most will perish before crysalizing into moths. Along that line, if the oak has been completely defoliated, the caterpillars will become malnourished and eventually die without maturing into an egg laying entity. That would explain the putrefying material under the BBQ cover that was left in the corner…

The good news is that the caterpillar droppings, also known as frass, have a tremendous benefit to our overall ecosystem. That thick grainy substance is full of nitrogen and mobilizes overall carbon distribution. It also increases soil respiration and has a direct and indirect effect on nutrient and nitrogen cycling. The best treatment of this material is composting, along with other spring and kitchen waste, for your high nitrogen (green as opposed to flowering) crops.

As for our precious oaks, the University of California – IPM website states, “Healthy oaks generally tolerate extensive loss of leaves without serious harm, so treatment to control oak worm is usually not recommended.” Spraying for Phryganidia could harm birds and beneficial insects and only add more chemicals to an already inundated ecosystem. The oaks will completely recover unless they were weak and ready for their timely demise in any event. As of mid-June 2011, we are seeing new growth on the beleaguered oaks sprout with wild abandon.

As in life in general, the messy bits, also known as “squishy goo,” can nourish the most barren but fundamentally strong beings, given the opportunity and enough time to cycle through the natural processes. The oaks will come back more beautiful than ever. Maybe a few weeks of unsightly mess are worth it!

 

 

The Pursuit of Fluff—A journey into the everyday life of reality

MatherVernalPond
Young naturalist enjoying Mather Vernal Pond, Sacramento, California

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

The pursuit of anything is nebulous.

It takes a great deal of clarity, conviction, and perseverance.

The dilemma of the 21st century human is to decide how much effort to dedicate to the pursuit of (fill in the blank). There are many distractions, delusions, and detritus. It is hard to actually tell what is important for the individual—and what is fluff.

It is not for anyone to say for another what is “fluff” and what is not. It means different things to different beings. Can my kid get into the “right” private school? Will my boss recognize the great work I’m doing? Can I ever possibly be the member of society that the media, my friends, and my parents think I should be?

Let’s take a look at the other 99-point-something percent of the bio-mass on this planet.

There are two rules for the survival and perpetuation of species in the natural world, according to Dr. Richard Merrill, a brilliant man and my mentor.

  1. Reproduction
  2. Conservation of Energy

That’s it. Everything else is superfluous.

“Reproduction” may be translated by Homo sapiens as making a contribution to the betterment of our species. The “conservation of energy” reflects the individual’s utilization of available resources. There are only so many minutes in a day, but ever so few moments in a lifetime.

The “energy” that we conserve is finite. It serves all of us to use it wisely.

 

Wind and the White Bird

Red Bird of Paradise flower
Orange/Red Bird of Paradise flower

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

The unpredictability of gusts is the fertilizer of structural stability.

Strelizia nicolai, also known as the “White Bird of Paradise,” is unique in a number of ways. Strelizia is one of the most widely used ornamental species in the world. Unlike most other cultivars, the “White Bird” is used in both interior and exterior applications. Check out any casino in Vegas or senior facility landscape in Tampa and one can find the strelizia genus, especially the “Red Bird,” in lobbies as well as parking lot dividers.

The Bird is able to not only survive but to flourish in a multitude of habitats. She exhibits incredible flexibility in both genetic structure and fortitude. There are very few species that can, and perhaps in an abstract way will, achieve success through sheer botanical determination under such circumstances.

The “Bird of Paradise” has a willowy stem structure. In the interior placement, the “branches” (technically petioles) tend to droop. In the exterior landscape model, Strelizia reginia remains upright and vigilant, needing only an occasional nitrogen fertilizer supplement for the ideal “V” shape.

Wind, coming from multiple directions with a variety of speeds, strengthens stem structure from all angles. The fibers and cellulose in the tissues of the long stems react to breezes with a growth habit constructed to keep its foliage during storms. Without gusts, Strelizia leaves are flaccid.

The stem structure of Strelizia needs controversy to be strong and resilient.

Unexpected gusts are beneficial once in a while. Humans also have the capability to bend with the wind and rebound from adversity. Winds strengthen our structural stability as well. Without the occasional tossing about, the human psyche could be weak during more serious torrents.

Unpredictability is perhaps the greatest psychological threat to humans. It seems that the modern-day Homo sapiens have lost genetic touch with the inevitability of change. One can surmise that Homo habilus and “Lucy” (H. australopithicus) were deeply entrenched in the absolute certainty of change on a daily (most likely hourly) basis. They had a much shorter life span than twenty-first century humans, yet grasped the concept.

Climate change will bring about the obsolescence of “normal.” This is certain. Unless Homo sapiens can join the strength from a lifetime of wind gusts with a conscious, intelligent, bipartisan action to affect political policy, Homo s. will face the consequences of a flaccid global action and a non-effectual result.

If the unpredictability of adversity, i.e. the change of the wind, is not embraced as the fertilizer of stability, there can be no strong structure to weather the change that is coming.

The “White Bird of Paradise” has the right idea.