Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Vampires Are Everywhere

A cartoon Dracula peeking around a corner and waving hello.
We humans have an interesting relationship with vampires. On the one hand, we have created a whole genre of creatures to horrify, titillate and entertain ourselves. We like the über creepy Nosferatu type vampire, and we like sexy dreamer Twilight type vampires. We like them all. But, while we may like fictional vampires, we revile the animal most closely associated with vampires - vampire bats. For as much as we love fake vampires, it seems people just don’t like to think about real-life vampires. Nevertheless, we are surrounded by them on a daily basis.  

Most of the common insects that plague people are bloodsuckers. There are mosquitoes, bed bugs, various flies and fleas, ticks and leeches. And I probably missed a few. These insects represent a staggering disease toll taken on the human population. For instance, mosquitoes continue kill more people than any other animal and fleas helped spread the Black Death that tried to wipe out Europe in the mid-1300s. Not all blood-feeding insects are dangerous to humans, but the ones that are a threat are super dangerous to humans. 

Vampire Bat

There are a surprising number of vampires hiding amongst us in the animal kingdom. For various evolutionary reasons, these animals have adapted to use blood as a food source. Here are some you may not be familiar with, and all have just as much creep cred as any old flying bat:

Dracula Ants (Adetomyrma venatrix) – 

A close-up of a Dracula ant
These rare ants are from Madagascar and are endangered, which is just one of the things that are unusual about them (most ant species thrive spectacularly). Perhaps part of their problem is that they are horrible parents – they’ve earned their common name by their habit of sucking the blood of their young. More specifically, they poke holes in their larvae and slurp up the hemolymph (ant blood) therein. Scientists say this does not harm the larvae, but I remain unconvinced. These ants will also consume the larvae entirely if the colony runs out of food, which is undeniably harmful. Other interesting facts about this insect are that their workers are blind and that they have the fastest animal movement on record – they can snap their mandibles at speeds of up to 200 mph (more on that here).

Vampire Moths (Calyptra spp) – 

A beige Vampire Moth sitting on a person's finger and looking directly into the camera.
While people are busy swatting at mosquitoes or running from bats, they may fall victim to a seemingly harmless little moth – because who’s afraid of a moth? You might want to be, because it seems that the males of these moths have branched out from piercing into fruit and sucking out the juice to piercing into mammals and sucking out the blood. And they don’t bite and run like most mosquitoes do, some will stay on their host for up to 50 minutes! Scientists have not determined definitely why the moths drink blood and why only the males do it, but it is believed it adds something beneficial to their sperm. Vampire moths are fairly widespread across the globe and are not specific in their choices of host animals, but the feeding habits of all the species have not been well documented yet. Which means that you may or may not be in danger of getting bitten by a moth seeking male enhancement. More on these bite-y little things here (including a video that shows their drilling technique while feeding). 

Surprisingly (at least to me)  there are a number of birds that are vampires. And not big and scary-looking ones like vultures (who only ingest blood incidentally while they feed on carrion). These vampires are more seemingly-sweet creatures hiding gruesome tendencies. Bird vampires appear to have evolved from being parasite-eaters to supplementing parasites with doses of blood. It is easy to see how a tick eater could morph into a direct blood drinker.  
Tristan Thrush eating a dead bird. Photo by Brian Gatwicke

Vampire Finch (Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis) and Tristan Thrush (Turdus eremita) - 

From the nursery of evolution, the Galapagos Islands, these two birds have a varied diet, including the blood of other birds. With limited food resources on the islands, it seems only sensible to get whatever you can from whatever you can. Here’s a video of a Vampire Finch sourcing a Boobie bird's blood. A picture of  the Vampire Finch preying on a Boobie won Wildlife Photographer of the Year for Thomas P. Peschak in 2018 - see it here. The Tristan Thrush is another island-based bird with the same blood-sucking habit. In this case, they occasionally like to suck on penguin blood, but it's not a major source of nutrition. They are expert scavengers  and will find food wherever it presents itself. For instance, they will pull other birds out of their burrows, peck them to death and eat them. These guys are brutal - but survivors.  

Oxpecker bird drinking from a wound. Photo by Ian White on Flickr.
Oxpecker Bird (Buphagus spp) – 

These African birds don’t mess around with other birds, they go straight for some of the largest mammals on Earth. They ride around on the backs of buffaloes, giraffes and the like and clean off parasites. But they want blood as much as parasites and will not hesitate to create or reopen wounds to get what they want. These birds can be major pests to their hosts and possibly dangerous to the weakest ones. Here’s video that shows them feeding on, and squabbling over, a buffalo’s blood.  

Looking into the mouth of a Lamprey.
I’ve saved the worst for last in this list of blood-lovers – the Lamprey. For me, the horror factor of these animals is way above and beyond any fictional monster. These fish have thrived and remained unchanged for 360 million years partly because they have pared down to simple sucking machines. They have no jaws or scales; they are simply an elongated body with a suction-cup mouth full of hook-like teeth in circular rows. They are parasites and live to find a host fish to latch onto and live off its blood. The creepiness factor for these fish is really ratcheted up when you see them in the large, squirmy masses they congregate in. Their design may be efficient, but I do not want to ever be in any water that they are in (and they live in fresh and salty water worldwide!). This article has a great video with some close-ups of the mouth, which should explain why I find them so freaky.

Either share your blood willingly or watch your back closely; there are plenty of things that want a piece of you. 

A vampire creature holding a bat and saying "Your wife has a beautiful neck".

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Centipedes Creep Me Out

A large back and yellow centipede crawling out of a grey tennis shoe with white bottoms. There is a white pair next to it.
I live in a place where rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas are common, and they do not bother me at all. But the other day I came across a centipede and that triggered some kind of primeval revulsion in me. They always do - it’s all those little legs and all that squirming around…..I just can’t. I know I’m not alone in this (here are some interesting thoughts as to just why we find them so gross), so I really don’t understand how these arthropods have managed to avoid being part of Halloween lore of creepy creatures. I‘m adding them to my list for sure. So, in celebration of their Halloween, here’s a little something about these creepy crawlers.

A view of a black and yellow centipede from the side.
First of all, there are centipedes and there are millipedes, and while they are both pretty yucky, they have some interesting differences. As their names imply, centipedes have fewer legs than millipedes – one per body segment as opposed to two. Although millipedes have twice as many legs, they are slow-moving burrowers, while centipedes scurry around rapidly. This difference in their movements is down to centipedes being carnivorous and predatory while millipedes feed on decaying organic matter and roots in soil. Millipedes are generally considered beneficial creatures (albeit still creepy), while centipedes are the ones who have venom and can (and will) bite. For more on their differences, check out this article

An upside-down yellow-orange centipede. The segmented body, legs, head and antenna are on display.

Let’s talk about those legs: First of all,  the word “centipede” would indicate one hundred legs with that the root word of “cent” while “millipede” would indicate one thousand, but that is not accurate. According to this article, centipedes have up to 382, while millipedes have between 40 and 400. Also, they don’t start out with all they end up with – they grow additional legs as they mature. And they can drop a leg to escape a predator (like some lizards do with their tails) and grow it back later. They have an abundance of legs, but they actually use different ones for specific purposes. For instance, centipedes carry their venom in the two legs right by their heads (these forcipules are legs and fangs all in one and are unique to centipedes). They jump on their prey and insert the venom while using some of their legs to completely encircle their victim. Meanwhile, other legs are maintaining their grip on whatever surface the centipedes are hunting from.

a grey and black centipede in a den wrapped around a horde of white baby centipedes.
Often the creepiest things about the animal world are the mating rituals therein (and, yes, I include humans in this statement), and centipedes are no exception. Except that it appears their genders don’t even want to be near each other; they have developed reproduction without copulation. In most centipede species, males create a web that they deposit their sperm in, after which  females get into it and absorb the sperm to fertilize their eggs. Depending on the species, the females then either deposit their eggs in the ground and leave or stick around to care for and protect their offspring.

A blue and yellow South African centipede amongst dirt and pebbles.
There are somewhere around 3,300 species of centipedes in the world, and they come in an array of colors and sizes. Centipedes are generally black or dark, reddish-brown with yellow legs, but they can also be orange, blue, yellow or purple in parts (check out this Google search to see some of them). If they weren’t so darn creepy, some varieties could be considered pretty (and probably are by people more tolerant than I).

A house centipede in a white sink next to a drain.
One of the most common varieties of centipedes is the House Centipede. These guys are small, look like a combination between a spider and a centipede, and are often found lurking in drains. If you come across one don't kill it; it's busy hunting insects that you really don't want in your house like roaches, flies and termites. While House Centipedes are pretty common, on the other end of the centipede spectrum is the uncommon Waterfall Centipede (Scolopendra cataracta). These natives of Southeast Asia were not even discovered by scientists until 2001. Despite their large size (about 8 inches), they stayed off the radar because they prefer to hide and hunt in and under water - especially around waterfalls. These elusive centipedes can run along the bottom underwater, which is definitely creepy. Here's more on them. 

A male Oriental Pied Hornbill sitting on a branch with a centipede in its mouth.

If small centipedes can cause visceral reactions, large ones are the stuff of nightmares. And they can
get really big. The winner for being the largest is the Peruvian Giant Yellow-Leg Centipede 
(Scolopendra gigantea). This intimidating creature can grow as long as 12 inches and can easily take down prey more than fifteen times its size. These guys seem to be fearless (which makes them even more intimidating) – scientists have observed them hanging from ceilings in caves while feasting on bats. These centipedes are native to South America and the Caribbean, but they have been introduced to the world at large for the pet trade. Needless to say, keeping these large venomous animals is not a great idea. When it comes to centipedes this large, the bite can not only cause all sorts of problems, it can also be fatal. For more on keeping centipedes (including the pertinent warnings), check out this article. And if you want to see a man (unwisely) handling a ginormous centipede, here’s a video

A beige centipede lunging out of the dirt and striking a fish swimming by.

One more thing: Even if you find centipedes as creepy as I do, please don’t kill them just because you don’t like the way they look. They have their spot in the ecosystem and have the right to live happy centipede lives.

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

What’s This Bug? Wait - That’s A Bug?

Hawk Moth caterpillar in its snake disguise. It's hanging of a brown branch in front of a black background.
This feisty little creature would be the hands-down winner in any Halloween costume contest. Although it does a heck of a job disguising itself as a snake, it is really a Hawk Moth (Hemeroplanes triptolemus) caterpillar. Commonly known as Snake Mimic Caterpillars, these caterpillars can be found in the rainforests of Central and South America and are undisputed masters in the art of mimicry. 

A green Hawk Moth caterpillar on a twig.Many animals use mimicry to defend themselves from predators, or to better position themselves in the food chain (here’s a short yet comprehensive list). Some animals have developed super-sneaky ways to use mimicry to get themselves close to their preferred prey, but insects use these tricks primarily to protect themselves from predators. Caterpillars, especially, are extremely creative in their costuming (they are, after all, a favorite snack for many other creatures). The Hawk Moth caterpillar is an excellent example of this; it is pretty non-descript in its adult form, but as a caterpillar it can transform into a dramatically scary-looking pit viper.

A brownish-grey patterned Hawk Moth adult on a green leaf.
So, how does a caterpillar turn into a snake? With a little bit of puffing up and flopping over. When the Hawk Moth caterpillar feels threatened it will drop the front part of its body off the branch or leaf it’s on and expose its underside. This action allows them to display an underside with faux snakeskin and eyespots that actually appear to glisten. To complete the masquerade, the caterpillar will puff out its head to mimic the triangular head of a venomous snake. And if that’s not enough, they sometimes lunge as if they’re about to strike. The use of eyespots and snake mimicry as a defense strategy is very effective (even if they do make comically short snakes) and, according to this research, it even works in areas where tree-dwelling snakes are rare. It seems caterpillar predators like birds and lizards are well aware that they are prey to snakes and take no chances with anything that might be a snake.

A closeup of a Hawk Moth caterpillar's snake face.
If you want to get a better look at how this snake disguise works, I have a couple videos for you to check out. In this one, if you look closely at the head of the “snake”, you can see the little bitty caterpillar legs between the fake eyes and this video shows a caterpillar transforming itself. You can see how the head of the caterpillar becomes the nose and part of the mouth of the snake. Cool stuff

A green cartoon snake wiggling back and forth.
If you are planning a show-stopper Halloween costume, keep in mind that these caterpillars have set a very high standard in costuming. But, if you can come up with something that is even a fraction as convincing as their snake disguise, you may win the day.

Take Care.
Submitted by Pam..

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

What To Get In The Ground Right Now

A hand holding a trowel over a hole. The view is from the ground up.
In every garden across North America, summer crops are over and it’s time to consider what’s next. If your enthusiasm has continued unabated, you should get your fall garden going. If you’re ready to take a break but would like something to look forward to in the spring (and perhaps jump-start your garden fever), this is the perfect time to plant some bulbs. Or you could do both.

Before you plant anything, make sure to give your soil some love. Although this is always the thing to do, it is especially important after a long growing season. All those beautiful summer blooms and vegetables demanded a lot from the soil, it’s only fair to give it something back before asking for more. We have lots of excellent soil amendments and microbial inoculants that can pep up your dirt. And if you want specifics before adding anything, we have soil testing options as well. But really, it’s not all that complicated: get in there and work the soil some, add amendments or inoculants and water well. This short article explains these three steps. Even if you are done gardening for the year, you should still treat your dirt to some Beneficial Nematodes. They will go in and clean out any grubs that are trying to overwinter in your soil.

A little blond boy watering a raised bed with a silver metal watering can. Photo by Filip Urban on Unsplash.
What you plant in your fall garden is naturally dependent upon your geographical location. However, all but the most northern of climates can still squeeze out some vegetables. In fact, there are many delicious vegetable options whose flavors and colors are heightened by cold weather. If the onset of frost is somewhat fluid in your area and you’re worried about committing to a garden, you may want to plant your veggies in containers that can either be moved into the shelter of a covered area or moved directly inside. You could also plant in raised beds - they are more easily protected from the effects for cold weather than in-ground gardens. Here are some excellent choices for plants that grow quickly and can be grown in-ground, in raised beds, or in containers (for more container ideas, check out this article):

Different types of lettuce growing in black earth.
Lettuce – There are too many scrumptious lettuce varieties to list here, and they all grow quickly enough for a fall harvest. Many of these varieties also able to tolerate light frost. Other salad-type vegetables like arugula, kale and mustard greens are also good fall choices.

Spinach – The savoy varieties of this plant are especially fond of cooler weather, but all of them will provide a delicious addition to your fall meals. Since spinach can grow in full sun or partial shade, it should not suffer unduly if you have to move it under some type of shelter part-way through its growing cycle.

A hand holding some red radishes with soil, roots and green tops still attached.
 Radishes – These crispy treats are made for fall gardens – they don’t appreciate hot weather and can grow in as little as 20 days. They do well outside, but you can also grow them on a bright windowsill and pluck them out as they become ready.

 Vegetable gardens are not the only kind of fall garden you can plant. If you enjoy flower gardens, there is no reason you can’t have one into the fall. Everything from chrysanthemums to pansies can provide color for you alongside your changing trees. This article from Good Housekeeping highlights 30 different flowers to have in a fall garden.

Purple hyacinths blooming from bulbs in the garden.
Now is the time to plant bulbs for spring blossoms. This is the perfect avenue for someone who is doesn’t want to deal with often unpredictable fall weather and would just prefer to plant for the warmer days to come. Planting bulbs is a little like planning a surprise party for yourself – choose which ones you like the best, pick the place you want them to be and wait for them to pop up when the time is right. Here are some of the most beautiful treats you can plant right now:

Hyacinths – These are some of the earliest of spring flowers to peek out. According to this article on the planting of and care for hyacinth bulbs, they appear sometime after crocus and before tulips. Whenever they show up, their lavish pink, purple, red or blueish-purple blooms will be a highlight in any garden.

Tulips – If you are considering flower bulbs and trying to decide which ones, just add “tulips” to your list. Within their vast variety of styles, shapes and colors will be something that will be perfect for your garden. Picking which one will be the hard part, though, as they are all spectacular. Here is a short article on just some of them. 

Tall stalks of purple allium tilted in the wind.
Alliums – If you want some long-lasting drama in your garden and are ready to expand out of the traditional tulip-daffodil- crocus type of flower, the allium could be just right for you. These plants are part of the onion-garlic family, but their tall stalks and globe-shaped flowers are very different from those underground-growing cousins. Alliums can last many weeks in the garden and are favorites of pollinators. Here’s more on them.

Now I’d like to make a pitch for something that is both a relative of the allium, a vegetable, a bulb and a seed – garlic. If you plant some now, you will be able to harvest delectable, fresh garlic in July. But, you don’t have it plant it as a bulb. You can actually plant individual cloves as seeds – and each one has the potential to grow into a full-sized bulb replete with many cloves. For garlic beginners, it’s probably best to plant bulbs specifically cultivated for this purpose; but you can plant from grocery store garlic. This article will give you some help with this.

A Simpson's cartoon clip. Bart asks "What are you planting?" Homer says "A little bit of everything" and opens his hand to show a random assortment of things, including a gummi bear and a piece of candy corn.
Whatever you decide you want to do with your fall garden, just being outside on these cooler days is rewarding in and of itself. Especially here in southern Arizona, where we always eagerly await summer’s end.

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Fall Armyworms Are Back with A Vengeance.

Close-up of a Fall Armyworm on a leaf.
In case you haven’t heard, the always-awful Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is making its presence known this year in bigger and more voracious numbers than ever before. In fact, according to this article from the Smithsonian, the caterpillars are invading at an unprecedented level. The reason for this is weather-related, like so much else that is plaguing us at this point in the 21st century. And, since the unheard-of weather events we’re seeing are the result of climate change, so all these caterpillars are yet another symptom of climate change. 

A storm over a green and rural place, with lightning striking the ground.
So how do caterpillars and climate change correlate? It takes several steps, each one being more intense than the next as follows: Caterpillar populations boom in drought conditions (which huge parts of the globe are experiencing). The main reason for this is that their natural controls in the form of fungal diseases cannot develop properly when it is too dry. High numbers of caterpillars turn into high numbers of moths. As the moths get flying, they are caught up in storms (and there have been massive storms worldwide recently). Fall Armyworm moths can (and do) survive up in the jet stream, which can take them great distances. Once they finally land in a new place, if there is abundant food they will respond by producing great numbers of larvae (caterpillars). Sometimes this food is carefully planted crops, and other times it’s native grasses. Often, the same storms that brought the moths have caused explosive growth in native plants. Fall Armyworms have traditionally been an issue only in warmer climates as they do not diapause, which means freezing temperatures will kill them. But this distribution is changing as storms move them northward and northern areas warm up. If temperatures stay warm enough through the winter wherever they land, they will just stay there. 

A Nigerian woman in an orange shirt and beige head wrap checking her crops for worms.
The Fall Armyworm is native to the Americas, but this has not stopped it from expanding its reign of
terror elsewhere. In 2016 it reached Africa, and in 2018 it reached Asia. In both areas, it has set upon maize plants (its preferred food) and other essential food  crops with devastating results. The effect that the Fall Armyworm has had in the developing world has been compounded by its resistance to chemical pesticides and its ability to survive in harsh conditions. In just one year (2018) in Nigeria, these pests disrupted the food supply of 1.5 million people. Faced with such a serious problem, scientists have been working overtime trying to find a solution and it looks like they may be on to something. Parasitoid wasps native to East Africa and India have been identified and, they enthusiastically prey on the non-native armyworm eggs. Here is a great article that will tell you more on this. Suffice to say, these wasps provide a speck a hope in a tragic situation. 

A small Fall Armyworm making its way up a leaf.
Fall Armyworms are not just resistant to pesticides and drought, they are efficient and relentless. In fact, they got their name from how they march across fields laying waste to everything in their path, just like an army does. They can devastate a golf course in 48 hours and can wipe out a forage crop in hours. According to this article from Texas A&M, the Fall Armyworm moths can lay up to 2,000 eggs which will hatch out hungry caterpillars in two to three days. Their reproductive cycle is fast enough for at least four to five generations to appear in just one growing season. 

Fall Armyworm moth
Although Fall Armyworms are a formidable foe for growers everywhere, there are some steps that can be taken to gain a measure of control. However, if you have an infestation that is well entrenched already, you may have to scrap the lawn or garden for this season and start over next year. Otherwise, your  best bet for control will always be a multi-pronged approach. The following are some examples of things to use that can get you the help you need. Our Fall Armyworm page has many more suggestions.

Traps and Lures: 

It’s always best to stop an infestation before it starts. With this Scentry Lure, the moths will come right to you and you can monitor how many there are flying about before they turn into ravenous worms (you’ll use it with a Scentry Wing Trap). This will help you plan your next stage of defense. Plus, whatever moths you catch will not be reproducing.

BONIDE® Thuricide

Bacillus thuringiensis:
These beneficial bacteria have proven to be extremely effective against Fall Armyworms, with two caveats: They need to be ingested by the larvae and they work best on newly hatched larvae. We have several species within our inventory for you to choose from. One of our most popular and cost effective products is BONIDE® Thuricide, which is powered by Bacilklus thuringiensis v. kurstaki (Btk).


PFR-97™ 20% WDG
While Fall Armyworms have displayed resistance to conventional insecticides, this is not generally a concern if you use products whose active ingredients are naturally occurring or botanical. These types of products have modes of actions (suffocation, anti-feeding, etc.) that insects cannot develop resistance to. You may want to try Debug® Optimo, Debug® ON or Debug® Trés, all of which use azadirachtin derived from neem seeds. Or there is Entrust™ SC Naturalyte® Insect Control, whose active ingredient is the soil bacterium spinosad. And then there is  PFR-97™ 20% WDG which utilizes the entomopathogenic fungus Isaria fumosorosea Apopka Strain 97. All of these are excellent choices.

Cartoon worms on the march

Fall Armyworms will continue to be a problem until we as  a species can get a handle on climate change. In the meantime, with a little foresight you can reduce the effects these pests can have on your growing things. 

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

What’s This Bug? The Jerusalem Cricket.

A fine example of a Jerusalem Cricket
This intimidating-looking insect is the Jerusalem Cricket (Stenopelmatus spp), and it is in no way as fearsome as it looks. They are native to North and Central America and it is estimated that there are more than 100 species, with 60-80 just in California. They are often found in sandbars and under rocks and logs, but with such a widespread distribution throughout so many different ecosystems, they can be hiding most anywhere. As common as the Jerusalem Cricket is, it’s still unfamiliar to a lot of people. This is mainly because they live most of their lives out of sight underground and are solitary creatures who do not live in large communities. If you run into one, it will most likely be at night, when they venture out looking for food, a mate, or a new place to bed down. If you see one during the day, it has most likely gotten trapped somehow and has been unable to return to its out-of-sight lair. 

A hand reaching for a Jerusalem Cricket on someone's arm.
Jerusalem Crickets are in no way a threat to people, they’re non-venomous and usually docile. Those big, scary-looking mandibles protruding in front of them are for chewing through dirt and roots, not for biting people. However, if they feel threatened they can emit a foul smell and are capable of doling out a nice little bite. Such a bite is usually a response to being carelessly or overly handled. They are much more likely to play dead than bite when caught.

If you are still not too sure about these guys, consider the fact that they’re beneficial insects. They are omnivorous and feed on decaying organic matter in the soil, other insects and some tubers and roots. Since they are slow moving and cannot fly, Jerusalem Crickets are not out there aggressively hunting other insects as a predator would, they are instead scavenging dead or injured insects that they come across as they hop-walk around. This keeps the area they’re in above the surface tidy. And as they munch and move around underground, it keeps the soil healthy and aerated. All in all, they are beneficial to the environment and should be viewed as helpers, not as something to be stomped out – no matter how frightening they look. 

A closeup of a Jerusalem Cricket face. Does it look like a baby's face to you?
This creature wins my award for the insect with most names. Just some of the names are Potato Bug, Child of the Earth (Niño de la Tierra”), Devil’s Baby, Earth Baby, Qalatötö (“Shiny Bug” in Hopi), Ćićin lici (“Red Skull” in Navajo), Skull Insect, Sand Cricket and Stone Cricket. A great many people seem to think their heads look like human babies or old men and some of the names have evolved from that, but I personally can’t see that and think it’s a little creepy. Additionally, how it came to be commonly known as the Jerusalem Cricket has spawned as many theories as there are names for this insect. This article gives one short version. 

A Jerusalem Cricket in the dirt.
Jerusalem Crickets don’t make the familiar chirping sound that we all know; but they do make noise with their hind legs. When disturbed they will rub them together and emit a sound that is more of a hiss than a chirp. A far more impressive noise that they create is the drumming sounds they use as mating calls. These sounds are quite loud and are the result of them drumming their abdomens against the ground. This drumming can not only audibly draw in a mate, can also be felt as vibrations in the ground. Unlike many other creatures, where the male tries to impress the female, both genders of Jerusalem Crickets send out these signals.  As they each zero in on the other’s signal, the male and female begin a duet that allows them to find each other in their usually solitary and dark world. Each species of Jerusalem Cricket has a distinct drum sound that it uses, which assures that they find the proper mate. Jerusalem Cricket species are hard to distinguish by simple visual assessments, so scientists have been using these unique drumming sounds to differentiate between species and identify new ones. With this technique, the number of species identified  has been growing steadily. Check out this video to see and hear their drumming. 
A Jerusalem Cricket head morphing into a baby.

If you run across one of these interesting insects, be gentle with it and send it on its way peacefully.

Take Care.                                                        

Submitted by Pam


Monday, August 30, 2021

Dangerous Houseplants

Rear view of a woman holding back sheer curtains and looking out a window. There are potted plants on the windowsill.
There are a lot of plants commonly sold as houseplants that can be dangerous for people and pets; the list is surprisingly long. With these types of plants, there are more inherent dangers for pets (cats and dogs) but small children who chew on everything can be at risk as well, so keep an extra-close eye on those kiddos around them. In this list, I am concentrating on plants that may actually pose a threat to adult humans who live around them. It pays to educate yourself because in many cases the plant seller either downplays the risk or does not acknowledge it at all.

 Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) –

Sago Palm in a white and green pot on a wooden stool.

First of all, these are not palm trees - they are Cycads, an ancient type of plant that dates back to prehistoric times. These are incredibly tough, slow-growing plants that are clearly on this planet for the long-haul. Perhaps part of their successful longevity can be attributed to their toxicity. Sago Palms contain cycasin, a neurotoxin that causes a litany of unpleasant symptoms and then liver damage, liver failure and death. All parts are poisonous, but the danger is concentrated in the seeds. The good news is that the plant parts have to be ingested for the poison to take effect and most animals avoid this plant. It is the unwitting or unwise human who may purposely ingest this that are at serious risk. Perhaps it’s best to choose another plant for your house – they take too long to grow anyway.

 Euphorbia spp

Euphorbia tirucalli (aka Pencil Cactus) in a green pot on a wooden table.
All of the succulents in this family are toxic, with some being no-so-much and others being highly toxic. In all likelihood, you will not be informed by sellers as to which ones are worse when you are out shopping so you may as well consider all of them highly toxic. To be on the safe side, as the saying goes. The danger here, and it’s quite serious, is that these plants have a milky sap that is super-toxic. These plants also poisonous if ingested, but ingestion is not likely to happen in the normal course of events.  What does happen is that people take cuttings or do trimming-up and repotting and come in contact with the sap. It is extremely irritating to the skin and mucus membranes (keep your hands out of your mouth!), but the effects can be tragic if it is gets in your eyes. This article has more to say on this. These plants have become very popular, with the Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) being one of the most popular.  With the real danger literally in these plants, it may just be best to plant them outside. When planted outside, succulents in general may even help keep your house safe from fires by serving as a firebreak.

 Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) – 

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) in a white and brown pot on a white surface.
These pretty plants have become known among plant collectors for their air purifying qualities. And while that may be true, they also contain calcium oxalate crystals in their sap that are like tiny little needles. As with the Eurphorbia, this liquid can come into contact with skin (and eyes, and mouth) with general plant care. This contact may not be dangerous (again, unless it gets in your eye), but it can be extremely unpleasant. Should a person ingest the flowers or seeds, however, it can cause diarrhea and vomiting and other increasingly disagreeable symptoms; some patients even end up hospitalized.  According to this article, it actually makes the blood toxic.  Because the crystals make eating this plant painful and swallowing difficult, severe poisonings are rare and usually of an accidental nature.

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis miller) –

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis miller) in a white speckled pot.
Yes, that Aloe Vera that seems to be in everything from body lotions to makeup to health drinks. The thing is, while the gelatinous inside of the leaves is an excellent topical ointment that soothes and helps heal any number of skin conditions, the outside of the leaves are not so good. Strangely enough, that part of the plant can cause serious skin irritation. And, like everything else on this list, it should not be ingested. Although it is commonly used as a laxative, latex produced from the aloe should definitely not be taken orally.  Scientists have discovered that this plant causes cancer in animals and, by extension, most likely people. Which means, of course, ingesting it for health benefits may have the exact opposite effect that’s desired. Just stick to rubbing the gel on your skin and you’ll be fine. 

Danger Zone!
These are the plants that you could easily come into contact with that could easy hurt you. Please bear in mind that there are many plants I left off this list that can seriously sicken or kill your pets, so please do your homework before you bring something home. The ASPCA (American Society for the  Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®) has a site with a comprehensive list of plants that are toxic to dogs, cats and horses. Check it out here before you adopt anymore plants.

On another note, if you are interested in scary-potent plants check out this article on the world’s deadliest flowers.

Submitted by Pam

Friday, August 27, 2021

Solutions For Environmental Stressors

On the left is a a dead tree, dried-out earth and stormy skies, on the right is a healthy tree with  grass under a sunny sky.
As we all adjust to our changing climate, we are forced accept that “unprecedented” weather events are now the new normal. This leaves growers of all types scrambling to figure out what’s best for their plants in this new landscape. Luckily, there are some smart people out there creating effective and innovative solutions to the most common environmental stressors that plants face. These products approach issues like heat, drought, cold and salinity in a variety of ways, but they are almost universally meant to be used proactively. So, while it may be too late to save some plants for damage that has already occurred, it’s never to late to plan for your next planting. 

Heat & Drought 

I thought about separating this into “Heat” and “Drought”, but products that are good for one are good for the other. These are two-for-ones, if you will.

One of our newest products this year is Mikro H2O. This innovative powdered product introduces two species of Rhizobacteria (Bacillus amyloliquefaciens and Bacillus subtilis) into the soil. They will then secrete natural polymers around the root zone and build biofilm. This biofilm forms a protective shield that holds water and protects the roots from evaporation and other stressors while improving nutrient uptake and essential functions. All this and it’s remarkably cost efficient. 

Another product that works in the root zone is NutriRoot®. This liquid combines a gentle 2-2-3 fertilizer with a blend of seaweed extract, nutrients, humic acid, humectants and surfactants. This combination provides nutrition and encourages root development; but, through its humectants, it enables the soil to literally pluck water from the humidity in the air and deliver it to the root zone.  This allows for less watering while still maintaining a steady and secure water supply. Hydretain® (which comes in 3 versions) uses the same water management technology as NutriRoot and performs in the same way. This main difference is that Hydretain does not contain the fertilizer. Hydretain’s claim to fame is that it can reduce waterings up to 50%.

We also carry a number of products with water-soluble polymers that hold water and then slowly release it to the plants as needed. In addition to being water-conserving devices, these polymers can condition the soil and improve penetration of water into the soil. Soil Moist™ Water Aide™ is an organic OMRI-listed version with many application possibilities. Another option we have is pH-neutral WaterWorks Crystals®. It is as versatile and effective as the Soil Moist option and can reduce waterings up to 75%. The last option I want to mention here is Plant Keeper. This polymer-based product was developed for use when you need a watering to last extra-long – it will keep the plant good for up to two weeks. This is perfect for when you have travel plans, or it would be great for use with a Christmas tree.   


A home by the sea is enviable in many ways, but it can be challenging to grow in soil with a high salt content. In truth, you don’t even have to be right by the sea – hurricanes and other storms that brew over the ocean can dump great quantities of salt water many miles inland. While this is not a condition that can be resolved quickly, it is also not hopeless. You just need to commit to the process and be conscientious in treating your soil.

Yucca schidigera is the smart go-to for natural desalination. Yucca extracts reduce salt buildup by reducing dry pocket formation within the soil and increasing permeability of the soil. You can access this valuable commodity in a liquid form  by using Therm X-70® or SaferGro® Natural Wet®. Both of these are very affordable and have multiple benefits beyond desalination. If you prefer a dry product, RAW Yucca Flow is an excellent option. It’s fully water soluble and a little goes a very long way.


Too much water is as devastating as too little and, in many ways, it’s harder to come back from. Floodwaters don’t just drown plants outright; they can carry contaminants and pathogens looking for a place to call home. Before you can rebuild your garden, you’ll need to let things dry out and then re-build your soil (more on recovering from too much water in my blog here). When it comes to building soil, we have a great deal to choose from. The following are a few I have chosen to give you an idea of what to consider:

TerraGrow – This OMRI-listed powder is chock-full of seven beneficial microbes as well as important nutrients. TerraGrow can bring nearly any soil back into winning condition. The large size (10 lbs and up) of this product may not work for smaller home growers, but perhaps you can use it as an example of what kind of product to get. We have other similar options that will work for you (look in Soil Amendments, Micronutrients & Biostimulants). 

BioAct™ SD – Powered by beneficial microorganisms and humic acid, this organic soluble powder chews through organic matter while supplementing the microbial life. If you have some gnarly fields (or a garden) full of stubble and crop residue after high water, this could be the starting point you need. You will, of course, need to let it all dry out first. 

Unleash™ - This liquid inoculant is made with a proprietary blend of both aerobic and anaerobic rhizobacteria to offer multiple plant benefits. These bacteria would work well in a flood-ravaged setting.  It was developed for cannabis and hemp cultivation, but it can be used broadly in agriculture. This is not an inexpensive product, but it’s cost per application isn’t bad and the sheer expanse of its uses and benefits make it worth the cost.  

VRD™: Volcanic Rock Dust™ - We are really getting back to basics with this item. VRD (or any soil amendments sourced from volcanic rock) are rich in trace and essential minerals that are crucial for healthy soil. This particular amendment has Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Sodium, and hydrophobic Fulvic Acid (which boosts nutrient acquisition in the soil). Soils treated with VRD receive the minerals in a slow release for long-term, continuous benefits. Volcanoes started the whole soil thing, so rebuilding using volcanic amendments just makes sense. 

A person wearing white gardening gloves planting plants.
There is a lot to worry about weather-wise these days, but your garden does not need to be one of those worries. We’ve got you covered in one way or another. 

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam


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