Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Decomposition - Nature's Recycler

Decomposition In The Forest
Image Credit: Jonny Hansson
Decomposition gets a bad rap. We often think of rotten smells, gross imagery or any number of haunting thoughts when the word is uttered. While it is true that decomposition can be a stench-riddled, foul process, the truth is that it is pervasive in our everyday lives. From the microbiome on our skin to the fungal network in the soil, decomposition is occurring constantly. More importantly, it is the foundation for the future of the biological world.

In general terms, decomposition is the process of taking complex organic matter and breaking it down into simpler organic material. Think of it as a simplification and recycling process.

Consider how intricate the human body is with all the different systems and complex molecules driving the organic chemistry that fuels us. Now think about what happens when we die. All of that is still there, floating around, but stuck in our balloon of skin. How does the energy and matter that we consist of return itself to the ecosystem around us? The answer is, it doesn’t. Decomposition returns it to the environment. It simplifies us to the point where organisms like fungi, bacteria and insects can use us…for food. Kind of grotesque, but fascinating at the same time.

The same thing happens when we see a fallen tree in the forest or compost our garden waste. It will take time, but the tree will be eaten away and repurposed for the next generation of plant life. Some of the next generation is likely to start before the tree even disappears (pictured above). Without decomposition, the world we live in would be unsustainable. Instead, the natural workings around us have figured out a balance between life and death for the continual replenishment of the ecosystem we share.

Organic matter develops to inevitably return to where it came. The cycle is constant. Our organic waste (animal, plant or otherwise) feeds the building blocks of nature – the bottom of the food chain – allowing everything else to flourish. Matter is conserved and recycled to make the most of what this planet has to offer. It may get grimy or a bit uncouth, but decomposition is essential for the world and part of the foundation upon which we stand.

- Contributed by Sterling

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Corpse Flowers and Other Beautifully Strange Plants

An extraordinary thing occurred this past April in Tucson, Arizona. Right in midtown, a corpse
A very large flower with purple white and pink sides and a very large pink stamen in the middle.
Corpse Flower
flower bloomed
at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. These rare flowers carry the scientific name of Amorphophallus titanum. This Latin name comes from three root words: amorphos (without form or misshapen), phallos (penis) and titanum (giant). It’s easy to see where they are going with this; a fact that was not lost on Sir David Attenborough, the English naturalist. For his BBC documentary, The Private Life of Plants, he coined a more benign name – titan arum. In their native Indonesia, they are known as bunga bangkai.

Corpse plants are huge; growing up to 12 ft. in the wild, with cultivated ones generally between 6-8 ft. However, back in 2010, a man in New Hampshire grew a 10 ft. 2¼ in. flower and won the Guinness World Record for the tallest bloom.

While their sheer size is impressive, it is the powerful smell of a corpse flower that makes a lasting impression. It takes many years, sometimes even a decade, for these flowers to build up enough energy to bloom. Once they are at about 98°F (about the same as the inside temperature of a mammalian body), they burst into a bloom that lasts no more than 48 hours. Working with such a small window of opportunity, the corpse flower amps up the enticement for carrion insects and others pollinators by emitting a stench that they will respond to. The smell gets ranker the longer the bloom lasts and it and has been compared to decaying meat, limburger cheese and poopy diapers. With the warmness of the bloom mimicking a newly dead body and the large spadix serving as a beacon or chimney of sorts to spread the odor more widely, the corpse flower has all the bases covered.

The corpse flower may be the tallest bloom, but the largest flower is the Rafflesia spp.
A very large orange and yellow bloom with 2 children crouching around it
Rafflesia flower
These rainforest behemoths can grow as large as a meter (3.2 ft.) in diameter. Rafflesia has no leaves, roots or stems, it survives and propagates by parasitizing the Tetrastigma vine. See it in the wild here.

This beast of a flower is very similar to the corpse flower: it also hails from South East Asia, it blooms for a very short time and it emits a noxious odor for the same reasons. Both the corpse flower and the Rafflesia have something else in common: they are both disappearing in the wild due to habitat loss from logging, palm oil plantations and other human endeavors. Time is especially short for the Rasflesia as it has not been successfully cultivated.

A light green cactus that looks like a human brain positioned on a black background
Brain Cactus
As I read about the corpse flower and Rafflesia, the man-eating bloom from Little Shop of Horrors kept coming to mind. I would not be surprised if carrion-loving blooms were the inspiration behind the campy carnivorous plant. The following plants could also inspire any number of spooky stories:

White berries with black dots in the center on red stems. They look like baby doll eyes.
Doll's Eyes
Brain Cactus (Mammillaria elongate f. cristata): This Mexican cactus does not always look like a human brain, sometimes it looks like a pile of writhing hairy caterpillars. Either visual is just kind of gross.

Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda): These “eyes” are really the berries of the White Baneberry plant. This plant is poisonous; but it is also used (carefully, I imagine) in traditional home cures for various ailments.
Large green rounded pod with rippled edge. It has holes in the center with seed inside them that look a bit like eyes.
Lotus Flower Seed Pods

Lotus Flower Seed Pods (Nelumbo nucifera): These may look like comic aliens, but they are really just the seed pods of the sacred lotus plant. Apparently, looking at these pods is highly distressing to certain people who can’t abide the look of clusters of holes and bumps. This condition is called trypophobia and, yes,it's a real thing.

Monkey Face Orchid (Dracula simia): Many types of orchids resemble other living things. At one time, people saw fangs in the long, dangly parts of this flower; thus, the Dracula reference. I'm not too sure about the Dracula thing; but the variety as shown in this picture sure do have monkey faces.
A brownish orchid with a yellow and white center that looks like a monkey's face.
Monkey Face Orchid

Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi): This plant is invasive and poisonous, so it is probably not a choice for your backyard garden. But it is spooky-cool looking when the web-like pods surround the pumpkin-colored flowers.
Two round orange flowers encased in a white web-like cage
Chinese Lantern

When looking at these plants, I can't help but think that Nature has a sense of humor.

                                                                      Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

How Pumpkins Replaced Turnips at Halloween

We can thank Irish immigrants for bringing us the tradition of having a Jack O’Lantern on All Hallow’s Eve. The practice dates back to ancient Celtic cultures when they carved scary faces onto turnips and potatoes. Once carved, the root vegetables were hollowed out and put on a windowsill with an ember placed inside – all this was done to ward off Stingy Jack and other evil spirits while guiding the good spirits to them.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

Stingy Jack was an Irish farmer who made a deal with the devil. A miserable old drunk, he reveled in playing mean-spirited tricks on anyone. On All Hallow’s Eve, he ran into the devil at a local pub. Jack tricked the devil by offering his soul in exchange for one last drink. The devil turned himself into a 6-pence to pay the tab but Jack snatched the coin and pocketed it with his silver cross. This rendered the devil unable to change back. Jack made a deal, he would only set the devil free if he promised not to claim Jack’s soul for 10 years.

Ten years on, Jack came across the devil while walking on a country road. The devil wanted to collect his due. But Jack, ever the conniving sot, replied, “I’ll go but before I do, will you get me an apple from that tree?”

The devil jumped up into the tree to retrieve an apple. Jack quickly placed silver crosses around the trunk of the tree. Once again, the crosses trapped the devil. This time, Jack only released the devil when he promised not to take his soul until he died from natural causes. 

The devil had no choice but to agree.

When Stingy Jack passed away, he was refused admission to the Gates of Heaven because he'd spent his stingy, tight-fisted life as a deceitful drunk. So, Jack was relegated to trying to enter hell. But the devil would not let him enter and sent him back to where he came from.

The way back was windy, scary and perpetually dark. Stingy Jack pleaded with the devil to give him a way to light his path. The devil tossed Jack and ember from the fires of Hell. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed out turnip – his favorite food and one he could easily steal. Since that time, Stingy Jack has been wandering the earth, without a resting place and with only his turnip and ember to light his way in the darkness.

The practice of warding off spirits with carved out vegetables spread beyond Ireland and Scotland to England, where they adopted the practice using beets. When the immigrants arrived in the United States, they found a plentiful supply of pumpkins and, although still somewhat messy, they provided a cleaner and more convenient vessel for the carving and for embers.

As a child, I remember that the night my dad carved our pumpkin was a big event. Much planning went into the plan for the face and the expression that would work best. Putting that pumpkin out on the porch with a lit candle seemed to signal the beginning of all of the light and food-filled celebrations that we had to look forward to in the coming months. It was both the end of summer and the beginning of celebrating the new and incoming possibilities of the high holidays.

Submitted by Deb N. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Spiders & Their Webs - Our Eerie Friends

‘Tis the season that Halloween decorations pop up around the country. A festive favorite for many homeowners is the faux spider cobwebbing strung about to create a creepy, spooky aesthetic. While the seasonal decorations are a staple of Halloween, the real things tend to be far more orderly than most of that webbing and often give insight into what kind of spider or insect you are dealing with. 

Orb Weaver Spiders Create Recognizable Webs
Orb Weaver Spider & Its Web (From Deb)
Spider webs range from the orderly and planned spoked wheel-looking orb weaver webs to the black widow’s web, which resembles what I would imagine a spider web would look like after a long weekend in Las Vegas – disorderly and half-baked. Regardless of their apparent utility or lack thereof, these two varieties use their webs for refuge and to trap prey. Imagine a house that hunts your dinner for you. 

Huntsman Spider on a wall indoors
Martina the Huntsman Spider
Then you get to some aptly named groupings of spiders, funnel web and triangle spiders. Guess what their webs look like? While the designs are simple, the beauty is in that simplicity. Triangle spiders lack venom and thus need to use their fuzzy (not sticky) webs to smother their next meal. Funnel spiders, the hobo spider being one of them, build a one way street for prospective prey trapping them on a path to consumption. Being the conniving architects they are, funnel spiders plan ahead and make sure to attach an emergency exit for themselves allowing for quick flight from the premises. 

While spider webs can take us by surprise and be a hassle to remove, at least they give us an idea of where our spider friends have been lurking. Hunting spiders – wolf spiders, jumping spiders, huntsman spiders – don’t give us that warning. They will appear when they like and often when least expected. These guys also tend to be larger than some of their web-building counterparts, hunting down bulkier prey in the vast unknown of nature. The good thing is, you can befriend them like one of my colleagues, Cara, has done. Meet Martina the huntsman spider. 

Spiderman in his natural habitat
The thing to remember about spiders and their webs is that they combine to kill a lot of the bugs we find to be nuisances. If they’re nearby, chances are good that the spiders are providing you a public service and free pest control. Remove them if you need to, but refrain from killing them on sight. Our eight-legged friends do quite a bit more good than bad in the grand scheme of things. 

Contributed by Sterling N.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

It Just Wouldn't Be Halloween Without A Mummy Or Two.

A cartoon of the extended left arm of a mummy
Mummies - like all good Halloween monsters, this icon of the season can be both delightful and frightening. This holds true for those mummies that are found in nature, specifically amongst insects. In the insect world, there are true mummies and those that are forever linked to mummies.

For many, the Brendan Fraser movie, The Mummy (1999)provided the ultimate in mummy-centric scariness. Their depiction of an evil mummy was top-notch, but not all the horror came from him. The flesh-eating beetles that stream out of crypts and over and into people could give even the most fearless viewer the heebie-jeebies. In case you haven’t seen this mummy movie recently, here is a compilation of the best beetle moments. They literally make people’s skin crawl.

Overhead view of a black scarab beetle on a white background
Scarab beetle
While the 1999 version of tomb beetles is more than a little over the top, there really are beetles that are associated with Egyptian mummies. These beetles are known as Egyptian scarab beetles (Scarabaeus sacer) and they are in the dung beetle family. Despite what every mummy movie has said, scarab beetles do not feed on mummies. They feed on dung - the fresher the better. So, while they may be in ancient tombs, it is not the mummies they are after. They would be after the excrement of the small mammals that make such dark spaces their homes. The true connection between scarab beetles and mummies is that ancient Egyptians worshiped this particular beetle as a symbol of creation and rebirth. Their god, Khepri, even has the head of a scarab beetle. The Egyptians
Illustration of the head and shoulders of the Egyptian god Khepri, who has a scarab beetle as a face
related the way that dung beetles roll their balls of dung across the ground to the way that the sun moves across the sky. This reasoning may seem far-fetched to us today; but remember that there were long days and nights to fill with imagination before there was TV and an internet.

The connection between insects and mummies is actually much more direct than one would gather from reading up on scarab beetles. There are a number of insects that make mummies out of other insects. These insects behave similarly to those that create insect zombies, but they do not keep their hosts alive for long and they do not practice mind control, they mummify and kill.

Close-up of  Sugarbag bee
Aussie Sugarbag bee
One such insect mummifier is the stingless bee from Australia known as a Sugarbag bee (these bees were originally called Trigona carbonaria until they were reclassified as Tetragonula carbonia in 2012). These Aussie bees have developed an interesting technique in the war against invasive small hive beetle. Small hive beetles have led to devastating numbers of colony collapses in North American and Australia. Here at ARBICO, we recommend Heterorhabditis indica nematodes to fight them in their larval stages, but Sugarbag bees have come up with another battle plan: Once a beetle invader is confronted in a hive it will react much like a turtle and pull its legs and head into its shell. It will stay that way until the attacking bees eventually give up. Except Sugarbag bees don’t give up, they coat the beetle with the same mixture of wax and resin that they use to build their nests. The beetle is stuck inside its mummified shell of doom while the bees go on about their business around him. Unfortunately for North American bee lovers, these clever bees are only found in Australia.

Close-up pf a Aleiodes shakirae wasp
Aleiodes shakira wasp
Back in 2014, scientists announced that they had discovered 24 new species of mummy-making wasps in the cloud forests of Ecuador. The female wasp picks its preferred caterpillar host and injects it with an egg. The caterpillar remains alive for a bit as the wasp larvae gorges on it from the inside. As the feeding continues, the caterpillar shrinks and mummifies;eventually it will be a just a husk that the immature wasps make a cocoon in. The scientists that discovered these wasps colorfully named them after famous people, including Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres and poet Robert Frost. The Aleiodes shakirae was named for the Colombian singer, Shakira. The entomologists thought that the twisting and turning of the agonal death throes of the caterpillars looked like Shakira dancing. I’m not sure how they decided on how to name the others, hopefully the thought process wasn't quite as morbid.

Aphid mummies
We have a couple of mummy-makers here at ARBICO that we are particularly fond of. We offer Aphidius colemani and Aphelinus abdominalis to our clients as an natural alternative for aphid control and an ideal part of an Integrated Pest Management program.  These helpful insects seek out aphids and lay their eggs inside the aphid nymphs. In time, the nymphs will turn into leathery greyish-brown mummies. The aphid parasites will eventually emerge as adults to begin their aphid hunting cycle again. These beneficial insects are extremely effective in cleaning up aphid infestations in both home gardens and large scale growing.

Happy Halloween and be on the lookout - mummies are all around you!

Cartoon image of a mummy peeking over an edge
Submitted by Pam                                   

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Pt. 2 - These Zombies Don’t Eat Brains – But They Might Have Theirs Eaten.

In my last blog, I offered an overview of zombies in the insect world and showed you some of its stars. When writing that blog, I quickly realized that there is a whole Milky Way of zombie-making stars that should be shown. What follows are some of those stellar parasites that I did not get to before.

Dinocampus coccinellae: These parasitic wasps prey on cocinellid beetles, which include the ever-popular ladybug. The wasp attacks the bug and injects an egg into it.Included with the egg is a nice little dose of a virus that paralyzes the ladybug.
Lady blue sitting on a straw-like Dinocampus coccinella cocoon
Ladybug sitting on a Dinocampus coccinella cocoon.
About 3 weeks after the egg has been laid, the wasp larvae pushes out of the bug’s body and weaves a cocoon between its legs. Here’s the twist in this scenario: the ladybug is not completely paralyzed; it is left with the ability to twitch around (which works to keep predators away), but unable to leave the cocoon. In this way, it becomes a zombie babysitter. All’s well that ends well for the ladybug though; once the wasp offspring are ready to venture out on their own the ladybug is released from its bondage. The ladybugs continue on with no apparent damage from their alien abduction.To see how they come out of this check out this video.

Long tangled mass of worms protruding from the body of a cricket
Horsehair worms emerging from a cricket.
Horsehair worms
: These parasitic worms have a multi-stage life cycle that is complicated enough to need some zombies to complete it. Their larvae are laid in water, but they are unable to swim and
need to get to the surface before they can metamorphosize into their next phase. So, they wobble around on the bottom until the more advanced larvae of another insect (like the mosquito or midge) finally eats it. They stay with the larvae as it grows into a flying insect and now they are airborne. They will fly around with this host until it either dies and gets eaten by a cricket or gets eaten by a cricket and dies. And now they are in the cricket, where they will bore through the gut and get into the body cavity (how they do this is very puzzling as they have no mouths). Usually it is only one worm, but as many as 32 have been found in one cricket. It is when they are growing (to about 1 foot long) in the body of the cricket that the mind control begins. At a point known only to the worm, the cricket will be compelled to move toward light and the reflective surface of water. Crickets usually avoid the water and the dangers it carries, but these zombie crickets head right for it and jump in. Once they hit the water, the worms will erupt from the host (to see this in all its grossness, click here). They then immediately mate and begin the cycle anew. The crickets generally die in the water, but every now and then one will survive and take its ravished body back to shore.

Orange Phorid aka Hump-backed fly on a grey tree branch
Phorid or Hump-backed fly

Flies and bees: When it comes to bees, there are two predatory parasites that create “zombees”: In the case of honeybees, phorid flies (Apocephalus borealis), also known as hump-backed flies, use the living bee as an incubator for their eggs. As with other ill-fated hosts, the bee will be consumed from the inside. While this is happening, the honeybee will exhibit most un-bee-like conduct such as flying at night and seeking artificial light. No one except, perhaps the fly, knows why they do this. The bee eventually dies, but the weirdness does not end there. About 7 days later, flies will burst out of the neck of the bee, decapitating the corpse.
Black Conopid aka Thick-headed fly in the air
Conopid or Thick-headed fly

Bumblebees have their own nightmarish zombie maker – the conopid (Conopidae) or thick-headed fly. These flies pry open the body segments of a bee and lay their eggs inside. They are so good at this, that they can do it while both insects are flying. When the larvae inside has grown sufficiently, the mind control takes over. The bee will begin digging in the ground. This is not normally something a bee has any reason to do, but a nice burrow is an excellent place for developing fly babies. And a nice little grave for the helpful host/food supply.

Orange dragonfly sitting on a branch with white spikes protruding all over his body
Dragonfly with a Cordyceps problem
Cordyceps fungi: By now, many people have heard of these terrifying fungi; their effects are nothing short of lurid. In short, the spores enter the host body and force it to climb and move around (this helps further spread spores). Once the host’s nutrient value is gone, the fungus grows stalks that shoot out of the body and further spread their spores. If you haven't seen it, you should watch the morbidly beautiful video of this fungus on an ant from Planet Earth on BBC. This fungus only affects insects and arthropods, but it is so grisly and creepy that it has been imagined as a threat to humans in an apocalyptic video game called The Last of Us by Naughty Dog for PlayStation 3. Check it out here.

Drawing of a zombie woman with white specks protruding from her head. Image from the video game The Last of Us.
Image from The Last of Us
All of the above zombie situations are gruesome and a bit disturbing, but they are simply another part of inherently brutal Nature. It is interesting how we place some insect behavior in the negative category while others are seen as a positive. A number of our most important products here at ARBICO Organics™ are parasites: Fly Eliminators™, Aphidius colemani and Beneficial Nematodes, to name a few. ARBICO would not be here without these parasites, I'm just glad we aren’t in the horsehair worm business!                               

Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Pt. 1 - These Zombies Don’t Eat Brains – But They Might Have Theirs Eaten.

Whether you like the grossness of them or not, zombies are all over pop culture these days. I know I have fallen victim to their creepy appeal. In fact, I did a little binging on The Walking Dead this past weekend. Zombie shows may be entertaining to watch, but the truly disgusting and cruel zombie stories are real. They occur all around us in nature and particularly in the insect world. Unlike the zombies that try to eat Rick Grimes and his merry band of Walker killers, zombie insects are much more like the traditional zombies in Haitian Voodoo. In Voodoo, zombies are created from people by other people in order to enslave them. They lose their autonomy over their minds and bodies and exist only to serve whatever needs their masters may have. This same dynamic is present in all zombie insects; they serve a purpose for their creator.

A zombie man in a white shirt and red tie lunging out from the page
No, not this guy - insect zombies!
In the insect world, zombies are created by many organisms, they can be other insects, nematodes, worms and viruses. With insects alone, the sheer number of insects that parasitize and take over other insects is staggering. For instance, there are over 600 species of parasitic Strepsiptera (twisted wing insects) and each one has its preferred host. Not to mention the 800 species of Conopidae flies (aka thick-headed or conopid flies) – all of which are parasitic.

The one thing that all these aggressive zombie-makers have in common is that they parasitize in the interest of reproduction. They are all trying to either feed their offspring or find a home to raise them in. They find a host and use one method or another to gain control of the body and/or mind of the insect. They then either keep it alive to feed on, cause it to commit suicide or force it to fulfill some other nefarious purpose of the parasite. How they gain the mind control is, in many instances, still not thoroughly understood. However, most researchers believe that the parasites produce neurotransmitters that somehow short out the neurotransmitters of the host. As gruesome as it seems, parasitization is extremely beneficial to the parasite (which is why there are so many of them) – it provides for their next generation and removes a resource competitor at the same time.

Now for the ghoulish details of the work of a few noteworthy zombie makers:
Close up of the head of iridescent green emerald cockroach wasp
The face of a zombie maker (Ampulex compresa)

Emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa):This lovely solitary wasp will sneak up on a cockroach and sting it in the head a couple of times. This leaves the roach alive but unable to move. After snacking a little on the roach’s antenna, it will lead the mindless roach to a burrow. Now that she has filled the cupboards with groceries, she lays a single egg case on the roach's body and seals the doomed insect up in the burrow. In due time, the wasp larvae will hatch and chew its way into the roach’s abdomen. As the wasp young continue to grow inside the roach, they feast on the living roach’s internal organs. Even while being eaten alive from the inside, the roach never struggles or moves. There is an incredible video on YouTube that shows the wasp creating its personal zombie. See it here.

Three images of a Roly Poly, or pill bug. One is all rolled up, one half rolled up and the other on its feet.r
This is why they're called Roly Polys.
Acanthocephala worms and pill bugs (aka Roly Polys): These parasitic worms enter the bodies of pill bugs and then use them as lures for birds. With the ultimate goal or reaching a bird's gut to reproduce in, Acanthocephala worms send pill bugs out to where they can be seen and eaten by birds. These normally light-hating insects not only go straight for the sun, they head to lighter colored surfaces to more easily be seen. That’s refined zombie-making!      

Tarantula Hawks (Pepsis formosa):  Technically, these large wasps don't create zombie insects. Instead, they have looked outside the insect world and developed their zombie making skills to exploit a host no one else wants to take on - the tarantula. The tarantula hawk will hunt for tarantulas and when they find one they confront it. The tarantula will rear up when challenged (which is a bad instinctive reaction in this case), allowing the tarantula hawk to run in and sting it on its abdomen. Here's
A close-up of a black moth with red wings face to face with a brown tarantula with its front legs up
A tarantula hawk subduing a tarantula
 a video of a tarantula hawk in action. In no time, the toxin will take effect and paralyze the spider. At this point, the tarantula must drag the much larger tarantula into its burrow (apparently they haven’t figured out mind control). Once there, like the emerald cockroach wasp, it will lay an egg on its host and seal it in a burrow. When the eggs hatch, the larvae will eat the non-essential organs first to keep the hapless spider alive as long as possible. Like something out of a 
B-grade horror movie, the larvae will eventually spin a cocoon around the poor spider.

An encounter between a tarantula hawk and a tarantula results is a ghastly and macabre end for the tarantula. On the other hand, an encounter between a human and a tarantula hawk is generally benign. However, should you be unfortunate enough to be stung by one, be prepared to experience an agonizing pain. The pain level that has been given second place (after the South American bullet ant) by Justin Schmidt on his Schmidt sting pain index (see below). Luckily, the pain will dissipate in about five minutes and you can go about your life with a better understanding of what the poor tarantulas suffer. I, personally, will take your word for it.

I have more fascinating and totally disgusting zombies to share with you. Check out Part Two now!

Submitted by Pam

The Schmidt Sting Pain Index - A pink chart with white lettering that shows 8 insects with level 1-4 painful stings

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Spooky, Funky, Strange and Freaky – Fungi!

There is always something amazing to discover in the Fungi universe. Sometimes it’s awe-inspiring, sometimes it’s kind of creepy, sometimes it’s a beautiful thing and other times it’s just gross. Whether you call them “fun-guy” or “fun-gy” (as they commonly do in the UK), these organisms are on us, in us and around us every day and most people give them very little notice.

Honey Mushroon growing out from under a log on the forest floor
Honey Mushroon
The largest organism on earth
is a Honey mushroom (Armillaria solidipes); a fact I find rather creepy. I mean, a 2.4 mile long organism growing under the earth in Oregon and feeding on trees? It sounds more like a horror movie than reality. Apparently, these mushrooms are quite tasty. If we started eating that shroom, we could feed a whole lot of people and save a forest at the same time. It’s just a random thought, I’m not advocating for that.

Fungi are also some of the smallest organisms on earth. These microfungi are literally everywhere around us. They are microscopic and consist of little more than filaments called hyphae (collectively known as mycelium). What they lack in size they make up in variety and volume, the spores they produce affect everything from diseases to food production. The number of microfungi species out there is still unknown. These fungi are on their own agenda doing what is best for them, we are not a part of it. That is a bit creepy as well.

Mushroom fairy ring in autumn leaves under a large tree
Fairy Ring on a bed of autumn leaves.
One fungal phenomenon that is not as spooky as it once was, is the Fairy Ring (aka Fairy Circles, Elf Circles, Pixie Rings and Witches Circles).For many hundreds of years, particularly in Western Europe, the sudden appearance of these rings in the grass was seen as something mysterious and mystical. What we now know is that these rings are caused by fungi in the soil. The fungi release nutrients in the soil (notably nitrogen) and then grow around the affected area. These rings usually grow to be between a few inches and 200 feet in diameter. However, the largest is in France and it is a whopping 2,000 ft. in diameter. There is definitely something eerie about Fairy Rings, but they are a natural event and can be treated in order to prevent damage to a lawn. Nitron Thatch Away can help break down the organic matter that the fungi feed on and Actinovate® Lawn and Garden Fungicide can keep away diseases born of fungal activity.

A mushroom with a red top with white spots on a white stem
Fly Agaric Mushroom
Some fungi are beautiful and others are funky (both in smell and appearance). Then there is the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) which is a little of both. While it appears to be a prop from a Disney movie, this toadstool is definitely not for children. Although it is highly poisonous raw, it can be eaten after it’s parboiled. In some cultures, this mushroom is consumed during rituals for its hallucinogenic properties. As unlikely as it may seem, the legend of Santa Claus may have its roots in this little magic mushroom.

Fungi in all its forms is fascinating. Sometimes the fascinating aspect morphs into that morbid fascination that something macabre gives us. The following fungi definitely elicit the “ewww” factor:

Bleeding or Devil's Tooth Fungus
Bleeding Tooth/Devil’s Tooth (Hydnellum peckii): Found in North America, Europe, Iran and Korea, this fungus is not poisonous. There are people out there with questionable impulse control that may want to eat it; they will find out it tastes about as good as it looks.

A fungus growing out from the underside of a log that looks like fingers coming out.
Dead Man's Finger Fungus

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha): This is a saprotrophic fungus, meaning that it lives on dead and dying wood. It helps break down organic matter. On occasion this fungus will appear on a living tree, indicating that the tree has serious health issues.

A fungus shaped like a human ear growing on moss covered wood
Jew's Ear Fungus
Jew’s Ear/Wood Ear/Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricular-judae): This edible fungus can be found all over the world and is used in traditional medicines in many countries.  Its name is not meant to be anti-semitic, rather it is a reference to the belief that Judas Iscariot hung himself on an elder tree (Judas’ Ear became Jew’s Ear). This fungus can be found on beech and sycamore trees, but elder trees are where you will most commonly find them.

A red fungus that looks like a flower made of raw meat
Scarlet Waxcap Fungus
Scarlet Waxcap (Hygrocybe coccinea): This fungus is common and widespread across the globe in northern latitudes. It is edible, but the taste is fairly bland. For the purpose of this
blog, what is most interesting about this mushroom is that it can look like uncooked meat. This may be off-putting to some, but it's downright alluring to mycophiles.
An Immature Anemone
 Stinkhorn Fungus

Anemone Stinkhorn/Starfish Fungus (Aseroe rubra): This specimen is a native of Australia, Tasmania and the South Pacific in general. It changes its appearance as it ages; it goes from a whitish gelatinous form to an upright figure with arms. To many people, it resembles one form of sea life or another in one or more of these stages (thus the “anemone” and “starfish”). At maturity it secretes a vile-smelling slime. All in all, the grossness factor is high on this guy.

All these fungi, no matter how unsettling some may seem, have their place in the universe. This blog could easily have shone a light on some of the most beautiful of fungi. But, since this is the season of Halloween and All Soul’s Day, I just had to bring out some less-than-lovely ones.

Submitted by Pam

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