On The Trail: The Laurels – The Hill Trail

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Round trip distance: 4 miles round trip; can be extended to around 8 miles using linking trails

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Caution: Closed for hunting on occasion during deer season. Heed posted signs.

Website:  http://www.brandywineconservancy.org/laurelsPreserve.html

Trail Map:  (trail map is approximate): https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en

Membership Information: http://www.brandywinemuseum.org/members.html

The weather right now is spectacular – perfect for the sunny walk I promised in my earlier article on the Laurels. This walk will be particularly enjoyable when the leaves turn color, for then the views will be both lovely and colorful. The 771-acre Laurels Preserve is owned and maintained by The Brandywine Conservancy. Use of the Laurels is restricted to members. Membership information is provided in the link above. The preserve is open Wednesday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. It is closed for hunting during the season and hunting dates are posted. Please follow all preserve rules. To get to the Laurels from Unionville, go west on Route 82, and take a right turn onto Apple Grove Road. Go straight ahead through the gate onto the unmade road. The parking lot is at the entrance to the Laurels.

The early part of this hike is shared with the “Shady” walk from an earlier installment (http://www.unionvilletimes.com/?p=11278). Follow the main trail from the entrance for 0.4 miles until you reach the gate where the path forks – the path on the right makes for an excellent walk in the shade. Take the left path through the gates and across the field. On your right is a large meadow, being transformed into a “warm season grass meadow” according to the information post. Cross Doe Run on the Hayes-Clark Bridge covered bridge, now restricted to users on foot for structural reasons. The original bridge was destroyed by fire, and reconstructed in 1971. On the left (0.52 mile) is a short out-and-back path with nice views over Doe Run up to a stile. Further ahead (0.63 mile) is another, steep, out-and-back trail to the fence line. The main path then passes over Buck Run on the Mary Ann Pyle Bridge. Erosion control barriers have been put up at this point – please do not cross the barriers. Pass along the path as it curves to the right until you reach a crossroads, then turn and go uphill (0.75 mile). The trees in tubes on the hillside here are part of a reforestation project aimed at improving stream quality in the area, and down the line in the Brandywine watershed. The native trees used will also provide shelter and food for wildlife. The views begin to emerge as you gain elevation, and fields fringed by woods become visible and, in the fall, also colorful. A path leads off to the right at 1.0 mile and descends rapidly down the hill to meet the one described later at 3.1 miles. For now, stay on the main trail uphill, and then turn right after passing through the gateposts at the top of the hill (1.28 miles). Walk along the path, keeping the fence line on your right. The path will veer to the left into a wood (1.45 miles). (The track leading ahead probably curves around to cross the path through the wood at 1.7 miles; the one to the right leads into another wooded area, and eventually to a ford across Buck Run to the South side of the Laurels.)

The tunnel-like path is silent and cool, and quite interesting for trees and for the ruins of a home that once stood here. At 1.65 miles, a recently renovated path, complete with a small wooden bridge, allows one to wander around the ruins. Please be careful of your footing and do not move stones. Then, follow the main path, with occasional side-paths (1.7 miles and 1.77 miles), and then pass through a beech grove – in the Fall, light filters through the yellow beech leaves like molten gold. Farther along, Buck Run emerges silently on the right. Later (1.97 miles), it passes over a pebbly stream bed and curves round; the rush of water becomes audible and perfectly complements the light dancing through the canopy. The path drops down the hill to end at the fence-line (2.0 miles). Turn around and retrace your steps out of the wood. At the edge of the field after you exit the wood, walk straight across to the gap in the fence (2.67 miles) and turn left along the path that hugs the tree line. At 2.78 miles, a path to the right leads across the field, passes through a wood, and winds down to the bench at 3.1 miles. Take either this path, or keep on the trail until, at 2.85 miles, when a second path branches off to the right, leading across the field and downhill. Both paths are narrow and picturesque, with twisted roots providing either convenient steps or contriving to trip one. At the bottom of the hill, step over the tiny stream and emerge into a small clearing (3.1 miles) with a bench thoughtfully provided for a short rest. Use it if you wish.

When you’re ready, head along the path which winds around the edge of a wetland – there is an information post beyond where the path curves to the left at 3.29 miles. Wetlands are enormously productive eco-zones that sustain a variety of wildlife. Although this wetland patch is small, it is lively with birds and rustlings in the undergrowth. Another bench is provided at the curve for rest and observation. Then follow the path around the meadow and take a detour to the ford across Buck Run just beyond its confluence with Doe Run. It’s a pretty spot. Then cross back over the bridges, and bear right at the gate to return to the parking lot.

Nature Notes: Insects

No one needs an introduction to the term insects, but a review of what is an insect and what is not is probably worthwhile doing, given how many people lump all terrestrial arthropods into “bugs” or insist that a spider is an “insect”. All insects belong, together with crabs, spiders and centipedes, in the invertebrate phylum Arthropoda. Arthropods have legs with joints and an exoskeleton made of chitin.

Insects are plentiful in every environment except in oceans and in very cold areas such as the polar regions, and have outstanding species diversity. However, all insects have shared features: three pairs of legs, compound eyes, three body sections (head, thorax and abdomen) and one pair of antennae. There are four major orders: the Hymenoptera (having membranous wings; ex. ants and bees); Coleoptera (having one set of hardened wings forming a protective cover for a second set of functional wings; ex. beetles); Diptera (having two sets of functional wings and a pair of balancers called halteres; ex. true flies, mosquitoes); and Lepidoptera (having scales on their wings and a proboscis; ex. moths, butterflies). Animals that are sometimes mistaken for insects include the millipedes and centipedes (Class Myriapoda), and spiders and mites (Class Arachnida).

Insects evolved about 300 million years ago, around 150 million years before the flowering plants they pollinate. The coevolution of insects and some plants, such as orchids, have resulted in both partners becoming exquisitely dependent on the other. Insect variation is staggering – the heaviest insect, the giant weta from New Zealand, can weigh more than a sparrow; the smallest, a parasitic wasp, is only 0.3mm long (as thick as a strand of hair). Insects are the only invertebrates to have evolved flight. Insects can be parasitic – think of the mosquito deriving its nutrition from blood. This exo-parasitism pales in comparison with some of the insects that are parasitic on other insects. Strepsipterans are endo-parasites, of other insects such as ants and wasps, where the females develop sexual maturity but remain forever in the larval form and never leave the host’s body. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs in paralyzed insect larvae and their young then devour the living, paralyzed, larva from within. If you don’t like cockroaches, you will thrill to Ampulex compressa, the emerald cockroach wasp, which injects venom into a cockroach’s brain to specifically disable the escape reflex. It then leads the cockroach by its antenna to a burrow where the cockroach, still unable to escape, becomes a living meal for the larva of the wasp. Many insects are solitary. Some, like locusts, occasionally eschew their usual solitary lifestyle to gather into swarms of up to 1 billion individuals, devastating croplands along their path. Some insects, such as termites and honeybees live complex social lifestyles with division of labor and extreme structural differences within the same colony. Some insects have extraordinary morphologies, allowing either camouflage (ex. leaf insects) or extreme visibility (ex. treehoppers).

Many insects are defined as pests because they damage crops or transmit disease. However, insects are also beneficial as pollinators and as parasites of pests. Because all these insects live cheek by jowl, insecticides and pesticides indiscriminately kill both pests and beneficial insects. In addition, a lot of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals eat insects, and pesticides build up in these predators with detrimental outcomes. The ongoing honeybee colony collapse disorder is attributed to a “perfect storm” combination of pesticides, pathogens and parasites. Without this and other prolific insect pollinators, many plants will become less fruitful, and that will have a major impact on food prices and availability.

Further reading:

Importance of Entomology

Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder

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