Carol and I have been doing as little as possible over this holiday weekend. We talked about driving somewhere, but driving is always a nightmare on Labor Day weekend. So, we’ve been sleeping late and doing some desultory housecleaning. And I took a couple of walks at nearby conservation areas.
On Friday, I went to Black Pond Bog, a Nature Conservancy property in Norwell.
On Saturday, I took a long walk in Wompatuck State Park. The park covers about 3,500 acres, and you can spend all day walking its miles of trails. It’s mostly wooded, but there are also a number of ponds.
Getting to Black Pond Bog and Wompatuck State Park both required a fifteen minute drive.
Today, neither Carol nor I felt like driving even that far. So we walked down Main Street from our apartment to Wheelwright Park, and from there into Wright Woods.
We’re extraordinarily lucky to live in a place where we don’t have to drive long distances to find something to see and do on Labor Day weekend.
We drove past dramatic scenery today: the Forty-Mile Desert, the green Humboldt River valley in between sagebrush plains, towering 11,000 foot mountains…. But what stays in my mind are the flowers we saw blooming near Pequop Summit.
We parked in the Pequop Summit rest area, elevation 6,967 feet above sea level. We walked over the cattle guard to a dirt road cut into the side of the hill, and then I saw a flower up a fairly steep embankment. I scrambled up to look at it. There was a small Single-leaf Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla) just beyond it, then a pale yellow Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) above that, and then some purple Hooker’s Onions (Alium acuminatum) above that. “Be careful coming down,” said Carol from the dirt road twenty feet below me. I decided that going up was easier than trying to slide down, so I scrambled up to the top of road cut. By now, I was more than thirty feet above the highway, so I must have been over seven thousand feet.
It was beautiful up there. At seven thousand feet above sea level, it was still springtime. Flowers were blooming everywhere. In some places you couldn’t move without stepping on a flower. In among the pungent-smelling sagebrush (Artemisia sp.), sprightly yellow Groundsels (Packera sp.), like tiny little yellow daisies, grew next to low-growing Lava Asters (?) (Ionactis alpina). The Mule’s Ears (Wyethia sp.), with their leaves like the ears of mules and their flowers like little sunflowers, were mostly past their prime, but in the shade of some big sagebrush bushes a few sheltered plants were still in full bloom.
In addition to the flowers, small grasshoppers were buzzing and jumping all through the scrubby growth. Birds sang throughout the sagebrush, and as I approached them were apparently surprised that a human was walking through their territories.
All this was happening within sight and sound of Interstate 80. Most of this was happening below the level of my waist. I was so fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells that I never even looked up to admire the view from Pequop Summit, if there was indeed a view.
Earlier in the day, we had stopped for a rest break near Oreana, Nev. This was at a much lower elevation, and I didn’t expect to find any flowers in bloom. But I walked a little way down a dry wash, and there found two or three clumps of Desert Prince’s Plume (Stanleya pinnata) blooming. Pollinators swarmed around these flowers, including a Western Pygmy Blue butterfly.
In Oreana as at Pequop Summit, I barely noticed the grand landscape scenery around me: my attention was on the small, intimate landscape at my feet.
Another pollinator, this time a bumble bee (Bombus sp.). For my money, bumble bees are perhaps the most attractive of all insects. Unfortunately, this individual was very active, and as a result most of my photos of it were blurry.
A bee, probably a species in the genus Halictus, in a blossom of a California Poppy. There are over 200 species in the genus Halictus; since I didn’t collect a specimen and don’t have a dissecting microscope, I won’t attempt to determine which species. It’s enough for me to have seen the bee, and admired it.
This evening, I went out to look at the paper wasp nest that is well-hidden in the native plants garden at the church. I’ve learned that in the hour before sunset, the founder wasp rests herself on the nest, between the nest and its supporting twig, just below the petiole. And that’s exactly where she was when I got out there.
My camera is a good tool for getting a close look at her without getting too close; I have a healthy respect of wasps and have no desire to provoke her into stinging me. Looking at the photos I took of her, it looks like she has added some cells to the nest. The light began fading rapidly while I was taking photos, and it wasn’t long before the camera would no longer focus on the nest; as a result, I didn’t get any photos looking into the ends of the cells, so I’m not sure whether the cells contain any eggs or larvae.
In the United States, there’s this stereotype that different human populations worry about different environmental catastrophes. College-educated white suburbanites, so the stereotype goes, worry more about global climate change — perhaps because they are more aware of how much energy it takes to power their many automobiles, and to heat their large homes. Communities of color and working class whites, so it is said, worry more about toxics in the environment — perhaps because people of color and working class people are more likely to be exposed to more toxic substances in the places they live and work.
College-educated white people have tended to be dismissive of the threat of toxics in the environment, at least in comparison to the threat of global climate change. Global climate change has the potential to cause another “great extinction” and to decrease human chances of survival, whereas toxics in the environment don’t have the potential to do as much damage.
But I think we all should start worrying more about toxics in the environment.
When asked by the BBC to comment on the article, Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said: “Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity.”
The collapse of biodiversity is bad enough. But consider, too, that if we humans kill off major pollinators, there’s a potential cascade effect that could drive many flowering plants towards extinction. So if you’re looking for a cause of the next “great extinction,” or if you’re just looking for another reason to lie awake at night and worry — look no farther than toxics in the environment.
Yesterday, we drove from Hudson, Ohio, to Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin. The drive was long and remarkable only because of a huge traffic jam that we were able to avoid by using an online map service, and thunderstorms outside Chicago that prompted us to stay in a service area for an hour until the rain died down.
Today Ed took us to the Paine Art Center and Galleries in Oshkosh. I enjoyed seeing the building, the art, and the furniture, but I liked the gardens most of all. I enjoyed the creativity of the plantings — using red Swiss chard as an ornamental in a garden dominated by deep red flowers was inspired — and the variety of the gardens, from woodland shade gardens with winding paths, to formal rose gardens laid out in rectangles.
What particularly struck my attention, though, was the variety of pollinators I saw. Several species of Hymenoptera, and at least two species of Lepidoptera were actively seeking out blossoms throughout the garden. I felt fairly confident identifying the Lepidoptera as the common species Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta).
I was unable, however, to identify the Hymenoptera species that I saw. One was a bumblebee, in the genus Bombus, crawling in and out of the flowers of a hosta; but which of the two dozen species of bumblebee that live in this region, I am not able to say.
I saw a small greenish bee-like insect, perhaps one of the metallic green bees (genus Agapostemon) crawling on a red flower. Another individual, apparently of the same species, flew to the flower and the two clutched at each other and lay on one of the petals for a few seconds; then both flew away.
I looked through the BugGuide online guide to genus Agapostemon, but it was clear I did not have enough information to figure out which species I had seen. Nor was I able to decide what the behavior I saw was about: were they two individuals copulating? having a territorialdispute? Here’s a magnified section of the above photograph:
And there were other individuals where I could not even determine the genus, like a wasp-like insect I watched crawling around on a fennel flower. Lepidoptera is the only order of insect where I find it possible to carry identification down to the level species; in Hymenoptera, I feel lucky if I can get to the level of genus; and there are other insects where I’m not even sure in what order the insect should be placed.
Curiously, I didn’t see any European Honeybees. But I saw at least two or three other species of Hymenoptera active among the flowers. I could have spent all afternoon looking at these insects, but that would have been a serious imposition on Carol and Ed.
In the fall of 2014, the ecojustice class (gr. 6-8) at our congregation made “bee houses” to provide potential nesting sites for Mason Bees. We kept watch on the bee houses through spring of 2015, but neither I nor the teens observed any nesting activity. (Mason Bees are solitary, and do not nest in hives like the more familiar Western Honeybee.)
But when this year’s ecojustice class checked on the bee houses last Sunday, it looked like some of the holes are now or had recently been occupied by insects:
Since Mason Bees use mud and soils to plug up their nesting holes, and these holes do not look like they have mud in them — the color of the plugs is not the color of any of the nearby soils — I’m not convinced that Mason Bees are nesting here. Nevertheless, some organism has definitely moved in to these holes; perhaps further observation will reveal what that organism might be.
Several us went out to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area on Saturday to look for birds. We did see some fabulous birds, but the highlight of the trip for me was seeing a Black Widow spider capturing a wasp of some kind, and wrap it in spider silk, and slowly kill it. This all took place inside one of the portable toilets, just below the urinal. Had anybody seen several of us standing around and looking in the door of a portable toilet for five or ten minutes, I suppose they would have thought us odd. But it was a riveting drama, well worth watching.
Emily, who was with us, has posted a series of photos showing the whole process; my favorite of this series of photos is here.
I spent a little time trying to track down what kind of wasp the Black Widow was preying on. The best I could do was to say with certainty that this insect was in the order Hymenoptera; with somewhat less certainty, I’m willing to say the insect was in family Vespidae. But is it a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellowjacket? I have neither the patience nor the expertise to answer that question.
Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:
It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:
Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….