These little soil building invertebrates are real heroes but are seldom thought about or appreciated.
Memorial Day weekend found me attending to much needed yard work. Job one was replacing some old bark spread out on weed fabric. As I scooped the bark up, I immediately became aware that much of it, along with several years’ worth of sunflower hulls from my bird feeders, had composted into soil on top of the fabric. I changed tactics and with the help of my shop-vac, removed the loose top layer and reused it as bedding. Then I happily shoveled the rich new soil, some of it up to three inches thick, into my vegetable garden.
As I worked, I noticed dozens of earthworms, nematodes, pill bugs, mites and other tiny creatures thriving in this new layer. A hand lens revealed even more creatures and had I had a microscope, the compost would have literally looked alive with bacteria, fungi and Actinomycetes. The bacteria are so small that 25,000 lined up end to end would barely cover an inch.
Altogether, these tiny creatures from my little area wouldn’t have filled much more than a cup or two (a full acre of healthy moist soil will contain about 3,000 pounds’ worth). Yet they and their unseen counterparts had just done something that I could never do. Through chemical processes and mechanical chewing, tearing and excreting, they built soil from bark. Soil—the very basis of life on earth for all more sophisticated animal life.
The little guys of this planet are heroes in their own right but they certainly don’t get enough credit for the ecosystem services they provide. Most often, we only realize that they exist when we are at odds with them. For instance, I am currently in a battle with tiny sugar ants that are intent on removing all the sand I had so carefully placed beneath my patio bricks and putting it on top of the bricks. The once smooth surface now resembles cobblestone and is about as easy to walk on. I am certainly aware of those ants and if Colorado potato beetles find their way to my yard again, we will notice the impacts on the garden.
Yet, invertebrates from all phyla make up 95% of the animal life on this planet and without them life as we know it would not exist. Besides building soil, invertebrates are largely responsible for pollination of most of our food crops. Some plants, such as tomatoes, have evolved to require very specific pollinators (bumblebees in the case of tomatoes) not easily mimicked by human ingenuity.
Invertebrates are also at or near the bottom of the food chain. They provide the vital energy that keeps the engine of the rest of the complex web of life stoked and burning.
These are things to think about when applying fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides to yards and fields. Lawn companies and nurseries would have you believe that killing every insect, grub and spider is the best thing we can do for our yards. In reality, indiscriminately killing the soil fauna and other invertebrates is seriously counterproductive. Learning to be a little more tolerant and selectively targeting problem areas instead of carpet bombing the entire yard will build and keep a system intact that can take care of itself.
We need to remember one thing: we may rule the world, but we are in turn ruled by it, and those little guys, the ones we seldom see, are the ones who really hold the scepter.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho