Thursday, February 16, 2006

2006 Insect Fear Film Festival

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This Saturday the U of I’s Entomology Graduate Student Association will host the 23rd annual Insect Fear Film Festival, an event designed to get us thinking about insects without dwelling on ways to kill them. The focus of this year’s festival will be the group of insects commonly referred to as praying mantises, but known to entomologists as mantids.

With me today to bring us up to speed in advance of the festival are entomology graduate students Cindy McDonnell, Emilie Bess, and Jamie Zahniser.

I guess there’s no better place to begin a conversation about mantids than with the widely held notion that female mantids eat their mates.

Cindy here. That idea is weird enough for people to enjoy and remember really well. But although female mantids occasionally eat their mates under highly artificial lab conditions, they‘ve rarely been observed to do so in nature. Of course that doesn’t mean screenwriters and cartoonists are likely to let go of the idea.

(Rob) Mantids are also known as efficient eaters of bugs that harm gardens. How well does that idea hold up?

Emilie here. Mantids are effective predators, but they can’t keep up with the population growth of some pests, and they don’t discriminate between beneficial and harmful garden insects.

The mantids’ striking, grasping leg motions even got the attention of Chinese martial artist Wang Lang during the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago. Inspired by seeing a mantid bring down a much larger cicada, Lang studied the insect’s moves, and founded an entirely new fighting style, Praying Mantis Kung Fu.

(Rob) What can you tell listeners about the mantids they’re likely to see here in the midwest?

Jamie here. There are three species of mantids in Illinois, the European mantid, the Carolina mantid, and the Chinese Mantid.

The smaller, dusty brown Carolina mantid is the only one of the three native to the area. It’s just 2 inches long when full grown--that is, when it has wings. The pale green European mantid is intermediate in size, about 3 inches in length. The largest mantid found in the Midwest is the Chinese mantid, which is usually green and light brown, and ranges from 3 to 5 inches long. The European and Chinese species were introduced in the northeast about 75 years ago as garden predators in hopes of controlling the native insect pest populations.

(Rob) Interesting. Will any of these mantids show up in films at the festival?

(Cindy) Well, no. There is a giant, prehistoric praying mantis that eats people in our feature, The Deadly Mantis.

(Jamie) There’s also a teacher who turns out to be an evil mate-devouring mantid in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer we’re going to show. In addition to that we’ll have some instructional videos on praying-mantis style kung-fu, and even a live demonstration from some martial arts masters.

(Emilie) In the lobby you’ll have a chance to see insect artwork by local children, and you may be able to hold some of the mantid’s closest relatives, giant hissing cockroaches.

(Rob) Wait a minute . . . cockroaches and mantids are cousins?

(Cindy) Come to the Insect Fear Film Festival.

(All) You’ve got a lot to learn about mantids!

The Insect Fear Film Festival takes place this Saturday, February 18th, in the Foellinger Auditorium on the U of I campus. The festival opens at 6:00 p.m., and films start at 7:00.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Recycling On and Around the UIUC Campus

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This story begins with plastic soda bottles.

When Debbie Oberg came to work as a secretary for the Environmental Council last December, she found there wasn’t anyplace on our floor to recycle them. Rather than schlep the bottles down to the container two floors below, or put them into the regular trashcan and just hope they didn’t end up in a landfill, Debbie got on the phone to the recycling center at the U of I. Within a week the mailroom of the Environmental Council had its very own container to collect plastic bottles and cans for recycling.

Getting the new container was easy because the UIUC campus is home to an exceptionally well-run recycling program, which is part of the larger effort to reduce waste on campus. The program was begun in the late 1980s in response to a petition by the group Students for Environmental Concerns, and it’s coordinated by Tim Hoss, who has been at the helm from the beginning.

Following the trail of the bottles and cans now collected at the Environmental Council, I checked in with Tim recently about the state of recycling on campus.

We met at the Material Recover Facility west of the Assembly Hall Parking lot. All waste generated on campus passes through this facility, which exists to make sure materials that don’t belong in a landfill don’t wind up there.

Some recyclable materials, such as our plastic bottles and cans, need only minimal sorting before they are ready to be compacted, baled, and shipped out to reprocessors. Other materials, recyclables that are mixed in with regular trash, have to be picked out by hand as waste moves through the facility on a conveyor line.

Now, if you work on campus, you may wonder why you should bother to keep recyclable material separate from the trash, since the trash gets sorted anyway.

Here’s why. When you separate recyclables yourself, you ensure that they don’t end up in the landfill, and you save the effort and expense of pulling those materials out.

Waste generated at the U of I for the year 2004, excluding material from demolition and construction, was about ten thousand tons. About half of that--five thousand tons--was recycled. That’s five thousand tons of material that’s not taking up space in a landfill; five thousand tons of material made available for the manufacture of new products; five thousand tons of material that the university was able to sell, instead paying to have it buried.

These are the kind of facts that make recycling coordinator Tim Hoss enthusiastic about his work, and assure individuals like Debbie Oberg that their efforts to make a difference are worthwhile.

You may have noticed that I haven’t given any specific answers to the questions that inevitably arise when the subject of recycling comes up—questions like whether your yogurt container should go in the trash or the recycling bin. Radio just isn’t a good medium for that discussion. But if you can get to the Environmental Almanac website, you’ll find links to sites that will answer those questions.

Recycling on the UIUC Campus
Waste Transfer & Recycling page, with links to information about acceptable materials and a tour of the Material Transfer Facility

City of Champaign
Curbside and Drop-off with link to tips for disposing of other materials.

City of Urbana
Recycling Program with lots of information about recycling


The UIUC group Students for Environmental Concerns collects nonrechargeable household batteries (and others) at two locations: The University of Illinois YMCA and Allen Hall. Other drop off locations are planned for the Illini Union.

Rechargeable batteries, from phones, tools, etc. can be recycled through the stores that sell products containing them. See
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation for details.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Busey Woods Bio Blitz Brings Home Appreciation for Biodiversity

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Do you know where you might find a two-ridge rams-horn (that’s a type of snail), some rattlesnake master (that’s a prairie plant), or a Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow (which is a real bird)? Despite their exotic names, it’s possible to come across any one of these three at Busey Woods in Urbana. I know that because they are on the list of one thousand, three hundred, twenty-six different species of plants and animals that was compiled from the Busey Woods Bio Blitz held last June.

The Bio Blitz, as you may or may not remember, was an effort to catalogue as many species of plants and animals as possible in a twenty-four hour period. The result is a sort of snapshot of the biological diversity of Busey Woods. The event was coordinated by the Urbana Park District, and it brought together scientists from the U of I, the Illinois Natural History Survey, and host of volunteers.

The most photogenic creatures observed at the Bio Blitz were a pair of cecropia moths. These largest of North American moths are not uncommon in Illinois, but they are such strikingly beautiful insects you might be surprised to see them so close to home. With their five-inch wingspan, and intricate patterns of white, brown and red, they look like something you’d expect to see in a far off rainforest.

Another insect discovered at the Bio Blitz, a type of plant hopper, was not expected there, having never before been observed anywhere in Illinois. Chris Dietrich an entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey identified it. Like many of the other six hundred eleven species of insects found in Busey Woods that day, the plant hopper was unceremoniously vacuumed out of the undergrowth and identified under a microscope. According to Dietrich, it’s not all that unusual to come across a new first record for an insect in the state, since there are many many different kinds of insects out there, and relatively few people with the knowledge to distinguish among them. Should you come across it, you are not likely to trip over Illinois’ newest plant hopper, which is only around a quarter inch long, and spends its time feeding on plant sap.

The Bio Blitz team that counted fish in the Saline Branch, the stream that runs along the eastern edge of Busey Woods, found thirty different species, five of which had not been recorded in past surveys. According to Gary Lutterbie, a stream biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, such numbers tell us the Saline Branch is in pretty good shape, despite past abuses. He attributed this to farm conservation measures that reduce soil and chemicals in runoff from upstream agricultural fields, as well as the shade provided by vegetation in Busey Woods.

There weren’t any huge surprises among the amphibians, or mollusks, or plants or birds catalogued by the Bio Blitz, but scientists were generally pleased with the diversity of species found.

It’s a testament to the resilience of nature that such biodiversity is present in a tract of land that was logged and grazed and used as a dump prior to its acquisition by the Urbana Park District in 1992. And it’s a testament to the initiative and creativity of Urbana Park District staff that some eight hundred people came out in the sweltering heat for the Bio Blitz.

I can’t imagine a better way to put people in touch with the riches of their own back yard.