Trego Civic Center Fundraiser

It’s been a rather uneventful season for Trego’s Civic Center. That is to say, with corona virus and associated restrictions, the events that provide the community hall with the ability to pay its monthly bills just haven’t been happening.

In more normal years, the community hall has hosted Christmas bazaars, weddings, funerals, plays, pie contests, Halloween parties and Thanksgiving meals, even dances. This year, with gatherings restricted, the hall has been mostly empty. In more recent months, it’s been the site for the North Valley Food Bank distributions.

Lack of activity means that the Civic Center is pressed for funds.
The answer? A fundraiser! All you can eat brisket and more for $15 a plate.
The Sawmill Bar is hosting the fundraiser this Saturday (October 3rd) from 1-6 PM.

Trego Civic Center Fundraiser Flier

The silent auction is expected to include: Schnapps (homemade), themed baskets: a wine basket, a Scentsy (Scentsy products include wickless candles, oils and diffusers) and Avon basket, among others.

Gun Raffle: A continuing fundraiser (ticket sales at events are difficult when there are no events), the drawing for the firearm is expected to take place at a Civic Center event this spring.

If you’re busy Saturday, the bake sale will be going Friday through Sunday and there should be future opportunities to purchase raffle tickets.

People wishing to donate to the Civic Center can also do so by mailing checks to their PO Box (# 393) , or by dropping them off at the Sawmill Bar. For further information, to get involved, or to donate to the silent auction, contact the Trego Civic Center at their facebook page.

Ask The Entomologist, Community

Ask the Entomologist: Massive spider

This past week I had an identification request from a bit closer to home. This giant spider was perched right below one of our windows and my wife wanted to know what it was.

Araneus gemma, the Gem-Shaped or Cat-Faced Spider.

While I’d seen and admired her webs before, this was the first time I met the web’s weaver. She must have spent most days hidden behind the window AC unit. Revealed now that we’d removed it, now that fire season and the heat of summer seem to be past.

As an entomologist, I have to say that I’ve met larger spiders, but this is the largest one I’ve seen up here in Trego. She’s an Orb-Weaver, a spider in family Araneidae. These are classic storybook spiders, straight out of Charlotte’s Web. When you see those beautiful wheel-shaped webs, big and round, full of droplets from the morning’s dew, these are the spiders responsible.

I rather like Orb-Weavers – these spiders have pronounced sexual dimorphism. Females are often far larger than males – routinely twice the size, sometimes up to four times as large. Our A. gemma was quite large for her species, a 2/3 inches across the abdomen, and over an inch in length if we measure from the tip of her abdomen to her outstretched legs.

At over an inch in length, she’s one of the largest spiders I’ve met here.

As far as medical importance is concerned, the Gem-Shaped Spider’s bite is harmless to healthy humans. Additionally, I’ve handled many related Argiope orb weavers, and have never been bitten by them, so I don’t think receiving a bite from one of these is likely. However, if you or your loved ones are immunocompromised, elderly, or very young, more caution may be merited.

Which common name do you prefer – the Gem-Shaped Spider or the Cat-Faced Spider?


Refugees from the cold

As the year goes by and we feel the weather shifting towards winter, we find more and more insects in our homes. By and large, these insects are trying to get out of the cold, and find our homes just as good an answer as cracks in treestumps, downed wood, or burrows beneath the frostline.

There are two main types of animal adaptation to cold. Freeze-Tolerance and Freeze-Avoidance.

Freeze-Tolerant organisms can survive their bodies being frozen – they’ll thaw and wake up in the spring, none the worse for wear. Perhaps with a bit of amnesia, but physically unharmed. Many woodboring lumber pest species do this, as do some frogs (e.g. our Columbia Spotted Frog). Their trick is that they expel most of the water from their body before freezing (i.e. empty out their digestive tract) so that they have as little ice forming inside their body as possible. Additionally, they make special “ice-nucleating agents” that help them freeze at higher temperatures. If you have to freeze to survive the winter, it’s best to do so on your own terms.

A Leaf-Footed Bug, a freeze-avoidant insect. Many of these have since joined us indoors.

Freeze-Avoidant (Cold-Tolerant, Freeze-Susceptible) organisms can avoid freezing solid, even when in temperatures far below 32 F. However, if it gets cold enough to freeze them solid, freeze-resistant organisms will die. Stink Bugs and Leaf-Footed Bugs are good examples of this. Many freeze-resistant creatures produce a sugary antifreeze-like compound called “glycerol” in their blood, lowering their freezing point, and thus avoiding freezing. This isn’t just an insect thing – some fish use glycerol, too. Thanks to this adaptation, you can find Leaf-Footed Bugs active in some pretty cold places.

All aquatic insects, as well as fish, are Freeze-Avoidant. This is especially important for aquatic creatures, as contact with ice could otherwise spontaneously freeze them. Some deep-sea arctic fish freeze solid upon contact with ice (link with picture), despite having antifreeze compounds in their blood.

Most of the insects you’ll see invading your homes will be Freeze-Avoidant. Even though they can survive cold temperatures, they’d rather be someplace warmer, someplace with less risk of death.

What insects are beginning to immigrate to your home?


Fires by Year and Partial Duration Series

When I listened to the explanations that the California and Oregon fires were worse than ever, and resulted from anthropic climate change, I did what I usually do.  I checked for data and found statistics at the National Interagency Fire Center.

The table I found lists both number of fires, and acreage burned by year, starting in 1926. That’s almost a hundred years, and a lot of numbers. Since graphs tend to easier to read, line graphs follow. The drop in number of fires in 1984 is a dramatic shift, The drop in acreage burned that occurred in the fifties is an equally dramatic shift.

Number of Fires, by Year, in the United States. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center

Both sets of data are partial duration series – and a significant part of my life has been making projections from partial duration series, and teaching how to do it. Not predicting the future, you understand just projecting the data. It would have been nice to have this data for the classroom – you can see how taking either the left half of the graph, or the center half, or the right half, and projecting a line through it, would lead to very different projections.

Our largest years for fires were pretty much between 1926 and 1952.  I had remembered 1988 as particularly bad – but the statistics show that it was perspective – Yellowstone Park burned, then at the end of the year, Dry Fork was almost in the backyard.  Five million acres burned is a lot – but compared to 52 million in 1930, it seems small. Memory is influenced by perspective, and my memory of the 1988 fire season was “Montana-centric.”

Acres Burned, by Year, in the United States. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center

The graphs look very different if you cut the data down to just 20 years. Most of the time, our data is a partial duration series. Tweaking reality from a partial duration series isn’t always easy – and the past century’s forest fire data shows the challenges. The projection can’t be better than the data.


Salmon Snagging

Salmon snagging is not like other forms of fishing. I was introduced to it as an adult, and to me fishing is the art of deception, of all those careful and clever tricks to convince a fish to bite. Fishing is fancy lures, artfully designed to mimic a tasty insect, or endless patience (it’s possible that better fishermen might require less patience).

This isn’t to say that snagging doesn’t require skill, as it does, but it’s a very different process. It is also not generally allowed. Our District Fishing Regulations note that “All waters are closed to snagging of game and non-game fish, except as otherwise noted under District Exceptions”. A closer read provides details for the very specific where and when that snagging is permitted.

Salmon snagging is not about getting the fish to bite. Instead it involves snagging any part of the fish on the hook and then reeling the fish in. The Kokanee salmon, for which snagging is allowed (seasonally) were introduced to Flathead lake in 1914. They’re now common throughout the western portion of our state.

Most salmon spend a majority of their life in the ocean before returning to spawn in their home stream. While Kokanee salmon do not spend any time in the ocean, they do still journey to reproduce. They either travel up streams or to the lake shoreline to spawn.

At the end of their four year life cycle, towards the end of the year (November-December), the salmon travel in order to spawn. When adult salmon begin their journey to spawn, they stop eating. As they aren’t biting at this stage, snagging is a more effective method for catching them during their spawning runs. After they spawn, the adult salmon die.

Salmon snagging is only permitted in certain locations, at certain times. Limits on salmon vary by location, so be sure to check the regional fishing regulations.


Plants: Black Medic

What were those interesting yellow flowers in the lawn? Or, this time of the year, what are those interesting little black clusters of seeds? Black Medic (Medicago lupulina), also known as black clover, yellow trefoil, or hop medic, is an introduced species, related to clover. While it’s found as a weed throughout Montana (the rest of the US, and Canada), it’s actually native to Europe.

Flowering Black Medic

Like other members of the pea family (e.g. alfalfa & sweet clover), it is a nitrogen-fixing species. This means that Black Medic plants have symbiotic bacteria that take nitrogen (a vital element for plant growth) out of the air and deposit it into the soil in a form that plants can use. This is good for surrounding plants, as well as for the Black Medic.

Black Medic produces vast quantities of seeds, and can easily take over sparse lawns. It grows well in compacted soil, or soil that is low in nitrogen. In fact, if it does better than the grass, it may indicate that the soil is lacking in nitrogen.

Management of Black Medic should include high mowing, fertilization (it likes soil with little nitrogen) and irrigation. Reducing soil compaction would also be beneficial. Mowing black medic will not kill the plant.

Black medic apparently has edible uses, theoretically as a pot herb (stir-fried or in stews). The seeds can be sprouted and eaten like alfalfa sprouts. Of course, like clover and alfalfa, it’s rather high in fiber, which means eating it in large quantities is likely to have unpleasant side-effects.

Community, Wildlife

Trego School Annual Fishing Field Trip

As the first chills of autumn hang in the air, and the salmon run, the older students of Trego School spend the day fishing with their teachers and support staff. While this year’s trip was marked by somewhat fewer salmon and smaller fish, students returned grinning and eager to show off their catch.

Photos by Lindy Ziemke-Smith

Field trips are a favorite for students and an opportunity to take the classroom outdoors. The salmon themselves offer a chance to talk about the way nutrients flow through ecosystems, the ecology of our streams, and of course the life cycle of the fish themselves. Of course, it’s also an opportunity for students that have never gone salmon snagging to experience it first-hand.

When the students returned, school board chair, Ken Smith, and school cook, Joe Puryer, cleaned the fish. Cheerful students sat around them, talking about their day and asking questions about the fish.

School Board Chair Ken Smith cleans fish and explains how to tell the difference between male and female salmon

It was, by all accounts, a very good trip, though many of the adults came back rather sodden from wading into the water to rescue tangled fishing lines.

Fish were carefully packaged and chilled before they were taken home.


Firewood Rankings by Species

The change from burning forests to burning wood is coming fast – and while we use a lot of firewood, we rarely look at just how much heat each species produces, or at how much a cord weighs.  This chart, from the California Energy Commission, ranks production by species, and shows the weight of a cord.  At 3,321 pounds for a cord of dry Western Larch, it takes a pretty good pickup to carry a cord. 

Western Softwoods Figures from California Energy Commission BTU Rating Based on 90 cubic feet of solid wood per 128 cubic foot cord

SpeciesHeat Content (BTU’s per Cord)Weight Green (lbs per Cord)Weight Dry (lbs per Cord)
Western Larch (Tamarack)28.754543321
Douglas Fir26.550503075
Western Juniper26.454103050
Western Hemlock24.457302830
Lodgepole Pine22.342702580
Ponderosa Pine21.742702520
Sitka Spruce21.741002520
Red Fir20.640402400
White Fir21.131902400
Grand Fir20.138802330
Table from

America’s First Plagues

I wound up studying epidemics when I was given the task of teaching Indians of North America.  The data was limited, but pretty much irrefutable – European diseases, brought by ship to the islands and eastern coast of North America did far more than decimate the native population of the Americas.

By the end of my readings, I pretty much bought into Dobyns’ explanation: “Before Europeans initiated the Columbian Exchange of germs and viruses, the peoples of the Americas suffered no smallpox, no measles, no chickenpox, no influenza, no typhus, no typhoid or parathyroid fever, no diphtheria, no cholera, no bubonic plague, no whooping cough and no malaria.”

His research leads to the conclusion that European diseases race across the continent ahead of the European explorers, killing 80 to 95% of the population.

I settled for that explanation, until Covid statistics started to overwhelm me, then realized, I could take to the internet to find the R0 numbers for each of these diseases – and that those numbers would have been worse for virgin soil epidemics within a people who had no previous exposure.  R0 quantifies a germ’s ability to infect – the R0 for the 1918 Spanish Flu is estimated at 1.4 to 2.8, while the similar 2009 H1N1 was between 1.4 and 1.6.  Simply enough, the larger the R0 number, the more infectious the disease.

R0 for Covid was estimated at 5.7 by the CDC.

The lazy man’s way of capturing the R0 values is wikipedia. It shows:


As I looked at the data – often from Winter counts – I realized that Measles was likely at least as responsible for Native deaths as Smallpox, though the Native records really don’t distinguish. At any rate, the R0 provides a usable measure for understanding the unintended European  plagues had on the Native American populations.  Likewise, the chart lets me look back on my childhood diseases with a greater understanding of how virulent the diseases we encountered in the fifties actually were.

R0 provides a good way of ranking how infectious a disease can be. Wiki also provides a chart for fatality rates of many diseases.

Ask The Entomologist

Shiny flies

Earlier this week we visited Trego School, to see the results of the salmon snagging fieldtrip. After the fish were had been cleaned and packed away for children to take home, I saw many bluebottle and greenbottle flies, as well as a few paper wasps, flying about outside of the school, sucking up fish juices.

Bluebottle and greenbottle flies are blowflies, members of family Calliphoridae, a name which translates to “carriers of beauty”. Rather fitting, given their bright metallic hues. Additionally, adult blowflies are excellent pollinators, and a very good thing to have in your garden.

Two greenbottle flies, genus Lucilia, contemplating romance over a salmon dinner.

Blowflies have an incredible sense of smell. In most parts of the world, blowflies find bodies within minutes of death, detecting the first smells of decay long before humans are able to. When they find the right sort of decay (some blowflies prefer dung to death), blowflies quickly mate and lay eggs before flying off.

People throughout ancient Greece and Egypt believed that these shiny flies were the souls of the dead. Even today, some people in those countries consider it bad luck to swat at them, for fear that you might kill someone’s ancestor. I think this is a particularly beautiful story.

Imagine, sitting gathered with family and friends as a loved one passes on, breathes their last breath. Within minutes, you can see their soul, in the form of a beautiful fly, flying about their mouth, nose, and eyes. Almost as if the soul is sorry to leave the body, as if the person wants to stay with their family. Perhaps they say “goodbye” before flying off to the afterlife.

Today blowflies are appreciated for more than their attractive colors and spiritual significance. They are the most useful insects in forensic investigations – their young are very useful for figuring out time (and sometimes place) of death. While other insects can be used, blowflies are a forensic detective’s best friend.

Blowfly maggots have even been used in medicine, as a way to clean dead flesh out of wounds, preventing sepsis and gangrene. Medical maggot use predates antibiotics! Napoleon’s surgeons noticed that fly maggots increased soldier survival! In the American Civil War, both sides used blowfly maggots to clean deep wounds. Maggots continued to serve and save lives in World Wars I & II, and are used for some conditions even today.