Pine Barrens Soil Horizons

Yesterday, I transplanted a small piece of Carex pensylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge, from my sister’s property in Ocean County, New Jersey. This species is common on her property.

She lives in the pinelands of New Jersey. The canopy is pine and oak. The duff layer – the natural “mulch” of dead plant material deposited on top of the soil – is composed of mostly pine needles, with some oak leaves.

Here’s a view of the clump I extracted.

And here’s the “back” view, where the blade of the spade I was using sliced through.

I only just realized I had a nice slice of the upper soil horizons.

The slats of the tabletop are 2″ wide. The entire depth of the soil slice is only about 3″, 4″ including the duff layer.

The white is fungal mycelium that has colonized the duff layer, starting the process of decomposition.

After I moved this clump from the table, I noticed tiny beetles, at least two different species, had clambered off. They fell through the slats before I could photograph them or otherwise observe them more closely for identification.

This small slice represents at least five different macro-species – pine, oak, sedge, and beetles – and one micro: the fungus. If we could somehow inventory all the micro-invertebrates and micro-organisms, there might be hundreds, or thousands, of species in this photo.

It’s tempting to think of species as singular “things,” to be contained in our cabinets of curiosities, our checklists, our collections. Any species is not any one thing, but a population, containing genetic diversity that slowly shifts and drifts across space and time. Each species is part of a larger whole, an unbounded fractal of complex relationships.

Yes, I grow many native plant species in my garden. For one reason, I can learn to recognize them. I never want to forget how artificial my construction is. However I may hone my garden, whatever beauty I can construct here, and pleasure I may offer from it, it doesn’t compare to the transcendence I experience of wild things in their natural habitats. All this diversity at home reminds me of how much more there is, still, in the world, and how important it is to protect it.

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The Supermodel in the Sewer: /Dolichovespula maculata/, Bald-Faced Hornet

Setting aside for a moment the less-than-appealing staging, this is a beautiful creature.
/Dolichovespula maculata/, Bald-Faced Hornet
This is Dolichovespula maculata, the Bald-Faced Hornet. Despite its prevalence, this is my first direct encounter with one.

I’m more familiar with its signature creation: its nest. Here’s a huge one I found a few years ago high in one of the Lilacs at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was March; this one was left over from the previous year.
Wasp nest, Lilac Collection, BBG, March 2009

They typically nest high in trees, or large shrubs like the Lilac above. Sheltered by summer foliage, and camouflaged the color the bark, they’re difficult to spot. We’re more likely to discover them when they fall. Here’s one that was downed when a tornado swept through Brooklyn in August 2007 …
Downed Hornet Nest

… and flagged – if mislabelled – by a helpful neighbor.

Earlier in the year, the nests are much smaller. New queens emerge, and create new nests, each year. Here’s one Matthew Wills and I came across during our Magicicada hunt in Staten Island.
Fallen Bald Hornet Wasp Nest

The “setting” of the opening photo is canine dung, aka “dog poo.” I prefer to think of this as an image from a photo shoot of an aspiring hipster photographer (me) of a model wearing haute couture (hornet) in a sewer (dung).

Much more glamorous now, ain’t it! Except this hornet is too zäftig to be a modern model.
/Dolichovespula maculata/, Bald-Faced Hornet

I observed this individual scrambling over, flying off, then returning to such, uh, settings repeatedly. In between visits from the hornet, each was buzzing with flies. As the horned honed in, the flies flew off.

I think this explains this hornet’s interest. The adults are largely vegetarian, eating nectar and fruit. They capture and pre-chew flies and other insects to food to their larvae. This is the same child-rearing strategy used by a majority of bird species, most of which need insects to feed their young, but are largely vegetarian as adults.

Far from being a “pest” (in human terms) this is a beneficial (in human terms) insect. Carnivorous wasps such as this one help keep insect populations in check. A diversity of species – emerging and active at different times of the year, occupying different habitats, and specializing in different prey – ensure that no one species of insect will get out of control, at least not for long. The better able we are to at least tolerate, if not celebrate, less charismatic species such as wasps and hornets, the more we will be able to enjoy the spaces surrounding our homes, and the healthier will be our interactions with our co-habitants in nature.

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Flickr photo set
Other Hymenoptera posts


Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), BugGuide
Bald-faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, Study of Northern Virginia Ecology
Baldfaced Hornet, Virginia Cooperative Extension
Dolichovespula maculata (Linnaeus, 1763) – Baldfaced Hornet, Biological Survey of Canada

“The Mystery of the Maple Syrup Mist”

That’s the title Mayor Bloomberg gave to the investigation into the recurring maple syrup smells that have been reported sporadically in New York City over the past few years. The City closed its investigation with the conclusion that the smell is caused by an ester escaping from the processing of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seed by a New Jersey plant owned by Frutarom. The ester occurred in concentrations of only one part per billion or less, making identification difficult.

Fenugreek seeds. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Humbads

Trigonella foenum-graecum, Fenugreek, is in the Fabaceae, the Pea or Legume Family.
Botanical illustration: Fenugreek

Fenugreek seeds are a rich source of the polysaccharide galactomannan. They are also a source of saponins such as diosgenin, yamogenin, gitogenin, tigogenin, and neotigogens. Other bioactive constituents of fenugreek include mucilage, volatile oils, and alkaloids such as choline and trigonelline.

Fenugreek is frequently used in the production of flavoring for artificial maple syrups. The taste of toasted fenugreek, like cumin, is additionally based on substituted pyrazines. By itself, fenugreek has a somewhat bitter taste.
Fenugreek, Wikipedia



Press conference

New York City Department of Environmental Protection
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

N.J. Fenugreek Seeds, Source of Mysterious Syrup Odor, Michael Barbaro, New York Times, 2009.02.05
Maple Mystery Solved (It’s New Jersey’s Fault), Elizabeth Benjamin, New York Daily News, 2009.02.05