Thursday, February 22, 2007

Two Ways to Appreciate Insects: Gilbert Waldbauer’s A Walk Around the Pond and the 2007 Insect Fear Film Festival

Note: I am still researching and writing EA each week, but other people will be voicing the spots until April 17, 2007. I'm running for a seat on the Park District board in Champaign, so my voice can't be on the radio without opening up the same amount of time for other candidates.

Dee Breeding from WILL-AM 580 narrates this week's installment.


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In this part of the world, at this time of year, it’s easy to forget that insects rule the earth. There’s no whirring of cicadas during the day, no chirp of crickets at night, no immediate anxiety about pests on the farm or in the garden. But they’re still out there. They outnumber us and they outweigh us. Fortunately only a miniscule percentage of them threaten us at all; indeed, as a group, they make life as we know it possible.

This week’s Environmental Almanac offers two suggestions for appreciating insects.

First, if you would prefer to contemplate insects from the comfort of your chair by the fire, check out the book, A Walk around the Pond, by University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Gilbert Waldbauer, published by in 2006. Subtitled “Insects in and over the Water,” this book introduces readers to the many insects that spend part or all of their lives in aquatic habitats.

As in his many other enjoyable books written for a general audience, Waldbauer helps readers appreciate the fascinating diversity of insect life by weaving together stories from the research of entomologists around the world with tales from his own experience. There are outlandish creatures here, like the oil fly maggot, which thrives in puddles of petroleum waste, and the predaceous diving beetle, which supplies itself with oxygen underwater by bringing along an air bubble. But there are also down-to-earth stories of discovery; for example, when the author, as a boy, figures out that dragonfly nymphs eat small fish, by putting one in his own aquarium.

If you would like to get out among other people to celebrate insects, make plans to catch the 24th annual Insect Fear Film Festival on the U of I campus this Saturday evening.

This year’s festival features insect movies from Japan. Festival founder May Berenbaum notes, “in general, insects are not regarded with as much knee-jerk fear and revulsion [in Japan] . . . as they are here.”

Berenbaum cites the example of the well-meaning title character from the 1961 movie Mothra, which will be shown at the festival. [Link to Wikipedia entry on Mothra.] Mothra is a gigantic silkworm caterpillar that comes to Tokyo in order to rescue two little girls who have been kidnapped from their Pacific island home. “Mothra doesn’t set out to destroy Tokyo,” says Berenbaum. “She does so only as a consequence of being the size of a Boeing 747.”

As always, the Insect Fear Festival will also feature exhibits and activities that encourage people, especially children, to understand and enjoy insects. There will be a live insect petting zoo, as well as insect related art, t-shirts, and face painting. New to this year’s festival is Bugscope which projects the image from a microscope onto a computer screen, giving kids (and parents) the ability to zoom in for a close up look at various insect parts.

The Insect Fear Film Festival takes place this Saturday, February 24th, in the Foellinger Auditorium on the U of I main quad. Doors open for exhibits at 6:00 p.m., and the program begins at 7:00. Admission is free.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

No New Post

With production shut down for two days at WILL by blizzard '07, and national programming that wouldn't allow for the cutaway to local commentary at 6:45 p.m., Environmental Almanac was off the air this week.

Check in next week to learn about the Illinois Big Tree Program!


Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Urbana Park District’s Perkins Road Wetland Restoration

Note: I am still researching and writing EA each week, but other people will be voicing the spots until April 17, 2007. I'm running for a seat on the Park District board in Champaign, so my voice can't be on the radio without opening up the same amount of time for other candidates.

Dee Breeding narrates this week's installment.


Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

What kind of image comes to mind when you hear the term “wetland?” Maybe you picture a southern swamp, where the knees of cypress trees poke up out of dark, unmoving water, and the air is alive with haunting birdcalls. Or maybe you see a northern bog, the sort of place where you might startle a moose as it feeds on aquatic plants.

In any case, most people don’t associate the term “wetland” with the current landscape of Champaign-Urbana, even if they know that prior to artificial drainage most of east central Illinois was too wet for habitation or agriculture during parts of the year. Indeed, our drainage systems are so effective that most people can’t even picture the types of wetlands once found here. This is true around the state as well, where more than 90% of wetlands have been lost to agriculture or urban and industrial development.

But there’s a place in east Urbana where the Urbana Park District is working to restore a wetland complex that has survived through the years, despite having been modified for many different uses. The site, which encompasses about 30-acres in all, is located off of Perkins Road, half a mile east of Cunningham Avenue, and adjacent to the southern edge of the recently established dog park.

The Park District acquired control of the property in the year 2000, through a long-term lease from the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District, after managers there recognized its potential as a restored natural area. And the Sanitary District has continued to support restoration efforts by matching grants obtained by the Park District from other sources.

Derek Liebert, who coordinates restoration efforts for the Park District, emphasizes that the Perkins Road site was already a wetland when work there began. The main effort there has been to improve the health of the ecosystem by establishing a more diverse plant community. This involves removing invasive, exotic species and establishing a mix of native plants. A more diverse plant community will, in turn, improve the value of the site as wildlife habitat.

In the first phase of work at the Perkins Road site, completed last year, a low-lying area of about 12 acres was converted to wet prairie. This is an area that contains surface water in late winter and spring, and where the soil remains moist much of the year. As the grasses and sedges planted there mature, the wet prairie will be used by wading birds, such as herons and rails, as well as migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

The next phase of work at the site, which is to begin this Spring, will focus on restoring prairie and savanna to the upland components of the landscape.

The only downside to this story about a truly wonderful natural area restoration is that there can’t be public access to the site while work goes on there. Eventually, though, a system of trails and boardwalks will allow visitors to experience the rich diversity of wetland life in a place very close to home. If you’re really anxious to see this area before it’s officially open, there’s one way to do that--by attending volunteer workdays there, beginning when weather allows. For details about workdays contact the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center (217) 384-4062.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Biofuel Crops as Invasives? The Importance of Weighing the Risks and Benefits

Note: I am still researching and writing EA each week, but other people will be voicing the spots until April 17, 2007. I'm running for a seat on the Park District board in Champaign, so my voice can't be on the radio without opening up the same amount of time for other candidates.

Jay Pearce narrates this week's installment.


Listen to the commentary
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You’ve probably heard of kudzu, a.k.a. “the vine that ate the South.” And if you’ve traveled in the South, you’ve likely seen how this monster overwhelms the landscape. But did you know that kudzu, which is native to Asia, was initially introduced on purpose, touted as a forage crop and a means of erosion control? If southerners knew then what they know now about kudzu, they would never have bought it.

The same can be said of landowners and stewards of natural areas in Illinois who bought the idea that exotic plants such as autumn olive, bush honeysuckle and multiflora rose could be safely introduced to improve the landscape of the Midwest. If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have put entire ecosystems at risk by planting these exotic invaders. And we wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars at the state level each year—and billions nationally—to combat the problems associated with invasive plants.

Or would we?

In hindsight, we can see that our willingness to adopt exotic plants in attempts to solve ecological problems in the past was based on slipshod decision making. Policy makers and the public alike accepted claims about the supposed benefits of establishing nonnative plants without solid support. And we asked far too few questions about the potential costs—both economic and ecological—of such introductions.

Knowing what we know now about the catastrophic consequences of introducing the wrong plants, you would think we’d have adopted a rigorous process governing all large-scale plant introductions.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to some of the plants now being investigated as potential biofuels, especially the perennial grasses, such as miscanthus. And in the current social and political climate, there’s so much pressure to develop biofuels that some scientists who study the ecology and management of invasive plant species are concerned we may be headed down the kudzu path all over again.

In a paper published last September [If you're logged into a computer on the UIUC campus or elsewhere with a subscription to Science online you can click here to open the paper in a new window], S. Raghu of the Illinois Natural History Survey and six colleagues from around the country call attention to how little serious analysis is being devoted to the potential consequences of cultivating nonnative grasses for biofuel. Indeed, they point out that six of the eight ecological traits identified as ideal for biomass energy crops are also traits that contribute to the potential for an introduced plant to become invasive. They further explain that it is nearly impossible to eradicate or even control invading grasses once they are established.

Raghu and colleagues acknowledge the potential benefits of introducing some plant species as sources of biofuel. But they call for a policy of first establishing the safety of such introductions by means of stringent agronomic and ecological analysis, the sort of up-front studies that are already required for other beneficial introductions, such as biological control agents and transgenic plants.

Perhaps the best way to think about whether the large-scale introduction of a given plant species makes sense would be to ask whether, or at what price, a person could buy insurance that would compensate for the damage that species might cause were it to become invasive. Without the answer to that question we don’t have enough information to develop sound policy.