Category Archives: Cool Science

The Wonderful World of Mason Bees

In honor of National Pollinator Week last month, let’s give a tribute to a native New York bee. While there are hundreds of bee species in the state, this shout-out is for one species – the mason bee.


A mason bee (Osmia sp.) (Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

“What are Mason Bees?”

While there are over 400 species of bees in New York State, mason bees comprise only about 7 percent of that diversity. These small bees are important pollinators of crops, wildflowers, and many other woodland, meadow and wetland plants. Unlike honeybees, which are sial in nature, mason bees are solitary. They construct individual nests in hollow reeds or other plant stems, pre-existing cavities, or burrows found in dead wood. Their name stems their practice of transporting mud to nesting areas to build structures in which they eventually lay eggs.

Mason bees come from the tribe Osmini of the family Megachilidae. In New York State, mason bees include genera such as Osmia, Hoplitis, Chelostoma, and Heriades. Each genera has specific characteristics. Also, these mild-mannered bees only sting if provoked or cornered, so they are ideal for observing up close.

Osmia Mason Bees: When referring to “mason bees”, many people would generally reference them to the bees of genera Osmia. A key trait of these types of bees that they are an energetic fast flier. Osmia mason bees tend to be small-to-medium in size with a robust build and relatively large heads. Within the genera, there are three subgenera (or subspecies): Helicosmia, Melanosmia, and Osmia. In New York, there are at least 25 native Osmia species.

Blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) (Photo Credits – USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Hoplitis Mason Bees: They are the pollinators of woodland shrubs and trees, garden flowers and berries, while also visiting some varieties of commercial fruit. What makes them different from Osmia mason bees is that their bodies are slenderer. Hoplitis mason bees tend to be black to darkly-colored with pale abdominal stripes. These bees use chewed leaves, dirt, pebbles, or wood particles to construct walls between the brood cells of their nests. There are seven Hoplitis species found in New York.

The face of a Hoplitis spoliata (Photo Credit – USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)

Chelostoma Mason Bees: They are the only type of mason bee native to New York State that is represented solely by one species, the mock orange Chelostoma, Chelostoma philadelphi

Mock orange chelostoma bee (Chelostoma philadelphi) (Photo Credit – USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory

Their appearance is small and ant-like, with disproportionately long jaws compared to the rest of its body. Bees that fall within this genus tend to be picky about which plants that they feed on and pollinate. Thus, the mock orange Chelostoma is a pollinator of the mock orange shrub (genus Philadelphus after which the bee was named). However, for those who are bee enthusiasts, there are also two non-native species of Chelostoma in New York that tend to feed on bellflowers.

Heriades Bees: Last, but certainly not least, is the resin bee, genus Heriades. What are resin bees? Resin bees and mason bees are quite similar to one another in terms of their lifestyles; they are both solitary bees; living in nests rather than hives. But unlike the other three genera, resin bee nests are located in the ground. Heriades bees can forage on a range of plants, not prioritizing one over the other when pollinating crops and wild plants. These bees tend to be dark in color with a slender-to-medium build, having sparse body hair that cover their bodies.

“What is the life cycle of a mason bee?”

While their lives are short, mason bee are very hard workers, making then truly a “busy bee.” 

There is only one generation of mason bee per year.

Inside each nest tunnel or cavity, there are about 5 or 6 cocoons each containing a full-grown bee awaiting the right time to emerge. Each cocoon within the tunnel is separated by a thin mud wall placed there by the adult mother bee the spring before. The end of each tunnel is capped with a thick plug of mud or chewed leaves to keep the young safe through the winter.

In spring, after the temperate hits a consistent high of 55 degrees, both male and females emerge from their cocoons. Male bees always emerge first, remaining close to the nest, leaving their mark while waiting for the female mason bees. They leave only to feed on the nectar from flowers and plants.  

Females hatch unable to fly, and immediately mate with the waiting male mason bees.  Females mate with several males during this period. After mating, the males die and complete their life cycle. Unlike their females in their species, male mason bees only live for a few days.

Osmia at nest’s entrance (Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

A Female’s World

Female mason bees begin to nest about 3 to 4 days after mating, usually preferring to nest in preexisting holes. The bees plug the bottom of the hole with mud, then begin to bring both pollen and nectar from nearby plant blossoms to place in the hole as well.

After accumulating enough food for her young, the female lays eggs on top of the pollen and seals the cell with thin mud. She repeats this process until either the entire length of the tunnel is used or until she lays all of her eggs. The sperm that was stored from mating with the male mason bee acts as a fertilizer for the eggs, but only if she wants to have female offspring. An unfertilized egg will become male. Typically, two-thirds of cocoons will be male mason bees.

Hatching in a few days, larvae devour the pollen and nectar mixture in the nest. The amount of mixture that the female gathered determines the size of the emerging bees of the following spring. The larger the piles of pollen and nectar, the larger the bees.

In about ten days, the larvae spin into a cocoon and pupate inside. Towards the end of summer, the bees turn in to an imago, their adult stage and remains in their cocoon until next spring.  Their roles completed, the female mason bees die that fall and the cycle begins all over again.

“How do you make a mason bee house?”

Well I am glad you asked. This is a really fun way to attract mason bees to your yard.

An example of a solitary bee house was constructed by Sarah Witalka, a conservation steward for the Thousand Islands Region at Westcott Beach State Park, while working at its pollinator garden. If you are not that big into woodworking, you are not out of luck. Stewards at Westcott Beach made one with an old Gatorade bottle and hollow plant stems.

A home-made mason bee house (Photo Credit – Sarah Witalka, Conservation Steward for Thousand Islands Region)
 

Here’s how!

  1. Gather hollow stems from large flower stalks like goldenrod, daisies, black-eyed-susan, or Phragmites (also known as reed).
  2. If you do not know, Phragmites are an invasive reed that can be easily found by water and ditches. Keep the stems but leave the flowering head or seeds at the site or discard bag so you do not spread this invasive weed around!
  3. Score the stalks with a knife (always have an adult present to do this part), then snap the lengths.
  4. If using reed or grass, cut so that each tube ends in a node and is solid. Otherwise plug one end of each tube with mud.
  5. If that part is not done and the end of the tube was left open, a bee would not use it.
  6. Put as many tubes in the bottle as will fit, open end facing out towards you.
  7. Then use twigs to fill the spaces, so everything remains snug.
  8. If the original tubes were a little long for the bottle, a lip could be added in order to keep the rain off.
  9. Lastly, attach twine to hang it with.

Tips for placement:

  1. The front of the house should have a south or southwest exposure where it will get the most sun in winter to keep bees warm. REMEMBER! Bees are cold-blooded and they need the warmth of the sun to get going!
  2. Choose a secure and peaceful place, not one that sways or is noisy and full of movement; areas protected from high winds.
  3. Hang at eye level to keep them safe from critters and easy to check.
  4. Avoid installing the bee house right next to a bird feeder or birdhouse.
  5. Placed within about 300ft./100m of your garden, fruit & nut trees or berry patches to get the most benefit of these pollinators
  6. Plant or encourage NY native plants in your yard to benefit the native bees.
Osmia distincta is one of the more colorful mason bees (Photo Credit – USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)
 

Mason bees are among the hundreds of pollinators in North America that you can learn about. Learn to appreciate the job that these insects are committed to do every single year.

If you would like to read more about mason bees, follow these links to obtain a broader knowledge on not just mason bees, but all kinds of native bees.


Cover photo- Female Mason bee on a flower (Photo credit- Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org, under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License)

Post by Kelley Anne Thomas, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member;and Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist, NY Natural Heritage Program


Websites and Links

Bee Diversity in New York Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

Empire State Native Pollinator Survey 

The Honeybee Conservancy- Mason Bees

Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation

USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

When A Flu Reined In New York

As we New Yorkers endure the COVID-19 pandemic, the natural question for historians is: how did people react to epidemics in the past?

By now you may be aware of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Could the number of deaths have been lower if they knew back then what we know now? Did they practice social distancing? Close businesses? Shut down schools? Limit transportation and government services?  Cancel public gatherings? Put people in isolation? Create temporary hospitals? Make people wear masks?

Spoiler alert…they did all those things. Reading about the steps people and governments took to limit the spread of the pandemic a century ago would feel shockingly familiar to us today. Our forbearers knew to do these things because the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the first to hit New York – not by a proverbial long shot.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a form of social distancing was the norm in times of pandemics. When Yellow Fever ravaged the northeastern United States beginning in the 1790s, residents of large cities like Philadelphia and New York fled dense urban areas for the countryside, if they had the economic means to do so. The same held true in scattered outbreaks of the flu in New York in the 1820s, and when a large pandemic hit in the early 1830s. 

There was, however, one particular influenza outbreak in 1872 that was so widespread, and so contagious, that no one in America could escape its effects. The 1872 outbreak crippled the economy, crashed every transportation network in New York State (steamboats, railroads, canals, streetcars), led to permanent changes in the Americans’ lives, and likely was one of the causes of the Great Depression – the Panic of 1873, which was called the “Great Depression” until the even-Greater Depression hit in the 1930s.

It was so bad that people were worried the 1872 Presidential election would be impacted by people’s inability to get to the polls (sound familiar?). For months, the disease was front page news on every paper in the country, but for all its devastating effects, the massive influenza outbreak of 1872 is hardly known or remembered today: it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page!  To be fair, though, it also didn’t kill a single person…

The 1872 influenza outbreak wasn’t a pandemic, or even an epidemic, it was an epizootic (or more properly classified as a panzootic), an outbreak of a highly communicable strain of equine influenza. It was a horse flu.

It started innocuously enough in the fall of 1872 with small reports about horse-drawn streetcars in Toronto being shut down due to the so-called “Canada Horse Disease.” Theses blurbs about the disease were buried on the back pages of several New York newspapers, and everyone seemed wholly unprepared for what was coming their way.

On October 21, the “Canada Horse Disease” hit Buffalo and in a matter of days, all of canal country was full of sick horses. Thousands of horses and mules worked the Erie Canal and shared stables, and they sent the contagious disease in every direction along the state’s watery superhighways.

Four men and a mule board a canal boat along the Erie Canal. (Photo Credit- Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum in Old Erie Canal State Park)

By Halloween, every equine engine in New York State effectively stopped working at the same time.  It was no longer the back-page “Canada Horse Disease,” it was the front-page “Great Epizootic of 1872.” Although most horses and mules ultimately recovered, the only cure was rest. A resting horse could not work, and without horses, industrial America was unable to function.  Why was it so devastating? Why were there so many horses?

If I asked you to picture a person and a horse in the late 19th century, you might think of this:

Or perhaps genteel Victorians on carriages:

You might not picture this:

New York City needed thousands of horses to pull streetcars and wagons, in these street scenes on Broadway and Center Street. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)

Post-Civil War America is commonly thought of as a time of rapid industrialization and mechanization, but in reality, horses and mules were still at the heart of every transportation system in the country and powered every aspect of life: they hauled people, freight, omnibuses (taxis) streetcars, fire engines, cavalrymen, carriages, canal boats, wagons, and anything else that needed to move. There were no cars, buses, trucks, subways, or motorcycles. There were horses, horses, and more horses on congested city streets.

Those cowboys pictured roping a buffalo on the plains might see ten or even twenty horses in a day. New York City and Brooklyn (a separate city until the 1890s) had a combined horse population of somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000 horses, and most were attacked by the horse flu.

On October 25th, the Utica Daily Observer reported 28,000 sick horses in New York City. Three days later, the Daily Saratogian reported that 7,000 horses in the city were stricken in a 24-hour period. In the end, the infection rate was around 90 percent. The horse flu impacted every aspect of American’s lives.

Grocers couldn’t deliver food.

Horse-drawn wagons at Haymarket Square in Chicago. (Photo Credit- Library of Congress)

Streetcars stopped running, stranding suburban commuters.

New York City relied on thousands of horses to pull its public streetcars. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)
Grand Central Depot in New York City with horse-drawn streetcars. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)

People couldn’t vote. The Buffalo Courier and Republic reported: 

There is considerable discussion in political circles, as to whether the sickness of so many horses through the country may not have an effect on the result in this and some other states by preventing country voters from getting to the polls on Tuesday, the [Presidential] election day.” Buffalo Courier and Republic Oct 31 1872.

Trains could run, of course, but what would they carry? Everything had to be delivered to depots by horse-drawn wagons, and when it arrived, it had to be distributed by more horse-drawn wagons. Railroads owned some of the largest fleets of horses in the 19th century. The same with steamboats:

“In the depots of the Erie, Morris and Essex and Pennsylvania railroads, a great quantity of freight is awaiting transportation, and the wharves of the large steamship lines are crowded with bales and boxes which cannot be moved.” Troy Daily Times October 26, 1872

The Buffalo Courier and Republic reported the same day that “of the 300 horses used along the New York City waterfront by stevedores, 280 have got the disease.”  A short while later, the steamboats couldn’t move even if they wanted to—they had no fuel. The Hudson River steamboats counted on a steady supply of coal from Pennsylvania, but that entire operation relied on mules, who got sick and couldn’t work. Mules pulled carts from the depths of the mines and then other mules pulled freight boats of the coal on the Delaware & Hudson Canal up to river.  By November, the Kingston Daily Freeman reported steamboat navigation was “nearly suspended” because of the lack of coal.

Eventually the Erie Canal—the economic lifeblood of New York State—was shut down. It would be like closing the Thruway today with all the economic shock that would create.

Horses pull a canal boat along the Erie Canal at the Schoharie Aqueduct. (Photo credit- Fort Hunter Canal Society)
Horses at work at the Erie Canal lock in Lockport, Niagara County. (Photo credit- New York State Archives, State Education Department)

The November 9, 1872 edition of Albany Morning Express chronicled the economic impact: “It is estimated that the horse epidemic will affect canal trade to the extent of delaying each boat a round trip, equal to the movement of one and a half millions of bushels of grain from Buffalo to New York.” A typical boat made seven round trips per season on the canal, and boats weren’t running even before the canal officially closed, so most companies felt around a 20 percent revenue drop.

The lost revenue and lost work time bankrupted companies and farmers alike, but one sector of the economy boomed – cure alls. The late 19th century was a period of unrestrained and unregulated quack remedies. There was no federal Food & Drug Administration, and anyone could create a “patent medicine” and advertise it as cure for… well, anything.

Clark Stanley, the man who was literally known as the snake oil salesman, patented his now-infamous elixir only a few short years after the epizootic. Veterinary medicine was not well developed in America in 1872 – the first veterinary school in America closed in 1866, and another wouldn’t open until after the epizootic. Although experts appeared in newspapers advising rest and fresh air were the only cure, New Yorkers and others turned to quick fixes offered at the drugstores:


Pharmacies across the state offered a variety of “cures” for the horse flu.


In the end, humankind’s relationship with the horse seemed to be what suffered the most from the Great Epizootic. For thousands of years, humans depended on horses for everything, but as we climbed out of depths of the Great Epizootic and the subsequent financial Panic of 1873, technology would slowly replace the horse.

An editorial in the Troy Whig seemed prophetic in hindsight that horse power would be supplanted:

Or, maybe it’s better straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. In this illustration from the Nov. 16, 1872 edition of Harper’s Magazine, a flu-ridden horse imagines better treatment by his human masters after his recovery:


Cover Photo- Horses pull a canal boat along the towpath on the Erie Canal near Utica. “Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley” (No. 2635, Rochester News Co., Rochester, N.Y.)

Post by Travis Bowman, Historic Preservation Program Coordinator (Collections), Bureau of Historic Sites


Resources

After the outbreak, the U.S. Government commissioned a report into it by James Law,  a faculty member of Cornell University, first dean of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, and a pioneer in veterinary medicine and public health in the United States.

Read his report here.

Solar Power Keeps Growing in State Parks

While there aren’t public events in State Parks this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Wednesday, some of our facilities are still helping the planet every day in the fight against man-made climate change.

Each year, Parks use more than 50 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity to power some 5,000 buildings, including offices, comfort stations, maintenance barns, nature and visitor centers, cabins, historic sites, and other unique facilities like golf courses and pools.

To feed more renewable power into the grid and reduce its demand for fossil fuel-fired electricity, Parks has been installing photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays since 2012. There are now 32 arrays in place, with more expected this year in the Hudson Valley and Long Island regions.

The rooftop solar array at Hallock State Park Preserve on Long Island.

Once the new arrays are completed this year, State Parks will be covering 15 percent of its total statewide energy consumption through solar power, up from the current 4 percent.

These new arrays will offset all the power demand in the Park’s Taconic Region on the eastern side of the Hudson River, which includes 14 parks and eight historic sites in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties.

Adding solar power – which unlike natural gas or other fossil fuels does not produce the greenhouse gases that are driving man-made climate change – also saves Parks money on its utility bills. Each year, solar arrays are trimming nearly $340,000 from what Parks would otherwise pay for its electricity!

To perform this work, which both fights climate change and saves money, Parks have trained 100 staff members to design and install our solar arrays.

Parks selects locations for PV arrays that will not disturb natural areas of the park or areas of recreation. They are often installed on rooftops, the back of parking lots, or in other areas that have previously been disturbed.

Parks also applies for financial rebates from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYERDA) to lower the cost of each project, with savings then reinvested to fund future PV projects. Parks also coordinates with private utility companies to connect its arrays to the grid.

Due to such efforts, three Parks are now electric-energy neutral facilities, and produce enough power for the grid to cover what the consume: Robert Moses State Park, Captree State Park (both on Long Island) and Allan H. Treman State Marine Park in Ithaca in the Finger Lakes. Additionally, Parks has an off-grid PV facility that provides power directly to Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site.

Completed in 2017, Robert Moses State Park made history as being the largest PV installation built by state employees _ its 2,432 American-made panels cover the length of two football fields! This array generates about 950,000 kWh annually, saving more than $100,000 in electricity bills. (For comparison’s sake, the average household in New York State uses about 8,000 kWh annually, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration).

Solar power made made Robert Moses the first electric energy neutral state park of its size in the country. The array even covers the energy usage of Captree State Park which makes it the second electric energy neutral state park.

Parks also funded, developed, built and managed the first PV installation on the roof of a building listed on the National Historic Register at Peebles Island State Park, headquarters of the Bureau of Historic Sites and Bureau of Historic Preservation Field Service.

The rooftop array at Peebles Island State Park.

The 450 panels installed on the roof of Peebles’ historic Bleachery Building are projected to generate more than 188,000 kWh and save about $22,500 in utility bills annually. The array covers approximately 30 percent of the building’s energy use. The array at Peebles Island is also used a training location for students from  Hudson Valley Community College and the Glenmont Job Corps.

Students from Hudson Valley Community College receive training at the solar array at Peebles Island State Park.

And there will be much more to come. State Parks intends to aggressively increase its solar footprint in order to cover half of its statewide electrical consumption by 2025.

From our smallest arrays to our largest arrays, each PV installation is working to create a greener state parks system every day and for many Earth Days to come!


Cover Photo- Robert Moses State Park solar array. All photos by NYS Parks.

By Caity Tremblay, Parks Energy and Sustainability Bureau

Spotted Turtles on the Move For Spring!

While we must stay put this season to help protect ourselves and those we love, other creatures here in New York are making their seasonal spring migrations.

Among those are spotted turtles. These small, attractive reptiles can be found throughout much of New York in the Hudson Valley, on Long Island, and in the plains of western and central New York. They generally emerge from their winter hideaways in March or early April (Gibbs et al. 2007).

Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) are more tolerant of cold water and are one of the first aquatic turtles to become active; you might see them basking throughout winter depending on temperatures. Early spring is the best time of the year to spot these turtles. There is ample food with salamanders and frogs laying their eggs in vernal pools (Beaudry et al. 2009). They will also eat aquatic insects and other invertebrates such as slugs, worms, and snails (Gibbs et al. 2007). When looking for turtles, keep an eye out for them basking in small pools, marshes, and other wetlands on rocks, logs, and along the shoreline.

The reason these turtles are called spotted turtles is obvious when you see one – the black carapace (upper shell) and skin are covered in small, round yellow dots. This color pattern could reduce the turtle’s likelihood of capture since it resembles the floating duckweed present in many frequently used habitats. This camouflaging pattern makes it difficult to find spotted turtles when they are in the water.

Spotted turtles are thought to be declining throughout their range, and there are several threats that may be contributing to the decline. These turtles can experience high mortality from crossing roads as they move between wetlands during the spring and in search of nesting and upland summer locations.  (Beaudry et al. 2009, Ernst and Lovich 2009).

Nesting female mortality is especially bad for spotted turtle populations, since it can take 10-15 years before a female is old enough to reproduce.

Spotted turtles can live over 40 years, so once a female reaches reproductive age it has many years of egg laying ahead. Turtle eggs and juveniles have a high mortality rate, so it is important to keep these older females around to keep producing eggs, only a small fraction of which will reach adulthood.

A spotted turtle shows its distinctive yellow markings. (Photo Credit- Jesse W. Jaycox)
The bottom shell, or plastron, l of a spotted turtle. (Photo Credit- Jesse W. Jaycox)

One important habitat requirement of spotted turtles is relatively shallow, clear, and clean water with a soft, muddy bottom (Gibbs et al. 2007, Ernst and Lovich 2009). They will spend most of the spring within these wetland habitats, until females travel to find a nesting site in early June.

Spotted turtles will practice estivation, a period of dormancy during high temperatures, by retreating into the muck at the bottom of wetlands, into muskrat burrows, or under vegetation in the surrounding uplands during the warm summer months when many wetlands are drying up (Gibbs et al. 2007, Ernst and Lovich 2009, Joyal et al. 2001, Milam and Melvin 2001).

Learn about the distribution of spotted turtles at Nature Serve.

Other threats spotted turtles face are collection for the pet trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive plants, and predators (Ernst and Lovich 2009, NYSDEC 2020). Spotted turtles are a target for the commercial pet trade (CITES 2013) due to their small size and attractive coloring.

Habitat loss and invasive plants encroaching on wetland habitats can reduce the amount of suitable habitat these turtles have available to use throughout the year. They need upland buffers around wetland habitats for nesting, movement between wetlands, and summer estivation (Milam and Melvin 2001), and these habitats are frequently fragmented by development and roads.

What can you do to help protect these cryptic little turtles? If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a spotted turtle in the wild, admire it from afar and leave it undisturbed. All native species of turtles in New York are protected and cannot be collected without a permit.

If you happen to see one crossing the road, pull over in a safe place and help it along. Make sure to move the turtle to the side of the road that it was facing, otherwise it will just turn around and cross the road again!

A researcher holds a juvenile spotted turtle. (Photo Credit- Matthew D. Schlesinger)

Cover Photo- Wikipedia Commons

Post by Ashley Ballou, Zoologist, NY Natural Heritage Program

References

https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/44388.html

https://guides.nynhp.org/spotted-turtle/

Ernst. C. H., and J. E. Lovich. 2009. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Second edition, revised and updated. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. xii + 827 pp.

Beaudry, Frederic, Phillip G. deMaynadier, and Malcolm L. Hunter Jr. 2009. Seasonally dynamic habitat use by spotted (Clemmys guttata) and Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) in Maine. Journal of Herpetology 43:636-645.

Gibbs, J.P., A.R. Breisch, P.K. Ducey, G. Johnson, J.L. Behler, and R.C. Bothner. 2007. The amphibians and reptiles of New York State. Oxford University Press, NY.

Joyal, Lisa A., Mark McCollough, and Malcolm L. Hunter Jr. 2001. Landscape ecology approaches to wetlands species conservation: A case study of two turtle species in souther Maine. Conservation Biology. 15(6): 1755-1762.

Milam, J. C., and S. M. Melvin. 2001. Density, habitat use, movements, and conservation of spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) in Massachusetts. Journal of Herpetology 35:418-427.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 2020. Spotted turtle fact sheet. Available https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7150.html. (Data accessed March 2020).

Tender Care For A Most Egg-cellent Collection

How do you clean an egg more than a century old? Very, very carefully…

That was the challenge facing conservator Heidi Miksch at the State Park’s Historic Preservation Division at Peebles Island State Park. She had just gotten a case of bird eggs that had been collected in the late 19th century by the children of famous Hudson River School landscape painter Frederic Church.

While growing up in the family home at Olana in Columbia County, Church’s four children were part of the then-popular hobby of bird egg collecting, also known as oology or “birdnesting.” The children managed to collect and fill a large case with hundreds of specimens in wooden trays, each in a small labeled box lined with cotton.

The case had been stored ever since at what is now the Olana State Historic Site, where staffers intend to display part of the collection for the first time ever this spring in an exhibit on connections between art and the environment.

The mansion at Olana State Historic Site, where landscape painter Frederic Church and his wife, Isabel, , raised their four children who took up the popular Victorian-era hobby of egg collecting.

But many of the eggs were blackened with decades of dust and grime, and had to be cleaned before being displayed. So Miksch, who has conserved objects from a stuffed black bear to a piece of the Parthenon, researched a bit, and came up with her technique _ using conservation-grade cotton swabs, a dab of water, and gently rubbing. An average-sized egg takes about 20 minutes to clean, and the case contains eight trays, each with 36 boxes with most boxes containing one or more eggs. Miksch uses water, and not a cleaning solution, for fear of degrading the delicate eggshells.


Curator Heidi Miksch shows how she cleans bird eggs more than 100 years old.

Click through the slideshow as conservator Heidi Miksch (wearing the blue sweater) shows the Church childrens’ egg collection.


“The Church children collected many different kinds of eggs,” said Miksch. “I have even found a flamingo egg in there.” (For the record, a flamingo egg is white and oval in shape, appearing much like an oversized chicken egg.)

In the early 20th century, conservation concerns over the impact of bird egg collecting began to mount, and the practice later was limited in the U.S. under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

But when Church’s children – Frederic, Theodore, Louis, and Isabel – were growing up in the Hudson Valley during the 1870s and 1880s, egg collecting was seen as a good way for children to learn about nature while also engaging in healthy outdoor exercise.

To preserve a collected egg, a tiny hole would be drilled into it, and the contents would be aspirated out of the hole, and then the egg would be rinsed out to prevent rot and decay. Or two holes could be drilled and then the contents would be blown out. The empty egg was then carefully stored.

Egg collecting was not just a hobby for children. Cultured gentlemen of the era, particularly in England, amassed large collections and ranged over many nations in pursuit of rare or unusual eggs. One of the world’s richest men at the time, English financier Baron Rothschild, had a collection of nearly 12,000 bird eggs, which now resides in the British Museum of Natural History.

Egg collecting was at its zenith from about 1885 through the 1920s, with children being the vast majority of collectors, according to a 2005 research paper by Lloyd Kiff, past director and curator with the California-based Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology.

Collectors of the day would trade eggs among themselves. There also were commercial egg sellers, who would offer eggs for sale in catalogs, just like dealers in stamps or coins.

Examples of egg collector catalogs. (Photo Credit- The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology)

An American collector, William Brewster, who in the 1880s was the chair of the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Bird Protection, collected thousands of eggs that are now held in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

But the hobby began dying out as conservation principles and legal restrictions took hold, and by the 1940s the practice was all but gone. Today, it is illegal to collect bird eggs in the U.S. without a permit issued for research purposes.

The practice is also outlawed in England, although a few fanatical collectors persist despite legal sanctions.

Kiff’s study estimates that there about 80 major egg collections in the U.S., composed of about a half million egg sets, representing some two million individual eggs. These collections have demonstrated significant scientific value in subsequent years, supporting the discovery that exposure to the pesticide DDT was causing eggshell thinning in birds like bald eagles, Peregrine falcons, and pelicans.

This evidence formed the basis of a $140 million federal government settlement with DDT manufacturers in 2001, which Kiff described as the most important ecological use of any bird-related specimens.


“By now, hundreds of eggshell-based studies of (DDT) have appeared in all major regions of the world, and the present ban on DDT use in all but a handful of countries is a direct result of this research.” – Lloyd Kiff

History, Present Status, and Future Prospects of Avian Eggshell Collections in North America, The American Ornithologists’ Union (2005)

He suggests that eggshell collections may also be useful in the future for the study of ongoing climate change and its impacts on birds.

This comes as expertise in this field is fading away, Kiff wrote, adding “The body of traditional oological knowledge may vanish, except on the browned pages of extinct journals, and existing egg collections may gradually become objects of greater interests to historians than to biologists.”

If you would like to see the eggs collected by the Church children displayed in the home where they grew up, visit Olana between May 9 and Nov. 1 for the exhibition entitled “Cross Pollination: Heade, Cole, Church, and Our Contemporary Moment.”

This exhibition features Martin Johnson Heade’s 19th-century series of hummingbird and habitat paintings – The Gems of Brazil – and their relationship to Hudson River School landscape painters Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.

Co-organized by the Olana State Historic Site and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, as well as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, this exhibition will also feature work by contemporary artists including Nick Cave, Mark Dion, Jeffrey Gibson, Paula Hayes, Patrick Jacobs, Maya Lin, Dana Sherwood, Rachel Sussman, and Vik Muniz.

And finally … here is a look at that flamingo egg.

Cover Shot- Close-up of part of the Church children’s egg collection. (All photos and videos by NYS Parks unless otherwise noted)

Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


Resources

History, Present Status, and Future Prospects of Avian Eggshell Collections in North America, 2005, Kiff, Lloyd L., American Ornithological Society.

The Code of Nomenclature and Check-list of North American Birds

Ornithologists and Oologist, Semiannual, January 1889 – Victorian-era instructions on collecting and preserving. Explains collector practices of the time period.

Fragile Beginnings: Bird Egg Collection – Blog post on collection decisions made at Wesleyan University

University of WisconsinSearchable online database for egg identification