Reflections in Nature

Recently, the Bradford County Youth Field Day was held at Mt. Pisgah State Park. During the day, a young participant came up to me and held out a leaf with a caterpillar on it.

The young man asked if I knew what kind of caterpillar it was, and I told him that I didn’t but we could find out. I placed the caterpillar in the palm of my hand, and we headed toward the nature center to look through the insect books.

Caterpillars, which are the young of butterflies and moths, have three pairs of walking legs on the thorax (body) and up to five pairs of leg-like appendages (prologs) on the abdomen used by the insect to hold onto plant surfaces and also to climb.

After laying the caterpillar on the counter, I felt a stinging in the palm of my hand. It wasn’t long until we correctly identified the caterpillar as a lo, a caterpillar with many-branched spines that are full of poison.

Although the sting to my palm did not hurt, the book states that if the spines penetrate the skin it can be quite painful.

If ever stung by this particular caterpillar, use tape over the affected area to strip off spines and toxin, and then wash with soap and water.

Although the lo caterpillar eats the foliage of a great variety of plants, their favorite appears to be the wild cherry.

In the fall, the insect spins a thin, rather flimsy cocoon among ground litter.

In July, when the lo moth emerges, it will be in late morning or early afternoon and will only take a few minutes. The lo moth then climbs on a plant and hangs on so that its wings unfurl.

Next, the moth’s wings are inflated with fluids pumped from its body. This takes about 20 minutes.

An adult lo moth is strictly nocturnal, only flying during the first few hours of the night.

At nightfall, the female exudes a scent from her abdomen to attract a male; while the male uses its large antennae to track down the female. After mating, the female lays eggs and then waits to die.

The male and female do not eat during the moth stage.

During this time of year, we find many insect creatures, and caterpillars are among those frequently seen.

Although only a few of the thousands of species of caterpillars actually sting, there is another caterpillar that you might not want to handle and that is the hickory tussock, or hickory tiger moth. This caterpillar, which feeds heavily on the hickory trees, is mostly white, with black tufts along the middle of the back and four long black hairs (two near the front and two near the back) that can cause some people to have either an allergic reaction or an itchy rash.

The hairs are barbed and would cause complications if contact was made to the eyes.

At this time of year, the hickory tiger moth caterpillar begins to wander, while searching for a place to spin its cocoon. The moth will not make its appearance again until July.

All caterpillars are very interesting, with having only one job to do and that is to eat. The caterpillar’s first meal usually is its eggshell.

While in the caterpillar stage, the insect can consume 27,000 times its body weight, and its body size increases 1,000 times or more.

A caterpillar has as many as 4,000 muscles in its body and 12 eyes. One would think that with this many eyes a caterpillar would have good eyesight; however, this is not so. The eyes serve mainly to help the caterpillar differentiate between light and dark.

A caterpillar, which is at the bottom of the food chain, is provided with many types of protection from becoming a bird’s snack. There are caterpillars that blend in with the background while others are brightly colored to advertise their poison; some have foul-smelling glands; others display large eyespots to deter birds from eating them, and depending on what it feeds upon the caterpillar can be foul tasting.

The Monarch caterpillar feeds upon the milkweed plant, and because of this both the caterpillar and the butterfly receive the toxin from the plant.

Well, now is a good time to grab a jacket and head for the woods, where, if looking closely, you will certainly find some interesting creatures.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

Reflections in Nature

While on our morning walk, Mrs. Shaylor, of Troy, was pulling out of her driveway when she stopped to ask if I could identify what was growing in a bush in her side yard.

What I saw growing up and around a yew bush was a huge mushroom; however, I had no idea what kind. I returned later with my camera to take pictures, and then back home again to begin checking through a book on fungi.

I found that this particular mushroom had many names. The correct name is Grifola frondosa, with the common name of maitake.

For thousands of years, Asian healers have used certain edible mushrooms – including maitakes – in tonics, soups, teas, prepared foods and herbal formulas to promote good health and long life.

Until recently, the healing properties of mushrooms only have been the subject of folklore. However, in the past few decades, researchers in Japan have been studying the medicinal effects of mushrooms on the immune system, cancer, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

This mushroom also is known as “hen in the woods” because it supposedly closely resembles the texture and meatiness of chicken breast when cooked properly and, if using your imagination, it could appear as a hen sitting on her nest. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, the fungi is known as “sheepshead” because many believe it resembles a sheep’s wooly crown that needs to be sheared.

The Japanese word “maitake” means “dancing mushroom,” which comes from ancient times when people were said to dance for joy when these mushrooms were found, for they literally were worth their weight in silver.

Maitake mushrooms are found in the fall of the year in eastern North America, usually at the base of an oak tree. The fungi live off the roots of the tree, and several can be found growing around one tree. They can grow to be very large, with some weighing 20 or more pounds.

I have read that this particular mushroom is very good eating and often used in stews, spaghetti sauces and Chinese recipes. To keep throughout the winter months, the mushrooms can be preserved by either air drying or a dehydrator.

A mushroom is a fungus. Our word fungus was introduced into the English language in the early 16th century as an alternative to the word mushroom. The word fungus is Latin and comes from the Greek word sponges, which means sponge. The word mushroom comes from the old French word mousse, meaning moss.

Fungi usually are tiny plants without roots, stems or leaves and are represented in such forms as mushrooms, toadstools, mildew, rust and mold. They are classified as plants because of their structure and method of reproduction; however, they receive their food in a much different way than other plants.

Ordinary green plants use a system called photosynthesis, which takes water and minerals from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air to make carbohydrates.

Fungi cannot manufacture carbohydrates because they do not possess green chlorophyll. They get their food by using both dead plants and animals (this group is called saprophytes) and also living plants and animals (this group is called parasites).

The puffball mushrooms are among the most recognizable of fall fungi. The giant puffball Calvatia gigantean can reach diameters larger than a basketball.

Since the fruiting body of a puffball grows directly from its root system, if you find one with a stalk or stem, discard it because it could be a very unsuitable look-alike, again characterized by a rank odor.

Members of the puffball family grow from July through November in most North American softwood and hardwood forests. Their outer coloration is typically white to olive brown.

For use at the dinner table, puffballs always should be white on the inside. As puffballs age, their centers turn yellowish-brown and eventually dry, producing spores (microscopic seeds). A single giant puffball produces up to 7 trillion spores.

To understand how the puffball got its name, step on the dried shell of one and watch it “puff” smoke – in the form of millions of dried spores.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.