Messing with Mother Nature: 5 Invasion Stories

Introduction of non-native species to a new environment is often done completely by accident. Anywhere people travel, something unseen can be traveling along, too. Planes, ships, and other methods of distant travel have taken critters to places they don't belong, and we only discover the problems they cause much later.

1. Snakes on Guam

Sometime between 1945 and 1952, the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) was introduced to the island of Guam, where it had never lived before. There may have been several instances of snakes stowing away on cargo ships, as Guam is a major transit point. Snakes flourished on Guam, where there was plenty of food available in the form of birds, bats, and lizards. By 1990, almost all the native birds were gone, and plans were developed to battle the snakes with multiple weapons: poison, fumigation, barriers, trapping, habitat modification, and port detection with dogs. But the snake damage continued. Since they had eaten all the birds and most of the fruit bats, pollination of native plants and trees suffered. In 2010, a new plan began: a government conservation team stuffed the carcasses of dead mice with Tylenol and airlifted them over the forests of Guam. A brown tree snake is one of the few snake species that will eat an animal it hasn't killed, and a small dose of acetaminophen is deadly to them. The "mice bombs" were attached to pieces of cardboard and paper streamers, so they would be caught in tree limbs where the snakes reside. The effectiveness of this plan has not yet been publicized, but scientists don't expect it to wipe out the snakes; they just hope to control their numbers. Photograph by Flicker user Armed Forces Pest Management Board.

2. Kudzu Bugs

The Side

Kudzu is an invasive vine that was imported from Japan in the 19th century as cattle feed, to use for erosion control, and as an ornamental plant. It is native to China, where the environment controls its spread. However, in the U.S. it flourished wildly and now covers the South. In 2009, an Asian insect called Megacopta cribraria reached the U.S., possibly by plane, and thrived by eating kudzu. You would think that a biological control of the weed would be welcomed, but there are other consequences to consider. The kudzu bug spread through several southern states, and is eating soybeans and bean crops as well as kudzu, which gave the bugs the name Bean Plataspid. They also invade homes and smell really bad, which is why they are also called Globular Stink bugs. Photograph by Flickr user Charles Lam.

3. The Catalina Island Bison

Catalina Buffalo

Santa Catalina Island is a few miles off the coast of Los Angeles. In 1924, a film crew shot a Zane Grey movie there called The Vanishing American, and brought 14 head of bison with them. The animals never showed up in the finished film, however. The story goes that the film crew left the bison behind after filming in order to save the money it would cost to transport them. By 1969, there were 400 bison on Catalina Island, and they were eating up the native plants. The Catalina Island Conservancy has employed various methods to control the size of the herd. A number of bison have been shipped out over the years: at first they were sold, then many were relocated to the Great Plains in multiple shipments. In the past few years, the Conservancy has turned to birth control methods, which appear to work and are much cheaper and less stressful than relocating the large animals. The Conservancy is also working to save the Catalina Island fox, which is a native species, and control invasive plants. Photograph by Flickr user Kenneth Hagemeyer.

4. Mussels in Michigan

A shotgun shell

Zebra mussels and Quagga mussels are both invasive species which arrived in the Great Lakes by attaching themselves to ships. Zebra mussels are native to the Caspian Sea and were first spotted near Detroit in 1988. You can follow the spread of Zebra mussels by running your mouse over the dates on this map. The Quagga mussel is native to the Dneiper River area of Ukraine, but has also invaded the Great Lakes and other areas of the U.S. Both species are upsetting the Great Lakes ecosystem:

These mussels have permanently changed the ecosystem. Before the mussels invaded, Lake Michigan water was mostly cloudy and millions of tiny microorganisms provided a food base for fish. Because the mussels filter the microorganisms, the waters today are surprisingly clear, allowing light to penetrate to greater depths, which in turn promotes prolific, nuisance algae blooms.

The mussels are also thought to be one of the main reasons that the population of the crustacean Diporeia, a major food source for fish, is declining rapidly, although industrial pollutants may also be a factor. Zebra mussel shells photographed by Flickr user Benny Mazur.

5. Farmed Algae Eaten by Shrimp

More Copepods

In order to curb global warming, there have been several projects to dump iron dust into the sea in order to encourage algae growth, because plankton absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. However, the location of these dumps makes a big difference. In 2009, ten tons of ferrous sulphate were pumped into the waters off Argentina. The algae bloomed, alright, but it was not the species that was expected. The project hoped to encourage growth of large diatom algae, but instead, tiny haptophytes gobbled up the iron. Haptophytes are the preferred prey of copepods, which are small shrimp-like animals. In this instance, the experiment was a failure and the iron was a loss, but scientists think that that the explosion of copepods will do no harm to the environment. They think. Copepod photograph by Flickr user Labut.

See also: Messing with Mother Nature: 5 Cautionary Tales, Messing with Mother Nature: Snakeheads, and Messing with Mother Nature: The Macquarie Island Ecosystem.

8 Surprising Uses for Peeps

You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.


Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.


Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)


If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.


With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).


Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.


There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.


We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.


Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.


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