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Summer of the Snakes

AUGUST 7 | BY IRVINE NATURALIST LAURA SODER

While some of us may be trying to find ways to stay out of the harsh summer sun, our slithery, cold blooded friends are finding the heat irresistible. Snakes and other reptiles cannot keep their body at a constant temperature through metabolizing food like warm blooded animals do. Instead, they take on the temperature of their surroundings. If a snake is cold, they move to a warm, sunny area; when they are too hot, they move to a cool, shaded area.

In the summer, open roads, sidewalks and dirt trails become great basking sites for snakes of all shapes and sizes! This means that the chance of coming across one of these scaled creatures increases, leading to a surprising and often unnerving encounter for some. Many people have a fear or dislike of snakes, often times stemming from a misunderstanding of these unique animals.

All snakes are carnivores, meaning they hunt and eat other animals. Some, like the tiny Ringneck snake that grows no larger than a #2 pencil, frequently prey on crickets, earthworms and other small invertebrates. Others, like the elusive timber rattle snake, hunt larger mammals such as mice, chipmunks and young rabbits. This snake is one of two venomous snakes in our state, along with the northern copperhead. Most other snakes in our area are considered constrictors, meaning they squeeze their prey before consuming them. Because of their reputations as fierce hunters, many people fear the bite of a snake. Keep in mind that any snake can bite, no matter the type. But snakes are not diabolical, vicious killers — they bite to kill and eat their food or to defend themselves.

If you stumble across a snake while enjoying the outdoors, the best thing to do is give it space and leave it be. Most snake bites occur due to stepping on a hidden snake or attempting to move the unwanted visitor. We are much larger than any snake found in Maryland, which must seem quite threatening to them — many snakes will make a quick retreat when discovered. Unfortunately, there are several species of snake that are no longer common due to persecution by humans —o ur fear has fueled us to seek out an eradicate certain species in the past.

While not everyone may find snakes as appealing as most warm and furry animals, it is important to keep in mind that they play a major role in our ecosystem. Snakes control pest species, especially rodent populations, preventing them from entering our homes or destroying our crops. So next time you come across an animal of the slithering, legless variety, appreciate its unique adaptations and its helpful habits from a safe distance, and both of you will continue to enjoy the summer day!

Honey Bee Swarms

JULY 7 | BY IRVINE NATURALIST VALERIE BARBARE

When I took my trail group of students to Irvine’s meadow to sweep for insects, we found crickets, grasshoppers and leaf hoppers. It’s pretty typical that we find these insects, but what happened next didn’t seem so typical; a swarm of honey bees flew through our group! Several students and a volunteer were quickly surrounded by countless honey bees. We told the students to hold still. They did, but they were noticeably scared. The swarm moved on as quickly as it came.

Naturally, the students asked why the honey bees were swarming and if it was normal. Honey bee swarms are normal, and they typically occur from May toJuly. One main reason honey bees swarm is because when there are too many worker bees in a colony, they don’t have contact with the queen anymore. They need a new queen since it’s she that releases chemical scents that help unify the colony and lays eggs.

So, a new queen arises (thanks to being fed some royal jelly as a larva) and the old queen joins part of the colony to go make a new one. This is when bees swarm because the worker bees surround the queen while other bees look for a new cavity to live in. The honey bees are usually pretty calm during this time and aren’t really interested in going after people to sting them. Once they find a new home, they go right in and return to performing their roles.

Understandably, being caught up in a honey bee swarm can feel pretty frightening if you don’t know what’s going on. A honey bee swarm is just a time of transition for a colony, not a sign of an attack. If you see a swarm, step back and enjoy the amazing sight. If you find yourself a part of a swarm, hold still until they pass. Once they’ve moved through, they’ll get back to work, enabling us to have beautiful flowers, fruits, vegetables, honey, and more!

Beat the Heat

JUNE 7 | BY IRVINE NATURALIST STEVE MICKLETZ

When I ask kids what their favorite part of summer is, one of the more popular responses is “SWIMMING!” This, of course, is a great way to have fun in the sun while staying cooled and refreshed in the summer. But what do the animals do as the weather heats up?

Some animals are just waking up from their winter rest. Promethea moths, for example, may spend 9 moths as a pupa in their cocoon before emerging in early June as a beautiful, winged adult! Other animals, like the spotted salamander, will head underground on wooded hillsides for shelter in the summer swelter. They’ll stay in underground burrows until their vernal pool breeding grounds return in the winter.

What am I looking forward to? I can’t wait to head out with our 13-15 year old summer campers for Mountains 2 Sea camp. We’ll explore the Appalachians and waterfalls and finish the week where most folks flock in the summer – Maryland’s ocean beaches! What a great way to beat the heat!

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