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Archive for the 'Science' Category

The Nature of Nature

October 9th, 2009

I never realized that grasshoppers exhibit adaptive coloration, at least right here where we see them all the time.  In August and September they are so prolific in the grass that they fly up everywhere bonking into me as I ride along on the tractor.  Birds and other critters prey on the grasshoppers, and even the young boy loves to catch them.  Most of our resident grasshoppers are colored with varying shades of brown and green.  But this particular ‘hopper was sitting on a log I was cutting up, near a wood pile, and didn’t seem to mind the noise or ruckus.

cryptic-grasshopper

I was surprised at how brown it was, and had not noticed one like this before. There even appear to be differing shades of brown to its color. Is this true crypsis in terms of the grasshopper blending into the woody background? Or is this just a genetic coloration variation of the many resident grasshoppers we have? Or is the answer simply, “Yes.”  I need to appreciate the young one’s inquisititiveness more at certain times… I think that’s genetic too.

Among the many beautiful native and non-native landscape plants we have are a series of grasses.   Ornamental grasses have become very popular in recent years due to their wispy appearance and minimal need for care.  Many of them are fairly drought tolerant as well.  But there is a problem.  Like many other introduced plants and animals over the decades, some may respond differently than expected within the environment and become invasive.  This grass forms beautiful seed heads in the fall, and looks really nice in the landscape.  Unless you didn’t put it there.  

invasive-ornamental-grass

This particular grass popped up along the shoreline of the pond all by itself, with a few others in various places, coming from seed heads of larger ornamentals further away.   I don’t like that… and can’t imagine how these huge grasses could change the landscape.   Can you imagine trying to fish or walk the shoreline of a pond surrounded by six foot high grasses everywhere?  So off with their heads!  I cut them back, and used a small amount of herbicide to try and kill the plants.  Be careful what you plant out there.   To borrow an oft-quoted line from Jurassic Park,  “Nature finds a way.” 

This is the only sun we’ve had for the past two days- a brief red dawn.  We’ve had 36 hours of non-stop rain!  Hope that’s not a sign of winter to come…

red-dawn




Lots of Acorns and Big Ugly Goobers

October 2nd, 2009

It’s a heavy year for the “mast” crop of acorns all across Missouri, and probably adjoining states. That’s good news for wildlife populations, especially in the Ozarks.  Deer, squirrels, rodents and the many predators such as foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls will benefit from the robust forage available this year. Looking forward, the next two years should produce increasing populations of these animals, depending upon the severity of winter weather.

fall-2009-acorn-crop

During the previous two years the combination of drought and early spring freezing weather negatively impacted the acorn production from the oaks.  I combed area forests last year and the hickory trees had produced an abundance of nuts everywhere I went, yet there were very few acorns from the oak trees.  And now while our red and white oak trees have produced a huge amount of acorns this year, our hickory trees did not produce many nuts at all.  Isn’t that interesting?

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I wish I had a picture, but I actually saw a Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying around the pond yesterday.   It’s not that unusual to see a kingfisher around water, but it is unusual to see one here in our upland forest area. I’ve heard their rattling call a few times in as many years, but always wondered if I was just hearing things… so it was fun to see a bird I usually only see while hiking or hunting in bottomland forests or canoeing on Missouri’s various rivers.  While I don’t really appreciate the visiting heron’s voracious appetite in eating our pond’s bigger fish, the kingfisher can have all it wants!

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We’ve also had a few interesting insect critters in recent weeks.  I call ’em Big Ugly Goobers, my acronym for BUGS.  A pair of Wheel Bugs (Arilus cristatus) were either in the pre or post phase of mating near the barn door last week.  They are strange looking things, and true bugs as only one of the 32 some-odd Orders in the insect world.  A little research indicated that no one really knows what the spiky-wheely-thingy (forgive my entomological void) on their back is for.  They’re in the assassin bug family, preying on other insects, and stick a huge straw-like proboscis into whatever they can catch to feed upon, after liquifying the insides.  Sort of a bug milkshake perhaps?  “Ewww…!”  Sorry…  Apparently their bite is really painful, so I’m glad I just looked at them and took a picture.  Maybe that spiky wheel is all for show… it’s a bad looking bug!  And yes the male is the smaller of the two…

wheel-bugs

 

If that didn’t dissuade your romantic contemplation of our pastoral lifestyle here at Fox Haven,  here’s something that might.   A new population of European Hornets (Vespa crabro) decided to show up this year.  I had never seen them before, but in July I started seeing a huge reddish-waspy-thing (another fine technical description!) in various places zooming by while I was outside working.  After some research I pretty much knew what it was but hoped they weren’t really here.  Sure enough though, one morning I came outside the house in late August with a cup of coffee, and heard a droning hum around one of our ash trees.  The sun wasn’t even up and I looked into the tree branches above to see more than a dozen huge hornets flying around.  My coffee grew cold as I stared at the size of these things.   They were landing on the branches, stripping bark or something.   To confirm the identification, I got out some trusty wasp spray that would shoot fairly high in the tree and dropped one to the ground (I left it there for a good twenty minutes to make sure I wasn’t going to be stung).

Yep… they were European Hornets. I thought their populations were much further south, but obviously not.  I then began seeing these guys everywhere for a few weeks… probably in the same manner as when you’re looking for a new car or similar product?  Once your interest is focused in a certain direction, you begin seeing that kind of car everywhere.  Anyway, for more exciting encounters, one night at nearly 10:00 pm I walked out near a floodlight turned on above the garage and two of these hornets were smashing into the light and flying all around.  I then read of them banging into people’s windows at night, attracted to the lights, and scaring the bejeesus out of them.  These guys can even hunt at night!

european-hornet

Last week I saw the big hornet in the photo above at the base of an oak tree near my bee hives.  It may have been a queen investigating its next meal or a warm place to overwinter this year… in any event it became another specimen for my collection, and didn’t get the chance to bring others nearby.  (That big yellow round mass is actually spray foam insulation that I sprayed into the base of that tree.  The tree is slowly dying (right behind the barn) and I was trying to seal up some small cavities around the base.  It’s a lost cause as the tree continued to lose half its leaves this year.  Next year I’ll probably cut it down). 

The hornets are considered non-aggressive unless threatened.   I had no intention to find that out first hand or to test how painful the sting was, but upon closer examination I found that the stinger is about 1/4 inch long!   Here’s a AA battery and one of the recently deceased hornets for a size comparison.  I think it actually shrunk a bit- they are huge when flying.

european-hornet-aa-battery

Obviously these creatures fulfill a positive role as predators in eating other insects, and we should appreciate that.   Yet these were an introduced species first being reported in the U.S. around the 1840’s presumably arriving on ships from across the Atlantic.  They have since marched slowly west…  I wonder if their presence in the food chain has displaced other insect predators such as paper wasps, yellow jackets, praying mantis, etc?   Or what form of adaptation has occurred within the environment in response to their presence and behaviors?    

Of course if we go down that road we can bring up our favored Honey Bee as an introduced species a couple hundred years earlier.   But now that the hornets are actually resident in our area, I’m not going to put out a welcome sign.  If they do build a nest somewhere around our house they are going to want to defend that nest, and I’ll want to defend the house.  So I’ve told a few of them to go tell their friends and relatives to build their nests somewhere else thank-you-very-much.   I’ve got enough stinging and biting critters around at this point.

But hey the cooler weather has really arrived and the insect populations are dwindling fast for the year.  The chigger, tick and skeeter populations are fading, and it makes working outside in autumn a little more enjoyable.  Okay, a lot more enjoyable!  Compared to so many other regions of the world though, we really don’t have too many pesky insects.  If you love the outdoors it’s all part of the experience and the beauty of our living natural world.  Thankfully my least favorite insect was not very abundant this year with all our cool summer weather!



The Honey Harvest – Part II

August 22nd, 2009

It is fitting that I share Part II of our honey harvest today- the first ever National Honeybee Awareness Day.  The USDA issued an earlier press release highlighting the critical role of honeybees to agriculture.

“Bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value and is an essential component of the production of more than 90 food crops – particularly specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, fruits and vegetables.”

“Honey bees are critical to the process of pollination of our crops throughout our country and an important part of maintaining a stable and sustainable ecosystem,” Secretary Vilsack said. “Honey Bee Awareness Day will help highlight this important role, as well as the significant threat honey bees now face from the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.”

It is no surprise that people have become more aware of the plight of the honeybee by media reports and tv specials in recent years.  We even read about how to save or help honeybees, and companies such as Haagen-Dazs have extended their influence and financial support as well  (I love Haagen-Dazs ice cream!)-  they even have a cool flash-based site at HelptheHoneybee.com .

Certainly the threats to the honeybee are real.  Many researchers believe we’re seeing a cycle of change with the bees especially in regards to human-based chemical influenced threats that may compromise their immune systems.  There have been cycles of losses in past years of course where the honeybee faced similar threats of disease.  Yet with the abundance of immuno-chemical challenges within the environment, and coupled with physical threats due to mites, hive beetles, bacteria, and viruses, the honeybee today must overcome greater challenges than ever before.

The honeybee is even attacked by other critters!  A Bald-faced Hornet hovers in front of this hive, just before grabbing one of the workers to take back to its own colony.  The Bald-faced Hornet is actually in the yellow-jacket genus made up of  predatory social wasps.

bald-faced-hornet-attack-2

So do the bees just stand there and let themselves get picked off by predators?  Usually, yes- they are not bothered normally from such threats and appear unsuspecting. But the bald-faced hornet is sneaky, and grabs a bee very quickly, or knocks it to the ground and then carries it away in its legs.   Sometimes however, the bees react quickly too and they “ball” the other insect such as the bald-faced hornet, or an intruding bumblebee, and eventually they kill it (sometimes they ball a drone or a queen bee within the hive as well).  In this picture the bees “balled” a larger insect that I couldn’t determine for sure- researchers believe the heat and carbon dioxide produced inside the “bee ball” kills the intruder… and sometimes a few bees die as well.

bee-ball

 

Today there’s an increasing trend focusing on natural and organic methods of beekeeping, in a similar fashion to gardening and healthier living choices.  This trend is tailor made for the small and part-time hobbyist beekeeper with relatively few bee hives.  Yet it doesn’t come without risk- trying to shepard hives of thousands of bees through the various seasons is an inexact science, and involves a great deal of art and intuition born only of experience.   There are no guarantees, and it can become an expensive hobby.   And if I do find disease with the bees, do I just let them struggle with it?  Give them chemicals to fight it?  We’ll see.

While the bees are facing challenges, does that mean we can’t find them anywhere?  No.  You can still purchase live bees from many companies around the nation, but it helps to order early (meaning during early winter) in order to get on the list and receive bees throughout the spring.  By mid-summer it’s difficult to find package bees for sale to start new hives. Then you’re off to the races, learning how to take of them and wondering what you got yourself into along the way.

honeybees-on-hive

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Ah, but beekeeping does come with its own rewards!  Eventually (in the second year for most new beekeepers), you’ll find yourself harvesting honey from your very own hives.   It’s a rich reward like no other, and brings a satisfaction and pride at the work these amazing creatures have performed.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to gather our honey, and what I take from my hives is pure, natural and raw. The bees produced it on their own, in a challenging spring and summer season of rain and cooler weather this year.  Most of it is from wildflowers and trees in the area. Blackberries, elderberry, maple, clover, dandelion, mulberry, aster, locust, basswood… many more than I can count.  One of the hives is a lot stronger than the other- producing around 35 pounds of honey to the other hive’s 10 pounds this year.   In some parts of the country, the weather really hurt the honey yield, so I’m thankful for how well these bees did this year.

A beautiful frame of capped and filled honeycomb.

capped-honey

Working with bees in 85-95 degree summer weather is a pretty warm affair though.  Especially dressed in such fashionable, clunky apparel. It’s hot, sweaty work- and I don’t think the bees appreciate some big, sweaty human prodding around in their home. That’s where the smoke helps. I use a little smoke from burning grass or burlap and waft the smoke around the entrance or the top of the hive, and it calms the bees. Not only does it mask the odor of the beekeeper, but the bees have an instinctive response to fill up on honey in case a fire threatens the hive and they need to leave. Not all of them bury their heads in cells to suck up honey at the first whiff of smoke… most just seem hang out and continue doing whatever they were doing.

But when I open their hive without smoke they tend to get a little defensive and “ping” off my veil or coveralls more quickly. A hive of more defensive or aggressive bees will come pouring out at you in a heartbeat, seemingly with stingers first! So a little smoke goes a long way, and keeps the bees under control. That’s kind of important really, and while some people advocate not using smoke, I believe it actually aggravates the bees less, and helps you get finished a whole lot faster so you can close the hive back up and let the bees get back to their work.

Uncapping a frame of honey.

uncapping-frame-of-honey

I mentioned before about an old honey extractor from years ago?   My folks kept that old extractor through the years for some reason.  It was laying in a corner of the barn… beat up and kind of rusty.  I pulled it out to look at it last year and frowned,  “No way…” I thought.  After pricing new extractors this year I reconsidered.

So what the heck I thought, and I did a little experiment… I removed all the parts and conducted reverse electrolysis in a 55 gallon drum with a battery charger and some iron rods.  It was amazing- the rust came off that thing in less than 24 hours!  I then hand-cleaned, bleached and scrubbed the extractor ’till it was nearly sparkling, and painted it inside and out.  I finished by completely coating it with two coats of food-grade epoxy- a clear, hard coat finish that nicely sealed it top to bottom.  Finally satisfied that it was in good shape to use for extracting honey, I still didn’t know if it would work very well.

hand-crank-extractor

I soon found out that they made things pretty well a hundred years ago however, and the extractor worked like a dream.  It was made by The Standard Churn Company out of Waupenka, Ohio sometime around 1910.  My grandparents were kids back then, and I can’t help but wonder how much honey this old extractor has seen.  The company made butter churns mostly, but I’ve found references for their extractors in old farm manuals.

After uncapping each frame by using a knife to remove the top wax cappings on the cells,  you put two frames in the extractor and crank one side for a minute- then take the frames out and turn them around.  Crank some more for a couple minutes, then take the frames out and turn around one more time.  Crank again for a while and that about does it.  The honey came out easily, taking a little time of course, but I can’t argue with the results.   As the honey spins out of the frames, it drips down the sides of the extractor and out into a bucket with a strainer set up at the top.  The honey is lightly filtered to remove bits of wax and sealed in a food-grade bucket ready for bottling.  No heating, no super micron filters… raw, natural and ready to eat!  That afternoon we hand-cranked about 20 medium frames of honey with that machine, two frames at a time- it was actually kind of fun.

Over three days we pulled supers and frames, extracted the honey and then began filling up the pre-washed half-pound glass bottles.  Lots of helpers- the boy loved it, and Memaw pitched in too :) I was like a kid in candy store… moreso with so much honey around.   It’s not a huge amount for the first real honey year- nearly five gallons in all.  Maybe more if we get a good flower bloom this fall.  I’m still looking at various designs and names for a label of some kind too, but it’s just not there yet.

I’m still amazed by the process- and the honey!  It’s exquisite… a beautiful amber gold that tastes incredible.  I filled up a few honey bears too, and the young boy got to have one all his own.

first-honey-jar

I like to think the flavor is enhanced by the time spent working with the bees, and watching them dance around the flowers, surviving through the pace of the changing seasons.   The other morning I watched the sun rise, enjoying the colors of dawn.   I heard a bee zooming by as I enjoyed the morning.   They’re up early too when it’s warm out, and the flower sources are a little scarce right now.   I smiled, marveling at the wonders of nature.  We help them have a home, the bees do their thing, and we receive a little honey in return.  I sipped my coffee and thought of how many more things we could do if we really wanted to.

There are three hives now at Fox Haven- not very many, but a lot from my perspective.  Earlier this month I requeened the weaker hive, and split off a new hive from the strong colony, starting it with its own new queen.  That’s another way to increase the number of hives you have in your apiary, and it’s also a story for another day.   If you missed it before, here’s a link to read about The Honey Harvest Part I.

Memories of Spring, Rare Plants and Rare People

April 1st, 2009

On this first day of April I finally feel like spring is here.  The days are warming up and flowers and leaves are coming out everywhere- and the birds! When you walk out the door at sunrise, the singing is amazing.  Cardinals, Phoebes, Towhees, Sparrows, Bluebirds… it’s a wild cacophony of twittering and song.  Well, twittering means something else to most people these days…  but for me it’s the birds.

It is a lovely time of year though.  It reminds me so much of exploring the forests when I was younger.  I remember a spring in the early 1980’s when I really learned about the plants and wildflowers throughout the Ozarks.   I was taking a botany class in college, and wouldn’t you know it- most of what we had to do was hike and walk around looking for plants to identify.  My kind of class!  One time we were hiking throughout the northwestern Arkansas Ozarks and the professor had us gather around to examine a plant.  He gingerly held something up and asked if we knew what it was… no one answered.  He handed it to one of the guys, and said “Feel the little hairs on the stem, and tell me what you think…”  Within a few moments the young gent dropped the stinging nettle yelling “Owww!”  It only stings and itches for a short time, but we thought that was pretty funny- and I never forgot the plant.

On another trip to some beautiful highland slopes above a river, we wandered along below a bluff admiring the landscape.  One of my classmates found a neat little bush with white flowers, and was about to pull some off… “Don’t touch that plant!!!” the professor screamed, as we all jumped wondering what was the matter.  He ran up and we gathered around as he excitedly described that the plant, Alabama Snow-wreath, was very rare and only found in a few places across the southern states.

alabama-snow-wreath
Alabama Snow-wreath (Neviusia alabamensis A. Gray) GFDL Kurt Steuber

 


He knew of only two places it was growing at the time, one of them where we stood.  There were just a few bushes in a small circle, covered with white flowers.  The plant is still classified as threatened and is very rare, but has also been found in Missouri and a few other southern states.   Oddly, some have propagated the plant for gardens as it’s similar to spirea, but it’s still very uncommon.  I remember admiring the wispy white flower heads and standing in awe that the plant I was seeing only grew in a few places in the entire world.  As startled as I was by the professor’s response at first, I had to wonder how many other plant and animal species across the globe had a similar distinction.   The more I learned about plants and wildlife, the more I appreciated his convictions.   Perhaps that awakened the realization that the world is much smaller than it seems.

The journeys I would later make throughout the world became an exploration of nature too, and proved just how small the world really is- even while at times I felt torn watching the machinations of mankind against the backdrop of world politics.  I felt a greater responsibility than being a mere instrument of political will, and sought balance within myself through the years.  Nothing was ever as black and white as it seemed, but I am thankful for having made the journey.

Spring was never quite the same for me after those early days in school however.  Instead, the season after winter became a quiet revelation of the wonders of the natural world, instilling a sense of appreciation and mystery that has always remained.   How can one describe the joy and excitement of finding a new flower, plant or bird in a place you haven’t seen before?  Not everyone appreciates that mystery and beauty… to some it’s the same old thing.  But to those of us who feel the pulse of nature quicken in our hearts, it is everything.

A year or so after that botany field trip I was somehow chosen to pick up none other than Jean-Michel Cousteau at the airport one day, to bring him to the school for a speaking presentation on the environment.   I barely remember the event or what he did after I brought him to the school.  I do remember waiting at the little airport, wondering how I could be picking up the son of the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau… the man I grew up watching on television and dreaming of the adventures and explorations he made throughout the world.

I wish I could even remember our conversation as we drove for a half hour to the school campus.  It was unremarkable, and he was tired from his journey.  I was young and wanted to make a good impression… mostly by not having an accident while driving the van on the way to the school!  I do remember that I tried to share a bit of the beauty of spring that year- he agreed, brightening a bit and  saying something like,  “Ah, oui! Yaas, ze vorld iz a beootiful place, non?” I remember wishing I could see the places he had seen, and travel to faraway lands.    Eventually I would, but in such a different way!  His life of course has become a celebration of environmental awareness and education, especially in terms of water and ocean issues- and a testament to his father’s life and research.

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Speaking of water and another spring ritual, our Koi Carp have become active once again in the pond.  They’re not true Nishikigoi or Japanese Koi, but rather a hybrid carp of sorts grown here in America.  But they’re placid fish, cruising around the pond, and I enjoy seeing them.  In November or December they seem to disappear- and all winter long I wonder if they are doing okay, especially under the ice.  They go into a near hibernation or stasis of sorts in winter, finding a deeper, muddy place to wait out the cold months.  In mid-to-late March they reappear near the shorelines, and begin cruising around in the shallow warmer waters.

Those in our pond are very large fish now- between 2-3 feet long.   Most are orange and black in coloration- but this one is a mottled white.  We call the very orange ones “Orangey” and the ones with a large black spot, “Spot.”  Very orginal, huh?! I haven’t been able to get close enough to tell them apart, but this year I’ll try to get more pictures like this.  We may call this one Motley or Patch…  That’s the tip of a bluestem plant in the foreground- the fish probably weighs 20-30 pounds or more.

Koi Carp

We had five at one point- beginning with three about 8-12 inches long, and stocking two smaller ones about 6-8 inches long a year later.  One of those disappeared, and we’ve seen the same four large Koi Carp together now for the past couple of years.   I don’t feed them- they help control the vegetation and subsist on a natural diet.  Thus far they seem to be doing just fine, and based on their life cycle, may still be here long after we are gone.

Little Wonders in Spring

March 23rd, 2009

Lately our weather is so variable, with each day different from the rest- sounds like spring!  Today it’s cool and windy with some heavy rain the forecast.  It’s such a great time of year though- and we’ve been enjoying the time outdoors.  A walk through the forest yields some interesting sights, especially down at ground level.  We found ourselves admiring several of the Bryophytes… non-vascular plants that we call mosses.   We wander around and try not to step on them, and really have no idea what species or type they are… “Dad, what kind is this?”  “Ah… it’s one of the mosses.”  “Yeah, but what kind?!”  “Oh, there’s really so many…”  “So, you don’t know, is that it?”  “Ah, well, yes- I really don’t know, because…um, there’s so many… oh, Hey! Would you look at that bird over there!”

A bright green patch of moss looks so soft and inviting- there’s a rock in the middle of this patch.  Soft moss, soft moss, soft moss… reminds me of Tiger and Kipper.  Did you ever watch Kipper the dog?  Great little British cartoon.

forest-moss-in-missouri2

The tiny sporophytes sticking up from this moss species look like strange hairs on some green beast. 

moss-sporophytes

Another moss species has a different look and shows what we might call “moss flowers” but instead they are perichaetia – essentially organs in which the reproductive cells develop and fertilization occurs.  Very different from flowering plants with seeds.  Each little “tree” below is only as wide as a pinky finger, and as tall as a thumbnail- about the same scale as the fingertips in the photo above.  It’s very soft too…

forest-moss-in-missouri

We also found the first wildflower on our property last week- a wild Bluet. This is a tiny little flower found growing in patches- the young boy noticed it first and I was surprised I was sitting next to quite a few of them.  Well, not so suprising without my reading glasses since they’re tiny!

wild-bluet

Wild Bluet (Hedyotis crassifolia)

Here’s my three-inch pocketknife for a sense of scale- these are really little.

wild-bluet-and-pocketknife

It’s fun to get outdoors in spring and see the many changes. Soon we won’t be able to keep up with it all. Leaves are starting to emerge, and the trees will be covered in a months time. The purple martins and barn swallows should be returning over the next few weeks too.

The Bover Kingdom

November 17th, 2008

One of the oddities around Fox Haven in November is the Ladybug Bonanza that takes place every year.  Sure we see ladybugs, or ladybird beetles around throughout the year, but from late October until mid-November there are zillions of them.   So many in fact that they end up both outside and inside the house.  And actually, most of these are not the typical ladybugs that many of us grew up with, but rather the Asian Ladybug.  Apparently these little guys were released around the country from the 1960’s on, and first showed up “in the wild” in the U.S. around 1988.  Since then they have exploded across the country.  They do eat aphids and other pesky bugs, but they’ve also become quite pesky themselves.  There’s just too many and they get everywhere.

Last week there was a great cloud of them behind the house, flying about on a warm day.  And yes, they are cute little critters, except for one small detail.  At this time of year- they bite!  Maybe it’s just because they don’t have other bugs to prey on, but when they land on your arm and crawl around, you’ve just got time to think “How cute…” before going “Owww!” and brushing it away.  It’s not that bad, but who expects to get bitten by a ladybug!?

And at night where do they go?  They return to the Bover Kingdom of course.  What is the Bover Kingdom?  Well, please allow me to digress for a moment.

The young boy loves ladybugs.  He’s still young enough, and innocent enough, to find joy in so many things, including little bugs.  He has always loved ladybugs for some reason.  He delights in their being, their color, their cute little shape. He was a ladybug for Halloween a few years back.  He even has a little “ladybug house” that he uses to gather them up and watch them crawl around.  Oh, and yes- the name.  It’s “Bover”, with a long “o” sound.   At our house they are known as “Bovers” from the name he gave to them years ago as a toddler.  How he came up with that I have no idea, but one day they officially became known as bovers, and we’ve never looked back.

Except for the day he found a dead one on the porch when he was three years old and didn’t really understand the concept of deadness or the opposite of being alive.  I remember it like it was yesterday…  a loud “Daddy! Come here!”  and I dutifully wander over asking “Whatcha got there?”  He points with a chubby little finger and solemnly replies, “Look, a non-moving bover.”

We’re finding a lot of moving and non-moving bovers lately.  But we’ve also finally discovered where they go at this time of year!  They hide.  Anywhere they can.  Which brings us back to our story.  While gathering wood to stack closer to the house yesterday we discovered the Magical Bover Kingdom!  As we picked up one of the last pieces of wood on the bottom of the pile, we revealed the secret chamber of hidden bovers, that place of ALL PLACES for little bovers.  Maybe it was even Bover Heaven.

Ladybugs in November in Missouri

They looked like jewels among the leaves and wood.  Why are they gathered in such a way? For warmth, or laying eggs before succumbing to the freeze of winter?  Maybe they hibernate… I don’t know.  It was pretty to see, and pretty weird.

But at 4:00 am yesterday I also found that they hide on the bottom of firewood.  It wasn’t my fault, honest.  It was dark, I didn’t turn on any lights and I was sleepy…  I was building up the fire in the wood stove and went outside to get a log. A log on the bottom of the wood pile. I brought it in and placed it right into the stove, closed the door as flames engulfed it and sat back to enjoy the warmth… only to see some kind of sparkly, shimmering mass dancing in the fire.   “Hmmm, that’s kind of neat…” I thought.  And it was, up until the moment my eyes opened wide as I realized it was dozens… (okay, hundreds) of little bovers scrambling madly about.  “Aaahhhh! What have I done!?”

They were all over the bottom of that log and quickly became roasted little (sparkly) embers.  Kind of pretty actually but I felt really bad for burning up a bunch of ladybugs.  Oh if my son could see!  In his eyes I would never be the same.

Well later that morning we brought some more logs in… I turned around, remembering them on the hearth, “Noooo!” I screamed, running toward the fire… (not really).  But I did casually mention that there were probably a few critters hiding on that thing.  Remembering our discovery of the day before he immediately ran over and said “Bovers!”  At which time he began to pick them off one by one, finally carrying a handful gently to the door to let them go outside (the fact that it’s going to be 21 degrees F tonight doesn’t matter).

So I grabbed that “bover cleaned” log and put it in the woodstove, meeting his approval.  And we’re a lot more careful about shaking the bovers off the firewood we’re bringing in now.  But the little dudes are really hard to see.  Last night after putting another log in the fire, he yells  “Daddy wait!” as I jump, startled.

“What? What is it?!” I ask, and he says there’s a little bover crawling on the log I just put into the fire.  Or was.  “Where did it go?” he asks.   And trying hard not to smile I say, “Uh… well, it went up the chimney.”  He actually laughed at that one.

Bucking a Tree in Autumn

October 14th, 2008

The last few weeks have been so busy, both at home and on the national economic front that it’s hard to keep focused at times.  Perhaps it’s the drumbeat of the seasons changing, and with winter coming we feel a pressing need to prepare.  It’s strange… sometimes it feels like there’s nothing more I can possibly write about or take pictures of.  Then I’ll see too many things and not have enough time to share them.  But lots of work accomplished this weekend outside.  Long days with the chainsaw that finally cleared a fallen tree.  This is Part I of the story, and Part II explores using a chainsaw safely.

This tree had been near the pond’s edge since April, blown over one night in 50 mph winds.  Here’s a picture the morning after I awoke to see it laying on it’s side.   Looks deceivingly small, but it was at least 50-60 feet tall.

Fallen oak tree in Spring 2008

And a different perspective of the same tree this weekend before it was cut up for firewood.

Fallen oak tree before cutting up

The tree was still living through summer, but in late August all the leaves turned brown.   No sense of urgency to cut it up in the hot summer, so I awaited for the right autumn day.  It took most of two days to “buck” the tree, cutting the wood in 16-18 inch sections and beginning to clean up the branches afterwards.  Most of the work was on the uphill side, and it’s slow going to make sure there are no surprises as the tree shifts and moves when cut up.

It’s always interesting figuring out how to drop the larger sections safely.  And then there was the slope to the pond with the large trunk of the tree almost over the water’s edge.   Should I hook it to a chain on the tractor?  I was afraid it might pull the tractor in the pond or damage it in some way if the tree rolled too quickly.  The base of the tree was tucked next to the small cedar at right, and the left end was wedged against another tree. I cut through the left side first and then cut the right side free from the base with the chainsaw… Whump! Splash!  Ah, success. Okay, glad I didn’t try to hold it with the tractor.

Oak tree log in pond

The twenty foot log floated out towards the middle of the pond.  I counted on the wind to eventually blow it back towards the side of the pond with a gentle slope, where I might pull it out with the tractor.  I love to watch how these logs float, and the young boy wanted to swim out and climb on it.

Oak log floating in pond

Gives new meaning to the word “waterlogged”…  I didn’t want to lose the wood, and thought it might become too saturated (and heavier) in a matter of days.  It wouldn’t sink for some time, but might be too difficult to handle if I didn’t get it out more quickly.  There’s probably several weeks of winter warmth in terms of firewood in that log and I plan to use it!   Meanwhile a large turtle found a new temporary home…

Pond turtle on oak tree log

We went to bed that night hoping the wind kept it near the dam.  Sure enough, the next morning the log was snuggled near the spillway, within reach.  Interesting to see the greenish cast of algae blooming in the water. With a hoe I prodded and pushed the huge log along the shoreline, reaching a flat rocky area that would serve as a good foundation to pull it out.

Oak log in pond

A pair of tall rubber boots (with leaky toes!) helped me wrap a heavy chain under the log while in the water.  Then it was time for the tractor and wrapping the chain around the loader bucket.  I don’t know how heavy the log was, but I estimated it was close to 2,000 pounds.  The loader capacity on the small tractor is only 1,100 pounds, but with the tractor backed slightly uphill I knew it would not be lifting the full weight of the log.  I just needed to swing it out of the water. I’ve tried towing or pulling smaller logs out before, and that works.  But it damages the pond’s edge and makes a big muddy rut.  Plus this log had a heavy y-branch sticking down into the water making dragging it very difficult.

As I gently lifted the loader, the log swung up and towards the tractor, almost surfing through the water up and onto the bank, traveling about 6 feet.  I imagine the working weight of the log was quite a bit less while partially bouyant in the water.  But as it swung closer, I could feel the tractor slowly tipping forward and sideways.  And I quickly dropped the loader down.  A few more times however and the log was beached… hooray!

Oak log pulled out of pond with John Deere 2320 tractor

It really didn’t look that big until I pulled it out of the water.  The gloves at the end of the log by the bucket provide some perspective, and it was bigger than I thought.  I couldn’t even roll it over by hand.

JD 2320 tractor pulling oak tree log out of water

 Now it’s time to cut the log into rounds, split them and stack the firewood for late winter.  See Part II of the story for more about using a chainsaw safely. They say “wood warms you twice… once when you cut it, and a second time at the hearth.”  Well, okay.  But by that logic I’ve been warmed 23 times so far!  It takes at least a couple of sharp chains on a good chainsaw to get an oak tree cut up.  A good 18 inch bar helps as well.  I can’t imagine how they did it by hand in the old days.  Then again they didn’t spend time taking pictures and writing on blogs either…

As for splitting the rounds I finally wimped out and got a small hydraulic splitter this year.  I went through 4+ trees a couple of years ago, splitting it all by hand with axe and maul.  My forearms were practically destroyed that year and took 6 months to rehabilitate.  Not getting younger by any means I guess.  I still love chopping wood with a sharp axe for the fire, but I don’t mind letting the hydraulic splitter go through the bigger rounds.  That’s the project for this week.

The wood smells really nice by the way.  This tree was a Red Oak and as much as I was sad to see it fall in the wind, I know the wood will provide almost a couple of month’s warmth in winter for us.   We took the time to count the rings… the boy counted along with me and the tree was about 125 years old!   I was amazed, because it looked smaller than that.  But we talked about the annual rings spaced closer together in times of stress and drought, and the wider rings where the tree grew faster in times of more rainfall or favorable conditions.

Red Oak tree round looking at yearly rings

Some of the larger oak trees around the area must be closer to 200 years old.  I always have a  difficult time reconciling the age of trees to the passage of history.  If trees could talk… well they can, sort of.  Ever hear of dendrochronologyFascinating research.  I introduced it to a sixth grade class once with cut specimens of cedar and pine to let them count tree rings.  But it’s amazing to see how the wood from Viking ships helped researchers determine when and where the ships were built.

By the way, our small hickory tree was loaded with nuts for the very first time this year. We think it’s close to twenty years old which is about right before they produce nuts the first time.  We found quite a few on the ground, and also hugged the tree to shake it a little as more nuts came falling to the ground.  The boy likes the outer husks for boats in the bathtub. I wasn’t sure what type of hickory it was until we saw the nuts, and it appears to be a Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata). 

Shagbark Hickory tree nut

We have two other Shagbark hickory trees across the pond so it’s not surprising that it grew here, planted by some industrious squirrel.  I had not shelled and eaten hickory nuts before.  They’re small but we tasted one and it seemed mild and faintly sweet.  They probably need time to dry out and maybe we could roast them? But they’re going to require a little patience.  We’ll save them for winter along with those walnuts.

And here’s an interesting fungi specimen to add to our collection.  Anyone know what this is? There were two of them, with dozens of brown, round mushroom heads packed closely together.  The entire fungi was about the size of a dinner plate.  It sprouted and lived for only a couple days, fading quickly after that.  Reminds me of a pile of pennies…

Unknown clump of fungi

Early Autumn Oddities

September 25th, 2008

Is it really Autumn already?  I’m not sure where the time went, but there are many changes now with the days growing shorter.  The weather this year has been so strange, but the bees really appreciate all the moisture.  They’re all over the goldenrod and small wild asters now, hopefully building up their stores of honey and pollen for winter.

But look at this blooming crabapple tree!  It flowered in the Spring and has many little crabapples now, but then began blooming again this week.   I think the leaves were defoliated from insect damage and that prompted it to flower once more.

Crabapple tree flowering in September

Other strange sights include this gigantic mushroom.  I saw a white patch behind the barn and thought I lost a plastic grocery bag.  As I got closer I couldn’t believe how big it was!  So that’s a regular white straw cowboy hat near the monster fungus.  Anybody know what it is?  I’ve noted many other smaller mushrooms around now too.

Giant mushroom next to cowboy hat

And if you’re an arachnophobe, then you might want to skip to the next picture!  I think this is a Missouri Wolf Spider (Geolycosa missouriensis), but I’m not really sure.  Any spider experts out there?  All I know is it was almost two inches long and was strolling along the gravel driveway when I walked up to it.  Those rocks are chunks of one inch clean gravel recently spread on top of the driveway.  I let the spider continue its journey toward some bushes and I think it growled at me as it wandered off!

Missouri Wolf Spider

 

And here’s a colorized picture of a beautiful rose taken at dawn yesterday.  The sun had just risen in the background, and the rose was in the shade.  A little creative license helped to brighten the picture.  Have a great day!

Colorized rose in morning sunlight

Flowers, Berries and Bees

September 12th, 2008

The autumn season is just around the corner, and the fall honeyflow for the bees is in full swing.  Many seasonal flowers are blooming and very abundant due to all the rainfall.  I have left the bees alone for the past few weeks, and hopefully they are producing lots of honey for their winter stores. 

Sedum flowers are tiny, but the bees are covering these plants throughout the daylight hours.  Bees are fascinating insectsDid you know it takes over 2 million trips to flowers to make just 1 pound of honey?  Each worker bee lives about 6 weeks, and during that time each worker will make about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey.  Makes me appreciate honey all the more!

Bees love Sedum flowers!

I left a large patch of these “weeds” near the pond dam, and the bees seem to love them.  I don’t know what they are called, but there’s probably a quarter acre of them about 4-5 feet tall with white flower heads.   

 Autumn flowers that bees love

Earlier this summer I didn’t see the bees around our property much, and we didn’t have many flowers blooming that were suitable for bees.  They would zoom off from the hive somewhere, and I thought they were really fast.  But honeybees can only fly about 15 mph and can be challenged on windy days to make it to the hive.  The NOVA article above says a worker bee will visit between 50-100 flowers on each trip outside the hive.  That’s a lot of work!

It’s also time to harvest some more berries.  These are “autumn berries” from the Autumn Olive or Autumnberry tree (Elaeagnus umbellata). 

Autumnberries in late summer

Autumnberry is really a very large shrub, originally from Asia.  Decades ago they were planted around the eastern U.S. to help with soil stability and erosion prevention.  Turns out they are quite invasive however and have taken over many areas. The plant is thick and branchy, with many thorns in the upper branches.  Not easy to remove.  I’ve watched a large thicket grow up in just a few years above the pond.  But the berries are edible, and we’re going to experiment with them to make jam or jelly. 

If all goes well, we may also have a little honey to go with our biscuits before the bees settle in for winter.  We’ll check on them next week!

Bee hive and Labrador Retriever in foreground

Flutterby in July

July 27th, 2008

We’re on the way to mid-summer and after all the rain it’s so nice and green!  And hot! And humid!  Ah, but with all the growing things we have lots of butterflies around.  Sometimes I don’t see them and wonder where they are, and then I’ll start noticing them everywhere.   That intentional thought thing perhaps. 

Have you ever been interested in a particular kind of car, and then for the next 3-4 days you see them everywhere?! 

And I saw a fox yesterday for the first time this year.  They’re always around, but we don’t see them often.  I didn’t have the camera, but the fox was running along the dam toward the woods.  I thought, “What’s Kuma doing down at the dam?  Wait… that’s not Kuma, that’s a fox!”  It quickly disappeared into the woods.   If you like dogs, you can read about our indefatigable Kuma here.  He really does look like a fox!

Speaking of foxes, our cat Princess has always been wary, but even more so it seems since Sparky left us last month.   We’re not sure, but he may have encountered a fox or coyote one night.  He still made it home amazingly enough, but something bit into his hind quarters.  He spent almost a week with a veterinarian, but in the end he couldn’t be helped.   There are lots of predators about, which indicates a healthy biodiversity in the area.  But sometimes it’s a little too close to home.  And yes, we let cats run around outside most of the time.  It’s a rural lifestyle, and the cats love to be outside. They also help keep mice and moles away. 

Of course the only predators I see chasing butteflies is the yellow lab.  Sometimes he’ll see one on the ground, stalk it slowly and then lunge at it.  He doesn’t catch them, but has a goofy look on his face that seems to imply it’s just for fun. 

One of our more common butterflies is the Giant Swallowtail.  These guys are fast but don’t seem to mind letting you get a good look at them.  

Giant Swallowtail butterfly

Now I’m not trying to make this “the insect blog” or anything, it’s just that there are so many around right now!  It’s not too difficult to get a picture of a butterfly on the ground, but to catch one in flight was another story. 

This guy was more like a “flutterby” as he danced around quickly in circles.  I probably took 30 pictures to get this one in focus.  I wonder if there are any aerodynamic lessons to learn from butterflies? 

Giant Swallowtail butterfly in July

I know that throughout the world butterfly “souvenirs” can be found in many cities.  Which is not necessarily a good thing, especially if some of the species are threatened due to habitat loss or overcollection.  But some of the collections for sale are amazing in the diversity of species and colors.  Collecting insects is generally a fine hobby and quite educational.  I remember taking an entomology class years ago and amassed quite the collection of creepy crawlies.  Not sure what happened to it, but that’s probably a good thing!

And if you’ve read this far, it’s well past time to say thank you for visiting.  I appreciate if you have time for a comment, but if you’re just passing by, that’s okay too.   Sometimes blogging can be discouraging when it seems like one is “writing into the wind” so to speak.  But as Ron has found, there are many wonderful “lurkers” out there… good people that stop by for reasons we may never know or understand.  I’m glad Ron’s back at it…   I don’t know how long I’ll continue to write or share pictures, but hopefully we’ll continue the journey for a good while.

We’re off on a traveling adventure this week and I may or may not get a chance to post.  There are so many other wonderful blogs out there and I’m really amazed and humbled with the stories and relationships that blogging fosters.   And yes!  Next week we’ll be posting the Festival of the Trees.  See you soon.

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