Beetle Mania!

I was on a walk last week and noticed two joggers stopping to ponder something on the ground at the edge of the pavement. I had just rescued a woolly bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Moth) from a suicidal road-crossing and thought they’d found another one of these relatively cuddly critters.


Vashon style- accessorize with woolly bears! Photo by: K. True

Vashon style- accessorize with woolly bears! Photo by: K. True

What I discovered instead was orange and black like the woolly bear, but the similarities stopped there. Far from cuddly, this was an inch-long beetle covered in miniscule wriggling mites. Gary Shugart, collections director at the Slater Museum of Natural History in Tacoma, had recently told me about similarly colored carrion beetles he’d found in a deer carcass he was preparing. He regaled me with stories of the rather macabre and definitely fascinating natural history of one of nature’s more colorful undertakers.

A “nose” for death

My beetle did turn out to be in the carrion beetle family (Silphidae), in the genusNicrophorus, most likelyNicrophorus marginatus. In Greek, necro means death and phor means bearing. The common name for this group is the sexton beetles, a sexton being a church’s groundskeeper and gravedigger.

 Carrion Beetle, notice the hitchhiking mites! Photo by: Kathryn True

Carrion Beetle, notice the hitchhiking mites! Photo by: Kathryn True

Sexton beetles do bury their carrion, but not for reasons associated with an afterlife. Also known as “burying beetles,” these insects tend carcasses for food and as part of an unusual reproduction ritual.

Carrion beetles can locate a dead animal within an hour of its demise (up to 1.5 miles away!) using highly sensitive olfactory organs in their antennae.  Observe my beetle’s handsome orange-topped smellers. Once they locate the deceased, if it’s the appropriate size (they prefer small vertebrates including birds and rodents) they will bury the carcass to protect it from flies and other carrion competitors (crows, raccoons, flies, fungi, and bacteria to name a few), preserving the feast for themselves.

Breeding Nicrophorus beetles use a small carcass as a sort of wedding bed/nursery combined. After one beetle has found the perfect corpse, it uses pheromones to attract a mate. For the next 24 hours the two work together to bury the dead, stopping intermittently to mate…up to 70 times. The female then lays her eggs in the carcass, and the happy couple stays together to raise their young (feeding them on regurgitated animal remains)—an example of co-parenting rare in the insect world.

Hitch-hiking mites

Another strange and remarkable carrion beetle natural history note relates to the mites teeming over their bodies. From the genus Poecilochirus, these tiny insects have developed a co-dependent relationship with the carrion beetles. The mites get a free ride to their next meal (they eat the eggs and larvae of carrion flies)…an essential transport service considering how difficult it would be to get from one dead thing to the next when you’re only 1 mm long and you can’t fly! The carrion beetles benefit as well  because the mites gobble up the carrion competition, preserving more food for the beetles and their young.

There is very little information out there about what insects live on Vashon/Maury and the parts they play in island ecosystems. Help us learn more: Meet any beguiling beetles lately? Send your photos or descriptions to us at

Information for this post was found on this useful insect identification website Bug Guide and from an insect database at University of Nebraska.

Happy bug hunting!

Fantastic fungi

While you have probably seen them exploding out of the ground for weeks now, it’s not too late to go on the best kind of treasure hunt—scouring the forest floor for mushrooms. Our dry September got the mushrooming season off to a slow start, but recent rains have brought a wide variety of fungal fruits to the surface, including tasty chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.). And as long as our mild weather continues, they’ll continue to pop up.

Mushrooms are the fruit of meandering fibrous bodies called mycelia, which remain largely hidden from view in their vast underground networks. You may have encountered a mycelium’s white, hair-like tendrils under an old log or while digging in the garden. Certain types of mycelia and certain trees have developed relationships that help mushroom hunters with identification—they come to expect specific mushrooms under their corresponding trees.

Chanterelles (vase- or trumpet-shaped with wavy edges when mature, and gills that extend down the stalk) like conifers, and are often partially hidden by moss or under the edges of salaland other shrubs in island forests. For golden chanterelles (C. cibarius, formosus,cascadensis) look for telltale hints of bright orange—hidden gold.


As these before-and-after photos show, sometimes only a small portion of the mushroom is visible…attentive, persistent hunting pays off. White chanterelles (Cantharellus subalbidus) are also common here, and are equally as edible. They look like other chanterelles except for their dull white color. A few mushrooms that are sometimes confused with chanterelles but are inedible are: Chroogomphus tomentosus and Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca.

Important: Never eat a mushroom if you are not absolutely sure of its identity. If you’re new to mushroom-collecting, we recommend double-checking your ID with an expert. Always remember the mushroomers’ mantra: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Mushrooming with kids:

·         Mushroom observing can be just as exciting as mushroom foraging. Kids are enticed by the surprising variety of mushroom shapes and colors. Give them a camera and have them take photos of as many different kinds as they can find.

Amanita muscaria (poisonous) on Vashon. Photo by Orion Knowler, age 6

Amanita muscaria (poisonous) on Vashon. Photo by Orion Knowler, age 6

Older children can try to find their mushrooms subjects in a field guide. (We recommend the humorous and information-packed pocket starter guide, “All That the Rain Promises, and More…” by David Arora.  We also like the more complete, but more serious guide to regional mushrooms “Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest” by Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati.)

·         Spore color is a defining characteristic for many mushrooms, and kids can make spore prints of specimens you take home. To make a spore print, cut off the mushroom stalk near the cap and place the cap underside-down on a sheet of half dark and half white paper (so either dark or light spores will show up). Cover the mushroom cap with a glass bowl. It can take several hours or overnight for enough spores to fall onto the paper to make a good print. Older children can use the spore color as another piece of information to aid in their identification quest. Younger children can make art pieces or cards with their prints.


If kids tire of mushroom hunting, they’re likely to be happily diverted by an evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) bush, often found in mushroom-laden areas. These sweet berries ripen in the fall and stay on the bushes throughout winter—some say they’re tastiest after the first frost.

Disclaimer: Vashon Nature Center is not responsible for how you use naturalist information presented in its publications. Please be aware of the extent of your abilities in interpreting and using this information and consult an expert when needed. 

Children’s books about nature

Stories, at their root, are a form of exploration. We use them to live vicariously. They teach not only through the intellect but by opening up our emotional channels. They make us receptive to their message by entertaining us. Stories integrate our emotions, our imagination, and our reason as they guide us on the journey to their message.  This is why stories are so powerful. Done well, their message imprints in us because it speaks to and engages all our human faculties at once.  For this reason stories are powerful teaching tools. And good storytellers are powerful teachers.


Some books can be so overloaded with facts and light on story that they will make your child resistant to learning unless they are particularly interested in learning about the subject already. Some books can be incredibly entertaining but so far removed from your child’s local wildlife that they do very little to connect your child with the nature that they see and interact with on a daily basis. And some books can be so guilt ridden that they sever the feelings of closeness your child has with nature by making them feel like they are “bad” humans or guilty by association.

By far the most effective stories are those that strengthen your child’s feeling of connection with nature and encourage them to enter into their own personal relationship with it.

When I first started teaching environmental science I didn’t get this. I was a newly graduated environmental scientist who was hired to teach environmental science in Yosemite National Park. I taught students from elementary through high school. I thought that simply meant teaching them the facts.  I made up flashcards and games to teach about the geology of Yosemite Valley and taught a plethora of interesting facts about the plants and animals that lived there using silly songs and rhymes, jokes, and riddles.  The children had fun, and were receptive to the trivia but I always wondered how long they would retain it.

Then one day I happened to lead my group passed another more experienced instructor’s group. It was the last day. My kids and I were on our way to learn about the oak-meadow ecosystem. We (I) had many fact-filled activities planned. His group was lying on their backs in the meadow with their eyes closed, backpacks and leg splayed out at odd angles, and faces turned to the sun.

At first I was annoyed, but then a jolt of understanding ran through me. Those kids looked so amazingly content, so connected to their surroundings. And I realized this was the only time some of these kids would ever come to Yosemite.

If I could come to Yosemite only once in my life what would I want to remember? The co-evolution of squirrels, oaks, and fire? Or the sun warm on my face, the smell of hot grass, the feeling of lying there in that meadow eyes closed knowing that I was completely surrounded by massive granite towers and I only had to open my eyes to see them again? And equally importantly, when I was older and not around teachers that could guide me to learn, what memory would instill in me the greatest desire to learn more about nature on my own?

This was a huge lesson for me that transformed my teaching. From that day forward I did not give up on facts, I just learned that facts are useless without first establishing a connection. I learned that the most important thing a naturalist educator can give is encouragement of a personal relationship with nature. This generates not only receptiveness to learning but a drive to learn that survives long after the teacher has said goodbye.  And nature is an amazing teacher of its own accord.

So, what does all this have to do with books? I guess I would like to suggest applying the above lessons to picking out nature books for your child. For example, pick books:

  •  with entertaining stories that appeal to your child’s whole being rather than just her intellect;
  • that model different ways of connecting with nature or connecting with others in nature;
  • that help your child understand or connect more with local plants and animals that they will see every day. This will help facilitate connection with nature that is REAL.
  • In addition, owning a few stories that make sense ecologically are important as they give your child a better sense of how the real natural world works (i.e. not books where tigers and grizzly bears and kangaroos cavort around together in the same forest or where wolves and sheep are best buds).

Below are some recommended books, particularly for children in the Pacific Northwest, which Bella Ormseth and I put together. I have organized them under headings based on the different connections your child will have with them. Some children, for example, will identify with books about picking berries, especially at the end of our Northwest summer where all kinds of berries are plentiful. Some were selected because the characters are species we see locally. And some do not have local species but teach very valuable lessons about all the different kinds of personal connections one can have in nature. Feel free to read this list and suggest more!  And also consider making up your own stories with your children that fit their needs and experiences.  Click on the link below for the list of books.

Children’s Nature Book List  this will take you to a Vashon Nature Center page with children’s book recommendations.

You might be interested in recommended local field guides and resources on children and nature observation from the Vashon Nature Center website as well.


Initially, the most important thing stories can do is help children in establishing their own connection with nature.  A feeling of connection with nature will drive them to explore further on their own, and to develop compassion and love for the green world.  Then, they will likely want to learn more about their home lands and animals and want to act responsibly towards them.  At this point you can encourage your children by providing books with more in depth information on what they are most interested in which will deepen their relationship with nature further.  Ultimately, as your children continue to develop their relationship with nature, they will not only learn more about the world around them. They will also learn more about themselves.