Saturday, January 31, 2015

Potter Wasps

Have you ever run across a little mud pot, perfectly formed, about the size of a small marble, stuck to a twig or a rock or something else rather stationary?

If so, you've come across the nursery for a type of solitary wasp known as a potter wasp.  (A very appropriate name, if you ask me!)

These are great little insects to have living in your garden.  They are gentle wasps and will not sting unless you actually pick one up.  That pot?  Well, let me tell you about the life cycle of the potter wasp....

Adult potter wasps feed on flower nectar to provide themselves with the energy they need to perform their adult tasks. For a male potter wasp, this is pretty simple.  He needs to find female potters wasps and mate with them.

As a side note, in these photos the potter wasp (Eumenes fraternus) is nectaring at Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata), an annual wildflower that can be surprisingly attractive, although it tends to get a little leggy.

Life is a bit more complicated and definitely harder for female potter wasps, which are usually larger than the males.  A female not only has to find a male and mate, then she has to locate a suitable site to build her pots and ensure that the next generation has enough food and is safely protected enough to make it to adulthood.

To do this, the female potter wasp gathers mud in her mouth (some sources say she actually carries water to dry soil and mixes up the mud herself, mouthful by mouthful!) then flies to her selected site to put the mud in place.  It can take hundreds of flights to build each pot, so the pots are usually located fairly close to a source of appropriate building material.

Once the pot is built, the female begins looking for small caterpillars.  When she locates an appropriate caterpillar, she stings it with just enough venom to paralyze the caterpillar but not kill it, then drags it to the waiting pot, where she deposits it through the open mouth of the pot.  Depending on the size of the caterpillar(s), the female potter wasp may provision each pot with from one to 12 caterpillars!  Then the mother potter wasp lays a single egg and closes up the pot with more mud.

When the egg hatches, the larval wasp eats its way through all the nutritious food (a.k.a. paralyzed caterpillars) that Mom packed in.  When the larva is finished eating and growing, it changes into a pupa and undergoes more changes, finally emerging as an adult potter wasp.  The new adult potter wasp chews its way through the side wall of the pot, which is thinner than the neck, and flies away.

You can tell, then, whether the pot is being worked on (the neck of the pot will still be open), has a baby wasp inside it in either the egg, larval or pupal form (the pot will be sealed up tightly), or has successfully hatched out an adult wasp (there will be a hole chewed through the side of the pot.  One of the pots above, then, is fully provisioned and has an egg and paralyzed caterpillars in it, while the other pot has been constructed and the female has begun hunting for caterpillars with which to fill it.

Not surprisingly, the female will not start constructing a new pot until the one she's working on has been fully provisioned, the egg laid in it, and the neck opening has been sealed.

While wasps can strike fear in human hearts, the solitary wasps such as potter wasps and mud daubers are almost never aggressive.  After all, if a female solitary wasp gets killed, she has lost all ability to procreate.  Since a stinger is a modified egg-layer, a male wasp can never sting, no matter how scared or angry he gets.  It is only the social wasps, like paper wasps and yellow jackets and hornets, that have enough "extra" individuals that they can afford to aggressively defend their nests and risk losing their lives.

Since the baby potter wasps are completely "created" by eating paralyzed caterpillars, potter wasps are an important biological control of caterpillars in any natural community...and in your garden.  So next time you find a little round clay or mud pot or two or three, pause a minute to say thank you to the female potter wasp that built it and that helped make your garden healthier as she stocked the larder for her developing offspring.

Friday, January 30, 2015

So How Did a 1990 Prediction for 2010 Actually Work Out?

I've been cleaning out old files recently and I ran across an article from February 1, 1990, that I had pulled out of Family Circle magazine.  The article, by Sharon Begley, was about things we could do to "make a difference" and "save the Earth."   Along with 101 specific suggestions for individuals to take, there was a prediction of what life would be like in 2010.  I thought it was rather interesting to see how reality in 2015 compares with the prediction for 2010, actually made in 1990...

"7:30 A.M.:  After serving an organic breakfast to her 8-year-old son, Mark, Jessica scrapes the leftovers into the compost chute next to the sink and drops the empty glass juice-bottle into one of the five recycling bins stored in her kitchen closet.  She reminds Mark to throw his cloth napkin into the laundry hamper, then adds an apple to his school lunch box.  (Jessica doesn't mind the fruit's brown spot because it shows the apple hasn't been treated with pesticides.)  Time for school.  She applies No. 30 sunblock to herself and Mark.  (Because so many ultraviolet rays are reaching the earth through the thinning ozone layer, no one ventures outside without being well-protected.)  On her way out the door Jessica grabs the empty floor-cleaner jug and nail-polish bottle to return for refills. Then she unplugs the electric car, which has been recharging overnight, adjusts Mark's seat belt, and away they go."

Jessica - check.  Our daughter's name.
Organic breakfast - check.  She tries to eat organically whenever possible (and so do we).  So eating organically is possible...but hardly something a preponderance of people try to do.
Compost chute in the house?!  Fantasy.  Both we and Jess do compost, but we scrape stuff into a compost crock that we carry out to the compost pile when it gets full.  No automatic composters in the basement.

Glass juice bottle?  Fantasy.  It's all plastic packaging these days.
5 recycling bins?  Thankfully we've moved beyond that and have single stream recycling now!  (Although we do have to pay extra for it.)

Cloth napkin?  Check.  I've been doing that for decades now...and Jess does as well.
No grandkids yet, though, so I don't know about school lunches.  I suspect Jess wouldn't be fixing any;  she'd be paying for school lunches.

Mandatory No. 30 sunblock?  Mixed.  Sun screen is available in SPF 30 and even higher.  (Was it available in SPF 30 in 1990?  I don't remember.)
HAVING to use No. 30 sunblock every time we go outside because of a thinning ozone layer?  Not even.  YEAH!  Something we acted upon and partially solved!  Because the nations got together and banned CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), the ozone layer is doing better than predicted, especially compared to predictions back several decades ago.  Yes, it is recommended that we wear sun screen, but we don't have to be paranoid about wearing it every minute we are outside.

Empty floor-cleaner and nail-polish bottles that get refilled?  Ah, no.

An electric car?  Yup.  Jess and Kyle actually have one! And we have 2 Prii.  At least, culturally, we have higher mileage vehicle options available, although not that many people, percentage wise, are using them.

Going further.....

"As Mom always said, "Waste not, want not."  Those words of wisdom will again be the rule for our famlies to follow 20 years from now when we'll have made significant changes in every aspect of our lives - from how we eat and keep warm to how we shop and drive - to insure that our world becomes, and remains, environmentally sound."

Well, THAT didn't happen.  In fact, we waste a lot more now (and a lot more waste is being done consciously), from driving Hummers and big SUVs just to make the point that we can to buying amazing amounts of new clothing to changing our furniture out on a whim so that we can keep our homes looking up to date to buying new electronics every couple years. 

"Reforms are already under way.  As required by environmental legislation expected to pass Congress this year, utilities will cut emissions of sulfur dioxide 40% by the year 2000 in order to reduce acid rain.  Factories may have to capture toxic fumes before they escape up smokestacks.  Newspapers may be required to print on recycled paper to preserve virgin timber.  Few of us will notice." 

Well, I can honestly say that I don't know whether those initiatives went through.  Newspapers are dying, although they have been printed on recycled paper with biodegradable inks for a long time now.  Sulfur dioxide emissions cut by 40%?  I don't know.  Capturing toxic fumes before they go up smokestacks?  I don't know.  Even though I'm pretty environmentally aware, I have to admit to being part of the great masses who haven't noticed about whether these specific things passed.  Certainly many similar regulations did pass...and now many of these regulations are being revoked in the name of "freedom".

"...other new laws will hit close to home.  Gasoline-powered lawn mowers and lighter fluid for outdoor grills may be banned by 2010 because of the air pollution they generate;  instead, we'll plant drought-tolerant ground-covers that don't need mowing and ignite our charcoal with electric starters."

No.  Not even close.  I don't think they've even worked to make gasoline-powered lawn mowers more energy efficient and less polluting than they were in 1990.  Most of us use propane grills now instead of charcoal grills, with or without using lighter fluid.  (Is that an improvement or not?  I honestly don't know.)   And drought-tolerant ground-covers?  Ha!  People are putting more chemicals than ever on their lawns, they've put in irrigation systems to keep them watered, and many folks now hire services to keep their lawns mowed perfectly.  Yeah, we've gone backwards in most of these areas.

"Because almost all of our nation's landfills will be full by the mid-1990's (more than two-thirds have closed since the late 1970's), many throwaway conveniences of today may of necessity be banned by 2010.  Say goodbye to disposable razors, plastic microwave-food trays and plastic utensils and cups.  Overpackaged products like single-serving cereal boxes wrapped in plastic, and laundry products in elaborate plastic bottles, will also become distant memories.  Instead, we will buy one big jug of detergent, then purchase concentrated refills in pouches.  Rather than discarding an empty nail-polish bottle, we will carry it back to the store and get a refill.  Paper products will come in just one color - brown - but they will be dioxin-free."

Okay, almost none of this has occurred.  Dioxin-free paper products?  I think that has occurred, because I haven't heard about dioxin in ages.  Otherwise, almost everything is the same or worse than it was 1990.  More single serving foods.  More plastic trays and utensils.  More disposable everything.

The major divergence between predicted 2010 and real 2015 continues for the next several sections....

"...virtually all household waste will be recyclable, reusable or compostable..."   Ah, ... no.

"The need to make less trash will become the driving force of the 21st-century marketplace."  We're moving into the world of farce with this one.

"Farmers too will do their part, and trade in carcinogenic pesticides for such organic remedies as microorganisms and flowers that exude pest-killing chemicals. ...No longer will pesticides running off farmlands pollute [our rivers and lakes]."  Cue the maniacal laugh of irony.  (At least there IS a growing farmers' market sector developing, much of which is organic.)

But then the divergence starts to get smaller again....

"Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) will be outlawed because they are responsible for our thinning ozone layer (a band of gas about 15 miles up that blocks skin-cancer-causing ultraviolet rays from the sun).  This will mean that egg cartons and trays in meat packages will be made of recycled paper and not foam.  We'll also do without typewriter correction fluid and liquid spot remover, which contain ozone-depleting chlorine.  To insulate our homes, we will use cellulose foam from recycled wood fiber rather than blown plastic foam.  Our home air conditioners will operate on a new, costly chemical that will make staying cool on the road an expensive luxury."

Yup.  We nailed this one, although thankfully the "new, costly chemical" for automobile air conditioners wasn't as prohibitively expensive as feared.

"We'll be sacrificing other frills as well to slow the greenhouse effect (the gradual warming of the planet caused by carbon dioxide released when oil, natural gas, wood and coal are burned).  To conserve energy and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, we will install super-efficient three-pane windows with special coatings and fillings of krypton and argon gas that collect more heat during the day than leaks out at night.  We will screw in compact-fluorescent lightbulbs that give off the same amount of light as 60-watt incandescents but use only 18 watts of power."

Well, we have much more efficient windows than we did in 1990 and we utilize compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, too.  So, good forward motion in these areas.

"Thirty percent of the electricity we'll use to run our energy-efficient appliances in 2010 will be drawn from solar and wind power.  To collect sunshine, 1% of our nation's land -a total area about half the size of Arizona - will be covered by solar panels."

Well, we have much more energy efficient appliances than we did in 1990, but we don't get 30% of our electricity from solar and wind yet.  On the plus side, 5 years past the predicted day, we're finally moving in the right direction with both these renewable, carbon free, energy sources.

"Even our cars will plug into the sun.  (Methanol and natural gas may serve as transitional fuels in the 1990's, but since both contribute to the greenhouse effect, they will not suffice for long.)  "We don't have electric cars today because we haven't developed a battery powerful enough to let a car go more than 50 miles or so on a charge," says Dick Klimisch, Ph.D., executive director of environmental activities at General Motors.  "By 2010 we might." "

Only now, in 2015, is battery technology starting to move forward.  It took an auto industry outsider, Tesla, to move us forward in that regard.  Unless the currently cheap gas prices derail the research and new technology, our fleet mileage should be increasing significantly in the next decade or so.

The article concludes with a paragraph that still rings true, if you adjust the decades a bit.  (We keep hoping we'll avoid the pain...but, as most of us know deep inside, usually you have to just go through the painful times to come out okay on the other side.)

"Yet for all we do, we can't reverse some of the abuse we've waged on this earth.  There is no way to stop chemicals already emitted from eating away at the ozone layer.  Greenhouse gases already aloft will warm the world, so storms like last year's Hurricane Hugo will be more intense, as will torrid summers like the sweltering one of 1988.  "No matter what we do," say EDF's Oppenheimer, "we're in for about a decade of acid rain, serious air pollution, additional warming and ozone depletion."  But if we can survive the 1990's, the 21st century might be livable. We can shape the future, IF we start today."

Oh, we're shaping the future, all right.  For the most part, we're too scared of moving through the necessary pain to shape the future in a way we'll be happy about in the next 20 years.  What will 2035 bring?

Friday, January 02, 2015

Another Wasp Player in the Garden

I'm starting the process of going through the photos from 2014, the ones that I didn't have time to edit or identify during gardening season.  There are SOOO many to go through!  And most of them are of insects.

Anyway, luckily I don't have many insect photos from January, February, or March. So I'm already on April.

I have to laugh.  You'll probably recognize the first insect I needed to identify, since it commonly comes to porch lights in spring time.  I took this photo on April 21st.  The greenery is Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana).

I recognized it as an ichneumon wasp, but I didn't know much more than that.  I've seen many, many of these over the years.  None have ever acted aggressively; I don't know if they are capable of stinging or not, but since they are wasps, I don't push the matter.  Anyway, I still don't know a lot more about them, but the little I learned tonight made me laugh - is EVERY insect I learn about a predator?!

Anyway, this beastie is a short-tailed ichneumon wasp, Ophion sp.  Their larvae are caterpillar parasites - one larva per caterpillar.  The caterpillar does not survive the encounter.

So, in the future, if you see one or more at your porch lights, you should rejoice.  This is natural pest control at its finest!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Beginning the 2015 Yard List

Do you keep a yard list of the birds you see each year?

We do.  We've found it's a fun way to keep our eyes peeled for the unusual visitor, and it's also good for remembering the cool stuff we've seen in prior years.  Sadly, it's all too easy to forget the occasional visitors, but they can provide a real spark, both when you first observe them and, later, when you remember seeing them.

We didn't do a very good job of observing birds in 2014 - but, then, we were much more focused on Florida than usual!  As of right now, I only have a tally of 53 species for last year, which is the lowest number of species I've recorded since we moved in. As I go through my photos, though, I suspect I may be able to identify one or two more species to add to the list.  For now, in 2014, we saw 53 species.

That said, the lazuli bunting last May was a yard record.  Truthfully, though, I'd forgotten I'd seen it until I saw the photos again....

Compiled over the 8 years we've lived here, our overall yard list is now up to 121 species.  I don't think that's half bad for 10 acres in the middle of the country!

Of course, part of the fun of keeping an annual yard list is the chance to start fresh each January 1.  It's 2:13 p.m. as I write this.  Today, so far, I've tallied 20 species for our 2015 list - all of them observed from inside the house, since I'm feeling cocoonish.

So far, we have many of the normal feeder birds:  cardinals, blue jays, house sparrows, house finch, goldfinch, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, starlings, chickadees, tufted titmice, slate colored juncos....

Then we have the birds that are normal to us, but may be less familiar in other areas of the country.

Harris sparrows lead the list here.  Apparently they are quite rare in many areas of the country, but here they are a common, winter feeder bird.  All 3 birds in the photo above are Harris sparrows.  We generally have 30 or 40 coming in every day.

White-crowned sparrows (adult, on the left) are also very common for us, both mature and immature individuals.  As with the Harris sparrows (on right), we generally have 30 or so feeding in the backyard each day.

Some years we have pine siskins with us during the winter, and this year appears to be one of those years.  Pine siskins are a northern bird; they only move south when they need better food supplies.  They are rather like goldfinch cousins, eating much the same menu and being about the same size.

Another winter bird that I don't see all that regularly is the spotted towhee, shown here on the left.  By the way, the "old" name was rufous-sided towhee, which was quite descriptive and somehow more appropriate.  Towhees are a bird I tend to see because I notice that something is throwing up leaf debris everywhere - they are vigorous foragers in the leaf litter and really get their heart and soul into the search!

Not all birds come in for seed or suet.  This mockingbird visits several times a day, simply to take a drink of water from one of our heated birdbaths.

Then there are the cute, rusty Carolina wrens.  I love Carolina wrens, with their jaunty tails and their quick, restless motions.  They have a HUGE voice, which is thankfully quite musical, and a similarly sized persona.  We have a pair that seems to stick around all year, although I don't always see them consistently during the winter.  They will take suet and seed, and they also frequently take a quick sip of water or two.  The picture above is from this morning.

Rather surprisingly for the beginning of January, I have a male and a female brown-headed cowbird hanging around, and half a dozen red-winged blackbirds, too.  Most of the redwings I'm seeing are male, but there is a female or two coming in as well.  The first several years we were here, I don't remember having either of these species hanging on through the winter.  Neither is here now in large numbers, but it still surprises me to have any cowbirds or red-winged blackbirds hanging around, rather than having them headed south with their flockmates.

This morning Greg noticed that one of the male redwings has a maloccluded beak, leaving the mandibles to grow way too long.  I've seen worse and this individual appears to be coping just fine, but I have to wonder if a bird like this ever finds a mate and reproduces.

My final bird of the morning, species #20, was a majestic, red-tailed hawk that sailed over the yard and landed in one of the big trees in the draw.  No photo of this one, I'm afraid - I didn't think fast enough.   Each winter we have a pair of redtails in the area, and each year I hope that they'll nest in our yard, but so far they haven't.  Hope springs eternal...I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

So that's the start of my 2015 yard bird list!  Do you put out feeders?  What birds do you notice foraging in and around your gardens?  Just think of all the dormant insects they are eating - and all the fertilizer they are depositing!  What are you waiting for?!


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: A Retrospective from the Wilds of South Central Kansas, Part 2

From grasshopper-eating turtles to omnipresent praying mantises, there were so many interesting sightings in the yard and gardens this year that I hardly know where to begin.  I've shared some of those sightings through posts throughout the year, but tonight it feels like those posts just skimmed the surface of what I observed.  I've got a ve-e-e-ery long post drafted that is relatively complete...but it's way too long already and I'm just now looking at September's photos.

So I'm rebooting and sharing just a select few highlights.

We'll start our trip through 2014 in the yard/garden with a photo of the possum that showed up, snuffling through the birdseed leftovers, one day in early March.  Its tail was stubby and bloody, so something had been after it fairly recently;  I doubt it was feeling too good, which probably explains why it was willing to come in to birdfeeders in the middle of the day.

Incidentally, I have come to really appreciate possums.  First, they rarely carry rabies.  I believe it has to do with their low normal body temperature.  Secondly, they act as supreme "tick sweepers" - they keep their fur almost entirely free of parasites such as ticks, presumably by eating any they find when they groom themselves.  Thus possums will help reduce the population of ticks in an area, rather than increase it.

Amphibians were relatively common this year, which was so good to see. In the gardens around the house, I observed at least 5 or 6 different Woodhouse Toads (Anaxyrus woodhousii) over the course of the summer, ranging in size from a little over an inch to several inches long. 

I also noted at least 3 Great Plains Toads (Anaxyrus cognatus) throughout the summer.  On June 15th, I saw 3 different toads in one day:  2 Great Plains (one big and one little) and 1 Woodhouse!

On April 2nd, I went out one night to find this Plains Leopard Frog (Lithobates blairi) on the front porch, evidently enjoying an early feast on the insects that were being drawn to the porch light.  I've seen toads and tree frogs do that, but I've never seen a leopard frog come to lights before.

The gardening year wrapped up with a new-to-the-yard amphibian species, a gray treefrog (Hyla sp.), who showed up in the vegetable garden on October 19th.  It amazes me how animals that need water as much as amphibians do can survive the droughts we've had over the last several years.

My next highlight wasn't technically in our yard, although we do hear barred owls calling frequently in the evenings and at night.  Coming home from the grocery store on April 17th, we noted this individual on a fence post by the road, about a mile south of our house.  I have no idea what the size of a pair of barred owls' home range is, but perhaps it's possible that this is one of the birds we hear calling?  Or maybe this bird is one of "our" owls' offspring?  At any rate, it's a cool photo to have captured and I wanted to share it with you.  (Actually, I think Greg took this photo, since the bird was on his side of the car.  I want to give credit where credit is due.)

Compared to amphibians, reptiles weren't seen much during 2014.  I was able to get photos of a couple different garter snakes and 3 ornate box turtles.

The best turtle photo of 2014, I guess, is this one of the turtle munching down on a grasshopper.  She was quite nervous about the boys and me being so close, but she sure wasn't going to give up her tasty meal!  Good protein!

Of course, many, many of my photos are of insects, but I'm going to save those for some other time.

Have a wonderful 2015, both in the garden and out of it!   

2014: A Retrospective from the Wilds of South Central Kansas, Part 1

How should I sum up my last year in this blog?  I've been obsessing about this for several days now.  I want to share a couple exceptional books I read...but they aren't gardening books.  I took the time to go through the myriad of photos that I took, looking for special shots that I hadn't shared or trends or a "one a month, best of" sort of theme, but nothing gelled appropriately.  Most problematically, some months I literally had nothing and other months I had lots still to share.

Then, on Facebook this morning, I ran across NPR's best books of 2014.  As I scrolled through the graphic, I quickly realized that I hadn't read a single book they were highlighting - and there were 250 books on the list.  I don't think I even have a single book they highlighted, despite the fact that we have many, many piles of books sitting around the house, waiting to be read!

What could I do?  What should I do...?

Oh, screw it!  After all this angst and navel gazing, I'm just going to share a few things that seem like they were really good or interesting from my year, whether they have to do with gardening or not.  Thanks for sharing these things with me!

Our Daughter's Wedding:

I've been very quiet about this - partly because it wasn't a "gardening" topic and partly because I abandoned my normal role as photographer and thus, for several months after the event, had no photos to share.  There are many photos I could share now, but one will have to suffice.

Jessica and Kyle pledged themselves to each other at the end of May, in front of family and friends.  They seem very, very good together and we are tremendously happy for them.  We wish them many loving years together...and we will do our best to support them and the family they have decided they would like to have.

How to segue from that news?!  I can't, so I'll just have to change the subject....

Interesting Birds in the Yard:

Of course, the subtext for this section is "...that I was able to catch on camera"!

At the end of January, I noticed this different-looking, sparrow-like bird joining in the flocks at the feeders:  a female purple finch.  She didn't stay around long, but it was fun to welcome her to the group for a brief visit.  I hadn't heard of purple finches in the area and I actually saw fewer northern birds than usual last winter, so having her show up was particularly surprising.

Speaking of brief visits, this male lazuli bunting was a definite first for the yard!  Coming through in May, he didn't stay around long, either, but he'd have been welcome to take up permanent residence.  He's so skinny, though, that I have to wonder if he actually made it to the breeding grounds.

Just as we're saying goodbye to 2014, we've been visited by a deep cold spell, which has brought a couple birds to the yard I hadn't seen all year:

Since this is basically just a female cardinal, she obviously isn't an unusual species, but she is sporting an unusual color pattern known as (partial) leucism or as "piebald".  I've been surprised by all of the oddballs, usually aka genetic abnormalities, that I've seen at my feeders over the last 8 years here.

Finally, the last "oddity" isn't really an unusual species either, it's just the first time I've seen one of these cute birds this year.  Pine siskins are generally a northern bird, but they "irrupt" southwards during many winters.  They weren't here in my yard last winter, but I'm seeing a fair number of them suddenly with this end-of-2014 cold spell.  Sue, of the Facebook group, Gardening with Nature in Mind, asked me for a photo, so here it is!

Good Reads With Staying Power:

I wouldn't be me if I didn't share a couple of the excellent books that I've read this year.  For the last 10 years or so, I've kept a list of all the books I've read "cover to cover" each year, no matter what genre they represent.  If I hate a book, I don't finish reading it any more - there are too many books waiting to be explored for me to waste time on something that isn't intriguing me.  Not all "good" books stay with me, though...and not all books that speak to me need to be shared.   However, some DO need to be shared, and here are the ones that fit this category for me in 2014....

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova:  With a plot line about a highly intellectual woman who develops early onset Alzheimer's,  we read this book for our local book club.  The story is told from Alice's perspective, so the reader experiences Alice's life along with her as the disease progresses and her mind changes.  It is both terrifying and reassuring...and the book seems to be based on a very current understanding of the processes of Alzheimer's.  Our book club discussion about this novel was one of the best discussions we've had yet - and that's saying quite a lot!

The other book that makes my cut this year is A Sting in the Tale, by Dave Goulson, which I reviewed recently.  Definitely excellent, and it seems especially appropriate for anyone who reads my blog!

Sadly, since I've taken up Facebok, my reading seems to have declined.  I used to regularly get through 50 books a year, plus or minus, based on my lists.  This year it was just 31 books.  I think I may need to make some adjustments.....

Well, I think I'll end Part 1 here and continue in another blog post.  Individual posts shouldn't be books, in and of themselves!  Have a great last day of 2014!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"A Sting in the Tale" by Dave Goulson

When I was 9 or 10, my Uncle Ted came to the States after a couple years in Africa, where he had served with the Peace Corps.  He stayed with us for a while as he searched for and found a teaching job, then was able to find his own home (and eventually a wife, Maja!)  Uncle Ted brought with him a VW bug, tales of crashing his motorcycle into a lion basking on the road, and a book that he thought I'd enjoy reading, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

While I was glad when Uncle Ted found his own place (since he'd been given MY bedroom during his sojourn with us, while I had to bunk with my 2 younger brothers), I was always glad that he'd stayed with us.  I was especially glad that he'd shared My Family and Other Animals with me. I loved that book and I've reread it multiple times.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this magical story, it's the autobiographical tale - told from an adult's perspective - of a young English boy's years living with his mother and siblings on the Greek island of Corfu.  As a boy in this magical place, Durrell spent most of his days observing and collecting animals, bringing many of them home (alive) so that he could study them closely and learn their habits.  Not surprisingly, his family didn't share his love of animals.  They particularly disliked sharing their home with his menagerie and many humorous incidents resulted.  The book ends up as an engrossing combination of slapstick humor and natural history information.  Being the grasshopper-catching, toad-racing kid that I was, I loved it...and I learned an incredible amount about a wide variety of animals from reading it.

For several years afterward, I aspired to be a young, female, Gerald Durrell, even going so far as to make a series of "aquariums" out of cardboard milk cartons so that I could bring home unfortunate animals from the beach, then try to keep them alive in my bedroom.  My success ratio was abysmal, but my enthusiasm for animals and the environment never waned.

There's still a strong streak of that "young, female, Gerald Durrell" in me, so you'll understand how special I think a recently published book is when I say that it reminds me of My Family and Other Animals.

The book I'm referring to is Dave Goulson's A Sting in the Tale, which was published in 2013.  However, Dave Goulson isn't just a kid who loved animals, he is now a professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Sussex...and he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006.  This book is that wonderful mix of natural history and human saga that I came to love in Durrell's work, only this time the natural history tales revolve primarily around bumblebees and the human characters are apt to be graduate students or Dr. Goulson himself.

The prologue of A Sting in the Tale briefly describes Goulson's childhood, including some almost grisly (but still humorous) tales of learning about animals the hard way.  The body of the book covers a wide-ranging array of tales such as why (and how) Britain's population of short-haired bumblebees came to be re-established by way of New Zealand, why biologists can sometimes be found snipping toes off bumblebees, and how bumblebees find their way home to the right nest.

Bumblebees are important native pollinators.  They are often some of the earliest insects flying to pollinate spring flowers;  they can be among the latest insects pollinating in the fall as well.  There are species of plants - some of them quite important in our food supply - that rely heavily on the services of bumblebees for pollination, so the fact that bumblebees aren't doing well overall is important to know.  Goulson and his students have been doing much of the recent research learning about bumblebees and trying to determine what's been messing with their life cycles and causing their populations to decline so precipitously.

For any person interested in native pollinators or just interested in how the natural world works, the stories and discoveries in this book are fascinating.  For gardeners, they are likely to be especially intriguing.  I highly recommend reading this book - you'll never look at those fat, hairy, black and yellow bumblers quite the same way again!

P.S.  I would especially like to thank my friend Joan for recommending this book to me...and for almost forcing it onto me!  She was exactly right - it's excellent and I'm so glad that I didn't miss it.

The "It's A Good Life" Jar

Today is December 27, 2014.  There are four days left until the new year is upon us...and I'm actually remembering to start a project that I saw months ago on Pinterest which really spoke to me:  setting up a jar to collect memories of good times in.

I have picked out a jar.  It's our old cookie jar from when the kids were little.  It's nothing particularly unique - just a pressed glass jar, probably a reproduction, that I picked up many years ago.  With no children in the house and therefore no need/excuse to make cookies and keep them around, the jar has just been stored in the basement for years, gathering dust.

Said cookie jar has now been washed and dried, and it is sitting in the place of honor on a beautiful, new-to-us, carved table that was a special Christmas gift from friends Flip & Shelley.  Our old cookie jar is becoming our new "It's a Good Life" Jar.  Into this jar, I plan to place slips of paper anytime something happens that makes me feel lucky or blessed or particularly happy or just glad to be alive.  Hopefully, Greg will join in too.  On December 31st next year, I (we) will take out all of the slips of paper and have a wonderful record of the good things that 2015 has brought into our lives.

Yes, this is a little touchy-feely, to use Greg's favorite dismissive desciptor for activities or comments that look beyond the reality of day-to-day living, but that's okay.  A little touchy-feely-ness is a good thing, in my book, because remembering to be grateful for the positives in my life has always made me feel better overall.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think it would be a good thing for all of us to make a special point of cultivating gratefulness.  In fact, sometimes I think that one of the reasons Americans are so stressed nowadays is that we, as a whole, aren't very good about realizing how much good is already in our lives.  Yesterday reminded me of this:  the emphasis in the U.S. on December 26th is "After Christmas Sales", and this morning our paper reported that many people were disappointed at those sales yesterday.  Compare that to "Boxing Day" on December 26th in Great Britain.  For years I had heard the term and thought it referred to the sport of boxing, which I was at a loss to connect to Christmas.  Just recently I learned that Boxing Day is actually a day put aside for boxing up your extra stuff - the stuff that you just don't need or use anymore - and giving it away to those who could use it.  Isn't that a wonderful holiday?! What a great way to be thankful for all the new we received the day before from friends and family!  What a great way to focus on the good in our lives and try to pass along some of our wealth to others!

So I'm cultivating a new tradition in my life to celebrate my gratefulness.  For starters, I must say that I'm grateful to Pinterest for the idea!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

A "New" Plant Discovery: Woody Goldenrod

In walking through the Eglin Air Force Base Recreational Area last week, I found a plant I'd never seen before - a goldenrod that was relatively short, staying about 18-24" tall, and that grew at the edge of the forest.  I'd seen this plant blooming profusely along all the roadsides about 3 weeks earlier when I was visiting in early November, but I didn't recognize the species and I wanted to find out what it was. It was gorgeous!  The size was perfect for a garden setting.

As I started walking down the old, sandy road and got past the first flush of berries and goldenrod seedheads, I started noticing a different, shorter, past-prime goldenrod flower that seemed to be associated with a small, woody shrub.  Looking more closely, I realized that the spent blooms were actually a PART of the small woody shrubs I was seeing.

Those blooms seriously looked like goldenrod.  Could there possibly be a woody species of goldenrod?!  I took some photos so that I could investigate a little more later....

Lo and behold, when I got back and started looking, there was a plant whose common name was woody goldenrod!  When I looked at the photos, there was little question that this was the plant I had been noticing.  What were the chances that I'd be able to identify a new plant that quickly, especially in an area that I hadn't been actively gardening in for 8 years?!

What was my mystery plant, a.k.a. woody goldenrod?   It's Chrysoma pauciflosculosa, previously known as Solidago pauciflosculosa.  It is exactly what I thought it was:  a woody goldenrod shrub that maxes out about 2' tall.  It's the only woody goldenrod, so it has been assigned to its own genus, although it's still occasionally called by its old moniker, Solidago.  Once established, woody goldenrod grows in pure sand soils and handles drought without issue.  Because it needs deep and widespread roots to handle drought in sandy soil, it is almost impossible to transplant and thus it is hard to find in the horticulture trade.

If you look along the left edge of this road in this photo, much of the low vegetation here is woody goldenrod, beginning to go to seed.  Even in this natural setting, without any supplemental water or fertilizer,  woody goldenrod is compact and low.  It makes a great border plant.

I gathered some seed, which I scattered in Jess's garden.  Hopefully some of the seed will sprout, since finding this plant in the horticultural trade is generally difficult.  Remembering the roadsides lined with this beautiful fall gold, though, I'm seriously hoping to have it crop up in her garden.  I'll be sure to let you know if it makes its presence known.

Reindeer Moss - But There Were No Reindeer in Sight!

'Tis the season to talk about reindeer, so it seems appropriate to share about the reindeer moss I saw in the Florida panhandle last week.

Talk about something you're not likely to see in Kansas - take a look at this cool groundcover!

Called reindeer moss, this is actually a type of lichen classified in the genus Cladonia.  Lichen, if you don't remember your high school or college biology course, is actually a sort of conjoined organism, made up of an algae and a fungus with a symbiotic relationship.  They act in concert, seemingly a single organism.  They have no roots, but instead get their nutrition from their environment - the sunlight, water, minerals and air around them.

Lichens grow slowly - generally about 1-2 tenths of an inch/year.  Because they are so slow-growing, they don't take disturbance well.  In fact, if there is much disturbance, they will disappear quickly.  It can take them decades to reappear, if they ever do.

So when I see reindeer moss, I get pretty excited.  It means that the area doesn't get much foot traffic and is generally undisturbed.

On our walk through the Eglin Air Force Base Recreational Area, I not only saw one species of reindeer moss, I saw TWO species!!!

This puffy species I've been able to tentatively identify as Powder Puff Lichen Moss (Cladonia evansii)....

but this species I haven't found a specific identification for.  So, for now, I'll just call it reindeer moss (Cladonia sp.). 

There were several areas with large carpets of these two species - and I must admit that I get a little thrill every time I see any type of reindeer moss, so I was doubly excited to see so much of it in this recreational area!

Kudos to the Air Force for being able to take such good care of their natural areas.

"We're Not in Kansas Any More!"

There's little like a vacation to stir up the blood and help you see new perspectives.  We've just returned from a 10 day trip to the Florida panhandle, where we celebrated Thanksgiving with our kids and began to get a picture of what the coming years might hold for us.  One of the many enjoyable activities while we were there was a relaxing walk through a recreational area on Eglin Air Force Base.  As winter really starts to descend here in Kansas and throughout much of the country, I thought it might be fun to share some of the plants I saw just a week ago, in a warmer clime....

While Greg, Jess, Sean, and "the girls" walked on ahead, intent on true exercise, I lingered behind to take photos along the old roadway.  Truthfully I was surprised by the variety of plants I saw.  Even more truthfully, I was surprised by how many species I remembered from my gardening days in Mobile!

As I started off down the trail, my first impression was of food.  Lots and lots of food...for birds and other animals.  Food seemed to be available everywhere I looked.

There were vividly red yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) berries crowding each other in the sunlight.

Along with the crimson yaupon berries were other berries, such as these deep blue, greenbrier (Smilax sp.) berries, and lots and lots of seeds.  Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) seedheads were particularly full of feathery goodness.

This feathery goldenrod plant joined with beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) berries to offer the local wildlife a feast.

As I walked and looked and took photos, the old phrase, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!" kept echoing through my head.  No, it for sure wasn't Kansas.  Sometimes it amazes me how few plant species are found both along the Florida/Alabama coastline and up here in the prairie land.  Certainly there are genuses that are in both areas, but the species are quite separate.

Between Kansas and the Gulf Coast, the feel of the plant communities is very different too - which is hardly surprising.  Sporting a covering of pine needles and a diversity of moss and lichen on a heavily sandy soil, this view of the woodland floor is typical for the area we were visiting.

Towering over the rest of the vegetation were the longleaf pines (Pinus palustris).  Historically, these keystone plants formed massive open forests which predominated all along the southern coastal plains, from Virginia around the corner to Texas, until about 100-150 years ago.  First the majestic longleafs were tapped to make turpentine and cut to make ship masts, then later they were cut down to burn in steam engines as the country expanded.  Of course, their wood was also used in building as well.  The land that was cleared was either put into agriculture or replanted with faster growing slash or loblolly pines.  Within just a few decades, almost all of the longleaf forests were gone.  Nationwide, a University of Florida study done in 1997 found only 15 sites with virgin longleaf pine forest left, totalling about 1600 acres.

A typical understory plant throughout much of the area, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), gives a vaguely tropical feel to the woodlands.  It is a true native (unlike most of the others palms and palm-like plants you see along the Gulf Coast) and it is very valuable for wildlife.

Here is a remnant of the "stem" of one of the big fan leaves found on saw palmetto.  You can see where the name "saw" comes from!   It makes me think of fossil dinosaur jaws whenever I see it.

Usually not considered a beneficial plant, there was a lot of greenbrier (Smilax sp.) in the understory along the path, too.  I actually like greenbrier for its wildlife versatility - the berries are great food for birds and other animals, while (as is typical for native plants) the leaves are larval food for caterpillars of several different moth species such as the turbulent phosphila and the ruby quaker.  Note:  the names are cool, but the adult moths are pretty cryptic, a.k.a. drab.   Still, they too are food for numerous other animals.  Many greenbrier vines are bristling with thorns and can serve as excellent shelter and nest protection for birds and other small animals.

This essentially thornless greenbrier had a few healthy berries to share, and you can see the parallel leaf veins that help identify it as a Smilax.

One find that surprised me was what I think was a nicely sized American holly (Ilex opaca).  While they are native to the area, I didn't see them very often when we lived in Mobile.

Scattered in small clusters amongst the broad leaves, the holly berries were bright red and looked great, but they didn't put on as much of a show for the camera as the yaupon berries did.  With its yellowish green leaves, American holly is widely used in crosses with other species, but isn't commonly found as a straight species in the nursery trade. 

Walking back along the trail, though, and thus seeing from a different direction with a different angle of light, the leaves of the holly do look much darker.

To eyes accustomed to fall further north, the woodlands still look very green, but signs of fall were everywhere.  While I've talked about the colorful berries and fluffy seedheads, there was also some fall color.  An excellent source of fall color in longleaf territory is sparkleberry, Vaccinium arboreum.  In the blueberry genus, sparkleberry has tiny blue berries that are snatched up by birds as soon as they ripen, which is earlier in the year, but their shiny leaves color beautifully and remain on the plant for a long time.  This individual was a beautiful maroon...

while across the path and down the way a bit, another sparkleberry went in for oranger and golder tones.

Speaking of orange and gold, there were a few yellow-gold blooms still gallantly blazing, although I don't know what they were, ...

and a male monarch was traveling the path with me, too.  He rested on a yaupon long enough to give me a "photographic opportunity" before continuing on his journey.  I wonder if he'll make it to Mexico or not?

There are 2 other plants that I want to highlight from this walk, but I think I'll separate them out into another post or two. 

Meanwhile, Greg, Sean, Jess, Gabby and Dahlia got done walking and have come looking for me - so I'll end this ramble.  Hope you enjoyed my glimpse of the south land in your chilly December!