Drought effects vary by creature

Some animals thrive while other suffer

September 30, 1999|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,albany times union

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Drought can cause a population boom or bust for animals and plants. It depends on what they eat, where they live and how they grow.

Creatures that rely on rain-filled ponds are hungry and homeless this summer. Those that can capitalize on the briefest spurt of rain will withstand the dry times.

"Bees are doing extremely well. We're having a great honey flow," beekeeper Lloyd Spear said recently. He expects his yield at Pine Bush Apiaries in Schenectady, N.Y., to increase by 25 percent this season.

Each year, Spear usually harvests 5,000 sections of honeycomb and 1,000 pounds of pure, extracted honey.

The sticky, sweet stuff is the end product of a natural chain of events. Rain in May caused honeysuckle, clover and sumac to bloom in June. A week of drizzles in early July caused knapweed and water basswood to flower. Spear's bees collected the nectar from the blossoms and are storing it in their hive.

Since plants flower when stressed to reproduce before they die, nectar remains high even in drought conditions, according to Timothy McCabe, an entomologist with the State Museum.

While insects in general do well, plants struggle and reptiles migrate. Pine needles on evergreens are drooping, and the edges of deciduous leaves are yellow, a condition called leaf scorch, said Michael Birmingham, a forester for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Many are young trees whose shallow root systems cannot reach water deep underground, he said. But oaks have a deep tap root that allows them to drink during droughts.

For reptiles and amphibians, water is a way of life. In search of ponds, roaming turtles become the victims of automobiles. And the growth of tiger salamanders -- an endangered species -- is stunted by lack of water in the tadpole stage, according to Michael Kallaji, a DEC fish and wildlife technician.

Like honey bees, yellow jackets are thriving without rain. Their ground nests are safe from flooding. Most butterfly and moth populations are also booming because a fungus that eats their cocoons cannot grow without moisture. The same holds true for grasshoppers, which in a typical year lose many eggs to disease.

The bugs that are struggling this summer are finicky eaters or depend on water to reproduce. For instance, the caterpillar of the pearl crescent butterfly is starving because the wood asters it feeds on are wilting in the Pine Bush.

Generalists --which eat almost anything --are the ones best able to cope with drought, said Alan Hicks, who studies moose and bat populations for the DEC. Since moose eat both aquatic and terrestrial plants, they keep on munching through drought, and bats will gobble up any insect in their flight path.

The human diet will also be affected by drought -- smaller harvests bring higher prices. The upside for people is fewer mosquito bites.

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