Should we let sleeping flies lie?

sleeping flyDo flies sleep?

The quick answer is yes. The long answer can be found here.

I have dealt with sleeping flies in the the past. Not as an entomologist, but as a pet owner. When I was young my brother had a small rainbow skink. It loved to eat flies. But the flies had to be alive and moving. So I became a fly catcher. My prey: Muscid flies, aka house flies. I figured out how to sneak up on them. Early in the morning they could be found on flowers on the sunny side of the house. I remember waving my hand in front of them and they didn’t move. They just stood there with those big eyes, not seeing me. Asleep. I’d scoop them up in paper cups and release them in the skink tank. Easy.

Recently a cluster fly decided the kitchen was a good place to spend the winter. It found a crack between the sill and the wall. This fly was looking for a sleeping spot for the whole winter. This type of long dormant sleeping in insects is called “diapause”. During this time they don’t move much, they will drink if water is available. They don’t feed, no mating, not much in the way of flying, unless it gets unseasonably warm and they think it is spring.

Not just flies fall into this overwintering stage, squash bugs, lady bugs, bees, wasps and even mosquitoes do it.

I get countless calls during the fall and early winter about bugs in peoples homes. They come in with the wood, or they fly in looking for a dry, warmer than outside spot to curl up for the winter. Not a bad strategy. I kind of wish I could do it too as long as I had a pile of good books.

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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science


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Clematis Seeds

clemantis seed headOne of my favorite flower seed heads is the clematis. They are quite exquisite. You can see the seed pods starting to spin and sprout the feathery seed floats.

clemantis seedThis seed head is ready float its seeds into the cool autumn air.

Soon I will be collecting the ripe seeds and planting them into the ground. These seeds need to get cold, thaw, then get very cold through out the winter in order to germinate in the spring. Which is good because the ground in this area freezes pretty solid in the winter. I will bring some in and pop them in the refrigerator too, as a back up in case it gets unusually cold.

clematis flowersThis is what they look like when they bloom. Gorgeous.

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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in Nature Curios, Science


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Carbon Cycle and a Dead Cat

carbon cycle 1It was time to learn the carbon cycle in bio class. Two smarty-pants in the back of the class, copied the notes and decided they could now play games. Why not, they got the material. They have good grades. Fortunately I saw this opportunity as a break from my teaching. I handed them the chalk and my notes and said, “Teach.” They taught about carbon moving from the air, to the trees and plants through photosynthesis, then to the animals that ate the plants, and was eventually breathed out the carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.

“Keep going.” I prodded,
“Do we have to draw the dead rabbit?”
“What do you think?”
“Well we have a picture of a dead dog on our phone we found on our way home from school. Can we use that?”
“Heck yeah.”
dead cat bonesThey showed the picture around and explained that the carbon stored in living things is released after death during the process of decomposition.



cat giordonBut there is more to the story. The next day Giordon walks in all geared up carrying a plastic bag. Guess what was in the bag. If you think it was a dead dog, you would be wrong. We examined the carcass through the double plastic bags. It had passed through putrification and was pretty well dessicated. So it smelled sweet as opposed to rancid. We determined by the teeth and claws it was a cat.


Not to be out done by my students, in the area of “grossness’. I brought the carcass home and soaked it in a bucket of water. The fur was stuck hard to the skull so it took all summer for it to finally separate. I fished the bones out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. Not a bad collection of bones. Some of the spine and ribs are still stuck in the guts, but the skull, leg bones and half the spine can be seen here. Remember some of the body tissue has been released as carbon gas back into the carbon cycle. That is what it is all bones


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Woolly Bear Caterpillars–What do they change into?

baby woolly bear caterpillar

Baby woolly bear caterpillar

I get asked this question often. What happens to the woolly bear caterpillar? We see them all the time in the late summer and throughout the fall. Then we forget about it until next fall. To answer the first question: The adult moth isn’t much to look at. Kind of drab beige to yellow, a few black markings. The scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, common name, Isabella Tiger Moth.

The caterpillar is the interesting part. No you cannot tell if the winter is going to be longer if the stripes are wider, or shorter. That is a myth. But this caterpillar can do something very interesting. It can freeze. It has to freeze. Freeze solid over the winter. And not just one winter, it can go through up to three winters suspended in a state of cryogenic suspended animation. We should send it into space I say!

The reason it is believed they freeze is to bulk up on more food in the spring before pupation. It is in the spring after overwintering as a caterpillar, not something many caterpillars do, that they spin their cocoons. What emerges, the drab moth you see here. It then lays tiny pearl-like eggs in the grass to start the cycle over again.

Photo by Tom Murray

Photo by Tom Murray

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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science


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Bug walk and Nature Concert at Field Farm Williamstown

mantis on flowerThe Trustees of Reservations at Field Farm is hosting a music series this summer to heighten the experience of land, nature and architecture.

At 3:00 today, September 14th, prior to the concert, piano and cello duo Dan Kennedy and Stephen Katz, I will be giving a bug walk. Join us!

Bring lawn chairs, blanket, picnic dinner.

The Trustees of Reservations
Field Farm
554 Sloan Road
Williamstown, MA 01267

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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios, Science, science in the parks


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Japanese Knotweed

japanese knotweedFallopia japonica, common name Japanese knotweed, is a tall, glorious, herbaceous perennial native to Eastern Asia. Here in North America it is very successful growing anywhere there is the least bit of water. It has been classified as an invasive species, and hated by many since it is very hard to remove once it becomes established. It has naturalized here and the question remains, when is it considered non-invasive?

I have to say I love Japanese Knotweed. We have lots of it on our property and it is well managed. We mow and pull it out manually. It is a abundant source of pollen in the late summer for bees, flies and small butterflies when other plants are starting to go to seed. Right now our yard is “buzzing”. Its an amazing sight and sound. One of my favorite parts of the summer.

This plant is incredible. It grows so fast you can hear it. Yes you read that correct. In the spring it pushed up the dead leaves on the ground as it grows and you can hear the shoots moving the leaves aside. One spring I am going to measure the growth daily. I’m guessing 2-3 inches in 48 hours. It grows fast. And its good eating. I prefer it over asparagus. The shoots have a lemony taste.

The leaves are broad and create shade and privacy. Managed right it will create a jungle in your yard that supplies wildlife such as birds, rabbits and mice with a place to forge, hide from predators such as fox and house cats.

And don’t forget the insects. Paper wasps such as Polisties use it for nest making, scraping the fibers off the old canes to make a paste for their nests. Then in the late summer early fall the thick crown of flowers provides pollen for many insects, mostly honey bees. The biodiversity in my yard is 10 fold because of these plants. I love them.

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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in insects, Nature Curios


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Water Filtration

filtering waterThe a bunch of kids at the park learned about where our water comes from, where it goes and how it gets cleaned in the process. To make this more understandable we did some filtration activities. First we simulated what water would have in it at the reservoir, the younger kids ran about and got sticks,seeds, dead and living leaves and grass and dumped it in our container of water. Then they chose from a selection of filtering mediums for the first filtration step, like the giant grate at the water treatment plant. They picked the netting from an onion bag. Then they used a metal mesh strainer. Once the large organic materials were removed, they used filter paper, cotton and paper towels. They figured out that the paper towel worked the best.

To take it a step further they then tried a combination of filters all at the same time to see if they could speed up the process. Good thinking!
filtered water 2filtered water 3

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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Camps, Children's Art & Science Classes, Science, science in the parks


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