World Water Day

WORLD WATER DAY, A day to celebrate, a day to change, a day to prepare MARCH 22, 2015 A recent trip to Nicaragua made me realize we have much to be thankful about when it comes to our water supply.  In most places in America, we turn on the faucet and out comes safe, clean water.  We never think twice about brushing our teeth, making ice cubes or drinking a glass of tap water. But for the first time in all my travels, I had a touch of discomfort while visiting the Central American nation of Nicaragua, and I think it was because of the water.  I would prefer that didn’t happen again when travelling!  The country was marvelous, with its collection of volcanoes, both active and dormant, lakes, islands, wildlife, good food and fabulous people.  But it is best for this American to peel all fruits, drink bottled water and eat cooked meals while traveling there. Although a national public utility in urban areas and water committees in rural areas provide Nicaraguan water and sanitation, population growth and demand have kept water quality poor.  Most locals there do drink water from the tap, but it is recommended that North American visitors drink purified bottled water.  This is because the water contains microbes that most of us aren’t used to. About 750 million people worldwide suffer from a lack of clean drinking water, and diarrhea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally. So as we approach March 22, World Water Day, we should celebrate water and realize that many members of the global population suffer from water related issues.  World Water Day is an initiative of the United Nations.  Each year another topic related to water is highlighted and the theme for 2015 is “Water and Sustainable Development.” For more information including events, free materials and celebrations of pure water go to http://www.unwater.org/worldwaterday

Evergreens

holly_corner_largeSince ancient times people have been adorning their homes with holly, evergreen trees and ivy in December.  During the cold dark days of winter, much of the landscape is dreary, but certain varieties of plant life remain green year round.  Some also produce bright red berries bringing a bit of cheerful color to an otherwise bleak landscape.  In order to get a sense of happiness and a hope for the future joys of spring, people began to bring in these evergreens into their homes. So how do evergreens stay green? Evergreen shrubs such as holly face many challenges during winter. Actually, cold temperatures are the least of the plant’s problems. Photosynthesis can occur in many plants when temperatures are at or a few degrees below freezing. The biggest problem for plants in winter is drying out. When the ground freezes, plant roots are unable to draw liquid water from the soil. Then the plant becomes dehydrated, and the plant cell membranes lose their shape and rupture, killing portions of the plant. Cell tissues can also die if ice crystals form inside cell membranes. In order to combat drying out, holly plants, evergreens and certain ivy have tough leathery leaves that are resistant to drying out. The thick waxy covering of the leaves allows the plant to live through the winter. Also, evergreen trees have needle-like leaves instead of broad flat leaves.  This shape helps conserve any water that remained from the warmer weather.

The Pumpkin and the Bee

pumpkin-300x189When you think of October, you think of pumpkins! We will have pumpkins to carve this month and pumpkins to eat in pie next month.  Pumpkins are so prominent during October and November we hardly give their back-story even a thought.

MANY KINDS

Cucurbita is Latin for gourd and this is the name given to the genus in the gourd family that includes the pumpkin we know well.  There are many species in this genus, including Curcurbita pepo, the slightly ribbed and deep yellow to orange thick-skinned pumpkin and Cucurbita argyrosperma  (Japanese pumpkin) or Cucurbita moschata (crooked neck butternut squash).   Pumpkins, including all squash are native to North America and are one of the most popular crops in the USA, with Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, California and Pennsylvania being the top pumpkin producing states.

images-2THE IMPORTANCE OF BEES

But we could not have all these varieties of pumpkins if we did not have bees.  Pumpkins are usually planted in early July and begin to produce both female and male flowers in a few weeks.  In order to be pollinated and bear fruit, the male, and the female flower have to be visited by a bee.  The squash bee Peponapis pruinosaspecializes in visiting flowers of the cucurbit family: pumpkin, squash, zucchini, etc.  Squash bees emerge in early July.  The fast flying bees begin to forage, working between dawn and mid morning.  These squash bees are quite hairy, allowing a lot of pollen to accumulate on their bodies.  Honeybees, bumble bees, and several types of halictid bees also visit the flowers, but none is as skilled as this specialist bee. The squash bee and cucurbit plants are long-term partners. They have been refining their relationship for millions of years, long before Europeans came to this continent.  About one hive per acre is recommended for sufficient pollination.   However there is trouble in the pumpkin patch!  The delicate balance of ecological relationships has to be kept in mind when applying pesticides.  There has been a reduction of the numbers of squash bees (most likely due to pesticides) and farmers have been known to hand pollinate their crops if the bees are not there to do the job. For an academic explanation of the importance of bees in pollination check out this article from the University of California San Diego:   http://labs.biology.ucsd.edu/nieh/TeachingBee/importanceofbees.htm

The Truth About Cold Blooded Animals

imgresWhile cycling 140 miles last week on the C and O Canal, I had lots of time to think.  The trip took me 4 days, and it was quiet and peaceful.  Most of the time the only evidence of civilization was other riders or hikers, the occasional airplane overhead or the sound of a railroad train in the distance.  Otherwise it was like being alone in the forest. The trail, which runs parallel to the Potomac River, was constructed as a towpath along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to pull barges filled with lumber, agricultural products and coal, down the canal to market.   The almost flat towpath goes from Cumberland Maryland to Washington DC. The C & O Canal is full of natural scenery and wildlife.  I saw a herd of deer, a few snakes, Blue Herons, a Bald Eagle, some vultures, a fox and countless turtles.  It was the turtles, lounging in the sun at one of the many locks along the way, that made me think about the truth about being cold blooded. Those turtles were in the sun to keep warm, not because their blood is cold, but because animals that are “cold blooded” take on the temperature of their surroundings.  If it is warm outside, they are warm.  If it is cold they are cold.   A warm-blooded animal, such as the deer and fox I saw, maintain a steady body temperature, despite the temperature of their surroundings. If it is cold outside, or if it is warm outside, these “warm blooded “ animals maintain a steady temperature through metabolic means. warm-blood·ed (adjective) Relating to or denoting animals (chiefly mammals and birds) that maintain a constant body temperature, typically above that of the surroundings, by metabolic means.  Also known as homoeothermic. cold-blood·ed   (adjective) Relating to animals (mainly fish, amphibians, and reptiles) having a body temperature that changes according to the temperature of the surroundings   Also known as poikilothermic.

Wildlife Corridors and the C and O Canal

I rode my bicycle last month on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C and O Canal).  I finished 140 miles of the 184-mile long trail!  The trip took me 4 days and I had plenty of time as I rode mile after mile to think about and absorb my surroundings.  I realized that the towpath is not just a place for humans to enjoy, but it serves a valuable service for wildlife.  It is a wildlife corridor.   As we have developed and urbanized our landscape, corridors or contiguous protected habitat have become scarcer and scarcer.  Animals and plants need to be able to travel to ensure biodiversity and health.  If the animals stayed in one place, genetic diversity would decline and inbreeding would lead to vulnerability, disease and genetic disorders.  Even a small amount of movement of animals creates a more robust population.   Sometimes protected habitat areas are large enough to provide the needed space, but often they are without safe corridors to move the animals around. The corridors provide a kind of safety valve for protected habitats that are too small to allow movement.   Deer, fox, raccoons, squirrels, toads, beaver and muskrat all live along the C and O Canal.  These animals survive better if they can mate with a diverse population of their species.  Wildlife corridors also proved safe passage for animals.  Often animals are killed trying to cross highways or viewed as pests if they enter private property.   Most people riding the trail experience the serenity of nature but may not really think about human-caused factors such as fragmenting habitat of the species. The park provides a “living laboratory” that helps us better understand how to preserve these ecosystems.

Mimicking Nature- Woodpecker Head and the Bicycle Helmet

rhwp-usfwsHave you noticed the shape of most bicycle helmets?  There is a lot of science that goes into those helmets.  They are designed to be aerodynamic and lightweight.   They are also designed to protect the head if you should fall.  Helmets have a hard outer shell and a softer inner lining.   The hard outer part is designed to absorb the force of impact over a larger area, so as not to cause a concussion.  The soft inner part is designed to absorb any energy that might occur upon impact.   Interestingly, scientists are looking at the complex skulls of woodpeckers to figure out ways to make even better crash helmets for humans.  A woodpecker strikes a tree about 1,200 times a day at a speed of about 14 miles per hour, and never sustains injury.  Woodpeckers have four components that help them from getting concussions: an elastic layer supports the tongue, which stretches around the skull beneath the skin, their beaks are flexible, yet solid and strong, a spongy bone separates the woodpecker beak from the brain (in order to dampen the force of pecking), and there is a thin fluid-filled space between the skull and the brain (to minimize transfer of vibrations) Keeping in mind what they have learned from the woodpecker, scientists  and industrial designers are suggesting utilizing components of the woodpecker head to come up with enhanced  and safer ways to make helmets.   One British industrial designer from London’s Royal College of Art, Anirudha Surabhi, has designed a super strong helmet he calls the Kranium that helps protect cyclists’ heads by mimicking features of the woodpecker’s anatomy.   He has used an unlikely material for the inner liner of the helmet: a special dual density cardboard with a honeycomb structure.  This material beat out other contenders in his laboratory trials.   The cardboard inner liners are durable and quite easy to produce, and has its roots in the design of the woodpecker head.   The Kranium helmet is now on the market and available for purchase for about $130.00.   The next time you need a solution to a problem, the answer might just be in nature’s design.    Check with Mother Nature first before you begin!kranium_helmet_2

Trees

IMG_0521I received a new tree in front of my house in Queen Village at the end of April.  There had been a tree there for years, but it died and right around Hurricane Sandy, it was taken down by the city because it was about to be a safety hazard.  I applied for a new tree with the program provided by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.  That process took a few years but finally, on April 26, 2014 my new tree was planted!  Every time I look at it I smile.  Besides the smile that the tree puts on my face everyday, trees provide us with lots of other benefits.

  • Trees provide us with oxygen (a mature tree can provide us with enough oxygen for 10 people)
  • Trees help stop noise pollution (trees can muffle some of the urban noise we hear such as highway traffic)
  • Trees clean the soil (trees can absorb dangerous chemicals and either store them or actually change them to less harmful forms)
  • Trees can help with storm water runoff  (some trees can absorb up to 1000 gallons of water, keeping water out of streams an rivers during big rainstorms)
  • Trees keep us in the shade and cool (when placed strategically, we can use less energy to cool our homes)
  • Trees bring in higher resale value for our homes (How many times have you heard a street being described as a “tree lined street”?  Streets with trees appear safer and can increase your resale value by 15%).
  • Trees fight soil erosion. (The roots of the trees hold the soil in place)

The trees around us are extremely important for improving our lives.  To find out about getting a free tree planted in front of your house in Philadelphia you can contact one of these agencies: http://treephilly.org/ http://phsonline.org/greening/plant-one-million   Thanks to Tobin Seletsky for helping me to get my tree.  Photo by Tobin Seletsky