Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The moths of winter

It’s a February night and you’ve got the porch light on. It’s 37 degrees out, but there, fluttering around the lamp, is a moth.

Moths in winter are not freaks of nature. In North America, at least 50 species may appear throughout the winter – as long as the temperature is above freezing.

Specially adapted to cold weather, they have furry bodies and circulation systems designed to retain heat while keeping flight muscles flexible and functioning. Many dine on tree sap, high in sugar and energy content, and they shiver to warm up. When the temperature dips too low, they can tuck themselves under some leaves and nod off till the next thaw.

Why should moths bother to adapt to an environment so hostile to a cold-blooded creature? In many ways, winter is less hostile than summer. There are no night-flying bats or birds to gobble them up; the bats are hibernating and birds are down south.

For some creatures, there’s safety in camouflage; for others, safety in numbers. But for wintertime moths, it’s safety in shivering.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Hessian fly

In the 19th Century, farmers here grew many crops, but the most common grain – wheat – was generally not among them. This was probably because of the Hessian fly.

Hessian fly? Not your everyday bug of 21st Century suburbia, yet this mosquito-like insect had a major impact two centuries ago because its larvae sucked the life juices from wheat.

The insect, which first appeared on Long Island around 1779, is believed to have arrived with Hessian soldiers fighting in the Revolution – hence, the name.

Many farmers in the Northeast gave up the crop – despite the fact that no less a personage than George Washington urged them not to do so. Washington recommended growing yellow-bearded wheat, which was more resistant to the larvae.

Hessian fly is still around and now attacks wheat coast to coast. But fly-resistant wheat varieties have been developed and are so successful that insecticides are often not needed to combat this strange, living remnant of a war fought 225 years ago.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

SUVs and kids

Big SUVs have long come under fire as inefficient, gas-guzzling behemoths that waste energy and money as they pollute the air. But there was always the argument that they are safe – especially for a family with children. They look like tanks; they ought to protect like tanks. And what’s more important than keeping our kids safe?

Now researchers at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia report that, in accidents, children are no safer in a big SUV than in a regular car. Despite their size -- an average of 1,300 pounds more than a car -- SUVs are twice as likely as a car to roll over in an accident. And children in rollovers were three times more likely to be injured, the hospital said.

How dangerous are rollovers? The federal government says, of the nearly 11 million passenger car, SUV, pickup and van crashes in 2002, only 3% involved a rollover. Yet, rollovers accounted for 33% of the fatalities that year.

If you want to keep your family safe, look beyond outward appearances. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Web site, www.safecar.gov, has more on what’s safe and what’s not in many categories – and notes that, when it comes to accidents, SUVs are the most likely to roll over.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The door

Most months have dumb names, honoring egotistical emperors and long-dead gods, or saying they are the 10th when they are the 12th. But at least January makes a statement.

Centuries before the Christian era, a king named Numa Pompilius decided the Roman world needed more months than the 10 it had. So he added two and, unlike Julius Caesar and Augustus, was modest enough to keep his name off both. The first, placed at the beginning of the year, was named for Janus, the god of doors. Yes, back then, even doors had a god.

But to old Numa, this was appropriate. January opened the door to the new year, so why not have Janus there to make sure we didn’t trip over the threshold.

And it sure beats the old Saxon name for the month. They called it Wolf-monat because that’s when wolves were the hungriest and most apt to gobble up a Saxon foolish enough to be wandering out of doors in January.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


In the vast vocabulary of the English language, some words seem more fun than practical. Such is codswallop.

Dictionaries say it means “nonsense,” but most are uncertain of its origin. Some etymologists tell of a 19th Century British inventor named Hiram Codd, who created a soda bottle with a glass ball in its neck. The pressure of the bubbly contents forced the ball against the neck, providing a built-in stopper that you pushed in to pour. It was a successful invention (though kids kept stealing and breaking open bottles to get the “marbles” inside).

Nineteenth Century denizens of the pubs, who used “wallop” as slang for beer, sneered at these fizzy, sweet drinks, calling them “Codd’s wallop.” The derogatory term grew to become an expletive for something silly and useless – nonsense.

Some etymologists dispute this derivation, claiming the story itself is codswallop, but they can offer little better.

Readers of this essay may consider it, too, to be codswallop. However, we live in a world full of codswallop, so why not just a little bit more?

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