Farm Bulletin: Old McDonald Never Mentioned This

Cows, sheep, chickens…sure. Normal farm animals. Stretch a little and maybe you'll come up with birds, bees, bugs. Even coyotes or other predators. But contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston has noticed yet another creature that calls his farm home.

Moss Animals

Our trips to the irrigation pump are less frequent as temperatures moderate. We are starting to withhold water from the annual crops. For the berries, however, watering through September is critical so the primocanes, which will bear next year's crop, can put on as much growth as possible. Heavy canes bear better fruit. Winter crops like the cabbages, chicories and parsnips must also receive a good dose of water for good root development. When starting the pump, we watch the water carefully for any changes in quality. 

This week, a new creature appeared near the pump station. A large moss animal, or Bryozoan, was drifting in water (top photo). A gelatinous mass about the size of a soccer ball, it is known to bryozoologists as Pectinatella magnifica (left, from Wikimedia). It is the largest of the 22 freshwater moss animals found in North America. Most are delicate creatures that go unnoticed by all but a handful of dedicated professionals. Pectinatella is hard to ignore, and brought us back to invertebrate zoology class.

The bryozoans are invertebrate animals with a nervous system and a gut, and in the same general evolutionary branch as sea urchins and lamp shells. They feed on bacteria and algae using feathery tentacles reminiscent of corals. Like corals, they are colonial animals, and the large mass drifting in our irrigation channel is actually a colony of individuals that are fused together in the gelatinous matrix. Ambling along the bank, we saw several other colonies ranging in size from a softball to a medicine ball. They need warm, clean water. As the water temperature drops below 60 degrees (15 C), the colonies will die. The species carries on by producing a resting stage called a statoblast, and next year these will grow into new colonies. 

Most of 4,000 or so bryozoans are marine animals, and attach themselves to rocks, piers and ship hulls. Of the many animal orders covered in invertebrate biology class, we would nominate a bryozoan as an unlikely resident of a Willamette Valley farm. Obviously, we weren't paying attention to the mention of 50 freshwater species separated into the Class Phylactolaemata, and their preference for clean, still waters. 

Water is every farmer's vulnerability. We fret constantly about the supply, delivery and quality. Seeing this stately creature drifting slowly in the water, with its ancestry stretching back 450-million years to the Ordovician Period, provided a comforting benediction on the irrigation ditch.

Farm Bulletin: Yellow Jackets, Wasps and Hornets, Oh My!

The Bard of Ayers Creek, Anthony Boutard, sends another bulletin from the real world. To subscribe to his missives, simply e-mail him and ask to be added to the list.

We always have two or three bald faced hornet nests on the property. These are very valuable insect predators. The only time we remove the nests is when they are built in the berry field. Over the last few years, they have been located high in the oaks, bothering nobody. Unlike their close cousins, the yellow jackets, they tend to be pretty calm, and we have been spared their sting. Yellow jackets are almost as valuable. However, tending toward omnivory, yellow jackets are more inclined to damage fruit and tend to be wired with a hair trigger when you are near the nest.

When you stumble across a nest, it is impossible to outrun them, though a hasty departure is required. We have found the trick is to stand absolutely still against the trunk of the biggest tree nearby, and the wasps will circle in an upwards spiral around the tree looking for your head. Soon, they depart. The most likable of the group are the paper wasps who build small, open nests under the eves of buildings. They build nests on our heavy truck, and seem unfazed by the trip to Salem and back two or three times a week. They watch us keenly, but leave us alone as we work around them. The wasps, as a group, use their stinger as a tool to paralyze their prey, and they inflict a more painful and longer lasting injection than honey bees.

Last week, we found a bald faced hornet nest in a drooping branch of a mirabelle plum tree but a foot above the ground. When we mentioned this to our crew, they noted the locations of a couple of other nests likewise close to the ground. New Englanders have always regarded low wasp nests as a harbinger of a harsh winter, the 'seventh winter' in a cycle. We had a sense of this earlier, and we have planted our sensitive crops in more sheltered locations than in the past, and are hedging with larger plantings of the more hardy greens. Consequently, it was interesting to hear meteorologists predict a colder winter this year for Oregon.

Photos from Wikipedia.