Thursday, April 19, 2012

Our House- The All-Inclusive Stink Bug Resort

Oh, stink bugs.

While many of us are battling a year-round war, others feel blanketed in the illusion that they will never have need to be concerned. Those who foolishly believe they will remain unaffected by what reports predict will be stink bug invasions of "Biblical proportions" over the next few years, should shake off the delusion quickly and start preparing a course of action. They're coming, like it or not, and like little Terminators, encased in their seemingly bulletproof shells, they WILL be back. The question is...will YOU be ready?

Stink bug on my kitchen chair cushion, searching for free continental breakfast.
Here is one of the many recent articles warning of the impending stink bug invasions expected this season.

Why listen to anything I have to say? Well, let me start by bringing you up to date on some of the reasons I'm so, um...passionate on this subject.

We have joked for years that stink bugs are convinced that our home is their mothership. They really seem to love it here, perhaps thinking the walls that we call home are some sort of all-inclusive stink bug resort. After years of research, we have to logically attribute their love of our home to our proximity to farm lands, acres of fine dining for these lil' stinkers. In order to understand why they hole up inside our home, their cabana, you'll need to learn some background on how and why they're here in the first place.

Here's a fantastic overview about the brown marmorated stink bug 

Brown marmorated stink bugs were first discovered vacationing in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998. They had traveled a long way from their native lands in Asia, but once they got to noshing on Pennsylvania's apple and peach orchards, they began to thrive. At this stage in their attempt at U.S. domination, they have begun satiating their appetites on corn, berries, tomatoes, beans and peppers, causing over 37 million dollars in crop damage last year alone.
We found NINETEEN stink bugs on the outside of our screen last September, all desperate to get inside our home for a luxurious winter stay. For sadistic fun, I recommend flicking screens.
These bugs think our winters STINK and turn their rostrums (tube-like beaks) up at the cold weather, so they check-in to our homes for a cozy stay until the weather is warm enough for them to begin to make their way back out to the dining fields.

Spring here for humans is met with mixed emotions now that we we share our homes and land with stink bugs. We experience an initial sense of joy in opening up our windows for the first time after a winter's chill, only to have the day ruined by the inundation of jazzed up stink bugs, waking from wherever they've been hiding in our homes. Any time we try to get out into the sunshine, several eager stinkers excitedly buzz past our heads with the same idea. They want to start the season right, with a tasty meal, some buzzing with friends in the fields, and when the mood is right, some serious mating and egg laying.
Stink Bug Scream
Stink bug vacationing at our resort
So how bad is it here in eastern Pennsylvania? Well, let's see. Once, I began blow drying my hair when the all too familiar stench hit. Ah, yes. I was slow roasting a stink bug who had lodged itself inside the dryer. As if that's not a fine enough way to start the day, I can't count the times we have found a groggy stink bug taking a coffee dive into one of our mugs. Caffeinated stink bugs are a sight to see, I assure you. We've since learned to always check whatever we are eating/drinking before we indulge, and the bugs have learned a rather effective back stroke, indeed.

And then there was the time I knelt down to tie my shoe only to find a stealth stink bug embedded in my laces. Or the time I found my 6-month-old daughter pawing away at one who had stunk all over her usually berry-fragranced hands. If you've ever had your hands hit by a stink bug, you know how difficult it is to get that smell to fade. Hmmm...that might actually be a good deterrent for nail biters.

My most memorable incident occurred when I was teaching a class of 10th graders, assessing a presentation when I felt a tickle on my ankle. Looking down I found the most heinous of all Halyomorpha halys INSIDE my tights, writhing, trapped against my flesh. With 10 minutes left in the class period, I mustered up every bit of strength and determination I had in me to keep my cool. As soon as the bell rang to dismiss the students, you can bet I sprinted to my desk to tear those tights off as fast as I could. My revulsion knew no bounds, and I only hope no students caught me frantically tearing my undergarments off behind my desk. I can only imagine...

How do I keep my sanity through all this? I just force myself to envision what it would be like to be infested with scorpions instead.

Stink bugs who have overindulged at our resort can be found in various lounge areas here. 
So what do we do about it? Unfortunately, it seems there are no natural predators for these bugs, and even though we are not a family that uses insecticides, recent studies show they have little, if any, effect. The best defense is to prevent them from entering the home by sealing any opening they might be able to penetrate, an action that is most definitely easier said than done. If you've found that you, too, have a home that these stink bugs consider a hot spot, here are some pointers from our family to yours.

CAUTION!!! Our resort's " Hot Stones Spa" (halogen lamp), when it is on, is the most effective stink bug eradicator.  We had to add the screen to the top to prevent them from literally burning. This was a MAJOR fire hazard before the screen was added, so be extra careful if you have lamps like this in a stink bug resort. 
We need to start with a list of DO NOTs. DO NOT squish stink bugs as this will cause them to release their "stink" as a defense mechanism. Other stink bugs are drawn to the odor, so by squishing them, you're actually sounding the horn to attract others. DO NOT suck them up with a vacuum cleaner either as it will produce the same effect. Although I'm one of those people who releases spiders outdoors, DO NOT set your stink bugs free. Their numbers are increasing rapidly, causing major damage to crops in dozens of states. These stinkers have to be taken out. Most importantly, DO NOT panic. Yes, these bugs are incredibly annoying and problematic, but they are not physically harmful to humans in any way.

After years of experience, we have a simple method to lessen the number of bugs giving our home a five star review. We use old pill bottles, remove the labels so we don't pop a stink bug instead of a vitamin C, and scoop up any bugs we spot. This method prevents the bugs from releasing their stink. After we have gathered several, we leave the bottle in the freezer overnight to ensure their demise. Then we simply toss them into the trash. We have also created a mass grave in our compost heap, in hopes that the living will spy the atrocity and warn others to steer clear of this deceitful resort, but no such luck. The free room and board is, unfortunately, too tempting.
Our effective Stink Bug Catcher! Notice we have placed "XX" on the lid and created a humorous new label to prevent any confusion of its contents. 

One last thing- clean up. As if the honor of running a stink bug resort is not rewarding enough, we must also consider the issue of housekeeping. Yes, these darling stink bugs POOP...a lot. If you begin finding what look like black coffee droplets, oh, say EVERYWHERE, then you're going to need to up your game. With two children and a large Rottweiler living in this house, you'd think I have enough feces to manage, but alas, we'll need to add stink bug poo removal to my housekeeping list of doodies. Whoops. I mean duties. Fortunately, stink bug waste is easily tackled with plain old soap and water. A Mr. Clean Magic Eraser will take care of any stubborn droppings. Extra fun!

Stink bug poo that has dripped down the wall. Adds such charm to any home.
Fecal splatter on the blinds, a stunning view
Typical droppings. Do reconsider "The 5 Second Rule" when you visit our home. 

The harsh reality is that stink bugs aren't going anywhere any time soon. They will continue to congregate on our windows, defecate all over every surface of our house, buzz loudly as they fly through the air- playing mysterious banjo notes as they fly into the instruments hanging from our walls. Their presence is more than just a mild annoyance, but it is a constant reminder of the delicate balance of our ecosystem and the dangers involved in accidentally introducing new species on foreign soil. Just remember to keep your cool and do some research so that you can educate yourself about these creatures. Hey, E.T. was ugly but we all grew to love HIM. Anything can happen...

XOXO From My Hearth to Yours
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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How to EFFECTIVELY Ditch a Spider

I've never considered myself a girly girl. Mowing the lawn is one of my favorite pastimes, I'd choose a night camping out in a tent over a hotel room any day, I love getting my hands dirty and have even eaten some frog legs, straight from our friends' pond (yes...they DO taste like chicken). In all honesty, I enjoy the challenge of getting comfortable with obstacles that frighten many.

When I have to tackle a shudder-worthy task, I try to imagine myself as Rosie, furl my brow and go at it with the "I am woman! Hear me roar!" mentality.
I know the "list" of major fears among Americans. I can hold snakes, handle public speaking and accept that one day we're all going to die. Living near the woods, I've even taken an interest in learning about spiders, beautiful and fascinating creatures...unless they're IN my house. In that case, my mental image of Rosie quickly morphs to one a little less…empowered.
Yeah. That's about right.
Ok, now if I spy a spider creeping along the ceiling in most parts of my home, I'll let a full body roll of the willies run its course, attempt to avoid overreaction, and try to leave it alone.

I mean, what are the odds that it's going to land on my dinner plate, spin its web down on me while I'm showering with one eye open or try to lay eggs in the toe of my slipper (you know you've checked)?

I'll probably never see it again. But for some strange reason hidden deep within my psyche, when it comes to sleeping in a room with a spider lingering in a corner, with its 8 eyes all homed in on ME, I admit that I get heebie jeebies. That lil' dude has got to GO!

Image Source
First let me explain why some of the standard spider removal methods stink. I hope my husband is taking notes.
For awhile I played the damsel in distress card, my voice going up an octave in its sweetest tone.

"Baby? Can you please get that spider out? You're so brave and nimble!"

Good man that he is, he tries to oblige. I've since given up on asking him to tackle future spider eradication because his method is completely ineffective. There are some seriously terrible ways to ditch a spider, but I've got this down to a science now.
The Squish Method: Attempting to squish a spider is a bad idea for three reasons. First, the spider squish is messy business! Aside from the nasty popping sound and sensation, you have to clean off the crime scene as well. I swear that I can still spot residual blood spatter from past massacres, and neither the stain nor the memory will ever fully fade. Macabre to the max. 

Second, you've got to be a confident, agile, bullseye spider squishier to pull this off in one shot. We've all been there- gone in to make the kill, lifted the tissue to assess the atrocity, and the spider is GONE! Now you've got a paranoid stealth spider with a definite vendetta creeping around your bed, a far more troubling dilemma than what you started with, for sure! 

And third, if you've got the common Daring Jumping Spider on your hands, that lil' hairy arachnid is going to see you coming (with all those probing onyx eyes). If you're not a super sniper with that tissue, he could spring right onto you and launch a massive counter attack. Trust me, I was bitten three times by a startled Jumper who ended up DOWN MY SHIRT last summer, so I know first hand. Never underestimate the small, speedy ones.
Click this link to learn more about Jumping Spiders 
After my husband employed this method, only to find that tissue empty time and time again, I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. 
The Vacuum Method
A bit more effective than the Squish Method, because now you've got some suction power on your side, but this tactic is also flawed. 

Obviously, it's a major pain to drag the vacuum out every time you need to get rid of a spider and you can easily scratch up your walls if you've got an unsteady, arachnophobic hand. If you're wonky as it is, you might end up taking out your ceiling fan instead of Spidey. 

Also, you have to remember to empty out your bag or canister if you want to be sure that bugger isn't going to attempt an escape and revenge once you've let down your guard. Sure you've got electrically powered appliances, but he's got FANGS.
Image Source
Let's learn how to do this the right way…

The Glass Act Method: All you need for this is a bit of courage, a glass and a piece of thick paper. Once you spot your target, take a deep breath. You CAN do this. You WILL sleep soundly tonight.

Now get a clear glass. If you're really spooked, the bigger the mouth of the glass, the better, but once you become a hardcore spider exterminator, a shot glass is ideal for precision if your target is small enough.

If you look closely, we got a good shot of this Jumper's eyes!

If you have kids or you are interested in close examination of the enemy, consider purchasing a Bug Magnifier Jar! You can catch your spiders right inside and can get a good look, which could either intensify or diminish any phobia. If you really TRY to find the magnificence in these creatures, all those eyes might seem a little cute up close! Might..

Next grab a thick piece of paper,  postcard thickness is best. If your spider is well out of reach, you might need to use a broom or other long object to push it to a corner and then knock it to a cleared area on the ground first. Slowly take your aim and then drop that glass over the spider, making sure you keep the glass flat against the surface of the wall or floor. If you are against a wall or ceiling, a subtle jerk of the glass will drop the spider to the bottom or side, which is best for the next step.
                          My daughter, examining a Jumping Spider I caught in our basement
Now quickly slide the paper under the glass, creating a lid. Keep your hand tight over the paper and get rid of that sucker. This is also a great opportunity to examine a spider up close, but don't get so mesmerized or freaked out that you let go of your paper or glass or you'll have an arachnid escapee on the run and glass shards to clean up, a definite double fail.

Studying your P.O.W. up close might help you conquer your fear over these little intruders and will make you feel ever so mighty (insert "Rocky" theme song here), so try to make an effort to face your spider before you release it outside. 

DO try to release it, since in their natural environment, spiders will help keep mosquitoes and flies away, happily trapping and eating them. Really! If you're currently grinding your teeth at the suggestion of releasing one of these creepsters back into the wild, read this article about the importance of spiders from The Center for Biodiversity at The University of Wisconsin. 
Our bug magnifying jar is great for measuring size because of the grid on the bottom. We enjoy being able to examine insects/arachnids closely so we can educate ourselves. Because of the spot on the rear of the Jumper Spider, some might mistake it for a Black Widow. But a Widow's body shape is distinctly different.
Once you feel confident in employing The Glass Act Method for spider removal, you'll be showing your skill off to your friends/spouses in no time. They can use their tissues from their failed Squish Method to dry their eyes as you conquer and destroy, perhaps teaching them to overcome their own arachnophobia in the end. Put those spiders in their place...outside, rinse out your shot glass, perhaps fill it up with a quick celebratory night cap, and then rest easy in your victory. The Glass Act prevails!
To learn more about spiders who thrive in our climate, check out Spiders of North America.

And if, after reading this, you find yourself sweating, squinting or flailing your hand onto your back to brush off imaginary arachnids, maybe THIS is a better article for you to unleash your inner spider slayer confidence!

Happy hunting!
Image Source
XOXO From My Hearth to Yours

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Solar System Mobile Project

All the materials we used for the entire project are pictured here.

Materials: any circular shapes to make planets, paint, glitter, string, sticks, paper
Well all right, moms and dads! Getting antsy out there? Need a little variety to spice up your activities with the wee ones? Here's a fun project we did over the course of a week that turned out to be an incredible learning experience that combined reading, research, art, math, balance, science, problem solving and team work.

I had found an idea that I liked in Parents Magazine about making a bird mobile out of ping pong balls, paper, paint and branches from a tree. Originally, I had intended to make this with my (then) 2 1/2 year old daughter to place in her new sister's room, but we already had a mobile for the baby. But this idea was too good to pass up, and my now 3 year old has taken a sudden interest in outer space. I thought we could tweak the bird mobile idea to create our own moving solar system instead!

We started out by reading books about our solar system so that my daughter felt connected to the topic. After we had built a good base of knowledge, we hit our local dollar store where we found a pack of foam balls in varied sizes that was perfect for the planets.
Here are all the planets after paint, glitter and being threaded.
We needed a larger object to represent the sun, so for that we used a light-weight ball that we found around the house. Next we gathered art supplies from home to decorate the foam planets. We found enlarged images of each planet, and then, using Crayola watercolor paint, we attempted to make each foam ball look like our photographs.

After the paint dried, we used Crayola Glitter Glue to make swirls on the planets for intrigue and effect. We also cut a ring out of paper, colored it with crayons and wove thread around it to make Saturn's rings.

Using a thick, long needle, we tied thread through each planet so that we could attach them to the mobile. For the mobile arms, we simply took a nature walk and collected 3 branches we thought would work well with our project.

View from below before we finalized knots
Once we had all our materials prepared, we began the tricky part, putting it all together.

Here's where the team work comes into play.

We made a game out of this by laying out our planets, on the floor, the way we were going to hang them, so our daughter had to review the order of the planets in relation to the sun.
Close up of how we threaded the rings for Saturn
Next we tied our sticks into an asterisk shape with ribbon and experimented with loosely tying them onto the branches so that we could determine the appropriate weight to balance them.

Once we found the perfect balance, we had our daughter lay on the floor so that she could look up and determine if the planets were the appropriate distance from the sun. And there you have it... Solar System Mobile!

In hindsight, adding glow-in-the-dark paint would be a fun addition to this project. Perhaps we'll add some glow-in-the-dark star stickers to the branches next. Maybe we can convince our daughter to earn stars for her branches as rewards for good behavior. Hmmmm...I like THAT!
Last pic before we permanently knotted strings, cut off excess thread and moved to my daughter's room.
This was an incredibly fun project and a remarkable learning experience for the whole family.

I recommend taking your time with this and doing it over the course of a week or two so that your entire family can participate and learn/talk about the solar system throughout the duration of the project.

This experience was just infinitely more fulfilling than buying something pre-made and we're looking forward to gazing up at our homemade solar system for many years to come. It's sure to make us appreciate what we can accomplish for ourselves and ponder endless possibilities...out there.

XOXO From My Hearth to Yours