April 29: Climate March Seedball Making Station!

People s Climate Movement March on Queens-page-001

Come make seedballs with HarborLAB at the Astoria Houses sation along he NYCHA Western Queens satellite People’s Climate March (https://www.facebook.com/events/1421958377854180/)!

830AM: Meet at HarborLAB GreenLaunch (53-21 Vernon Blvd)
9AM: Leave HarborLAB with supplies. Fill water cooler (for hand washing) along the way.
10AM: Set up.
1030AM-1230PM: Make seedballs with Astoria families!
1PM: Leave Astoria.
2PM: Back at HarborLAB GreenLaunch

We’ll continue to make seedballs at the GreenLaunch and do other site work.


HarborLAB seedball making station. Some kids are super serious seedballers. 🙂

Mason Bees — True New Yorkers

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.


Hornfaced mason bee by Beatriz Moisset via Wikimedia Commons.



Blue Orchard Bee by Robert Engelhardt via Wikimedia Commons.

Quick! Picture a bee’s home. Most folks visualize a honeycomb, with its elaborate system chambers and complex society in service to a queen. New Yorkers are even prone to compare their dense, buzzing lifestyle to those of drone honey bees. In this increasingly freelance economy where over half of Manhattanites live alone, the mason bee might a more apt symbol. These small but energetic pollinators live alone in individual nests yet packed as close to another as apartment dwellers. It doesn’t hurt their relatability for Knickerbockers that some mason bees are a bit flashy, with metallic coloring.


Osmia georgica mason bee via University of Virgina.

In nature, mason bees seek out crevices, holes bored by other insects, hollow straws, or even empty snail shells. They don’t drill into wood like carpenter bees. The common name for the osmia genus of bee, of which there are hundreds of species, derives from how they compartmentalize their masonry-like nests with walls of grit, clay, chewed plant fibers, and mud. One fancier sort, however, true to Ottoman and Persian opulence, lines its nest with flower petals throughout its range from Turkey to Iran. Each chamber houses an egg that’s laid atop its provisions of pollen and nectar. As each egg is set up, the female walls it off and starts anew. She does this again and again over her six-week life. Females are laid first, in the deepest levels, and males toward the front. The males emerge first and wait for the females to emerge for mating — some might even extract a female. Then the males quickly die.

For all of their diversity, masons comprise just 7% of all bees in New York State. Most other bees live underground, in abandoned animal  boroughs, hollowed out logs, or hives.

Mason bees are not at all aggressive, and their stingers — which lack barbs — evolved to become primarily egg guides. One can even gently handle mason bees without fear of being stung. For this reason, and their high activity (they’re orders of magnitude more efficient as pollinators than honey bees), mason bees are increasingly popular in urban gardens and natural conservation areas. The native Blue Orchard bee is especially solicited, though Japanese Hornfaced Mason Bees were imported and have become naturalized. Other varieties commonly seen in these parts are the Bufflehead Mason Bee (Osmia bucephala), Bull Mason Bee  (Osmia taurus), Hoplitis Mason Bee, Osmia Georgica Mason Bee, and Osmia Pumila Mason Bee. We’ll encourage these bees to strengthen HarborLAB’s shoreline plantings of native flowers and fruit bushes that stabilize shorelines and sustain migratory birds and other wildlife.

To welcome mason bees, some folks purchase commercially made houses made from bundled tubes. HarborLAB uses a different and equally proven design: “bee blocks.” Volunteer Jessica Grable, who leads our fabrication projects, provides wood in three pieces: a block with an angled top, a small piece to be nailed on that slope for a rain roof, and a thin mounting plank. Students and volunteers nail those pieces together, paint only the roof, and use a manual drill to make rows of holes for the bees to occupy. Some designs are more elaborate, drilling deeper holes into larger blocks (6″ is ideal) and lining them with parchment paper. These measures are generally taken by farmers and serious gardeners. We’ll experiment with different forms, and perhaps even try using invasive phragmites reeds.

Our mason bee homes will be donated to waterfront parks, gardens, and wilderness areas throughout NYC. One of our first installations will be the historic and beautiful Old Stone House near the Gowanus Canal. We’ll of course erect them all around our home waterway, the Newtown Creek!


Prototype mason bee home by Jessica Grable.

Tips for placement:

  • Southern exposure is ideal because mason bees seek warming morning sun.
  • Choose a secure and peaceful place, not one that sways or is noisy and full of movement.
  • Hang at eye level to keep them safe from critters and easy to check.


HarborLAB is Getting Seedier!


HarborLAB intern Jamilah Grizzle (second from left) and volunteers Patricia Vidals-Aquino, Scott Wolpow, and Phillip Anthony Borbon seed starting in reused cardboard paper towel rolls at the HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek GreenLaunch. 


HarborLAB Performing Arts Manager Mambo Tse tossing goldenrod seedballs on White Island, Brooklyn. 


Volunteer Davis Janowski and day volunteer planting Goldenrod and Little Blue Stem at Coney Island Creek. 

HarborLAB works to make New York City safer and more beautiful by planting native plants on waterfronts in all five boroughs. Best of all, we perform this service as we explore the city by canoe and kayak!

We accomplish this through spartina seedlings provided by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (coming by June) and seeds our students and volunteers collect (with permission from park managers) and those provided by the center, native seed companies, and our friends at Briermere Farms.

Shoreline vegetation protects us from storm surge and erosion, stabilizes dunes, and sustains birds, mammals, reptiles, and beneficial insects. These plants also beautify neglected spaces in lower-income neighborhoods and provide new science, technology, engineering, and math teaching opportunities and inspiration.

HarborLAB intern Jamilah Grizzle, a Brooklynite attending The Masters School, recently inventoried our current seed holdings so that ecologists working for city, state, and national parks and preserves can direct us to where these plants are needed and what method would be best. For example, one strategy HarborLAB loves is seedballing, because these cherry-sized globes of clay, compost, and seeds can be tossed from a boat or tossed into areas of need without trampling through nests and existing plants. Making seedballs is also a terrifically social way of teaching kids and adults about local plant life cycles and how seeds are spread in nature.

Email us at edu@harborlab.org if your school or youth service group would like to make seedballs, gather seeds, make seed starters, or even paddle with us to plant!

Binomial Common name Variety
Ageratina altissima White Snakeroot  
Amelanchier Serviceberry, Shadbush.
Asclepias Milkweed Purple
Cyanococcus Blueberry Highbush, Lowbush
Eragrostis spectabilis Purple Love Grass
Fanicum virgatum Switchgrass
Helenium autumnale Sneezewood
Helianthus Sunflower Common Sunflower, Incredible, Mammoth Russian, Mammoth, Solar Eclipse, Sunscraper Hybrid, Sunshine
Lathyrus japonicus Beach Pea
Leymus mollis American Dunegrass
Lespedeza capitata Bushclover
Opuntia humifusa Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus
Phytolacca decandra Pokeweed
Pinus rigada Pitch Pine
Prunus maritima Beach Plum
Rhus typhina Staghorn sumac
Rubus altissima, occientalis Raspberry Black cap, Pennsylvania
Rudbeckia hirta Black Eyed Susan
Solidago Goldenrod Canada, Gray, Seaside

HarborLAB volunteers planting Beach Plumb at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn. 


Hour Children kids with HarborLAB volunteers planting spartina grass plugs in Jamaica Bay, Queens, under the guidance of American Littoral Society and Jamaica Bay EcoWatchers. 

Carbon to the Water Rescue?

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.


Image Credit: University of Manchester. 

by Erik Baard
(apologies for the publication delay)

Carbon is unloved these days, with carbon emissions from industry and livestock rightly identified as a chief cause of global climate chaos, melting glaciers, and ocean acidification. This core element of life, however, is also a tool of fantastic invention and innovation. The latest example: Researchers from the University of Manchester report in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Nanotechnology that they’ve developed membranes of carbon and oxygen that passively and rapidly sieve saltwater to produce drinking water. The honeycomb-shaped (hexagonal) pores of this form of graphene oxide are small enough to block salt and other impurities without slowing H2O molecules.

This new work builds on earlier graphene membranes gas separation and water filtration, but those earlier renditions were unable to screen out sodium chloride, which is a relatively small molecule. Salt attracts a coating of water molecules that makes it a larger blob, but the pores themselves in earlier graphines grew larger too when soaked.

New York City’s mountain reservoirs fill up with generous rain and snowfall, forests protect almost all of this bounty from pollution and soiling, and gravity powers the flow without pumping. That makes for an astonishingly inexpensive water system. What a contrast with many other cities, which depends on the sea for drinking water. Perhaps global climate change will one day rob New York City too of its water wealth. Desalination plants have proven a boon to humanity, turning enough saltwater into potable supplies each day to slake the thirst of New York City 23-times over.  Bu it’s terribly expensive. Energy is a great component of this cost, and when desalination depends on fossil fuels the result is carbon emissions that only worsen the world’s water crises. This graphene membrane technology could be coupled with solar, wind, tidal, or current power to make clean water more affordable and reliable.

Little Plum of the Big Apple

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.


Beach Plum

Prunus maritima

by Erik Baard

Both Henry Hudson and Giovanni da Verrazzano (his correct spelling, unlike the bridge) noted in their logbooks how our harbor’s shores were covered with the white flowers and cherry-sized fruits of this tough, scraggly bush. The native little plum of the Big Apple grows in a variety of soil conditions, and are especially helpful to sand dunes. Beach plums feed migrating birds and other animals, and the flowers support butterflies and other beneficial insects. People enjoy beach plums in pies, jams, and even trendy alcoholic beverages!


HarborLAB has planted many beach plum seeds in our region. It’s easy with such a hearty species: Dig by hand into the back (shore side) of a sand dune — just an inch or two to moist sand. Plant seeds with a bit of compost. They’ll sprout in 2018 if not this season, after experiencing winter. In time they will stabilize the dune and protect important wildlife areas. Always ask your local park authority where these native seeds, gathered in the metropolitan area, would do the most good.

Our seeds were provided by Briermere Farms through a HarborLAB field trip with Hour Children, an organization for kids who were born in prison or whose mothers are in the system. Our volunteers paddle the estuary with public partners (like you!), planting this important ecosystem contributor.




Earth Day Pedal and Paddle Tours!

Earth Day (4/22) Bicycle and Canoe Tours!

Register TODAY to join the free inside tours of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant: Spots fill up fast!

Register HERE.

Have even more fun and opportunities to learn by joining HarborLAB’s unique bicycle and canoe tours leading to the interior tour! To combine our bicycle or canoe tour with the interior walking tour, opt for the 3PM interior walking tour. Registration for HarborLAB’s bicycle and canoe tours is entirely separate from registration for the NYCDEP’s interior walking tour. Details below.

Our tours are also free, and we’re grateful for donations to support this work.

Donate HERE.

Please see our calendar and Facebook events listing for greater and updating details on both tours. Participants will be additionally informed by tour leaders.

These trips have limited capacity, so please:

1) Email us pronto!

Join our bicycle tour by emailing tours@harborlab.org with the subject line “Earth Day Bike Tour.”
Join our canoe tour by emailing tours@harborlab.org with the subject line “Earth Day Canoe Tour.”

2) Don’t flake!

Understand that these trips require volunteer labor and have limited capacity. No-shows are unfair to all. Register only if you’re serious about joining.

Bicycle Tour:


Photo by Peter Morgan/Associated Press.

Our bicycle tour gathers at the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park at 1030AM and concludes at Gantry Plaza State Park at 6PM. Highlights include viewing the Relief Map of the NYC Water Supply System — “Commonwealth: Water for All” exhibit —  vegan lunch at Green Zenphony — 15% bike gear discount at Grand Bicycle Center — Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant  — Newtown Creek Nature Walk

Bring your own bike. Helmet required.

Canoe Tour:

Our canoe tour gathers at the GreenLaunch (53-21 Vernon Blvd, LIC, NY 11101) at noon and returns at 5PM. Highlights include: Canoe tour of environmental projects and plans for the Newtown Creek Superfund site — sustainable businesses on the creek — GreenLaunch habitat restoration orientation — Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Tour — Newtown Creek Nature Walk.  Mid-tide landings are messy and mucky.

We provide canoes and safety gear.

Cautions: Both city streets and waterways are dangerous with large vehicles and vessels and unexpected hazards. Listen to trip leaders. These trips are for adults and mature teens. More safety details to come for participants. Both tours depend on weather and safety conditions. 

Sharks and the City

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
(Our apologies for the delayed publication.)

Sand tiger shark. Photo by J.L. Maher/WCS

Editor’s note: Yes, there are sharks swimming wild in New York City’s open waters! This item by Paul Sieswerda, former animal curator of the New York Aquarium and now more famously our city’s whale whisperer (check out Gotham Whale!) come courtesy of Nature Calendar. 

Bertha, a sand tiger shark photographed here by J.L. Maher of the Wildlife Conservation Society, was caught off the coast of Coney Island and lived at the aquarium for 43 years. Her species is so common in the New York Bight that the aquarium has traded young ones for others species from around the world. Our friends at the Safina Center report a shark attack on a Monterey Bay kayaker. More locally, Erik Baard had a harmless kayaking encounter with a blue shark shark past the Narrows years ago, but that tale will wait for another day.

“Sharks and the City”

By Paul Sieswerda

As a former Curator at a public aquarium and still a public marine ecology educator, I am often above, in, or under the ocean’s surface and I think that I’m not alone in having brief shivers when the thought of what sea creatures may be eying my activities passes through my mind.  It’s just a flash of trepidation and doesn’t slow me down, but I have to admit to it.

Sharks, of course, are prominent on that list of imagery and probably somewhat realistic in tropical waters. But in New York?  You’re right, that’s crazy.


The Chamber of Commerce may not like to publicize it, but the waters around New York are full of sharks.  Fortunately, the species are not man-eaters or dangerous, but sharks are plentiful and varied.  It should be stated however, that one of the most horrific episodes in shark attack history took place very close by.  In 1916, four fatal attacks took place along the New Jersey coast within the first twelve days of July, in Beach Haven and  Spring Lake, and miles inland, in Matawan Creek. Another victim was also attacked in Matawan, but survived with the loss of a leg.  That history changed the world’s image of sharks when Peter Benchley popularized the factual story in the book, Jaws.  Of course, the movie seared the fear of shark attacks further into the psyche of a worldwide population. The fishing fleet off Montauk catches enough monster sharks to keep the impression in the back of most New Yorkers’ minds.  However, experience settles those fears for New York swimmers since the chance of a shark attack ranks about in the same neighborhood as the risks as from asteroids.

Our native sharks are benign to humans.  Local species are fish eaters like the sand tiger shark or scavengers like the smooth dogfish.  There are sandbar sharks as well cruising off Coney Island beach.  These sharks are happy to hunt fish and leave humans completely alone.   In fact, sand tiger sharks and sand bar sharks rarely take bait from fishermen, so they are not often caught on hook and line.  The dogfish are another story, and many striper fishermen are disappointed to pull in a dogfish instead of a fat striper.

Sand tiger shark. Photo by J.L. Maher/WCS

Sand tiger shark, Carcharias taurus

The New York Aquarium has a number of sand tiger sharks on display.  One specimen lived in the collection over 40 years.  How long do they live? The shark in the photo, Bertha, was the longest living shark recorded at an aquarium and it was probably a couple of years old when it was captured.  Since then, the Aquarium has supplied itself and other institutions with sand tiger sharks.  Local fishermen catch them in their nets and notify the Aquarium.  Since these sharks are usually small they can be transported fairly easily.  Some have been sent as far away as Japan.  A “pupping”  ground seems to be along the southern coast of Long Island.  Young sand tigers are caught each year incidental to the fishermen’s target species.

First Come, First Served

Sand tigers have a strange method of development. The embryos practice hunting within the mother!  This cannibalism before birth is called oophagy.

Eggs are produced in the shark mother’s two uterine tracks, one after another.  As the first egg develops into an embryonic shark, it eats the next developing embryo.  This continues until the birth of the two babies that have grown in each uterus.  They grow strong feeding on their potential siblings.  At birth, the young sand tiger sharks are forty inches (100 cm.) in length, and completely ready to hunt on their own.

From : Sharks by P. Sieswerda

The adult sand tigers are usually about seven feet in length.  They have two equal sized dorsal fins set at the rear half of the body.  The nose is pointed and often upturned.  The most prominent feature are the teeth that Richard Ellis, author and naturalist, calls the “wickedest-looking teeth in all of sharkdom.”

These teeth, however, indicate that they are fish eaters and not prone to take bites out of large animals (species that do are a real danger to humans). Although they look ferocious, sand tigers have adapted a mouthful of fangs that are designed to effectively grasp slippery fish. Most sharks must continually swim at a speed that gives them lift, but sand tigers are able to keep from sinking by holding a gulp of surface air internally, allowing them to cruise at slow speed and save energy for quick lunges that catch their prey unaware. In aquariums, it was found that sand tigers needed a minimum depth in their tanks, not for any space requirement, but to allow them enough distance to launch themselves above the surface to gulp air.

Most New Yorkers will not see sand tiger sharks except at the New York Aquarium, but it may be interesting to know that when gazing out from a Brooklyn or Long Island beach, or even sharing the surf, there are sizeable sharks out there playing out their lives, with little threat to people and deserving only the slightest twinge of fear. Knowing the facts is comforting, but I think it’s human to worry a little.

Or is it just me?

April 13: Representatives’ Joint Town Hall


The Newtown Creek and other environmental issues aren’t specifically addressed in Rep. Maloney’s outreach email, but this seems like a good forum to raise them.


Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Nydia Velazquez are hosting a joint town hall to discuss the latest federal policies affecting New York City, hear from a panel policy experts and take your questions.

The Representatives will joined by:

  • James Parrott, Ph.D., former Chief Economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, to discuss how President Trump’s budget proposal will affect New York City;
  • Marc Jahr, Co-Chair of the New York Housing Conference Board of Directors, to discuss the latest on affordable housing;
  • Ruthie Epstein, Senior Policy Advisor, New York Civil Liberties Union, to discuss federal immigration policy.

Following remarks by the Representatives and panelists, members of the public are invited to ask questions.

Date and Time


Thu, April 13, 2017

6:30 PM – 8:00 PM EDT


P.S. 20 Anna Silver School

166 Essex Street (between East Houston and Stanton Streets)

New York, NY 10002

View Map

RSVPs are encouraged for planning purposes, but are not required. Seating will be on a first-come, first serve basis. Click link below to RSVP.



Last of St. Pat’s Enters Waterways


HarborLAB boat launch. Photo by Erik Baard.

The last of the undigested food coloring remaining from St. Patrick’s Day celebrations entered the estuary this morning due to steady rain that started over 24 hours ago. HarborLAB volunteers spotted a bright Kelly green streak hugging the Newtown Creek’s north bank this morning and phoned in reports:

NYS Spill Hotline: 1-800-457-7362
National Response Center: 1-800-424-8802

“It’s not unusual to receive reports of bright green water on April 1,” said Robert Trondheim, head of Estuary Research at the NYC Department of Environmental Monitoring. “We’ve observed a sequence. Green beer shows up within hours, from both vomit and what races through people’s systems. A few days later we’ll get the food coloring from green bagels and Shamrock Shakes, cookies and cakes. Sugary treats. What we’ve got now are green releases from things that are slower to move through the bowels and therefore potentially subject to much later combined sewer overflows when it rains. These are things like green eggs and ham,” he explained.

Specifically addressing green eggs and ham, Trondheim added,  “Because of scientists’ health and environmental warnings about meat, I could not, would not on a boat…and will not eat them in the rain.”


Chicago River. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Green fluorescent dyes that look eerily similar to this morning’s release are used to detect leaks in the sewer system. Such flow tracers indicate the locations of system faults and can be used to measure their severity even in the darkness of a sewer pipe. By coincidence, it’s become an annual tradition in Chicago to release green dye each St. Patrick’s Day.

Because Newtown Creek can turn green due to algal blooms and chemical spills, HarborLAB encourages you to report all unusual water conditions. And enjoy your green bagels and April Fools Day in true New York City fashion!