Insect Pests? No such thing…

So many wild species struggle to survive in the face of human activity. Serious population declines over the last half century should instill fear in every human heart – we need these wild animals for our own survival.

  • 76% population decline in freshwater species
  • 70% decline in seabird populations
  • 68% loss of common birds in the United States
  • 40% of terrestrial populations lost worldwide
  • 40% worldwide loss in marine species

Humans, by-and-large, disdain insect and arachnid species, either fearing them or labeling them as pests. Reasons are, for the most part, based in ignorance of the value these animals provide. We call these ecosystem services and natural capital, functions rooted in Nature upon which Homo sapiens depend for our own lives.  Some of these, like the water cycle, are obvious to us – although we still foolishly complain when it rains. Also trees often get lots of credit for their oxygen production, however, when allowed to form a forest, trees up the ante on the services and capital we rely upon – erosion and flood control, water purification, lumber and paper products, etc., etc.

Insects, Spiders and other such animal species, however, do not get much credit for anything other than being “pesty”.  When one considers the full web of life, it does not take long to realize that these invertebrates are critical to all life on Earth. I might even risk saying that they are second only to plants in importance, which explains why they vastly outnumber all other animal species.

This 1st and 2nd place rating is no coincidence. Without plants, no animal eats – none of them. All food is based in the plant world – and many, many plants greatly depend upon insects in order to reproduce, be it through direct pollination services or the protection certain invertebrate species provide to plants.  Consider that approximately 75% of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators to reproduce. Of the over 200,000 species of animals who perform pollination services, 99.5% of them are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths, or spiders.

Clearly we must educate ourselves on these essential animals.  We need them or Homo sapiens becomes extinct.  The factors that threaten invertebrates are far more than just fear and disdain. While we directly target some for annihilation with chemicals, others are being threatened by our use of resources – habitat loss, pollution (air/water/ chemical) and climate change being the top factors.

And our best-loved insects, the Butterflies, are not immune to humans’ insatiable use and misuse of natural resources. A recent study states that the Monarch Butterfly, an icon of Nature’s beauty, may be only 20 years from extinction. Why? Habitat loss in both its Winter and Summering grounds (they Summer and reproduce in Western New York), pesticides, genetically modified crops and climate change are the reasons.

And let’s think about those devaViceroyButterlfy_inHandstating population numbers above.  What is the link to the invertebrate world? Many of these animal populations feed upon invertebrates, be it the adults, larvae and/or eggs. Mosquitoes are a favorite food of both birds and freshwater animals. Is it any wonder there is a rise in Mosquito-borne disease recently? The interconnectivity of Nature is still a mystery and we need to understand these complex relationships as they relate to our own behaviors and use of the natural world.

What can you do to help reverse such trends? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Become knowledgeable about insects and spiders. Learn what services they perform that eventually trickle down to our own survival. And remember, the vast majority of these species pose no harm to you.
  • Put the chemicals and fly-swatters away. First, it is a losing battle – their numbers are too great and many evolve quickly to survive chemical applications. Instead, make sure your screens are tight and intact, turn off lights near windows and doors, use natural repellents (like citronella, cloves and lemon balm).
  • Create wildlife habitat, especially for those native pollinators in peril. All of Nature will benefit – see for lots of information on environmentally sound gardening, native plants and our invertebrate friends.

The future of Planet Earth is literally in our hands now. Our actions and failure to act will not only dictate the further existence of wild animals and plants, but our own existence, as well.


Upcoming Lecture at ECC South Campus


Erie Community College South Campus is located at 4140 Southwestern Blvd. in Orchard Park, NY. Email with for further information.

An Oakmoss Summer

Our program line-up for the Summer of 2015 includes two field outings and a hands-on workshop in East Aurora, NY as we continue our mission to share the lessons of Nature to benefit the planet and all its inhabitants. Details and registration information available on our website. Please join us!

Twilight Trek
Saturday, July 11 – 7:00 to 9:00pm at West Falls Park. Enjoy an interpretive stroll through the woods and along the creek at dusk, one of the most active times of day as diurnal creatures wind down and nocturnal critters begin to rouse.

Field Flutterers
Saturday, July 25 – 9:00am to 11:30am at Knox Farm State Park. We’ll be seeking out the flighted creatures of the open field, be they insect or avian. From butterflies to birds, there are many species that fill the morning with activity.

Introduction to Herbal Concoctions
Saturday, August 1 – 1:00pm to 3:30pm at the Roycroft Campus Power House. A hands-on workshop in which students will become acquainted with incorporating common herbs into simple preparations for body care and overall general health.

Amphibian Demise in the Hands of Humans

Amphibians are bell-weathers for environmental health and so many currently are at risk, mostly due to human activities. Habitat loss and invasive species introductions are taking a tremendous toll. Add to that the mysterious Chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), which is decimating frogs by the millions worldwide. The spread of this deadly fungus also has been linked to humans through global trade and historic commonly used human pregnancy testing.

A recent film on the plight of the Oregon Spotted Frog (Rana pretiosa) in British Columbia spotlights the precarious state of amphibian populations. It reminds us strongly that our behavior has ramifications far beyond the immediate and deeply thought out planning that includes potential consequences should be part of our daily agenda.

Video directed by Mike McKinlay and Isabelle Groc
Research, Story, and Interview: Isabelle Groc
Cinematography and Edit: Mike McKinlay
Original Music and Sound Mix: Mark Lazeski
Online Edit and Colour Correction: George Faulkner
Camera Assistant: Steve Breckon

This video was produced with the support of the Wilderness Committee and the Vancouver Foundation

Scat, Butterfly!

Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly making use of what we normally avoid getting on our shoes.

Baltimore Checkerspot Butterflies lapping it up on what we normally avoid getting on our shoes.
Photo taken July 14, 2013 in Delevan, NY.
Copyright 2013 – Oakmoss Education.

It appears dog droppings are mighty useful to these Baltimore Checkerspot Butterflies (Euphydryas phaeton). Likely making use of important salts and minerals that are contained therein. So, perhaps stowing that pooper scoop now and again is actually beneficial!

Raspberries, Birds and Ecosystem Services

A recent article on the definition of ecosystem services sparked quite a debate among its commentators. There seemed to be disagreement on exactly what it truly means: some definitions are quite simplistic (e.g. claiming a simple resource, such as iron, fits the bill); others see it only from a human perspective. At the same time, some respondents applied ethics,  tying it up with human conservation management/engineering. Personally I found many of the arguments disturbing, considering they were coming (supposedly) from educated people in the scientific realm. But, then, sometimes it seems that scientists can suffer from tunnel vision due to specialization. Being a student of both environmental science and ecology requires a more comprehensive view of this world encompassing many of the sciences out there.

In my work, students are taught that an ecosystem service is a “network” of behaviors and or processes that, combined, provide important, if not necessary, functions for an ecosystem. It’s simplistic but since there are numerous such processes in place, it’s best to start humbly and get more detailed with specific examples. Can we humans benefit from ecosystem services? Certainly! But it is important to remember that such processes were in place billions of years before mammals were abiding on Earth, much less Homo sapiens, and do not function merely for human purposes.

Birds provide an excellent example of ecosystem services at work. While most of us are always conscious of their existence, the benefits they provide directly to ecosystems (and as a byproduct, to humans), is often overlooked. The simple pleasure of harvesting wild black raspberries this past weekend reminded me of yet another benefit provided by our avian friends.

Fourteen years ago I purchased my current home and property. It had two habitats, half for human use (house, lawn, neat rows of conifers, etc.) and a “wild” half, mostly left intact simply because it is too wet to be of much human use, although it was once a grazing field for Black Angus raised by the neighbors. By the time I moved in, the Angus were long gone and since then the wet meadow has increased in size while still leaving a substantial human habitat of ~1/3 acre.

One aspect of yard work I’ve always despised is the idea of trimming beneath trees so that lawn (or mulch) goes right up to the trunk. My philosophy is to mow as close as you can and let the rest be. And in areas for which there are no plans to garden or walk about much, leaves, twigs and what-not are allowed to drop and decay. This non-practice creates the conditions that alone allow to go forth the ecosystem service provided by trees, insects, decomposers and detritivores – adding important nutrients and creating more soil. And in these areas where soil supplementation is allowed to take place, the birds step in and add another.

After about 3 years on the property, I was investigating one of these spots where daffodils had been naturalizing. A sharp scratch on the arm confirmed the new presence of wild raspberries. When I excitedly shared the news with the family, they asked when I planted them. “I didn’t – the birds did”, I replied. The queer look on their faces made clear that an explanation was in order. A simple bulleted list told the story:

  • Birds eat wild raspberries
  • Birds fly off to other locations
  • Birds sit in trees
  • Birds defecate
  • Raspberry seeds are eliminated whole in bird droppings
  • Some seeds germinate and take root in the soil beneath the trees
  • Raspberry plants grow
  • Birds eat more raspberries and, now, so do we
wild black raspberries

First harvest of wild black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) – 2 pounds and counting with plenty left for the Gray Catbirds!

Birds are among many animals that provide the ecosystem service of seed dispersal. Plants are all about reproduction and through evolutionary processes, numerous vectors of seed dispersal have come about. One such method includes plants putting enormous stores of energy into fruit production. This serves only to entice other creatures to eat it, taking the seed away from the parent potentially to be germinated.  Other vectors include wind, rain, burrs, etc., but fruit production provides such a far-reaching and overlapping service to an ecosystem by also provisioning food.

And those who eat the food are part of the entire process. So, GASP, even humans can be naturally implicit in an ecosystem service. Who would’ve thought!


Woodpeckers of Western New York


Woodpeckers of North America

How fortunate we are here in Western New York to have 7 different species of Woodpeckers living amongst us. Important in controlling insect populations, Woodpeckers are greatly served by the presence of dead trees, so leave them standing if they don’t pose a danger. Here’s a little information on each of our native Woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens): Our smallest woodpecker (at about 6″), the Downy is a common visitor to backyard feeders. You likely hear its location “peep” frequently as it seeks out insects in tree bark. Interestingly, the male and female “hunt” for food differently, with the male pecking holes into the wood and the female lifting up bark. This is due to variations in the male and female bills, the males with one that is stronger and longer; this allows the pair to make the most of available resources. Males also sport a bright red spot at the back of the head. A suet or peanut feeder is a great way to have the Downy as a regular visitor, especially in Winter.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius): One of the migrating Woodpeckers, this bird is second smallest at between 8 and 9 inches. Its belly is more a buff color than yellow and males and females are distinguished by the throat patch (males-red/females-white). Both genders have a red patch on their foreheads. Sapsuckers drill deeply into trees to exude the sap. While they do drink up some sap, there is also an ulterior motive. The sap attracts insects so a Sapsucker will “tap” the tree and then return a short time later to feast. They make regularly spaced and aligned holes on trees so it’s easy to see if a Sapsucker has been harvesting. Birch and Maple are among their favorites, but it is not uncommon to see them on fruit trees. In early Spring, watch for Hummingbirds following the Sapsuckers. The sap drawn by the Sapsucker is vital to “Hummer” survival before flowering begins and they feast upon the sweet liquid.

Hairy Woodpecker (P. villosus): Looks almost exactly like the Downy except 1/3 larger at 9 inches. Also common, this species has a louder “peep” and often signals warning with a repetitive, steady call. Quite the scavenger, this Woodpecker serves trees well by devouring many destructive insects that live within them. Also easily attracted by suet and peanut feeders.

Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus): More of a rarity in our area, this migratory species is hard to miss, should you be so lucky to have one in your neighborhood. At about 10″, this Woodpecker has a solid, deep-red head, white underparts and black back (with white wing patches). It has a very long bill which is used to store nuts and acorns in deep crevices. They also feed while in flight, swooping across open fields in search of flying insects. Leaving dead snags and trees is beneficial for this species which they will use for nesting sites.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (M. carolinus): Much more common than its Red-Headed cousin, the 10″ Red-bellied minimally migrates so can often be spotted in Winter here in WNY. Besides the usual insects, this one also enjoys nuts and acorns, plus wild fruit, and uses its long beak to cache food. The female is distinguished from the male by having red on only the back half of its head. The lower belly is where the red feathers occur and it is much more predominant on the male.

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus): Our second largest Woodpecker, (~12″) the Northern Flicker is more often heard than seen. However, if you’ve an ant hill on your property, don’t be surprised to find a Flicker dining excitedly. This behavior sets them apart from their cousins as they are the only Woodpecker to feed regularly on the ground. Flickers have a loud repeated “wacka wacka” call and a long, clear “whistle” in their vocal repertoire. They are easily distinguished from other Woodpeckers by their brown coloration and dark brown “bib”. Males have a larger, dark red patch at the top of the neck than do the females as well as dark brown cheek stripes. Interestingly, the Northern Flicker varies from east to west in its range. In eastern territories, the feather shafts are colored yellow where in the western areas, they are red. This is why the variety found in Western New York is also called the Yellow-shafted Flicker (see below). These birds are generally migratory in our area.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus): The “king” of Woodpeckers in our area at ~17 inches. Most people are quite surprised at the size of this bird when initially spotted. However, like the Flicker, it is more often heard than seen and generally found in mature forests. However, if you have that type of habitat nearby, you can easily draw the Pileated to your property by leaving dead trees standing. Tracking Pileated territory is easily done by seeking out the large, rectangular cavities that this Woodpecker excavates in dead trees in its search for food, carpenter ants being among its favorites. The call is similar to the Flickers but has a different cadence and rises and lowers in volume. Males are distinguished from females by their red-striped cheeks.


A female Yellow-shafted morph of the Northern Flicker, common in the eastern portion of the bird’s range.
(photo courtesy of Distant Hill Gardens)


A male  Northern Flicker in its red morph, which is found in the western portion of the bird’s range.
(photo credit: Joan Gellatly)