Nature Notes: Dragonfly Daze

The hot days at the end of July and early August are often referred to as the “dog days” of summer. While I always thought they were named after pups too hot and lazy to move during this time of year, the name actually comes from the Greeks and Romans who noticed the star Sirius, in the canis major (dog) constellation, rises just before the sun during this time of year. These “dog days” are also the “dragonfly daze” of summer – although dragonfly populations explode in late June and July, many species are still on wing through early August and beyond. But where do they come from, where do they go, and how come these friendly bug eaters are only around for a couple of months!?

Blue Dasher

Actually, they’re around all year long, but if you’re looking to the skies to find ‘em in cold months, you’re looking in the wrong place. Of course we don’t see dragonflies zooming around all winter in subzero temperatures. They have adapted a rather interesting survival strategy to make it through our long harsh winters – all of the adults die off except for a few species, like the Green Darner, that actually migrate! Green Darner adults fly all the way to Texas in the fall and their offspring will return in the spring (usually one of the first species we see). Dragonflies go through incomplete metamorphosis, which means their life cycle as three stages instead of the four stages you would see in complete metamorphosis. They begin as eggs in the water, hatch into aquatic larvae or nymphs and then skip the pupating stage, instead opting to go straight to adulthood.

Most dragonflies spend their winters underwater as nymphs, in diapause (a resting state) in the “warm” mucky-muck at the bottom of rivers, ponds and lakes. A few species overwinter in eggs on the shoreline, which will be washed into the water in the spring and hatch into nymphs. Depending on the species, dragonflies may be in the nymph stage for only a few weeks or up to 8 years in some Asian species! Here, most of our dragonflies spend about 1-3 years as nymphs.

Nora raised dragonfly nymphs last spring – watch as it hunts for amphipods!

These nymphs survive underwater by breathing through larval gills and using their keen sense of sight and super sensitive antennae to be ferocious predators of the lake bottom. They devour other insect larvae (like mosquitoes!), other dragonfly larvae, tadpoles, and even small fish with a voracious appetite. In turn, they serve their part in the food web as prey to larger frogs or fish. As they eat, they grow, molting old tight-fitting exoskeletons for new, roomier ones.

Nymphs will molt several times before becoming adults.

When the nymph is ready to turn into an adult it has a day or two of diapause while the final changes are made inside of the larval exoskeleton. During this time the nymph often has its head above water as it becomes acquainted to breathing oxygen, like it will in the adult form.  When it is ready, it will climb up onto a plant or rock, the thorax splits open, the adult form emerges small and deflated and spends several hours “pumping” up its body with hemolymph (insect blood) until it reaches its full adult size. You can often find these deserted exuviae, or the exoskeleton they left behind, cling to vegetation or other structures around the water’s edge. 

When the exoskeleton has dried and hardened, the dragonfly will take its first flight and become a predator of the sky. With impressive compound eyes of 30,000 lenses, dragonflies have incredible sight. Pair that with the capability of sustained, highly maneuverable flight, antennae that work as anemometers to measure wind speed and direction, powerful jaws, and spines on their front legs that act as a grocery cart for prey, and you get a pretty formidable predator. Dragonflies will eat pretty much anything they can catch, including other dragonflies, butterflies, and have even been observed taking down a hummingbird! They may eat their prey on wing or take it back to a perch. A keen observer may find discarded butterfly wings or beetle wings under a dragonfly perch. If you’re lucky enough to get close to one eating, you can even hear the “crunch!”

Check out how a dragonfly can move each wing independently in this slow-motion video! This helps them have superior maneuverability in flight!

You can thank the dragonflies for eating an insane amount of insects and pests (nicknamed the mosquito hunter as some can consume hundreds of mosquitos in just one day). You think a lion or a wolf is a good hunter? Hate to break it to ya, but they ain’t got nothin’ on the dragonfly! Recent studies show dragonflies catch their target prey 95% of the time – a number that decimates the stats of all large mammalian predators. In fact, their precision flight and accuracy is so impressive, they have been used for military and private sector research regarding drone development and design! 

Right now is a great time to get outside and see some dragonflies before they disappear in the fall! Many are feeding, mating, or laying eggs.  Dragonflies are fiercely competitive for food and mates, so you may even get to witness a dragonfly brawl. If you’re near water, look for a female dipping her abdomen into the water to lay eggs. Males guard females while laying eggs so they may stay attached to the female, or I more commonly find them “hover guarding” – where the male hovers near by and quickly chases off any other males, sometimes with a loud clash of wings! As dragonflies are hatched in, feed around, and lay eggs in water, they typically don’t travel too far from a water source, so check out any nearby ponds, streams, lake shores, or wetlands for a look-see! Here are just some you might find!

Enjoy the end of summer weather, getting outside for some fresh air, and watching these remarkable hunters gobble up mosquitoes!

4 Ways to Keep Your Garden Happy in the Heat

Using straw (and weeded vegetation) as a mulch can keep your garden happy.

While you’re out and about during the summer, it’s important to remember that your garden is also likely under the effects of the heat. Let’s review what you can do to help keep your soil and little green buddies happy and thriving in the hot summer months.

  • Water early in the day: If the sun is shining brightly while you water your garden, the moisture you provide will evaporate away. So, water early, by 10 am at the latest. If you’re watering solitary plants (as opposed to a grass bed), point your watering can to the base of the plant. 
  • Use a drip irrigation system. These babies can keep a continual, but minimal, supply of water to your plants, keeping them happy and perky. You use less water, and your plants thrive. Win-win.
  • Apply mulch to keep the soil moist: Covering your soil is a must if you want it to retain any water during a heat wave. Add a mulch of organic material such as compost, leaves, or even dried grass clippings. The extra layer shades the soil and acts as a lid to keep the moisture near the roots. Also, be sure to water before adding the mulch. 
If you add a drip irrigation line close to the base of your plants, you can use much less water and keep them up to the heat.
  • Consider using a shade tunnel. These handy things will do two things for your plants. They’ll act as a wind barrier, keeping moisture where it needs to be and not accelerated by blowing wind. Shade tunnels will also keep leafy greens perky and able to thrive.
  • Finally, while it’s certainly too late in the MN summer to start planting new perennials, you might want to consider for the next growing season plants that do well in direct sun and heat. Veggies like sweet potatoes, okra, peppers of many varieties, tomatoes, and cucumbers all love direct sun and heat. That’s one way to turn a scorching summer into a positive.

Let us know if you have any ideas for dealing with summer heat. Leave a message in the comment section below. Happy gardening!

How to Beat the Heat (Advice for Humans AND Animals)

It’s been a scorcher this summer.

That’s the hard part about being a gardener. There is a non-stop list of work to do, so being able to take time off during the peak heat is pretty-much a non-starter. With little rain, extreme heat and the hottest month ahead of us, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit a post we did a few years back that shows what our gardeners do to stay cool during the hot months.

Cover Your Skin

You can see Rochester wearing a wide-brim hat to keep the sun off his neck.

Wearing shirts and long pants that cover your skin is one method they recommend. In the times with high heat, the clothes (if lighter, like white or sky blue) will repel the heat. Cotton is the best fabric to use as it allows perspiration to occur. If you can avoid jeans, you’ll be better off, as well.

Also, if you can cover your face with a sun hat or even a baseball cap, your skin will appreciate it. Since your head is the first thing to receive the suns rays, it will be taking the brunt of the heat. Simply using a hat will minimize your exposure to the heat, allowing you to stay cooler for longer.

Work Earlier in the Day

The crew works early in the morning before the day starts to warm up. As it’s usually cooler earlier in the day, it’s a perfect time to get exerting projects done.

It’s not a particularly unique idea, but working when it’s cooler out is a no-brainer. In fact, I just read that trash collectors in Washington DC are expected to start working during the early morning in this summer to get most of their routes done before it gets too hot.

In the same vein, they take the time to take breaks. Our garden crew takes a few minutes every hour to come inside, have a drink of water, and relax. Staying out of the heat seems like a simple solution, but it works!

Drink Something With Electrolytes

Hay Time Switchel is a drink long used by farmers and harvesters.

If you can’t get out of the heat, then it’s important to combat the effects of the heat. Working in the sun causes your body to sweat. (No kidding!) Sweating is important to stay cool, but the salt (electrolytes) lost in the process is necessary for proper function.

Drinking water is great, but you still need to replenish the lost salt in your system. That’s why “Gatorade” has such a following. But, you don’t need to go out and buy a sports drink. You can make your own. We’ve got a recipe for Hay Time Switchel that will get you back on your feet.

Hay Time Switchel

  • 1 Cup light brown sugar
  • 1 Cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 Cup light molasses
  • 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 quart cold water

Combine all ingredients and stir well.  Makes 6 seven ounce glasses.  This can be refrigerated, but old timers made it with cold spring water and said nothing quenched a thirst or cooled a dusty throat in haying time as this drink.

Keeping Your Animals Cool

I had a chat with a coworker who fosters lost and injured wild animals, along with normal pets. She’s got a lot of experience involved with the caretaking of animals and she says that animals don’t really need much help from humans.

“They’re smarter than us,” she joked. She says they’ll find a way to cool off, whether that’s removing themselves from the sun, rolling in mud (if they’re pigs), and dunking under water. She even described how squirrels will lay on their belly with their arms and legs stretched out and “heat dump” on the ground.

Squirrels will “heat dump” to cool off during the summer.

But, the one thing she says we can do is just keep their coping mechanisms in mind. If they like shade and water, keep it around for them to decided when to use it. Keeping clean water sources such as shallow bird baths for your feathered friends and even deeper dishes for larger wildlife are accepted and used when needed.

Do you have any ways to keep your pets and animals cool during the hot stretches? Let us hear ’em in the comments below.

Meat CSA Program to Aid Both Local Farmers and Local Watersheds

Up the Creek Meats came from the simple idea that not all farming is the same, and to farm in a way that protects our soil and water resources takes skills, knowledge and physical abilities that have value beyond that of the cost of a double quarter pounder with cheese.  The abundant water resources in our area provide us with many benefits; beautiful scenery, food in the way fish and irrigation for crops, and income as a popular tourist destination.

How cattle are raised has a specific and direct influence in the quality of the watershed where they live.

What happens upstream affects water quality downstream and if we care about the quality of the water in our lakes, we should support the farmer and rancher upstream.  We should understand the challenges they face to produce our food and to protect our water.

And we should pay them well for their efforts.

Starting only a few years ago with the UMN Regional Sustainable Development Partnership “Cows for Clean Water” marketing study in 2017 is one way we have been working to build support for this concept. Work on the feasibility of a mobile slaughter unit followed soon after that and is where the name Up the Creek Meats originated.

While not in production, yet, Up the Creek Meats will provide meat from producers who are committed to raising their animals in a way that protects the health and soil of their region.

This effort was recently given a big boost with the support of the MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates and the concept of “meat shares” in support of clean water.  Working in conjunction with local lake associations, lake association members order shares from a producer in the watershed who is implementing adaptive grazing management on their farm or ranch and thereby protecting the health of the soil and our water resources.

As a pilot program, there are just a few producers on the list and marketing is being targeted to just a couple of local watersheds in the area, but MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates is a statewide organization and has started a campaign to educate its entire membership on the Up the Creeks Meats concept. 

HDT’s work to grow good stewards and build capacity for local processing and distribution in support of area farmers and ranchers will continue, but in the meantime it’s encouraging to know that others are taking up the charge, and the understanding that agriculture done well heals. 

Welcome Home Little Chickens

Happy Dancing Turtle will be the home for fifty chickens for the summer. We plan on keeping these beauties on campus for around through August, when they’ll be collected and butchered. (It was explained to me that they’ll live a really good life and then have one bad day.)

You may not know that baby chicks can be shipped right through the mail. We got a neat call from the Pine River Post Office last week. Just listen to the happy little ones!

You’ll never guess what we got in the mail!
Meet one of our “chicken tenders.” Avery will be making sure the chicks are well taken care of during their stay at HDT.
Look how happy the little chirps are!

Our chicken coop is something a little different. It used to be a car park where we stored our garden and maintenance equipment. With an upgraded storage space on campus, we reused the space for a coop.

Home Grown Stewards – Daily Activities

The third component of our new Home Grown Stewards program is our private Facebook group where we post daily activities for families.

For 9 weeks this summer, from June 15 – August 14,  participants can log in every weekday to find a new activity that can be completed at home, either with no materials needed or items you already have on hand. Each week has a different theme that the activities are based on.

Monday’s activities with Kim are aimed at our younger learners while Wednesdays with Ellie include a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) activity.

Finishing up our third week, we’ve already had some fantastic activities! The theme for the first week was birds, with followers encouraged to make a bird’s nest out of natural materials and other objects found around the house, engineer a bird that actually flies, craft silhouettes for their windows so birds don’t fly into them, and more!

Week two, which emphasized the importance of pollinators, had families fashioning a bee bath because bees and other pollinators need fresh water just as much as humans do, creating a butterfly feeder, and simulating pollination with a homemade bug.

Here’s a sample of the cool stuff you can find out in our daily activities group.

With many families out of town and busy with 4th of July festivities this, the third week, we issued daily outdoor challenges, such as going on a listening walk, observing and relaxing in nature, and picking up litter.

Eco Camp at Home

Eco Camp at Home is taking registrations now. You can register right now for July and August sessions.

For over ten years, Happy Dancing Turtle has been home to Eco Camp, week-long day camps focused on coaxing out a curiosity for sustainability and nature in young ones. It is, without a doubt, the highlight of our year. We love interacting with the kids, showing them new things, and just being goofy. Just look:

However, we made the prudent decision to suspend our in-person camping experiences this year, due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Staying distant at this time just makes sense even though it just breaks our hearts to be away from your smiling faces.

However, that does not mean we are going to suspend the mission of getting you an environmentally focused educational curriculum. Oh no! We’re not going to give up that easily.

That’s why we’ve designed our new program that gives you (essentially) the same experience of Eco Camp, only in the comfort and safety of your own home.

Introducing Eco Camp At Home, one our Home Grown Stewards programs. We will deliver to your home a box of activities that will bring the Eco Camp experience to you.

NoraReadingAtHomesmall

Our eco-counselors will give you the best environmental education…only from a safe distance.

Each morning, campers will have a chance to meet with their camp counselors in a brief Zoom meeting, where they’ll set the theme for the day, do a group activity, and connect with their fellow eco-campers to share what they’ve been working on.

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Book Review – “Balanced and Barefoot” and “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather

This week’s blog post is written by Kim Norman, who will be entering her 6th year as an eco-counselor at HDT for this summer.  For more information on Kim you can watch Kim’s introduction video. Head on over to our main page for more information on HDT summer programming, 

Last summer I began a mission to grow in my children a love for the outdoors. We are not adventurous in the realm of camping or hiking, but merely enjoy exploring the world outside our back door. In my seeking, I have come across a handful of books that are on my reading list.

balancebeam

Mason is mastering the balance beam.

Currently, two books have had a profound influence on me. I am a parent, but also an educator. I strive to communicate to parents the importance of unstructured play. I am adjusting my approach to include more physical movement and outdoor play to raise more confident, resilient, and healthy children.

The first title, “Balanced and Barefoot” is written by Angela J. Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook (a nature-based developmental program). She describes, in easy to read terminology, the importance of unstructured, physical play. She moves beyond the playground and focuses on the need for children to challenge their bodies and engage the body and senses. She also examines how bodies grow and how a child’s environment can impact that growth. Active play is critical, and outdoor play is therapeutic.

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World Environment Day – Teaching Our Children

It should never be understated the importance of raising awareness amongst future generations, our children, of sustainable practices. It is essential that future generations see our planet in a different way than we do, i.e. that they don’t see it as a source from which to extract any needed material to satisfy any slight desire.

worldendayToday, Friday, June 5 is World Environment Day. It’s a day that was created to bring political and social awareness to the environment on a global scale. It’s intention is to make aware that our planet is, indeed, all of ours. We are the planet’s caretakers.

daveecocam

Dave taking the time to show some gardening techniques.

Since World Environment Day’s inception, and it’s grand motivation, many great things have been done to help ensure that we can live in symbiosis with our planet. Awareness has risen on the importance of our place in the environment. Worldwide campaigns against deforestation, global warming, food waste, and air pollution have brought these concerns front and center. However, in the last several years, there have been political and commercial agencies that have disregarded these lesson.

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