Tag Archives: climate

Heating Up, Cooling Off

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It’s a paradox of life that what gives us pleasure in moderation often gets us into trouble when we get greedy.

I’m not talking about food, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or any of the other things that might come to mind. Because the second-highest heat index ever recorded in a city was marked today in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran – a mix of high humidity and soaring air temperatures yielded a ‘feels-like’ of 74°C (165°F).

So I’m talking about air conditioning.

Air conditioners in Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo: PKR

Modern air conditioning, the kind that transforms vast stretches of hot agricultural land into productive cities with office buildings and booming economies, was only invented in 1902. Before that, the height of technology when it came to cooling was the rotary fan, which was used as far back as the 2nd century in China (only for the very wealthy).

So what’s the paradox with air conditioning? Well, there are a few. For one thing, that delicious cool air comes at a price. It’s considerably more expensive than your average table or ceiling fan when it comes to electricity, because it needs a lot more power. A ceiling fan uses 25 to 90 watts of energy; central air conditioners can use as much as 2500 to 3500 watts. Even with increasing efficiency in AC units, and the expansion of renewable power generation, AC is still an energy intensive alternative.

Old-fashioned air-conditioning in Dubai. The tower catches wind from four directions and channels it down into the house.
Photo: Denise Chan/Flckr via The Ecologist

And then there are the ozone-depleting refrigerants. CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs used for cooling are all greenhouse gases. The worst of the coolants have been banned in western countries (starting in the 1980s with the Montreal Protocol*). HFCs were banned in a 2016 treaty signed in Kigali, Rwanda, with phase-out starting in 2019 in the United States and then gradually for other countries, notably China (2024) and India (2028).

Meanwhile, AC use is rising rapidly in these countries as the middle class expands. Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that about 1.6 billion new air-conditioning units will be installed by 2050. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that we went for millennia without it, or have architectural techniques for coping with heat without AC – methods both ancient and new.

The more we use air conditioning, the hotter we make the planet, and the more we need air conditioning.

So get out your hand fan, crank up your ceiling fan (or in my case, table fan), and get ready for the next heat wave.

*Reagan signed the Montreal agreement with the words, “The Montreal protocol is a model of cooperation. (It) is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”

Although President Donald Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, there is little worry he will do the same for the HFC agreement – the phase-out is supported by the two U.S chemical companies that make HFC alternatives, the DuPont spinoff Chemours and Honeywell International.

 

Abundance of Sun

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June 21 marks the longest day of this year in the northern hemisphere, and thus, it’s officially summer. Happy Summer Solstice!

At least here in south-eastern France, the dog days have already begun – hot and sunny and cloudless and dry.

We’re in the midst of the year’s first proper heat wave, with the temperatures at near-record highs. There’s the sense that every year now, or at least most of them, will be record-breaking when it comes to heat.

We hooked up cisterns to catch spring’s ample rainfall – with any luck, that water will see the kitchen garden through what promises to be a very long season of sun spread over ever-shortening days.

 

 

Six of One

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I have an affinity for hybrids of technology and nature, whether in art or engineering. There was the Coniferous Clock made of cedar, fresh and green in spring, brown and withered in winter, that told a simple tale of a year’s passing.

Here’s a new take on using plants in a sleek design: The CityTree, made by Green City Solutions. CityTree is an urban air filter that uses moss to remove pollutants from city air.

CityTree.
Photo: Via CNN

In a cool trick of using densely packed moss that has more leaf surface area than other plants, the self-contained, mobile units are solar-powered, self-watering and are monitored via sophisticated sensors. They are estimated to remove the same amount of pollutants from city air as up to 275 trees. This can, according to the inventors, add up to the annual removal of 240 metric tons of CO2 per unit.

Like the super neat SmartFlower Solar installations of blossom-shaped solar panels that follow the arc of the sun across the sky – one is at a supermarket just down the road from our house – this is a great concept that has its price. In the case of CityTree, each unit is currently priced at around $25,000. The company states that the units are made from a high proportion of recyclable materials and have a long life, but how does that really break down in terms of resources, disposal, and maintenance over the long term?

CityTree with optional bench.
Image: Green City Solutions

Still, I like it. Even if achieving equivalent results doesn’t always mean the methods were equivalent. Six of one isn’t always the same as half a dozen. After all, plant a hundred trees or cover a hundred house walls in ivy, and you’ll be filtering city air for decades with very little overhead. But for that, you need the soil, the water and the will.

It’s a sign of our poor urban planning that we even need to talk about CityTree, but I have a feeling we might just be seeing more of them. The makers boast that CityTree has the services of a whole forest on the surface of 3.5 sq. meters (37 sq. feet).

It’s an intriguing and creative solution. They’re nice to look at, and I bet they smell almost like a forest.

Oakwood forest, Scotland.
Photo: Forestry Commission Scotland

Divestment Transparency

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Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

We like to think we can see the true nature of the world around us, or at least, that we have a chance of understanding it. In February, the Irish government took a big step towards revealing how the fossil fuel infrastructure really works. How? By halting all public investment in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas from the €8 billion (US$8.6 billion) Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.

When it comes to the environment and protecting it for our own health as well as that of the planet, it helps to try and see through the obvious arguments about why we are still using so much fossil fuel, even though we know the damage it does to the climate. After all, Shell Oil made a film about that damage to the climate by fossil fuel use back in 1991, so none of this is new.

So after decades of discussions, why aren’t we further down the road to renewable energy use?

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

One key reason is because some of the largest modern governments are so profoundly intertwined with the fossil fuel industry. Massive subsidies go towards supporting supply security, but also fund environmental protection by reducing emissions. A 2016 report published in World Development estimated that direct fossil fuel subsidies averaged 6.5% of the global GDP in the years 2013-2015, with over half the subsidies going to coal (China is the largest subsidizing country by far).

Subsidies of renewable energies are a small fraction of this amount, particularly if one folds in the indirect subsidies of maintaining fossil-fuel infrastructures, and the lack of holding fossil fuel companies all along the production chain financially accountable for damage done – for example, clean-ups of damaged water systems or land polluted in oil spills, or ecosystem rebuilding following mining activities.

These subsidies are public funds that are paid to support what is already one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

By becoming the first country in the world to fully divest from fossil fuel subsidies, Ireland shines a light on how the system really works. Knowing how much any given government is paying to support fossil fuel use instead of more sustainable energies can provide real insight into policy decisions – and if that country is a representative democracy, that knowledge can guide voters’ choices.

This divestment gets down to the hidden structures that keep a dangerous addiction both strong and intact.

Untitled, (lily)  (1932), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Untitled, (lily) (1932), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

 

Stone Cold Facts

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Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

Clepsydra Elegy

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It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest tools humans used to tell time was water. After all, it’s what we are, what we need to live.

A clepsydra is an ancient clock system that, at its most basic, uses two bowls, one nested inside another. The outer bowl is filled with water; the empty inner bowl has a hole at the bottom which allows a controlled flow of water to seep in.

Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient Persian clock in qanats of Gonabad, Zibad.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Once the inner bowl has filled with water, it is emptied and placed on the surface of the water again until it sinks.

Timekeepers as early as 500 BC kept an eye on the water flowing from one bowl to another to determine fair distribution of irrigation resources between farmers (in ancient Persia, by using water channels known as qanats). Needless to say, the position of timekeeper was important, and subject to oversight by other village elders to ensure parity.

Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient water clock used in qanat of Gonabad 2500 years ago.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

We’ve had a water clock of sorts on a planetary scale for as long as long as humans have recorded history, and beyond.

We call them glaciers. They rise, they retreat. The bowls are biggest at the two poles, and for the duration of what we know as human civilization, the Arctic and the Antarctic have been keeping time over the procession of the seasons and climate that have allowed our species to farm and flourish.

It’s only recently, over the past century or so, that we have realized these clocks are not static. They are what water always is: in a state of flux. We’ve known for decades that the melting of the ice at the two poles could spell a new era, one in which the inner bowl of the clepsydra stays submerged and our measure of time is changed.

The level of Arctic sea ice is, once again this year, at its lowest recorded level.

What we need, maybe, are more vigilant timekeepers.

Here’s one of my current playlist videos, performed against the backdrop of calving Arctic ice. An elegy is a lament for something that has already passed away – let’s do everything we can to work against that scenario for the Arctic.
Listen for the crash at the beginning:

 

Looking Forward, Looking Back

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Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon. Via: NASA

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon.
Via: NASA

We were recently at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where we viewed an exhibition called You Say You Want A Revolution. It was a compilation of materials and installations that illustrated the upheaval in popular culture and music from 1966-70, and asked whether they impacted the way we live today and think about the future.

I was young but I remember that era well. There was a fire and passion to break down the stagnant structures of the past, to imagine a new future that respected people of all stripes and persuasions.

From the wall of the museum exhibition: "The space programme, which was meant to show mankind that its home was only its cradle, ended up showing that its cradle was its only home. It was the defining moment of the twentieth century." By: Robert Poole, Earthrise (2008)

From the wall of the museum exhibition: “The space programme, which was meant to show mankind that its home was only its cradle, ended up showing that its cradle was its only home. It was the defining moment of the twentieth century.”
By: Robert Poole, Earthrise (2008)

Some of the most important images of that era were taken from space, from missions to the moon. The space program was an immense achievement – but what happened with the astronauts looked over their shoulders was just as relevant. What they saw behind them, for the first time in human history, was our planet, a jewel floating in space.

I remember being impressed and inspired by these images as a young person. We were worried about ideologically-driven nuclear war, about over-population. My first published piece of writing was a letter to the editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go live in off-planet space colonies if it would help save the Earth. I was thirteen, and filled with sense of solidarity with both the planet, and with my fellow humans.

The painting of the interior of a "Model III" cylindrical Space Colony. Artist: Don Davis

The painting of the interior of a “Model III” cylindrical Space Colony.
Artist: Don Davis

I had hoped to be writing this post with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, and instead find myself writing it to discourage any slide into despair. It seems in our fear and insecurity at where our institutions have taken us, we are drawing lines between each other, ever deeper in the sand and in minds, when we can and must reach across them if we are to keep this planet a place where we can thrive.

I offer this as a reminder that we are all in this together, all of us, every living creature. More than ever, globalization shows us how small this place is that we call home. Too small to be distracted by hate, by squabbling over borders that are, in the truest sense, imaginary creations on a little planet. We quite literally all breathe the same air, drink the same water, tread the same soil.

The science-fiction dreams of green, forested space colonies are unattainable imitations of what we have right here. When you look at the image below, you won’t see any borders, and like it or not, it’s what we all share.

Let’s look forward at the big picture, insist on working together rather than against each other, to take whatever size steps we can, to take care of one another and our home. Let’s listen through the yelling and find common ground.
These days, finding common ground with those on the other end of a belief spectrum feels revolutionary — yet whether we acknowledge it or not, we all share more than divides us. Let’s get to work.

The Blue Marble—Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972. Via: NASA/Wikipedia

The Blue Marble—Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972.
Via: NASA/Wikipedia

Waiting For Rain

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I was running my loop the other day when I came across this delicate specimen in the middle of the road – a damselfly that was flitting around two weeks later than the very end of the usual damselfly season, probably because it still feels like high summer.

I shooed it off the asphalt as a car approached, and it alighted on a leaf just long enough for me to take its picture. Not for nothing is it known as ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo), but it was a little far from its natural stream habitat. Maybe it was looking for water.

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo). Photo: PKR

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo).
Photo: PKR

In a normal year, we’d get a week of rainfall the first few days of September. Same routine year after year. School starts, and it rains. Not this year. This year saw unbroken rain from spring to early summer, and not much since. The garden lawn is brown and crunchy as shredded wheat underfoot, the plants and trees are hanging on (or not – we’ve lost at least two trees to the heat this year).

The air has been still and heavy, the corn fields look green from a distance but the corn is dried and ruined on the stalks, and while no one is using the word drought because of all the rain earlier in the year, it feels…strange.

I was actually out on two separate runs the day I took these photos – the morning run, when I saw the damselfly, turned out to be too oppressively hot to complete my full 10k. I waited until dusk to do the rest.

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset. Photo: PKR

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset.
Photo: PKR

NASA released numbers showing that 2016 is the hottest year on record, meaning of course not the hottest year ever, but just since we’ve had the technology to record temperatures. Meaning the ‘modern age’ which defines current society.

As much impact as our industrialized society has on the planet’s temperature, it’s hard to even estimate what impact these rising temperatures and extreme weather will have on societies around the world.

A recent study published by the Harvard University Economics Department correlated temperature with school test results and found that above a certain temperature, performance went down. Consistently. We talk about the adaptability of animals and plants to changing conditions, but what about our own adaptability?

Temperature reconstructions by Nasa, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming. Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Temperature reconstructions by NASA, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming.
Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Humans actually function within a relatively small comfort zone of temperature. We can survive at extremes, but it’s not always easy or pretty, and historically it’s been in smaller populations than currently sharing space on Earth.

The sky has turned grey in the past twelve hours, we’ve had a smattering of raindrops, but it’s still summer-hot and sticky. Much of France is on an extreme weather alert this week, not for heat, but for severe storms and hail.

Guess I’ll have to see what the day brings.

Here’s a good waiting for rain tune – one that I like, and not just because of the spoonerism of the band’s name.

Rare Snow, Rare Rant

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It’s one of those days that confirm the thinking of both climate change deniers and the other 98% of us.

I wanted to go out for a run, and ended up wearing my spring running tights, a winter running jacket, and gloves. A fierce wind has been blowing from the north-east. The sky looks like late April but it feels like January.

Out on my run in the bright spring sunshine, a white mote floated down before me. A bit of cherry blossom? Underfeather fluff from an amorous songbird above? Maybe a glint of wing from the first small dragonflies in my path? After all, it’s almost May and spring has sprung.

The sparkling bit of something that floated down in front of me, and the many others that followed, were none of those things.

It was snow. Not much, just a light flurry, but most decidedly snow. Pretty, the way it caught the sunlight. The mountain range beyond lies under a late spring blanket, just after the end of the ski season here.

Spring blossoms against new snow. Photo: PKR

Spring blossoms against new snow.
Photo: PKR

Fodder for those who choose to deny what they still call ‘global warming.’ After all, how can snow in late spring be a sign of a warming climate?

Proof for everyone else, the rest of us who call this process what it is: human-induced climate change.

Sure, we’ve had late snows before, just not quite this late, and not after weeks of warm vernal weather.

And so we begin to speculate on what it all means.

I recently read a couple of articles in the Washington Post, the oldest newspaper in the Washington D.C. area, winner of dozens of Pulitzer Prizes.

One article, by Chris Mooney, was in the Energy and Environment section. It outlined some of the climate change expectations versus what is being observed on the ground right now, which could be summarized by saying that the climate is changing even more quickly than expected. It ends with a strong argument for putting a sharp end to deforestation, and for taking responsibility and quick action to stop further changes.

Several other articles and opinion pieces echoed this sentiment.

Winter skies move across an April landscape. Photo: PKR

Winter skies move across an April landscape.
Photo: PKR

The other, on the same day, was an Opinion piece by well-known and highly acclaimed conservative writer George F. Will. In it, he says that those who agree that the current era of climate change is caused by humans (i.e. pretty much everyone in the world except a tiny economically driven minority in a small handful of countries) are carrying out a “campaign to criminalize debate about science” by trying to reduce the noise made by deniers who call themselves skeptics. Mr. Will considers any refutation of this supposed climate ‘debate’ to be suppression of free speech and a move towards authoritarianism.

He frames the entire discussion as a government grab of individual and economic liberties, reminding me a bit of the fringe-thinkers who think the United Nations is actually a New World Order organization with a goal of world domination.

I’m not sure why the Washington Post, with its long and respected history, would choose to publish such a contrast on Earth Day. It’s hard to grasp why a tenacious group of people, some of them very smart, would choose to ignore such widespread agreement across the globe in favor of short-term politics – and for such a grimly nihilistic worldview, at that.

A recent study found that in 14 industrialized countries, the largest proportion of deniers (17%) was in Australia. The U.S. came in at 12%, far fewer than the number of Americans who think that the sun revolves around the Earth, or who haven’t really been convinced by the whole evolution thing.

A piece like Mr. Will’s in a newspaper like the Washington post is exactly the kind of thing that makes the head-in-the-sand stance look like there’s actually any kind of debate going on at all, and that in itself could be seen as an irresponsible environmental act.

Meanwhile, I’m watching pretty snowflakes settle on the spread of petite white daisies across my lushly green garden lawn.

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)