Venus looking glass II

Venus’ Looking glass

Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.

Al Bernstein

 

This spring took forever, it seemed, to warm up, but it did, and just in time. Rains provided a boost to plants that suffered during the drought of last year, and dogwoods, crabapples, azaleas and rhododendrons had fabulous flowers this spring. But now June is here, and yesterday marked the first day of summer, and so we move on to the warmer weather and all it brings with it.

elderberry blossoms 2011

Elderberry flower head

Native elderberries are in full bloom right now and many bushes are covered with the large, white flower clusters. Later on, the dark purple fruits will provide food for many birds and mammals. While edible for humans, and high in vitamin C, most people do not care for the raw fruits, but may make jam or pies from them. And mountain laurels are still in bloom now as well. Some cultivars, such as ‘Kaleidoscope and ‘ Firecracker’ have striking red flowers. Dewberry, a native berry that forms mats sometimes as it creeps along the ground, is in bloom now, and its flowers are important food sources for many native bees and butterflies. Soon to come into flower are the native Canada lily, Indian pipe and native wood lilies. Venus’ Looking- glass, Triodanis perfoliata, is a native purple wildflower that has its flowers along the stem at the leaf axils. Poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, should be blooming now. This native milkweed grows well in wooded, shady areas. Flower heads dangle down, unlike those of most milkweeds. The white flowers are attractive to several moth pollinators.

poke milkweed.JPG

Several insect pests are making their presence known. The infamous 4-lined plant bug, a lime green adult with 4 black lines down its back, leaves behind diagnostic feeding damage that later on will look like black angular leaf spots. They are cosmopolitan in plants they will eat. This year they have been reported feeding on many herbs, dandelions (who cares?!), sunflowers, sedum, and the list goes on. Also, both the Colorado and false potato beetles are mating as we speak, and they seem to be heading for a banner year, population –wise. So crush the eggs as you may find them on any of your nightshade family plants like tomatoes and peppers. Be careful not to crush any lady beetle eggs, though, as the larva will feed on those of the potato beetles.

moutain laurel

mountain laurel cultivar

Colorado potato beetle June 2017pg

Colorado Potato Beetle laying eggs

On a walk along a power line yesterday, I was delighted to see two visitors from the south- common buckeye butterflies. I have not seen these occasional visitors since Hurricane Sandy, so this a good butterfly to keep on the look-out for. Red- spotted purple, viceroys and American lady butterflies should be in the process of laying eggs now, if they haven’t already. I found several tiny spicebush swallowtail caterpillars also this week. Check out your dill, fennel or parsley, because the black swallowtail butterfly may have laid an egg or two on them, and the caterpillars may have hatched out.

common buckeye June 21 2017 Coldbrook

A visiting common buckeye butterfly

Swamp milkweed leaf beetles are easy to spot with their red and black elytra. Not pests, these chunky beetles are just a colorful splash on a green background. Pine sawyers, longhorn beetles commonly mistaken for the invasive Asian long-horned beetle, are active now. They will often visit newly stained decks until the stain dries out. Dogwood calligrapha beetles, striking in their spiffy black markings on a white background, are out and about on native dogwoods now.

calligrapha

dogwood calligrapha beetle

There are many birds that are now fluttering around trying to keep up with newly fledged young.  Catbirds, robins, red-tailed hawks, Carolina and house wrens, Bob-o-links and some sparrows have a clutch early and some species, like the ubiquitous robins have a second brood. Fledglings are often very loud as they beg for food, and get louder still as mothers withhold food briefly, to teach them how to fend for themselves.

chipping sparrows just hatched 6-6-14

Chipping sparrow nest

we recently had a visitor to our office. A green bullfrog somehow landed in our window well and could not escape. So we managed to catch it and Joan Allen walked it to a nearby pond. Another bit of excitement at work.

froggie in the window.jpg

froggy in the window

As you venture out into the landscape, I hope curiosity will get the best of you, causing you to turn over leaves looking for insects, watching birds as you see and hear them, and bending over to see what is lurking on the ground by your feet. In such a way we become more interactive with the environment and thus, less frightened or at least dismayed by new discoveries. Look stuff up when you find it. Curiosity did not kill the cat, nor will it do likewise to people. Nor has asking questions ever done any harm, at least as far as I know…

P1220437.JPG

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

“ The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.”

-Edwin Way Teale

crabapples along driveway route 85 May 7 2017

Crabapples along a fence highlight a driveway on Route 85 – May 2017

 

May is usually the time of warmer weather and sunny days that brighten the landscape again with flushes of green leaves and splashes of color from flowers. We look forward to another season of gardening and other outdoor activities, and the encounters with nature that are unavoidable as one ventures outside.

This May has been colder than I would prefer, but at least it has seen more rainfall than last spring. The reason this is especially good news is that the gypsy moth caterpillars have recently hatched, and the rains bring hope that the fungal pathogen, Entomophaga maimaiga, will help diminish populations of this pest. Last year they went unchecked for most of their caterpillar stage as drought conditions kept fungal spores from germinating.

wilsons warbler May 12, 2014

A Wilson’s warbler stopped by on its way north

Ferns are opening up now and their graceful forms are a welcome decoration wherever they appear. My personal favorites are the scented fern, cinnamon fern and the diminutive polypody which are often found growing together on rocks with mosses. Polypody work well in dish gardens coupled with moss and partridgeberry, and can be brought indoors for the winter, or left outside if that works better.

sensitive ferns

Sensitive ferns in a wetland area

 

Most trees have leafed out by now, with the pokey sycamores and hickories lagging behind, as usual. With the flush of leaves come the migrating warblers. Caterpillars are now found eating leaves in the tree canopies, and this is where many of the warblers find some protein for their return to northern breeding grounds. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, orioles, and thrushes are all back and they have transformed the woodlands to a symphony of birdsong. Also, barred and great horned owls born in late winter and early spring have left their nests, and parents can often be heard calling to their young. Many robins have already hatched their first brood as of two weeks ago, so it must be true that the early bird gets the worm…

mother and two baby great horned owls Pamm Cooper photo 2017

These young great horned owls left the nest days after this picture was taken.

 

Dogwoods have had spectacular blooms this year, and crabapples and viburnums as well. Yellow water lilies, Nuphar lutea, are beginning to bloom. This plant closes its flower late in the day, trapping beetles or flies overnight who will pollinate it as they try to escape.

Yellow pond lilies Nuphar luteum Airline 5-14-16

Limber honeysuckle, Lonicera dioica, a native vine-like shrub that is infrequently encountered, is also starting to bloom. The tubular red flowers have distinctive yellow stamens and attract hummingbirds and native bumblebees. Fringed polygala, a small, pink native wildflower with flowers that make me think of Mickey Mouse with an airplane propeller, are just beginning to bloom and are often found together with stands of the native Canada Mayflower. Native columbine are also blooming now and native Pinxter azalea should be following shortly.

limber honeysuckle May 7 2017

limber honeysuckle

fringed polygala May 13, 2015 Pamm Cooper photo

Fringed polygala

Interesting galls are forming on the young leaves on wild cherry. Spindle galls, caused by the mite Eriophyes emarginatae, are red spindle-like structures of leaf materialcaused by the mites feeding within. These tiny mites begin feeding as soon as cherry leaves expand in the spring. Although they can occur in large numbers, the galls will not stop leaves from photosynthesizing, and the trees will put out new leaves after mites are inactive.

spindle galls on cherry

Spindle galls on a small black cherry

Giant silkworm moths such as Cecropia, Polyphemus and Luna have been overwintering in cocoons and should be eclosing any time from mid- May to June. These spectacular moths usually fly during the night, but are often attracted to lights. Since they cannot feed, if you find any lingering about in the daytime, don’t worry about what to feed them- just enjoy their company!

cecropia female 9p.m. same day as emrged from cocoon 5-31-13

Female Cecropia moth

Swallowtail, Painted Lady, American coppers, Juvenal’s duskywing and many other butterflies are out and about. Wherever you see them, check out larval host plants for caterpillars. Sometimes they are as close as your own backyard.

striped jack-in-the-pulpit for web site

Jack-in-the-pulpit

Here’s hoping for timely rains during the summer, warmer days to get our blood moving and an abundance of fruits, flowers and birds that to follow May’s fore-running to summer.

 

Pamm Cooper

 

lime-bag-homedepot

Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

ph-meter

pH Meter

-Carol Quish

Goldenrods and Spotted Joe-pye at the entrance to Harkness Park in Waterford September14, 2015

Goldenrods and Spotted Joe-pye at the entrance to Harkness Park in Waterford September14, 2015

My tent stands in a garden
Of aster and goldenrod,
Tilled by the rain and the sunshine,

And sown by the hand of God, –   Bliss William Carman

Goldenrods, Solidago ssp., form one of the most interesting interrelationships between flora and fauna of the late- season flowering plants in New England.  The name solidago is from two Latin words meaning  “ to make” and “ whole”, referring to its use as herbal remedies in the form of teas or compresses, among other uses. Goldenrods are perennial herbs that are members of the Asteraceae, or aster, family. Flowering in August and September they are often found blooming together with the Joe-pyes and asters. The time of year that they bloom has made them a scapegoat for many allergy sufferers who believe  they are to blame them for symptoms that are actually due to the ragweeds that flower at the same time.

The colorful brown-hooded owlet caterpillar that feed on goldenrod flower buds as well as leaves

The colorful brown-hooded owlet caterpillar that feed on goldenrod flower buds as well as leaves

Goldenrods naturally produce rubber, the Solidago altissima, or Tall Goldenrod being the champ at 6.34.%  rubber content. Thomas Edison experimented with a cultivation process to increase rubber content in these plants. George Washington Carver and Henry Ford devised a process to make a much- needed rubber substitute during World War II using goldenrods.

Goldenrods have a unique type of inflorescence that consists of many tiny flowers that aggregate together in a flower head and form a “ false flower”. The individual flowers are most commonly in the form of ray flowers or disk flowers. Identification of species is often done by observing the hairs on the seeds, which may be visible when the plant is still in flower. Goldenrods vary in height, with the tallest (Solidago altissima) at six feet. Some, such as Solidago odora (Sweet Goldenrod) have pleasant odors.

Honey bee on Downy Goldenrod

Honey bee on Downy Goldenrod

One of the most common goldenrods in New England is the Canada goldenrod, Solidago Canadensis. It is considered alleopathic to sugar maple seedlings, producing chemicals that inhibit their growth. Habitat is disturbed areas- meadows and fields or roadsides. This is a tall plant with hairy stems and a plume flower arrangement. It is associated with the goldenrod  gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis, whose larva feed inside a round gall on the stem which is formed by the reaction of the plant to the larva’s saliva. You can easily find these galls when green or later in the season when stalks turn brown. The larva chew an exit hole before the plant tissue hardens up for the winter. In the spring, the adult fly will exit through this hole. Downy woodpeckers and chickadees will peck at these galls to access the larva, especially in harsh winters.

Goldenrod bunch gall and goldenrod fly gall.

Goldenrod bunch gall and goldenrod fly gall.

Tiger Swallowtail on Canada Goldenrod

Tiger Swallowtail on Canada Goldenrod

Licorice goldenrod, Solidago odora, has a licorice or anise, scent and the leaves were used in a tea by the Cherokee for colds, coughs, and fevers. This plant is found in the southernmost parts of the New England states, but is absent in Maine. Found in woodlands, along roadsides, disturbed sites and old fields, the flowers have been used to make deep yellow dyes and attract beneficial insects such as lady beetles and lacewings.

Solidago bicolor, white goldenrod, is found at the edges of woodlands. It is also sometimes called “ silver rod “ in reference to its white flowers, the only goldenrod with white flowers in the eastern part of the country. The stamens and pollen will give it a slightly yellow look. Sometimes the spectacular brown hooded owlet caterpillar can be found on this plant where it primarily eats the flower buds and flowers. Found more often on goldenrods with longer flower spikes, this caterpillar is a favorite  of many lepidopterists.

Silverrod on woodland edge

Silverrod on woodland edge

Solidago juncea, or early goldenrod, gets its common name from its bloom time, which can be as much as a month prior to many other goldenrod species. This attractive, slender plant has a very delicate appearance, and can be distinguished from other goldenrods by the lack of, or near lack, on the stems and leaves. White-tailed deer, woodchucks, cottontail rabbits and livestock may feed on the plant if less desirable food is available.

Goldenrods provide a source of seeds for Eastern Goldfinch, Tree, Swamp and Song Sparrows as well as some migrating warblers such as the Yellow- rumped warblers.

There are many insects and other arthropods that rely on goldenrods for survival. Bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, cucumber beetles and many others visit flowers for nectar and pollen. Blister beetles are often found on these plants in the late summer and early fall. Butterflies of many species benefit from the long nectar season provided by goldenrods that provide bloom in succession for two months. Migratory butterflies especially depend on this food source as they travel south. Many beneficial insects, such as soldier beetles and assassin bugs use the flowers as either food sources or hideouts, where they wait to ambush other insects. If you see a butterfly hanging upside down without moving, check and see if an ambush bug or crab spider is feeding on it. Caterpillars such as the Asteroid and Brown-hooded Owlet, aphids, tarnished plant bugs, and many other insects feed on flowers, stems and leaves. Wasps, goldenrod and crabr spiders, praying mantids, lacewings, ambush bugs, assassin bugs, spined soldier bugs and birds prey on insects that visit or live on the plants.

Asteroid Caterpillar- named for the family of plants it feeds on.

Asteroid Caterpillar- named for the family of plants it feeds on.

Chinese mantids also hang out around goldenrods, and often lay their egg masses on its stems. Look for these in the winter if heavy snows haven’t mashed the plants into the ground. I sometimes take a stem with the mantid egg case and stick it in my garden. The mantids usually emerge by mid- May.

There is a great interconnection between goldenrods, vertebrates and invertebrates, and nature reveals such things to the careful observer. If you happen upon some goldenrod, or seek it out on purpose, just a few moments of careful observation will be rewarded with a peek into the drama that is on display in a simple stand of yellow flowers.

Pamm Cooper                               All photos © 2015 Pamm Cooper

One of the nicest things about living in Enfield is our proximity to the Scantic River in the Hazardville section of our town. We have spent many enjoyable hours walking or snowshoeing along the banks of the river.

Autumn reflections, SAPelton photo

Autumn reflections, SAPelton photo

The Scantic River runs through an area known as Powder Hollow, so named because Loomis, Denslow and Company produced gunpowder, saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal there. In 1837 Colonel Augustus Hazard bought into the company and was instrumental in building it into a major producer of gunpowder. At its peak there were 125 buildings spread over one and a half miles along the river and among these were twenty-five water-powered wheels, three hydraulic presses and three steam engines. From 1843 to 1876 the Hazard Powder Company provided gunpowder for many endeavors including the war with Mexico in 1846, the 1849 Gold Rush, the 1854 Crimean War (where they supplied both Britain and Russia with gunpowder), and to the Union forces during the American Civil War. After the Civil War the demand for gunpowder declined and the business began to fail. There were many explosions over the years and in 1871 much of the plant was destroyed. There are still several sites along the river where the old stone foundations and blast walls can still be seen. The former horse barn on South Maple Street is still in use today as a venue for special events.

Remaining foundations, SAPelton photo

Remaining foundations, SAPelton photo

Today, The Scantic River State Park runs through Enfield, East Windsor, and Somers with many areas that are suitable for hiking, fishing, canoeing or kayaking. Each season brings new ways to enjoy the outdoors. Every spring the Scantic Spring Splash canoe and kayak race is held. People come from all over the East Coast to participate in this fun event.

Spring conditions on the Scantic River. SAPelton photo.

Spring conditions on the Scantic River. SAPelton photo.

Late March is also a great time to walk along the river as the ice breaks up and the river flows quickly by. There are many places were beaver lodges and dams can be seen as well as trees that have been felled by these natural engineers. New plants are emerging and fern and skunk cabbage abound. I always think that the brownish-purple spathe of the newly emerging skunk cabbage looks as if it was transported from an alien planet.

A skunk cabbage spathe. SAPelton photo

A skunk cabbage spathe. SAPelton photo

Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) growing on a stump. SAPelton photo.

Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) growing on a stump. SAPelton photo.

An October hike is an adventure for the both the eyes and the ears as all the shades of autumn in New England are overhead and underfoot. The remaining stone foundations of the Hazard Powder Company become prominent as the foliage drops. Our children always loved to climb around the ruins during these walks.

Autumn colors frame the river. SAPelton photo

Autumn colors frame the river. SAPelton photo

In January or February a good snowfall followed by a 40 degree day provides the perfect setting to set out on snowshoes. The sun reflecting off of the ice and snow on the river is a beautiful sight and it is so quiet and peaceful. The Scantic River is a one of those wonderful gifts that nature offers to us and I highly recommend a visit to see it any time of the year.

A stop along the Scantic River. SAPelton Photo

A stop along the Scantic River. SAPelton Photo

The beauty of winter along the Scantic River. SAPelton photo.

The beauty of winter along the Scantic River. SAPelton photo.

Susan Pelton

 

 

Red-tailed hawks, Buteo jamaicensis, are one of the most common and widespread hawks of North America They get their genus name from the Buteo genus of hawks which are known for their sturdy body and broad wings. Their species name comes from the island of Jamaica, where they were first studied scientifically. Besides North America, these hawks can be found in Central America and some Caribbean islands, including Cuba and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Red-Tailed Hawk Range, nationalgeographic.com

Red-tailed hawks get their familiar name from the rusty brown tail sported by the adult hawks. It is easy to identify an adult either from the air or when perched. The underbelly is white with a broad band of dark brown horizontal streaks across the middle. The beak is short and dark, while the legs, cere and feet are yellow. Generally, birds that are under two years old have bands of brown and white on the tail and develop the classic red tail in their third year.

RedTailedHawk, amherst.edu

Red-tails are most often found in open habitats such as roadsides, fields and power lines, which provide an excellent vantage for sighting prey. They are also frequently seen perching on light fixtures and telephone poles along roadways. They soar in slow circles as they climb skyward on thermal updrafts. You may see a bird suddenly stop or seem to hover from a great distance above the ground and then dive straight down to the ground to capture an unwitting animal.
If you hear some blue jays or crows yakking away, it might be because they have spotted a red-tail ( or a Great Horned Owl ) and are harassing it. This behavior is called “mobbing”.  The goal of mobbing birds is to drive the hawk away from either their young or from food sources both species are competing for. With blue jays, at least to me, it seems like they do it many times just for fun. Usually the hawks simply stay put until the crows tire of their efforts. Or the hawk may have enough and fly to another area. Only once have I ever seen a red-tail respond to mobbing birds by grabbing an unfortunate crow with its talons and dropping the body to the ground. The rest of the crows quickly dispersed and lived to see another day.
Red-tails are generalist and opportunistic feeders, taking whatever prey presents itself. Small mammals such as voles, mice, chipmunks and red squirrels are frequent targets. They will also prey upon other birds, gray squirrels, rabbits, and baby woodchucks. I have seen a juvenile red-tail try to prey on two very large carp that were trapped by debris in a swollen stream bed one spring. From its perch on a small alder situated on the stream bank just above the two fish, the young hawk would jump down upon the backs of the carp. Of course this caused the surprised fish to flop mightily about and the hawk became unsure of what to do. It would retreat back into the tree and try again. This went on for quite a while, and I don’t know if the hawk gave up or finally got its meal. The only reason I even got a chance to watch this drama was because two mallards were quacking up a storm, alarmed by of the presence of the hawk, and I went off a trail to see what the commotion was about.

Young red-tail ‘fishing’, photo by Pamm Cooper

One thing to note about buteos is that the female bird is noticeably larger that the male. Red –tail hawks mate for life and both parents are involved in feeding their young. Males feed their mate while she is sitting on the eggs, usually for 30- 32 days. Eggs hatch a few days apart, so all fledglings are not the same size. One may be considerably delayed leaving the nest while older siblings are already able to fly. Usually in the North East, two or possibly three eggs will be laid. Fledglings leave the nest after 40-46 days after hatching. They will fly after another two or three weeks and start catching their own food 6-7 weeks after that.

Eye-ridge of red-tail, paw.org
Hawks can see a mouse from a height of 100 feet and there is a bony ridge above the eyes that helps block the sun.

A good book about red-tailed hawks is: “ Red-Tails in Love: a Wildlife Drama in Central Park ” written by Marie Winn and published by Pantheon. This book is a true story about a pair of red-tailed hawks that nest on Fifth Avenue in New York City and the band of bird-watchers who become ardent followers of these two birds. It describes the hawk’s courtship, mating and struggle to survive in the big city environment and the ways in which their devoted fans try to help them.
For good information on northern birds, the University of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the American Ornithologist’s Union, and the Academy of Natural sciences worked together on a comprehensive reference, “ The Birds of North America “. Cornell’s lab of Ornithology also has an excellent website that is well worth exploring.

-Pamm Cooper
Sources:
Pennsylvania State University
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Ohio State University

Pile of earthworms. Urbanext.illinois.edu

The soils supporting our home lawns, vegetable and perennial gardens are improved by the presence and activity of earthworms. They are considered beneficial in the plant world. Earthworms move through the layers of soil creating tunnels for water and oxygen to reach the plant roots and channels for root growth. Their movement increases drainage and reduces compaction. Often called “nature’s rototillers”, earthworms feed on organic matter, bacteria, fungi and small soil particles in varying depths depositing their castings, or feces, in other horizons effectively turning the soil over. Castings are rich in nitrogen and nutrients easily absorbed by plants. Their feeding aids decomposition of organic matter, aerates soil, creates good soil structure and develops humus. The Rothamsted Experimental Station in England has done research finding as many as 250,000 earthworms per acre. That is a lot of subterranean work happening! Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to recognize the benefits of earthworms. His last book written in 1882 is on the worm biology and behavior. His discoveries of earthworms are still being seen today.

Often after a rain, earthworms come to the soil surface then re-enter the ground head first. Some scientist think the worms come to surface for air if the ground is saturated. Others believe chemicals in the rain are inhospitable by changing pH and chemical amounts from acid rain. Still others think since the surface is moist, the worms come to the surface to mate. Earthworms are negatively affected by drying out by the sun therefore most surfacing happens at night. The action of tunneling back into the ground squeezes the worm leaving a pile of castings above ground. The casting look like tiny round balls piled up in a pyramid up to two inches depending on the size and type of the worm. Casting piles normally go unnoticed unless the turf is cut exceptionally short like that on golf course greens and tees. Home lawns should be cut to a height of at least three inches. Wet piles can stick to mowing equipment gumming up the blades and gears. The piles are easily dispersed once they dry.

Earthworms breathe through their skin. Oxygen is absorbed by mucous on the outside surface of the worm where it is transferred to the internal organs. This is called a gas exchange. The circulatory system of the earthworm contains five hearts or aortic arches. They pump fluids to blood vessels and capillary beds throughout the body circulating back to the hearts. The earthworm’s digestive system starts with its wide opening of a mouth that its throat or pharynx protrudes out of grabbing organic matter, soil particles and all that they contain. This food is swallowed down to a storage area called a crop. The food then moves to the gizzard where it is ground up by strong muscles and tiny stones and grit swallowed by the worm. Once the food is sufficiently ground, it moves to the intestines where digestive juices extract nutrients and some are absorbed by the worm. Excess digested food is then excreted as worm castings. It is these castings that are rich in nutrients readily available for plant roots to pick up. Earthworms don’t have eyes but are sensitive to light, vibration, touch and chemicals. They want to be in darkness and will move away from the light.

Chemicals added to lawn and garden can kill the earthworms. Preferred pH levels are neutral to 6.6. Adding lime in large doses can be too shocking of a change in their environment. Many earthworms will move to areas with better suited conditions or they may just die. Some insecticides and fungicides have lethal effects on earthworms. Researchers have also found earthworms within chemically treated soils to contain up to 20 times the toxin levels than the soil the worms inhabited. Stored toxins built up in the earthworms could then be passed up the food chain to animals using the earthworms as food.

Earthworms are classified as animal invertebrates. They are in the phylum group Annelida, meaning segmented worms.   Each segment contains four tiny setae or claw like bristles used to move through the soil.  Worms are hermaphroditic;  each worm has both male and female parts with the male pores located on the outside of the animal. Earthworms are not self fertile. They need another worm to mate and reproduce. Each worm is fertilized in the mating process called cross-fertilization.

The most common earthworms found in Connecticut are Lumbricus terrestris, called the Night Crawler, and Lumbricus rubellus called Red Worm. Night crawlers are known to venture deep into the soil in permanent vertical burrows. The will come to the surface to feed also. Red worms prefer to live in a manure pile or area with high organic matter. Both of these earthworms originated in Europe and were introduced to North America unknowingly on plant material, ship ballast, wheels and shoes of immigrants. Native earthworm finding are very rare. It is not known whether native types were wiped out by glaciers scraping the earth or if the new earthworm invaders displaced the old. Different theories exist. What is known is that the earthworms that are present today are many, active and busy decomposing and recycling organic matter in rich new topsoil.

There are some invasive worms originating from Asia that are causing problem in some areas of North America. They are such fast consumers of organic material they are changing the layers of soil and eliminating the forest floor called ‘duff’. Some birds nest in the duff areas to raise their young. Insects and animals that also reside and feed in the fast disappearing habitat are also finding it hard to live. The effect of the exotic worms in the local habitat really is upsetting the ecological balance. Some populations that depend on the areas the worms are ruining might vanish forever. Research is presently being done but much more needs to happen. So does education of the general public. Some fishermen are using invasive worms for bait, then just dumping the leftovers on the ground. They are unknowingly spread the invaders. ATV and off-road enthusiasts also can pick up soil, worms and eggs in tire treads, then depositing them far from the initial infected site. Hopefully in the not too far future, more information and education programs will be available. Keep watching!

-Carol Quish