News Categories: Featured

20 Sep
By: Communications 0

Fall Monarch Butterfly Migration

Timing is everything when it comes to spotting monarch butterflies. Like birds, butterflies migrate to their northern breeding grounds in the spring and to warmer wintering sites in the fall. Because Texas is an important waystation for butterflies to rest and refuel, you’ll likely catch a few more butterflies than usual fluttering in your garden from September through November. Looking for the best places to see monarchs? We’ve compiled a list of some of Precinct 4’s top butterfly gardens below.

Dennis Johnston Park Butterfly Garden

This sunny space at Dennis Johnston Park proves that you can grow a butterfly garden almost anywhere.

Volunteers created the garden in 2014 in an empty ditch. Although the garden thrived, volunteers worried a flood would drown the plants. Despite their worry, the garden bounced back after suffering floods in 2016 and 2017.

Today, the garden is a certified monarch waystation featuring milkweed, coneflowers, and other native plants. In the fall, the garden comes alive with butterflies migrating to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

Visit the garden Saturday, October 12, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to learn more about migrating monarchs from the experts.

The Monarch Project Educational Initiative and Spring Creek Education Society will present a variety of programs with milkweed plantings. Check out the activities below:

  • Learn about the fall monarch butterfly migration.
  • Learn about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
  • Identify different varieties of monarch host plants and milkweed and find monarch eggs and caterpillars.
  • Learn how to safely net and hold butterflies.
  • Learn how to tag monarch butterflies and take abdominal scale samples to test for the OE parasite, a deadly parasite that infects caterpillars when they eat affected milkweed.
  • Discover how to create your own butterfly habitat and certified waystation.
  • Help plant milkweed in the Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden

Matzke Park Butterfly Garden

This popular quarter-acre garden is a monarch waystation with seasonal displays of color from spring until frost. A few pollinator favorites now in bloom include milkweed, roses, ginger, esperanza, carpet mums, duranta, Turk’s cap, plumbago, sage, and cannas.

Flowering shrubs and trees provide structure in the garden and shelter pollinators from the wind and weather. Visit the garden to find chaste trees, lime trees, a peach tree, a flowering Texas olive tree, parsley hawthorn, crape myrtles, bottle brush, and American beautyberry.

Mercer Pollinator Garden

Mercer has always been butterfly friendly, but now it’s a certified monarch waystation. Mercer now includes a native plant pollinator garden funded by a grant from the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Located near the Children’s Garden, this garden features pollinator favorites, including milkweed, black-eyed Susans, and Mexican sunflowers. The garden’s location was chosen as a transition between the Shakespeare Garden and the Children’s Garden, which both contain nectar-producing plants.

Jacob Martin, the Mercer greenhouse manager, said Mercer hopes the garden will help spread awareness about the nation’s dwindling monarch and bee populations.

“We want people to be inspired to plant their own pollinator gardens when they visit,” he said. “They can come here and get ideas about what grows well in our area and the plants that attract the most pollinators. You can always pick out the most popular plants by the number of bees or butterflies you see around them.”

Although most flowering perennials are active during the spring and summer, the garden contains plants attractive to pollinators visiting during all seasons.

“We chose plants that feed the caterpillars as well as the bees and butterflies,” he said. “Butterflies have different needs according to their life cycle.”

Martin said Mercer hopes to add signage to the area, so visitors can learn about the life cycle of the butterfly.

“Our goal is to create an educational space for visitors of all ages to learn about plants and the insects that rely on them,” he said.

Wildscape at Pundt Park

This garden is au naturel! Clusters of wildflowers fill nearly every inch of this wildscape garden. Stay on the path to view bees and butterflies in action. This spot is a favorite of the gulf fritillary butterfly – an orange, black, and white butterfly often mistaken for a monarch.

The garden started about two years ago after TAP staff noticed an abundance of wildflowers and passion flower vine, the host plant of the gulf fritillary butterfly, growing in an empty field. To protect the wildflowers and encourage pollinator awareness, they built a fence around the garden and installed informational signs about the garden. Plans also include adding plant labels inside the garden to help identify common wildflowers.

Nature enthusiasts are invited to join TAP in the spring for Wildflower Wanderings in the garden to see what blooms each week. Visit the garden to view firewheels, mist flowers, showy primrose, and Texas goatweed.

Ready to go butterfly hunting? Read more about monarch butterflies here: https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/texas_nature_trackers/monarch/.

 

Read More
20 Sep
By: Communications 0

Answers to your FAQs: What is Precinct 4’s Capital Improvement Projects Division?

If you notice new roads in Precinct 4, they’re likely the work of Precinct 4’s Capital Improvement Projects Division. The team manages dozens of new traffic improvement projects each year, including road expansion projects, traffic signals, intersection improvements, and traffic management systems.

What are the funding sources? 

CIP receives funding from the METRO fund, Harris County Toll Road Authority Mobility Funds, and a 2015 bond issue. METRO funds, which are based on the sales tax revenue the county receives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, are used for the construction and maintenance of streets, bridges, traffic control signals, sidewalks, trails, and drainage improvements within the METRO service areas. These funds are split equally among the four precincts after a recent Commissioners Court decision cut Precinct 4’s share by 24.4%.

The capital improvements division also seeks grants or partnerships with other agencies to stretch its budget. These organizations include the state Department of Transportation, municipalities, local utility districts, communities, and homeowners associations. Funding for sidewalks, school zone flashing warning signals, and traffic signals near schools is derived from the Child Safety Fund.

Want to learn more? Visit https://apps.hcp4.net/pct4Forms/cip.aspx. 

Read More
26 Aug
By: Communications 0

Scams Abound on Social Media: Learn How to Separate Fact from Fiction

By Crystal Simmons

 If a lottery winner offered $5,000 to send a tweet, most social media users would jump at the chance. In fact, tens of thousands of Twitter users did just that last year — retweeting the message and then awaiting their cash. The message, of course, soon became one of the most viral tweets of 2018.

The only problem was, the offer was completely false.

 As social media scams become more refined, it’s not always easy to differentiate fact from fiction. Although some posts may appear harmless, others have the power to affect elections, incite violence, and spread panic. These false posts, photos, and news articles tend to spread faster and deeper across the internet than reputable sources. A 2018 study in Science magazine showed false information tends to ignite strong feelings of fear, disgust, and surprise and that Twitter users were 70% more likely to share this false information.

The spread of misinformation has become so prevalent that schools, libraries, and universities have adopted internet literacy courses in droves. For at least a decade, teachers at Klein ISD have taught digital citizenship, said Klein ISD Library Services Program Coordinator Nicole Shepard.

“We teach students digital skills before they ever get started online,” she said. “We know that social media exists, so we equip students with the digital skills they need to stay safe.”

Although many adults lack the same digital training, Shepard believes it’s never too late to develop new skills. She advises internet users to do their research before sharing a social media post. Satirical sources, such as the New Yorker’s Borowitz Report or The Onion, can be a source of misinformation when shared as fact.

“Make sure you go to the ‘About’ page when you visit a website,” she said. “Most of the time, you can learn the website’s purpose and the type of news shared. For trustworthy news, look for unbiased sources.”

Even researching information doesn’t guarantee unbiased results, she said. Algorithms, which are digital instructions that tell databases how to sort data, select search results based on a user’s search history, location, and social media habits.

“We can both look up the same things, but, based on my search habits, my results may be completely different from yours,” she said. “Algorithms pick up on our search habits.”

Shepard encourages others to use the free online news database available through the Harris County Public Library for reliable, unbiased sources. Other ways to fight back against misinformation include researching the news source, seeing if other news sources have covered similar news stories, or consulting a fact-checking site.

“Facebook and Twitter are fantastic resources for connecting with family and friends, but they aren’t a news station,” she said. “Don’t believe everything you read. News from a newspaper, whether it’s print or online, will always be more trustworthy.”

 

Read More
26 Aug
By: Communications 0

More than Trees: Forest Management at Jones Park

By Kaci Woodrome

A doe jumping through tall grass, a baby armadillo fumbling through fallen leaves, an assassin bug on the hunt for a meal on an American basketflower. These are just a few examples of the diverse life that can be found at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center.

For Jones Park’s Forester David Jamar and Assistant Director Matthew Abernathy, a diverse ecosystem of plants and wildlife at the 312-acre greenspace starts with proper forest management.

“What most people don’t know is what the forest is supposed to look like,” said Abernathy.

Using aerial images of the greater Houston region from the 1940s and other historical accounts, Jamar and Abernathy know the area that is now Jones Park was not always densely forested like it is today. In fact, much of the area was primarily open prairie with a variety of wildflowers, grasses, and large, mature trees.

Today, the dense vegetation seen throughout Jones Park and most of the region is a stark contrast to the natural landscape of the past.

“You would have the bottomlands, like an open forest, and anywhere seasonal streams drained into larger bodies of water, you would have a greater abundance of trees and shrubs. Everything else was prairies,” Jamar explained.

Why is the Landscape Different Now?   

The devastation caused by forest fires, flooding, or freezing temperatures seems contradictory to the idea of preserving plants and wildlife. For Mother Nature though, the destruction can restore the natural balance of an ecosystem and spur new growth.

Wildfires are one of the few types of natural disasters people have been able to combat or prevent, thanks to better firefighting capabilities and precautionary measures. As a result, one of nature’s most important ways of maintaining itself has been neutralized to some extent.

Jones Park staff partnered with the Texas Forest Service in 2013 to create fire breaks—forested areas that have been intentionally cleared of vegetation—to prevent the spread of fire into the residential areas along the park’s boundary.

The fire breaks were implemented to help protect the subdivision’s residents, but they also helped restore the plant species in those areas along the fence line.

Aside from nature, early settlers also played a role in disturbing the region’s ecosystem with farming. Later, the timber industry boomed as pines and other trees were heavily harvested, even as recently as the 1990s.

Without a significant presence of wildfire, farmers, and lumberjacks, prolific underbrush and invasive species have grown unchecked.

Science and Elbow Grease

Precinct 4’s Parks Department is determined to restore the forests at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center using science and plenty of elbow grease.

Cutting through forest underbrush with a machete is an on-the-job perk for Jamar and Abernathy. They’re passionate about ridding the park of unwanted undergrowth, but more importantly the reasons why.

“Probably 90% of what we’re removing is native yaupon,” said Jamar. “But even native plants can be invasive if they’re not properly managed. Other examples include cattails, grapevines, and peppervine.”

Many of the forests in southeast Texas, including those in Jones Park, are overrun by invasive vegetation, including yaupon. As a result, species like sparkleberry, American holly, sassafras, sumac, fringetree, grasses, and wildflowers are pushed to the forest edge, which reduces the diversity in plants.

“Everything in the forest is in a competition for resources: light, water, nutrients,” Jamar said.

Because yaupon is so aggressive and thrives in a variety of conditions, it can quickly become a dense layer that prevents light from reaching the soil.

Jamar and Abernathy begin by reviewing the documented images from around 80 years ago to see where the landscape was more of an open forest with thinner canopies and more grassland. They next select a small area—perhaps a quarter-acre site—and conduct a survey of the vegetation.

“There’s a purpose and science behind it,” said Abernathy. “We’re not just arbitrarily cutting. We’ll walk through to identify the key species that need to stay—the big trees, the canopy trees, the unique species.”

The next step is removing the dense stands of yaupon and invasive species by hand to see what comes back up in a year or so. If there isn’t variety in what returns, they know it was probably historically just those species in the cleared section.

“If we have amazing regeneration, then we know we did the right thing,” Abernathy said.

For example, devil’s walking stick is a unique tree that hasn’t been seen in abundance in Jones Park for many years. When Jamar and Abernathy found a small stand of the species, they cleared the nearby yaupon. Now, just six months later, dozens of new devil’s walking sticks are sprouting, indicating the seeds have been there waiting—perhaps for decades—for the right conditions.

“In the past two years that we’ve really dived into forest management, we’re documenting species that haven’t been seen within 150 miles of this area because of appropriate management,” said Abernathy.

 

Creating Diversity

“A healthy ecosystem is a diverse ecosystem,” explained Jamar. “Everything out here that we look at is connected.”

From the smallest insects in the forest to the top-level predators, each animal depends on specific conditions for its survival, whether it’s a certain plant on which it lays its eggs or the prey it hunts. If the yaupon continues to grow and overtake the forest, it will create a monoculture of the plant that will only support a few different wildlife species.

“When we clear an area and it is largely yaupon, we might go back and see 30 different species that have replaced the yaupon we removed. And each one of those provides additional food, additional shelter, and additional resources for the wildlife,” said Abernathy.

When the insect population is affected, smaller carnivores like lizards and snakes don’t have anything to eat, which then takes away food sources from larger animals such as bobcats, foxes, and coyotes.

“If you have 50 to 100 species of plants, you have probably hundreds of different insects flying around,” said Jamar.

Jamar and Abernathy recognize the benefit to having some dense areas along the forest’s edge because there’s enormous diversity there with insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals feeding on the grasses and seeds. These areas offer the wildlife a way to quickly evade predators by retreating into the thick vegetation.

Helping Hands

According to Abernathy, there are a lot of things people can do in their own yards and communities to create pocket prairies and micro-ecosystems that provide islands of habitat for migratory birds, butterflies, grasshoppers, and more.

“Every little bit helps—using native plants and vegetation, which require a lot less maintenance and management around your yard,” said Abernathy.

Jones Park staff welcomes volunteers interested in helping manage the underbrush in the forest.

Participants with the Adopt-A-Trail program at Jones Park take an active role in clearing specified areas within the park, particularly along their adopted trail routes. The JJP Eradicators work to identify and remove invasive species from the park once a month.

Those interested in helping with forest management at Jones Park may send an email to Volunteer Coordinator Kim Hammond at jjp@hcp4.net or call 281-446-8588 to get connected with the park.

For more information about Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, visit www.hcp4.net/jones.

———————————————————————

David Jamar, B.S. in Urban Forest Management from Stephen F. Austin State University

Matthew Abernathy, M.S. in Marine Resource Management with a focus on Coastal Ecology from Texas A&M University – Galveston

———————————————————————

Read More
26 Aug
By: Communications 0

Not Your Average Mosquito: “Mosquito Assassins” Unleashed

By Crystal Simmons

Hidden among the leaves of a bromeliad, a merciless predator awaits its next victim at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Cockrell Butterfly Center. Using strong, ant-like jaws to grip its prey, this aquatic hunter feeds on every pest mosquito unlucky enough to hatch in its vicinity. Dubbed the “mosquito assassin,” the Toxorhynchites rutilus mosquito has become an important ally in the war against nuisance mosquitoes.

Anita Schiller, the director of Harris County Precinct 4’s Biological Control Initiative, is at the forefront of mosquito assassin research. In the past seven years, she’s learned the ins and outs of producing these beneficial predators. She and her team now breed the insects out of Precinct 4’s 3,000-square-foot lab and release them into the wild as a natural “backyard” mosquito-control method. She hopes her latest study at the Cockrell Butterfly Center will not only shed new light on mosquito assassin behavior but also raise awareness about their benefits.

“We’re studying innovative ways to produce these insects on a larger scale,” she said. “Our goal is to deploy mosquito assassins in more areas in Harris County. These beautifully colored insects are good for the environment and pose no risk to people or butterflies. This study will give us a better idea of how fast the locally self-sustaining mosquito assassins reproduce and eliminate mosquitoes in a semi-controlled environment.”

Meet the Mosquito Assassin

Mosquito assassins are one of the many living organisms bred through the Biological Control Initiative, a program that fights biting, pest mosquitoes with native plants, insects, and parasites. Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle began the program in 2012 to reduce the county’s reliance on pesticides and to restore native creatures that help control mosquito populations.

“Instead of fighting nature by developing new chemicals without knowing what it will do to our food, our animals, and ourselves, why not work with nature?” Cagle asked. “Sprays and mists can’t always reach every backyard container where mosquitoes thrive. That’s why these insects are so important.”

Unlike Harris County’s most common backyard mosquitoes – the yellow fever mosquito, Asian tiger mosquito and southern house mosquito — the mosquito assassin doesn’t feed on humans or animals. In its larval form, the mosquito assassin is one of the deadliest predators of its size. But by adulthood, the insect will take flight to live the rest of its life peacefully pollinating plants, never to kill again. These butterflies of the fly world grow about four times larger than their blood-sucking relatives and sport iridescent scales.

“I call them hippies because all the adults do is fly around from flower to flower, pollinating like bees,” said Cagle. “They don’t bite us because they don’t need our protein. Plus, they’re sparkly. All they do is make love and lay eggs.

“The babies of these beautiful, make-love-not-war hippie bugs that fly around and pollinate are vicious predators — like something out of science fiction. They will eat everything they encounter.”

So just how deadly are mosquito assassins to their brethren? Depending on the season, larval mosquito assassins will consume between 200 to 4,000 pest mosquitos before pupating. More importantly, they target larval mosquitoes before they can fly, bite, and transmit pathogens that can cause such diseases as dengue, chikungunya, and West Nile.

Looking Forward

With 56 different mosquito species in Harris County and no shortage of their ever-present, itchy reminders, it may seem puzzling that mosquito assassins aren’t more prevalent. Unfortunately, habitat loss and pesticides have depleted the native mosquito assassin population. At the same time, breeding these beneficial critters in captivity has also proven challenging.

“Our biggest research-and-development work is figuring out how to make their use economically feasible,” said Schiller. “We want to produce them in large numbers and in cheaper ways.”

Because of their insatiable nature, the insects will cannibalize each other unless they are separated before hatching, Schiller said. Accounting for these behavioral quirks, Schiller’s team has developed a strict rearing protocol published in the Journal of Insect Science. Since implementing the new protocol, the percentage of mosquito assassins that survive to adulthood has increased to 75%, up from 10%.

“A long time ago, we tried rearing them in communal groups the way literature suggested and only had a 10% survival outcome,” said Schiller. “So for every 100 eggs collected, we only managed to produce 10 adults, and that was on a good day. When we began rearing them in isolation, survival rates increased. We were also able to establish more precise rearing parameters, which has allowed us to influence and predict production numbers more accurately.”

Developing cheaper food sources for the insects is also a priority. Because mosquito assassin larvae prefer moving prey, feeding the insects can be labor intensive and costly. Schiller hopes to develop a custom mosquito assassin feed that will result in additional savings.

“No one has been able to produce them in large enough numbers that are also economically feasible, so that has been our goal,” she said. “In my lab, we know the limitations. We can’t release them across the entire United States, but they are useful in the southeastern United States and right here in Harris County. To produce them and use them, we have to have a lot of them.”

Cockrell Butterfly Center Research

In many ways, mosquito assassin research is already paying off, even in small doses. By releasing pregnant females weekly at the Cockrell Butterfly Center during the summer, Schiller was able to establish a self-sustaining population that has reduced pest mosquitoes inside the butterfly center.

“In the laboratory, we can control all the variables, and in the field study, we can’t control anything except the numbers we release,” she said. “But the semi-field study will fill in the gaps. We know the environment within the CBC; we know how many insects we release, and we know about the predators in the CBC. For example, there are a few spiders here that eat mosquito assassins, but it’s nothing like you’d find in the wild.”

Erin Mills, the director of the CBC, has been a strong supporter of the study since Schiller approached the CBC last year. She believes the insects could be ideal for environments like the butterfly center.

“Obviously, in any greenhouse situation, you’re going to have tons of pests because of all the plant life,” said Mills. “A self-sustaining population of mosquito assassins in the butterfly center will not only help control our mosquito population, but it will also spread mosquito assassin awareness.”

For Mills, introducing beneficial insects to the CBC is all part of developing a strong ecosystem in which bugs, plants, and microbes all play a role.

“The butterfly center is definitely a dynamic, living environment,” she said. “It’s not just a museum exhibit. It’s also a living environment.

“For almost any pest insect, there’s going to be a parasite, fungus, or predator that can take care of it for you. We practice that a lot already at the butterfly center. We employ an army of biological control agents in there — ladybugs, lacewings, beneficial nematodes — all sorts of things.”

How Residents Can Help

The public also has an important role to play in mosquito prevention. Schiller encourages everyone to check their yards for any water containers, including unused pools and planters.

“We’re already using mosquito assassins in small-scale efforts, but there’s plenty the average citizen can do to help,” she said. “Something as simple as monitoring your yard for water-filled containers can improve the environment for you, your family, and your neighbors.”

 

Read More