Thursday, November 24, 2022

November Child by guest writer JoAnn Malek

[JoAnn Malek is a long-time Museum member and a recent participant in the Natural Connections Writing Workshop. JoAnn has graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. It touches on realities we all must face at some point—for ourselves and our loved ones--and I’m excited to share it with you this week. –Emily Stone]

I am a November child. The bare bones of empty trees have always fascinated me.

After the leaves finished falling each year, and after I grew tired of jumping in the rustling piles, I looked upward to admire the bare trees. Some are long and straight and stretch upward. Other gnarled tree trunks send out crooked branches every which way. Some form Vs over and over again, just the way I liked to draw them.

These days I look out on a mesh of straight twigs or a labyrinth of curlicues. Every so often the bright white of a birch shines, stretching tall among neighboring hardwoods to sprout branches reaching for the Sun. Some trees who were connected at the base have grown apart, a melancholy reminder of me and my siblings. The many patterns captivate me.

When a tree topples, and underground growth is exposed, we see another kind of pattern. In some we find the broken taproot that was reaching far into the ground, providing needed anchorage, collecting water and nutrients, and storing reserved foods. The plant sends out a maze of lateral roots near the surface. In my garden, placed where trees once stood, I battled these lateral roots as they spread far and wide

Until recently I did not know that the trees I love to look at are able to connect with one another through their roots. Some species have fungal connections known as the mycorrhizal network. Trees can recognize their relatives. They can detect poor health in the network. Saplings rely on sugars from older trees in order to survive in the shade. Elders receive support when necessary. Trees of all ages supply additional nutrients to the ones in need.

In a forest I frequent there is a section dominated by maple trees. A few large “grandmas” are surrounded by many younger trees of different sizes. When I visit in autumn, the whole area is enclosed with a warm golden aura, even on the greyest of days. I, too, hope to create a warm golden aura around my family. I have fed them as they’ve grown, and now they support me, too.

Fallen trees, once strong and beautiful, bring to mind my dear Jim. The photo on my dresser pictures him at the end of the 1995 World Masters Marathon in Buffalo, N.Y., muscles straining, face taut. Jim was broken by Parkinson’s disease; he’s already gone (“can it be?”) nine years. Other trees in the forest, damaged and leaning, bring sad thoughts of friends struggling with physical challenges and their fears.

Our country and culture seem to celebrate independence and autonomy, but we must acknowledge the roots that connect us. Our rootedness in the past. Our relationships. Our faith in higher powers. Our care for the Earth and all that surrounds us. We need one another in thousands of physical ways, but also spiritually and emotionally. Only the rare individual can survive intact when separated from fellow humans.

As I venture through the November of my life, I treasure memories of role models in my family tree. I am honored by a large--even growing--network of friends. I am blessed with a strong root system and the ability to appreciate patterns my life etches on the grey November sky.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Guest writer JoAnn Malek contemplates the shapes of trees in all seasons.
Photo by N. Deegan. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Not a Lowly Lichen

More than a dozen tiny arms reached into the darkness. Clawed tips shone white and their lengths glowed an eerie blue in the beam of my UV flashlight.

Spooky though they were, the tiny arms belong to one of the most common lichens I see growing on the ground here in the Northwoods. These lichens, in the genus Peltigera, are part of some pretty amazing events in the history of lichens.

Lichens on the whole are incredible. Each lichen is a symbiotic relationship between a species of fungus—who gives the lichen both their structure and their name—and another partner, like algae, who can photosynthesize. Together, they can live on bare rock, dead tree branches, old rusted-out cars abandoned in the woods, and much more. Nutrients come from the wind and rain. They create sugars from water and air.

One of the main jobs of the fungus in this partnership is to keep the lichen from blowing away (unless they are a tumbleweed lichen on the tundra…). Toward this end, many leaf-like (foliose) lichens grab on to a substrate with little root-like rhizines that emerge from their lower surface. In some species of lichens, these rhizines exude acids that make minerals more accessible to the entire food web, including you. In Peltigera lichens, these rhizines glow eerily in UV light and look like a little Halloween diorama of disembodied arms nestled in the mossy bank of my driveway.

The glowing isn’t unusual—many lichens fluoresce in UV light—but the fact that the rhizines attach the lichen’s leaf-like thallus to the ground and not to a twig or rock is different than most of the lichens I see. That’s one of the ways I recognize Peltigera.

Their color is another clue. While many lichens on twigs and rocks are pale green, bright orange, or sunny yellow, Peltigera’s color scheme is straight out of the hiking pants section of the L.L. Bean catalogue: khaki, mineral gray, storm gray, deep olive, and emerald spruce. A lichen’s colors are a result of the interplay between the fungus, the photosynthesizer, and additional partners like yeasts or bacteria who have joined the party.

Drab though they may be, these lichens, growing in ruffled mats on lumpy ground, are fertilizing the forest. That’s because their partnership includes cyanobacteria. Commonly called a blue-green algae, these bacteria can not only form sugars through photosynthesis, they can also fix nitrogen from the air. That nitrogen becomes part of the lichen until rainwater carries some of it into the soil, and decomposition releases the rest of it once the lichen dies. Peltigera lichens, growing on the ground, are essentially Nature’s slow-release fertilizer pods.

Nostoc is the most common cyanobacterium in Peltigera lichens, and it can also occur outside of lichens in the environment, where it looks like dark green jelly on the ground. Because Nostoc is pretty much invisible until a rain, people have imagined it to be snot that has fallen from the sky, and named it appropriately: star jelly, troll’s butter, and spit of the moon. Its scientific name is a combination of the nos from nostril, and the German word for nose hole.

Despite being a little gross, Nostoc isn’t the main culprit behind the toxic blue-green algae blooms that are becoming more common in lakes.

There’s a little joke about lichens that goes “Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a lichen to each other…” In this case, that first blind date between Freddy Fungus and Cynthia Cyanobacteria set in motion a whole host of things, including 1,200 new species of lichens and all of Peltigera’s relatives. Recently, a Peltigera became one of the first three lichens ever selected for genome sequencing.

While Freddy and Alice’s (or Cynthia’s) relationship has been a very beneficial marriage, the fact that lichens are made up of at least two different species of completely different organisms means that reproduction can be a challenge. The Peltigera lichens on my driveway have little brown appendages at the tips of their ruffled leaves. These inspire the common name “dog-tooth lichen.” They are the reproductive structure of the fungus only, and will release fungal spores who need to re-associate with a cyanobacterium to form a new lichen. Nostoc are quite common, but this does involve some risk!

Other types of lichens create wart-like lumps called soredia that contain both the fungus and the cyanobacteria or algae together, ready to take on the world. Handily, most lichens can also grow a new individual from a broken chunk of the original.

If you can find them, don’t let the drab, ground-hugging forms of Peltigera lichens fool you. They are essential forest fertilizers, role models for partnership, and even contain the spit of the moon.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

The Night Gliders

[Danielle Spak participated in my recent Natural Connections Writing Workshop. She graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. –Emily Stone]

A note from Danielle: Connecting with nature has been a central theme in my life throughout 2022. This spring, I planted my very first garden and deepened my knowledge of the plant world. Hiking portions of the Ice Age Trail and foraging for wild edibles dominated my summer. I completed my Master Naturalist training at the beautiful Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary in Sarona in August. Attending the Natural Connections Writing Workshop with Emily Stone this October was an incredible learning opportunity that taught me how to combine my passions for writing and nature and craft this essay on a particular critter I adore!

The flash of a white, furry belly soars over my head. It is luminous against the backdrop of the nighttime sky. I duck as another small form soars past me with all four legs extended in flight, like a tiny caped superhero. A shrill, high-pitched warning squeak blasts from the pine tree beside me. As a heavy cloak of black velvet envelopes the evening and I round the last bend of my walk, the flying squirrels descend and commence their nightly plunder of my bird feeders.

Contrary to what their name suggests, flying squirrels don't fly: they glide. This action is called volplaning, and if rodents had superpowers, this would be the flying squirrel’s. These little "P.M. Paratroopers" have a loose flap of skin between their front and hind legs called a patagium that allows them to glide through the air, sometimes more than 150 feet!

They also have a small cartilaginous projection on the wrist, called a styliform process, that helps them widen the extension of the patagium and enhance their flight. As if these aerial adaptations weren’t fascinating enough, flying squirrels also have a flattened tail that is used as a brake, allowing the squirrel to slow down for a precise and graceful landing. Their huge, saucer-like eyes facilitate night vision.

The long, flat tail of a northern flying squirrels is used like a brake to facilitate precise and graceful landings. Photo by Larry Master, USFWS.

Before moving to the remote woods of northern Wisconsin, I had never seen a flying squirrel. Apparently, I am not alone. According to the DNR, the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is a Special Concern species in Wisconsin, and sightings are relatively rare. Their nocturnal nature heightens the challenge of observing one up close.

This summer, though, once I adopted a new ritual of an "after-dark walk" on the trails around my home, an entirely new universe revealed itself to me. One that is vibrant, active, and alive while the rest of the world slumbers.

There is a nocturnal symphony that accompanies the pulse of nature when the Sun goes down: the yipping excitement of the neighborhood coyote pack; the haunting hoots of the barred owls that station themselves around our woodshed, waiting for the misstep of an unfortunate mouse; the delicate, ballet-like stepping of deer in the high grass of the field before they bed down; the high-frequency staccato chirps of the flying squirrels as they launch themselves from the tall pines and effortlessly scale the side of the silo.

These nightly observances connect me to the circadian rhythm of wildlife.

Although the flying squirrels drain my birdfeeders with vacuum-like efficiency each night, I cannot help but cherish these charismatic, round-eyed critters and feel some degree of stewardship for them, especially as the season transitions into winter.

Flying squirrels do not hibernate. Instead, they reduce their metabolic rate and body temperature to conserve energy; a physiological state called torpor. And, as if these cartoonish little rodents couldn't get any more adorable, they also snuggle together in small groups called “cuddle puddles” to keep warm in cold weather. So, who would blame me for occasionally leaving small treats of fatty nuts and dried fruit out for them?

Being in darkness is not the preferred state of most humans. We rely so heavily on our sense of sight to safely navigate that darkness is often the catalyst for feelings of vulnerability and fear. I am in awe of the animals who embrace the dark and have adapted to survive when the veil of day melts into night. They have taught me that there is so much to “see” in the world around us in the absence of light.

Guest writer Danielle Spak

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Spongy Moth Discovery

A dozen yellow aspen leaves, each with a single trapezoid of green still vibrant on the blade, fluttered to the ground. I’d just been sharing one of my favorite fall stories with sixth graders from Washburn Elementary School on a field trip to their school forest. They’d each picked up a yellow and green leaf and examined it closely.

We saw how a tiny moth larvae lives inside the leaf petiole, just below the blade, and nibbles on the green chlorophyll. Although the moth is not native to North America, the trees are not significantly harmed by these small acts of late-season parasitism. Non-native species aren’t always so benign.

I was about to move on down the trail when a couple of students started exclaiming about a tree trunk. A chestnut-colored husk hung there in a bit of a brownish web; tufts of golden hairs erupted from the segments. It looked like an empty pupa, where an insect had metamorphosed and emerged as an adult. “It’s one of those invasive things,” someone exclaimed. Emerald ash borer popped into my head, but these were aspens not ashes. “No, the moth!” a girl clarified. “And look, that’s their eggs!”

A mystery case hung on the tree...Photo by Emily Stone.

Squinting up to where she pointed, I saw a fuzzy, tan-colored lump on the pale tree. “Looks like a fungus to me,” I guessed, before waving everyone down the trail.

Later, I uploaded the snapshot of the pupal case to iNaturalist. When I saw the top ID suggestion, I smacked my forehead. The mystery and the egg mass were from spongy moths—the terribly invasive insect previously called a gypsy moth—just as the two girls had been trying to tell me. “Do you know how the students knew about the spongy moth? Have you been talking about them in class?” I asked the teachers in an email. Personally, I’ve been ignoring the headlines about them, which is why I didn’t recognize these two life stages.

This time of year, spongy moths are preparing to overwinter in egg masses attached to trees. The moth spends 75% of their life cycle in the egg stage. Scraping these egg masses into the trash is a control measure appropriate for late fall. Photo by Wisconsin DNR.

“Two of my students have these moths all over trees at their houses,” wrote back Ms. Van Der Puy. “They climbed up into a tree and found what they are calling a “nest,” proceeded to poke it, which cause ‘tons of eggs to fall out.’ They were super intrigued by this, so they went in and looked it up. And THAT is how they knew about the spongy moth.”

I asked Ms. Van Der Puy to tell the girls that I’d learned something from them on the field trip. Then I called Paul Cigan, Plant Pest & Disease Specialist for the Wisconsin DNR.

Paul gladly took my call, because the northern parts of Douglas, Bayfield, and Ashland counties are experiencing a severe outbreak of spongy moths. These two girls’ homes are in the epicenter! And it’s not over yet.

The adult moths are not the problem. They don’t feed at all. The female sits on a tree wafting pheromones into the breeze. Those scent chemicals are so strong, that if you squash her with your shoe, you’ll attract a horde of male moths, too.

A male flies to her, they mate, and she lays a pile of eggs with a spongy consistency. It’s appropriate that the insects are named for their egg stage, because that’s how they spend 75% of their life cycle. Those eggs can endure negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and like so many critters in the subnivean zone, they are insulated by the snowpack when they are attached near the base of the tree. Milder temperatures near Lake Superior also increase survival.

In May, as new leaves unfold, caterpillars hatch from the eggs and begin feeding. For five to six weeks they eat. And eat. And strip every leaf down to its veins. While spongy moth caterpillars can eat more than 300 species of deciduous and evergreen trees, oaks and aspens are their main targets in northern Wisconsin. Healthy trees can survive, but this summer ended with a drought, so more trees might succumb to the stress of having all their leaves nibbled off.

Next spring the caterpillars will emerge anew, for what Paul hopes will be the last year of a major infestation. Then there will be little left to eat, and the caterpillars themselves will start falling prey to more dangers. A cool, wet spring would be helpful, Paul told me. That weather means more caterpillars die of fungal and viral infections. Who would have thought we’d be cheering for a virus?

In addition, non-stinging, parasitic wasps—introduced in 1908 to help control the moths—lay their own eggs in the moths’ egg masses. Wasp larvae eat the moth eggs.

Predators on the moths’ various life stages include a long list of beetles, flies, stinkbugs, spiders, harvestmen, ants, chipmunks, shrews, voles, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, cuckoos, orioles, robins, crows, nuthatches, blue jays, and even my beloved chickadees peck at egg masses.

Spongy moth caterpillars are covered in irritating hairs, and larger ones hide at the base of trees during the day. This makes them challenging to eat, but deer mice will skin and gut them before feasting.

Unfortunately, natural predators aren’t able to control spongy moths on their own. At this time of year, you can help by scraping the eggs masses off your trees and putting every last one into soapy water and then the trash.

If you need help identifying spongy moths on your trees, I know of a couple sixth graders who are already experts!

In addition, the University of Wisconsin Extension has handy references on their website, and experts are available to give advice at the Spongy Moth Hotline, (800) 642-MOTH, or

Eggs are visible at the top of this spongy moth egg mass. 

This photo is from the middle of the process of scraping an egg mass off the tree. Ew!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

What the North Wind Swirls

It’s hard to know where to look at this stage of fall. Bursts of color still shine from tamarack swamps and groves of oaks. Bedrock outcrops, old foundations, and other bits of history are peeking through the bare trunks of “see-through” season. And dry leaves dance ahead of the breeze, tickling our eyes for attention.

Among those leaves are little dancers who don’t need wind to help them fly. Flocks of dark-eyed juncos and snow buntings have arrived from the far north. They will help animate our landscape now that the warblers, vireos, hawks and other friends have left.

Some folks call juncos “snowbirds,” because their plumage imitates the winter color scheme of dark skies above and white snow below. Here, in their overwintering habitat of the lower 48, they also seem to bring the snow with them as they move south each fall.

“Like the chiming of myriad crystal bells, a flock of juncos was gossiping among the branches. Their notes were so fragile and unbelievably pure they seemed to float on the air.” – Lois Nestel. Photo by Emily Stone.

Dark-eyed juncos breed across Canada. The northern forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota are at the southern edge of their mid-continent breeding habitat, and we sometimes see a few juncos through the summer. You can identify them by the flash of white on their outer tail feathers as they fly away. The real influx comes when the leaves begin to fall, as juncos head south to their winter range.

Under the feeders, along roadsides, and in open areas, juncos will forage by hopping, scratching, and pecking at the leaf litter, and flying up to glean food from low twigs and grasses. By eating ragweed, crabgrass, and pigweed seeds in the winter, and insects in the summer, juncos help keep pests under control.

And they make eating weeds look fun. These sparrow-sized birds sometimes land on the top of a grass stem and use their 25-gram bodyweight (the equivalent of 25 paperclips) to “ride” it to the ground. From there, they can stand on the seed head and feed more easily.

Dominance hierarchies in winter flocks mean that females get chased off food when there are too many males around. As a result, females tend to migrate farther south. There’s another reason for the difference in their preferred winter latitudes. Males will risk harsher weather in order to get a jump start on spring migration and arrive first at prime breeding territories. When the females arrive a little later, they get to select a nest site within the territory of the male they choose.

While juncos get the nickname “snowbirds,” snow buntings take that idea to the extreme. There is no apparent northern limit to their breeding range, and they have the ability to spend the winter farther north than almost any other bird.

While snowshoe hares turn white for the winter, snow buntings add brown and spend the season with rusty patches on their feathers. It helps them blend in on the bare fields and among the grass stems where they feed in the United States (eating more ragweed seeds, thank you!). By April, that color has worn off to reveal pure white plumage that will match their still-snowy Arctic breeding habitat.

This female snow bunting blends in well with the mix of snow, bare ground, and dry grasses on her wintering habitat. Photo by Charles J Homler via Wikimedia Commons.

Just like juncos, the winter habits of male snow buntings are dictated by their need to return early to claim a breeding territory. Since snow buntings nest in deep cracks and cavities in rocks to avoid predators, their nesting sites are limited. Not going too far south and arriving early back north to claim one is essential.

Nests in those cold rocks must be lined with fur and feathers, and the eggs incubated almost constantly. Males are attentive, and bring food to their mate every 15 minutes.

While it may seem excessive for snow buntings to endure such cold, their breeding is carefully timed so that chicks are hungriest right when insects are most plentiful. Hard winters seem to keep this timing well-matched. Counterintuitively, warm springs that shift breeding earlier produce a mismatch with their food source. Studies show that nestling weight declines.

“Those lovely little wraiths, the snow buntings,” wrote Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director and naturalist, as she detailed the beauty of winter in the Northwoods. Of juncos, she wrote: “… I was greeted with one of the woodland’s loveliest sounds. Like the chiming of myriad crystal bells, a flock of juncos was gossiping among the branches. Their notes were so fragile and unbelievably pure they seemed to float on the air.”

As the swirling dance of these two snowbirds livens up the roadsides of fall, I’m grateful that they make the Northwoods their winter home.

Author’s Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from 2015.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Shades of Rot and Life

In the dim light, under the thick, hardwood canopy of the forest in Fox River Park, Waukesha, death was everywhere.

Autumn leaves carpeted the ground in shades of brown and yellow, with occasional splashes of blood red. Snags stood among the living trees, their decorticated (a fancy term for bark-less) trunks smooth and dry. And long stripes of rusty brown crumbles marked where fallen logs were melting into the ground.

Of course, life was everywhere, too.

Beside the wide, dirt trail, a ruffle of turkey tail fungus cascaded down the graceful curve of a tree trunk like an earth-toned ball gown: a damsel of decay. While the volume of fungal frills—each with a velvety top, concentric bands of color, and tiny pores in the white undersurface—was impressive, the bulk of the being was hidden inside. Intertwined among the wood cells, hidden from view, the fine, white threads of hyphae (the actual body of a fungus) were hard at work. The tree itself was dead, and yet still full of life.

Turkey tails are a white-rot fungus, which means that they have the ability to decompose the major components of a tree. That’s not easy. Wood is tough because the cellulose and lignin molecules it’s made of are long chains of elements that are difficult to break apart. Lignin in particular gives wood its strength.

Do you remember learning about enzymes in your high school science class? I chewed on a saltine cracker until it became sweet. Enzymes in my mouth broke down the long chains of starches until they became glucose, a simple sugar. In a similar, but external process, fungi exude a series of enzymes into the wood, and those enzymes split the chemical bonds of cellulose and lignin, resulting in shorter chains of glucose. The sugar dissolves in water, and fungal hyphae absorb it directly through their cell walls. Carbon dioxide is released to the air.

Because turkey tail and other white-rot fungi break down cellulose and lignin simultaneously but leave some of the cellulose for last, the wood they work on becomes soft, white, and stringy. A large portion of the nutrients once trapped in the wood become available to cycle through the ecosystem again. Bacteria jump in to use those nutrients, paper wasps turn the soft wood into nests, and moose can even eat wood softened by artist's conk fungi.

The next day, I headed back along that same trail with a group of Master Naturalists doing an activity called a Professor Hike. I picked a student with a sense of humor, stationed her by a stump, and made her a duct tape name tag that read: Professor Brown Cubical Butt Rot. “This isn’t a disease caused by too much time in an office chair,” I joked. The name is real, and quite descriptive.

As the Professor explained to her classmates, this tree stump was being decomposed by a brown-rot fungus. Unlike the turkey tail, some fungi can only decompose the cellulose in wood cells, and the lignin left behind is brown. The fungus typically affects the bottom of a tree trunk, which in forester and logger lingo is the “butt.” But the cubical part of the name is most interesting.

Brown-rot fungi send hydrogen peroxide rapidly diffusing through the wood of a tree. The chemical modifies lignin just enough to get at the cellulose also in the cell walls and snips apart the long chains of cellulose into carbohydrates. Two days later, once the destructive peroxides have dissipated, enzymes finish the job of turning the carbohydrates into sugar. The fungus absorbs it.

The process works more quickly than the totally enzyme-dependent decomposition by white-rot fungi, but leaves all the lignin on the table. The lignin-rich wood turns brown, shrinks, and cracks into roughly cubical pieces. Hence the name, brown cubical butt rot. The “professor” bragged about her name all day—accidentally teaching about decomposition along the way.

We’re often tempted to turn everything into a competition. Are white-rot fungi superior because they can break down lignin? Or are brown-rot fungi better because they can work more quickly? In fact, the first to arrive often has the advantage. And when the two types of fungi compete directly on the same log, brown-rot fungi win the short game by being able to access the energy in cellulose quickly, while white-rot fungi play the long game as they slowly access more of the energy stored in the wood.

In the end, the ecosystem wins. The rusty colored crumbles of brown-rot fungi contribute to healthy soils with more capacity to hold moisture and nutrients. White-rot fungi, and especially competition between several different types of fungi, results in a tree being more thoroughly recycled and the materials becoming available for new growth. Humans are also treated to delicious meals when the fungi fruit. My favorite—chicken of the woods—is a brown-rot fungus. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms; plus the medical turkey tails, are all white-rotters.

Lignin and cellulose; brown and white; death and life. In the end, they aren’t all that different.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Stories Buzzing in a Wasp Nest

A colorful crew of Master Naturalists in my “Finding the Stories in Nature” workshop trickled out of the picnic shelter at Fox River Park near Waukesha, WI, and regathered next to a spruce tree on the lawn. “Here’s your first challenge,” I told them. “What stories do you see?”

A few students came closer and poked at the papery gray remains of a bald-faced hornet nest in the tree. They observed the torn bottom of the once-oval shell, and the way the spruce needles poked up through the paper where the nest encompassed the twig. Someone pointed a tentative toe at the circle of dead brown grass directly below the nest, and reached out as if to touch the paper disc of honeycomb that had come to rest on a lower branch.

“Well,” one student began tentatively, “someone sprayed it.”

I nodded encouragingly, watching their gears turn, and then jumped in to share the ideas that had been churning in my own head.

“I see a story of fear,” I began.

Someone noticed the nest—too close to the picnic shelter—or maybe a visitor complained about a wasp attracted to their sugary drink. (Bald-faced hornets are technically wasps, not true hornets.) Worried about severe allergies, or even just some painful stings, someone decided that the risk was too great, and the nest couldn’t stay.

A park maintenance person took a can of insecticide off the shelf, and drove over in their truck to take care of the problem. It looks like they sprayed, and then tore open the bottom of the nest, and then sprayed some more. The surrounding spruce needles turned brown. The grass turned brown. And all that remains of the dozens of bald-faced hornets in the colony are two mummified bodies caught in the act of crawling toward the exit.

“I also see a story of life,” I continued.

Last fall, at about this time, a new queen emerged from her colony, found a drone from another colony, and mated. The male drone died, while the new queen burrowed into the soft wood of a rotten log and hunkered down for the winter. Glycerol in her cells kept the sharp crystals of ice at bay.

Last spring, the queen emerged and began to build her colony. With strong jaws, she scraped up soft fibers of rotting wood, mixed them with her own saliva, and formed them into a small disk of honeycomb-shaped cells and an outer shell of paper. (This outer shell makes it easy to tell her nest from that of a paper wasp. Their nests leave the hexagonal cells exposed.)

Our bald-faced hornet queen laid her first set of eggs (fertilized with the help of that short-lived drone last fall), then fed her larvae chewed up caterpillars until they were ready to pupate. Twenty-five days after the eggs were laid, the queen finally had subjects to command. She retired to the nest to continue laying eggs while her daughters ventured out to hunt caterpillars and gather paper-making supplies. As the colony grew, they enlarged the nest by transferring material from the inside to the outside.

“I also see a story about risk and reward,” I add. Autumn is when wasps become gamblers. If the queen is too quick in laying the unfertilized eggs that will become male drones, and initiates the formation of new queens too soon, the colony may not reproduce to its fullest capacity. Maybe the colony could have gotten just a little bigger and made just a few more new queens to carry on their genes…

On the other hand, if the queen waits too long, hard frost may kill the whole colony before the new queens can mate and burrow safely into a hibernaculum. The new queens are their hope for the future—the old queen, the drones, and the rest of the colony are doomed to frost no matter what.

Killed by chemicals instead of frost, these bald-faced hornets are frozen in the entry way to their nest. Photo by Emily Stone 

“What other stories do you see?” I posed again to the group, and we returned to talking about fear. One after another, members of the group shared their personal stories of being stung, being chased, and being scared.

Aggression is part of the insect’s story. At any given time, bald-faced hornets have dozens of tender, energy-rich eggs, larvae, and pupae squirreled away in their nest. The colony also contains a significant number of workers whose job goes beyond providing food and shelter to protecting the nest from hungry bears, foraging skunks, and scared humans. More than 99% of wasp species are solitary, with a single female laying eggs and provisioning the larvae all by herself. Those species are rarely aggressive.

Finally, an artist in the group peered closer and admired the shades of gray layered in subtle stripes and swirls. Red-eyed vireos like this material, too, and often incorporate scraps of wasp paper into their own nests, a type of tricky camouflage meant to deter potential nest predators.

From death, to life, to other lives, this nest had tales to tell. “Good work,” I told the Master Naturalists as I motioned toward the woods. “Now let’s go find some more stories!”

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.