Sunday, February 27, 2011

Leaf Cutters Ant Colony Development

Brain Development and Ants- We grow through our experiences. It could be a matter of depth or width, as in experience some about many, or experience much about one. Usually we live with a balance of both, and the brain continues to make new connections while reinforcing older ones and some connections are lost. So, if you want a healthy brain, don't do drugs, children.
Really, decent nutrition, physical exercise and learning new things are a good start.

So, what about the ants? We have learned much. At the moment, we are starting a new study titled:
Does a cabbage bait infused with an organic mystery solution affect leaf cutter colony size or behavior?
Purpose: To find possible methods of reducing foliar damage caused by leaf cutter ants.
Background: When we moved into this house in July 2009, a leaf cutter ant colony existed in the pasture. At that point, their mound was about the size and shape of an upside down salad bowl, while underground tunnels likely traveled a few meters and colony size consisted of several thousand ants. Today, the primary mound covers an area the size of a two car garage, there are several smaller mounds and entry holes throughout the pasture and our yard, tunnels and chambers, well, if someone wants to have fun with the math, let me know, colony size is likely in the several millions.
Leaf cutter ants make a living by cutting pieces of leaves and using them to grow a fungus in their underground chambers. The fungus is then harvested and eaten by the colony's members.
The leafcutters, are very interesting to observe, however they do cause a considerable amount of damage to foliage and can colonize new areas through reproduction. Gardens and reforestation projects are susceptible to considerable damage and their earth moving can affect building foundations. Currently, we do not know of natural mechanisms, such as predators or weather events, for controlling their populations at this site. Common local methods for their eradication is the burning of diesel fuel in their tunnels (really fun for humans) or use of a fungicide that targets their food source (not as exciting as the former).
We have tried the fungicide, and the ants initially show curiosity by taking a few pellets, then after a few applications, they move the pellets off to the side of their trail.
Our Test: We have received an organic cabbage bait that is designed to kill the ants, thus reducing the size or even eliminating a colony. Each morning this week, I spread spoonfuls of the cabbage substance on several trails. On most mornings, within ten minutes they hauled a few pieces toward their tunnels. When I returned home in the late afternoons, 90% of the cabbage was gone. So, are they bringing all of the cabbage to their nests? (Bias, says yes, absolutely) Are other animals eating the cabbage? (bias, says, no, absolutely not) But ethical and true science is objective, biases removed. It has been difficult to assess because I have other responsibilities - like making my own living. So, without continual observation, I really don't know what is happening to all of the cabbage. Have I noticed any change in behavior or numbers of ants? No.

More research, and thus brain development in the future! Time to apply more of the cabbage.

Signed M

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Maybe my enjoyment here has something to do with brain development! Obviously, many things here in CR are new or at least different, thus forcing the mind to store the new and reinterpret the old. Lets take ants for example. In Chicago, we could identify a few types of ants around the yard. You might be familiar with the masses of ants that occasionally swarm on the driveway or over a crack on the sidewalk. Looks like mom spilled the ground coffee as she was getting out of the car and now they're dancing type of thing. I would often tell the boys that is was an ant party, until we closely observed one time to discover, to take words from David Bowie, "this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around" but an all out war. The ants were engaged in a fierce battle, attacking with jaws and ripping apart opponents. We figured that two colonies had gotten a little close to each other on nature's dance floor, someone bumped, then a bottle flew and all you no what broke loose. Further observations that summer supported our ants at war theory.

Those earlier stop and smell the coffee discoveries may have helped us developed a greater awareness ants ( Class: Order Hymenoptera, Family Formicidae). Our fascination has grown further here due to the manners in which they become part of our lives.
We navigate around or trip over the leafcutter mounds walking up the pasture
We devise ways to keep ants from the baked goods that cool on the kitchen counter.
We wait patiently for the next invasion of marauding army ants to clean the house and respectfully walk over their columns on the trails.
We admired the way one type would enter our front door at sunset, quickly locate fallen dinner scraps, and then quietly carry their booty out without disturbing a soul.

I think we have found about ten species around the home, some more conspicuous or mildly irritating than others. I say only 'mildly irritating' because we have never had an experience when they have attacked our food in mass numbers or caused fear of losing life or limb, yet they initially have caused some mental discomfort upon first encounters. Once you get to know the types and their patterns, they are quite predictable. Heck, I even found Sally struck with awe as she patiently watched the patterns and trail of some ants in the kitchen.

OK< john wants me to look at a toucanet.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Brain Development

As I sit here, trying to sort out the hundreds of ideas in my head, I cannot focus on any one event. I favor an objective writing style that and would rather write about a specific topic than give a journal of my daily activities. My better half possesses much more freedom with the pen and can write a detailed, colorful diary of a weeks events. Hmm, I wonder if there is any connection to our different successes in learning the Spanish language. She is almost fluent while the Ticos either give me blank stares, tilt their heads or gasp and giggle when I speak. Even back in elementary school, my worst grades were always in language arts, I think that had something to do with reading and writing, while my best grades were consistently in math, science and the geography part of social studies. I try not to label things as one might become what he thinks, but the evidence over the years is consistent.

I observe our little boys, and note their differing intellectual, physical, emotional strengths and find it interesting that over the past four plus years, some of the same patterns have persisted. At the same time, I need to be careful about the labels and ensure that they are encouraged to experiment and to experience development in a variety of areas. The development of neuronal connections in each brain varies. It starts as a genetic message coded in our DNA passed to us from our biological parents. Brain development is then influenced by our environment, fetal and post-birth. Diet, exercise and social bonding are big factors in brain development.

More food for thought. I recently read about research that indicated a 70 year old can pursue some type of intellectual challenge for one year, and reduce the effective brain age by 40 years. Yes, this is vague, but in summary: Exercise your brain, it can't hurt.

OK, the sun is up and the Mot Mots are hoot hooting. Should be another beautiful summer day. Signed M.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Dose of Family

Another week is upon us and my family has already come and gone! Time travels so quickly when you are having fun. It was a little touch and go right up to the day they flew out (Beth coming in from Chicago and Mom and Amy coming in from Miami). Beth was a real trooper getting up at 2 a.m. to endure a 2 hour taxi ride to the Milwaukee airport as all the flights were cancelled out of O’Hare due to a massive winter storm. Thanks a lot OLE MAN WINTER!

I was grinning ear to ear when I collected my family at the airport last Thursday. They knew they had another four hours of travel ahead of them, so we all looked forward to a glass of vino when we reached Monteverde. “Where is that corkscrew?”, nowhere to be found, so we improvised, and kudos to Amy for her talents using a screw and pliers! SUCCESS!

The boys were spoiled with treats and little gifts from their aunts and grandparents.

Thanks Amy and John for the new swim trunks (proudly shown below), rocket shooters, puzzles, and super hero unders!

Beth, the boys love Candy Land and take great pride in reminding me of the rules and beating the pants off me! Choppy, the Fishy Crackers are all gone and they are working themselves through the remaining peanut butter granola bars!

We enjoyed hula hooping in the yard and even got Choppy engaged! SHAKE THOSE HIPS! Fun times with all – the boys were happy to know they are not yet too big for an airplane ride from Auntie Beth!

We spent Saturday in Arenal hoping to get a glimpse of the volcano. We left Monteverde Saturday morning with nearly a cloud in the sky. We poured ourselves into a tour van and headed off for a 90-minute ride through the mountains to this side of Lake Arenal. Forty-five minutes into our ride, the clouds thickened, the sky took on a sheen of deep gray and the mist started to cloud the vision of our driver so we approached the Lake with uncertainty and caution. It is quite the tour business they have at the Lake, a myriad of tour boats, ready and waiting for trusting vacationers to board. We dumped our luggage at the front of the boat and took our seats – HOLD ON. Surprisingly, the ride was smooth and we made it to the other side of the lake in about 40 minutes. Again, we were met by a tour van that whisked us away to the Observatory Lodge where we would spend the night. The lodge was beautiful, with expansive gardens, trails and a huge variety of birds and wildlife…I can only imagine it on a clear day. The rooms were spacious and each had a great view of the Volcano (which we had yet to see)!

The rain toyed with us all day and each time we thought we had a chance to get a quick hike in, the heavens opened up! Being the dry season here in Costa Rica and not as much as a drop of rain here in Monteverde, we were ill prepared for the rain – ponchos (at home), boots (at home), umbrellas (at home), so we sprang for some rather thin, cheap ponchos at the reception desk and in our determined state, started off to find the trailhead to the waterfall hike. We howled in laughter as we commented on each other’s grand style, sporting the lovely ponchos. Five minutes into the hike, we opted to turn around and head for the covered hot tub. We enjoyed warming up after being soaked by the cool rain.

Late afternoon was upon us as we trundled back to the hotel room. We spied the girls out on the porch snapping pictures of the volcano. We turned around and saw this expansive mountain – the clouds were parting, blue sky was breaking through and the late afternoon sun was bearing down on it! A gorgeous site indeed. We must have taken 100 pictures in a span of an hour – it was worth it!

Sunday was a beautiful day, with blue sky and lots of sunshine – we enjoyed a morning guided hike, complements of the hotel and watching the birds snack on the papaya and watermelon peels just outside of the restaurant/deck – the birds were incredible, so many species and colors, not to mention melodic sounds!

We had a great time and the boys were super little travelers! Our departing shot from the boat - a much better view than just a mere 24 hours prior!

Mike and I enjoyed our break from kitchen duty thanks to Amy, Choppy and Beth – Dunkie, you better hold onto Amy; she’s a super cook! Poor Mike, will have to get reacquainted with the "Suppers by Sally"☹

The weather in Monteverde was spectacular, very dry, a nice breeze and all sunshine. We took every advantage of the weather especially when we headed to San Luis one day after school to hike the Waterfall. I sure did not remember the hike as being so treacherous, having to negotiate big boulders and shimmy over narrow plank bridges. Had I, perhaps I would have suggested that Choppy spend the afternoon reading at home. However, for any of you that know my mother, NOTHING DOING – she had her game face on and was determined to make the climb with us. She did great and came out on top. The waterfall is quite something – a hike I would recommend for anyone visiting this area. We drove our new (to us) Gallopher down the Trocha (which is a very, very steep hill that spills you out at San Luis Alto). We stopped at the overlook and Mike looked for rocks to butt up against the tires (a little extra insurance to help shore up the emergency brake).

A pic of the waterfall as you drive down the Trocha - "What, we're ascending that waterfall"?

While the kids were in school, us girls enjoyed walking around town and visiting the variety of shops that Cerro Plano and Santa Elena have to offer. Of course, we also enjoyed the ice cream, complements of the Cheese Factory.

We headed to Playa Blanca on Wednesday. Mike was able to rearrange his classes, so it was a family affair. It was low tide when we arrived, but that did not stop us from having fun. We rescued a Jelly Fish that had come ashore during low tide and worked feverishly to revive it and get it out into deeper waters. The boys were engrossed in the rescue effort and encouraged Mike and Amy as they used sticks and a piece of styrofoam to maneuver the little fellow out to deeper waters. We are unsure of his fate, but hope he survived.

We decided to stop at Rio Acapulco on our way back up the mountain for a little fresh water river fun! Think of it as a natural water-slide – the kids had a great time and the water was so refreshing after the thick mud beach and salt water. Boy were we tired when we arrived back home!

We enjoyed hiking in Bajo Del Tigre (across the street from our pasture) but were disappointed we did not see any white faced monkeys. They had come and gone the day before. We did however find two monkeys (of the human kind)! Amy was a real trooper as the boys were in a camera-happy mood and wanted their pic taken at ever turn in the trail.

Thursday we visited with friends that live toward the Santa Elena Reserve, who sell coffee to hotels and restaurants in the area as well as the Saturday famer’s market. They are such a kind family and invited us in for a flavorful cup of coffee and some toast with homemade jam. They have an impressive coffee roaster in their out-building and we learned a lot about the roasting process. Choppy, Amy and Beth went home with some robust, truly Costa Rican coffee!

A quick lunch at Dónde Henry (a place I would recommend in Santa Elena) for anyone travelling and then off to the Monteverde Reserve to check out the hummingbirds!

Thursday night, we dined with Veronica and gave the foosball table a work out – there was some fierce competition.

Us girls even managed to sneak out for a night-cap one night! Beth, Amy and Choppy snuck out after dish duty and while I was reading to the boys. A half hour later, I met them in my long-johns, a cozy sweater at Tramonti for a wine. That's the beauty of living here...grab a flashlight, walk to the bottom of the hill and jammies and all, you'll fit right in! We had a lot of giggles and shared some Dunkie stories with Amy (his new bride) :)

And of course, the story would not be complete without a pic of Choppy in action - you can't keep her idle for long! The car was thankful for the wash as it had been up and down the mountain a couple of times that week!

We’ll have fond memories of our time with family and hope that more family and friends can visit and get to know our new home, Monteverde!

Signed: S