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Leaf litter
Look under the Roof

Hopefully, you found some cool stuff before the leaves started to come out – if you did, be sure to share it with us! You can still find some interesting BUG stuff, even before the season really gets going.

Everything that lives in places with long, cold Winters needs to figure out how to survive when warmth and, often more importantly, water aren’t easy to find. Plants and animals and especially BUGS need an overwintering strategy.

I say especially BUGS because Arthropods cannot keep their bodies warm from the inside like we do (with some exceptions). Some people refer to this as “cold-blooded,” but this isn’t a very accurate term. It’s better to think of it as “outside temperature.” We are sometimes called “warm-blooded,” but for us it’s more like “inside temperature.”

One reason we eat so much food is to keep out bodies warm. BUGS get their heat from the environment. The exceptions include some large moths (like the Cecropia) which will ‘shiver’ to warm their flight muscles. If you were fortunate enough to find a Cecropia, or other large moth cocoon, you can see this behavior when the adult emerges. Also, Cecropias will be a regular part of our Spring BUG Programs soon – and you can see it at one of those, too!

Before you let it go you can gently coax it onto your finger. It will sit there for a few moments too cool to be able to fly. Eventually it will begin to shiver noticeably. After about 30 seconds of shivering, it will take a few big wing flaps and then clumsily fly away! These are some of the few BUGS that warm themselves from the inside.

Overwintering Strategies

Some BUGS deal with Winter the way my mom wants to – leave! She wants to go to Florida for Winter. While some BUGS migrate to warm places, others, like the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), go to cooler places so they don’t waste their limited reserves of fats. Monarchs fly to Mexico and hang out in the cool mountains until their caterpillar hostplants, Milkweeds (Family: Asclepiadaceae) grow again in the Spring.

Other BUGS, like Cecropias, make warm, silken cocoons to insulate and protect them from the elements. Some live through the Winter as eggs, like the Praying Mantids that live around here.

And some live as adults like the Mourning Cloak Butterfly and Ladybugs (really beetles!) If a BUGS is going to active at all during the cold Winter and cool Spring, it needs to find a place that is protected from the cold and snow. The Autumn’s fallen leaves provide an excellent refuge from the elements! And all the growing and biological activity under the leaf litter actually keeps it fairly warm down there!

 What YOU Can Do!

*Caution* In this activity, you will be going into to the homes of animals and plants uninvited! Please do everything you can think of to be respectful – and don’t forget you’re HUGE!!!

Leaf Litter

Generally, near the edge of the woods, there is a thick layer of leaves and other natural stuff that has settled over the years. This is a great insulator in Winter for lots of life. You can learn about these living things with a little patience and care.

You should wear gloves for this activity. We always have a nice set of garden gloves around for handling certain BUGS and for investigating places where we can’t see our hands – and for working in the garden! You can get decent gardening gloves at most stores for not much money. You don’t need real nice ones – but they should have padded palm areas and be comfortable and flexible enough for you to use your hands well.

You also may want a small, plastic shoebox or dishpan and a spoon. If you put some leaf litter in there and gently move it around, you will see all the things living in it. We usually have another container of some sort to temporarily hold our discoveries in for closer examination. An exploration like thins – like most of them – is usually more fun with two or more people.

Find a nice place with a lot of leaf litter. When you ‘dig’ through it, remember it is a home! Be respectful!

We try to scoop a small, manageable section from top to bottom, instead of tearing apart a huge area. You can use a small shovel if you want, but it is easy to chop things up and cause lots of destruction, so go slowly. You can also scoop slowly with your gloved hands.

Notice the area you got the sample from because sometimes you will see little animals you missed scurrying for cover! Don’t freak out! If you see where it went, you can carefully scoop with your spoon, or wait until it settles down and then wait for the next sample. It won’t go far unless there is a huge disturbance.

When you get a good sample, carefully put it in the container you brought.

Then wait.

You will start to see things moving around trying to get settled in their ‘new’ environment (probably not too happy about it). They will be trying to hide, so you should watch where they go and then carefully dig a little with your spoon and transfer it to the other container for observation.

When you get some good things to look at, you can sketch them in your notebook (which you should try to always bring on your explorations – wouldn’t want to forget any cool stuff!), or, if you have some good field guides, look them up to find out what they are called. Most field guides have a lot of interesting information about the way the animals live and what they eat, and especially whether or not they’re dangerous (very few around here are)!

Then – and most best – let them go back home!

Since you have much of their home in your container, it is best to just gently pour or scoop it all back as close to the way you found it as possible. You should try to be fairly quick, so if it is moist it doesn’t dry out. And remember, even if you don’t see anything living in your sample (they may not be home!), most natural areas are homes to something, or at least important parts of their lives. You are a guest!

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Look under the roof

One of the most fun places to look for living things is under a rock or big piece of wood. Many animals, such as salamanders, millipedes, centipedes, beetles, rolly-polies (isopods), and many other interesting animals, along with fungi and plant-like things make their homes under logs and rocks.

Here’s the thing – if under the log is their home, that makes the log the roof!

Imagine a HUGE monster lifts the roof off of your house. Because that is what you are doing to them when yo look under a log. So to be respectful, there is a proper way to do it.

First, whatever you do, go slowly and carefully. And whatever you do, do it in such a way so you can put it back as close to the same when you’re done looking. Don’t go crazy!

Never try to lift a log or rock that is too big for you to handle. If it slips out of your hand and you drop it back down, you can easily crush small animals, or destroy their homes at any rate. Don’t forget you’re HUGE.

When you lift the rock or log, lift it away from you. If there is some fast little thing, it will scurry toward safety and if the only way out is toward you, it could startle you and make you drop the roc- the roof.

Tip the rock or log up toward you, leaving it as much in place as you can. This may be best done with two people so while one of you holds up the roof, the other can gently scoot whoever lives there into your visiting container.

Remember, just because you don’t see anything under a rock or log, it could still be a home! They may be out getting food or watching a show!

Slowly and carefully lower the roof back down as close to the way you found it as you can.

** A note about salamanders… Salamanders don’t have lungs like ours. They breath through their skin. If you have ever held a salamander, you may have noticed that after a very short time, their skin gets kind of dry and sticky. This is very bad for the salamander! Get this – they breathe through their skin!!! But it has to be moist for this to happen. If they dry out, they suffocate.

So if you’re ever going to handle a salamander, be sure to wet your hands first. If you have a bottle of water, you can pour some on them. Also salamanders live in wetland areas, so there is almost always some running water nearby. Use that or a puddle to keep your hands and your visitor moist and healthy!

And have fun looking at the BUGS!

(see our Programs pages about how you can have us come and take you out to show you the BUGS! with BUGMANIA!, our outdoor walks!)

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