Young praying mantises have hatched. I found them holding on to a wall in my office and decided to catch them and bring them outdoors. The stiff, foam, gray egg case was taped to a large piece of paper that I put in a folder. I managed to catch and release dozens of these miniatures. A couple of questions arose. What do these perfect imitations of adults prey on? Will the released ones survive?
The egg case was attached near the top of a dead mugwort stalk in an abandoned lot, a fenced in area in the heart of the Village of Babylon within a short walk. I happened upon this area and decided to explore through a breach in the chain link fence. You say “Mr Stock, you’re trespassing”. You are correct. But…I have a worthy, noble, friendly, environmental cause. Curiosity drew me into an opportunity to trespass, to survey nature raging in the face of thwarted human “progress”. I am contributing to science…the ecology of abandoned lots. Earth herself has a built- in mechanism to restore herself. Look at an abandoned parking lot. You’ll find cracks with weeds coming up.
A building permit attached to the fence looked weathered. How long had it been there? At least a decade, I decided. I inquired and learned a developer has been denied a building permit ten years ago. The lot has become an evolving ecological study area. I decided to collect samples of every plant I could find to see if I could make connections food chains, food webs, biotic and abiotic factors.
The lot is bounded by parking fields on two sides and a building. Mugwort ruled. I wondered what mugwort seeds looked like? They are very small, I bet, and capable of flying in wind for miles. Back at my desk, with magnifying glass, I extracted some seeds. Yes…small, brown and insignificant…until they sprout and grow and fill in every square inch of bare soil they can find. I know their rhizomes, those white horizontal roots that explore every square inch of soil to conquer and devour all surface water that falls…opportunists of
the highest order. Here were some of last year’s dried stalks almost six feet tall. I walked into a patch, crunching and crashing, brittle survivors. Their roots are smart. They break before I can pull out them entirely. I looked in “Common Weeds of America.” And found mugwort with a picture of its seeds. These shiny little things have built in survival written all over them.
I discovered slight bulges on quite a few stalks near the top. Perhaps a gall wasp made these bulges. I broke one off and split it open. I found a hollow chamber inside and an escape opening. Was there a connection between the mantis and the wasp? How did these mantises get here? Hidden food webs and chains lurked mysteriously behind these small observations. What gall insect? How big is this wasp? What is the life cycle? Had it coevolved with the mugwort over centuries? The small opening had me suspecting that an adult wasp deposited an egg on a tender mugwort stalk a year ago. A predator-prey relationship with host plant opened up an unseen world practically at my doorstep. All kinds of relationships right here in this 150 x 150 foot square area.
Life is smart. It figures out how to recreate its world amid concrete and rubble. I discovered a small elm tree. Wind-borne seeds from two tall elm trees on Main Street could easily have landed here. There were several other species of trees, each with their story of how they immigrated here. Vines, mosses, wildflowers, and weeds – all have secret connections. Nature has a relentless distribution system.
I like the fact that there are open, empty lots close by within walking distance. All are potential nature study areas. Living with 2 ½ million other humans here in Suffolk County offers many opportunities for open, empty lot nature study. Some naturalists turn their noses up when I tell them I’ visiting empty lots. The challenge is to find something exotic, something exciting, and something worthwhile to look at, identify, and write about. How am I doing?