Wednesday, February 28, 2024

American EEL



When one hears the term slippery as an eel, the first thing that typically comes to mind is a less than trustful individual bent on bamboozling you then slipping away silently into the night never to be heard from again. This phrase having been repeated for generations has become part of English vernacular and is probably not going anywhere soon. For me slippery as an eel takes on a different meaning, in terms of the eel itself.

Several months ago, during a trip to the zoo with my granddaughter she showed an intense fascination for the eels on display. After many repeated trips since that initial visit, she expressed the same desire to “see the eels.” I found this interest in eels at such a young age (she’s 3) curious, after all aren’t most children more inclined towards the elephants, lions, or giraffes? This unusual interest of hers sent me on my own journey to learn about them. After reading books, and pouring over internet sites, it became apparent to me that her interest was (is) valid and I am grateful to her for having  piqued my own interest. Now I too want to “see the eels.”

Did you know that Missouri is home to an eel? I did not. The American Eel is native to North America and may be found throughout much of our country as well as Canada. This slippery torpedo shaped creature lives in many rivers and streams throughout our state. They are clear to green in color depending upon the stage of life they are in. They have a large dorsal fin that extends the entire length of the body. They appear to be smooth but are actually covered in tiny scales, too small for us to see, that are arranged in an irregular pattern and embedded below the skin. A slimy mucus secretes from their skin, which is thought to aid them in moving through the water.

This slippery slime, combined with their serpentine movements makes holding on to one exceeding difficult, thus the term slippery as an eel came into being. They may reach a yard or more in length, with females being larger than males. It is believed that all eels found within our state will be females, as the males stay close to the estuaries near the Atlantic coastline. A state record eel was caught on the Current River in 2021 that weighed a whopping six and a half pounds beating the previous record set in 1994 of a little over four pounds. No one knows for certain how many eels are actually in Missouri, but they are considered threatened in our state. They are nocturnal by nature, and feed on a wide variety of aquatic insects, crayfish, worms  and mussels. During the day they hide under logs, boulders, and other underwater cover. Even though they are capable of tolerating a wide range of temperature fluctuations, during the winter they burrow into the mud and enter into a torpor, or inactive state. 

Eels have an unusual lifecycle that is greatly dependent on their ability to travel river systems, and with the damming of the rivers they are blocked from making that journey. The American eel, along with its cousin the European eel begin their life in the Sargasso Sea, sort of a sea within a sea located near Bermuda. After mating, females will lay as many as four million eggs before dying. These eggs hatch in about one week. 

 

The newly hatched eels are called leptocephali. They will be somewhat leaf-shaped, transparent and will remain in this state for up to a year. At that time, they will have reached the continental shelf and will metamorphosis into the next stage and are referred to as glass eels. These tiny transparent juveniles continue to drift among the ocean currents heading towards North America. As they reach the coastal estuaries they will metamorphosis into elvers with more pigment in their skin and remain in this stage for an additional year.

As they begin their journey up freshwater rivers and their tributaries they are now ready to enter into the next stage of development called the yellow eel. They are considered adults at this stage but are still sexually immature. They will remain yellow eels for more than ten years before significant changes happen with their physiology to prepare them for their final stage of development. At this time, they are referred to as silver eels. 

Photo: K. Leeker

They will change color to green or brown with a white or yellowish belly that appears silver. Their digestive system dissolves, meaning they will no longer be able to feed,  their eyes grow in diameter and adapt the pigments necessary to survive on their upcoming oceanic journey, their pectoral fin enlarges, and lipids increase to supply enough energy to live on for the long migration back to the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn, and die, thus completing their lifecycle. For some eels this journey exceeds 3700 miles,  and takes years to complete, as they face the dangers of being eaten by other eels, eagles, gulls, and other fish-eating birds.

Climate change is dramatically interrupting their lifecycle. With a warming planet the direction and strength of the ocean currents change impeding the eels ability to migrate to their freshwater habitats. Stronger currents drastically throw migrating eels off course, casting them adrift in the ocean currents. The temperature of the water also changes which affects the lifecycle of plankton, reducing their numbers which means less food for the tiny leptocephali and glass eels. Other challenges faced by American Eels as well as European Eels is the over harvest of glass eels. Spain and France especially consider glass eels a delicacy and they are caught in unsustainable numbers, greatly reducing the population of these eels. Without strict regulation, if these actions continue the eel may be no more. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation) has declared the American and European Eels as endangered.

Many Indigenous cultures rely on the eel for their traditions and practices. For many the eel is a source of food, and medicine. Dried eel skins were used to make bindings to hold spear points and axe heads onto sticks, as well as fashion hair ties and sew moccasins together and the oils from the eel treated earaches. We know the travelers of the Mayflower, after months at sea, landed on hostile shores. They spent a year aboard their ship in fear for their lives with no access to nutritional food. Many died of scurvy, and tuberculosis. Tisquantum , also known as Squanto, was a member of the Patuxet tribe. He made peace with the Pilgrams and brought them eels to eat, which saved their lives. He taught them how to find and hunt the eels as well as grow corn and other food. His life saving teachings were greatly appreciated by the newcomers and a feast was held one year after Squanto initiated peace. This feast is referred to as Thanksgiving today. To think we could just as easily be eating eels for our Thanksgiving dinner as we do turkey. I guess the lowly eel didn’t make the cut when the tradition of this feast was handed down from generation to generation. 

With the numbers of eels in sharp decline Canada has listed them as a species of special concern and they are no longer harvested commercially. The United States has not yet followed suit.  I for one hope the powers that be in our country change their mind and gives the eel its due recognition as a unique member of our natural fauna. These slippery, snake-like creatures saved the Pilgrams of the Mayflower, they travel our waterways controlling insect and crayfish populations, have a lifecycle that defies logic, and are an important resource for many Indigenous tribes. As such, should be protected so future generations can be inspired by them, as my granddaughter, and now myself are.

 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Black Carpenter Ant

Few other insects are considered as annoying or unwelcome as the lowly ant. One in particular wreaks havoc on many homeowners. The black carpenter ant has established itself as an interloper within human dwellings. These large black ants are easily identified by size alone. Workers reach ¾ of an inch in length and queens as much as an inch! They are uniformly black with whitish hairs covering their thorax and abdomen. It is difficult not to worry when we see one of these large ants roaming our home. We may ask ourselves if we have an infestation or if this sighting is a single individual that somehow made its way into our living space.  

After all, we know these ants are fond of wood, and with most homes being made of wood, how long before the ants cause structural damage? A common myth associated with carpenter ants is that they consume the wood they chew. In fact, they are not eating the wood at all, they cannot digest the cellulose the wood contains. Instead, they use the wood to excavate their homes. These ants are capable of excavating large galleries consisting of a tunnel system they use to travel through their nests. Many of these tunnels lead to food sources, often in the form of an aphid colony that they farm for the secretions aphids produce called honeydew. These galleries are most often created in forested areas inside hollowed trees, decaying logs, under stones, or other debris. This chewing and tunneling activity performs a valuable

service within the woodlands by speeding up the decomposition of decaying wood. However, not so much in our homes. Because these ants are attracted to moist wood certain areas of our homes may be prone to an infestation. Roof eaves, around and under windows, decks, and porches are all susceptible to moisture and thus open to a multitude of carpenter ants chewing and excavating their way through your structure.

Black carpenter ant colonies may contain up to twenty thousand individuals, made up of a single queen, major and minor workers, larvae, males (drones), and eggs. The primary nest will house the queen, eggs, and many major and minor workers. Satellite nests are created nearby that contain the older larvae, pupae, some winged individuals (future queens), and the males. 

The satellite nests do not need to contain the proper moisture levels as the primary nest does for proper egg production and health. After about four or five years the colony is considered mature and the queen will produce eggs that are destined to be winged females and males, these are the reproductive individuals that will leave the colony, mate, and start new colonies, thus spreading their population to new locations. The winged members of the colony typically spend the winter within the nest. When spring rains and warmth return the winged individuals leave the colony, often in huge swarms. Many times, I have witnessed large gatherings of winged ants, called alates, emerging from the ground. I often receive phone calls about this phenomenon. Many people want to know what is going on, why do the ants have wings? These winged ants will take flight and mate on the wing. Soon after mating the males die, and the females wander off in search of suitable areas to set up a new nest. Once a location has been found she will chew her wings off and begin setting up home, by laying eggs. She will care for her first daughters herself until they are fully developed workers. With approximately twenty new workers, the queens' sole job is to lay eggs and grow the colony, whereas the workers are now responsible for retrieving food and feeding the queen and their developing sisters. Nests that have tunnels leading to aphid colonies have developed mutualistic benefits with each other. The minor workers will stroke the antennae of the aphids causing them to release the sugary honeydew the ants favor and need as an important energy source. The aphid gains bodyguards in the form of formidable ants that protect them from harm from other insects. The minor ants gather the honeydew in their mandibles and deliver it to major workers who in turn take it to the queen and larvae and transfer it to them. Ants cannot consume solid food, so, therefore, must have their food liquified to digest it. Occasionally they will attack and kill live insects, but more often they are scavengers.Foraging as far away as a hundred yards from the nest major and minor workers both seek out food by scent. 
This is usually in the form of a recently deceased insect. The ants will extract the liquid insides of the carcass and carry it back to the nest. The hard outer exoskeletons are left behind. In some cases, they may drag the entire head back to the colony where they will extract the inner tissue. They also seek out nectar from plants, honey from honeybees, syrup or sap, and plant juices. It seems they have a sweet tooth that I can relate to.
 The workers use cues in the form of biochemical pheromones to let other members of the colony know when a good food source is located and how to find it. Workers follow these scent trails to and from the food, taking resources back to the colony. Most foraging is done alone and at night, ants spotted during the day are usually scouts. Because nitrogen is an important mineral for ants, in nitrogen-poor soil, these ants will seek out urine deposits from wild animals in sandy areas.

Within many cultures ants are considered good luck, this is usually attributed to their industrious nature and devotion to the queen and colony. The Bible mentions ants more than once, and in Proverbs-Chapter 6 notes with approval, “the ant does not have a ruler to make her work. Nevertheless, she prepares her food in the summer months and gathers at harvest time. Consider the ant, we are told, and be wise”

 

Much can be learned from the lowly ant. While we may not welcome them in our home and seek ways to evict them as quickly as we can. We can certainly appreciate the service they are providing in their natural setting in the form of decomposition and as scavengers of dead and dying insects. And who can’t admire a large family that sticks together and supports one another? 


 

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Earwigs

 

Photo by: K. Leeker
In Roald Dahl’s children’s book “George’s Marvelous Medicine” Georges’ grandmother encourages him to eat unwashed celery with beetles and earwigs still on it. “A big fat earwig is very tasty,” Grandma said, licking her lips, “but you’ve got to be very quick, my dear, when you put one in your mouth! It has a pair of sharp nippers on its back end and if it grabs your tongue with those it never lets go. So, you’ve got to bite the earwig first, chop chop, before it bites you!”  This nightmare-inducing excerpt from a children's book is indicative of the myths surrounding the oft-considered creepy, earwig.

Most of us have encountered an earwig at some point in our lives, usually in our gardens, but also occasionally in our homes. Many would agree they are intimidating with those large pincers pointed upwards in a sign of defense. Earwigs have been around for over 200 million years, and the ancient fossils looked very similar to our current earwigs. There are nearly two thousand species occurring on every continent except Antarctica, with twenty-five species found in North America and ten of those found in the United States. The most common one to be encountered in our area is the non-native European earwig, first introduced to the United States in 1907 when it was found in Seattle, Washington. They spread very quickly throughout the country and are now frequently found around our homes and gardens. They are relatively small insects measuring less than ¾ of an inch, the body is dark brown with a reddish head and pale brown legs. They have membranous wings protected by short forewings. While they are capable of flying they rarely do. The most recognizable characteristic of the earwig is the large forcep-like pincers on the tip of the abdomen. Males have curved pincers, whereas females have straight pincers. While these appendages look dangerous, they are not harmful unless you are the insect prey they are after. Yes, they can pinch us with them, and I have been pinched several times,  it will not break the skin unless you are a very young child or elderly and even then it would be superficial. In addition, they are not known to spread any diseases to humans or other animals.

The name earwig is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word that means ear creature. Sounds pleasant doesn’t it? Many scientists believe their name is derived from the common superstition that earwigs crawl inside your ear and burrow into your brain to lay eggs. When the eggs hatch the presence of the young will drive you insane. While it is not likely to have one of these insects climb into your ear, it is not impossible. There is documentation of earwigs entering the ear canal of unsuspecting people. Most often this occurs at night when the earwig is most active and by morning it is searching for a dark, damp place to hide….a human ear would fill this need. Upon waking your ear feels strange as if something is crawling around in there. A loved one shining a flashlight into your ear informs you that you have an uninvited guest taking up residency. A trip to the doctor and a relatively minor extraction will bring welcome relief. I can imagine when humans first resided in caves and other sheltered areas exposed to all manner of creatures, it was probably commonplace to have an insect crawl inside your ear opening. Then imagine this knowledge being passed down for thousands of years until it persists as fact in our culture.

Occasionally these insects appear in massive hoards. In 1755 they appeared in vast numbers near Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK where they took shelter in cracks and crevices in human dwellings. Their numbers were so large they would fall from the ceilings covering the floors below. In more recent times, in 2006, throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains, a plague of millions of earwigs caused much annoyance to residents as they hung around for over two years! No one seems to know why or how to predict when plagues of earwigs will occur, but fortunately, it is a rare occurrence.

However, they may occur in larger numbers than we may like in years when we have heavier than usual rainfall, creating the moist conditions these bugs favor. During these rainy years, we may encounter them in the cracks and crevices of picnic tables, lawn furniture, underneath chair cushions, waste bins, compost piles, window frames, and other sheltered areas. Nocturnal by nature, they are rarely encountered during the day unless you happen to disturb their hiding spot. Most species are scavengers, but they will also eat most any plant matter as well as soft-bodied insects like aphids. The European earwig is known to cause damage to various vegetable crops such as cauliflower, cabbage, celery, chard, potato, beets, and cucumbers as well as many others. In massive enough numbers, they may cause damage to corn as they feed on the silk of the plant. Usually, they do not occur in numbers large enough to cause significant damage. There are good benefits to these insects as well as bad. They do feed on aphids, scale insects, and other insects known to cause much damage to plants.

Earwigs do not tolerate extreme cold when outside, this causes many to move into human structures seeking shelter. Those that do remain outside create a burrow underground where a male and female will live together. Mating occurs at this time. In the spring when the female is ready to lay her eggs, she will evict the male. After laying up to eighty eggs, she will guard them from predators. One of the few insects to express maternal care for their offspring, she will clean fungi off the eggs by consuming the fungus. This action leaves behind an antifungal enzyme that helps the eggs resist deadly fungi. Once hatched the mother will remain with the nymphs until they shed their skin twice. During this time, she will leave the young long enough to retrieve food, bring it to the burrow, and feed all those hungry mouths. She will also regurgitate food into their mouths. Earwigs only live about one year, therefore after months of working so hard to care for her young, the mother will perish within the nest as the ultimate sacrifice. The young will feed on her corpse and leave the burrow fat, healthy, and ready for life on their own. ‘

If you find yourself with an earwig infestation in your home, try to eliminate areas where they can enter. Fix leaky faucets and air conditioning units.  Eliminate damp, moist conditions consistent with mulch, wood chips, boards, bricks, and gravel against the house. If the problem persists or is of a large enough scope to be unmanageable you may need to call a professional to spray for them. If you choose to use insecticides yourself, always follow instructions and keep in mind many beneficial insects will die along with your target insect. For me, they are fascinating creatures, however, I have no intention of sampling some earwig-infested celery!