Tag Archives: #bees

Left To Its Own Design

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Five weeks is an eternity in summer gardening, and five weeks is how long I neglected the garden because of an injury. At some point, I stopped going out there because I couldn’t stop myself from trying to weed and clip, even when every movement was painful. Easier just to watch it from a distance and figure that if there’s one thing a garden doesn’t absolutely need to keep growing, it’s a gardener. I am there to impose my own order, but when it comes to growing, the garden does just fine on its own.

I could probably have hired someone, but that would have felt like an imposition – not on the person hired, but on the garden. On me. It’s my little patch to tend, and my little patch to let run amok.

So when I took a stroll around last week, splints finally off both arms, I was pleased to see that the garden does fine on its own. It might not be going in exactly the direction I would have chosen, but it picks its own path.

There were still a few gems here and there, just blossoming away, bees buzzing and birds singing, the weeds having a wild climb in forbidden places.

There won’t be the harvest I would have wished; the lettuce is shot and and the tomatoes a mess, but it’s still a fine little patch.

Nature finds a way, in gardens and elsewhere.

All Abuzz

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A friend challenged me to take nature photos for a week, and it resulted in several very nice shots of our garden, if I do say so myself.

But one of the most enjoyable aspects of the exercise took place when I went to take pictures of the two lavender bushes in front of our house. I planted them a few years ago, replacing ones that had gotten woody and sparse. These two bushes are veritable pollen engines, and the air around them is usually humming.

Photo: PKR

But it was only when I leaned in to take photos that I realized just what a busy miniature ecosystem these two plants have become. There were at least three different bee species in addition to the humble honeybees I usually see there – unfortunately, I couldn’t get all of them to pose for me. Several of them kept insisting on harvesting from lower branches, out of easy camera range.

And then there were the hummingbird hawk moths, the closest thing we have here in France to hummingbirds, at least in terms of size, movement and preferred food source.

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).
Photo: Wikipedia

There were several other small pollinators, flitting black creatures I couldn’t catch on camera, as well as wasps, which I left alone. And then there are the lizards that lurk on the stone wall and the countless birds in the branches of the climbing vine, all waiting for an easy meal.

Photo: PKR

All this around two lavender bushes, a small world on our terrace. One more argument, if any were needed, on the value of planting for pollinators, even in limited spaces.

Photo: PKR

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

End of Year Buzz

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Everyone’s talking about the unseasonable weather. Too hot, too cold, no snow, too much rain.

Here in eastern France, after a glorious autumn and then a first snowfall that was properly timed and then quickly melted, it’s been warm.

So warm, in fact, that a few of the bees under the eaves left their protective winter huddle and ventured out to explore the winter landscape, which sees our hydrangeas budding and otherwise dormant flowers starting to blossom.

Bee on a window shutter Photos: PKR

Bee on a window shutter
Photos: PKR

The bees wander around the outside of the house.

They attempt winter pollination of the holiday floral decorations.

They must be so confused.

As are we.

Bee on a winter rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Bee on a winter rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Varietals of Choice

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Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of articles and blog posts questioning whether organic food is really worth the generally higher cost of the products to the consumer, i.e. whether organic food offers significant health benefits for the person eating it that justify spending more.

The question itself represents part of what I consider our limited perspective when it comes to food production.

Farmers market in France - a single table with 15 tomato varieties from a single organic farmer. All photos: PKR

Farmers market in France – a single table with 15 tomato varieties (plus a couple of eggplant varieties) from a single organic farmer.
All photos: PKR

Food production in all its forms is one of humanity’s key points of influence on our environment. Everything about food production, from land and water use, to the plants and animals we domesticate and cultivate, to the plants, animals and insects we suppress as pests, has a major impact on our surroundings.

We discovered planned agriculture around 10000 years ago, and we’ve been using pesticides in one form or another for over 4500 years. Early pesticides came in the form of using smoke to try and drive away insects, blight and mildew, or sea water to kill weeds.

Mercury, arsenic and lead were introduced in the 15th century, while the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium have been used in powdered form for two millennia.photo 2(6)

But pesticide use as we understand it today – the industrial-scale production and use of synthetic pesticides – is really a product of the post-1940s era when DDT and a host of other chemical compounds were developed and manufactured on a large scale.

Yields rose, prices went down, and the new pesticides seemed safer for humans than older ones like arsenic.

Until it turned out that some of the new products had a number of wide-ranging and unanticipated effects on the environment and wildlife. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring focused attention on this.

In response to increased evidence of the impact of these products on wildlife and humans,  more refined pesticides were developed, as well as plants which are genetically modified to resist pests.photo 4(4)

Most of these newer products are currently considered safe for human consumption and for the environment – but then, so was DDT back in the 1940s and 1950s.

Some pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, are suspected of negatively impacting important pollinators around the world, foremost among them honey bees.

And then there’s the issue of pesticides being combined, or misused, with as yet unknown effects.

Broadly speaking, the focus of industrial farming is to produce more food from any given amount of land. Pesticide use, monocrop farming and less produce diversity, GMO development – all target increased agricultural yields, as well as profitability for the companies selling these products.

Broadly speaking, the idea behind organic food production is to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity while avoiding all use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and to do so in a manner that is sustainable and perhaps profitable.

The focus is on the impact of human food production on the surrounding environment, and on reducing any negative impact of synthetic or harmful products on land, plants and animal life – including humans.photo 5(1)

Buying organic isn’t simply a choice between healthy and unhealthy produce for human consumption.

Plenty of conventionally grown foods are perfectly healthy to humans.

Some have almost no pesticide residue. Some – at least in the United States – have residue from up to 29 different pesticides.

Those pesticides, sprayed or added to wherever the produce was grown, eventually end up in the water systems, soil, or on the wind and carried to other plants and animals.

I have no problem with buying conventionally-grown produce, and I have no issue with buying organic.

Where I take issue is when the choice is portrayed purely in terms of cost-effectiveness and health benefits for the consumer.

We have so many choices available these days, and the choices we make matter.photo 2(7)

Valentine Cartography

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You can email individual trees now in Melbourne, and thousands of people are doing just that from around the world. Not that the trees can read the emails, since as far as I know they have not yet been equipped with technology that translates into Tree.

The Melbourne city council initially started a project to help identify trees so that they could receive better protection and care – 70,000 trees were assigned individual email accounts so that citizens could report incidents of fallen branches, or vandalism.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald, Germany. All photos: PKR

Wetterstein mountain, Mittenwald, Germany.
All photos: PKR

Undoubtedly, some of the email correspondence actually concerns trees in trouble.

But as it turned out, what people really wanted to write about was the trees themselves. Thousands of odes to particular trees began to pour in.

Maybe the trees can sense the good intentions, even if they can’t read the emails.

You might have noticed that none of the images here have to do with Melbourne’s trees.

I was on a run a couple of days ago in Mittenwald in southern Germany that turned into a walk due to all the excellent scenery, but also due to the multitudes of butterflies around the path.photo 1

I had to zig and zag to avoid bumping into them as they bobbed back and forth between favorite flowers.photo 5

There were bouquets of them in some small fields, and the air was alive with the sound of bees.photo 5

But there was one particular plant that must have had a particularly appealing scent – scruffy, rangy, it had two wilting blossoms, yet was covered with butterflies and bees pushing at each other to feed there. photo 4

Unfortunately, the image I took came out blurred, and I didn’t want to disturb the insects so I didn’t stick around to retake it several times. There are eight butterflies, bees and other insects on these two blossoms.photo 2

I found the same plant on the return trip thirty minutes later, still dishing up whatever righteous nectar it had on tap. If there were a single pollinator-friendly plant to be cloned along this path, I guess this would be the one.

But this one must be pretty tasty, as well.photo 4

So as it turns out, Melbourne’s Urban Forest Visual is a cartography of affection.

An excerpt from Melbourne's Urban Forest Visual interactive map. Source: City of Melbourne

An excerpt from Melbourne’s Urban Forest Visual interactive map.
Source: City of Melbourne

I have a small map of love that runs along a small stretch of forest, right here near Ferchensee.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald.

Ferchensee, Mittenwald.

If the Mittenwald brooks, lake, trees, mountains, plants and wildlife had email addresses where I could send my affections, I would do it. Instead, I’m doing it here.

 

*Thanks so much Rob Cairns for sending me the article on Melbourne’s trees.

Dog Days

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We’re in the middle of a significant heat wave here in eastern France – the French call it la canicule, a word which has at its root a reference to a celestial body other than the sun.

Between July 3 and August 11, the star Sirius rises almost in conjunction with the sun – and Sirius is the brightest star in the Canis Major, the Greater Dog constellation. Actually, the term goes all the way back to the Egyptians, who began their New Year with the return of Sirius.

For centuries it was thought that the star brought with it the heat of summer.

Hence, the ‘dog days’ of summer.

Sirius in Canis Major Source: Space.com

Sirius in Canis Major
Source: Space.com

I was out early this morning – as I am every morning these days – trying to save some of the garden plants from withering under the blazing sun.

We lost some beautiful trees in the deadly canicule of 2003. While I can’t save all the leafy friends, I have been trying to keep a couple of the more fragile ones from drying out, including a gnarled apple tree and a small Japanese maple.

Our garden is an old one – it’s been worked in one form or another for hundreds of years. When we arrived here twenty years ago, the small enclosed space was home to twelve flower beds and nine fruit trees scattered across a mosaic lawn. photo 1(4)

We re-planted the garden a few years ago to be much less water dependent and pollinator-friendly. We reduced the size of the lawn by around half, laid pebble paths through the shady areas, built raised beds,  put in lavender rows and planted grasses that fend well for themselves.

One of the trees that doesn’t seem to need much help is our mirabelle tree – sure, the harvest will be a fraction of what it was last year, but the tree is flourishing and content.photo 1(5)

We have large trays of water out for birds and insects.

The lawn – which I just reseeded this spring – is a loss. It crunches underfoot, but I don’t see the point in watering it. I’ll take the long view and replant in autumn for next year.

photo 3(3)

As I was watering a small fig tree I planted against a stone wall, a small bird emerged from beneath the hosta leaves that line one of the paths. It was looking at me, and looking at the spray of water, then back at me – so I inched the water a bit closer to the bird, and before I knew it, another bird had joined the first and they were chirping like mad as they enjoyed the short shower.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

If this is the shape of summers to come, I guess I’ll be reducing the lawn even further, and gardening for heat resistance.

In the meantime, with no end to the heat in sight, I’ll just do what humans have been doing in this situation for the entire length of history – try to take it easy, and pray for rain. If I can rely on the tradition of dog days and Sirius setting in early August, I shouldn’t have much longer to wait.

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France. Source: France Pittoresque

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France.
Source: France Pittoresque

Shady Ladies and Elderflower Cordial

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A small herd of new cattle appeared along my running path a few weeks ago, several cows and a single bull. All of them have thick, dark red hair that tufts up in waves like a field of wheat in the wind. And within a short time, there were small calves.

They graze in a triangular field not far from where my running loop begins, and are separate from the black-and-white herds in the surrounding meadows.

Taking the shade - some new faces on the running loop. All photos: PK Read

Taking the shade – some new faces on the running loop.
All photos: PK Read

There are several red, massive breeds that look a bit like them on a site that describes dozens of cow breeds, but the breed that comes closest is in description is the Salers – a very old breed of southern France, with a history that stretches back 7000-10,000 years to prehistoric times.

They’re bred for climates at low mountain altitudes where the winters can get cold, and they are known for being excellent milk producers – which makes them good for cheese production.photo 1

This group was escaping the sunshine in the one sliver of shade available on the entire meadow, and they didn’t take very kindly to my approach. There was a fence between us, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

After the run was accomplished, I decided to make some elderflower cordial. The word ‘cordial’ is one that is falling out of fashion these days, at least in its meaning of ‘strongly felt’ or ‘warm and friendly’.

When it comes to its meaning as a sweet-flavored fruit drink, the word always carries with it a scent of Victorian gentility for me.

Elderflower trees are considered little more than giant weeds here in our corner of France, growing rampant in the hedgerows between the fields. The wild one in our garden is no different.

It bursts up through a yew bush recklessly as if it has every right to be there. Up until a couple of years ago, I would cut it back to the ground during the spring and winter chops.

The stray elderflower tree.

The stray elderflower tree.

Here’s a recipe for non-alcoholic elderflower cordial, should you feel inclined and have the opportunity.

Like many things, making elderflower cordial is dead easy, it just takes a bit of patience.

With all the development of new houses in our area and the rapid disappearance of meadows and hedgerows, I’ve come to look on our little elderflower with some sympathy. I’ve started to treat it with a bit more…cordiality.

The bees like it, it smells nice, the flowers are pretty – and I can make a cordial that will bring fragrance and flavor to hot summer days in the months to come.

Telling the Bees

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Many cultures have customs relating to bees, animals that have long been highly valued, if little understood. After all, bees work hard all year, they pollinate many of our favorite foods and enable agriculture, they provide honey, and they don’t ask for much except to be left to toil in peace.

I found out today that bees are considered bearers of good fortune and should treated as members of the family. ‘Telling the bees’ means to inform them of any major family news.

Some say one should speak to bees gently, and not harshly, so as not to incur their anger, or worse, their departure.

Until this morning I didn’t have much notion of bee lore. Coming to bees late in life, as I have, what I know of the creatures and their habits is mostly either biological, or from the perspective of a honey enthusiast.

It could be said that while I don’t know bees all that well, I am a fan of their work.

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.  Source: Woop Studios

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.
Source: Woop Studios

I’ve written before that we have a long-standing bee colony in a high roof corner of this old house. The colony was there when we bought the house, I assume it’s been there for a very long time. There are two reasons we’ve never had it removed: The corner is high and inaccessible, and the colony doesn’t bother us.

A third reason is that by not disturbing the bees, we provide a home to an established wild colony – and bees are as threatened here in France as they are around the world. I like the hum of bees around the house and in the garden.

Our living room is located in what was once space for an attic and grain storage, and the bee colony is a few feet outside one large window of this room. We were sitting down yesterday evening, the warm glow of the sunset still flooding across the floor, when I noticed a large scattering of small bodies.

Upon closer examination, I found that they were bees. Many were alive, some weren’t. A few were wobbling around, several staggered along the windowsill. The hive outside was still buzzing with activity while the group inside the house stumbled, disoriented, too weak to flee.

I gathered them up and gently put them all – the quick and the still – outside on the window ledge, hoping they’d revive and rejoin the hive. By the time I’d put them all out, however, the sun had set and the air was cool. But I hoped some of them would make it through the night.

And see, this morning, the sun poured down on them, and a few dozen on the window ledge twitched, flexed, and took flight. The rest were too far gone.

There were also a couple dozen freshly arrived bees dozily walking around on the floor again. I put them out, they flew off.

The strange thing is, from what I could tell, none of the bees flew up to the colony. They buzzed off in wildly different directions, looping like drunk pilots. Are they succumbing to local pesticide use? Just tired from trying to find their way back home? Trying to strike out on their own and failing?

I even found a few of them clustered a floor below, under the chair at my office desk. They, too, took flight once I put them out.

Perhaps I should be telling the bees some news, but nothing comes to mind.

So what I’m wondering is what the bees might be telling me. And whether I’ll understand whatever it is they’re trying to say.

Anyone who knows bees – I’d welcome any thoughts on my disoriented visitors.

 

 

 

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

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The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4

 

And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM