Sometimes adding a new plant to your yard can unexpectedly bring in exciting new animals. When our recently-planted potato bush began to flower, we started to hear a novel sound from its vicinity. The bush seemed to be bizzing. Bizz, bizz, bizz.
Upon investigation, the sound turned out to be these striped bees, a species of digger bees. The potato bush has deep purple flowers which produce only powdery pollen, not nectar. The center of the flower is a yellow knob. The bees fly into the center, grasp the knob, press their abdomen against it, and then bizz. The vibration produced causes to knob to release pollen like a salt shaker releases salt. The pollen sticks to the fuzzy body of the bee as the bee flies on to the next flower.
What do the bees do with the pollen? They groom it from their bodies, form it into clumps, and mix it with nectar to feed to their larvae. When bees make a noise to release pollen from a flower it is called buzz pollination.
When carpenter bees visit the plant, they make a deeper buzzing tone, as you would expect with their larger bodies.
Tomato flowers are similar in structure to our potato bush. When people grow tomatoes in greenhouses, they may actually bring in bumblebees to perform the task of buzz pollinating their crops. For more information, visit the GEARs website. (link broken)
Have you ever dug through a pile of leaf litter or looked under a log? How about sifted through a compost heap? Take some time to find a quiet, preferably moist, spot where pieces of dead plants are piled and spend a while getting to know the small, but important animals that live there. Prepare to be amazed at how many different tiny creatures dwell in this often-ignored part of our world.
Before you get started, you might want to gather up a few items:
A magnifying lens can help you see more details
Tweezers, forceps or a small stick to gently move leaves or bark
Small paintbrush to remove dirt and move tiny creatures
Paper and pencil to make drawings and record results
Locate a compost heap, pile of leaves or logs where you have permission to explore. First survey the area. Make sure you and your family are familiar with common poisonous creatures such as snakes or scorpions that might also be found hiding under leaves, rocks or logs in your community. Bees and wasps sometimes nest in the ground too, so exercise caution.
Gently begin to turn over leaves or peel off loose bark. Pay close attention. What kinds of things might you see?
Insects such as beetles, crickets, cockroaches, ants or earwigs
If you are lucky you might find a few creatures that are children's favorites, the rolypolies or sowbugs (also called potato bugs, wood lice and various other names). Depending on the type, rolypolies and sowbugs are 1/4- to 1/2-inch-long, gray and relatively hard shelled.
If you find some, gently pick one up. How does it react to being picked up? Does it roll into a tight ball? If so, then it is a rolypoly.
Does it simply try to scamper away? Then it is likely to be a sowbug. Sowbugs look similar to rolypolies, but lack the ability to curl up tightly.
The rolypolies and sowbugs belong to a group of animals called the Isopoda. "Iso" means same, and "poda" means foot. Carefully tip yours over and see if this name fits. Does all its feet look the same? How many legs does it have? Insects have six legs and spiders have eight legs, do you think it is either of those?
Does the isopod have eyes? Does it have antennae? What are those small spikes sticking out from the rear part?
When scientists carefully examined isopods, and then compared the isopod appendages and other characteristics to those of other groups of animals, they figured out that isopods are closely related to crabs, shrimp and lobsters. They are crustaceans. Tiny crustaceans in your garden or compost heap, isn't that cool?
What happens when you set your isopod back down? Does it run towards the light or away from the light? Does it try to hide or does it curl up? Try thinking up some more questions to ask.
Keep looking through the litter. You will probably encounter a few things less familiar than the rolypolies, but no less interesting. Have a lot of fun while you observe and learn about this hidden world.
If you can't get outside this weekend, then pick up a few books, like the ones suggested below. After reading them, crawl around the house pretending to be earthworms, crickets and isopods.
Rolypolyology (Backyard Buddies) by Michael Elsohn Ross, Published by Carolrhoda Books, Inc. Minneapolis, 1995. ISBN 0876149018 contains detailed information and ideas for experiment with isopods.
Compost Critters by Bianca Lavies, Published by Dutton, 1993. ISBN 0525447636 has absolutely stunning photographs of the inhabitants of a compost heap. Amazing!
We are excited to let everyone know we will be participating in a blogging carnival this month about Environmental Education called Learning in the Great Outdoors.
According to the website, the carnival “is intended to be a monthly clearinghouse for online resources, discussions, tools, debate, or any other information related to using the environment as a context for learning.
If you are interested in nature and environmental education, take a look at the results from last month's May 2008 carnival hosted at the 10,000 Birds website. You might want to spend some time checking out the rest of this interesting site, too.
The June 2008 carnival will be held at The Miss Rumpius Effect blog, by a teacher educator who discusses poetry, children's literature and issues related to teaching children. Stop by her science resources for teachers, too.
We also want to thank Karen at Leaping From the Box for mentioning us in her blog. If you are interested in homeschooling, Karen's website, blog and chat are great resources.