Insects are our friends – Red Flat Bark Beetle

While walking along a trail at Leesylvania State Park yesterday, a half-inch bright red insect caught my eye.  The Red Flat Bark Beetle, Cucujus clavipes, is typically found under the bark of ash and poplar.  Its flat shape allows it to easily move around under bark, and sometimes even into the tunnels of destructive wood borers and bark beetles, which it likes to eat.  This is beneficial, as it helps limit wood borer and bark beetle damage to the tree.

The larvae overwinter from North Carolina to as far north as Alaska.  Scientists have been studying the Red Flat Bark Beetle to determine how the larvae survive such cold winters.  Beetle larvae produce glycerol, an anti-freeze protein, that enables them to survive to temperatures as low as -100C.   The concentration of glycerol in larvae in more southerly climates is less than larvae in Alaska, so the temperature that they can withstand is different.  Alaskan larvae have a higher concentration of glycerol because they undergo more dehydration than southern larvae.   According to scientists at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology, knowledge of glycerol could be used to create a solution to cool human organs in order to preserve them, to create a non-toxic de-icing solution for aircraft, or a concrete that will set in colder temperatures.  For you ice cream lovers out there, it might even be able to be used as an ingredient that could prevent the crystals that form inside an open carton of ice cream.

What a beneficial insect, and it’s pretty too.

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Searching for the Pink Lady’s Slipper

Of the many splendors of spring wildflowers in Virginia, few can rival the beauty of the Pink Lady’s Slipper.   On an overcast weekend morning, two friends and I set forth to try to find some of these elusive orchids.  We had a general idea of where they might be found, plus a collective knowledge of the habitat, wet-forested area with dappled shade.   Sometimes the journey is the point of the expedition, and we exclaimed over Birdfoot Violets, late-season Jack-in-the-Pulpits, butterflies, and so on, but were ever watchful, hoping…  In addition to the beautiful flowers and insects, there were voracious swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes, more ticks than I would like, the terrain was distinctly mucky, and did I mention the copious amounts of poison ivy?   We wandered the trails, rambled through the woods, and were unable to find a single Lady’s Slipper.  Finally, after several hours, one Pink Lady’s Slipper was located.  Unpleasant thoughts of mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy and mud vanished with the discovery of this incredible flower.

Pink Lady’s Slippers are pretty rare.  To survive and reproduce, the lady’s slipper must interact with a soil fungus that breaks open the seed and passes on nutrients to the seed.  In return, the fungus obtains nutrients from the Lady’s Slipper’s roots.  It takes years from the germination of the seed to produce a  flowering Lady’s Slipper, so commercial cultivation is not practical.  Pink Lady’s Slippers require bees for pollination.  Bees, attracted by the color and scent, are lured into the slipper.  The only way out leads past pollen masses, and the bee leaves with pollen that is deposited in the next Lady’s Slipper it visits.

I hope that you are fortunate enough to see a Pink Lady’s Slipper this spring.

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