Newcomers to Virginia

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


Each February, I spend a couple days amongst other caretakers of Virginia forests at the annual Virginia Forest Health Professionals Conference. Each conference is a time to learn what is happening in the forests from NOVA to the southwest tip of Virginia. It was clear that 2021 canbe considered the year of the newcomer. This Nine Minute Naturalist will cover the three new diseases and pests now calling the Commonwealth of Virginia home.

Although the new introductions to Virginia are disheartening, they don’t appear to be as devastating as the emerald ash borer (EAB) or as visually disturbing as the newly introduced spotted lanternfly. The newcomers to the state are laurel wilt disease, beech leaf disease and elm zigzag sawfly. All species will have an impact on our forests but hopefully to a much lesser degree than EAB or past heavy gypsy moth infestations.

Laurel wilt disease (LWD) is a disease complex featuring a fungus and an ambrosia beetle. This disease has been creeping north from its origins in the deep south. The movement into the Scott County VA is surprising due to the primary host plant being redbay, a southern coastal plain species. The disease was found in another Lauraceae species sassafras, indicating that the fungus may be spreading via different ambrosia beetles than those feeding on redbay. LWD begins when the ambrosia beetle bores into the host tree, carrying the fungus with it. The beetle tunnels through the host leaving spores throughout the tree. Sometimes, “toothpicks” of packed sawdust will exude from the entry hole indicating beetle activity. The fungus acts very fast and death can occur within weeks. Wintergreen is home to large numbers of sassafras and spicebush, both members of the Lauraceae and thus susceptible to the fungus. The spread of LWD is not expected to happen quickly.

 

Beech leaf disease

 

Beech leaf disease is yet another attack on Wintergreen’s beech population. A walk through the Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve brings you past trees dying from beech bark disease but thankfully this disease has not affected any low elevation beech at Wintergreen. This new disease is caused by a newly recognized nematode worm. This is not particularly surprising since nematodes are the most abundant animal on earth. The symptoms begin as darkening leaf tissue between the prominent veins on the leaves. Later symptoms include leaf crinkling and curling. Tree mortality is rare amongst canopy trees but have been seen within 2-7 years in understory trees. The disease has been found in many surrounding states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania and has only been found in one county in Virginia, Prince William County. It does not appear to spread rapidly.

 

Elm zigzag sawfly

 

The newcomer closest to Wintergreen’s boundary is the elm zigzag sawfly. This species native to east Asia was first detected on our continent in Quebec Canada in 2020 and was confirmed in Winchester, Virginia in 2021. It has been found in throughout the Shenandoah Valley including our neighboring Augusta County. This insect’s favorite host is Siberian elm, a non-native tree used in landscape environments but it also attacks other elm species. The damage is done by the larvae as they feed on leaf tissue. They got their name from the telltale patterns of eating their way through the leaf. The adult sawfly is a small, dark brown fly. While the spread has proven rapid, the affects to our environment are unknown. The population of elm at Wintergreen is quite low and is more often found in lower elevation sites.

Virginia is quite the popular place to be for many species, welcomed and unwelcomed. As spring rapidly approaches be on the lookout for our many newcomers to Virginia and send me an email at forestmanage@tnfw.org if you find something out of the ordinary.

Who Is Missing

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


My son loves to play made up trivia games as we drive. This sometime mind-numbing game brought up an interesting question recently. He asked, “Dad, name five animals (he told me I couldn’t use reptiles and amphibians…he is also a cheater apparently) that hibernate”. My first thought was this was an easy question. Struggling through the question, I had to take a roll call and figure out who is missing from our woods at the moment. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on our mammals that hibernate in the winter.

To honor my son’s question, I am leaving out the obviously dormant species in the reptile and amphibian families. Being cold blooded means functioning in cold weather is not really a viable option. I will focus on mammals and the most obvious animal missing from our landscape is the black bear.

 

 

The word hibernation often causes confusion when in reference to black bears. True hibernators have a specialized reduction in their metabolism along with several other bodily changes such as lower heart rates, constriction of blood vessels, reduced breathing and lower oxygen consumption. Many true hibernators will drop their body temperatures to near freezing. Black bears, which are not true hibernators, only reduce their body temperature 10-15 degrees during their period of torpor. As a result, they are much more wakeful hibernators and will leave den sites if disturbed or if there is a prolonged stretch of warm weather. No matter if it is referred to hibernation or torpor, bears do enter a period of prolonged physical inactivity. Their preferred hibernation sites tend to be hollow trees, rock cavities, brush piles and ground dens. Black bears in the western portion of Virginia prefer large, hollow trees and have been found as high as 95 feet off the ground. Dens are entered from November to early January depending on food supply and arrival of winter weather. Once the den site is entered, black bears are able to go the entire time in den without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating. Bears may lose up to 30% of their body weight over the winter. The unique ability of bears to awake from a torpor state allows for females to give birth while in den. Newborn cubs do not hibernate but instead nurse and sleep while the mother is in the torpor state. The mother bear will not leave the den until spring when the cubs are able to walk and follow their mother to food.

 

 

Another animal whose presence is especially missed as you drive along the roads of Wintergreen is the groundhog. This common dweller of our roadsides and home sites is one of the few true hibernators at Wintergreen. When the weather begins to get nasty, the groundhog finds a den and stays put until favorable conditions return. Their heart rate slows to 4 or 5 beats per minute to enable a winter long snooze without requiring replenishment of their energy. They generally have a different winter burrow from their summer abode in a more protected spot among trees and shrubs. They spend considerable time making sure the winter resting location is lined with grasses and leaves to maximize the comfort of their sleep. The first groundhogs appear from den in middle to late March at Wintergreen based on the severity of the winter.

The chipmunk is another missing aspect of our local fauna. The chipmunk is much too small to survive a true hibernation. Instead, they go through periods of torpor where they decrease their body temperature from 98.6 to 41 degrees and heartbeats from 350 to 15 beats per minute. They wake every few days to eat and restore lost reserves. Due to having constructed large tunnel systems in preparation of the coming winters, chipmunks don’t have to venture far to reach their food caches prepared for these periodic meals. After eating and defecating, chipmunks resume their winter rest. By early to mid-March our resident chipmunks are back to scurrying across our landscape.

Another true hibernator is the bat. While it is true that some bats greet winter weather by migrating to warmer climates, most of our resident bats enter a true hibernation. Since many of our local bats are dependent on insects, winter is a time to survive not hunt for food. They do this by finding dark, secluded abodes to spend up to six months. Using caves, trees, attics or any other spot they can remain undisturbed, bats enter a state of inactivity that lowers their body temperature, heart rate and metabolic rate. Bats decrease their energy costs by 98% as they live off of fat stores. When they emerge from hibernation their bodies have undergone extreme change. They lose up to a quarter of their body mass during this torpor period. They will emerge from hibernation when the weather warms and prey become available.

The winter of 2022 has been quite rough so far and many are envious of our hibernating creatures as they sleep the winter months away. Although frigid outside, our days are getting longer and soon the footprints of wandering bear or the head of a groundhog peaking over the side of the road will grace us as we wander the Wintergreen environment.

Merry Mistletoe

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


As the husband of a music teacher and choir director, the Christmas season tends to start earlier than most for me and my household. My fight to contain the Christmas season to December is a lost cause both in my house and as I wander the woods at Wintergreen. As soon as the leaves drop from our deciduous canopy, the evergreen mistletoe plant is revealed and the reminders of the Christmas season are obvious for all to see despite it being only November. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will detail the beloved, traditional mistletoe plant.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant species that covers three families and boasts over 1300 species worldwide. One thing all mistletoe plants have in common is that they are parasitic although most mistletoe species are actually a hemiparasite, meaning they are capable of some photosynthesis. They begin their lives as sticky seeds that attach to branches of trees or shrubs via flying through the air or hitching a ride from a bird friend. They attach to plant hosts and siphon off water and nutrients in the quest for life. It penetrates the bark via a structure that would act as a root called a haustorium.

 

 

The mistletoe does not just exploit the host tree but also birds. The birds act both as pollinators and distributors of seeds to new hosts. As pollinators, birds are attracted to the nectar laden blooms. Some species of mistletoe have petals that are fused together; when a bird opens the flower it is showered with explosively sprayed pollen. The berries are rich in minerals and glucose and attract loyal subjects.

Roughly 90 bird species are mistletoe specialists. Most fruits are berries containing a single seed surrounded by a layer of goo called viscin, used to secure it to the new host once secreted by birds. Mistletoe hosts in a wide variety of species such as oak, poplar and about 100 other woody plant species in eastern North America. While parasitic mistletoe rarely kills their host, they weaken the host and make them more vulnerable to other attacks from insects and disease. The biggest antagonists, besides those that hate Christmas, tend to be commercial tree farmers. The parasitic plants do affect growth rates especially in many important conifer species. They often cause “witches’ broom” growth tangles in the branches of evergreen trees.

Now that we know a bit of the biology of this unique plant it is time to delve into the mythology. Legend held that mistletoe had mystical powers over life, death and healing. Even Hippocrates mentioned treating epilepsy with mistletoe. In the Middle Ages, Druids hung mistletoe to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Mistletoe made its way into Norse mythology when Loki makes a spear out of mistletoe to kill the god Baldur. The act of kissing under the mistletoe seems to have originate in England, a traditional stronghold for the Norsemen. In the 1500’s, a painting shows King Henry VII at Westminster Hall with many kissing boughs hanging from the ceiling. Many 18 th century prints depict mistletoe hung in taverns, coffeehouses and kitchens throughout Europe. The custom crossed the Atlantic with the colonists and showed up in scientific and cultural sources. Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book describes the popular tradition and Virginia’s William Byrd, a founder of Richmond, wrote directions for collecting and drying mistletoe.

Mistletoe can be found at various parts of Wintergreen but most commonly in the Stoney Creek portion of the property. Look for ball shaped green masses up to 3 feet wide in the bare tree branches of oaks orany variety of our woody plants. Try making this Christmas season unique by hanging real mistletoe rom your doorways and mantles. Who knows? Maybe it will bring you luck or love.

Living with Bears at Wintergreen

Matt Overstreet, the Regional Wildlife Manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, was at The Nature Foundation last month to speak to the Wintergreen Homeowners’ Association and the general public about Virginia’s rising American Black Bear population. The talk highlighted the state’s bear guidelines which are designed to promote public safety, protect property, and conserve bear populations. For more information on living with black bears, please visit the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website.

Home Sweet Home

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


The ecosystem you grow up in will always trigger nostalgia. I can walk through an oak forest anywhere and feel at home. A walk through the high desert of Oregon, as entrancing as it is, feels foreign. When biologists from the United States first studied forests of central Asia many felt right at home. The ecosystem mirrored much of our eastern US forests biologically. This affinity for home is at the heart of the invasive species problem at Wintergreen and throughout much of the United States. This Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into why some invasive species feel right at home in our ecosystems.

The first plant hunters traveling from North America to Asia felt oddly at home amongst a very similar overstory surrounding them in China and Japan. Many samples brought back show great similarity to much of our native canopy. Recent DNA studies have proved they were right to feel a nostalgia amongst the tree species of Asia. Over half of the native trees and shrubs of the Appalachians can trace their ancestry to relatives across the globe. Fossil evidence suggests similar forests spread over the Northern Hemisphere when Asia, Europe and North America were connected in the supercontinent Laurasia. The problem is that plant hunters are not the only ones who feel right at home traveling from Asia to North America. Our ecosystem is under bombardment from invasive species that have made their home in our forests.

 

Japanese stilt grass

 

The list of invaders is long and depressing. Our forests at Wintergreen are overrun with invaders from Asia such as Japanese stilt grass, oriental bittersweet, autumn olive, tree-of-heaven, emerald ash borer and more coming our way such as wavyleaf basket grass and spotted lanternfly. Why do these plants and insects from Asia find our area to be a home away from home? One easy answer is latitude. The study of the geographical distribution of plants is called phytogeography. Large scale patterns of phytogeography are strongly related to latitude. Adaptations existing from previous land connection as well as similar climate allows for quick adjustment to their new home. Wintergreen is about 38 degrees latitude which if we traveled around the globe would put us right around Beijing, which as a 39-degree latitude. Tokyo is in between 35-36 degrees latitude.

 

 

Invasive species are not just successful because they are at the right latitude. A lack of natural predators tends to allow unfettered growth of non-native species. For instance, emerald ash borer has a host of predators in their native land. These predators include several species of parasitoid wasps that aid in population control. Another tool that enables invasive species establishment is allelopathy. Garlic mustard inhibits the growth of other surrounding plant species aiding in site competition. Garlic mustard and many other successful invasive species are also prolific seeders. Garlic mustard produce between 600-7000 seeds per plant that are viable in the soil for up to five years. Many successful invasives at Wintergreen are generalists that can thrive in a variety of soils, light conditions and water regimes.

Nostalgia is a fun feeling especially as you age. Nostalgia in the plant world has proved to be negative for Wintergreen and much of the United States. Plants and animals that arrive on our shore and feel right at home cost the state of Virginia $1 billion annually. Keep a look out in our events calendar for efforts this coming spring and summer to aid in controlling invasives in a couple critical sites at Wintergreen.

Bacteria Bloom

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


The Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve (SSNP) is an idyllic high elevation wetland designed to highlight the diverse flora and beautiful babbling streams. Oddly enough, this pristine ecosystem is often the source of numerous complaints of water pollution each year. The cause of these complaints is the orange tinted water in the slow moving stretches of the stream. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain the phenomenon of iron-oxidizing bacteria common in springs laden with iron-rich groundwater.

 

 

The SSNP is currently experiencing a bloom of iron-oxidizing bacteria in multiple places throughout the braided stream. These blooms occur most often after heavy rains when excessive iron is leaching to the surface. When the water, air and iron meet, bacteria is in heaven. An orange oily sheen appears on the surface and fuzzy slime will grow on the rocks amongst the bacteria bloom. The iron bacteria undergo an oxidation process in order to fulfill its energy requirements. The process changes ferrous iron (Fe2+) into ferric iron (Fe3+) producing the rusty colored slime deposits in the stream water. A byproduct is the oily sheen on the surface. To test if the oily sheen you see in stream water is iron-oxidation or pollution, attempt to disturb the slick. If the oily sheen breaks apart, it is the byproduct of the bacteria bloom. If the sheen flows back into place, it is oil.

The main concern expressed by any passerby of an orange laden bacteria bloom is what is this gross anomaly doing to its environment. While quite unsightly, there is no evidence this bloom poses any threat to the aquatic life in the surrounding area. According to the EPA, this type of bacteria is not listed as a contaminant. This type of reaction has been occurring forever and has not seemed to have any impact on the water quality in the SSNP or anywhere else this reaction is witnessed.

The time is right to be getting out into the woods and watching the leaves change colors before our very eyes. A walk along the SSNP offers wonderful colors in the trees and in the stream. Use this bit of environmental knowledge to impress your hiking partner about the wonderful world of bacteria.

The Mini Migrants

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


This past week a group of enthusiastic raptor lovers gathered to see our favorite buteos, accipiters and falcons travel south. Instead of seeing a mass migration of beautiful raptors, we were witness to a much smaller migrant zipping past, the dragonfly. Hundreds of dragonflies whizzed past our overlook as we fruitlessly panned the skies for raptors. We were witness to the epic journey of dragonflies heading to wintering grounds. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on these wonderful mini migrants.

 

 

Dragonflies are of key ecological importance. The aquatic larvae and winged adults create a link between aquatic and terrestrial systems. Both larvae and adults are voracious predators. An adult can consume 15% of its body weight in prey each day including pests such as mosquitos and biting flies. They are also key food sources for fish and birds, including being an important food source for migrating raptors. Dragonflies are also incredible fliers. They are able to hover, dive, fly backwards or upside down and reach speeds of up to 30mph. Each of the four wings acts independently so if a wing is lost, dragonflies can carry on.

 

 

Each fall, these three-inch ariel speedsters head from points north into Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico regions. Wintergreen and the surrounding Blue Ridge is a funnel point for these mini migrants and late September is the best time to observe this phenomenon. The dragonfly we get to see whiz past us most is the common green darner. Not many specifics are known about what starts this mass migration but temperature and day length are likely candidates. As the approach of killing frost gets closer, the swarms grow in number. While mostly solitary travelers, dragonfly migrants have been known to swarm in large enough number to be picked up by radar as they were in the fall of 2019.

This epic mass movement from north to south and back again is not accomplished by one generation but instead three generations of dragonfly participate in this yearly cycle. In early spring, the first-generation transitions from larvae overwintering in sheltered southern ponds or wetlands into adult dragonfly and begin the journey north. Here the dragonflies lay eggs and die. The next generation hatches, goes through the larval stage into adult form and heads south where they once again lay eggs and die. This third generation will overwinter in the comfort of Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean until the cycle of eggs, death and birth starts again.

Scientists are still baffled how the same flight pattern is followed from generation to generation with no instruction or memory to guide them. Yet these amazing creatures find their way to appropriate locals so the cycle can be repeated year after year. Make your way to any overlook at Wintergreen to witness the 2021 dragonfly migration.

The Keystone Species

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


No parent makes proclamations of a favorite child nor do employers make it well known who is the most important employee. Our ecosystem is not coy in playing favorites. There is one species that claims the status as “favorite” or “most important”. That species is the oak. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain why the oak is the keystone species of the Wintergreen ecosystem.

Those of us that traverse the environment at Wintergreen all have favorites. My favorite species at Wintergreen, for example, are downy serviceberry, Canada lily and chipmunks. While I love them, the health of the ecosystem is not dependent on these three species. They are dependent on oaks. The forest type of Wintergreen is Oak-Hickory. This simply means the two dominant tree species are oaks and hickory. Oaks are the species we pass most often as we hike along our trails and are the key component to ecosystem health.

 

 

The obvious source of contribution to ecosystem health is dropping from the heights at this moment, acorns. Over 100 vertebrate species rely on acorns to make it through the fall and winter months. Species such as deer, bear, gray squirrels, chipmunks, wild turkeys, crows, blue jays, raccoons, rabbits and opossum use the autumn acorn crop to prepare for the tough months ahead. Oaks are split into two types: red and white. Like wine, the red and white acorns are different from each other. White oak acorns are the preferred variety for wildlife. White oak acorns have less tannin, an astringent chemical in plants, thus a more palatable taste to wildlife. Red oak acorns tend to be higher in fat, protein and calories. White oaks germinate quickly after reaching the soil, while reds lie dormant for months. Wildlife tends to seek out white oak acorns early in the autumn and turn their focus to red oak acorns in winter and into the spring.

Whole populations ebb and flow with the production of acorns. The correlation between acorn production and fawns is very strong. Deer produce more twin and triplet fawns after bumper acorn crop years. The Nature Foundation studies the yearly acorn production. If you have ever hiked the Fortunes Ridge or Lower Shamokin Falls trails you may have noticed trees painted with white and red stripes. These markings allow us to study the yearly production of acorns for 75 white and 75 red oak trees at Wintergreen.

 

 

Oaks provide other valuable landscape benefits. A key contribution is carbon sequestration. Oaks pull carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it in plant tissue. Plants with the biggest root systems have the greatest ability to lock it in the soil and oaks have tremendous root systems. These wonderful root systems hold water in the landscape better than almost any plant. Also, their large canopy softens and slows rain thus creating a slow movement of water through the watershed. The longevity of oaks stabilizes the forest community. This enduring presence tend to make these forest communities more resilient.

Oaks have not always been the primary keystone species at Wintergreen. In the early 1900s, American chestnut shared the role with oaks. Chestnuts comprised approximately 30% of the forest in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. Sadly, the chestnut blight arrived and changed the ecosystem in a tremendously swift manner. Currently in the United States, 75% of oak species are listed in the “conservation concern” category. Although nothing like the immediate landscape change from the chestnut blight, oak decline is happening all over our ecosystem.

The longevity of oaks combined with slow reproductive rate make them very susceptible in a rapidly changing environment. Predisposing factors such as poor soils, advanced tree age and prolonged drought make up the first level of stress in the complex known as oak decline. The second level is inciting factors such as frost and defoliating insects which may kill the tree but usually initiate decline by depleting food reserves and causing dieback. The final level is contributing factors such as secondary insects or diseases that lead to the ultimate mortality. These final “nails in the coffin” are things like Armillaria root rot that only attack trees in a state of decline.

Our Wintergreen landscape has seen a ton of factors of various stress levels. Most of our oak population in the open space of Wintergreen is mature to overmature to begin with. The oaks in our development are mature and many have been stressed with human stressors such as driveways and houses built on the root system. Our oaks have been through years of gypsy moth attack, suffering partial defoliation year after year. Our wet weather in 2018 and 2019 is a contributing factor in death of many white oak species such as white and chestnut oaks, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Adding in factors such as root rot and ambrosia beetles and you have a species in decline.

While there is not much that can be done for the oaks in the open space, you can aid in maintaining healthy oaks in your landscape. Start by not being a stressor yourself. Avoid damaging tree limbs, trunk or roots. Prune carefully damaged or disease limbs. Remove invasives vines from the tree and monitor for insect pests or fungus. If you find something out of the ordinary affecting your oak, contact me at forestmanage@tnfw.org or seek out a certified Arborist for advice.

Late Summer Stings

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


Nothing interrupts a peaceful late summer hike more than the swelling pain of a yellow jacket sting. We have entered the time of year when everyone at Wintergreen and all of central Virginia need to pay attention while hiking or picnicking. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain why human/yellow jacket interaction is reaching its crescendo for the year.

Through the majority of summer, worker yellow jackets are focused on building up nests and raising the next generation of queens. These colonies have a set social structure that keeps order when tasks are clearly defined. Early summer, the workers focus on gathering protein in the form of other insects to feed the growing larvae. Their focus is in growing the colony and producing queens. During this phase of the summer, yellow jackets rarely show aggression due to their focus on the tasks at hand.

 

 

By late summer the workers’ (1000-4000 per colony) role and dietary needs begin to change. The first change is in their diet. They focus much more on sugars and fats to increase the fat reserves for the queens. This sends them in search of more human forms of food. Cracking a sugary soda at a cookout and the yellow jackets are bound to show up. The next major change is in their colony roles. The role changes as they have maxed out the colony and the queens are beginning to leave the nest in search of overwintering locations. When she departs, many of the worker yellow jackets leave with her resulting in a horde of homeless, taskless stinging insects.

 

 

The sting of the yellow jacket is unique in its pain delivery. It starts as a pinch sensation and swells to a burning, itching feeling. On the Schmidt pain scale, the yellow jacket ranks at a 2.0 out of 4. It is above the honeybee and fire ant but below the paper wasp and bullet ant. You may experience swelling and redness around the sting site for hours afterwards. Yellow jacket treatments can vary. If you are allergic, call 911 and prepare to use your Epi-Pen. For the majority who are not allergic to their stings, ice application is the most straight forward approach. Keep ice applied for up to 20 minutes. The next option is to take an anti-histamine such as Benedryl, which can reduce sting symptoms. A nice easy remedy is to mix a spoonful of baking soda in water and apply it with a swab to fight the acidic nature of the venom. Vinegar applications can reduce the itching if that continues to be a problem.

Wintergreen residents need to be on guard for our marauding, homeless yellow jackets, both in the woods and at your next cookout. If you are unfortunate enough to find a nest on the trails email me at forestmanage@tnfw.org. Stay safe!

A Champion in Our Midst

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


A quick survey of the recent Olympics shows the intense desire to be number one at something. Rarely do we get to be in the presence of someone or something that is #1 in anything. A quick jaunt down to Allen Creek Trail will grant you just such an opportunity. Today’s Nine Minute Naturalist will introduce you to the number #1 most poisonous plant in North America, the water hemlock.

To be regarded as the most poisonous plant in an entire hemisphere is quite an achievement. This member of the carrot family produces cicutoxin which can cause delirium, nausea, convulsions, seizures and vomiting, often leading to death. All parts of this plant are poisonous but the roots contain the highest concentrations. Ingestion can lead to death in 15 minutes to 8 hours. The poison is so toxic that Native Americans are said to have used water hemlock to poison the tips of spears and arrows. This plant is not one to be handled.

 

 

The key to avoiding the deadliest plant in North America is through proper identification. Water hemlock grows from 2-7 feet in height and has distinct umbrella-like (umbels) white flowers that grow up to 6 inches wide. They will be in flower from July to September at Wintergreen. They have alternate twice or three times compound leaves and a distinctive stem that is tinged with purple. This native plant likes its “feet” wet and can be found in creeks, ditches, ponds, and swamps throughout Virginia.

 

 

Unfortunately, there are many look-alike plants throughout Virginia. The carrot family has a bunch of late summer flowering plants that can pose problems in identification. Parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace and water hemlock are all members of the carrot family that bloom at similar times. Queen Anne’s lace can be separated from water hemlock via location. Queen Anne’s lace grows in drier locals and prefers full sun while water hemlock prefers wetland soils and the shade. Parsnip has only singular compound leaves as opposed to twice or three times compound like water hemlock. Both look-alikes also lack the purple tinged stem of the water hemlock. It is also similar to poison hemlock made famous by the death of Socrates. The non-native poison hemlock flowers earlier in the summer and prefers drier soil types than water hemlock.

Now that you know more about the #1 deadliest plant in North America, it is time to get a close hand look for yourself. Allen Creek Nature Preserve is an excellent opportunity to get a glimpse of this species. It can be seen on both sides of the first bridge you cross on the right side as well as next to the final bridge you cross on the loop across the powerlines. Be sure to look but don’t touch!