Monday, November 24, 2014

Hypothermia, or "Aren't You Cold?"

To see teenage boys at a school bus stop on a winter morning, dressed in no more than shorts a hoodie and sneakers is to believe that some magical cold-proofing has been discovered. One wants to ask “Aren’t you cold? Does your mother know you are out in that?” On both counts, apparently not.

Perhaps what the boys are demonstrating is the distinction between feeling cold and being cold. Men of a tender age tend to have a low percent body fat compared to girls, say 10 to 15 percent compared to 18 to 22 percent. Part of the difference is boys having less subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. This means boys will have better blood circulation to and from skin. Also, underlying muscle will be closer to the skin. Both differences warm skin at the expense of lowering core body temperature faster. The end result is girls feel cold faster than boys, while doing better at preserving core body warmth. In a similar fashion, alcohol relaxes surface blood vessels, so drinkers feel the cold less while at the same time losing heat faster.

Bicyclist dressed for winter ride
The distinction between sensing cold on skin and losing core body temperature is important to anyone planning outdoor activities ranging from walking, biking, skiing, ice fishing, kayaking or snowmobiling. Exposed skin is prone to frostbite in very cold weather, especially when moving fast or exposed to strong winds. At temperatures above freezing the frostbite risk is gone, but hypothermia can still occur at air temperatures well into the 50’s, especially if clothing becomes wet from rain or sweat.

Shivering sets in once core body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Shivering, i.e., involuntary muscle twitching, burns fuel to generate heat. Whenever muscle cells contract, more than half the energy used is “wasted” on heat production rather than contraction. In cool weather, bumblebees pre-warm their flight muscles via shivering. As core temperatures head south towards 90 degrees our shivering response becomes stronger and the “umbles” set in, as in having the fumbles, stumbles, grumbles and mumbles. Emergency medical treatment is warranted when core temperature fall below 90 degrees.

Paradoxically, vigorous exercise in cold weather increases risk of hypothermia, and thus can be described as an exercise trap. First, exercise blunts perception of cold. A university study of people exposed to cold and either exercising or not exercising found that the ones who were exercising “felt” less cold even though their core and surface temperatures were declining at the same rate as when not exercising.

Exercise also generates heat, and thus sweat. Sweat, just like rain or immersion in water, reduces the insulating quality of protective clothing. When this water evaporates, it cools. Finally, prolonged endurance exercise can result in depletion of muscle fuel, and either delay or compromise the shivering response.

In the US, hypothermia accounts for about 1,300 deaths per year (1/3 female, 2/3 male). That figure includes deaths due to alcohol-related exposure and homelessness, but not boating accidents in cold water, which are instead logged as drowning.

Winter scene
Locally, wooded areas are large enough to get into trouble in cold weather. Don’t go out alone, especially in the fast-fading light of late afternoon. If heading out alone, someone should know where you intend to be and when you expect to return. A cell phone doubles as a means to call for help and a GPS device, aiding emergency rescue to home in on your location.

Getting back to our teenage boys, deliberately under-dressing for cold weather may be a form of preening for members of the opposite sex. Males of many species demonstrate their superior fitness by growing the largest horns, or brightest feathers, or showing physical prowess over other males. Being (apparently) impervious to cold is one more way of claiming to be a physically prime specimen of manhood. Is it also demonstrating mental superiority? Not so much.

This column was first published in the Beacon-Villager in November 2010. Winter is upon us again, so worth a reminder that hopothermia is a careless way to die.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Winter Moths

Male Winter moth fits inside circle the size of a nickel.
Females are just under a half-inch in length.
In eastern Massachusetts the time to act is late November through early December, and then again late March through early April.

An insect invasion has plagued eastern Massachusetts for the past 10-15 years. Winter moths, native to northern Europe, reached parts of Canada in the 1930s. The introduction was accidental. The problem is monumental. Visual evidence of how bad it is will be upon us shortly, as the male moths, looking much like like tan-to-brown shaded triangles, are strongly attracted to outdoor lights. There will come evenings in late November or early December when upon arriving home, you may see scores of moths gathered round the light over your front door.     

The "winter" part of the name refers to an evolutionary strategy used to avoid predation. Most insect eaters (birds, bats, spiders, wasps and other insects) are active during warmer months. Winter moths shift the active parts of their life cycle into the colder months. Eggs are laid in late November and December and hatch in late March. The tiny hatchlings eat the beginning-to-open flower and leaf buds from the inside out.

Female, note small wings
By May, caterpillars are full sized, and descend to the ground where they transform into pupae, hidden in leaf litter. Pupae stay dormant until after the first frosts of November. The emerging adults, freeze-resistant thanks to anti-freeze compounds such as glycerol, use their short lives to procreate before dying.

Winter moths have an interesting dimorphism. Males have strong flight muscles, with an ability to pre-warm these muscles through shivering before cold weather flight. In contrast, females have only vestigial wings. Sacrificing flight capacity allows more than fifty percent of their adult body weight to be given over to eggs. Mating is achieved after the females climb up tree trunks and then release scent pheromones into the air. Males fly to them.

Winter moth larvae are generalists, but especially like fruit trees, maple, ash and birch trees, and blueberry bushes. Flower bud damage leads to low fruit and berry yield. Leaf loss can be so great that too many years in a row will kill trees, especially if dry conditions prevail during the time the trees are putting out replacement leaves. Treatment involves putting sticky products such as Tree Tanglefoot around tree trunks in November and then spraying a few times in early spring with dormant oil or other insecticides. There are organic treatments for those who do not want to use chemical pesticides.

        11/14/14 update: After a few night frosts, moths are beginning to appear in Maynard.
        11/26/14 update: My big birch tree has more than 500 males and females stuck in goo!
        12/15/14 update: No new sightings, so removed plastic wrap. 

TreeTanglefoot on birch tree. Applied
on plastic wrap, not directly on tree.
See photo below for results.
This is not the first time an invasive moth has had such a massive impact in the Northeast. European Gypsy moths were deliberately brought to the United States - specifically, Medford, MA - by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot, in the 1860s. As an amateur entomologist, Trouvelot was experimenting with Gypsy moths as a means of establishing silk manufacture in the Americas. He failed. Moths escaped.

Gypsy moths occupy a different portion of the calendar than winter moths. Eggs laid in August hatch the following May. The rest of the life cycle is compressed into a few months. Nearly 140 years later, this pest's territory is still expanding westward and southward, although a number of introduced biological controls, including parasitic insects, have blunted severity of the outbreaks.

Moth menage a trois stuck in the goop. Males are attracted
to pheromones released by females.
Click on any photo to enlarge.
"Ecological release" refers to situations in which a species undergoes massive population expansion, due mostly to lack of predators, parasites and diseases. The best known examples are for species introduced from one continent to another, but can also occur when apex predator species are removed from the top of the food chain (think whitetail deer without wolves or mountain lions, and not enough human hunters). For invasives, the resultant population expansion from point of entry is fast for species with high mobility, slow for creepy crawlers.

These two moth species are examples of slow expansion because females are unable to fly. Egg laying occurs on or near the tree they grew up on. Dispersion is achieved be a few methods. Post-hatch caterpillars can release a silk strand from the abdomen, then unclasp from the twig and allow wind to blow them to a new location.

This means of travel is better known for young spiders, and called 'ballooning.' Older caterpillars can descend to the ground and explore, one tiny footstep at a time. Either way, the failure rate is high, but enough succeed that territory continues to enlarge, and areas that are sprayed with pesticides will re-infest over time.

2015, and my birch trees' infestation was even worse. This year I got the goop on the tree by mid-November. Trapped so many that I had to remove it and reapply fresh wrap and goop on Thanksgiving, and then again December 1st. Will see come spring how much this slaughter benefited the trees. Biological control has proved successful in Canada - not clear if this method has yet been introduced to U.S. There are two insect species (a fly and a wasp) that specialize in winter moths. Their larvae consume the winter moth caterpillars from the inside.     

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Fleepo the Clown (Philip Bohunicky)

Plaque honoring Phil's contributions to Maynard
(Click on any photo to enlarge)
Ten years gone since Philip W. Bohunicky, aka "Fleepo the Clown" passed away on 11/11/04, a month shy of his 85th birthday. He had been a fixture in Maynard's parades and celebrations for close to 40 years. He, as have others, qualified for the honorary title "Mr. Maynard" in his time.

Phil wrote up part of his life's story for the Maynard Historical Society shortly before he died. As he told it, he began sponsoring and coordinating Maynard's Christmas parade in 1966 because of an event from his youth. His early memories were of growing up in a Catholic orphanage. He described a snowy winter evening when the nuns told the boys that after evening prayers they were to put on their winter outfits. They walked to the center of town, where he heard a small band playing "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells..." and everyone joined in to sing Christmas carols.

In his own words "All of a sudden a huge red fire engine appeared around the corner with its sirens and horns blasting away. Standing in the back of the fire engine was a huge Santa Claus waving and yelling 'Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho!' As Santa faded slowly in the distance I was mesmerized, and to this day, oh so long, long after, I never forgot when I first saw Santa Claus when I was only six years old and living in the orphanage."
Parade float for Happy Toes Square Dancers
In addition to starting the Maynard Christmas Parade tradition, behind the scenes he also personally covered much of the cost of putting on the event, a responsibility since taken on by the Rotary Club. Phil also organized the annual Easter Egg Hunt at Crowe Park and helped provide entertainment at the Fourth of July carnivals - same location. At many events he was joined by his children and others who performed as the Happy Toe Square Dancers.

Phil's main alter ego was "Fleepo the Clown," but he also put in appearances at children's and charity events as Grandpa Fleepo or Harmonica Phil. Many Maynardites remember Fleepo on WAVM's television channel as The Fleepo Show. Or in costume, on roller skates, handing out lollipops. Or seeing him drive by - in costume, on his way to an event - with a very, very large stuffed dog in the car as his sidekick. His license plate read FLEEPO. One story that made local news in April 1990 was that Fleepo was hatjacked of his signature antique top hat at the Easter Egg event. The hat was never recovered.

Fleepo, stuffed animals, perhaps two of his three children?
As to how his clown name came to be: Philip apprenticed for years with Chris Sclarppia, who went by the clown name "Bozo" (not the famous Bozo). Chris took the French pronunciation of Phil's name - think "Fe-leeep" - and from there mutated it to "Fleepo."

Out of costume, Bohunicky put in uncounted hours supporting Little League baseball, T-ball and the water safety swim program conducted at Lake Boon. He had served in the Army Medical Corp in Europe during World War II, and appeared in uniform at Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembrances. His post-war career was as an electronics technician at MIT's Lincoln Labs, in Lexington. He died on Veterans Day, 2004.

This is not to say that Philip Bohunicky was all sweetness and light. In his involvement in various town government activities and volunteer groups around town he was at times strongly opinionated and ornery.

Parade float honoring 25 years of Christmas parades
(photos courtesy of Bohunicky family)
Little is known about Bohunicky's early family history. One source mentions both of his parents dying when he was an infant, and with no other family member to take him, he ended up at St. John's Catholic Orphanage in Utica, New York, until he was eleven, and then with a series of foster families. His good luck was the last family insisting he attend high school, and then the G.I. Bill putting him through Massachusetts Trade School.

The surname Bohunicky is Slovakian, and can be taken to mean  from Bohunice," which turns out to be the name of a small village near the western border of the Slovak Republic. If his parents were immigrants from that region it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire back then. Phil's contributions to town spirit continue to be remembered. Each year, the Philip Bohunicky Humanitarian Award is presented at the WAVM banquet to a member of the town who exemplifies the same type of dedication to his/her community. 

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book.