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.