Living with Herbs

I enjoyed a happy childhood; my mother was considered a good cook and family meals were a pleasure most of the time–although not without drama on occasion. Herbs were entirely unknown to us. We always had a salad or a vegetable–home grown at times, but we did not eat herbs. No one I knew ate herbs.

It’s not as though humans had not run across herbs yet. In Genesis, we read that every “herb bearing seed” was gifted to humankind. Pliny the Elder praises mint for its marvelous smell and taste. He wrote about the herb 2000 years ago. Hamlet  speaks of fennel and rue and violets. We drank gallons of iced tea without fresh mint to flavor it. Why we didn’t include fennel and violets in our salads I’ll never know.

My favorite garden plants may be my herbs. I decided I had to grow them when I began reading about English cottage gardens, one of which is pictured above. Herbs and flowers and vegetables were just tucked in here and there without a grand plan. Many cottage garden plants self seed and skill is required to let the plants have their way when they pick some corner of the garden.

I am pretty sure basil did not grace my garden last summer because I was too enthusiastic with the hoe. It had popped up all over the garden for years, a tropical plant that loves hot summer days and hates the cold. It is native to Africa and Southeast Asia but is grown and used by cooks all over the world. Of course such a well-traveled plant has many names, basil being derived from Latin meaning kingly plant. It is like a king in the kitchen with it strong taste and scent; my son makes pesto each year, I love it raw or cooked, in salads, on bruschetta, any way at all. And there are dozens of kinds of basil: sweet basil, cinnamon basil, purple basil, anise or Persian basil, all worth growing.

An herb that does not mind the cold is parsley. It is a biennial and flowers every other year, then the seeds scatter across the garden and come up where they please. I had a large plant in the middle of the path last year. This year it is thriving at the feet of a grapevine. When temperatures dropped to 13 degrees in the winter I put a bucket over the plant and it was unharmed. Its leaves are very welcome in the kitchen during the cold weather. Parsley doesn’t mind hot summer weather either. I have found it to be delicious in salsa. The combination of tomatoes, onion, peppers and cilantro is grand; but cilantro likes it cool and is often gone by the time the tomatoes and peppers are ripe.

Cilantro also wanders all over the garden. It was by the holly last year. Cilantro is the Spanish name for the plant, coriander another name, although coriander is normally used for the seeds that form as soon as the weather heats up. The plant is native to Iran, but, like all beloved cooking herbs, it has been spread all over the world. Seed pods of the herb, called mericarps, were found in a Neolithic cave in Israel and over two cups were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

I will have to say that I love my thyme since it stays put. It forms a sort of homely little bush; it loves heat and doesn’t mind the cold. Mine has reliably come back year after year. A friend whose thyme had spread too much brought me a beautiful clump several weeks ago and it is doing well. I would like this plant to cover as much of the garden as it likes, to go out of control. This herb also has a venerable past: it was used for embalming by the Egyptians, as incense by the the Greeks, used to flavor cheese by the Romans and used to cover bad smells by medieval Europeans. It’s loaded with health benefits. Bees love its flowers. Fungus doesn’t like it; bugs don’t bother it. Did I say I love this plant?

A distant relative of thyme and a member of the mint family, oregano, is also a perennial. It grows into a large clump and its flowers are beautiful. High-end chefs use the flowers in their expensive dishes. It is reportedly hard to get an oregano plant that has ‘real’ oregano flavor. I may order Greek oregano and Syrian oregano this year from a reliable herb nursery. I understand that really strong oregano can numb the tongue. And the herb is the only one I know of that is reportedly better when dried. I will hang on to my trusty old oregano that has thrived in my hot, alkaline soil for years, it is beautiful in and out of bloom. I have been too lazy to dry it, but a big handful picked fresh is always welcome in my kitchen.

Mint is often the subject of complaints since it is very enthusiastic. it will cover ground fast and its tight roots will compete successfully with any other plant in its path. But the weedeater keeps mine in bounds and I would never want to face a hot summer without it for my iced tea, lemonade and mint juleps. Or face winter without mint jelly. It is also famous for its health benefits, helping with good digestion, weight loss, relief from nausea, depression, fatigue, headaches, asthma, memory loss, and skin care.

Rosemary has just as impressive a list of health claims; it is said to be good for us: boosting memory, improving our moods, reducing inflammation, relieving pain, protecting our immune systems, preventing premature aging. I grow it because it tastes good, looks good and smells divine. The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks considered the herb to be sacred. And the name? The Virgin Mary is said to have spread her blue cloak over a rosemary bush with white flowers and rested there. The flowers turned the familiar beautiful blue and the herb became known as “Rose of Mary.”

Living without herbs? Unpossible.

The Healers

Plants have been used for thousands of years to heal. I grew about a dozen little Chamomile plants from seed and tucked them into my garden last weekend. I got better germination than I expected and, if I am lucky, I should have Chamomile to share with friends. Like little Peter Rabbit, any of us can have a bad day and Chamomile has long been embraced as a cure for anxiety and insomnia.

Most proponents of plant cures are too human-centered for my taste. They make breathless, often commercialized, claims about plants as though the plants are mindless, passive beneficials here for the purpose of healing humans.

Plants are great chemists and have been working out one chemical compound after another to protect themselves for 700 million years. The defense mechanisms of plants are a kind of warfare, dangerous and powerful. That the chemistry used by plants is not very well understood by humans is not a surprise; we only rolled in 200,000 years ago. For example, Chamomile is said to be able to fight allergies, cancer and inflammation, but it also can cause excessive bleeding if used long term in combination with other drugs and it can cause allergic reactions. Excess and ignorance are everywhere.

I love the idea of using plants for good health. I have plants in my garden that feed bees and plants that attract butterflies. I have plants that are simply beautiful. But I have also planted many of the healers of the plant world. I have two Elderberry trees, now in full bloom. Their white flowers and dark berries can be made into wine and tonics that boost the immune system and help fight flu, make skin beautiful and maybe prevent cancer. But the stems, unripe fruit, roots and leaves of the plant are all poisonous. It is an exercise in patience to separate the teensy flowers and ripe fruit from the poisonous stems. I did it only once.

Vitex tree

I also love my Vitex tree. I have never tried to crack the toolbox of this tree for its health benefits. It is famous for boosting fertility and for its ability to cure many women’s complaints. I like to have it in my yard just in case.

The venerable St. John’s Wort is a native plant in my area, and has been used for centuries to reduce scarring and to help with inflammation. Its most famous use is as an antidepressant. Recent studies show it can induce mania just like most conventional antidepressants so it must be used thoughtfully and with care.

St. John’s Wort

There are hundreds of plants and trees that can help us live healthier lives: lavender, valerian, cinnamon, sage, peppermint, tumeric. I have a dozen books on medicinal plants but find the subject so very detailed, so very mysterious. It’s fun to try and draft off what the plant world has created to help me live better.

The Ginkgo tree helps us keep in mind that plant remedies belong to the plant world. While extracts made from this tree can help us with memory loss, fatigue and mood disorders, the Ginkgo dates back 270 million years. The illustration below shows a dinosaur standing under the tree. We can only imagine the chemical genius that has allowed this tree to succeed year after year after year. To heal itself year after year.

 

We Are the Corn People

Plantswoman is on a little vacation, returning 4/11/18. This post is republished from 4/26/17

Traveling by train last weekend, I saw field after field of corn, about waist high, growing without a single weed in sight. I am a little grumpy about all this corn since I planted eight hills of it and have two plants up–both about ankle high. I put in a hybrid, bought at the grocery store, that I imagine has been bred to require lots of commercial fertilizer. Modern corn varieties absolutely love petroleum-based commercial fertilizers. Production skyrocketed after WWII. In 1947 the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, stopped making explosives and finding themselves with lots of leftover ammonium nitrate, started making chemical fertilizer. The world quickly followed.

Increase in Production 1860-2010

Michael Pollan tears into the modern use of corn in a lively series of articles written almost ten years ago. http://michaelpollan.com/tag/corn/ Pollan says the descendants of the Mayans who have described themselves as The Corn People are mistaken.

We are The Corn People.

Pollan writes “…the great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket rests on a remarkably narrow biological foundation: corn. It’s not merely the feed that the steers and the chickens and the pigs and the turkeys ate; it’s not just the source of the flour and the oil and the leavenings, the glycerides and coloring in the processed foods; it’s not just sweetening the soft drinks or lending a shine to the magazine cover over by the checkout. The supermarket itself–the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built–is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.”

Tom Dawson at the University of California-Berkeley tests hair strands which reveal the amount of corn in the carbon of any given person. In a piece for CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta had his hair tested and he revealed that 69 percent of the carbon in his body came from corn.  http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/diet.fitness/09/22/kd.gupta.column/

Dawson says we are like walking “corn chips.” The, mostly invisible corn in our diets comes from more than eighty million-acres of corn; Pollan describes is as a ‘second great lawn.’  And Pollan complains that “… it’s too bad we can’t simply drink petroleum directly, because there’s a lot less energy in a bushel of corn (measured in calories) than there is in the half-gallon of oil required to produce it.” Ethanol comes to mind but that is another story.

The production of corn comes with costs to our finances, our environment and to our health. Corn is highly subsidized by my tax dollars. It costs more to produce than is sells for and I help make up the difference although profits from corn are in the billions. Much of the acidity in our rain, the algae clogging our waterways and the agricultural contaminants that result in dead zones on land and in water come from our millions of acres of corn. Our health suffers as well, the epidemic of obesity and diabetes may be related to the use of ultra refined corn products.http://michaelpollan.com/tag/corn/

Then there are the factory farms. Herbivores evolved to eat grass; corn gives them stomach pain which requires antibiotics to keep the poor souls living until slaughter. Not that I am advocating any form of vegetarianism; that requires plowing up river banks, cutting down forests, transforming prairies — at the cost of destroying biodiversity (wild plants, animals and insects). Biodiversity has declined by more than a quarter in the last 35 years; perhaps over 50% since 1970. http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/biodiversity/threatsto_biodiversity/. In part this destruction is to provide the seeds, nuts, oils and soy for a non-animal diet. Poor corn; it’s not the only problem.

Excess is the problem. Corn was just another grass plant, called teocintle by Meso-Americans 10,000 years ago.They grew what they considered a gift of the gods in every color: yellow, red, purple, brown and orange; they grew ears a few inches long and ears several feet long. Corn loves change. It loves being bred and re-bred and it may love genetic modification. Like the Mayans we love to play with corn’s genetic elasticity; we genetically modify it to survive herbicides and corn can live where everything else dies. Glyphosate (Round-up) kills everything it touches; except genetically modified corn. Gallons of the herbicide are poured on farmland each year to make life nice for this spoiled baby of a plant. Author Betty Fussell calls corn a genetic monster. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/07/14/how-corn-made-its-way-into-just-about-everything-we-eat/?utm_term=.93f9ed9e1b05

It is fanciful to think my corn can sense my ambivalence; it may not like being called a monster. It is more likely I don’t care for it as well as the large and healthy tomato, potato and onion plants, baby it like I do my broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I did not even go to the trouble of ordering corn seed that liked my practice of feeding with manure and compost.

As a child I was teased for loving corn so much. It is sad that this wonderful food, one of the best parts of American summertime barbecues, doesn’t like me and I’m not too happy about it either most of the time– well, of course, buttered with a lot of salt, hot off the grill, that’s a different thing altogether.

Living with Raptors

Plantswoman is on a little vacation, returning 4/11/18. This post is republished from 3/22/2017

I have a family of Red-Tailed Hawks living in one of my trees. The baby hawks are tearing across the sky, diving and screeching –learning their role: Predator.

Baby Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawks live comfortably with humans and we have been very comfortable together year after year. When I looked up the formal name of the birds, Buteo jamaicensis, I stumbled across the information that hawks, as well as eagles, vultures, falcons and owls are generally referred to as raptors.  Raptors. The dinosaur heritage. The name raptor is apparently applied to birds with strong sharp talons for picking up and carrying away prey and who have hooked bills for tearing their prey to pieces.  http://www.10000birds.com/

As fearsome as these Red-Tailed Hawks might be to rabbits, squirrels, rats and mice, they are homebodies at heart. They like to make a home in one place, long term. They are monogamous and generally mate for life. Both parents incubate the eggs that are laid in a big stick nest.

I have always thought my guardian dog and rooster protected my chickens from the resident hawks. The 100-pound Great Pyrenees will jump and snap at the birds when they fly too low. But it turns out Red-Tailed Hawks don’t care to eat other birds, although I think they like to tease my dog. Other hawks, like Cooper’s Hawks, prey on birds: robins, sparrows and chickens. A friend regularly has to watch as one of her chickens is carried away by a hawk. Farmers used to shoot them all but the decline of farmers has resulted in an increase in the hawk population, including my Red-Tails who were shot out of ignorance and the usual human tendency to overkill.

They are welcome residents here although my blood runs a little cold when I hear one of them has made a kill. As they carry their dinner skyward, they let out the most piercing shriek, full of triumph. Raptors.

Dining on Nectar

A beehive is not for everyone; but, if you are putting plants or trees in your yard or garden, you might as well plant bee food. Bee hives are dying at an astounding rate. Workers disappear and leave the queen and baby bees stranded when the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” strikes. This disorder combined with ants, moths, parasites and pesticides resulted in one third of our bees dying from 2016 to 2017.

The beautiful Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) pictured above is a small bulb available everywhere; it doesn’t require a big hole like a daffodil–and bees love it. Of course the bulb, all bulbs really, have to go in the ground in the fall and while the work required is not onerous, it’s still work. Gardening is work. But bulbs link are fun to me since they pay off long after they are planted. Other bulbs bees love include:

Purple flowering alliums (Allium spp.)
Crocus (Crocus x luteus)
Dahlias, Bishop (Dahlia)
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)
Siberian squill (Scilla sibirica)

The purple flowering onions did not come up for me last summer; but I have great hopes this year for Dahlias that I am told will amaze me throughout the July and August. These ‘summer’ bulbs follow the early bloomers– crocus, aconite and squill. The bees need as many early flowers as possible. As winter breaks, they need pollen for the new baby bees. link

Nurseries, grocery stores and hardware stores are packed right now with annuals for sale. No pre-planning, no winter wait necessary. The annual plants I like best for bees include

Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)
Portulaca (Portulaca spp.)
Blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica)
Profusion zinnias (Zinnia spp.)

 Shrubs don’t require much attention. Elderberry, Sumacs and Summersweet all grow like weeds. My Elderberry is all set to bloom in the next month and will be covered with beautiful white flowers for weeks.
bee on Elderberry

Lavenders are always recommended. Huge lavender farms provide for bees that then create lavender honey. I cannot grow it, but I have neighbors who can. The ubiquitous Crape Myrtle is a great bee favorite. My white Crape Myrtle hums with hundreds of bees on hot summer days.

Many trees are loved by bees. My almond was swamped with bees during March. Fruit trees are of course not only loved by bees, but the bees are necessary for fruit to set properly. Redbuds do not do well for me but they are ablaze right now in the supermarket parking lot and on the side of the road; they are a valuable bee tree since they bloom so early. I love Maples, Willows and Alders for later in the year–as do bees.
When ‘bee’ trees and plants are provided, the bees dine on nectar. Nectar provides the proteins, carbohydrates lipids, vitamins, minerals bees need; the same list humans need actually. Nectar supports the worker bees’ active lifestyles–and that includes flying miles and miles from their hive to collect food.
The bees use nectar to make honey. A bee sips nectar and an enzyme in the bee’s stomach then converts the nectar into watery honey. This watery honey is fanned by bees with their wings until it thickens. The honey is then stored in honeycomb and sealed with wax that comes from wax glands on the bees’ abdomens.

The bees don’t mind work.

bee on yellow troutlily

Mad for Gardening

Failures mean little to dedicated gardeners. I have planted jasmine a half dozen times in the last half dozen years. Star Jasmine. Carolina Jasmine. And any other jasmine I came across. All dead now except a Carolina Jasmine lighting up my fence right now for the first time as pictured above. It’s like a Las Vegas slot machine with room for only two pictures, the one in my head and the ‘reality’. If I just keep pulling the handle, I can get the two pictures to match. Sometimes.

Another vine that lives in my imagination but not in my garden is the native, Passion Vine. Its flowers are drop dead beautiful and appear to have come from 1970’s movie about an alien invasion. I ordered the vine from an acclaimed nursery that specializes in native plants, I purchased another from a highly rated local nursery and I have planted it from seed. All  dead–even though native plants are supposed to grow well here. I put in my fourth try yesterday; from the Home Depot. What the heck.

Planting natives is a good idea, but even better is to avoid plants that are not hardy in one’s growing zone. I just cut down a Meyer Lemon tree. It was just too cold for it, but I thought I had a perfect sheltered spot on a brick wall facing south where it would be warmed by the winter sun. Exceptionalism. Not good. English garden writers are very enthusiastic about cheating the winter weather with warm southern walls. But the Arctic winds drop down south, through the plains, and hit my garden hard. Every year, without fail, I have several days of temperatures in the teens. I have protected the lemon tree from the bitter weather with old-fashioned hot Christmas lights, Planketts, plastic piping with a heavy plastic overlay, the same piping with plastic and a Plankett. Even with the protection, it was just so ugly after its winter trials; although, to its credit, it would put on six feet of beautiful citrus leaves each summer. But it was right outside my kitchen window so the three months of ratty, cold-damaged branches was just not worth the two lemons I got each year.

I also tried Olive trees. There are several large commercial Olive gardens near me. One owner said that every few years a ‘blue norther’ comes down and he loses a third of his trees. He considers that a cost of doing business. The costs to my garden are three out of four trees dead. One very large one died of root fungus, cold killed two others. The one Olive I have left is of French, not Italian origin and better suited to my climate. It is supposed to grow to about 20 feet, but it never gets bigger than its three feet. The weather dropped to 13 degrees two months ago and the little tree did not seem to mind the cold. It’s tough and really charming. It reminds me of the dwarf in Game of Thrones.

Failures aside, I am just not happy with the fashionable idea that I should plant only natives; I am a little skeptical about the labeling. Who decides? When I lived in the North daylilies, originally from Asia, were much loved. They are dependable and beautiful; bullet-proof. I thought they would love my southern garden. Shortly after I moved, I ordered three pricey premium plants from a southern nursery that specializes in daylilies. My chickens ate them; the buds, the leaves, the tubers and the roots on the tubers.

Nevertheless, when a neighbor offered a clump of daylilies after her spring cleanup, I drove right over to get them. I pulled the big clump apart and wound up with twenty or so starts of the Daylily, Stella D’Oro. I have put my new daylilies in the vegetable garden where the chickens are not permitted to go; I am hoping the plants will thrive and that my intelligent and resourceful birds will not find another feast. Hope.

Near the daylilies is a very special rose, Pioneer Spirit, purchased at least seven years ago from the ‘Antique Rose Emporium’, a nursery only a 100 miles or so from my house.

Vita Sackville West

I am a great fan of Vita Sackville West, an English grande dame, whose garden writing has inspired my friends and I for decades. She grew rose bushes 10 feet tall and her favorites were the cabbage roses with their hundreds of petals. Bred at Texas A&M in the 1990’s, my Pioneer Spirit is supposed to be 10 feet tall and its flowers are said by the rose purveyor to mimic famous luxurious roses of the past. The rose is a modern version of the grand traditions of the great gardens of England. While I have lots of good clay soil, this poor rose wound up near an underground vein of caliche and began suffering from Chlorosis shortly after I planted it. Chlorosis is an iron deficiency caused by alkaline soil that locks up nutrients including iron. I have tried fix after fix and last fall I told the homely three -foot tall rose with its yellow and brown leaves that I would dig it up in the Spring.

Pioneer Spirit

In preparation for my new and trouble-free imaginary plant, I piled hay and manure from my new bull in a ring about 18 inches high around the rose, expecting lovely compost after a winter of freezing and thawing. Last week I ran across a new expensive soil drench that promised a cure for Chlorosis. I thought I’d give the rose one more year and walked out with my bucket of ‘cure’ to find the plant with lots of healthy new green leaves and only a few yellow ones. Wow. I applied the drench but now will never know whether the manure/hay mixture might have cured the plant without help.

Gardeners. Even when we succeed we drive ourselves crazy.

 

Ancient Gardens

When we decide to make gardens, sometimes a kind of madness creeps in, a single-mindedness that results in, for example, the beautiful Hanging Gardens of Babylon built in Iraq by Nebuchadnezzar II in 600 BCE to please his homesick wife. Historians tell us that evidence of pleasure gardens in Mesopotamia dates back 6000 years or so; but I am skeptical that humans have not always had the desire to shape the beauty of nature for their enjoyment and consolation.

Gardens are temporal and even a garden considered to the one of the Seven Wonders of the World can be left unrecorded and only available to us through the imaginations of artists. The illustration above is my favorite depiction of the Hanging Garden; it looks like a happy place, just the thing to make a woman longing for home make peace with a new world.

Gardening in relatively nearby Turkey was also an ancient practice. Enjoying the then-rich soil and availability of water, market gardens flourished for 1500 years. Large parts of Istanbul were planted with fruits and vegetables for the urban populace. These gardens, called bostan, were vast and faded away in the middle of the 20th century as demands of population growth squeezed out the famous strawberries, lettuce and figs to make way for human habitation.

Ancient gardening in India still amazes the world. The famous Mondore Gardens of Rajasthan were created by the flower-loving migrants from Central Asia who settled in Northern India after they fell in love with the Palash trees, covered with red flowers, and other exotics. They became devoted to the brightly colored lotuses that grew wild because of the abundant water that flowed from the Himalayas. Southern India?  A dozen famous names occur throughout our literature; for example, Shalimar, a household word–stunning with trees and water features. The grand garden alley here makes it clear that the  single-mindedness, the madness to create perfection apparently extended through many generations in India.

The gardens of Japan are so different from ours in their construction, yet my garden contains a surprising number of Japanese cultivars. The Japanese gardeners practiced botany at its highest level. Ancient Japanese gardens were first described in 720 AD in the Nihon Shoki, the first book of Japanese history. In the spring of 74 AD, that book tells the story of the Emperor putting carp into a pond and rejoicing; the animation of fish are now always a part of a Japanese garden. Not long after, another Emperor expanded the idea to a lake where he could take his favorite concubine to feast and bask in the beauty of the combination of water and plants. I have never toured a Japanese garden that did not contain a water feature.

As esoteric and, perhaps out of reach, Japanese gardens are, ancient Roman gardens are easy and friendly. The typical middle class Roman home included a garden and one we Americans can relate to. They did not use lawns, a very recent form of gardening madness. Their gardens were located in a courtyard in the middle of the house, very green and fragrant with herbs the Romans used for cooking. Bringing nature in–using it. It’s in our DNA; it’s part of being human.

 

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” -Cicero

Bees and Triumph over Winter…or Not

The terrible decline of bees is a frequent topic here, but today I’ll set aside my usual complaints about the 40% losses of the bee population due to pollution, paving and the overuse of pesticides by humans. Bees are a part of the natural world; the world of nature which includes a give and take with other beings who need food. Bees, like the majority of Earth’s creatures suffer during the winter; and, food pressures during late winter and early spring are the most intense.

When food is scarce, skunks, woodpeckers, badgers, raccoons, mice and opossums will prey on bees.The bees themselves are nutritious, the spring brood is loaded with protein and the honey is a wonderful winter treat. When the ground is frozen, a woodpecker will drill a hole in the bee box to get at the bees and honey. Some predators like the badger or the fox will knock over the bee hive and feast. Skunks and raccoons will scratch on the hive and as bees emerge to defend the hive, they eat the bees.  There are toads and frogs that sit on the hive entrance and eat bees as they leave the hive. Beekeepers will strap hives closed and some use electric fencing; my dogs protect my hives from these predators.

Other insects eat bees too. Wasps are very thorough and can wipe out a hive in a few days. They eat the honey, the brood and the bees. link Yellow jackets, mites, spiders all like a bee for dinner. Of course, the bees defend the nest. My africanized bees have defended themselves from the dreaded Varona mite, and from wasps so far.

When winter begins, bees will have stored up as much honey as possible to make it through the winter. When the cold hits, the workers envelope the queen in what is called cluster. The bees then “shiver” moving their wings rapidly. This warms the hive. The temperature range in the hive can be as low as the 40’s near the exterior to a high, typically of 80 degrees, at the center of the cluster. To expend all this energy the bees must have plenty of honey.  If they run out of honey the hive dies.

Winter losses of bees average 10 to 15% and bad conditions can cause a beekeeper losses of closer to 100%. For example, in a year of drought, it’s hard for bees to store enough honey to last a winter. My beekeeper came last Sunday to check my hives and she said my bees had plenty of honey to last the rest of winter. She had inspected hives that were in trouble and that would need sugar supplements to make it through. I was thrilled of course and glad the MacMillan Sunflowers and the White Wood Asters had done so well last fall. Both plants are covered with bees for weeks.

Now I expect more days of bitter cold. March is not a month to take lightly. But I have peach trees in bloom and and an almond tree in bud. So in the warm days ahead my bees will be able to feed themselves and their brood–their babies.

 

Bees and Bee Drones

I have always had great affection for the Terminator movies; I love a story about the interface and conflict between humans and machines. I sometimes wondered what the energy source was for the machine army, who mined the metal and other pedestrian concerns unrelated to a story of valor and romance.

Rise of the Machines: Terminator 3 –2003

I had the same thoughts when I learned that Eijiro Myiako was developing insect-sized drones capable of artificial pollination. Researchers Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology worry about the decline of bees and other pollinators and have looked to technology for a fix.

 As shown above, Miyako’s team sent a little quad-copter to pick up pollen from a lily after which it deposited the pollen on the female part of another flower. The little drones were equipped with gel stuck onto horse hair. An electrical charge kept pollen grains attached during flight. Could this be a solution to the potential extinction of bees?

Not really. For example, there are one million acres of almond trees in California. Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota explains, “Every flower needs to be pollinated to set the nut. Two million colonies of bees are trucked in to pollinate the almonds, and each colony has between ten and twenty thousand foragers. How many robots would be needed?” In addition, the 20,000 species of bees are adapted to different plants; some better pollinators for tomatoes; others for alfalfa, and so on. The programming and control of millions of artificial bees attuned to the needs of plants are mind numbing. link

And could the little robo-drones communicate? Bees can. Among other communication skills, a scout will return to the hive and perform a little dance that illustrates to other bees the direction of a discovered food source and its distance from the hive. link In addition, bees are great chemists and communicate with each other using pheromones. The queen can produce pheromones to control reproduction encouraging or discouraging the male bees in the hive. Worker bees use pheromones to defend the hive: when a bee is forced to sting, the bee alerts all fellow workers who then meet any threat in great numbers.

Scientists have no idea whether bee communication is accomplished by electrical currents, air currents from buzzing or vibrations in the honeycomb.  One research team “found that antenna deflections induced by an electrically charged honey bee wing are about 10 times the size of those that would be caused by airflow from the wing fluttering at the same distance—a sign that electrical fields could be an important signal.” link
It is entertaining to imagine that bees understand the current threats to their existence. The rusty-patched bumblebee and the Hawaiian yellow faced bee are on the verge of extinction; and last year 44% of honeybees in the United States died. What if bees kill time during winter months telling each other stories about the Rise of the Machines: imagining millions of little flying drones, all able to communicate –going from flower to flower across the world. They might even imagine the dystopia that might result.

Winter is Going

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht..

This is an excerpt from a beautiful medieval poem asking for divine help to find peace in winter’s grip. link As do we all here in the South where winter loosens its hold reluctantly, teasingly. In fits and starts. The forecast for the next 10 days is of moderate temperatures after weeks of bitter weather. I look forward to 71 degrees this afternoon. This is fortunate because, in Central Texas, it’s time to put in part of the Spring garden.

I will start cleaning this week. Yesterday I said good-bye to the ‘Winter’ garden and cut the last small cauliflower and pulled the last little cabbage. I have neighbors who are harvesting beautiful carrots and asparagus. My carrots failed for some reason (I suspect the chickens) and my asparagus has been deterred by bitter cold snaps into the 20’s these past few weeks. Unpredictable old winter gardening.

little onions in cold ground

This weekend, I’ll plant onions, spinach and lettuce.  I’ll try carrots again and protect the seeds with fencing wire. I have to put my spring broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower seedlings in 6 inch pots for planting in the garden later this month. All of these winter plantings will be battered off and on for the next six weeks by freezes, cold rain and icy winds. And they should be fine — adjusting to the roller coaster of warm and cold weather in this climate far better than their human caretaker.

Of course, up North, everything is quiet. The cold protects gardeners from doing much work outdoors. The problem with year round gardening is that one doesn’t get much time off. The other problem is that there is nothing really gorgeous outdoors right now. Even on blistering summer days there will be zinnias and cannas and mistflowers in bloom; the banana trees and citrus trees will be in their glory.

Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’

Now I have only a few blooms on the honeysuckle and some pretty new leaves on the Satsuma orange trees that were beleaguered by 13 degree temperatures in January. I have to look for inspiration to do my work in my imagination.

I was ordering hay for my stock and complained that I had no pasture. The normally gentle hay lady snapped, “Nobody has any pasture now.” She is, apparently, in absolute agreement with the 12th century poet quoted above. Winter grinds. But when people ask me why I go to the trouble of putting in a garden, the answer is of course ‘hope’.

“Hope” by George Frederic Watts