Naturalist turned stay at home mom. In Texas.

Thanks for joining me!  Here it is.  My very first entry on this journey into the blogosphere.  I’ve always found myself gravitating toward all things natural world for comfort, place, beauty, sense of self, teacher… home really.  If you had asked my younger self if I could picture myself as a stay at home mom with three littles in a subdivision of Texas, I would have thought you nuts.  But I met the man of my dreams, and here we are.  HOA’S, endless strips of painstakingly manicured, green, fertilized lawns, void of anything but… green.  The regular ritual of lawnmowers and leaf blowers.  And a whole list of chemicals to battle the elements in order to secure that green.

As a young person, I vividly remember my first time watching “Edward Scissorhands” and the scene where all the neighbor husbands leave for work in a seemingly endless suburbia.  I too lived in a similar, newly built community and although it bordered a wilderness area, I suddenly found the neighborhood a very alien environment.  Why all these copycat lawns, I asked?  Why fight nature with pesticides to create a false version of what was already strikingly beautiful to me, just up the hill and down the way (and survived on only snowmelt and the rare summer storm)?

So as you can see, I may live with my three babies in subdivided bliss, but my own inner child is at odds with what my kids see on a day to day basis.  I feel they are cocooned from something beautiful and much greater that is right before their eyes, if only we would take the time to see it.  The wonders of the natural world await if we could only take the time…

Bedtime Stories (Not Your Average…)

When you’re raising your kids to see the world beyond the latest expendable toy, trend, movie, and cookie cutter development, you just can’t expect them to read your average bedtime story. My oldest has been picking out library books on world religions, my middle girl has an insatiable dinosaur obsession, and my youngest loves anything with a sense of humor (he favors one particular book about a pint sized luchador named Niño who ultimately battles his worst nemesis, Las Hermanitas!).

My dino obsessor is five, but has already sought out her section of the library all on her own because she just can’t wait for my help (while I am usually chasing down her youngest sibling as he darts among the shelves, laughing maniacally, and turning oh so many heads). And she brings me stacks upon stacks of books on peculiar guys that I can’t even name off the top of my head.

She just figured out reading this past year and pores over the pages, sounding out those long, Latin names. Tonight we were reading a National Geographic publication on the Triassic period after the first known mass extinction (When Dinosaurs Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A CARTOON PREHISTORY OF LIFE IN THE TRIASSIC, by Hannah Bonner) and encountered this crazy saurian, the Tanystropheus.

https://www.artstation.com/chrismasna

What the wha…? We were both amazed by how its neck was longer than its body. How could this be? The only info we gathered was that it was aquatic and probably surprise attacked its prey, so I was assigned the task of doing more research – mainly looking for its bones.

I’ve found a few interesting articles to explain the anatomy of the Tanystropheus neck and its theorized amphibious behavior. In this one (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/laelaps/why-the-long-neck1/) written by an author who surprisingly lives in my original stomping grounds (who knew?), the writer states that based on his reading of peer-reviewed research done by paleontologists Silvio Renesto and Franco Saller, the saurian’s 13 neck vertebrae were very stiff on both horizontal and vertical planes which prevented it from swaying it’s head back and forth, or having much range of motion within its neck at all. It would have had to sneak up on its prey. But as the kids already know from trying to pick up floating particles (don’t ask) in a bathtub, tiny objects tend to be pushed away on approach under water, so this may not have worked. So based on this article I looked up while investigating a fossil similar to the Tanystropheus (Fossil suggests long neck made this reptile an effective predator by Greg Borzo, University of Chicago Chronicle), the Dinocephalosaurus may have had suction capabilities due to adaptations in its ribcage. This article also gave my daughter an opportunity to check out those fossilized bones!

So… my five year old daughter and I have decided that “Tany” as we’re calling it, lurked in shallow water, poked its head around for prey, then suctioned the critters into the mouth of its tiny head. But the wonderful thing about science and nature is this is only a hypothesis, and we can still keep asking questions!

Update – after reading Brian Switek’s article on the Scientific American blog site, I discovered he is the author of several interesting books. I’m looking forward to adding this one to my summer reading list: My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs.”

References:

Why the Long Neck? by Brian Switek https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/laelaps/why-the-long-neck1/

Evidences for a semi aquatic life style in the triassic diapsid reptile Tanystropheus by Silvio Renesto & Franco Saller
https://riviste.unimi.it/index.php/RIPS/article/view/9541/9030

Fossil suggests long neck made this reptile an effective predator by Greg Borzo http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/041007/longneck.shtml

School Walks and Car Talks

As most families do, the kids and I spend a lot of time driving from one place to the next whether it be sports or school events, but we do make it a point to either walk or bike the little over half a mile distance to or from their neighborhood school. (We try to follow the under a mile, walk or bike rule – check out this Environmental Protection Agency article for its impacts on your community.) These walks and drives offer ample time to explore little things and big questions.

Yesterday my five year old daughter joyously observed solar panels on the roofs of houses in the new developments off the highway. So many in fact that she got me thinking. I didn’t realize their use had gone up so much within our local communities in recent years. And I was impressed by her awareness of them. My youngest is always fascinated with the small panels used on school zone lights and traffic signals, but we had never really talked or explored what they mean or how they work other than “they’re for electricity.” So I guess I was a little surprised to find another one of my kids pointing them out so excitedly. My mom brain had grown to see them as a toddler roadside novelty. Then I remember a recent “Ask This Old House” episode where they demonstrated a solar panel device by SmartFlower Solar, designed to mimic a heliotropic plant (e.g. the sunflower), and we launched into the entire conversation of sunflowers and how they follow the sun. How do they do that? So many great topics to discuss with my littles!

Well, in some past reading I’d come to learn that research has shown, like us (or dare I say we, like plants…) have an internal clock. And even though they do follow the light during the day, the sunflowers reset at night to face the east before dawn so they can maximize the warmth from the sun, thus attracting more pollinators. (Read New York Times article, How Sunflowers Follow the Sun, Day After Day. If you’d like to read the more detailed research results, check out this peer-reviewed article in the publication Science.)

I also read a passage on this subject in Matthew Walker‘s book, “Why We Sleep” discussing how in 1729, a French geophysicist observed a heliotropic plant variety, specifically Mimosa pudica, whose leaves tracked the light of the sun, yet closed at night. Walker writes about how the scientist tested the internal clock theory by placing the plants in sealed boxes and found that even in total darkness, they still repeated their behaviors over the next twenty-four hour period without the aid of the sun. I can’t wait to share this info with the girls in tomorrow’s daily conversation! (Side note: I used to use creeping mimosa as a xeriscaping lawn alternative in my days before children in a more southerly region of the U.S. – it’s a lovely plant and the leaves really are sensitive to touch and light! Easy to mow over when necessary and a great pollinator food source with a constant blooming of delicate purple puffs.)

Our recent hover fly buzz led them to find a favorite book of theirs (“Simon & Schuster Children’s Guide to Insects and Spiders”) and tote it in the car, where on page 47 they looked up an entry on our new discovery. Although the illustration is not a good representation of what we have seen in photographs or our garden, the description is a good one. My eldest just loves that, unlike other flies out there, it can fly backwards, and that there are over 6,000 species!

If you’re interested in reading more about the amazing SmartFlower, this is a cool article featuring a video demo of its installment in Berlin and photographs in various U.S. locations: Flower-shaped Solar Panel Now Sold in the US by Megan Barber for Curbed.com. Just imagine if every public school and government property installed one of these or its like, let alone our endless sprawl of subdivided communities. Quite the sculptural, new age statement! And here’s an article from Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences discussing a recent publication by the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters about the benefits of going solar on school campuses nationwide in order to save money on the exhaustive energy expenditures that come with running a campus, especially in places with the most sun exposure: What Happens When Schools Go Solar? Imagine all the funds that could be funneled back to actual education, including teacher salary, not to mention the benefits of the resulting clean air for our communities.

Not surprisingly, the study finds three large, sunny states – Texas, California and Florida – have the greatest potential for generating electricity from solar panels on school rooftops, with nearly 90 percent of institutions having at least some roof space suitable for installations. Meanwhile, residents in midwestern states including Wisconsin and Ohio stand to see the biggest reductions in key air pollutants – and costs associated with addressing related health effects – if schools switch from the grid to solar power. (Garthwaite, 2019)

Sources:

Hover, Flower or Syrphid Flies…

The results are in! After a night spent cooking in the iNaturalist.org forum, our photo of the mysterious native bee look-alike produced a genus type thanks to the keen knowledge of a gentleman naturalist who is a regular editor for Bugguide.net. And the results are…

Allograpta! Otherwise known as hover, flower or syrphid flies. My three littles were so excited to hear the news, and were even more excited to know that the fly’s babies are deliberately laid amongst aphid colonies because it is their favorite food. (We’ve already witnessed the results of aphid voraciousness in past seasons.) I had read that coreopsis attracts pollinators with larva that prey on garden pests, but I did not expect such quick results.  The coreopsis plant “supports Conservation Biological Control (A plant that attracts predatory or parasitoid insects that prey upon pest insects),” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, University of Texas at Austin.

On closer examination I do remember seeing these fascinating winged creatures hovering in the gardens of my youth, and again wondering, fly or bee? Thanks to a little push from my kids to explore more out of doors, a little time taken to observe the precious intricacies of our garden, and the benefits of naturalist forums, this family has made a connection with the wonders of one unique fly. The photo still cooks amongst “Allograpta experts” if they bare an interest in identifying it in further detail, because apparently there are so many more variations in this genus and of course species. So keep your eyes open for this beneficial bee/wasp impersonating fly character whose babies might just save your garden in the most organic way.

…After reading through several layman’s descriptions of this family of insects, I found these resources most useful:

“Hover, Flower or Syrphid Flies (Syrphidae)”, Master Gardener Program article, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Species Allograpta obliqua – Common Oblique Syrphid, Bugguide.net

Henry W. Coe State Park
https://coepark.net/natural-sciences/animals/bugs-and-creepy-crawlies

Native Bee or Fly?

The best teacher around our home has been our garden. It is a constant source of curiosity, beauty and wonder in the ways of the world and the gist of it revolves around a 4×4 foot bed. Some corners have played sandbox, while others have served as roly poly playgrounds. It’s a tasting garden with regular sampling of all leaves within.

Our tiny bed of paradise started when, after hearing my laments concerning small garden space and constrictions set by the neighborhood HOA, a friend tipped us off on the idea of square foot gardening. We quickly built the first bed and accompanying side boxes in our one accessible sunny spot and started visiting the local farmers markets for plants (not necessarily on the lookout for natives – just anything fun for our very young tots to interact with).

The bed began with locally grown chard and strawberries (still going strong after almost 6 seasons), a blackberry bush, herbs, and other random vegetables. Then by perfect chance, another friend in a mom’s social circle advertised she was sharing excess black swallowtail caterpillars to raise from her over-consumed parsley plants. We enthusiastically took some home in a mason jar and began our saga of the pollinator garden. Learn all about how to raise a black swallowtail caterpillar from this Texas Butterfly Ranch article! We await a visit from these beauties every spring on our potted fennel and plant carrot family varieties every chance we get. The kids really enjoy inspecting for tiny caterpillars feasting away and delight in finding their unusual chrysalises (varying green to brown) hidden among the tree branches or along the garden wall, all the while looking for any bugs they can find like tiny treasures in that box of ours.

Now we are on the hunt for native bees. We’ve established a bed of Gregg’s mistflower which has experienced it’s first transplanting to other corners of the yard. It brought in hoards of queen and monarch butterflies late last summer, which also brought the neighbor kids after seeing them flutter through our alleyway. And after a second year since planting from seed, we have a beautiful and very tall variety of lance leaf coreopsis.

Our 3 year old son calls the seedlings our “babies.”

I purchased this TX wildflower seed mix from Sprouts but did not see these blooms until the second year. A little research told me this is typical wildflower behavior! In other words, patience brings gifts.
“It is easily propagated from seed and as is typical of many native wildflowers, it is often not until the second year when numerous blooms are formed.”  https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/coreopsis_lanceolata.shtml

And our most ambitious attempt! …to grow native milkweed which is pretty difficult to buy from garden centers and even plant sales due to the establishment of tap roots from initial growth. I’ll write more on that in a later post. But I have a feeling most posts will return to the garden where the soil, plants, and bugs (from roly polies to insects to spiders and more!) all have a great lesson to teach my littles and myself on so many levels.

So on the title photo – my kids and I found this fascinating insect relaxing this sunny spring afternoon. Fly or bee? I posted it to iNaturalist.org and we anxiously await the results.