Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Woo hoo!! (Tentatively)

This katydid looks as shocked as I feel

I'm going to graduate school!!! For entomology!! In the Pacific Northwest! Woohoo!!

I was offered a graduate research assistantship by some professors I've been coordinating with, and am expecting to begin in September (if all goes well). There are a few logistics to finalize. My work isn't yet over; I could still screw things up. But my faculty colleagues (down here) assure me that once a project, the funding and the committee are in place, and they've chosen you as the student, the rest is formality. If plans work out, soon I will be at work on a very cool applied ecology project that involves sustainability issues and invertebrates. Just what I've always wanted!!!

I'm still in shock. For two years now at two universities something has always been off and impeding my graduate hopes -- the faculty, the funding, or the project itself. But now it's come together, the whole damn package, at a completely different university, and I can hardly believe it. Since being offered the assistantship last week, I awake each morning with a "yippee...?" and a pause, waiting for the sky to fall in. But I am beginning to realize it won't; it's not another false start. And should things hiccup, I'm smart, stubborn, and patient enough to do fine. So...(deep breath)...YIPPEE!!!!!!!

What I really can't believe: that this great graduate package includes moving home. HOME!! A magic carpet ride to a number of wonderful new beginnings, which will undoubtedly exhaust and exhilarate me. For now this is still percolating, and I'm pinching myself all over with tentative glee.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

One city, two city, three city, four

Do you live in a Megalopolis? If you don't now, you likely will, according to Nancy B. Grimm, Arizona State University Urban Ecologist. In an article in Science, 8 Feb. 2008, titled "Global Change and the Ecology of Cities" Grimm et al. provide a review of our expanding urban landscapes. Five key areas of change are addressed: land use and cover, biogeochemical cycles, climate, hydrosystems, and biological diveristy.

Seattle marching south

What are expanding urban landscapes?
Nothing you or I haven't seen: a semi-rural or peri-urban area built into a bedroom community, for example. While existing cities get bigger by sprawling outward, small towns and even undeveloped areas are likewise being populated, built up, and eventually gobbled up by the nearest metropolitan area. A spattering of towns growing up betwixt expanding major metropolitan areas means they'll eventually meet up geographically -- it's inevitable. Connect the dots and you've drawn a burgeoning Megalopolis. It's not happening... It has happened. LA. The Bay area. The I-5 corridor from Seattle to Portland (which could be stretched from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, OR). Phoenix to Tucson along I-10 (even the local skeptics can't argue this one). Dozens more dots in the midwest and east are working their way together, too. That's just the U.S. -- as the article points out, and demographic statistics support, this is a global trend in the third & second world, and developed countries alike.

Planet-wide, this scene gives rise to a powerful trend: an inverse relationship between urban and rural population growth. More people living in bigger cities.

How are megalopolises beneficial and detrimental?
They may exacerbate the effects of global climate change locally with the heat island effect. This has and will likely continue resulting in increased energy demands for cooling; this energy use in turn contributes to the causes of global warming. Subverted, diverted and overly allocated waterways serve increasing demands of these mega cities, turning riparian habitats into non-functional ecological systems. Megalopolises serve as hot spots for the introduction of non-native species. And due to altered availability of resources, such as grains vs. insects as bird food, urban wildlife populations undergo radical population shifts.

On the bright(er) side, city dwellers often have a lighter ecological footprint per person given the more compact living style , shorter commutes to grocery stores and other goods, reduced-pollution forms of transit, etc. One caveat to this: rural developments often have no self-sustaining industry of their own, requiring inhabitants to commute by necessity for their work, services, or even goods.

One very neat idea this article mentions is the analogy of a city as an organism: "...takes in food and other required resources, and releases wastes into the environment." The continual grind of the "urban metabolism" -- consumption and waste -- is a potentially useful, though scientifically debated, tool for quantifying ecological impact of a metropolitan area. Pretty neat!

A megalopolis in the making

When I first arrived in Arizona, I was car-less and lived/worked at a research center between Phoenix and Tucson. It was more than a 25 minute drive from the nearest city; a nearby "town" sat two miles away, with maybe four buildings, a population of perhaps 1-2K, and one traffic light. I lived at the research center -- a secluded island surrounded by a sea of Native American reservations, agriculture, pecan orchards, and dormant land. That was 2003.

Today the surrounding land is covered in miles of homes. You've seen it: a sea of new developments provisioned with fire stations and pharmacies, mega-grocery stores, schools stocked with teachers and already overflowing with children. New strip malls boast a service for every amenity. You'd think it'd been there forever, marching as it does right up to the edge of the agricultural plots at our facility. It’s presence is a challenge.

No fewer than a dozen new traffic lights in the nearby town
now regulate tens of thousands of people, their cars, their needs.
In this short time, I've witnessed the birth of
an organism...with an urban metabolism.

With the ailing economy, at least one of the developers has gone bankrupt -- boom and bust, just like in the gold rush days of the nearby hills. To sell the homes, I understand free swimming pools or granite counter tops are being thrown in as a perk. Meanwhile, perfectly good inner-city re-sale homes continue to sit empty. Do we really need the superfluous developments? Will anyone go homeless if they aren’t built? When the economy rebounds, when new homes are once again created like card houses overnight, one thing seems certain: if you build it, they will come.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day

Procession of the Species
Olympia, WA 2003

Today is Earth Day, an annual event which historically marked the launch of the "environmental movement" in 1970. Earth Day has become an international celebration, but was originally presented as an idea by a Wisconsin senator while visiting Seattle, WA, in 1969. Its significance remains much the same as when it was introduced: a day for which each person celebrates our natural environment and -- hopefully -- contemplates his or her role in its preservation.

The Pacific Northwest is known by most to be a "hotbed" of environmental justice activities as well as cultural awareness. It is no coincidence then, that the unveiling of Earth Day there 38 years ago was followed up with a wholly unique form of celebrating it. The event is called Procession of the Species, and it originated in my hometown (one of them, anyway) of Olympia, WA. "The Procession" is essentially a parade, marked by costumes that capture the essence of actual and occasionally mythical species. Self-made and astoundingly impressive, the costumes run from individual to multi-person creations a half a city block long. Cultural heritage is celebrated in many PacNW community events, and The Procession is no exception; it weaves elements of culture and dance into this celebration of life, as well. A few simple rules guide The Procession:
      • No written words
      • No live pets
      • No motorized vehicles
The Procession has inspired numerous similar processions and parades around the country, which is pretty neat. I think it would make for an interesting documentary to follow the spread of the event's influence. Undoubtedly, each city adds its own unique artistic spin to make it something special for them.

When I was attending college in Olympia, I lived downtown. My boyfriend and I would walk the few short blocks to a convenient corner on the parade route and delight in the beauty and creativity of not just our natural environment, but of those celebrating it as well. After all, we humans are a part of the procession of species, too...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

International Migratory Bird Day

Cliff swallow nests attached to a bridge over the Salt River

Last weekend marked International Migratory Bird day. IMBD is celebrated by federal and state Fish and Wildlife agencies, non-profits, and citizens as a way of highlighting the unique and ever-changing challenges faced by birds migrating to and from their wintering (Central and South America) and breeding (North America) grounds. Challenges migratory birds face include :
  • the exotic pet trade
  • pesticides (a recent example at bootstrap analysis blog)
  • introduced and invasive species (including snakes, feral and domestic cats, rats, and non-native birds which can displace our native ones)
  • and the biggy: habitat loss and degradation
The good news? There are always things people can do that are impactful and relatively simple. As the fulcrum of the challenges faced by migrating birds (ahem, human activities), no one has to look far. A few ways you can get involved, even as you sip your morning coffee:

  1. Create backyard habitat -- even modest shrubs, hedgerows, etc., create food sources, shelter, and nesting substrate; find out who your native visitors are and put up a bird box appropriate for them; provide water (change it out twice weekly, and give it a wipe down a few times monthly); provide bird seed.
  2. Buy shade-grown coffee. A comprehensive blog dedicated to this topic already exists: Coffee & Conservation.
  3. Keep your kitties inside (all the time), and contribute to spaying/neutering of homeless kitties (stray umbers are at an all-time urban high).
  4. Contribute as a citizen scientist. It's easy to get involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count (you needn't be an "expert"), the Christmas Bird Count, or Breeding Bird Count. Volunteer an afternoon at a local refuge or bird conservation area with habitat restoration and enhancement projects, or simply donate your old binoculars to your local Audubon chapter.
I honored the IMBD with a morning at the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area on the Salt River . I used to be quite active locally with volunteering and birdwatching. This winter I have so deviated from that, it's embarrassing. I needed a little rejuvination -- don't we all at times? -- and used the day as an impetus for just that.

The Cliff swallows were quite entertaining. The feeding parents looked "frazzled" as parents of demanding young do. I tried to track a few from their nest through the aerial loop-de-loops and back again... Forget it. They are just too quick. One was nice enough to pause for me just before exiting the nest, though.

The prickly pear cactus are in bloom. It was nice to see these bursts of orange just as the Mexican poppies are winding down throughout the Sonoran desert. It doesn't have to be all about the birds, after all...

A Great egret perched in a tree on the River's edge wrapped up the morning nicely. Egrets embody citizen activism and conservation that dates back more than 100 years to the advent of the Audubon Society. A brief explanation: in the late 1800's Great egrets were one of many birds threatened by prolific market hunting for their snowy-white plumes, used in lady's hats. A group of forward-thinking society ladies in Boston, essentially disgusted and concerned about the trend, launched the first Audubon chapter (see Hats off to Audubon, Audubon Magazine, 12/2004).

The egret is the prominent logo of the National Audubon Society to this day. Each time I see one, I am reminded of the power of citizen conservationists.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Snakes About

It was a pretty full week, this past one. The highlight: I got to handle a Gopher snake (Pituophis sp.) found outside of the building where I work. It was late afternoon on a not-particularly-hot sort of day (low 80's). Someone came and got me from the drudgery that comes with writer's block during the 4 O'Clock lull... They knew it'd make my day (they were right). I'm no reptile biologist, but right away you can see that the head is small and narrow, and lacking venom glands; he's a constrictor. The snake was incredibly docile, given the small audience of humans close by. He remained unmoved with his "chin" resting on a rock. So I got right up close, laid on the ground and snapped photos to my heart's content.

The staff wanted him relocated, though, so I touched his tail to test the waters -- he didn't respond at all. Goody. There is nothing like the feel of a snake. Or even the presence of a snake. I suspect a lot of people would agree with that, but perhaps for differing reasons (!).

I gently, respectfully picked his 3' long body up by the tail region and placed him in a waiting bucket. He remained perfectly calm before suddenly launching himself right back out, a feat he made look effortless. I was happy to get to hold him again, and with minor protesting back in he went (with a lid this time). In moments he was relocated to an area of our facility with less foot traffic and plenty of prey. Being a constrictor, most everyone was glad to keep him around. I didn't get peed on, the snake got a nice home. Great day all around.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Monday Myth: Africanized Honey Bees

I'm trying to use other people's photos/art as little as possible on this blog. Mainly because I want to give proper credit, which, as I've found out, involves more than sticking their name beneath a picture I've lifted off the internet. And because I don't have a personal photo of something akin to the above -- and glad for that -- I'm stuck with microsoft clipart. (Have mercy, Bill Gates.)

Africanized honey bees (AHB) are not the "killers" our media so loves to hype them as. True, they can be dangerous and require a bit more caution.

AHBs, Apis mellifera scutella, are a subspecies of their more docile cousin, the European honey bee (EHB), Apis mellifera. The two look virtually alike. Only a trained entomological eye (not mine) can tell the two bees apart by measuring certain body parts (never let it be said entomologists aren't voyeurs). DNA tests also distinguish them. As AHBs have made their way north from Brazil, where they were introduced in the late '50s, they've hybridized with EHBs. ALL southwestern honey bees are now presumed to be a hybridized EHB/AHB sort. This simply means folks in the southwest need to approach all honey bees with greater caution and respect. For an example of the wrong approach to take, see the home owner's comments in my transcribed phone call below.

Underreported fact: AHB venom is not any more toxic than EHB venom. Rather, more people die in the attempt to escape AHBs than from actual toxic envenomation (which doesn't include deaths from allergic reaction, which can occur with a single sting). People run off cliffs, run into traffic, etc. Often times, people will flap and flail their arms, swatting the bees, such that if the colony wasn't interested in chasing them before, it may well have changed its collective mind.

AHBs maintain smaller colonies, so the break apart (also called fission or budding) more often. Budding involves "swarming" -- when the new queen takes a portion of the hive and sets out to find a suitable location to establish a colony. During this flight, she gives off an intoxicating cocktail of pheromones that the bees are drawn to. When the queen needs to rest -- be it on a tree branch or in an irrigation box -- the other bees surround her, fanning her with their wings to keep her cool if necessary. This can go on for 1-3 days. There is no hive to protect, no young to guard. So the bees in this situation are as disinterested in humans as they're ever likely to be. And yet, it is not unusual to see people committing desperate acts of fear, leading to injury or death, to escape what is, sadly, a swarm of bees...high on pheromone...just passing through.

In other instances, people encounter AHBs in their homes or yards after a hive has been established. In this scenario AHBs are likely to be more defensive than EHBs. When defending a hive, AHBs tend to react more quickly to intruders, and they have a broader definition of what an intruder is. It's like personal space, and AHBs need more of it. When one stings, it sets off a chain reaction via pheromone, as with other honey bees, except that more AHBs give chase compared to EHBs, and will chase farther. AHBs stay ticked off a little longer than EHBs, too. Running the length of two football fields to escape an agitated AHB hive is the general rule of thumb. So AHBs defending hives certainly can be dangerous, depending on the level of threat they perceive.

A 56-kilogram (125 lb) adult can sustain 728 honey bee stings and still survive (assuming good cardiopulmonary health).
(source: Justin O. Schmidt)

I noted this while at a presentation by Dr. Schmidt last year. It was again at the forefront of my mind while hiking down a steep slope recently. I was zoning and suddenly found myself standing amidst dozens of bees. They were zestfully circling in the sun as far out as 10 feet from the nest, which, as far as I could tell, was right where I stood. Quite a few were coming and going from the nest -- somewhere near my knees -- with clear intention. I figured I was a goner. Surely I had violated the boundaries of an AHB hive's space. I kept my head down, quickened my pace, tucked my arms into my sides so as not to flail, and bristled for the "attack". There wasn't one. I stopped 30 feet away and turned to face the scene. The nest was recessed in a 5-inch crack of a rock formation, just a few inches to the side of the trail. I watched the "killer" bees for a while, fascinated and thankful.

For more information on Africanized honey bees visit the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Please Remove Bees

A frustrated receptionist hands me the telephone as I pass her desk en route to retrieve my mail. I quickly understood why...

Him: ...Hello?

Me: ...Hello, this is [me].

Him: Yes, I have a problem. There are bees. Please will you come remove them?

Me: You have some bees and you want me to come out and remove them for you -- did I understand you correctly?

Him: Yes.

Me: I don't do that. We don't do that sort of thing here. ...Sir is this an emergency?

Him: No, I just have bees here and I would like for you to remove them. Thank you.

Me: We don't provide bee removal services. We are not a pest control company, we're a research facility. Tell me, where are the bees EXACTLY? Are they in a tight grouping, like a ball -- say, hanging from a tree?

Him: They are outside near some storage boxes, coming and going from these boxes. And I would like you to please come to remove them.

Me: Sir, we don't remove bees. You will need to contact a pest control company for that service. We conduct research and provide education.

Him: Oh. So you cannot remove them?

Me: No. I can tell you all about the bees, and give you safety information as to what you should and shouldn't do. But I cannot suit up and come to your home and remove them. You need to contact a licensed pest control company for that service.

Him: But they will charge for this, yes?

[Ah, now we're getting to it]

Me: Yes, they will charge.

Him: Eh, how much they charge?

Me: I don't know, you'll have to compare prices on your own. But it sounds like you may have a hive setting up, as opposed to a swarm passing through, so the bees may be apt to sting in defense of their colony. You definitely should have a licensed pest control company come out to assess the situation.

Him: And what if I just... Just spray some little bit of poisons into the box?

Me: Sir, these are most likely Africanized honey bees. They can respond aggressively, and they will chase you. So unless you're prepared to run the length of at least two football fields, I wouldn't attempt spraying them with anything or agitating the boxes at all.

Him: So spraying a little something onto them and running fast away would not be safe...?

Me [incredulous]: No! It would be very UNsafe to do that, to say nothing of endangering people in the area who could also get stung. And don't even think about jumping into a swimming pool. These bees will wait for you to come out. You need professional help.

I certainly hope he got it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Beware of Bird

Gila woodpeckers do a number on the stucco walls at times here in the desert southwest. They're a cavity nester, typically drilling their holes in the Saguaro cactus. But when we bulldozed the cacti to build homes, offices and schools, it left the local Gila kinda high and dry. Secretly, I'm rooting for them. And if it weren't for that darned chicken wire beneath the stucco, they'd be in business. Other than that these holes create a potential habitat for Africanized honey bees, it's no biggy (home owners might disagree!).
A local male Gila regularly drums on my chimney. It's thunderous, and sounds as if a commercial airliner is about to shoot out of the fireplace into my living room. My two cats go frantic amidst the roar, I laugh, and the Gila keeps right at it. Such sass.

In light of the recent Red-tailed hawk encounter at Fenway Park, "beware of bird" signs might be in order!

{"Monday Myth" will be back next week on the many misconceptions about Africanized honey bees.}

Sunday, April 6, 2008

One Down...Two To Go!

As anyone who's visited this blog more than once already knows, I'm working on getting into grad school for my M.S. in entomology. I received some news along those lines this week and decided the catharsis of blogging might save me from burning another hole in my athletic shoes.

Between my prospective faculty's efforts and mine, we have three funding options in the works. I just heard back about one this week -- a fellowship. Didn't get it.

It was by far the more competitive of the fellowships I applied for: a national fellowship open to students in a broad spectrum of the sciences. Having learned of it last fall just five days in advance of the due date, I knew it'd be a long shot. My application was good, but it couldn't possibly compete with the other's, who began their essays weeks before me and perhaps even attended one of the workshops on how to apply (again, as a non-student and not someone based on a main university campus, I learned about all this after the fact). But I decided to give it my best go, and managed to receive "Honorable Mention" nonetheless (approx. 17% among more than 9,000 were recognized). Honorable mention doesn't mean a whole lot in terms of funding, but it's a nice rudder and lets me know I'm on track.

While this is all a pretty big deal -- my future, after all -- it's hard not to see it as the game it is. The game of life. Writing grants at work for implementing projects is one thing, writing fellowships for conducting research is another (apparently). I welcome the learning curve, so long as I don't fall flat on my face.

For now, more waiting... The remaining two funding possibilities include a fellowship from me and a big-deal grant (narrow chance of funding) submitted by my prospective advisors. Of course, it wouldn't be a good game without strategy, so I have innovated a secret back-up plan should there be any flat face-falling in the near future.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hit the Road

I finally got my DVD of the documentary 10 mph in the mail today. It features a couple of guys who are disenchanted with their corporate jobs and metropolitan lifestyle, so they quit and launch a career in the indie film industry, and begin by documenting their zany cross-country trip from Seattle to Boston... On a Seqway. They have more obstacles than answers, and don't try to romanticize the cliche of “carpe diem”. Where they'll sleep, how they'll fill up their gas tank, and other financial concerns mount in the face of growing personal debt. Whether they can afford to finish their trip is as much a part of the story as their encounters with the kindness of strangers. They really captured the heart of rural America, especially in the West. Wish they'd shown more of it.

It stirred up a longing. Every spring the urge swells to revisit seasonal field employment. A little voice makes it sound so simple... Randomly pick a state on the map, look at the seasonal job ads on TAMU, plop everything into storage and go! It was easier to do back then, fresh out of college. Hopping on a plane or passenger train every few months to a new state, a new job, a new adventure, where I didn't know a soul. You’re put up in hotels, homes, fifth wheels, trailers, tents, etc. It’s intense…And then it’s over, and you’re off on another adventure of your choosing. That kind of freedom has a powerful pull. As a kid from Washington who mostly worked her way through school, I'd hardly ever left the Pacific Northwest. So after college when I began to apply for seasonal wildlife jobs -- rule #4 of the hobo code -- I picked places on the map as far from home as I could get. I wound up in areas even more remote than the foothills I grew up in. It scared the hell out of my mom.

The jobs were like something from a National Geographic assignment. Lots of open land, daily immersion in the natural comings and goings of wildlife; plenty of sitting, waiting, watching, recording, or hiking, paddling, wading -- during sunrises, sunsets, and all hours in between. It was endlessly amazing for an animal and bug-lover such as my crew mates and me. America's regional cultures were no less interesting. I fell fully into each one and often wrote home with stories. I quickly learned: you can expect to find fresh barbeque sandwiches in every east Kentucky gas station, hushpuppies in Mississippi's, and in North Dakota... well, mainly lots of abandoned grain elevators that Gazetteers list as towns. In spite of all the neatness of it, I learned that no place is as special (to me) as the Pac NW. Before long all I wanted was to go back. So of course I wound up in Arizona.

I was readying for a return to grad school in wildlife, unsure of that major, when someone offered me a job in entomology. I’d fallen in love with it as an undergrad. It's a great job (my current job). I write grants, educate the public, do a lot of publishing, dabble in research, and coordinate much more than most in my position are allowed. Occasionally, I even get to play with the arthropods. I like my line of work. Love it, even. It scratches that itch that tromping through marshes and forests and prairies all day didn’t. Still, I'd be lying not to admit that the seasonal gig calls to my inner hobo.

A little over a hundred years ago, the American hobo emerged as our nation underwent the change from an agrarian society to an industrial one (Beesley, The American Hobo). Perhaps as we transition from an industrial society to the indoor isolation of the Information Age, we'll be seeing a re-emergence of the hobo. How better to connect with our own nature, or witness our vanishing landscapes than as a working wanderer...?