Monday, September 29, 2008

Insect Observations

If you lived next door to me, you might see me kneeling next to our raised bed with my eyes a few inches above the soil level. For a long time. No, I am not watching the lettuce grow. I am watching the soil insects.
The rulers of the raised bed are the ants, who have conquered the entire plot for their own uses. The tiny granules of soils mixed in with the dried mulchy layer on top are a result of their tunneling. Earlier this fall the ants were farming yellow aphids on the lettuces, but I became vigilant and brushed the aphids off every day for a week or so and the ants seem to have given up. Now the aphids are on the kale, this time gray ones.
Most noticeable, however, is the population explosion of pillbugs in our garden.
Apparently these population explosions happen sometimes. I've been finding nests of them underneath our lettuce leaves, a ring of them gnawing on the pea plant that had just sprouted, and sometimes they are crawling on the lettuces, nibbling holes in the leaves. I know they normally like to eat decaying plant matter, but they will also eat tender shoots. When I find one of these nests, I scoop it up with my garden spoon and fling it in the compost bin. I am hoping they are not all marching back across the garden at night back to my lettuces. This isn't a major pest crises, just an annoyance. They are actually pretty mellow and peaceful creatures, bumbling slowly over the soil like miniature VW vans and curling up into balls when I pick them up. Eventually, I had to find out more. Here is what I found in an article by Louise Kulzer at the Bugs of the Month website (pillbugs are isopods, an order of crustaceans):
Female isopods have a marsupium, a brood pouch in which the eggs are incubated until they hatch. The young leave the brood pouch and typically molt soon after: in Porcellio laevis, within 24 hours (Nair 1984). After leaving the marsupium, they live in family groups until the young are grown. Each family has a chemical "badge" which distinguishes it from the rest of the population (Linsenmair 1984).
Now I feel a little bad about scooping up the family members and flinging them into the compost heap. Maybe I should just let them nibble. I do wonder, though, what kind of relationship the ants have with the pillbugs--do they cooperate? Or do they just exist side by side? I haven't been able to find anything about that.
There are some soft green caterpillars--Cabbage White larvae--on the kale and the arugula. They are pretty easy to spot and pick off, even though they are usually the exact shade of green of whatever plant they are eating. Here are little, bigger, biggest:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Happiness is...

...getting your favorite number on your new soccer jersey.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rachel Buttons

This happy sight greeted me when I returned home after tramping around my neighborhood for 1-1/2 hours putting "Rachel Norton for School Board" flyers on doors. The other happy sight was a Rachel Norton sign in a window I passed. Today I began touring high schools, and two of the parents I struck up a conversation with had heard of Rachel!
I can really see how a campaign is a roller coaster of elation and exhaustion. And I'm not even the candidate! Let me know if you want a button. It's what all the cool middle and high school kids are wearing.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Bike Safety*

*But Were Afraid to Ask

Last night I took a four-hour bike safety class from Burt Hill, sponsored by the S.F. Bike Coalition. By the end, my head was spinning as fast as my bike wheels going down Forest Hill. One of the many things I learned was that those "sharrows", as shown below, indicate where in the lane the bicyclist should be riding.
I always thought it was just to indicate that the lane must be shared by cars and bikes, but it actually shows you where to ride to avoid getting doored, the top reason for bicycle accidents. Maybe if I had paid a little more attention to this ad campaign I would have gotten it. I have been riding too close to the parked cars even though I was aware of the dangers of dooring. Even a couple of inches too close is worse than being an extra foot out into the traffic lane, since your handlebars can catch on a door and tip you over into traffic. At least if you are taking the lane you are visible, and a car can always go around you.
The point of the class could be distilled to this: ride like a vehicle. Ride predictably and assertively, be visible, be courteous. Burt spent a lot of time showing how hugging the curb to the right is actually more dangerous in many situations: when there's a right-turn-only lane, when the lane is too narrow to share, when you're waiting at an intersection for the light to turn red.
I rode today with a new outlook. There's one point where I always chicken out and ride on the sidewalk: where the road passes under Nordstrom's at Stonestown Galleria. Today I was determined to ride on the roadway underpass, which when I did it seemed much simpler than my old round-about sidewalk route, but it was still unnerving. Mostly on my ride I was much more aware of my distance from the parked cars, and when I should take the lane instead of timidly staying to the right. It's a familiar route so I can't say it was more scary than before (except for the underpass). My next hurdle is to try some routes I've so far been too afraid to try.

I noticed that the class, around 50 people, was mostly women, mostly around their 30s (although a few younger and a few older, like me), and a bit more ethnically diverse than San Francisco overall. Burt kept mentioning how the number of bicyclists in the city is going up, which means it's harder to find a spot for your bike on BART, but great for raising awareness of bicyclists on the road. I felt like part of something big: a slow but inevitable road revolution, and not just for the super-macho bike types who ride the wrong way up busy streets and don't stop for stop signs. If I'm going to ride more places, I'm going to do it in a safe, orderly way and enjoy my ride.