Monday, May 2, 2011

A Short Mid-Season Post

In my last post, I was patiently waiting for field season to start. And then, all of a sudden, it did -- a few warm days and blueberry bloom was off and running.

Today was an easier day -- it would have been our seventh day of data collection (we need fourteen this year), but the morning was too cool and overcast to be a "good bee day", so the crew and I came back to the lab for a much-needed day of bee pinning and downtime.

I've also had a chance to go through some of my photos, and I even took a few more today of the various critters that visit the honeysuckle bush at the field station. One of the nicest things about staying here is looking out the window while I'm cooking or washing dishes and watching bumblebees visiting flowers. They get absolutely covered in pollen. It's fantastic.

I'm not going to write a whole lot tonight (more data collection tomorrow, so I need to get to sleep soon!) but here are a few photos of what I've been seeing out in the field. The white bell-shaped flowers are blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum, highbush blueberry). Enjoy!

Bumblebee (Bombus) species mid-flight.

This is my best Habropoda laboriosa photo to date, you can actually see her face in this one, yay! Also take a look at all the pollen on her legs! I wish her hundreds of fat children.

Fun fact: "Habs" are actually as soft as they look!

One of the best parts of my field work (and also one of the most frustrating) is feeding bees by hand. Here you can see my triumphant feeding of a Colletes spp. female, who has just visited one of the open flowers near the top of the cluster. At the bottom you can just see my hand holding the water tube; this flower was eventually taken back to the lab and is now a data point in training!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Where I've Been

Before I start writing up what I'm doing right now, here's a little recap of the last 18 months or so, to put my absence in perspective. Not the most exciting post, but it will put my forthcoming field season posts in perspective!

From October 2009 through March 2010, I wrote my preliminary proposal for my thesis project. Most people take their qualifying exam (aka "Quals") first, but I did things backwards. I'm wacky like that.

As part of my preliminary proposal, I spend a lot of time using GIS to select sites for my study. Since I'm comparing effects of landscape at different scales, site selection is a huge aspect of my project. In the end, I came up with 16 sites and two control sites, all blueberry fields in southern New Jersey. This took most of March.

On April 1st, I started training a field crew of five people, including myself. It was a good thing we started early, because last year was one of the earliest blooms on record for blueberry in this region. Our first day of data collection was April 15, which was already a few days into bloom; we were done with data collection on May 5. Short field season!

From May 6 or so right up to last month, I have been analyzing my data. Really. It's still ongoing, but I had to take a break from analyzing the data to collect more data, starting... probably next week. More on that to follow.

But, data analysis isn't all I do! (Although, it's most of what I do.) I also spent a few months studying for my quals (and passed, thank Darwin that's over!), gave a 10-minute talk at the Entomological Society of America meeting in San Diego last December, started writing a paper with my advisor, and have learned a bit of programming in R. I also got a great teaching gig that lets me teach only in the Fall semester, so I can focus on my field season in the spring. I've also learned to bake foccacia. Overall, it's been a busy 18 months!

I'll write more about the current field season soon, but in the meantime, here are some early-season critter photos. Enjoy!

Gorgeous green beetle.

Habropoda laboriosa male feeding on leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) flowers. Leatherleaf is one of the earliest blooms in this area, and hungry early-emerging spring bees were all over it!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

And we're back!

Hi everyone! After a lengthy hiatus, i am going to give this blogging thing another whirl. I have a Blogger app on my phone, we will see how it goes.

This photo is one of my first bee photos of the season. It's a female bee sitting in her nest, basking in the sun. I forgot my camera in the car while we did netting practice, so this may not be the best photo, but I will post more field season pics soon!
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.8

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Naming of Things

A few things on naming caught my attention recently.

First there was this article (from the NYTimes, of course) which is on taxonomy in general and on native taxonomies in particular. How good are you at distinguishing between bird names and fish names in on naming birds and fish in the Huambisa language?

Then I came across this linked from a faculty member's website: Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature. There's a lot to discover here. From the "Interesting Translations" section, I can't help giggling at Eucritta melanolimnetes (a fossil amphibian), which translates to "creature from the black lagoon", and at Vampyroteuthis infernalis, a squid relative, aka "the vampire squid from hell."
The Creature from the Black Lagoon... is actually sort of cute.
Vampire squid from hell... yeesh. Way to live up to your name!

My favorite section, of course, is the puns. Here's one of the best bits on the whole site:
Balaenoptera musculus Linneaus (blue whale) Musculus could mean "muscular," but it can also be interpreted as "little mouse." Linne would have known this and, given his sense of humor, may have intended the ironic double meaning.
That Linne... what a wacky guy!

Finally, I was reading about native plants the other day... if I told you you had Ambrosia and Lotus growing all over your yard, you'd probably think that was great, right?

Not if you have allergies. Ambrosia is the genus name for ragweed (the name has to do with the immortality of the species). Lotus is a little better -- it's a genus of plants known as deervetches, but certainly desn't look anything like what most people think of as a lotus.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Once Upon a Field Season



This is a blueberry field on April 22. Notice that it is 1) not in bloom and 2) raining.

A different field, on May 4. You may notice that it is still quite grey and, in fact, the day this picture was taken it was also raining. (This will be the ongoing theme of field season.)

The ongoing dismal weather grounded the local turkey vulture population. They liked to hang out in one particular dead tree near this field. You can see them in the above photo, but here is a close-up.

The next day was another rainy one. Since bees don't like the rain very much, I didn't see very many. I did see some other beautiful little things:

A green spider amid the pink blooms, how very Lily Pulitzer.

I think this tiny arachnids is some sort of crab spider. That flower is about 8 mm long.

Back at the field station, I saw this little guy puffing himself up against the cold weather. A few buzzed me at my field sites as well, but I didn't get any photos. Too bad the light was so dull, you can't really see the ruby-red.

Eventually the weather dried out a bit and we had clear skies for a few days. Of course, the Pinelands are a fire-happy ecosystem, so when I looked up and saw this:

I placed a call to the police to find out whether I needed to evacuate my field site. Fortunately it was a controlled burn and was put out quickly. It smelled very nice, actually, since they were burning a patch of pine forest.

Oh! Right! I also saw some bees!

Since it was a very early season, most of the Bombus I saw were queens. You can tell Bombus queens from workers by the fact that the queens are as big as your thumb and sound like helicopters, while the workers are relatively quite small (especially early in the season). This is probably Bombus impatiens. Fun fact: bumblebees are actually as soft as they look.

A number of other native bees appeared at my field sites, although generally not in any great numbers. This is one of my favorite native bees. It's in the genus Colletes and the orange hairs make them look like they're wearing tiny fox-fur jackets. Eventually they get around to sticking their heads into a few flowers, but they don't work constantly like the bumblebees do.

I'll post again soon, but it's been so long that I have to split things up over several entries. In the meantime, click on the photos to see them larger -- they look really good full-screen, thank goodness I learned how to use the macro on the camera before the season started. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Two Centuries Ago...

Once in a while, maybe not quite once a century, a person will come along who will have the Next Big Idea, who will shape the course of history. A person that can change the way people think, and can in fact still affect our ideas today.

Oddly enough, on this day in 1809, two people were born on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean who would come to shape their century. One, of course, was our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln.

The other was Charles Darwin.

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin!

This year is not only the bicentennial of Darwin's birth. He published The Origin of Species at the age of fifty, which makes this year the 150th anniversary of its publication, as well. So as you might imagine, this is a jubilee year for evolutionary biologists. There are conferences going on all month, commemorative articles, magazines and journals, and other fun and celebration. Check out the Darwin Day official website to learn more about what's going on this month and all year!

Celebrating Darwin Day is nothing new; scientists were celebrating him by 1909. This year, of course, is a Big Round Number year, so there are more things going on than usual. Have a very happy Darwin Day!

For your reading pleasure:

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I Happen to Like New York

Just a quick trivial post to get myself into the habit of writing again. I'm going to try to make Wednesday my blog day and spend ninety minutes writing. That's not a whole lot, but if I can at least get into the habit of one post a week, I'll have a more regular update schedule. This semester is keeping me really busy (more on that later!) so it's been tough to write lately. 

Anyway, there were two great articles in the Times today that I just had to share. They don't have anything to do with food, politics, natural history, or any of my usual topics. They're just snapshots of New York. Even though I'm still in NYC on a semi-regular basis, I miss living there. 

First article: The Elevator at Fairway. On the one hand, I love articles about how eccentric Fairway is. On the other hand, I wish they would stop writing about it. There are already too many people there! When I returned a piece of cheese to Stop n Shop yesterday (it had been wrapped in plastic for nearly a month! cheese abuse!) I felt a particular pang for Fairway. I don't think any given piece of cheese stays on the shelf for more than a day there. 

Second article: I LEGO NY, by Chris Niemman, the same artist who told us about how much his sons love the subway. Charming, whimsical, and very very funny. Take ten minutes out of your day to chuckle, and if you're a New Yorker like me, to enjoy the sense of superiority that comes with knowing that people in other parts of the country won't get it quite as well as you do. 

PS: The bulk bar -- the best place in NYC to buy granola, dried fruit, or whole grains -- is upstairs, as are the fresh peanut butter machines. Just don't ask me where the elevator button is, I'll never tell. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Results Show & Tell

Homemade, fresh ricotta is really, really good.

As per my previous post, I followed the recipe for fresh ricotta. It took a little longer to drain than I anticipated, but the results are rich and creamy, with just a fresh taste of milk and no weird stuff. Here is a step-by-step photo-safari of the process.

The ingredients, and most of the equipment. Not shown: stirring spoon, measuring cup, cheesecloth.

Heat the milk until it simmers, steams, and bubbles on the edges.

Buttermilk ready to go.

After adding the buttermilk, continue heating and stirring constantly until it starts to look a little weird. Those are the curds forming. Next stop, cheese!

Pour everything into a colander lined with cheesecloth. The whey goes down the drain, or into a bowl if you want to hold on to it.

About half of the final product still in the colander. After an hour of draining, it was very thick and creamy. (I moved it to a bowl to free up space in the sink.)

The final product (atop the recipe). 1/2 gallon of milk + 2 cups buttermilk = about 1 pint of ricotta cheese.

I recommend eating it straight from the container with just a little honey and a pinch of salt, or just piled up on a piece of sourdough bread with a little salt and pepper. Next time I might try pressing it to form something like feta or mozzarella, but for now I'm going to sit around and feel pleased with my homemade cheese.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

DIY Dairy II: The Curdling

A while back, I talked about my interest in making my own yogurt.

Tonight, I'm going to try a new experiment: I'm going to make my own cheese.

As before, you may have your doubts, reminding me that caves are often an integral part of the cheese industry and that I live in an apartment (and not a very cave-like one, at that).

But Mr. Bittman says it can be done at home, and quite easily. And, I have an important ingredient: motivation. When I lived in Manhattan, I had the world's best sheep milk ricotta available whenever I wanted it from the Fairway cheese counter. I remember the first time I tried it; I had asked the cheesemonger on duty where I might find the ricotta, and he said to me, "Well, that Polly-O stuff and all the others are around that corner, but... try this." He produced a spoonful of the creamiest, lightest, most delicious ricotta I had ever tasted. (They kept it behind the cheese counter, available only by request.) I made a fine baked pasta that night, and every bite was a song of praise to the sheep that had produced the milk. That ricotta tasted of excellent milk, open green pastures and fresh air. Polly-O and all the others, after that, only tasted like processed, fake food.

Sadly, I do not currently have a source for this miraculous ricotta. When the farmer's market season fires up again I will be able to get some, but I have a tomato-blue cheese tart planned for Thursday and I need some good ricotta today.

Which is why I am going to make my own cheese.

The basic principle of cheese-making is this: if you start with milk and add something that acidifies it, the proteins will stick together in clumps (curds) and separate from the liquid (whey). Strain the whey from the curds, press them together, add salt and other flavors. Age as you see fit. A simple process in principle, but with lots of room for improvisation.

When you acidify the milk with an acid, you get something like feta or cottage cheese. However, most cheeses are made at least in part with the help of our friends, the bacteria. Bacteria break down the sugar in milk (lactose) and turn it into organic acid (lactic acid). This acid then causes the reaction I described above. You already know this if you have encountered milk that is very far beyond its expiration date; it smells sour and gets a bit clumpy at the bottom.

The recipe Mr. Bittman gives calls for buttermilk, which is made by innoculating milk with a bacterial culture, similar to a very thin yogurt. (Historically, buttermilk is what remained after skimming the milk to make butter, but that is rarely available in your average supermarket today.) The milk is simmered for a few minutes, the buttermilk is added all at once, and, with a little luck, everything will curdle nicely. The whole mixture is put through a cheesecloth, salted, and drained.

I will let you know how it goes tonight in my laboratory kitchen. I'm using cow milk, since sheep milk is not available at Stop n Shop. In the meantime, check out the Wikipedia page on cheese. Interesting things to know:
  • The history of cheese predates recorded history.
  • Acid-set cheeses (as opposed to rennet-set) will not melt; they have a different kind of protein matrix holding them together and only get firmer as they cook. (Paneer is a good example.)
  • The US is the world's biggest producer of cheese, but France is the biggest exporter. But the true title of cheese-eating champions goes to Greece, which eats more cheese per capita than any other country. (However, three quarters of it is feta cheese.) France is a close second.
There are a lot of things I didn't talk about here that relate to cheese making, including rennet and fungus. While I would like to discuss them in the future, I won't be using either in my cheese-making attempts tonight, so I will have to leave them for another time.

PS: A little late, but... Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Small and Blue and Beautiful

Yesterday I blogged about something very small.

Today I'd like to call your attention to some articles that talk about something very big.

Forty years ago today, astronauts took this historic photo, "Earthrise". I didn't remember that until reading the editorials in the Times, of course, since I wasn't around yet. Some say that this image helped jump-start the environmental movement.

Anyway, the articles from today and from 1968 are worth checking out. Here is today's editorial reflecting on 1968 and now; this op-ed piece observes that while *we* may be fragile, life on earth has endured worse than humans and survived. From the first editorial, click on the "Related Articles" links to download some of the original articles from 1968, which are not available as web pages. This photograph is also so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page.

From the 1968 editorial:
To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.

PS: For more on "Earthrise" and a short video clip from the Apollo 8 mission, visit this Dot Earth post from today.