The Spotted Lanternfly Expands Its Range

There’s an odd grayish mud patch on the car. That may not be a mud patch at all, but an egg mass from the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula), which is a pest native to Asia, but discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014. I did an article on the spotted lanternfly previously. However, they have since expanded their range and new information has also surfaced, so it seemed worth revisiting. (For the previous article, click on January 2019 in the archives sidebar).

They are native to China and South Asia and it is believed they were introduced into the U.S. in a stone shipment around 2012. They feed on sap from over 70 different species, including apple, plum, cherry, peach, nectarine, apricot, almond, grape, maple, oak, pine, walnut, poplar, willow, and sycamore. Removing the sap reduces photosynthesis, which weakens the tree. The adults also excrete honeydew which allows for the growth of a sooty mold, which can further reduce photosynthesis and attracts ants, flies, and wasps. They are confirmed in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland New Jersey, New York, Virginia, W. Virginia, and Ohio. Signs of infestation include weeping wounds and trails of sap.

Ginger Nickerson, the Forest Pest Education Coordinator for the University of Vermont Extension, said there was more damage from stress than direct killing, though she said the spotted lanternfly has been known to kill the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), which is also an invasive, walnut seedlings, and grape vines. She said the main concern was with agricultural plants and noted it was difficult to export products that were in a quarantined area. Emelie Swackhamer, the Horticulture Extension Educator for Penn State Extension, concurred and said that researchers have not seen the spotted lanternfly kill any trees, other than those previously mentioned, but she did say that heavy feeding reduces photosynthetic capabilities as well as carbohydrate storage. Swackhamer also said the long term effects were still being studied. It was previously thought the spotted lanternfly could not survive colder temperatures and this could limit their ability to spread. However, Swackhamer said one study showed the eggs could survive one month of 7 degrees Fahrenheit and it was “not likely” winter temperatures would kill the spotted lanternfly where they were already established. She said scientists “expected” there would be a northern limit as to where they could survive, but it was not clear what that was yet. The previous article also referenced a parasitic wasp that was being studied as potential biocontrol. Swackhamer said the USDA and associates were continuing these studies, but there were no results available yet.

A large number of invasive pests (emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight) target primarily one or two species and, in fact, their host plants are often contained in their common names. As was previously mentioned, the spotted lanternfly preys on over 70 different types of trees and plants. Swackhamer said it was unusual in that it does have so many hosts, but she did note that it does have its preferences. She said its wider range could make it more of nuisance in residential areas, but she also referenced the emerald ash borer, which has far fewer hosts but has killed millions of ash trees and she stated that in eastern PA there are countless dead ash trees that pose a hazard, due to the the possibility of them falling on power lines and buildings. Nickerson, however, said it was not “particularly unusual” and there were other invasive insects that had a wide host range.

The spotted lanternfly is a strong hitchhiker and will lay eggs on any smooth surface. As was mentioned in the introduction new egg masses (September-June) have grayish mud like covering, while old egg masses contain rows of 30-50 brownish seed like deposits in 4-7 columns. Adults (July-December) are approximately one inch long with a gray forewing that is speckled black at the base. The hindwing is bright red with a white stripe and a black tip. Young nymphs (April-July) are black with white spots. Nickerson and Swackhamer both said the insects should be killed if found and items should be inspected for adults or egg masses, especially if people are travelling to or from an area with a known infestation. In addition, any sightings, particularly in an area with previously unknown infestation, should be reported and Nickerson recommended or the Agency of Agriculture. In addition to automobiles, firewood is another way the spotted lanternfly and many other invasive insects travel. Nickerson said people should buy firewood that has been heat treated as well as purchasing wood as close to where it will be burned as possible. She gave the example of someone travelling 50 miles to a campsite and said wood should be bought near the campsite, rather than near where people live.

In this age of the global economy, plants and animals can travel easily. When a new species enters an area, it has few or no natural predators to keep it in check and it can spread easily. Once a species has been introduced, it is almost impossible to eradicate. The end result is that it can pose a serious threat to native species as well as costing millions of dollars in damage. Thus, it is becoming increasing necessary that people always know what they are carrying with them. However, with extra vigilance, it may be possible to keep the spotted lanternfly and other invasive pests to a more confined area.

Above Average: The NOAA Releases New Climate Normals

“The forecast for today is sunny and clear with a high of 85 degrees, which is above average for this time of year.” This is information that people generally like to hear each day-the weather. But when forecasters say “above average” or” below average” what do they really mean? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began tracking climate data in 1901 and both every 30 years and every 10 years they release new climate “normals,” or temperature and precipitation averages based on this data. This can serve as an indicator for the future. The most recent of of these time blocks ended last year. Why 30 years? There is a general rule is statistics that 30 numbers are needed for a reliable estimate, which is why this time frame was chosen to define what is “normal” in climate, which includes annual, seasonal, monthly, and hourly averages of temperature, precipitation, and other variables. Michael Palecki, the Normals Project Manager for the NOAA, stated that the World Meteorological Organization, which is part of the UN and helps its members adapt to a changing climate, requires member nations to release normals every 30 years. However, in 2015 they also began requiring normals every 10 years ending in 0, though Palecki stated that the US started updating normals every 10 years in the the 1950’s. 2020 was both the end of the 30 year and 10 year period which made it particularly significant.

The general trends the NOAA released for each quarter of the year are as follows:

January: Temperatures rose 0.5-1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over most of the country. The north-central region cooled by more than 1.0 degrees F and precipitation increased by 10-25%. Texas and Florida were also much wetter from 1991-2020.

April: Temperatures were lower in the north-central U. S. West and East of the Mississippi River were considerably warmer and the Southeaster quarter of the country was wetter. The Southwest was drier, though there was higher precipitation in the northern Rockies and the Great Lakes.

July: The Northwest was drier, though most of the West was near the same temperatures. There was a cooling trend in the north-central U. S. and a warming trend in the Northeast, entire West and Rocky Mountains. Texas was up to 2 degrees F. warmer.

October: The western 2/3 of the northern U.S. was wetter and cooler. The rest of the country was consistently warmer and the Southwest and South-Central was also drier. The East was warmer with alternating zones of wetter and drier.

The above information are the general trends the NOAA released in their report, but of course there are variations from season to season and in different parts of the country, which is largely due to differences in air currents, snow pack, and surface temperatures. Palecki explained that changes in the U.S. vary with season and location due to “differences in how atmospheric circulation responds to green house gas induced climate change. In recent decades, reduction between polar and equatorial regions causing the jet stream circulations above the mid latitudes to move further north and south as it becomes more sluggish. More northerly movements over the western U.S. and more southward plunges in the eastern U.S. have occurred especially in the winter and spring. This impacts temperatures and precipitation patterns. It is further complicated by changing patterns of soil moisture, snow cover, and other atmospheric feedbacks.”

Palecki also stated that climate change has “accelerated” in recent decades beyond the rate of change in earlier decades. Globally 2013-2020 was in the top ten all time for temperatures. The World Meteorological Organization stated in their “State of the Global Climate” that 2020 was one of the 3 warmest years on record and the 6 warmest years have all been since 2015. The WMO was contacted for an interview, but did not respond.

The climate is a complicated aspect of our planet and it is affected by many different factors. When certain parts of the country are negative 20 degrees the phrase “global warming” may not seem to be all that accurate. But climate is not based on relatively short time frames, but overall trends. An understanding of what these trends are and how climate is affected is crucial to our understanding of how we impact the planet as well as how we plan for the future.

A Flower Grows in the City: Smaller Spaces Can Still Create Habitat

The butterfly flew along the city streets looking for nectar.   But here it was just streets and buildings, with only some grass growing through the cracks in the sidewalk.   But then, as she came around a corner there was a balcony outside an apartment building with several pots of lilies, violets, and phlox. The butterfly alighted on one and drank her fill and as she did so, a child looked out the window at the etheral visitor.   The temperatures are warming up, the flowers are blooming, and it’s time for the annual wildlife gardening article.  As an apartment resident myself, I know small spaces are a limiting factor. Nevertheless, there are a number of plants which can be grown in the aforementioned smaller spaces and are a benefit to local wildlife. The first part of this article will focus on plants which stay especially small and so can be grown in a container and the second part will feature plants which get a little bigger, but are fine in a community garden plot.   

Plants for an apartment balcony:  

Yellow trout lily ( Erythoronium americnum)

This plant grows 3 to 6 inches tall, has yellow flowers in spring,   prefers moist, shady conditions, and is native to Novia Scotia to Ontario to Minnesota to Florida.   

  Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) 

This plant grows 12 to 14 inches tall, has violet, lavender, or blue flowers in spring, prefers moist soil, and partial sun to shade.    It is native to northwestern Vermont north to Quebec, west to Minnesota, and south to Georgia and Texas.    

Moss Pink  (Phlox subulata)  

This plant grows 2 to 6 inches tall, has pink flowers in early spring, and prefers well drained soil in a sunny location.   It is native to southern New York, west ot southern Michigan, south to North Carolina and Tennessee.   

Stream violet or pioneer violet (Viola Glabella)

This plant grows 4 to 8 inches tall, has yellow flowers from March to July, and prefers moist soil with shade to part shade.  It is native to the west coast east to Idaho and Montana.  It is a larval host for the silver bordered fritillary butterfly.  

Plants for a community garden: 

Wild columbine or Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

This plant grows 10-24 inches tall, has pale orange-red flowers in mid spring, and prefers well drained soil with partial sun to shade.   It is also particulary popular with the ruby throated hummingbird.  

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

This plant grows 12 to 36 inches tall, has red to orange to yellow flowers in summer, and prefers well drained soil in a sunny location. It is native to Ontario and Quebec, south to Florida, and west to South Dakota and Minnesota and is also in the the Southwest.   It is in the milkweed family and popular with many species of butterfly.   I am growing it in my community garden plot this year.   

Blue lupine (Lupinus Perennis)

This plant grows 14 to 30 inches tall, has red, violet, or white flowers from April to July, and thrives in acidic, infertile soil, though it can also do well in loamy soil.  It is native to Ontario and Newfoundland south to Florida, and west to Texas, Kentucky, Illinois, and Minnesota.  It is the exclusive food source for the endangerd Karner blue butterfly.  In addition, it is also what is known as a nitrogen fixer which means it can put atmospheric nitrogen into a form which all plants can use and thus increases soil fertility.           

Bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma)

This plant grows 36 to 48 inches tall, has red flowers in summer and prefers moist soil with partial sun to partial shade.    As its name implies, it is very popular with bees and is native to Maine, south to northern Georgia, and west to Ohio, and Michigan.   Its leaves can also be made into a tea which was a Native American remedy for sore throats.   Admittedly, this is one of the larger plants I have included this year.   However, I have successfully grown it in my community plot for the last few years and it is one of my favorites.   

Narrowleaf milkweed or Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)  

This plant grows 12 to 36 inches, has pale pink, purple, or white flowers from the summer to the fall, can tolerate either dry or moist soil, and prefers full sun.   It is native to the west coast, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah.   As a member of the milkweed family, it is a larval host for Monarch butterflies.  

While it is true that smaller spaces are a limiting factor for gardening, they can still provide green places, food sources for many pollinators, and a connection with the natural world. In our increasingly urban and technological world, it is more important than ever to have color amidst the pavement and see the butterfly on the flower. For a more comprehensive list of native plants, good resources are Native Plants of the Northeast: A guide to gardening and conservation by Donald J. Leopold and http://www.nwf. org/nativeplantfinder. Leopold’s book was the primary resource for this article and the National Wildlife Federation’s site will ask for a zip code and then provide a list of all plants native to that area. Happy Spring!

Birds in the Backyard Create Connections

The snow is deep and the night temperature dropped a long way below freezing. But as the sun rises over the horizon, the chickadees, cardinals, and sparrows emerge from the pile of evergreen branches and alight on the feeder. Nearby, a family watches their feathered neighbors from the window. While wildlife of the northern climes have developed many adaptations to deal with more extreme winter conditions, their human neighbors can lend a helping hand. This includes both bird feeders and brush piles to provide shelter.

While birds vary by region, wintering birds often include jays, chickadees, doves, nuthatches, sparrows, juncos, and woodpeckers. Zac Cota, the teacher-naturalist and volunteer coordinator for North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, VT said birdfeeders are a help to many species in winter. He said the best types of food varied by species, but in general black oil sunflower seeds and suet were good foods to put out. In addition, he mentioned that thistle is preferred by many finches, though it can spoil easily. In an online presentation of April 2020, Cota said it is a good idea to check the ratio of ingredients in seed mixes and recommended avoiding millet, cracked corn, and sorghum because they did not have much nutritional value. The National Audubon Society includes a recipe for suet on their website, though they say it should not be put out if temperatures are above 50 degrees. (See recipe at the bottom of the page). Cota concurred and said that suet that contained animal fat could spoil in warmer temperatures and therefore, not be healthy for birds but he said people should check information on recipes.

In addition to providing food, shelter from the cold and wind is also important. Both the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society suggest evergreens or brush piles. The National Audubon Society suggests putting logs on the bottom and layering branches on top.

As stated at the beginning, mammals and birds in northern areas have evolved many adaptations for winter conditions and Cota acknowledged some “ethical considerations” in bird feeding. However he also stated that people have had a negative impact on many bird populations. The State of the Birds Report 2019 published by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, which is a coalition of 29 federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations and bird focused partnerships, stated that forest birds have declined by 22% since 1970. While it may seem that putting out feeders and brush piles is only for wildlife, the benefits are twofold. Cota said providing feeders is also an opportunity for community science, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is run by Cornell University and goes from February 12 -15. He said people can go to to learn how to participate and submit information. He also said that such activities create greater empathy and everyone benefits when people have a chance to “slow down, breathe deeply and connect with nature.”

Audubon Suet Recipe:

1 1/2 cups shortening

3/4 cup nut butter

3 1/2 cups wild birdseed

1 cup quick oats

1/2 cup cornmeal

Mix dry ingredients and set aside. Combine shortening and nut butter in a separate bowl and melt. Pour melted mixture over dry ingredients and stir until combined. Freeze for 1-2 hours and put suet in feeder. Enjoy the wildlife in the winter!

Sea Stars and Wildebeest: “The Serengeti Rules” Explores Connections

What if there were no sea stars? What if there were no wildebeest? How does one species affect all others? These were questions asked by biologists in the early twentieth century and later took on ecological significance as well. These questions and the stories of the scientists who asked them are the subject of The Serengeti Rules by Sean B. Carroll and also adapted into a documentary.

The book is an exploration of how biological and ecological processes keep both bodies and ecosystems in balance and what happens when that balance is disturbed. The early part of the book focuses on biology and how scientists from the early to mid twentieth century investigated how physiological processes were regulated. This includes microbiologist Jacques Monod who discovered that certain enzymes limit bacteria’s ability to digest certain sugars, thereby regulating their populations. Later, several biologists applied many of the same concepts to ecology and performed experiments as to how food webs and certain species dubbed “keystones” by biologist Robert Paine could affect the entire ecosystem. Paine removed sea stars from tidal pools, which allowed the mussels they preyed on to outcompete all other species and seriously reduced biodiversity.

The book is written for the general population and scientific concepts and terms are explained well. In addition, diagrams and photographs are also included. The scientists featured lived at different times, in different countries, and pursued different research. But they shared a profound curiosity and a great love of the natural world. These scientists and their stories include microbiologist Jacques Monod, who served in the French Resistance during World War II, cancer researcher Janet Davison Rowley, who cut out pictures of chromosomes on the kitchen table, and biologist Tony Sinclair who sneaked out of his Tanzanian boarding school to collect beetles.

The book illustrates how a knowledge of “the Serengeti rules” is necessary to understanding the connections between species and the environments in which they live. With this knowledge, it is possible to understand our own role in the world in which we live, restore damaged ecosystems, and have vibrant planet for many generations to come.

Citizens of the World Determine the Future

Against a hazy sky smoke rises from the factories. After an intense rainfall that caused rivers to overrun their banks, streets and homes are still flooded. Children play in an abandoned lot near a coal fired plant and political signs dot yards across the country. These are the scenes that play out in every town, city, and state. This year, voters will elect the President, the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, as well as a number of governors and state legislators. By extension, voters will also determine the kind of world we live in. Climate change, pollution, and environmental justice are only some of the challenges our planet faces and how we meet those challenges has the potential to affect many generations to come.

The Center for Disease Control states that climate change is projected to harm human health by increasing ground level ozone and particulate matter. Higher temperatures affect the formation of ground level ozone, which is associated with diminished lung function, increased hospital visits, asthma, and premature deaths. Particulate matter is affected by wildfires and air stagnation. Heat waves are associated with heat stroke, cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular diseases. The CDC also projects that heavy flooding will increase nationwide, which can result in elevated risks in waterborne diseases, mold, and reduced indoor air quality.

In addition, the health risks associated with pollution and toxic waste facilities disproportionately affect low income people and minority people. The National Resources Defense Council September 2019 cites a study by the NAACP that 2/3 of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal fired plant. They also cite a study by the EPA that 70% of superfund sites are located near low income housing.

These are complex issues and they will not be solved in four or eight years. However, incoming elected officials will be deciding on many policies regarding clean energy, pollution controls, and fair housing, which will impact people across the country and the globe for many years to come. Voting is our power to decide the kind of world we want to live in and voting matters. Do not forget to bring your ballot to your town clerk or vote on November 3.

Invisible Travellers: Aquatic Invasive Species Threaten Many Waterways

They never even noticed it. When the boat was put into a new water body, the tiny strand of Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) that had attached to the bottom went with it. Whether it is a small motor boat, a ship, or a plane, this is the manner in which plants and animals have been getting moved for decades. While invasive species are a threat at any time of year, with many boats on lakes now, this is the time that is particularly ripe for aquatic invasives. These species, which include plants, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and insects, can be introduced on purpose or accidentally. However, in new environments, they have no natural predators and thus populations can frequently explode in a very short time period often wreaking havoc on native wildlife.

Both the National Wildlife Federation and the EPA cite invasive species as the second biggest threat to biodiversity after habitat loss. Kimberly Jensen, Environmental Scientist with the VT Department of Environmental Conservation, said invasives can outcompete native wildlife for both space and food. She said boats were the most common way for aquatic plants and animals to be introduced to new places.

Jensen said that species of particular concern are the Eurasian watermilfoil, referenced above, hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), and zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha). The Eurasian watermilfoil is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is a submersed perennial plant with featherlike leaves and stems that branch when they approach the suface. It can tolerate brackish water and low temperatures. It is agressive, can replace native plants, and forms canopies that block sunlight. Zebra mussels are native to the Black and Caspian Seas. They are extremely small mussels usually not exceeding five cetimeters in length. They attach to any hard surface and can clog pipes. Hydrilla is a submerged aquatic plant, which can grow to 23 feet. It can clog power plant valves and also impacts biodiversity. Jensen stated that it appears zebra mussels have been successfully removed from Lake Dunmore in western Vermont. However, once a species is introduced, it is generally very difficult to get rid of, and Jensen said the best control is prevention in the first place. If an invasive species is confirmed, though, she said there would first be efforts for eradication and then containment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife ( also stated that eradication would be the first goal and if that was not longer possible, preventing the spread would be the next option.

Boats are the most common way for species to get moved and Jensen said it is important to thoroughly clean and dry boats in between uses. The Vermont Invasives ( recommends draining all water from boats and equipment and drying boats for at least five days before putting them in a different water body. In addition, Jensen recommended the VT Invasive Patrollers who assist in identifying and removing invasive species and stated there was more information about them on the VT Invasives website. It is true that invasives can cause a huge number of problems. However, taking some precautions as well as being on the lookout for exotics can go a long way to preventing their spread and in some cases, successfully eradicating them altogether.

Plants For All Seasons: Yards Can Be Transformed Into Habitat

          The bee flew over a row of houses looking for nectar.    There was a house there with a green lawn, but no flowers.   The next one was the same.   And the next one.  And the one after that.  But there!  In that yard, there was a strawberry patch, phlox, and the blue flowers of the native sage. The bee landed on one of the sage flowers and happily drank the nectar.

This is the situation for a lot of wildlife.   As forests and fields are turned into houses and businesses, many birds, insects, and mammals are losing both year round habitat and migratory stopovers.   However, both homeowners and community gardens can fill in this gap by planting native plants which can provide, food, shelter, and nesting places for both migratory and year round wildlife.  Even potted plants on the balcony of an apartment building or flowers in a community plot can provide food and a welcome respite.   Last year’s article generally focused on summer blooming plants, which while still important, is a limited time frame. This article will focus on plants that bloom at different times, which provides cover and food sources throughout the year. In addition, eliminating pesticides and fertilizers is also an important step.   


Strawberries: (Fragaria virginiana) Strawberries are a low growing plant which produce small white flowers from April through May and fruit in May and are a bird favorite. However, they do spread and require some space.

Creeping Phlox: (Phlox stolinifera) This plant flowers from April to June and is native to Quebec, Ontario, and all of the eastern U. S. going as far west as Texas and Nebraska. It is good for all smaller butterflies.

Lyre-leaved sage: (Salvia lyrata) This plant produces lavender to blue flowers from April to June and is native to Connecticut, the southern U. S., and the Midwest. It is a good plant for bees.

Bee balm: (Monarda didyma) Bee balm produces beautiful red flowers in July and, as its name implies, is a favorite of bees. Its leaves can also be used in tea.

Butterfly Weed: (Asclepias tuberosa) Butterfly weed produces orange flowers from June to September and, as its name implies, is a favorite for a number of butterfly species.

Milkweed: This includes a number of species in many parts of the country including the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), in the East, both of which bloom June to August. Western species include the California milkweed (Asclepias californica) and the the showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Milkweed are the only plant on which Monarch butterflies lay their eggs and so they are a vital plant for this species.

Elderberry: (Sanbucas canadensis) This is a shrub which grows 3 to 12 feet, so it does require some space. It produces white flowers early in summer and then dark blue berries later, which are an important food sources for birds. The berries can also be made into jelly and wine.

Spotted Joe Pye Weed: (Eupatorium maculatum) It produces small clusters of pink flowers from July to September, is native from Alberta to North Carolina, and goes as far west as Kansas and North Dakota. It is good for gulf fritilliaries and several species of swallowtail butterflies. However, this plant can grow to six feet tall, so it does need some space.

Jewel weed: (Impatiens capensis) It produces reddish orange flowers from July to October and is native to Canada and the eastern U. S. It is especially adapted to hummingbirds, but is also good for bees and butterflies. In addition, the sap is also an antidote for poison ivy and nettles.

Asters: This includes the New England Aster ( Aster novaeangliae) and the New York Aster (Aster novi-belgii). The New England aster flowers somewhat earlier, but both bloom through October and are native to Canada and throughout the eastern U. S.

Purple Coneflower: (Echinacea Purpurea) Coneflowers bloom from June to October and are native from eastern Canada to Florida and west to Kansas and Wisconsin. They are the plant from which echinacea tea is derived.

American Holly: (Ilex opaca) This is a shrub and so does require some space and produces its signature red berries in December, which are good for a number of bird species.

Scarlet Sumac: (Rhus glabra) This tree is native throughout North America and has brillant autumn color as well as fruit that lasts through the winter, making it one of the few food choices for birds in the later winter months.

Winter berry: (Ilex verticillata) This shrub grows 3-10 feet and is native to Canada and the eastern U. S. as far west as Texas and Minnesota. It produces bright red fruit in late fall and early winter and is popular with many bird species.

With development, habitat fragmentation, and pesticide use, many bees, butterflies, and birds are in decline, and in some cases, serious decline. Providing cover and food sources throughout the year is an an important way to help local wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder ( is a good resource for finding plants for specific regions. In addition, from the first bee buzzing in the spring to a cardinal in the winter, yards can be transformed into amazing places for plants, wildlife, and people. Happy Spring!

Celebrating Our Blue and Green Dot: Earth Day Turns 50

There was oil in the ocean and dead wildlife on the beaches. On January 28th, 1969, there was an oil well blowout off of Santa Barbara, which cracked the sea floor in five places, spilled an estimated 3 million gallons, and stretched along 35 miles of the California coast. It was the largest oil spill until the Exxon Valdez of 1989. Across the country, as well as the world, smog was a major problem in many cities. The Great Smog of London, from December 5-9, 1952 killed 12,000 people, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The Hudson River was heavily polluted with toxic chemicals and fish had disappeared for many miles of it, leading folk singer Pete Seeger to found the Hudson Clearwater Project as a means of both cleanup and education. The issues had been building for decades, but the oil spill proved to be the tipping point. It spurred Wisconson Senator Gaylord Nelson along with environmentalist Denis Hayes to create the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. An estimated 20 million people from New York to San Francisco came out to celebrate and a portion of Fifth Avenue had to be closed. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

In the half century that has since passed, several important changes have taken place. 1970 also saw the birth of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act came in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. What started out nationally soon grew to an international movement and in 1990, Earth Day was celebrated in more 140 countries. On Earth Day 2016, 174 nations and the European Union signed the Paris Agreement, which was an international effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The creation of Earth Day had a profound effect on environmental policy and spearheaded much important legislation. Nevertheless, there is much more to do and many of the laws that came with Earth Day and the EPA are now under threat. This Earth Day, there will not be events drawing millions of people. However, what is important to remember is that Earth Day brought about both needed legislaton as well as a change in awareness of our impact on the planet. To date, we have found no other planet capable of supporting life which serves as a reminder that our blue and green dot in the universe is truly unique.

The Great Manipulator: Understanding Viruses is Key

They are less than a cell, yet they are one of the greatest manipulators of the world and are responsible for some of the worst diseases. They are viruses. This is somewhat different from the topics that this blog normally covers. However, a greater understanding of the world leads to a greater ability to meet the challenges that face us. Thus, this article will look at what viruses are, how they differ from bacteria, and how they work.

It is true that both viruses and some bacteria are pathogenic, however, there are some significant differences between them. They have a different chemical structure and what kills bacteria does not necessarily kill viruses. Viruses are strictly parasitic and are unable reproduce or carry out metabolic functions without a host cell. They are comprised of a submicroscopic particle of a nucleic acid genome (all genetic material surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid). The infective extra cellular form is called the virion and it contains at least one protein synthesized by genes in the nucleid acid of that virus. Some viruses also contain a lipoprotein membrane called an envelope. Viruses contain either DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (ribonucleic acid), but not both. DNA and RNA both contain genetic material with one chemical difference. (RNA has uracil instead of thymine). Bacteria, by contrast, are unicelluar organisms which contain both DNA and RNA. They reproduce through cell division and are not dependent on a host cell for biological functions. While bacteria can also be pathogens, there are also a number that perform important ecological functions, such as nitrogen fixing, which allows plants to absorb nitrogen from the soil. Without these bacteria, soil be fertile and organic matter would decay much more slowly. Viruses, however, are solely pathogenic. When a virion comes into contact with a host cell it attaches, penetrates the plasma membrane, and introduces its own DNA or RNA. Through chemical messages, the host cell is then “tricked” into sythesizing the virus’s genetic material which is then used in making new viruses. Eventually, the virus kills the host cell and goes on to infect other cells. Most viruses can produce between 100-1,000 new viruses in less than one hour. Hence, then can mutate very quicky and this one reason they can be so difficult to treat. COVID 19 belongs to the coronaviridae family of viruses, which is one of several. The corona virus has a club shaped glycoprotein spike in its envelope, which gives it a crown-like appearance (hence corona). Its genome consistes of a single strand of positive sense RNA. Positive sense RNA means that it acts as a synthesis for the translation of viral proteins.

There is some debate as to the origin of viruses and they were originally considered to be primordial life forms. However, this is not likely correct, since they need a host cell to metabolize and reproduce. According to Robert M. Wagner and Robert M. Krug, Encyclopedia Britannica April 2020, it is “likely” that viruses trace their origins to rogue pieces of nucleic acid. It is also “possible” that viruses came from plasmids, which are circular DNA molecules, without chromosomes. They could be transferred from cell to cell, acquired coded proteins to coat the plasmid DNA, and evetually have been converted into viruses.

According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word virus dates form 1392 and comes from the Latin virus meaning poison, sap of a plant, or slimy liquid. Related words are the Old Irish fi, the Greek wisos, and Sanskrit visa, all of which also mean poison. Its use as a disease causing agent was first recorded in 1728, the Chamber Cyclopedia. The word bacteria was first used between 1847 and 1840. It is from New Latin bacteria, French bacterie (1842), and Greek bakterion, meaning small staff or rod. Words are powerful and an understanding of the word can lend a greater understanding of what it names. When I looked these up, I thought it was interesting that bacteria, which can have good uses, is essentially named for its shape without any positive or negative connotations, while viruses which are solely pathogenic have a name rooted in disease.

As was stated earlier, due to their high reproduction and susequently high mutation rate viruses can be very difficult to treat. In addition, antivirals must kill the virus without killing the host cell. According to Wagner and Krug, effective antivirals must do one of the five following: prevent the virus from attaching to the host cell, uncoat the virus, prevent the sythesis of new viral components, prevent assembly of viral components, or release the virus from the host cell.

Viruses have the distinction of having a simpler chemical makeup than a living cell, yet they have achieved great evolutionary success. There is no doubt that the current climate is a difficult one. As of this writing, cases and deaths are continuing to increase, hospitals are overstretched, and tens of thousands of people are out of work as a result of the economic shutdown. If anything, this virus may convince us that we’re not as invincible as we’d like to think. However, with a greater understanding of what viruses are and how they are transmitted, we may be able to put long term preventative measures in place.