Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

This website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Help Conserve Species

It’s Conservation Week here in New Zealand. Fittingly, one of the kōwhai trees we planted years ago has chosen this week to flower for the first time.

Conservation week is a good time to talk about backyard biodiversity. I’ve blogged more than once about biodiversity issues. It’s a topic near to my family’s heart, and something we strive to improve all the time.

Our yard is, unfortunately, home to a wide variety of non-native weeds, but it also sports native plantings (and even a fair number of native ‘weeds’). Here are just a few of the simple things we’ve done to improve the habitat value of our back yard for native organisms. You could do these, too.

  1. Plant natives instead of non-natives. Here in New Zealand this is especially important, but it’s a good rule of thumb wherever you live. Native vegetation will best support native wildlife, because they evolved together. Choose plants that provide food and shelter for local wildlife—shrubs with berries for birds and lizards to eat, dense grasses that provide hiding spots for invertebrates, and flowers that provide food for insects.
  2. Create lizard refuges. A pile of rocks or a stack of broken terracotta pot shards makes a nice refuge for lizards—the rocks and terracotta warm up in the sun, making a convenient basking spot for the lizards, and the little cracks between ensure a quick, safe get-away when predators appear.
  3. Just add water. Birds, insects, and other animals all need water to survive. Provide a bird bath, a small pond, or an attractive water feature, and you’ll find many more animals drawn to your yard.
  4. Kill non-native predators. Less important in some places, but here in New Zealand, protecting native birds and lizards requires controlling invasive predators. Trap out possums, stoats, and rats to give native birds a chance to nest successfully. Put a bell on your cat and keep it indoors around dusk and dawn when the birds are most vulnerable.
  5. Learn what you’ve got. No matter how small, your yard teems with species. Look closely, and you may be surprised at the diversity. Though our yard tends to be quite dry, we’ve discovered half a dozen species of moisture-loving slime moulds on the property. Once you know you an organism is present, you can tweak your planting and maintenance to protect and encourage it.

And that brings me back to the kōwhai tree, finally blooming. It’s not enough, yet, to attract bellbirds or tūī, across the vast stretches of agricultural land between us and the nearest populations, but someday, our kōwhai and flaxes, along with the neighbours’, may very well support a healthy population of native birds. All it takes is for each of us to care for our own backyards, and collectively we can improve the habitat for all our native species.

Sticky Feet! The Eucalyptus Tortoise Beetle

Hanging up the laundry this morning, I found this lovely beetle making its way along the washing line. It’s a eucalyptus tortoise beetle (Paropsis charybdis). I see them occasionally, but with only one eucalyptus tree in the yard, they’re not common.

I’m quite fond of tortoise beetles. This one isn’t much to look at, but many species are sparkling gold, and my first glimpse of them, as a kid, was a truly magical experience that I’ve never forgotten. What tortoise beetles have in common is their domed tortoise-like shape.

Their shape, combined with some pretty awesome feet is what keeps them safe.

Tortoise beetles have wide pads on their feet (this one obligingly sat on a clear surface and showed its feet under the microscope). The pads are covered densely in short hairs, like the bristles of a toothbrush. Each hair is moistened by oil, which helps it stick to the waxy surfaces of leaves in the same way two wet drinking glasses stick together if they’re nested. The oil bonds to both surfaces and acts as glue. When disturbed, the tortoise beetle presses its feet against the surface, employing as many as 60,000 sticky bristles (about 10 times more than other beetles have) to keep it attached. These sticky feet, combined with the dome-like shape make it difficult for predators to dislodge the beetle.

Entomologist Tom Eisner performed a series of elegant experiments with the palmetto tortoise beetle, attaching weights to the beetles to see how much force they could withstand before being pulled off a leaf. He found they could hold up to 240 times their body mass. Those are some seriously sticky feet!

So if their feet are so sticky, how do they walk? Eisner showed, by looking at palmetto beetle footprints on glass, that when they walk, they don’t let all the bristles on their feet touch the surface. Their full adhesive power is only deployed for defence.

I don’t think anyone has tested eucalyptus tortoise beetle grip strength, but it’s definitely impressive. I popped this one into a narrow jar, and it never hit the bottom—it reached out with one leg, like some movie superhero, and grabbed the smooth wall of the jar, arresting its fall. Then, when I tried to get it out of the jar, it stuck like glue to the side. I had to slide a stiff piece of paper under its feet, prying them up one by one. It was obliging for the photo shoot, but when I tried to let it go, it stuck itself to the paper. It took a few determined nudges, but eventually I got it to the edge of the paper and it dropped off.

The eucalyptus tortoise beetle is not native to New Zealand, and is considered a pest in the forest industry here. Still, I have to admire the beetles’ sheer tenacity, and am willing to share my eucalyptus tree with them for the opportunity to see those sticky feet in action.

Ice and Fire

One of the things I like best about springtime here is the juxtaposition of hot and cold, especially in the high country. The sunshine is warm, but winter lingers in the shade. I’ve gone hiking in shorts and t-shirt through 15 cm of snow in past years.

This weekend, we didn’t make it up to snow, but there was spectacular frost on our little Saturday jaunt. Hiking up the shaded side of a hill, we were treated to glistening plants as the first rays of the sun hit thick frost.

In addition to the frost, we crunched over a lot of needle ice. Needle ice can occur when the soil temperature is above freezing, but the air temperature is below freezing. Liquid water rises through the soil via capillary action and freezes on contact with the air. As more water is drawn upward, the ice needles grow in length. They’re common in the high country in springtime, when warm sun heats the ground during the day, but the temperature drops quickly after dark.

Ice needles are more than just a curiosity. They’re a significant factor in soil erosion, because they often push soil upward along with the ice. This loosens the top layer of soil, making it prone to erosion by wind and water.

The air was cold on Saturday morning, and as we started up the hill, we were well-bundled. But like all good tracks in New Zealand, this one started off by going straight up. Between the climb and the sun, we were soon stripped to our t-shirts, enjoying the crunch of ice underfoot and the warmth of the sun overhead.

The Pied Piper

I’m excited to announce that my short story, The Pied Piper, is out today in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, along with a whole bunch of other great stories.

The Pied Piper was inspired by New Zealand’s Predator Free campaign, which has a goal of eradicating rats, stoats and possums from the entire mainland. A difficult goal, and one that might take a little extra help, if we dare …

You can get your very own copy here.

Quake Cities

The old hall, post-quake.

It’s September 4. The daffodils are in full bloom, and I feel compelled to talk about earthquakes.

Eight years on from our M7.1 quake, the local hall is finally under re-construction. Its brick walls cracked and bowed in the quake, and it spent several years propped up by timber, then was razed completely. The site sat empty until about two months ago, when the walls began to rise again.

It’s a common refrain here. The damage done by the M7.1 on 4 September 2010 and the M6.3 on 22 February 2011, and the 15,000 or so lesser quakes in between and after is still visible. In the city, the Christchurch Cathedral still sits behind ‘temporary’ security fencing, it’s face crumbled away, weeds growing along the tops of jagged walls. A block of High Street remains closed, broken buildings frozen as they were when the shaking stopped. Throughout the region, churches remain truncated, their spires still gone. One church is still operating from a large tent. Houses are still undergoing repairs, and bare sections abound.

On a recent visit to Wellington, my son commented that Wellington seemed like such an older city than Christchurch, though they are nearly the same age. But Wellington hasn’t had a big quake since 1855. In that 1855 quake, many buildings were destroyed, and after that, most homes were rebuilt using timber, in the Victorian style popular at the time. Those Victorian houses give many Wellington neighbourhoods the quaint atmosphere they have, even today.

In Napier, the city-defining quake struck in 1931. The rebuild of that city followed the art-deco style popular at the time. The city retains the art-deco character today, and has become a popular tourist destination for its architecture.

Christchurch’s look has been affected by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, just as Wellington and Napier have been. Brick and stone have been replaced by wood, steel and glass. The new Christchurch includes more art, more open space (though some of those open spaces are slated to be filled with new buildings … eventually). Perhaps some day, visitors to Christchurch will view it as a product of the architectural styles of the 2010s.

Orange Cupcakes

I’ve developed my own orange cake recipe, which I like a lot, and I’ve made a similar orange cake, based loosely on a recipe in King Arthur Flour’s Whole Grain Baking. Last week I finally made King Arthur Flour’s orange cake, as it’s written, except I baked it as cupcakes.

My orange cake uses barley flour, which gives it a delicate crumb. The recipe I made last week uses wholemeal (whole wheat) flour, leading to a more robust cake, with a lovely nutty flavour.

But the best part of the recipe was the orange glaze on top. The glaze did lovely things for the cupcakes, and made them taste a bit like the dense sticky orange cakes you find in cafes. (but a whole lot less involved to make).

Here’s the recipe for the glaze. Brush it on the warm cakes and let it soak in. Be generous with it!

1/2 cup orange juice
2 tsp orange zest
3/4 cup sugar

Combine all ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 1 minute. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.

A Decadent Brioche Breakfast

Sometimes you just have to go a little overboard. My over-the-top fun this weekend was making brioches for Sunday breakfast. Overly decadent and time-consuming to make, brioche is a rare treat for us. My usual Sunday breakfasts (scones, muffins, or whatever) can be made in the morning. Brioche had to be started the evening before.

My son, passing through the kitchen as I kneaded the gooey dough, peeked at the cookbook open on the table. His eyebrows rose.

“Make sure you wake me up for breakfast tomorrow.” This from the teen who usually doesn’t get up until long after breakfast is cleaned up.

The pressure was on. I had to make sure these brioches were worth losing three hours of sleep.

The dough rose overnight in the fridge, and I made up the buns in the morning. When they came out of the oven, I cut the top off each one, scooped out a little hollow inside, and filled each with a dollop of gooseberry jam and then a generous spoonful of whipped cream with lemon curd folded in.

Oh, my. These little butter bombs were delicious!