Friday, June 27, 2014

Firefly Folklore

A Big Dipper Firefly seen from below

     It seems that Lampyridae beetles, the so-called fireflies and lightning bugs, are universally loved. There are so many stories, myths, and legends surrounding them that I thought I would relate some that I have collected over the years.
     In Japan, a legend is told about an aspiring young student by the name of Ch'e Yin. He had no money to buy oil for his lamp but instead collected fireflies so he could use their light to continue his studies at night. A word, Keisetsu meaning "to study deligently," is said to be derived from his name.
     Japan also has the folktale of Hotaru, Princess of the Fireflies, who would only marry that insect who could bring her the gift of fire. Insects to this day continue to try to do so by flying into lights and fires, all supposedly trying to win her heart by capturing fire.
     Other Japanese tales suggest that lightning bugs are stars that left the skies to instead wander the earth for a while. While yet others tell how they are the souls of the warriors who had died for their country.
     A Chinese legend tells of an evil stepmother who gave her stepson a bag with money in it to buy some oil. Along the way though, the child lost the money. Afraid that he would get beaten, he looked for it well into the night using a torch, until he fell into the river and drowned. It said that to this day he is out there looking for the money he lost in the form of a firefly still carrying his small torch.
     A Dine (Navajo) story relates how the First People made the stars. Using great pieces of quartz, First Man and First Woman fashioned first the sun, then the moon, and finally were arranging the stars out of pieces of quartz. They tried to arrange them in the sky in such a way that they would make sense, including helping people where to find North. They had many tiny pieces left to go sitting on their blanket when Coyote insisted he could help. He grabbed the blanket, in a tug of war with First Man, throwing pieces all over. Some became stars and meteors, but others, the smallest pieces, are still floating through the air, as today's fireflies.
     Supposedly in Buddhist belief, the firefly represents shallow knowledge which sheds little actual light on ignorance. In Bengal, folklore claimed that swallowing one would cure blindness. But to some others, getting hit by one in the eye would actually leave you blind. To the Penobscot people, they were the harbingers of salmon. In the South, a firefly in the house signals good luck.
    Perhaps it is best to wrap up with a poem by Ogden Nash:
The Firefly's flame
Is something for which science has no name.
I can think of nothing eerier
Than flying around with an unidentified glow on a person's posterior.

Femme Fatale or Tiger Fireflies

     While fireflies signal to each other and want to be noticed by other fireflies of the opposite sex, they sometimes attract the unwanted attention of the wrong fireflies. Some of these fireflies have ulterior motives. There is a whole genus of fireflies, the Photuris, or Tiger Fireflies, that are looking for other fireflies in order to eat them. These are larger than most others and you can usually see their whole heads and eyes protruding from under their pronotum, or shield-like appendage that covers the necks and heads, unlike many other fireflies.
     Sometimes they just look for signalling fireflies (generally the males since they are the ones flying) and swoop down to capture them. Other times though, they have a much more devious way of catching their prey. They can actually mimic the light signals of some other fireflies to lure them in. These femme fatales then eat the confused suitor. 

Tiger Fireflies feeding on other fireflies.

     It is thought that a Photuris firefly can consume quite a few other fireflies (mostly in the Genus Photinus) during each night. They've been known to eat their own males, who also sometimes imitate the Photinus to lure the females in, and eat any firefly caught in a spider's web. They also can sequester the toxic alkaloids these other fireflies use to protect themselves to then protect the Tiger Firefly itself. Fireflies, like ladybugs, secrete protective chemicals from the joints of their legs in a process called "reflex bleeding." In addition to flashing to attract mates, all glowwworm (immature) stages of fireflies can flash, as well many adults, some eggs, and even some pupae, and this is thought to also serve as a warning signal of their distastefullness to predators. Photuris need to obtain these protective chemicals from other fireflies. Their own species-specific flashes that they use to attract their mates are usually green as opposed to the yellow of the more common Photinus fireflies they prey upon, with at least one species producing a triple flash. One species of these femme fatale fireflies (there are thought to be 28 species in North America, though this is constantly being revised), the Pennsylvania Firefly (Photuris pennsylvanica) is the state insect of Pennsylvania since 1974. Another, the Bethany Beach Firefly (Photuris bethaniensis) is considered to be the most endangered firelfy in the world with a 20-mile stretch of freshwater sand dune beaches as its habitat. Another, Photuris frontalis, synchronizes its flash all at once in the South forming beautiful dipslays in such places as the Smokies.  
     So there are a lot flashers out there trying to attract mates in the firefly world. However, there isn't just seduction going on. There are also femme fatales out there luring males to their deaths, feeding and stealing from them what they need to survive. Such is the intrigue of the natural world at night, where everything is not as it seems and even beauty can have hidden dangers. 

Dark Fireflies

A Dark Firefly, Lucidota atra

     Lots of folks are noticing the fireflies, or lightning bugs, (actually Lampyridae beetles) out this time of year. Not as many notice the Dark Fireflies that are also out though. These are diurnal, emerging during the day, although usually in dark woods. They use pheromones to attract each other rather than the lights we normally associate with "regular" firefly beetles.
     Interestingly though, many species can be made to artificially light up in lab conditions. Their larvae and pupae are all also capable of glowing, especially if disturbed, perhaps as a warning to their bad taste and toxicity. Sometimes called Black Fireflies, adults will sometimes secrete a liquid from their leg joints if threatened that is believed to be distasteful to many potential predators.
Black Firefly

     So next time you go seeking fireflies, don't just go looking at night. You can find some Dark Fireflies if you go looking for them in the woods during the day before their light-up cousins are putting on their light at night.


A firefly about to start its nightly light show

     This is the time of year that nature puts on one of its light shows. The Fireflies or Lightning Bugs are visible for a little over a month each year, displaying to each other to attract their mates. They are neither flies nor bugs, being actually beetles in the family Lampyridae capable of bioluminescence to produce cold light. There are about 2,250 species worldwide on every continent except Antarctica. North America has about 127 species (although they're rare west of Kansas) with the DC area having over 3 dozen kinds.
     Although not all adult fireflies actually glow, all species have eggs, larvae, and pupae that light up. This ability is thought to serve another role besides calling to mates in that they may signal to potential predators how distasteful they are. Some are even toxic enough to kill the animal that eats it. This is why bats do not catch them and why they are so easy for even people to capture. Most animals just leave them alone. Those that get caught in webs or are accidentally squished often flash dramatically or just keep their light on, perhaps as one last attempt to warn the attacker they are toxic. 
     Firefly larvae are called Glowworms and are all predatory. They feed on soft-bodied creatures such as earthworms, slugs, and snails, sometimes eating prey much larger than themselves. Most take 2 years to reach maturity and metamorphose into adults.
     In general in our area, the adult males fly while they give species-specific light signals to the females who remain on the ground. Each species has their own pattern, number of flashes, duration, color, habitat, season, and time of night they signal. Females are very picky in choosing the one male they will mate with.

The light organs on a male firefly, females have smaller organs and eyes.

     The most common species locally, indeed in all of North America, is the Eastern or Big Dipper Firefly (Photinus pyralis), the state insect of Tennessee. It gets its common name because the males use a signal that dips, almost in an upwards forming "J" shape. A neat naturalist trick is to call them in by mimicking a female of the species using a penlight. The trick is to flash a response back to them from ground level 2 seconds after they flash and hold it for a 1/2 second. The males will often respond if they're within 15' or so. Keep calling back to them but point your penlight down as any approach so it is not too bright. You will be amazed at how close you can get them to come sometimes.
     Whether you choose to call them in or catch them in a jar, do not hold them for long. Their adult lives only last about 2 weeks and they dehydrate quite quickly. Make sure to have a moist piece of  paper in their jar if you intend to contain them for any extended period of time, say overnight.
     Keeping your lights off to reduce "light pollution," not mowing your lawn right before dark, and not using pesticides/herbicides to treat your lawn, you can ensure there will be these natural light shows for generations to come.

A firefly has found the light of its life and they are mating.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chicory - The Watcher of the Road

Chicory - Coffeeweed

     Chicory is an introduced plant that goes by a variety of names and has many stories surrounding it. It has been used for food, medicine, dyes, and magic by many cultures. It is most famous for its use as a coffee substitute, why it is sometimes called Coffeeweed. The flowers are usually blue and open only during the morning, closing up in the heat of day to protect their nectar. This trait has led to many of the legends and stories surrounding this flower.
     One such tale out of Germany relates to why they sometimes call it Wegewarte, meaning "Watcher of the Road." It is said that a beautiful young girl that was recently married promised her husband that she would wait for him to return from war in his favorite blue dress by the side of the road. Every morning she stood by the side of the road in her dress, but he never did return. Heart-broken but always faithful to her promise, she eventually turned into the Wegewarte, the Watcher of the Road.

Wegewarte - The Watcher of the Road

     In another legend, a beautiful maiden refused the advances of the Sun. For this refusal, she was turned into a chicory flower, doomed to stare into the sun every morning only to fade by mid-day under his gaze.
     In yet another story, a beautiful girl falls in love with a sailor who had to go back to sea. She waited patiently for his return, not knowing he had drowned. The gods in pity turned her into this plant, bearing the colors of his sailor's uniform to this day. This had led to alternate names for chicory: Blue Sailors and Ragged Sailors. 

Ragged Sailors closed after mid-day

     Its most common name of Chicory relates to an Egyptian word for "January" which was the month it was most harvested. Blue Weed and Blue Daisy are less complimentary.
     This plant has also been used as important elements in magic as well. Witches supposedly used it to transform into rabbits. To others it was said to lend invisibility. During gold rushes, miners would carry it in their pockets for good luck. But perhaps the most unusual magical use had to do with lock picking. It was said to be able to open any locked chest by holding a gold knife and chicory up to the lock. This ability would only function however on St. James' Day, July 25, and only if performed in complete silence.
     In this day and age, Chicory is mostly regarded as a weed, only noticed when in bloom for the most part. It may not be native, but is now widespread, watching us from the side of the road.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Xystodesmid Millipedes

Apheloria virginiensis corrugata, a Xystodesmid Millipede from Great Falls, Virginia

Xystodesmid Millipede on top of a Spirobolid Millipede from Linden, Virginia

     Millipedes are invertebrates which feed mostly on decaying vegetation, fruits, and other detritus. As their names suggest, they have many legs, though not quite a 1,000. They have 2 pairs of legs for each of their body segments. Their bodies are usually long, round, and they frequently curl up when threatened to protect their softer underbellies and legs using their hard exoskeletons. They are often confused with predatory centipedes which differ in having only one pair of legs per body segment, flatter bodies, and being fast moving.
     Xystodesmidae is a colorful family of millipedes with an interesting defense. They secrete cyanide. They warn potential predators of this with bright colors. The cyanide also has a peculiar smell of almonds. Not everyone can smell them, but most people are genetically predisposed to do so.
     If you find a Xystodesmid millipede, gently pick it up and it will start to secrete the cyanide. The more it is disturbed, the more it releases. If you then take a sniff of one, you will likely be rewarded with the smell of almonds. This is not dangerous, although some sources recommend not rubbing your eyes or otherwise ingesting the toxins. I have never had any issues with them and have used this naturalist trick on many a field trip participant without ever having had any issues.
     So the next time you see one of these creatures, stop and smell the roses, or in this case the almonds...

Friday, June 13, 2014

Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus

Eastern Prickly Pear, our native cactus, in bloom along my driveway

Close-up of the edible cactus flower, which only lasts one day

     Not many people are aware we have a native cactus in our region, the Eastern Prickly Pear Opuntia humifusa. Even fewer know much about its ethnobotanical qualities. While some people may have seen either the "pear" fruits or the pads themselves in some markets, very few people know the flower "petals" (actually tepals in botanical terms) are edible, and I find quite tasty. Since my plants don't always fruit dependably, the fruits can vary widely in how tasty they are, and the pads are difficult to work with, I find the flowers the best part of the plant. I plan on diversifying my plants, as since they're all divisions from the same plant, that might be why I'm getting less fruit, perhaps they're self-incompatible.
     Each flower lasts only one day, so I usually wait until the end of the day to give them a chance to get pollinated and then only take a couple of "petals" from each flower. The flowers themselves are large and beautiful, if fleeting. Bees seem to be their primary pollinators. 
     The plants can obviously take some dry and harsh conditions. I have a several growing from the cinder blocks that line my driveway for example. They are easiest planted by breaking off a pad and then planting it about halfway into the soil. Be careful when working among the plants however (or when harvesting any edibles from them). The large spines may seem obvious, but the real nasty protection the plant has are the "glochids" spine-like hairs which are tiny and difficult to see that can easily embed into the skin and are very difficult to remove, and can even get infected. 
     This makes me curious who figured out some of the human uses for this cactus. Many Native American Indian tribes for instance used juice from the pads to treat wounds, warts, and even snake bites. Francis Porcher's ethnobotanical tome put together during the Civil War in the South (often referred to as the "Confederate Ethnobotany") also lists some of these uses. The manual even gives detailed steps on how to utilize the plants to harden tallow candles, to "have the consolation of of knowing that we are independent of the extortioners, who are next of kin to the villainous abolitionist makers of stearine candles in the North."
     Here's a short video also:

     I'm glad we live in more enlightened times when it comes to that, but feel we are so much more disconnected from the natural world and what it could provide in so many other ways, even if by necessity. Regardless, I look forward to seeing the beautiful blooms growing among the cinder blocks of my driveway and the novelty of growing a native cactus, though my son has a couple of times not been happy with their proximity to the cars...

This is such a tough plant, simply shriveling up a bit until the weather warms.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Arrow-wood with a Silver-spotted Skipper nectaring
     Arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum) is a very adaptable shrub, as long as it gets some sun and isn't too dry. Rightfully it is gaining in popularity as a landscape addition, not just due to its adaptability, but due to its good looks. It ranges from 5'-15' in height, with nice-looking opposite branches bearing toothed leaves, white flowers, and dark blue berries.
     They are blooming right about now, with their blooms attracting a fair amount of insects, despite the flowers frankly not smelling very good. More importantly, the plants themselves are host plants for over a 100 species of caterpillars, which in turn feed so many other birds and bats. The berries are also eaten by a fair number of birds. A great wildlife plant all around.
     The plant derives its name from the fact that some Native American Indian tribes, particularly those without access to reeds, used the stalks for arrow shafts. The stems, especially those young ones suckering from the center of the clump, tend to grow fairly straight. That is an unusual trait among shrubs which native peoples were keen to utilize.

The straight stems used for arrow shafts by some tribes
     Having said that, Arrow-wood is not mentioned in Daniel Moerman's tome "Native American Ethnobotany" (which is considered the authority on the use of plants by native peoples) as a preferred source for arrow shafts. It does however mention that this plant was used by the Ojibwa as an ingredient in smoking concoctions and by the Iroquois as a contraceptive.
     While these days we do not concern ourselves with the ethnobotanical properties of this plant, we can be confident that it is a beautiful, adaptable shrub with many benefits for wildlife. That's enough reason to plant it' I'd say.

Friday, June 6, 2014


Ripe Juneberries ready for picking!

A cupful of Juneberries from the Dwarf Serviceberry in my yard. 

     Shrubs in the genus Amelanchier go by a variety of names, each with their own stories and lore: Juneberries, Shadbush, Shadblow, Serviceberry, Sarviceberry, Saskatoon, and Sugarplums among so many others. I won't go into details about all these names, but have a chosen a few to tickle your appetites to learn about these great woody plants.
     Let's start with the term Juneberry, given to the shrubs because many species have their fruits (a pome in botanical terms) ripening in early June. Most species have not only edible, but delectable, fruits, whether eaten fresh, dried, in pies, or as jam. These are a wonderful treat for wild food foragers like myself (if you can beat the birds and other animals to them anyways). The native peoples often used them as a main ingredient in pemmican traveling cakes, among the many other dishes they were also used in. Francis Porcher's so-called "Confederate Ethnobotany" published during the Civil War provided instructions about how to use the fruits to produce an alcoholic drink also. As if that wasn't enough, the shrubs act as host plants themselves to provide food for 124 different documented caterpillar species, which of course provide even more food for birds, bats, and other wildlife. This is indeed a bountiful food source anyway you consider it.
     But these shrubs also provided so many other uses. Some tribes used them for arrow shafts, others for baskets, and even more to construct digging tools. Parts of the plants had numerous medicinal uses, including as eye or ear medicine, for stomach ailments, to treat colds, and as a general medicinal tea.  

Dwarf Serviceberry in bloom in my yard.

     The names Shadbush or Shadblow refers to the tendency for the shrubs to flower in April, often during the spawning season for fish such as shad. They supposedly served as a signal for people that the fish were running in the rivers and to go fishing.
     There are numerous stories attached to why these woody plants are called either Serviceberry or Sarvisberry. One relates to the plants' similarities to the fruit of European plants in the genus Sorbus. Another relates that the shrubs would flower just as the roads became passable again to allow for the preachers who would travel to be able to arrive to once again provide religious services after the winter season had passed. Yet another relates that blooms signaled that the ground had thawed enough to allow for burial services.
Serviceberry blooms

     Regardless of what name is used, these are truly remarkable and beneficial shrubs. Luckily they are used quite a bit in landscaping and are beautiful when in bloom. We can then enjoy them as edible landscaping in June too. But we really can enjoy these plants any time of year, as can all the wildlife that depends on them. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ebony Jewelwings

Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly male

Ebony Jewelwing female

     Due to their size, habitat, and beauty, Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) are among the easiest damselflies to identify. They are large for damselflies (about 2") and are one of the few that like to be in woodland settings, along slow moving water. They are quite conspicuous not just due to their size and habitat, but also because they flutter almost butterfly-like. Males have very dark wings and iridescent bodies. Females are slightly smaller, less dark, and have a conspicuous white spot at the tip of their wings. Their scientific name translates to "beautiful wing with a spot" actually. When the sunlight hits them, they are quite beautiful to behold.
     In general, damselflies are more slender than their dragonfly cousins. Both are in the order Odonata and feed on insects throughout their their lives. The aquatic larvae (called naiads or nymphs in Odonates) of damselflies have 3 tail-like gills they breath through. Dragonfly larvae are stockier and can use a form of jet propulsion by ejecting water out their rear ends. Both spend the majority of their lives in this aquatic stage.
     As adults, dragonflies hold their wings flat out to their sides while sitting. Damselflies (usually) hold their wings over their bodes (see photo) or slightly spread above their abdomens. Dragonfly eyes are huge and almost touch at the top of their heads. Damselfly eyes are barbell-like, separated in the middle and normally sticking out to their sides. Both are superb hunters.
     Ebony jewelwings are not as spectacular fliers as some of their cousins, fluttering and not being as fast as others. Once they're adults, they only live for about two weeks, having fleeting but beautiful and beneficial lives. Keep an eye out for them, especially in sunny openings in otherwise shady woods near water. If approached slowly, you can get fairly close, with them turning their heads to keep an eye on you before they flutter off a few feet and taking up watch again.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Fossils of the Potomac

Typical fossils from the Potomac shores (click for larger view)

     There are many places along the shores of the Potomac River where fossils can be found. Many of these are from the Paleocene-Miocene Epochs, 10-60 or so million years ago. My family loves to hunt for fossils and we have amassed quite a collection. Here is a small representation of what I consider some of the most common, particularly south of DC. There are certainly many more, including many shells like the ones I discussed as our state fossils in a previous blog, and many others such as Ark Shells, that I may cover separately at a later date.
     Skolithos Burrows are the most common fossil that I find throughout the DC region, but actually are not part of the same time period as most other fossil finds along the Potomac. Rather they are much older, from the Cambrian Period some 500 million years ago. They get washed in from the mountains or are often included in construction fill, so end up in many places, but particular by the water. These are trace fossils, believed to be the burrows or tubes of filter-feeding worm-like animals. Some can be quite extensive. Look for tube-like extensions in rocks, even those pieces that have already been eroded quite a bit.
     Bone pieces, particularly Turtle Bone or Scutes (shell scales),  are common to find, often standing out due to their dark material. Many show either a flat end from the shell, or imprints of the scales/bones. In fact, looking for darker material in areas where low tide has exposed mixed-sized pieces of rocks/shells is often one of the easiest methods of finding many fossils on beaches and shores.
     Turritella shells and molds are another common find. These are in the form of the actual fossilized twisty shell, or sometimes just the twisted inner mold where material filled the shell and then became sedimentary rock. Finding complete pieces is not often easy.
     Sharks' Teeth are what many people are primarily seeking when they go beach combing for fossils. The teeth of course were the hardest part of the cartilaginous sharks' bodies, and since sharks can shed hundreds of teeth throughout their lifetime, this offered more chances for them to be preserved as fossils. While there are many species, and the giant Megalodon is the prize find, the most common sharks found in my experience are Sand Tiger Sharks. These teeth are long, round, and very pointy with not much serration or edges to them.
     Crocodile Teeth are much less common. These are typically conical, almost bullet-like, and have characteristic hollow or concave bases. These are my wife's favorite for she uses the hollow bases for earring posts and necklaces. She has formed the sight picture to find these and is much better at locating them than I am.
     This is another point to make, forming a sight image of what you are looking for can greatly help in finding good pieces even in places already picked clean by other fossil hunters. Once you find the first piece, it gets easier each time to find the next of the same type. Finding that first piece is the primary issue.
     Eagle Ray Dental Plates are often overlooked. These teeth are designed to crush mollusks and crustaceans, so are flat rather than sharp or edged. They form rows to functions as hammers, but complete rows are difficult to find. What you usually find is just one row or piece. Various species have either very wide or thin teeth.
     Sting Ray Barbs are much more difficult to find. These typically are long and narrow, with serrated edges, and a groove along the side where the venom would travel. Finding a whole stinger is quite rare, something I have yet to do.
     Fish Dental Plates are not that uncommon, but are difficult to recognize, especially since each species has a different look. They are typically flat but curved and have various impressions from the roof of the fish mouth present.
     Coprolite is the term used for any fossilized feces. The most common are those of fish, but you can occasionally find those of other animals such as turtle or crocodile. They are not always easy to recognize either, but the often-dark coloration can offer a clue. Those of fish are also often either very smooth and round or oval, sometimes BB-like, offering yet another clue.
     Petrified Wood does indeed look like wood, often showing the grain of the tree. It is usually also a much lighter color, often tan looking. These are uncommon, but it is a good idea to check any strange looking driftwood piece you find and try to snap it. If it does not, then that is a good clue that it is a fossil.
    My family finds fossil hunting to be a fun activity, though we are often distracted or also doing something else like fishing simultaneously. The last two times for example, my son did not collect much, more interested in catching frogs, fish, and insects for me to photograph. But he still gets excited when he finds a particularly nice find. And who wouldn't, considering how old and the odds against that a piece of the past was preserved for us to find. It makes each find a treasurer regardless of what it is.