Bee Fear

Posted September 23, 2012 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

When I was eleven I was stung by a yellow jacket. The attack seemed malicious and without provocation. I was helping carry a Ping-Pong table out of the neighbor’s garage at the time and couldn’t imagine why it considered me a threat.

I can’t remember if I was afraid of bees before that day but I was after. For years I retreated in the fastest way possible at the sound of buzzing. I left a wake of flung sodas and dumped picnic plates fleeing from wasps, yellow jackets and hornets.

After college I lived on my own. In one apartment after another I was plagued by insects that sting. In the third-floor apartment of an old house, wasps could get in through the skylight in the living room. When I got home from work in the evening they would dive bomb me as if I was the usurper. In a townhouse I would come home to find a string of paper wasp nests hanging from jam over my front door every evening all summer. In one very temporary rental I woke one morning to the sound of two-inch long carpenter bees bashing themselves against the inside of the windows.

For the first few years I lived alone, Raid was my friend. I could kill the insects from a distance and was therefore willing to live with the chemical consequences. Around the time I gave up a few unhealthy habits from my youth, I decided that the chemical warfare might be doing some damage to me as well. So I summoned what courage I could and switched to using water from a spray bottle or the hose. It took longer but I never got stung.

I took up gardening. Over the long hours of weeding and planting I became acquainted with a new type of bee. There were little black ones who quietly passed by me on their way to some bloom or their nest. Initially I was afraid of them as well but they ignored me no matter how close I got to them. Getting to know mason bees, bumble bees and leaf cutters I began to lose the panicked reaction to bees.

Finally, one cool summer night, I decided to deal with a yellow jacket nest forming on one of my deck chairs the way my father would. Grabbing a broom I stalked outside. Thrusting the handled end out in front of me, I advanced on the chair. Then retreated when one cold-groggy bee emitted a slurry buzz from beneath the chair.

I could have fenced with the chair all night except it occurred to me that no less than four neighbors had front row seats to my demonstration should they care to look. I lunged again and knocked the nest off the chair and then jumped on it before any angry defenders could emerge. All those years of sticking my balance beam dismounts paid off in that moment.  I felt brave despite the shot of scotch I had when I went back inside.

Since then I have made even made more progress. The last time a bee got caught in the house I captured it in a box and released it out the back door. A local bee keeper has two honeybee hives in my yard and I have monitored swarms for them.

This year I installed a little nesting box for mason bees outside my backdoor. These bees are at risk because of habitat loss and pesticide use. It seems only fair to help them out when they taught me so much about facing my fears.

Sound Unmuffled

Posted April 25, 2011 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

Spring arrived at long last. The warmth of the sun was the most obvious sign but I noticed the sounds. Without the white noise of rain falling and the cloud layer muffling everything, the sounds of nature re-emerged as surely as the budding leaves.

Early this morning there was the cry of a nestling crow hungry for breakfast. Later came flapping wings, branches rustling, the angry buzz of a fly temporarily caught in my hair. In the backyard I could hear the bees and once a hummingbird I looked for but couldn’t see.

Behind it all came the twittering talk and melodious songs of the birds.

Of course there were also the human sounds of spring. Children and dogs, screaming and barking, joyous to be out of doors could be heard all over the neighborhood. Less pleasant were the sounds of power mowers and edgers cutting the overgrown grass.

Being more aware of what I heard also made me aware of what I didn’t. I saw a chickadee land on the arbor by the drive out of the corner of my eye. When I didn’t hear the usual twitter I turned check it out. The little bird sat up there resting briefly but it couldn’t make a sound because its beak was full of moss.

Fragile Armor

Posted April 19, 2011 by julielwebster
Categories: Plants, Urban gardens, Wildlife

The dog and I frequently send birds flying for cover when we return from our walks. The other morning it was tiny Black-capped Chickadees. I stood on the sidewalk and watched one disappear into the tall Oregon Grape beside the porch and the skin on my arms began to itch in sympathy.

Just a few months ago, that plant was bent to the ground under a thick coat of icy snow. I grabbed on to the various branches to shake them off freeing the plant of its burden so it stood upright again. For my  pains, I ended up with a itchy welts that lasted into the next day.

Pojar’s description of the plant includes the phrase “several prominent spiny teeth” in the section on the foliage. What they don’t say is that those are puppy teeth. They easily penetrated winter jacket, fleece and the leather palms of my gloves. Yet now this little bird flitted about within the branches of the same plant, it’s fragile feathers a better match for the prickly leaves than all my heavy winter clothing.

Trees and shrubs are a vital part of wildlife habitat. The larger trees provide nest sites for birds and perches with a view. Vines, shrubs and lower tree branches provide quick cover. Deciduous trees make adequate places to raise young because they are leafed during the breeding seasons, but only evergreen plants provide cover year round.

If you are lucky someone planted a Cedar or Douglas-fir decades ago either on your property or in close proximity. Two large cedars tower over the alley behind my yard and  two more evergreens stand sentinel out front. All of them grew tall enough to provide adequate space for modern fences and driveways or parking beneath them. Planting such a tree today would be virtually impossible.

None of these trees are close enough to provide immediate cover for birds feeding in my yard. One of the reasons I selected Oregon grape to plant is to serve this purpose. My labrador, who has stuck her nose into the entry of the bee hives more than once, only attempted to get up close to this plant once. It deters typical urban predators such as cats and raccoons as well as the larger birds. I have never seen a crow perched on the plant.

For its benefit to the little birds, for its cheery spring color and for its fruit it is one of my favorite native plants. I just dread the chore of weeding near it. I had been thinking that only armor would protect me but maybe what I need is a suit of feathers.

Bird Real Estate – SOLD

Posted March 5, 2011 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

The wind arrived on schedule today, blowing in about ten. By the time I got back from my run the ceiling light in my bedroom was flickering and the fan vents clacking. The rain was delayed somewhere and a hazy sunlight forced its way through the charging clouds spreading across the sky.    It hadn’t rained in a few days so it was the driest the yard has been in months.

I checked out the optimistic list of tasks I hoped to get done in the garden this month and headed out the back door. To the accompaniment of garbage scans and recycling bins sliding down the alley, I pulled grass and weeds from one of the beds. The dog tossed her kong and wriggled on her back in the grass like an ex-con who had been released after a decade behind bars trying to get all the life he had missed lived in one day.

After about an  hour my hands got too cold for any more digging in the dirt so I got the ladder and planted it precariously next to the maple tree. Up two steps I could tap in the bird house to see if I scared any inhabitant into motion. No squeak or angry buzz came in reply so I hauled myself up another step hanging onto a tree branch with one arm and reached up to pull the house down.

When I turned the house eastward last spring, I had planned to watch it carefully to see if the move had coaxed another pair of birds to give the place a try. I hadn’t considered that when the maple leafed out the place would be mostly hidden from view.  While I thought I saw activity a few times through the spring, I was never sure if anyone had taken up residence.

Today I discovered that they surely had. The lower two thirds of the little wooden house was packed with tufts of grass, moss, sticks and various bits of fuzz and cloth of indeterminate origin. I cleaned the place out, preparing it for a new season. The sloping tin roof had kept the wood relatively protected and the it showed little signs of wear. I hung it back up careful to position it so the wind wouldn’t spin it to face the south. The deluge arrived just as I was putting the ladder away and the dog came flying in shaking.

Many years ago, I slept in a place with a tin roof during the same kind of storm. Despite the volume, I found the sound oddly comforting. I wonder if the birds did when they were tucked into the nest on a windy spring night?

Ants Go Marching

Posted September 4, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Wildlife

There used to be a tower of three red rocks in my east side of my back yard between snowberry and mock orange. The tower fell last spring when I was installing the new raised bed. Today, while weeding the bed, I absentmindedly moved  two of them and reached out to pull a bunch of grass. Out of the corner of my eye I caught site of what had been hidden.

A circle of pearly white and parchment colored seed shaped things covered the indentations in the dirt where the stones has sat all summer. Strategically placed around these were holes recognizable as ant nests.

I have uncovered plenty of ant nests in the yard but I’ve never seen the larvae and pupae so close to the surface before.
As I sat back and focused my attention on the nests, worker ants scurried from the holes and raced about. At first the activity seemed random. Then one worker lifted a cocoon over its head and carried it into the nearest hole. In under ten minutes not a single one of the larvae or pupae remained on the surface.

While this played out on the surface, there was more action around a place nearby where I had dug out a clump of grass. I must have nicked the side of the underground chamber because ants were pouring out, spreading across the sandy dirt and bits of grass.

When the forerunners began scaling my sneaker, I decided that another part of the bed needed weeding more. By the time I packed up my tools to head inside the hole was closed and only a few ants patrolled the surface again.

Summer Fruit

Posted August 22, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

July through September in the city is rotting fruit season. While the heat exacerbates the foul city smells of the alleys and underpasses downtown, it elevates the  the sharp sweet scent of cherries, plums and finally apples crushed against the concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets. When August is really hot the tang of fermentation rides desultory evening breezes.

Birds and animals play with the fruit, nibbling off bits, but leave the bulk of it to fall to the ground to mold in the shade or metamorphose to hard desiccated lumps in the sun.

One day after I returned from a walk with the dog, sticky fruit pulp smeared on my shoes and my hand slobbbered from pulling a rotting piece of fruit from the dog’s mouth, I took a stroll around the yard searching for native fruit.

The oregon grape, covered with clusters of blue-black fruit just a few weeks ago, had been picked clean. Using a small branch shed by the cherry tree during the last wind storm, I pushed back the lower branches of the prickly leaved plant to be sure. The ground was barren of fruit.

The serviceberry in the back was similarly bereft of fruit on the branches and the ground beneath. Poking through the thick mat of woodland strawberries beneath the cherry tree I discovered bits of dried out cherry but not one sign of a strawberry.

The only native plant with fruit is the snowberry. Those white orbs are new and will remain until deep in the winter when they will be eaten once all the other berries are gone. The huckleberries have yet to flower being one of the harvest time fruits.

If you want to consume native fruit, you need to pick the berries as soon as they ripen. Non-natives are easier. It’s not that the wildlife doesn’t eat other fruit but at least in my yard they go for the native stuff first. This summer I was able to harvest and eat all the blueberries on the bush I planted last summer. I never did manage to get a ripe serviceberry for myself.

Throughout the neighborhood garden beds sprout all manner of netting. Apples and pears wear little socks. People construct all manner of fence and barrier to guard their produce from animals. It seems so much simpler to provide them with native food of their own. Maybe someday the pea patches will be surrounded by hedgerows instead of barriers.

Cool Summer

Posted August 8, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Plants

Last summer at this time I was writing the Crispy reports. The days were scorching by any standard, the nights still sticky and uncomfortable. It was a repeat of the summer before and by mid-July the garden dirt was hard, the edges of leaves brown and curling.

In contrast, today I wore a sweatshirt to walk the dog in the early morning. Now it’s early afternoon and a blanket of grey, half fog, half cloud muffles the sound of the Blue Angels flying off to the southeast. The weather report is for rain.

Despite its reputation in other parts of the country for unceasing rain, the Pacific Northwest is typically dry the later part of the summer. It may be gloomy, it may even feel like rain, but if you go to bed counting on an overnight rain to water your garden you are likely to wake to thirsty plants.

Over the past few years there has been a surge in interest in urban farming. It’s been blamed on the economy. I doubt there would be the same fervor had the past few summers had more typical weather. The unseasonable sun and heat favored so many of the agricultural imports. This year stalls at the Farmer’s markets have fewer tables, some farmers didn’t show up until mid-summer. There are more beets, fewer haricots verts and strawberries.

My own yard tells a similar story. The honeybees produced almost no honey early in the season. Like so many hives in the city they swarmed instead. Only now that there have been some sunny afternoons are they producing. The strawberry pot yielded only enough fruit for the dog and I to have a small appetizer before breakfast after a walk one morning. In the vegetable beds, only the hardy greens are doing really well.

The native plants tell a different story. The serviceberry bore more fruit this year than any other. Birds still pick through the tangle of native strawberry, ignoring the cherries above for the tiny red fruits hidden beneath serrated leaves below.  On the zoo grounds rich balls of berries on the Oregon Grape are mistaken for blueberries by children. At the ends of the native rose branches, hips are already forming and the snowberry continues to produce a constant supply of nectar flowers for the hummingbirds and bees.

While the early vegetables and fruits suffered, the perennials which come in later are doing better this year. Without the early drought and heat we experienced last summer flowers are coming in more lushly. Since I don’t do supplemental water until is is really necessary those blooms suffered last summer. This summer the shasta daisies are as tall as I am. Newly planted dahlias and gladiolas produced spectacular large flowers on healthy green plants.

Year after year, no matter which type of summer we have, I can count on the native plants to thrive with minimal support.

As at Sea While on Land

Posted July 24, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

I went outside this morning with my journal planning to sit in the garden for a while. Thinking that I might see a ladybug, I brought my camera. The Lost Ladybug Project has been on my mind lately. Perhaps I could get a picture to upload to the project.

Of course when you go looking for one animal, another one shows up instead. This morning it was spiders.

Garden Spider in the dogwood.

Garden Spider in the dogwood

Right outside the door I looked under the deck for the grey house spider whose web is tucked up against the house where she can hide beneath a shingle. Instead I brushed against  a new web that seemed to be suspended in the air, parallel to the back wall of the house. A tiny reddish garden spider clung to the center which was undulating in the morning breeze.

Leaving it be, I went to the back corner of the yard which involves ducking beneath the maple and serviceberry and then brushing aside the long-reaching branches of red-twig dogwood. The scent of sage was overwhelming. A giant salvia, planted to provide hummingbird nectar summer to late fall,  has reached its full size.

Honeybees were making regular pit stops on the purple blooms. I tried to take a picture but the breeze was too strong, keeping the stalks in constant motion. Stepping out of the branches, I discovered that I had picked up a rider. A dark round spider with legs three times the size of its body was clinging to the bottom edge of my t-shirt. I tipped it off  into the shrub where it settled safely on a lightly bouncing leaf.

Going back to my table at the other side of the dogwood to make some notes I discovered another tiny garden spider. Its web was spread in the partial shade between several dogwood branches and one of the myrtle.

I haven’t had any more luck taking pictures of spider than I have with bees but I took a few shots anyway. Trying to take pictures of insects has led me to two discoveries. The first is that the viewer on a digital camera is useless for judging the quality of pictures when the focus is on something no bigger than a centimeter or so. Second, even on days I consider still, the leaves and branches of plants are really in perpetual motion.

My attempts to take pictures of bees, spiders and butterflies mostly yield a focused image of one leaf or section of branch surrounded by a blur of green with possibly an unidentifiable fuzzy dark spot. Like a man at sea, even when they themselves are still, spiders and insects are almost always moving. Currents generated by whatever breeze there is, abetted by the the passing of creatures large and small, keep the flowers and leaves they visit or attach their webs to in perpetual motion.

Later inside I was pleased to find that I had managed to capture the garden spider, legs unfurled and ready to run along the web. Since its web is on the north side of the shrub,  protected from all but the strongest winds, it must have been my movement that sent the web vibrating enough to cause alarm. Was it anticipating a meal or ready to flee if I came any closer?

Bees, Busy or Not?

Posted July 18, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Urban gardens, Wildlife

Busy as a bee. I don’t remember the first time I heard that expression but I do remember enjoying the onomatopoeia of the expression when I was quite young. Back then I enjoyed the actual creatures less and always from a distance. Like most children, I was afraid of getting stung.

Since I began gardening I have become more comfortable with bees especially the gentle native bees such as sweat bees, mason bees and bumblebees. I can comfortably hold still while the former land on me.

Having watched these insects in my garden for a number of years, they do not seem the least bit busy. The overall impression they give is that of being out for a stroll in the sunshine.

For the first time this summer, I can imagine how the phrase came to be. In April a local beekeeper put two hives in my yard. Impulsively, I offered my yard as a location for two hives while discussion his expanding business at the Farmer’s Market last fall.

Bees in the hive

Over the winter I went back and read the postings on Neil Gaiman’s blog about his hives. I considered what it would be like to have hives in my tiny yard. I especially considered what effect the bees would have on the native bees. Would the honey bees displace the natives?

Now, two months after the hives were installed, I can say that the hives have not had any impact on the native honey bees that I can discern. While I haven’t taken an actual count, there seem to be as many bees as in previous summers.  If anything there may be more bumblebees a particularly happy situation given their decline in population since the early 90’s.

No, the honey bees haven’t chased the natives away but watching them has made me more aware of the natives and their unique behavior. Bees leaving and returning to the hive create an air space that would drive an air traffic controller crazy. Focus on one individual and you will notice that its path is directed and purposeful. It leaves knowing exactly where it intends to go and returns without getting distracted on the way.

By contrast the natives are wanderers. Their flight is slower and they move from bloom to bloom seemingly at random. Yet the native bees must do everything to survive that that hive bees must and for the most part on their own.

The honey bees can fly directly back to their hive protected as it is by sheer numbers, as many as sixty thousand bees in a single hive box. Solitary bees or those that belong to a smaller colony must protect their nest by preventing its detection. While there are certainly a number of these nesting in my yard, I have only once witnessed one entering its ground hole.

All of this has made me wishful that I had paid more attention to the bees in earlier years. I believe that there are as many native bees as before but I have no data to back this up. Maybe there seem to be more because I am looking for them more mindfully?

Recently I became aware of a particular citizen science project called the Great Sunflower Project.* The purpose of the project is to better understand the native pollinators and where they are working. My sun flowers haven’t bloomed yet but once they do I plan on collecting data about what bees visit the bloom.

* See the link to the right

Toddlers and Teens

Posted June 9, 2010 by julielwebster
Categories: Uncategorized

Like animals, plants have a life cycle and like animals some play out all the seasons of their life in just a few of our seasons. Others have a life expectancy similar to that of a human. Some live far longer though it is rare to have a tree like Llangernyw Yew or even the Endicott Pear Tree in a place where you can see it daily.*

Lately I have begun to identify plants by their ages. Some are toddlers. One of the key differences between babies and toddlers, besides the toddling, is that toddlers have mostly lost baby proportions and begun to look like real people.

In a similar way young plants can be babyish. Take the Sitka Mountain Ash I purchased almost three years ago now. It arrived during winter, wrapped in brown paper, two spindly dormant six-inch branches poking out of the center of the dark soil filling a quart container that seemed too large.  For two springs leaves formed at the end of each of the stems, leaves that were small and yellow-green. They resembled the pictures in my reference books in shape only. During this time, neither of the branches grew more than a few centimeters.

Sitka Mountain Ash

Sun-dappled Sitka Mountain Ash

This spring, when I finally made my way out the back corner, I didn’t recognize it at first. Each of the original branches is closer to a foot long and there are smaller stems growing off each. The leaves are a darker blue-green shade and twice as large as those last summer. I may have to wait another year or more for flowers and berries but now it is perfectly identifiable as an ash.

If the human transition to toddler is marked mostly by appearance and action, the one to the teen years is almost always described as a change in mood.  Plants are more pleasant. Plant teens bloom, literally. This year two of the native plants in my garden officially became teens.

The thimbleberry was first. It’s another one of the plants that went in during the year after I took the Habitat workshop. For two summers its maple-like leaves have waved in the breeze. Even a crow swooping through on its way to the rooftop can set the large soft leaves undulating. This May little buds formed in bunches at the end of several branches. Last week, one by one, they opened to delicate white petaled flowers heavy with pollen and holding court for the bees.

Thimbleberry in bloom

Thimbleberry in Flower

Now that the flowers have shed their petals and the pollen has been carried off by insects and the wind, it is time to wait again. Will I get my first taste of thimbleberry this year?

Just as the last blooms were fading on the thimbleberry, the Woods’ rose caught my attention. Planted during the same time frame, the rose has been healthy. Its expanding needle covered stems have grown to provide a formidable barrier between the bird bath and the neighbor’s cat. Until this year it hasn’t lived up to its name. One morning last week, the cloudy gloom was brightened when I discovered tight dark red buds topping off most of the branches. A few had swollen leaving tiny slits exposing the pink wrapped inside waiting to emerge.

Woods Rose

Wood Rose budding

Thimbleberries in the summer and rose hips in the winter. So much to look forward to!

* Both of these trees are listed in the wikipedia list of the oldest trees. The Yew lives in a churchyard in Wales. The pear tree is in Danvers, MA where I spent a lot of time in my early adulthood. I never knew that that oldest living fruit tree in the US was so close by.