Category Archives: Earth & Environment

It’s easy being green

Kermit the Frog sang “It’s not easy being green,” but on an early summer evening in Central Pennsylvania, when the air is soft and smells of sweet hay,  and people’s gardens are shooting up almost as you watch, green can feel like the easiest thing of all.

So it was in Dorothy Blair’s backyard garden a few days ago.

I had interviewed her for a recent Probing Question article on local and organic foods. In one email, she mentioned that she’d just come in from gardening. I can’t resist a garden so I quickly wrote back, “Can I come by and have a look?” and a plan was hatched. Continue reading It’s easy being green

The neighbors upstairs

A gray squirrel has a snack on campus.

For the past year, my boyfriend and I have shared our home with another couple. They lived above us. We could hear them walking around up there, and we suspect we heard them copulating above our own bed. The problem we had with this couple, though, was that they never paid rent. This is probably because they were squirrels.

The situation came to a head a couple of weeks ago. We had been away for the weekend, and came home to discover one of our upstairs neighbors lounging on our couch underneath an afghan. How did he get there, you ask? He fell into a wall, wasn’t able to climb back up into the rafters, and decided to chew his way out through the wall.

Once I got past the trauma of having a squirrel running around my house digging through the aloe plants and cuddling under the blanket my mom crocheted for me, I began to wonder how and why these squirrels chose our attic — of all places — to be. Was this normal? And did we need to worry about squirrel diseases or something haunting our house now?

Who better to ask than our resident squirrel expert, Carolyn Mahan?

A professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, Mahan’s specific area of study is the behavioral ecology of flying squirrels. Nonetheless she was game to talk with me for about half an hour on a Friday afternoon about my Squirrel Situation.

I learned that all species of squirrels either make a drey — a bowl- or ball-nest — or find a cavity to build their nests in — like our house.

“There was probably a gap,” said Mahan, of how the squirrels got into the attic in the first place. “They don’t need a lot of space to get through.”

According to Mahan, squirrels will readily chew through vinyl siding or wood if there is some sort of hole or gap started there already. And in the case of the insulation the squirrels were pulling out of our roof and throwing onto the deck, it most likely was simply in their way.

An important answer I got from the gracious Dr. Mahan: there will be no squirrel diseases haunting our house. The most danger a squirrel poses, Mahan said, is its habit of chewing through plastic coating on wires — which could in turn lead to either an electrocuted squirrel or a fire hazard in the house.

The good news is the squirrel didn’t do much damage in our house — aside from the nice squirrel-sized hole in our bedroom wall. There doesn’t appear to be any wire damage, and we have since patched up the hole that the squirrels were using as their front door.

There are plenty of nice trees in our neighborhood. Maybe they can hang out in one of those?

Tell me about critter escapades in your own home/office/other personal space in the comments section below. I’m sure we’re not the only ones with a ridiculous story to tell!

Quoth the Raven …

Well we don’t have ravens, but I woke up this morning to the raucous screeching of a crow — cousin of the common raven — outside my window.  Not an uncommon occurrence in State College today, but ten years ago, crows were rarely seen in town or on campus.  Now they are ubiquitous in pairs throughout the summer tending their nests and their young and in groups roosting at night on campus in the winter.

Patrick Mansell, Penn State

I’m told they group together at night in the winter in locations that are slightly warmer and where there is light, and of course trees in which to roost.  This makes campus an ideal location and this winter we saw streams of crows congregating at dusk, a la Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” flying to the front of Old Main to spend the night in the trees.  Continue reading Quoth the Raven …

A Tale of Two Beekeepers

I’ll admit right up front that the title of this blog post is misleading: there’s only one beekeeper in this story. But trust me, she’s a very good one and she appears twice in this tale, in two different settings.

I’ll explain.

In my role developing public programs featuring Penn State researchers, I immediately thought of Maryann Frazier as a speaker for spring semester’s Research Unplugged series. Maryann is Penn State’s senior extension associate in the department of entomology, as well as a seasoned bee researcher, and a spokesperson for the work of the University’s Center for Pollinator Research.  I knew from a past interview with her for my feature on Colony Collapse Disorder that she could wax eloquent (bad pun, sorry!) on the topic of bees.

In her first Research Unplugged talk for us this semester, Maryann showed up at our new location at Schlow Centre Region Library looking more the professor than the beekeeper, wearing a tailored and professional-looking blouse and skirt. The cameras were rolling and there was a “standing room only” crowd of over 100 people in the library’s Downsbrough Community Room.


Continue reading A Tale of Two Beekeepers