Arlington County Fair: Candy Worms, Native Plants, and a “Spotted Lanternfly” Make a Fun Event for Visitors and Master Naturalists Alike

Text and photos by Marj Signer 

More than two dozen ARMN members shared their love of nature with numerous visitors at the Arlington County Fair, August 19-21 at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center. The ARMN exhibit space provided an opportunity for members of the public to learn about their master naturalist neighbors’ passion about nature. While many were interested in information about the imbalance and destruction caused by deer and the pilot project to eradicate the highly invasive Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), the greatest interest was in native plants. Most people were well-informed about our natives, indicating perhaps that the combined outreach efforts of the environmental community are making an impact.    

Our display was set in front of a three-panel backboard that told that basic facts of ARMN—we’re volunteer educators, citizen scientists, and stewards helping Virginians conserve and manage natural resources and public lands. Folks gathered in front of our table to enjoy the offerings, exchange stories, and talk about problems and tips. 

Photo of a volunteer standing in front of a display table speaking to two children.
Jack Person helps young visitors estimate the number of gummy worms in the jar.

The main attraction was a gummy worm guessing game, organized by Master Naturalist Susan Berry. The jar of candy worms attracted children of all ages and their families and friends. While kids pondered the question of “how many worms are in the jar?” we talked about the importance of caterpillars in the cycle of nature. (The gummy worms represented caterpillars.) For the record, there were 175 gummy worms in the jar. Guesses ranged from 50 to a thousand. 

The serious lesson of the game was that lots of caterpillars, characterized by these candy worms, are essential to the maturing of baby birds. The worms in the jar represented one-third of the approximate number of caterpillars that a clutch of baby chickadees needs to eat every single day to mature and be ready to fledge. Some of our younger visitors were impressed to know that the container held just lunch or breakfast for one day. A clutch of chickadees, for example, needs somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to be ready to fly. Mama and papa chickadee work from about 6 am to 8 pm all day to bring three gummy worm jars’ worth of caterpillars to the nest of baby birds, and they do that every day for 16 to 18 days.

Two volunteers stand in front of a display table with plants and posters and speak to four listeners.
Fair visitors are captivated by Master Naturalist Diane Goebes’ explanation of caterpillars as bird nourishment, with fellow MNs Rebecca Halbe and Doug Brown on hand for questions.

The gummy worms were the perfect entrée for talking about native plants as the best source of food for the baby birds. Master Naturalist Stephanie Martin commented: “I think at least some of the children and most of the parents got the message that we need native plants to host all those caterpillars for the birds.” Scientific research backs that up. According to the PennStateExtension website article, “A Case for Caterpillars,” “Many butterfly and moth caterpillars have coevolved with plants. Coevolution involves reciprocity—which means that an evolutionary change occurs between pairs of species as they interact with one another. That is to say that many caterpillars have evolved to be solely dependent on certain habitats and even a genera or species of plant.” In short, native plants are basic to the natural cycle of life!

Stephanie added: “Many of the extended conversations I had were with people who were already quite well-informed about the benefits of native plants. For example, I commiserated with one lady about the need to constantly pull English ivy year after year. People were interested in learning more about native alternatives. I directed quite a few to the Plant NOVA Natives website” (www.plantnovanatives.org). That website has a wealth of information about the importance of natives, the harm caused by exotic invasive plants like English ivy (Hedera helix), and a lot more for individuals and landscape professionals, including good choices of native plants for particular situations.

A display of native seed packets and plant cuttings was another attraction. The seeds were gathered from the pollinator garden, next to the PTA’s vegetable garden on the Thomas Jefferson Middle School grounds, literally around the corner from the fair. We had seeds from three species of native plants growing in that garden that attract pollinators: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), New York ironweed (Vernonia noveborecensis) and Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.). We also had cuttings of all three on the table and a map of the garden so folks could visit “the real thing” if they were interested. Master Naturalist Amy Spector chatted with a young woman and her family about the seed packets. Showing the cuttings of each specimen, she pointed out that all three common names end with weed: milkweed, ironweed, Joe-Pye weed. They considered why this was so and narrowed it down to two possibilities. Either these plants are so prolific, sprouting up in unlikely spots, that people mistake them for undesirables, or they “grow like a weed.” It’s likely that these native “weeds” are just good spreaders, and just may need a bit of thinning sometimes. 

A volunteer stands in front of a table with pamphlets. She is engaged in coversation.
Mary McCutcheon, Master Naturalist and Park Steward at Fort Bennett Park, addresses the importance of removing English ivy from trees.

We also displayed cuttings of the invasive porcelain berry plant (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) with the note: “bad weed.” Lively conversations sprouted up about how confusing it could be to tell porcelain berry from native grapevines (Vitis spp.) and the trials and tribulations of keeping weeds under control. Mary McCutcheon, Park Steward at Fort Bennett Park, shared her experience using a small “barbie saw” to cut down English ivy. A man from a north Arlington neighborhood told another story of saving trees from the grip of ivy. He removed an ivy infestation year after year until it was gone. This, he said, was his post-retirement contribution to community well-being and his way of keeping in shape.

Several visitors who lived in apartments and condos without personal yard space were interested in ways they could garden. Master Naturalist Colt Gregory explained that they could plant natives in a pot on a balcony or other such space and he gave them some of the seeds to try it out. “I think the seed packs were a great hand-out idea,” he said. “Folks were also interested in plant lists.”  We had two brochures on easy-to-grow native plants—one on plants for sun and one on plants for shade—that were so popular that our stock was depleted well before Saturday evening. You can see these brochures and others at: https://www.plantnovanatives.org/quick-start-guide

A young woman who lives in a condominium community stopped by the ARMN table for assistance in explaining the value of native plants to her neighbors. She insisted on making a donation for two copies of the beautifully illustrated booklet: “Native Plants for Northern Virginia.” She felt the booklet offered the guidance she needed to convince her community about landscaping with native plants. The excitement and appreciation she showed for native plants was a joy. 

A volunteer hands a pamphlet to a condo resident who is looking at a book.
Master Naturalist Heidi Moyer, (left) talks with Allison, a condo resident, about landscaping with natives on condo properties.

We also had a nest of a bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) that Master Naturalist Gary Shinners brought in. Colt Gregory observed that the visitors didn’t think it was real and quickly poked their fingers through the papery material. Colt explained that each little cell inside the nest—which was now torn open—held eggs for baby hornets. “When I looked in myself, it really is amazing how many little octagon cells are inside a hornet’s nest,” he said.

A woman wearing a spotted lantern fly cosutme spreads her wings.
Kirsten Conrad, the Agricultural Natural Resources Extension Agent for Arlington County, flitted around as the destructive spotted lanternfly.

The ARMN display table was part of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service group and placed between the Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria and the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia and near the Arlington Friends of Urban Agriculture. It was a lively section of the fair, with lots of visitors and some special and unanticipated attractions. Kirsten Conrad, the Agriculture Natural Resources Extension Agent for Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, donned a spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) costume to be sure we all remembered the danger posed by this invader. These insects, which are a federally regulated invasive pest, are spreading at an alarming rate, eating the sap of trees—including oaks and walnuts—as well as grapes, hops, vegetable plants, and herbs, among other plants in their path. Kirsten gave us a memorable performance of this destructive plant assailant, flitting throughout the area.

Susan Kalish, Director of Public Relations for the Arlington County Parks and Recreation Department, also made a definite impression on kids and at least one adult (the writer of this blog) with her handling of a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) who lives at Long Branch Nature Center.

A volunteer in a green shirt holds a black snake that is curled around her hand.
Susan Kalish, Director of Public Relations for the Arlington County Parks and Recreation Department, introduced a black rat snake, aka Eastern rat snake, to Fairgoers.

Susan Berry reported that the best comment of the weekend, in her opinion, was made by a pleasant lady who was captivated by the discussion of the reliance of one species on another. She commented: “This is the best thing I have done all day, other than that Chardonnay-Frappe thingy I had outside.”

Nature is wonderful! 

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