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Book review: "Summer World: A Season of Bounty"

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It's summertime, and the living is easy. Well, not for every living thing. UVM biologist Bernd Heinrich says summer is "the season of reproduction, feeding, growing, and trying to avoid being eaten." Betsy Kepes reviews his new book, Summer World: A Season of Bounty.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Biologist Bernd Heinrich literally leaves no stone unturned. At his home on a dirt road in Vermont or at his summer cabin in the woods of Maine, he is constantly on the prowl, looking to see how insects and frogs and birds interact with each other, what he calls, “the business of summer”.

In his new book, Summer World, Heinrich let’s readers join him in his scientific curiosity. The short chapters can be read in any order. If you’re not interested in the mating habits of wood frogs, skip to the chapter on yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The holes they make in trees provide liquid sustenance not only for themselves, but also for hummingbirds, wasps and other species of birds and insects. Heinrich made direct observations from a platform he built in a tree.

And why would red-eyed vireos include in their nests a few pieces of the gray paper from bald-faced hornet dwellings? Obtaining materials from an active hornet nest is dangerous for a small bird. Heinrich writes: “When vireos build their nests in late June the hornets’ nests are still small—about the size of a baseball, the same as the vireos’ nests. From a distance, from underneath, both look like gray blobs hanging from a twig. Might a crow, blue jay, chipmunk, or squirrel initially confuse one with the other? If these predators have experienced a wasp’s nest defense before, then a mere glimpse of wasp paper on a shape that looks like a wasp nest may be sufficient to prevent them from coming nearer to make a close inspection.”

Heinrich manages, with difficulty, to get a wasp nest in a bucket. When the wasps clear out, he takes strips of the gray wasp paper and hangs them near the vireos. They don’t take any. Perhaps they don’t need to after they’ve made the initial nest. Perhaps, he says, the paper in the nests is a vestigial decoration, something that was once useful, like our appendix.

The experiment isn’t a total failure. When neighbors learn that Heinrich is working with wasps, they ask him to take away nests near their homes. Heinrich, who has improved his nest removal technique, puts a new active nest in a cage with his tame ravens. None of the birds will go near it, proving that even large birds fear the hornet’s sting. Only when all the hornets abandon the nest do the ravens tear into the gray paper to get at the juicy hornet larvae.

Summer World is illustrated throughout with Heinrich’s detailed pencil sketches. In the middle he includes eight glossy pages of paintings in color. I especially liked figure 2a, a painting with six caterpillars in disguise, each one hiding in plain sight on a leaf or a twig.

Heinrich’s book doesn’t have the graceful prose of our best science and nature writers, but it combines his scientific knowledge and curiosity with his boundless enthusiasm for even the smallest forms of life in the Northeast woods.

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