Berkshire BioBlitz 2016

imageTentative dates and locations for Berkshire BioBlitz 2016 are Saturday June 18-Sunday June 19, 2016. This year’s bioBlitz will take place at the base of Mt. Greylock and is sponsored by the Berkshire Environmental Action a Team, BEAT, the Massachusetts Geological Alliance and Dr. Augie’s.



Baby Slugs

imageFor the past few days there were some white blobs on the side glass of the terrarium. I inspected them with my magnifier, but it didn’t look like anyone was home. Should I wipe the glass clean or leave it?





imageToday I looked close and saw eye stalks. Baby slugs! there looks to be about 8 of them, making at least 10 slugs if you include the parents. Lots of feeding to do this winter!

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Posted by on January 4, 2016 in backyard science, terrarium


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Natural History of the Berkshires-A Field Course for Teachers and Adults

natural history specimensIf you would like to learn about the natural history of Berkshire County, this is the course for you. We will be exploring the natural world of birds, bugs, mushrooms, lichens, reptiles, amphibians, algae and so much more. There will be experts and naturalists along the way to show us how we can tell if a bird has a nest of eggs or how a little beetle larva can devour a bull frog. And we will be checking out some specimens that are not natural to the Berkshires–the invasives.

yellow warblerSponsoring Organizations: MCLA, Cornell University, Dr. Augie’s Science Programs

Course Location: Pittsfield/Lanesborough

Schedule: July 5-8, 2016

Time: 8am to 5pm

Cost: $250 for 4 days, $125 for 2 days

Target Audience:
Youth and adults over the age of 16 and science educators who teach 6-12th grades or the general public.

You can participate for 4 days or 2 days. I promise all days will be fun and exciting learning experience.

Instructor: Lisa Provencher, M.S. Entomology. B.S. Environmental Science, co-instructors, Scott LaGreca Ph. D. Botany, John Wheeler, Berkshire Mycology Society.

aquaticsThroughout this course we will meet with scientists and local naturalists as we explore and learn about the natural world in which we live. The course will include several ways everyone can contribute to science including programs such as: Citizen Science, biodiversity days and the fast and furious bioblitz.

When given the opportunity to observe nature deeply, people of all ages often develop an in-depth understanding of the importance of environmental and ecological issues that impact their lives and the lives of those who will live on this earth after us. The purpose of this course is to cultivate a community of well informed, educated, and concerned teachers, who will foster within their students a passion for the natural world.

The curriculum will afford educators and all who attend the opportunity to learn about the natural history of local plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and archaea through inquiry and observation. These topics can also be integrated with math, history, language arts and social studies. Given the current concern with global climate change. We must recognize that all living things, not just humans, represent part of the existing biodiversity. It is crucial that we, as informed citizens of this planet, are able to recognize and identify living organisms and understand that they almost certainly hold solution to biodiversity loss and the key to global sustainability.

Natural History class application form

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Posted by on December 31, 2015 in Adult education, backyard science, Berkshire BioBlitz, events


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Mating Dance

slug slimePart 2:
Two slugs mean business. As we all know from watching David Attenborough, slugs are hermaphrodites. The trails on the glass, sides and even top of the terrarium, this morning give a clue that there might have been some elaborate mating dance going on last night–and some actually mating.

If these two did mate, there may be a clutch of up to 30 eggs and then…a new terrarium will be in order.

To see mating slugs check this out. Its not Attenborough, but its pretty amazing. I know we all feel sorry for the third slug.

To learn about weird slug behavior check out this Slate article on slugs.

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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in backyard science, terrarium


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Not Quite Gorillas in the Mist

slug trailsPart 1:

The terrarium has some recently discovered local residents. There have been interesting track patterns on the glass in the morning. The origin of these trails has been a mystery until recently. Approaching the terrarium at night with a light has revealed two kinds of glass artists. The common earthworm and a pale sickly looking slug.

slug in the mistKnowing worms like to eat rotting leaves, adding a handful of pretty fall leaves was a easy task and as a bonus it looked nice. The next morning, the leaves were moved to the back of the terrarium by some resident that preferred them in a pile stuffed below the backdrop. Lovely.

The slug, who was eating a pretty ‘yet to be identified’ leafy plant, was offered some arugula. The arugula was untouched, and the leafy plant lost another leaf. The next night I added a piece of green leaf lettuce. That did the trick! not just one slug appeared to eat it, but two.
slug food

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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in backyard science, terrarium



Giddy-up Strange Seahorses

baby seahorsesThe seahorses at the museum had babies. Lots and lots of babies. Most folks are aware that the males are the sex that give birth. An evolutionary anomaly in the animal kingdom. But seahorse reproductive mode even stranger than males giving birth. For all you marine biologists out there who don’t mind doing research without pay–there is some weird stuff going on with these fishies that begs being looked into. Yes they are fish, so they do spawn. The males squirt their sperm into the water, but the females don’t drop their eggs in the water or a simple nest. Nope. They inject them into the males brooding pouch. You have to be quick to see it, research states it takes 5-10 seconds. Interesting, but not shocking. What is shocking is the sperm swim through the water and into the pouch in those mere seconds. How they know where to go no one knows quite yet. Must be some hormone that leads them there. Reproduction is all hormones. But it gets even more weird. There are only about 100 sperm, there are about 100-1800 eggs depending on the species. (There is some research out there that looked at this.) And most of those eggs turn into baby seahorses. Poly-embryology? Lots of twins, triplets, quadruplets? Really what is the story? Well no one really knows because there is no funding for research and who wants to do research for the pure joy of doing research. I hear you all yelling, “Me! Me! Me!”. So someone out there do the research please because this is fascinating stuff.

Meanwhile the babies are getting big. Here is a low res photo I took the other day with my phone. These fry are 4 months old. They are taken from the main tank to a special tank that is room temperature and has anti-bacterial agents added every few days. Many didn’t make it, those R species do it that way, lots of offspring, only the strongest survive. Grow babies grow, and end up to be weird vertical swimming fish we all love.

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Posted by on October 29, 2015 in backyard science, Science


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Yellow Jackets

yellow jacketYellow Jackets. Just those two words together evoke a visceral reaction to swat the air and sweat.

Around here everyone has had a close encounter of the third kind: actual contact. It is never pleasant.

Yellow Jackets are wasps in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula. They are black and yellow and mean. Okay, that is anthropomorphic, what they are is protective of their hive. I know this first hand. Once I was gardening and was pulling goldenrod when I unfortunately ripped the top off of a nest. A cloud of wasps flew out of the ground and around my head, so thick my vision was blurred. I ran. I swatted. I yelled. This attracted the neighbor’s dog. He was an Irish Wolfhound. He chased me being chased by a swarm of angry wasps. It was like a cartoon.

Once I was out of range I stopped and brushed hundreds of the yellow and black ladies off my body. Amazingly they bit me only 23 times. It felt like 23 matches being touched to my skin. These ladies meant business. The signal was clear–stay away from our hive.

So of course, I crept back around to the nest to see what damage was done. A 4 foot ring 2 feet thick of wasps was circling the nest.Their wing beats could be felt like electricity in the air. Fascinating.

The life cycle of these animals is a little know secret. It goes like this: colony initiation, growth and expansion, production of reproductives, reproductive dispersal, and colony decline.

Everyone seems to know that the “queens” over-winter, but where do the rest of the wasps go here in New England. Its not a nice story if you are wasp. The queens do overwinter. They hide out in the ground, old logs, tree bark, your house. In the spring she starts a new colony since she held the sperm over the winter so she can fertilize her eggs. But she doesn’t have to. Wasps are haplodiploid. That means males develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid (have half a genome), and females develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid (like you and me, they have half a genome from their mother and half from their father). At first though she does fertilize the eggs and gets females. She starts the nest building but then leaves it to the first offspring to finish.

Most all the members of the colony are females. They are all sisters. They all have modified ovipositers (egg layers) that are stingers. They are the builders, hunters, hive protectors (the Yellow Jack venom is only for protection they do not use it to stun their prey). There may be multiple queens in Yellow Jacket colonies. More power! These yellow and black bullet bugs might seem to be a nuisance to us, but on the flip side they are hunters. They hunt caterpillars, flies (house flies being their main prey), they also drive down fly populations by competing for garbage, dead animal wastes and rotten fruit.

Once the colony is established energy goes into producing ‘reproductive’ female and male wasps. These offspring are sent off to find mates from other colonies and start new colonies.

yellow jackets on appleAs the autumn approaches the colony no longer has a purpose. No more offspring are produced, and the ties that bind no longer feel so tight. So the individual wasps are forging for themselves.This is why you see more wasps in the fall. They seem a little more aggressive, because they are looking at that juicy food you are eating and not thinking about bringing it home to mama and the babies. And she has more time to sit on that apple and suck out the juices. Its the twilight of her life let her enjoy it, soon she will slow down and die. All but the queens, those royal ladies will hole up somewhere and start the whole thing again in 6 or 7 months. Such is the life of the Yellow Jacket.

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Posted by on October 13, 2015 in backyard bugs, backyard science, insects, Science


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