Monthly Archives: May 2013

Science in the Parks Schedule

frogJoin science educator, Lisa Provencher, in the parks to learn about water and the environment and why keeping our parks clean is important.

All ages are invited.

Angelina from the 4-H is lending me a rabbit! I will grab some turtles and have live insects on hand to meet up close and personal. We will do some bug and frog hunting too!

Plan on having fun and getting wet and dirty. I will bring supplies and rearing instructions, but if you plan on bringing home a tadpole or, caterpillar bring your own container.

Schedule:  Saturdays 10-12 (rain dates the following Sunday)

Dorothy Amos Park June 22 & 29
Clapp Park July 6 & 13
Pitt Park July 20 & 27
Conte Community School August 10 & 17
Contact: Lisa at <>

To print the flier with the schedule click here.

sponsored by:

BEAT logo berkshire taconic logo

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Posted by on May 31, 2013 in Berkshire BioBlitz, Children's Art & Science Classes, insects, Science, Uncategorized


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Insect Garden

insectI did a little work in the insect garden this weekend. “Little” being the key word. Mostly I leave the native plants and weeds fight it out and see what arthropods come to visit.

cut milkweedOne thing I do remember to do this time of year is cut back half of the milkweed plants. If I mow them down or cut them back, the plant will take a month or so to put out new leaves. New leaves just in time for the new monarchs.

I’ve found if I let the milkweed grow from early spring it becomes colonized by aphids, earwigs, milkweed bugs, milkweed beetles, several of which love to eat monarch eggs or young larva. Cutting back about half the plants allows for the colonization of the select plants leaving clean young leaves for the migrating monarchs to lay eggs.

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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Berkshire BioBlitz, Children's Art & Science Classes, insects, Nature Curios, Science, Uncategorized


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Pittsfield High School students put science on TV

By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

carniverous plants eating cameraPITTSFIELD — “Killer” bees, zebra mussels and cane toads from outer space will soon be invading your local television screens.

Since January, a group of local high school students has been researching, writing, designing and filming a new television show called “SciTV” for Pittsfield Community Television, based on work they’ve been doing in an afterschool science program based at Pittsfield High School. The program is funded through a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which sponsors several after-school enrichment programs in the Pittsfield public school district.

The first segment on invasive species is set to screen later in June. Another segment on space is in the works.
Supervising the science

Kara Curtin, a junior at St. Joseph Central High School, films a segment for SciTV. Program are science educator Lisa Provencher of Dr. Augie’s Art & Nature Programs and Tim Laporte, owner of Recompute repair store in Pittsfield.
“I joined because I really like science and I thought it would be interesting to learn new things. So far, it’s been pretty cool,” said Matt Brites, a PHS junior.
The group of students includes seven full-time members and one part-time member from PHS, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and St. Joseph Central High School. They meet Mondays and Wednesdays for three hours a week discussing and learning about a range of topics.
“We started learning about animals, but then I got really into plants,” said Cally Vranas, also a junior at PHS.

The group has learned about local and international invasive species, like zebra mussels and cane toads respectively. They’ve gone on field trips to learn and see what local invasive plant species are like, including garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed and oriental bittersweet.
Invasive species are exotic flora and fauna living in native habitats. They can become harmful to local ecosystems by overpopulating and pushing out native species.
While walking the tree line of the PHS football field, Brites said, “We found one invasive vine strangling another invasive vine.”

The students have worked in several outdoor areas, the PHS chemistry and biology rooms, and the Berkshire Museum. They have interviewed local experts, most recently Rene Wendell of The Trustees of Reservations.
In addition, with the support of parents, the students have taken field trips to the AniMagic Museum of Animation, Special Effects and Art in Lee and Pittsfield Community Television’s studio to learn about filming, so students could turn their studies into a broadcast production to be shared with others.
Provencher said the student science group is particularly impressive because some of its members have visual or hearing impairments, but it has not stopped them from learning the ropes and growing their talents both on and offscreen.

One interview-shy student, who goes by the nickname “Mark Darwin,” is a self-described “behind-the-scenes guy,” who also wrote many portions of the SciTV script.

Brites and PHS freshman Ian Phair worked on illustrations for backdrops for the show and Brites also designed “alien” cane toad puppets for a humorous segment.

“It’s been a good social opportunity,” said Kara Curtin, a 10th-grader at St. Joe.

To learn more about SciTV and the making of episodes, visit

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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Art, Camps, Children's Art & Science Classes, Science, Uncategorized


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Garlic Mustard

garlic mustard

Garlic mustard

Its that time of year. Time to pick the garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard is a pretty biennial flowering herb that belongs to the Mustard family. It is easy to recognize by the cluster of white flowers and heart shaped leaves it produces in its second year. These flowers are crucifer shaped, meaning it has four petals in the shape of a cross. This plant grows in the shade at the borders of forests and fields.

Garlic mustard was introduced by the Europeans in the mid 1800s as a food. It is called ‘garlic’ mustard because when the leaves are crushed they have a garlicky odor and taste to them. The plant is edible and the leaves make a tasty pesto.



Unfortunately for us in New England it is an invasive plant aggressively taking over native plants here in Massachusetts such as the trillium and Jack-in-the-Pulpit. This in turn diminishes biodiversity.

carpet of garlic mustard

Carpet of garlic mustard

There are many places where the plant will actually take over the entire area forming a carpet of nothing but garlic mustard. Not a good thing for the ecosystem.

garlic mustard seed pods

Garlic mustard seed pods

It is important to pull these plants before they go to seed since each plant can produce from about 100-1000 seeds.

Pulling of the plant before it goes to seed can reduce its number in the following years.

To correctly pull the plant you want to grab it by the stalk as close to the ground as you can get it, then gently pull the plant out of the ground root and all. If you pull from the top of the plant the stalk will snap off and the roots will remain in the ground.

Shake off the dirt, make a pile and dispose of it in the trash. Leaving the plant in the grass or in the road will not kill it. The plant is hardy and tough and will live in a pile long enough to go to seed. Impressive evolutionary survival technique don’t you think?

piles of garlic mustard

Our after-school program focused their science based TV show on invasive species. Garlic mustard was one of the aliens discussed. To make it real the students hiked out to the school yard and in in 20 minutes pulled 20 pounds of garlic mustard. They focused the rest of their time ripping out Oriental Bittersweet. But that is another story.

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Posted by on May 21, 2013 in Berkshire BioBlitz, Camps, Children's Art & Science Classes, Science, Uncategorized


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Mini Berkshire BioBlitz

bioblitz 2011 027We are having a mini-Berkshire BioBlitz this year.

Friday June 1, 2013 at Mt. Greylock in Lanesboro. Time and meeting place to be announced.

Mycologist, Jason Karakehian, from Boston participated in a Mt. Greylock Bioblitz a few years ago and found a few interesting species and this year he would like to go back to search more. He is interested in collecting microfungi strictly for scientific study. His collections are deposited at the Farlow Herbarium of Harvard University. for future workers to examine.

I’ll be tagging along looking for insects, Scott LaGreca will be there looking for lichens. If you would like to join us send me an email and we can get you the details.

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Posted by on May 11, 2013 in Berkshire BioBlitz, Camps, Children's Art & Science Classes, insects, Science


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Love is in the Air!

Photo by J. Graham

Photo by J. Graham

We had our dinner outside last night. In the setting sun I noticed the glinting of a swarm of dancing insects. Pretty. Then they started dropping on my plate–while copulating. Hm. Not so pretty. What were these loving insects? Caddisflies.

A while back I wrote an article for the local newspaper about them. Here it is again for all you who might see this interesting phenomenon over the next few days.
If you have happened to be outside near a lake or river during the evenings this past week you might have noticed large swarming clouds of flying insects against the beautiful Berkshire sunsets.

caddisflyDon’t worry, they’re not mosquitoes, they are caddisflies. Caddisflies are not true flies, but moth-like insects that belong to the order Trichoptera. They do not bite. They merely imbibe in the sweet nectar of flowers. The reason we are seeing so many of them this time of year is that the synchronized emergence of adults being orchestrated by Mother Nature. These brown or grey winged caddisflies ranging in size from small to medium have spent months or years as aquatic larva eking out a living at the bottom of lakes or streams. They live in simple to ornate tubular houses made of tiny rocks and sticks sewn together with silk. Some even glitter with flecks of mica or pyrite. These shelters or cases are what give this order its common name of caddis, or ‘casemaker’. Inside these portable shelters the larva look like small hairless caterpillars with hooks on one end that they use to drag themselves around.

When they are ready to transform from the ugly little larva into the equally ugly hairy and warty winged adults, you can understand why it is not a magical transformation, but rather a slow restructuring of their biology. First a cocoon is spun inside the case.

caddisfly larvaIf you ever had a chance to see the pupa of a caddisfly, you would certainly think you were looking at an alien from outer space. The weird brown or green pupa have appendages that are not fused, but free to move about in the pupal case. The mouth has a special structure that looks like a weapon. It is long and thin and is used to keep debris from entering the case and later for cutting itself out of the cocoon.

After two to three weeks of metamorphosis, the adult is ready to emerge. These caddisflies, suited in a pupal skin similar to a dry suit, swim to the surface of the water, using their six skinny not-made-for-swimming legs they flail about until they reach the top. That is if they reach the top. Fish and aquatic animals are on the look-out for these sumptuous graceless morsels and gobble them up by the hundreds if not thousands. If the caddisfly survives the perilous sprint to the surface, it can break out of the pupal case at the amazing speed of less than one minute and be ready to fly.

The first flight is short, usually to a nearby rock or plant to rest. Fly fishermen know the trick of using small nets stretched across the surface of streams catch these pupal sheds and identify which species is emerging and what type of fly they should use as a lure.

The swarming behavior we see taking place in the evening is a sort of a flying dance by the males to attract mates. The frenzied flight patterns of the males in these swarms are actually distinct cues to attract females of their species. After these insects mate along shores, the females make spumalin. No it is not a fancy wine, it is a sticky, gelatinous sugar for laying eggs in. The female uses this tacky substance to attached the eggs to rocks, plants or soil near the water. When the eggs hatch, usually within a few days, the larva fall into the water or the spumalin melts into the water and the cycle begins again.

These insects are biologically important because both the larva and adults serve as food to many fish and aquatic animals, as well as bats and birds. Because the larva feed on fine organic particles and small aquatic invertebrates that pass by them or are trapped in tiny nets they make between pebbles, they are very susceptible to pollutants in the water. So in turn, they are very good indicators of water quality.

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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Horse Chestnut

chestnut leavesMy favorite day of the year is here. To explain, my favorite day is the day the Horse Chestnut tree in my yard open’s its leaves. The leaves go from a big webby bud to a hand-sized compound leaf in about one day. It’s pretty amazing and beautiful to witness.

The Horse Chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is actually a transplant from a small mountain area in the Balkans.

Soon 20-50 tiny orchid-like flowers will bloom and perfume the air. A few of these will produce a spiky green capsule that contains the beautiful glossy brown nut known as a “conker’.  I’m guessing because they conk you on the head when they fall from the tree.

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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Art, Berkshire BioBlitz, Science


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