By Ranger Steve Mueller
Farmers are an observant group. Their livelihood depends on paying attention to the natural world. It is necessary to understand events in nature to produce successful crops.
For thousands of years, people paid attention to weather’s annual cycle and crop responses. People documented weather and then determined climate. Climate is the combined long-term average of weather events. Weather is short-term and changes in less predictable ways. Some years we receive a killing frost in mid September. This year it was the third week of October. We also experienced an early spring warming a couple years ago that caused fruit growers to lose most of the crop. Apple trees flowered before the average flowering time and flowers were later killed when normal frost occurred.
The Farmer’s Almanac makes predictions based on decades of climate data and is used to predict weather events. Studies have shown predictions of weather events in the almanac are not particularly accurate but, because it is based on long time averages, the events are not too far off. Being close serves the general intended purpose for most almanac readers.
Almanac predictions are reasonably close because people have documented “Nature Niche” events for a long time. You will not see the almanac suggesting it safe to plant crops at the beginning of January or suggest we wait to harvest grapes until November.
The lives of plants and animals, including cultivated crops that sustain our food flow and economy, have DNA genetic codes linked to local climate conditions. This sometimes becomes a problem when we do not plant local genotypes of native species. Flowering Dogwood trees grow in Georgia and Michigan but their genetics have evolved and adjusted to each region’s local climate. When a southern dogwood is brought to Michigan and planted, its survival is less likely because its DNA genotype is programmed to start spring growth too early compared with Michigan’s native genotype populations.
A reader asked if the height of a Bald-faced hornet nest in trees could be used to predict snow depth for the coming winter. Plants and animals are unable to read the future but many “Old Wives’ Tales” lead people to think it possible. Nest building behavior is based on general circumstances that allow survival. A queen hornet will start a nest in a location that appears suitable. If she fails, we will not notice. If successful, we might notice the nest when it becomes large. When fall arrives the queen hibernates in a hollow log, under tree bark, or some other protected location. The rest of the colony freezes.
People often use the width of the orange band on woollybear caterpillars to predict the severity of winter. The bandwidth is related to the age of the caterpillar instead of future weather conditions. Science has helped document many details in nature that are used to make reasonably accurate predictions. There are still many discoveries to be made. Spend time outside observing, record the observations in a journal and of course remember to enjoy the magical experiences witnessed in the yard.
I have kept observation journals since 1969. Now I have a reasonable ability to predict when certain wildflowers will bloom, particular butterflies will appear, particular bird species move through, and when fall colors will peak. Outdoor activity is healthy physically and mentally. Sharpen your mind and thinking abilities by thinking about occurrences observed in nature. Many hunters know when to expect the deer rut scrape on saplings, what size trees are used and how high above ground the tree is scraped. Follow your own interests whether you are farmer, hunter, or outdoor explorer. Look to the Farmer’s Almanac for a general idea of event occurrences but use own your observations to discover the natural world.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753