New Jersey Curiosities is your round-trip ticket to the wildest, wackiest, most outrageous people, places, and things this state has to offer.
by Peter Genovese (Globe Pequout 2003)
From Page 118 Butterflies Are Free East Brunswick
The East Brunswick Mayor's first reaction when Dave Moskowitz suggested the Township build a six-acre butterfly park was, "I don't want to spend a lot of money on this." But, Moskowitz, an environmental consultant for many years, quickly won over the Mayor and the town. The project, he said, would be done through donations and volunteer labor.
Municipal workers trimmed the bushes, weeds, and high grass and volunteers planted butterfly bush, thistle, orange milkweed, and other wildflowers to create a colourful, fragrant meadow. The result: New Jersey's First Butterfly Park.
CHAPTER 1 Cicada Sushi
Take the cicada fritters fried in my mom’s good frying pan. It was during one of those incredible 17-year cicada emergences that make all the local news. Maybe early intervention might have helped? I was probably 13 or 14 and whether anyone recognized the early warning signs of bug addiction, I am not sure. But the need to try the New York Times recipe of egg batter-dipped newly emerged cicadas less their wings, probably should have been a clue.
They actually were quite good, kind of like French toast, though a little gooey inside. But maybe the need to try them doesn’t prove addiction, maybe it was nothing more than a premonition of things to come on network TV 25 years later on Fear Factor or Survivor. It might be expected that trying fried gooey cicadas once, would be sufficient, but bug addiction is apparently, at least for me, a life long issue. (Here is a link to a Cicada Cookbook!)
In the summer of 2004, the cicadas again blessed central New Jersey with their incessant cacophony. Princeton was pretty much ground zero. Throughout the borough, they emerged by the billions, covering trees, sidewalks, roads and virtually every other suitable climbing post, from residential neighborhoods to the ivy covered halls of Princeton University. There were so many cicadas they even had to sweep them out of the lobby of the local hospital. So, it was with an incredible sense of excitement that I headed to Princeton shortly after hearing about their emergence. They were literally everywhere. I was in my glory, calling my wife and friends on the cell phone from a small wooded area, where they were incredibly loud.
But, telling someone about it apparently just wasn’t enough. My memories of my mom’s frying pan came flooding back. I just had to try another one. This time it would be raw and I had wonderful thoughts of a nutty taste or fresh bug sushi. But I must admit, neither of these tastes adequately describes the gooey and chewy insect that I had just put into in my mouth. The unpleasant texture was more than enough to prevent much concern about taste. Certainly most people would have stopped at one. But in between taking photos of emerging cicadas and marveling at the incredible deafening sound, I tried another. No improvement, certainly not like the inability to stop eating Peanut m&m’s or popcorn I occasionally face. But the magic of the moment was not lost, the cicadas were literally everywhere and singing to their hearts content.
CHAPTER 2 My Shirt’s off to the Dragonflies
Maybe another example is in order, something more recent perhaps, something that my family continues to marvel at. At the time it seemed pretty normal to me and really still does. It was simply an innovative way to catch a large dragonfly I really wanted to see more closely. I suppose it wasn’t the methodology that astounded them, but the setting on the very crowded midway of the Maine County Fair one warm summer evening not to long ago. Since I didn’t have a net, it seemed perfectly appropriate to attempt to knock down the dragonfly with my shirt, but I guess in hind sight standing there shirtless trying to swat at it in between strolling families and hordes of fairgoers, might seem somewhat out of place to some. The stern instructions by my wife to immediately put my shirt back on did not seem to leave any room for discussion, and were rapidly complied with, but I still regret not being able to catch the bug and figure out what it was.
CHAPTER 3 Thomas Alva Edison Would Be Proud – The Moth NightlightMost summer nights I run a 175 watt Mercury Vapor Light in my backyard. The light is designed to attract moths and other insects by emitting light in a special wave length that is simply irresistible to them. To our human eyes the light simply looks like a regular light bulb, except for the fact that it is so bright that I'm nearly certain the Space Shuttle astronauts keep wondering what the heck the light in East Brunswick is coming from each time their orbitpasses above my house. And my poor neighbors! I can only imagine what they must think, although I suspect it isn't how excited they are that I found a long horned beetle or an underwing moth that was attracted to the light. It's funny, they never ask about the light or why I'm out in the midle of the night in my underwear scooping things near it into a jar. Go figure.
Chapter 4 Micro-transmitters, Airport Security and Chiggers
I simply couldn’t wait to go back to Panama for a second time, right up until my colleague and the study team leader Dr. Martin Wikelski from Princeton University called to inform me that due to some flight logistics on his end, I was going to have to be the mule and carry four micro-transmitters through security at Newark Airport.
The transmitters were for a research project on the movements of katydids at the Smithsonian Institution’s Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island (BCI) in the Panama Canal. This 5,000-acre rainforest island is the oldest and most-well known tropical research facility in the world. Despite the very real potential for me to be strip searched and defiled by airport security personnel, there is simply not an ecologist in the world that would pass up a chance to conduct research on BCI. This would be my second stint at BCI; the first time I had joined Martin and his crew of ecologists to radio-track the movements of orchid bees using micro transmitters in a very successful study.
The micro-transmitters we were using for the studies are really wonders of engineering. The miniaturization of transmitter technology in the past few years has now allowed the movements of individual insects to be a tracked. This is quite frankly a revolution in insect research providing insights into insect ecology that was just not previously possible. We pioneered the use of this technology in 2006 when we radio-tracked individual Common Green Darner dragonflies from New Jersey to Maryland as they migrated south (Biology Letters: Simple Rules Guide Dragonfly Migration ). This study showed that the dragonflies migrate in a very similar manner to birds, findings that would not have been possible without micro-transmitters. This was groundbreaking science and after we published the results, made worldwide headlines in scientific circles. Martin must have been interviewed a hundred times and a Google search produced endless website hits about our research. My claim to fame was being featured in the Daily Telegraph in England and the story naming one of the dragonflies from our study Dave, apparently in my honor (Tag uncovers long-distance secret of Dave the Dragonfly). My family was very proud.
The size of the transmitters is amazing. Each micro-transmitter is smaller then a Pez candy and weighs only about a quarter of a gram. They are powered by the smallest watch battery and have a two-inch wire antenna sticking out of one end. Once activated, each transmitter produces a beeping signal that can be heard by a special receiver tuned to a specific frequency. Since each transmitter has it’s own frequency, individual insects can be identified by tuning in to that frequency.
The transmitters are attached to the insect by a drop of eyelash adhesive and Krazy Glue. Sometimes the insects’ wings are also marked with colored nail polish for easy identification in flight. To this day, I still feel badly for the lovely older woman at the CVS drug store who helped me find eyelash adhesive and bright yellow nail polish. She never asked what they were for, but did stay a few feet away from me in the aisles and gave me some interesting looks when I asked her which eyelash adhesive she would recommend if it rained and if they had a brighter yellow or even hot pink nail polish. I really didn’t think trying to explain that they were for a study of insects would have helped the situation much.
So, a few days before I left for Panama I drove down to Princeton University and picked up the package containing four micro-transmitters. The transmitters were glued in a row to a piece of cardboard and next to each one the frequency was written in pencil. The frequencies look like alphanumeric codes such as 151.009, or 151.093.
It wasn’t long before I was standing in the airport security queue at Newark Airport, with my backpack filled with field gear thinking about what was going to happen when they scanned my bag and saw the micro-transmitters. I envisioned it going something like this:
Airport Security Agent “We need to search your bag”
Airport Security Agent “What are these?”
Me “Oh, those are micro-transmitters for radio-tracking katydids”
Airport Security Agent “What the fuck is a katydid?”
Me “It’s a really cool insect that calls at night in the rain forest”
Airport Security Agent “Are you allergic to latex?”
Me “Yes officer that is my prostate”
So, as I slowly made my way through the winding security line, I was preparing myself for the inevitable search. But I was also worried that they might try to confiscate the transmitters, ruining the study. After what seemed like an hour, I finally made my way to the scanning machine and put my bag on the conveyor belt. I went through the metal detector without incident and then watched the agent doing the scanning carefully review the pictures of my bag. As I expected, the security agent took my bag and told me it was going to have to be searched. Here we go, I was going to rectally examined and have to explain to Martin and the rest of the research team how I screwed up the entire study by getting the transmitters confiscated by the TSA.
The agent unzipped my backpack and rummaged through each pocket and then looked at me and said “you can’t bring this onto the airplane.” As he said it, he held up my can of Deep Woods Off bug spray. I said ok, he rezipped my backpack, and told me to have a nice day. Not a single word about the microtransmitters!
In hindsight, I think I would have preferred the strip search and loss of the transmitters. Without my bug spray, I wound up with the worst case of chiggers I have ever gotten. I literally had bites all over my body. If you have never been attacked by chiggers, they are nearly microscopic arthropods that bite the skin and cause an incessant and virtually unrelievable itch, coupled with hideous red welts that last for a week. The best way to stop the itch is to simply scratch the skin so deeply that you actually reach bone.But notwithstanding airport security issues, possible strip searches, and horrible chiggers, I wouldn’t pass up another chance to head back to Barro Colorado Island for anything.
Coming Soon....Finding the first Queen Butterfly ever recorded in New Jersey, or why I was wandering around a meadow when I should have been doing some work.....