It is nice to be reminded of why I am an ecologist, why I study trees, and why I care about helping trees grow in cities. Photosynthesis is cool!
As a Masters’ student in the Frank lab, I study relatively small organisms called ground beetles. Ground beetles are used to monitor forest health because they are common, vary in food and habitat requirements, and are sensitive to human-caused disturbances.
Cities are hot and often dry. This makes the plants dry and unhealthy. But what about the animals? They can gain water by ‘drinking’ from moist soil or dew, or by eating plants that are mostly water. But what if they can’t find enough to drink?
A mystery began to nag at me. Some trees in the hottest areas within cities were covered in insect pests and still looked vigorous, while other trees with the same pest densities withered.
Urban yards can be tough for bees. There are often not enough flowers, or the wrong kinds of flowers, so people compensate with pollinator gardens. However, cities are also hot, due to impervious surfaces and the urban heat island effect.
Unless you want an itchy rash, your best bet is to steer clear of these little critters altogether. And if you’re a couple of scientists trying to insert a data logger into a nest filled with two hundred of them? Well, your best bet is to suit up.
For many years, scientists have used forest maps to focus their predictions about where these itchy caterpillars might spread. But, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the PPM doesn’t actually need forests. It just needs trees, and it’s willing to accept the ones in the front yard, thank you very much.
While the stars of last year’s table were undoubtedly the azalea caterpillars—which were very resilient during a long day of being picked up, and dropped, by visitors of all ages—the azalea bushes were empty when it came time to collect this year.
I can expect this encounter to go one of two ways. This is a woman with an insatiable appetite for learning, whose scholastic intrigue cannot keep her from asking me what I am doing, OR she is a slightly disgruntled neighbor. She is the latter.
Pink-striped oakworms are chomping on oak trees in Raleigh right now and leaving piles of frass (poop) in their wake. Spot them on your trees by looking for branches with all of their leaves chewed off.