Bees, Frogs, Toads, Bats, & Trees

This is a “bad news–good news” kind of story. There is no sugar coating the threats to some of our valuable and/or adorable friends with whom we share this dirt patch in the universe. Now, yes, entire branches on the tree of evolution have come and gone, leaving little or no trace. We did not know them and do not miss them. In some instances, we are glad they had their moment in the sun and are gone—think 50′ alligators. But it’s different with the species we know—they somehow “should always be here.”


beesThe honey bee, Apis millifera, (not a native American, by the way) is having a tough time facing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a mysterious disappearance of a hive’s or colony’s workers. The latest culprit in the spotlight of blame for CCD is a parasitic fly. Blame-worthy also-rans include a fungus, mites, poor nutrition, insecticides, and stress. That’s the bad news. The good news for your eating pleasure is that the $15 billion worth of food these little workers pollinate each year is not yet in danger. That’s because the people who propagate colony-building queen bees have responded to the losses of colonies by “crowning more queens.” So far this technique has worked. In addition to keeping us fed, the queens gambit gives entomologists time to solve the CCD problem. If the sole culprit is the fungi, Nosema ceranai, which have been found in populations of Spain’s honey bees, there is good news: An article in Society for Applied Microbiology: Environ-mental Microbiology Reports tells of a Spanish team that treated ailing colonies with a drug and the colonies recovered to more normal numbers. It may turn out that CCD has a combination of causes, but I have confidence science will either cure it outright, or continue to mitigate its disasterous effect. While that is good for the agricultural industry and large apiary owners, the rest of us with small gardens may continue to worry…

Not to worry. Those wonderful bumble bees, mason bees, and other natives are taking up the slack. The best news is you can encourage these fruitful pollinators to concentrate on your God’s half acre. Mason bees are recommended because they are easy to lure, and do a magnificent job for early fruits and flowers. Oh, and they don’t sting. (For much more on mason bees, their benefits and raising them, see the article “Bee Ready” on the About Town website.

Should you be more daring, you can capture a bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) colony. Finding them is not easy and capturing the entire nest is complicated and time-consuming, but instructions are available on the internet. Better yet, you can actually buy gravid queen bumble bees ready to start new colonies.

Bumble bees are one of the most fascinating branches of the Hymenoptera order. The large spring queen (.5–.75″) is the only one from the prior year’s colony to overwinter. All the rest of the bumble bees died with the onset of cold weather. In the Fall, the queen builds a special home for herself and the eggs and sperm she carries inside her. She lives off the honey her colony stored before hibernating and her own reserves of fat. Spring warmth draws her out to feed on nectar and pollen. Sated, she begins to search for a perfect location for her new colony—usually an abandoned mouse nest in the ground. She then proceeds to build a home for soon-to-be offspring. Once the first bundle of baby bumble bee brood arrives, the queen is relieved of hunting for food for her next batch of worker bumble bees. She sends out the first toddlers to forage as she begins building the new wax brood cells and laying eggs in them. All the toddlers are smaller that the Spring queens, so you may see bumble bees of different sizes going on about their business on the same flowers. The bumble bee can pollinate flowers other bees can not. Tomatoes and strawberries, for example, do much better with bumble bees and they are a preferred pollinator in hot houses. This is because the bumble bees have very long mouth parts and can feed on blossoms that other bees can not reach. The bumble bee also uses its body to vibrate flowers causing pollen to loosen.

Unlike the sweet-natured mason bee, this bumble queen has a nest to protect, as do her minions, and they will. Unlike a honey bee, bumbles can sting multiple times. Stick with the mason bee to avoid being “stuck.”


batTo the uninitiated or those with Chiroptophobia, the death of bats from White Nose Syndrome, may not seem that dreadful. However, the bats’ niche is insect consumption… ugly, hungry, night insects… mosquitos, among others.

White Nose Syndrome, a fungus, has nearly emptied bat colonies in sixteen states and several Canadian provinces. Some estimates say that between 60% and 98% of the populations of different bat species have died. The fungus is believed to cause the bats to awaken during their normal winter hibernation (like you with a stuffy nose at night). This awakening uses up precious fat stores and the bat dies of starvation as there is no food available to them in winter. Another theory is that the infection causes their body temperatures to rise in an effort to thwart it, again using up precious stored fat.

Sorry, I have no really good news for bats. The slightly good news is that science is on the case. As they learn more about White Nose fungus, they may be able to inoculate bats against it, breed bats with inherent genetic protection, or spray something on their nesting sites to reduce the fungus. Until then, be kind to the remaining bats who will each eat 1200 insects/mosquitos every hour. Bats are “protecting” us from West Nile Virus carried by mosquitos and they keep beetles, and other crop-destroyers in check.

Frogs & Toads

The bad and sad news: Scientists the world-over are concerned about amphibians’ health and their decreasing numbers. Many see these creatures as the “canary in the coal mine” early warning system on earth’s habitability. Frogs, toads and other amphibians breath through their skin and are very sensitive to pollution and invasives of all kinds.

The good news is we still have frogs and toads—possibly as many as fourteen species live right here in the Hudson Valley. Scientists say we have twelve for sure and two others, possibly. Locally, a group of volunteers is fanning out from March through June to do a frog and toad count under the guidance of the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. This is the second year of the study. Volunteers have learned the calls of fourteen frogs or toads.

Right around mid-March, depending on the weather, the sleigh bell sound of the Spring Peeper (Hyla crucifer) emanates from almost every wetland in the rural Hudson Valley. Nocturnal and shy, you probably won’t see one. If you do spot a small brown frog, Peepers can be identified by a dark “X” on their backs. Young ones are red, adults are brown. It is their “sleigh bell” song that tells you most of what you need to know. They continue singing into June, but with less enthusiasm as the honeymoon wears thin. Theirs is one of the truly magical sounds of nature. These tiny fellows, who have spent the Winter under logs, leaf litter or in tree bark, serenade their would-be sweethearts. How could she resist?

Other early breeders include the Wood Frog, the only specie of frog to live as far north as the Arctic Circle. It is about 1.5 to 3 inches long and has black eye patches. True to its name, it lives in the woods, coming to vernal pools and ponds to breed. Wood frogs are usually the very first ones you will hear in Spring, normally after the first downpours in March or April. Their breeding period is short, lasting only a few days. Because they are nocturnal and their breeding period is so short, they are difficult to find. You may have better luck spotting their eggs. Look for black and white eggs in transparent masses visible just below the water.


American Toad (worth two in the bush)

American Toad
(worth two in the bush)

In early May the hills are alive with the sound of … well toad song. OK, not the hills so much as ponds and lakes. The trill of toads-on-the-make is unmistakable. They gather in ponds and could scandalize the uninitiated with their antics as the males sing and push and shove for love. Males will often “pile on” in a scrum-like fashion with a lone female taking the place of the ball.

Toad colors run from ochre to brick to almost black. Their skin contains a toxin distasteful to predators. (And, no, you do not get warts from toads).

The curly strings of toad eggs are clear with tiny black centers. The eggs, like all amphibian eggs, provide food for water dwellers such as fish, turtles, and salamanders. Of the thousands of eggs laid in a pond, only a few will develop to make it out of the water and become the land-loving adults we cherish for their garden-pest appetites. Toads are stout, and have dry warty dry skin and live on dry land. Frogs tend to be more svelte, have smoother skins and often live by water, our most common are Green Frogs, Bull Frogs, Northern Leopard Frogs and Pickerel Frogs.

The Common Gray Tree Frog may show up on your window to feed on the insects attracted by your house lights. In the morning you may see their footprints on your window glass. I have found these frogs in the runner of my sliding glass door, in my window boxes, and cleverly disguised as part of my outdoor water faucet. They range in size from about 1–2.5 inches, have camouflage of mottled rough gray skin with darker splotches and streaks. The most amazing thing about these frogs is the volume of sound they can produce.

The Pickerel Frog with his yellow belly and rectangular dark brown spots is one of the easiest frogs to identify. Usually about 2–3.5 inches, they live in the forests, but like all amphibians, come to breed in the water in Spring. The Pickerel Frog’s closest look-alike is the Southern Leopard Frog. His spots are smaller, more irregular in shape and location, and he has light stripes from his eyes down his back. We are the northern most range for this frog.


Trees are in danger from the a host of imported insects. The Wolley Adelgid, an aphid-like insect, attacks the hemlocks; the Asian Longhorned Beetle pillages sugar maples and other hardwoods; and the Emerald Ash Borer wipes out ash trees.

The most unpleasant news I’ve heard lately is that the NYS forest service believes all the ash trees will be lost—all 900 million trees are at risk in NYS.

Checking the New York State DEC’s Emerald Ash Borer Management Response Plan which was revised in January, 2011, on line, still indicates the Emerald Ash Borer is not in NYS. I have it on good authority that it is in Ulster County and that as of this writing there is no hope of stopping it. Its destruction of the ash tree population has been compared to the early 1900 blight that took nearly four billion American chestnut trees in three decades. More on this later.

Asian Longhorned beetle

Asian Longhorned beetle

The spread of Longhorn beetle infestations can be curtailed by an alert populace—that would be you. If you find an Asian Longhorned beetle, put it in a jar, put it in your freezer to kill it, and notify or the New Paltz DEC. Note the location of the spot or the exact tree you found it on, and the date you found it. Below is a lifesize, (1.25″ long not counting antenna), Longhorned beetle. They are black and white.

The Emerald Ash Borer on the other hand is an lovely iridescent green and less than an inch long. The Ash Borer and the Adelgid have both been found in Ulster County, so it pays to be alert to the pests in your own back yard. If you think you have EAB, call the Department’s EAB and Firewood hotline at 1-866-640-0652

On the third insect threatening our trees, the following is from the DEC website:

The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is native to parts of Asia and was first discovered in New York in 1985. It is in the family Adelgidae, which is related to aphids. The Adelgid uses long mouthparts to extract sap and nutrients from hemlock foliage, this prevents free growth, causing needles to discolor from deep green to grayish green, and to drop prematurely. The loss of new shoots and needles seriously impairs tree health. Infestation is usually fatal to the host after several years. Valued plantings of the shade-loving Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) can be ravaged by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, and the natural stands of hemlock in the forests and parks in upstate New York would be greatly affected if the pest spreads to those locations. The wind, birds, other wildlife and the movement of infested host material by humans are all factors in the dispersion of the adelgid. Currently 25 New York counties are infested with the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid.

Yes, the maples, hemlocks, and ash trees are in grave danger. One ray of hope is that work on development of a blight resistant strain of American chestnuts trees can serve as a model for development of resistance for today’s endangered trees. Restoration of the long-ago blighted native, the American chestnut, is progressing. The first nuts have been planted in what the American Chestnut Foundation* hopes will be the generation of trees to eventually reforest the tree’s natural range. The science behind this involves genetic manipulation, and/or cross-breeding with chestnut trees of other countries that have a natural immunity to the fungus that wiped out our lofty natives a hundred years ago.

American chestnut tree

American chestnut tree

The tree pictured at the right will never get much bigger than eight or ten feet. It is sprouted from a huge American chestnut tree that died in the 1930s in Esopus, NY. The root stock of the chestnut tree is not killed by the fungus and continues to send up new saplings. As soon as these young trees reach a certain height the blight takes them down. This process has continued for almost eighty years. Nationwide, a few hardy trees have survived and are monitored closely.

In my yard in Highland, I have 18 young back-bred trees that are 15/16 American chestnut and 1/16 Chinese chestnut. The tallest is about six feet. If the deer don’t get them, or the groundhogs, or the rabbits, the hope is they will grow and because of their Chinese genes may have blight resistance.

In the Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Gardiner there are several American chestnut trees that are large enough to produce flowers and nuts. In June their white blossoms stand out and their long narrow leaves with edge teeth are easy to identify. Often the Chinese chestnut is confused with the American, but their leaves are waxy. Because other varieties of chestnuts were often planted in yards after the blight, many people believe their trees are American. Sometimes it is necessary to send specimens to Missouri to have them categorized correctly. Natural back breeding has blurred the lineage of many trees. The chestnuts require two trees close enough to cross pollinate. Most yard chestnuts were planted in pairs.

Another confusion is with the Horse chestnut, but that is mostly because of the name and seed pods. The leaves of the Horse chestnut are spatulate and look like fingers of a hand that get wider toward the nail. The nuts of both trees bear similar spikes, looking like round bright green hedgehogs.

Below is the stump of an American chestnut I came across at Natural Bridge in Virginia. To think of what a titan this tree must have been and how many creatures benefitted from its huge crop of nuts keeps many in the American Chestnut Foundation working. Virginia’s largest surviving Am chestnut is 65′ tall and 71″ in circumference.

Someday soon we may have the Eastern Hemlock Foundation, the Sugar Maple Foundation, and the Ash Foundation. Count me in.


stump of an American chestnut

stump of an American chestnut


*Am Chestnut Fdn: