Edible Nature

June 29, 2012

Last week, I collected the first garbanzo bean out of the Erika J. Glazer Family Home Garden. After showing the seed to some of my colleagues, who exclaimed, "Wow, that’s a garbanzo bean," I realized what a profound thing I was holding in my hand. From this tiny package an entire plant can spring, the potential for new life was right there in my hand.  

Garbanzo bean close-up To tell you more about this tiny seed I'll pass you over to Vanessa Vobis, one of our Gallery Interpreters that works in the garden.  

Vanessa stopped working for a quick photo opp.   "When I look at garbanzo beans, Cicer arietinum, I think of humus, Indian dishes, and the story of Jack and the beanstalk. Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, are legumes with a rich and nuanced history across many cultures. Over 7,500 year-old remains have been found in the Middle East; making garbanzo beans one of the oldest cultivated vegetables! Presently, India grows the most chickpeas in the world. These climbing vines grow to about 10-20 inches tall and the beans are a good source of zinc, protein, and fiber. If we think rhyzomatically, like the way fungi create vast webs across forest floors, we realize we are part of that food web. A larvae chews on the leaves of a garbanzo plant, that plant feeds on the nutrients and minerals in the soil, and those nutrients are made accessible by the fungi, earthworms, and micro-organisms breaking down materials. The Home Garden is not just an edible landscape, it is also a functioning habitat that provides homes and food for countless other creatures. While the plants in the Home Garden are closely linked to what we eat, we have already begun to notice insects, birds, and even squirrels that have come to feast and forge relationships with our plants. We are especially welcoming of the bees because they help pollinate our flowers, and word on the street is that bees are responsible for pollinating every third bite of the food that we eat!"   

Companion plantings to encourage pollinators and other beneficial bugs in the garden. Looking at this tiny bean and all the other ripening food in the Home Garden, there are many connections to be made. We can be awed by a seed's potential to spring forth new life, amazed at the intricate relationships plants and animals can have right in our own backyards, and be thankful for the sustenance a plant will give us at our next meal. 

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Kindergartner Finds Greater Yellow Underwing Moth on North Campus

May 25, 2012

This past weekend the Museum hosted the 26th annual Bug Fair. Over the course of 72 hours, more than 10,000 people visited us. These lucky visitors got to see, do, and taste many things. At Curator of Entomology Brian Brown's table, visitors were able to see the world's smallest fly from Thailand (oh and it just happens to be a brand new species in the genus Euryplatea). On our insect stage, they could meet Western Exterminator's bed bug sniffing dogs. If people were hungry, they could head outside and taste some insectuous delights including Orthopteran Orzo, a la Bug Chef David George Gordon, or wax worm salad prepared by entomophagy expert Dave Gracer. If they were interested in hunting bugs rather than eating them, we also held bug hunts out in the Erica J. Glazer Family Home Garden.

Everyone was bug huntingWith over 300 people participating in the hunts on both Saturday and Sunday, you won't be surprised that we found a lot of insect diversity. There were many European honeybees, ladybugs, flower flies, and Argentine ants. There were also some insects that I'd never seen before, including an impressive underwing moth that was collected by Kindergartner! It just goes to show that Citizen Scientists are just as likely to make cool and scientifically interesting discoveries as our Museum scientists are. The moth is now our latest addition to the North Campus species list.

Chris Weng, age 6 One of our newest Citizen Science converts

Check out those underwings!The moth Chris found is a Greater Yellow Underwing, Noctua pronuba. Although you would expect the hind wings of this moth to be yellow, they in fact range in color from yellow to orange depending on the individual. This moth is native to Europe and was accidentally introduced into Nova Scotia in 1979 (the year I was born). Over the last 33 years the moth has spread throughout much of North America and can now be found here on the West Coast in many areas including Alaska, California, and British Columbia. This spread is not looked upon kindly by many gardeners and farmers, as the caterpillar is a pest. They feed extensively on a variety of herbaceous plants including grapes, strawberry, tomato, potato, carrot, cabbage, beet, lettuce, and many grasses. Over the last week, I've found many more of these moths around the North Campus. One of our Gallery Interpreters, Vanessa Vobis, also found one in her garden at home. Are they in your yard too?

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Thorny Devils in the Garden

March 9, 2012

I was recently out and about in the garden and found some fascinating insects, Keelbacked Treehoppers, Antianthe expansa. They were on some of our celery plants and are, according to Vanessa Vobis Master Gardener and Museum Gallery Interpreter, "a very annoying pest on our tomatoes."

Adult Keelbacked Treehopper on celery(Approximately ¼ inch or 7 mm long)When I found the Keelbacked Treehoppers, all but one were in the nymphal (immature) stage. As nymphs, these insects do not have wings (this is true for all insectsjust look at caterpillars, grubs, and maggots), and are bound to the area in which they were deposited as eggs by their mother. The nymphs are often attended by ants, which feed on their sugary excreta and provide a level of defense against the treehopper's predators. Though it should be noted that this is not always the case, there were no ants in attendance around the treehoppers I found, so this isn't a reliable mode of identification.   When I found the treehoppers in our Edible Garden, they were feeding on one of the celery plants. They feed on the juices (phloem sap to be exact) inside the plant by inserting their tiny straw-like mouthparts and sucking up the liquid. Although many sources say that these insects cause little, if any, damage to the plants they are on, this is not always the case! When populations of these insects are high enough they can cause serious stunting and sometimes lead to the loss of plants. Many gardeners in our area complain of these pests on their tomatoes. It is not clear if the decline in plant health is due to excessive feeding by these insects or by secondary infections spread to the plant during feeding. 

Immature Keelbacked Treehopper photo courtesy of Vanessa VobisFrom a naturalist's perspective these insects are some of the more weird and wonderful. Adult treehoppers (family Membracidae) can be recognized by the prominent enlargement of the pronotum (segment directly behind the head). This enlargement gives many treehoppers a humpbacked or thorny look, hence the other common name for these insects: thorn bugs. However, some tropical species go beyond the thorny devil look and opt instead for something a bit more insectuous! Case in point, the Cyphonia treehopper has a pronotum that mimics an aggressive ant species, which not only looks awesome, but is a great defensive mechanism against predators.      

Cyphonia treehopper with ant-like pronotumimage from Nicolas Gompel/Nature 

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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