Sunday, July 26, 2015

pierced by meadow cat's tails

pierced by meadow cat's tails
Queen Anne's lace regally wears
a crown of golden wands

Meadows make for interesting interactions among its multifarious inhabitants. Here, the umbel of a wild carrot looks like a white lace parasol adorned with rabbit ears. The golden wands are the seed heads of meadow cat's tail, also commonly called Timothy grass. Rabbits, of course, love carrots, and the root of Daucus carota smells like carrot and is edible when young. Wild carrot looks a lot like poison hemlock, but the carrot smell is one way to distinguish the two, though who's going to dig up a possibly deadly plant to smell the root! In fact, D. carota is the great-grandmother of our domestic carrot.

A spider has left a silken veil on the topmost tips of the basket of bracts enclosing a bud. From this interwoven cup, we see why wild carrot is also called bird's nest. The fine hairs on the solid stem are another way to distinguish it from poison hemlock.

This bud, hanging head down, reveals the twelve rays of spiky bracts fanning out from the base of the blossom. They look as sharp as the thorns of honey locust but are actually quite soft.

Sometimes the flowers on the rim of the unfolding umbel blush a delicate pink.

This emerging blossom sports pink on the tips of the bracts, like fingernail polish.

The three-pronged bracts beneath the umbel spread out as the umbel swells from concave bud to convex blossom.

In the heart of the fully blossomed umbel sits a tiny red flower, designed to attract insects for the purpose of propagation. The spot of red is supposed to represent a drop of blood from when Queen Anne pricked her finger on a needle while making lace. If you place the white flower in a bowl of water with red food coloring, as we did in a grade school experiment, the plant will draw up the water and the flower will turn red. I wonder why the plant doesn't make the whole flower red to attract more insects. Too much of a good thing?

Perhaps this insect is drawn to the red heart, and as it walks across the dense lacy carpet, its feet may pollinate the tiny white flowers.

The leaves are also lacy, but chemicals in the leaves can cause a skin rash. A good defense for a pretty flower, and probably why the plant is not eaten by deer.

Sometimes the blossoms look like snowflakes falling in summer.

When the flower goes to seed, it folds inward, encased in the spiky protective bracts. Finally, the seed head falls off the stem and becomes a tumbleweed, flying with the wind, carrying its progeny to new frontiers.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

curving back on air

curving back on air
bindweed shoots beyond seed head
searching for connection

Down by the mailboxes I notice a bindweed vine wrapped around a seed head of some plant I don't recognize. The vine, grown beyond the top of the dry stalk, has launched into the air, its recurving tendrils seeking something else to embrace.

Five days later, the vine is shooting sideways past its launch pad, pulling the seed head with it. The tendrils curl back on themselves, grasping at air.

Another six days and the vine has fallen over in an arch, the seed head bending down with it. Soon the seeking tendrils will touch a low growing plant and bind the vine back to the ground. All that work, for what?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

curving back on white

curving back on white
plumes, green smoke spiraling down
over the night lake

One of the first fireworks to go off looks like a question mark rising over the dark line of trees along the east side of Pleasant Lake. But what is the question?

Independence Day falls on a Saturday this year, so fireworks in Fairfield are happening on the actual Fourth of July. Some years the event is moved to a different date, to suit work schedules, I guess. I don't think the city planners feel like John Adams, who refused for the rest of his life to attend celebrations on the 4th, because the Declaration of Independence was signed on the 2nd of July, though it was adopted on the 4th.

Last year the show was rained out, so this year we are getting a double dose, some with colors I've never seen before -- turquoise, lavender, orange.

We find space on the grass in a clearing on the north end of the lake, in the midst of a small gathering of like-minded people avoiding the crowded beach on the south end.

We cheer at each unique pattern of cascading plumes and points.

A light breeze keeps the mosquitoes away.

And maybe the smoke drifting our way across the lake from the incendiary explosions.

Some of the displays look like abstract paintings.

And some look like photographs of supernovae or colliding galaxies.

And some are signs of light, appearing for a heartbeat in the blackness, mysterious answer to an unfathomable question.

Monday, June 29, 2015

twin fawns, white spotted

twin fawns, white spotted,
chase each other round their doe,
stop to nurse, off again

The mother doe stands between two shagbark hickory trees in our side yard, turning her head this way and that. Flashing by, two white spotted fawns chase each other round and round like a pair of beaded Inuit yo-yos pivoting around their solid tether.

They stop at last and one bends her head under her mother's flank to nurse. The doe looks up and spots me, standing behind the sun porch window. Ever cautious, she trots away and the fawns bound off behind her.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

hammock of honeybees

hammock of honeybees
hanging from a honey locust
branch -- ignoring thorns

On my way to town, I spot my neighbor Alitza in her white beekeeping outfit, standing near her hives. I wave and she waves back, but with a "come here" kind of gesture, so I back up and stop by her black pickup truck. She says she's got a swarm in a honey locust tree. Do I have time to watch her capture it? Of course! I race back to the house for my Canon, attach the 70-300mm lens and change into white pants and shirt.

The swarm on the branch is fairly docile, but lots of bees are milling all around, so I stand back out of the way. Alitza sets up a stepladder under the branch and climbs up to inspect the swarm.

Then she sets the swarm capture box near the hive where this swarm came from. The bees in this hive were new, but she doesn't know why they swarmed. She's been feeding them with sugar water because there aren't enough flowers for foraging yet. But something made some of them unhappy. Maybe they thought there was honey in the honey locust tree. There are still many bees in the old hive, so the ones who swarmed must have a new queen. Luckily they didn't swarm very far.

Slowly, carefully, Alitza trims away some of the branches from around the swarm. The bucket is to catch the swarm once the main branch is cut. At one point she has to stop to remove the long, sharp thorns that have gotten stuck in her veil and shirt. With my telephoto lens, I can see the bees piling up in a cone around one of the stiletto thorns sticking up from the middle of the swarm.

Finally she makes the last cut through the branch that holds the swarm.

The bucket was to catch the swarm once the branch was cut, but she doesn't have to use it. Holding the end of the branch with the swarm intact, she slowly descends the ladder.

And carries the swarm over to the swarm box.

It's a bit of a squeeze to get the branch into the box.

Gently she shakes the branch to dislodge the remaining bees. She hopes she got the queen.

Next she inserts four frames into the swarm box so the bees will have something to settle onto.

The covered swarm box, showing the hole where the bees can go in and out, sits on top of the old hive, which also has many bees congregating around its door.

After the bees in the swarm box have settled down, she transfers the four frames into a new hive, already loaded with more frames. The new hive sits a little ways away from the other hives, on the east side of a cedar tree. It's an easy way to get a new hive, she says. Hopefully, they'll stay put. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

lurking on elm leaf

lurking on elm leaf --
unfolding, pleated, saw tooth edged --
a tiny crab spider

If I had not stopped to admire the pointed jade pendants of elm leaflets, I would not have spotted the minuscule spider clinging to a newly opened leaf. Such are the serendipitous rewards of the beauty-seeking eye. 
          It's a crab spider, perched on the spine of a leaf just turning from basic red ochre to photosynthetic green. Her patterned hazel body and narrow yellow front legs mimic the color and shape of the leaf sepals, so she has a good chance of ambushing an unobservant insect. But for me, once I detect her, she jumps out from the scenery like a typo on a printed page.
          She doesn't move as I take her photo, still as a stalk and still stalking. When an insect chances by, she will pounce and paralyze her prey with a poisonous bite. Patience rewards she who waits.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

maroon pawpaw bells

maroon pawpaw bells 
sway in the spring breeze, exuding
a fetid odor

Lovely to look at, but don't sniff the pawpaw blossoms. The color and odor of rotting meat, the flowers attract carrion flies and beetles for pollination. 
          This is the first year our young tree has produced flowers, so if it does get pollinated, and I can get to the delicious fruit before the raccoons, squirrels or opossums, we'll be in for a treat. The large fruits have a creamy texture and taste a bit like a ripe banana, not surprising since they hail from the same family as the custard-apple and cherimoya. This our largest native fruit and, as an added bonus, it contains more protein than most fruits.
          Actually, the entire tree has a disagreeable smell, due to the presence of acetogenins, a natural insecticide, which can be used to make an organic pesticide. Other pests, in the form of rabbits and deer, avoid nibbling the leaves and twigs. Where deer are dense, pawpaw patches prosper.
          There is one insect that is not deterred by the pawpaw's insecticide. The larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly feed exclusively on the young leaves, though not enough to harm the plant. Trace amounts of those nasty chemicals protect the butterfly from predators throughout all stages of its life, since birds avoid eating the bad-tasting insect.

Another fascinating story of survival. The pawpaw protects itself chemically from getting eaten by mammals and most insects. Then it gets its flowers pollinated, not in the usual way of alluring colors and sweet fragrance that attract bees and butterflies, but through imitating carrion to lure carrion insects. Finally, its sweet fruit gets consumed by mammals, which disperse the seeds to a new location. Meanwhile, the larvae of the zebra swallowtail eat the pawpaw leaves and somehow manage to avoid getting killed by the insecticide. Then the butterfly turns that chemical into its own defense against predators.