Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bellflowers Ring In the Summer

You'd never guess it was summer here in Pugetopolis. Especially not by glancing at the sky as you pull on your Polarfleece jacket after having read the newspaper weather report declaring a week's variations on the theme of "cloudy, high of 50 degrees."

But even autumn-in-July can't stop the bellflowers from blooming.

I don't know what species of bellflower makes up my garden's crop of volunteers. These flowers just started popping up in a small patch under the birch tree out front a few years ago, then quickly spread to the side gardens. Initially they were all a purple-blue color, but then lavender and white ones joined them.

I figured at first they were stray Canterbury bells that dropped in from another garden, but now I'm fairly convinced they're peach-leaved bellflowers, Campanula persicifolia, an Asian species that has naturalized in both England and the United States. They're tall, spindly, and self-sow extravagantly, matching the description of that species. ("Peach-leaved," incidentally, refers to their resemblance to peach-tree leaves, not the leaves' color.)

They all belong to the genus Campanula, which means "little bell" in Latin. Most of the names for this plant are inspired by its bell-shaped flowers: they're known variously as bellflowers, heathbells, harebells, and, weirdly, dead men's bells. Some species suggested thimble-related names: lady's thimble, witch's thimble, fairy's thimble.

The bees don't care what you call them--they love 'em.

These 3-foot-tall specimens are giraffes compared to many of the ground-hugging, alpine species. Many kinds grow on talus slopes or in other inaccessible places. According to a gardening book published in 1900, Nature's Garden by Neltje Blanchan (a lucky thrift-shop find), these little plants' beauty is so tempting that a person "gladly risks a watery grave or broken bones to bring down a bunch from its aerial cranny." (Hmm. Maybe that's where the name "dead men's bells" comes from?)

If bellflowers came not only in blue and white but also in shades of red, the garden would look like a giant, swaying American flag just in time for the Fourth of July weekend. (Very Martha Stewart, that would be.) They bloom throughout July, so they'll still be ringing long after the fireworks have been silenced. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jeepers, Creepers...All Over the Collards

Seeing a cabbage white butterfly fluttering around in the vegetable garden is not always a good sign.

Oh, sure, they pollinate plants, and they're pretty. And I somehow picked up the information, as a little girl, that if the first butterfly you saw in spring was white or yellow, the rest of the year would be a lucky one; but woe betide you if it were a dark-colored butterfly. (Which did not explain multicolored butterflies' prognostication value, and in any event was not a good thing for a hypochondriacal, superstitious, worrywart kid to add to her list of concerns.)

But if you're a collard plant, or someone who tends a collard patch, cabbage whites mean only one thing: tiny eggs laid on leaves that will hatch out into voracious caterpillars. Cabbage whites lay eggs only on host plants in the Brassica family, which includes not only my collards but also the red and green cabbages and the rutabagas I've planted.

I collared some collard thieves this morning while enjoying a dewy, cool moment of morning sunshine. Here's the little greedy-guts just before I tossed it into the yard for a lucky robin to enjoy (there was a robin watching from the top of the chimney, just like the bird keeping an eye on Peter Rabbit in that gardening story):

Last year I paid my daughter a nickel apiece to rid the collards of caterpillars, and she pulled in a tidy profit. This year, though, I think she'll quickly figure out that rescuing collards now means collards appearing on the plate later, and she hates collards, so why eradicate the caterpillars? The enemy of my enemy is my friend...

I also found what looked like a winged aphid surrounded by aphid nymphs on the underside of a leaf. Aphids have this freakish lifestyle in which an adult female, without ever having mated, give live birth to aphid nymphs. And those nymphs grow up and likewise give birth without ever having consorted with a male aphid. (In some species, a pregnant female aphid is carrying female babies that are already pregnant with their own daughters.) The males aren't born until fall, when females give birth to both males and females. Those aphids will mate and lay eggs that can overwinter.

The robin notwithstanding, the birds in general are being slackers and not doing much about the caterpillar/nymph situation.

Under some leaves, however, there are a few tiny spiders building webs no bigger than pennies--I'm assuming they're the spiderlings that hatched a few weeks ago under the toolshed door, and the miniature doilies they're spinning are certainly not up to capturing those big-fat-sausage caterpillars. Nor are the aphid nymphs likely to blunder into them. Oh well. Maybe if I raise the rates on caterpillar hunting, or find a six-year-old boy who'll pluck them off for a penny apiece...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pollination Celebration

Critters are pollinating the heck out of the garden. Every flower seems to harbor a bee, beetle, or fly, and every time Luna sticks her nose into a plant, something flies out in a panic and she jumps back in surprise.

I'm not a pollinator, of course, but pollination has been much on my mind of late because I've been working simultaneously on two writing projects involving insects. So I am primed to spout statistics such as "about 75 percent of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators in order to set seed."  (I am also popping Benadryl tablets with frequency as pollen from wind-pollinated grasses ends up in my nasal passages instead of on grass flowers, much to my and the flowers' dismay.)

Here is a concatenation of snaps of pollination on our plantation being done with determination by a conglomeration of invertebration:
African daisy, with pollen splatter after rainfall
A species of bumble bee lolling around drunkenly inside a rhododendron blossom.

This beetle is, I think, a 20-spotted Lady Beetle, Psyllobora vigintimaculata. I haven't had any luck
deciphering the first part of this scientific name, but the latter translates, somewhat disappointingly, to merely "twenty spotted." Beetles are not as efficient as bees at pollinating but some flowers lure them specifically. This one is on a sedum flower and is well camouflaged incidentally by all those anthers. These lady beetles feed on fungi, not aphids. Its mandibles are lined with comblike small "teeth" for raking fungus and fungal spores from plant surfaces. This species is found throughout the United States and into Canada and Mexico.
The all-time pollination champion, the honey bee.
(At least I'm pretty sure it's a honey bee.)
Nectar guides, lines that point the way to where
nectar is stored in flowers such as the pansy

Monday, June 13, 2011

So How Much Does an Aphid Weigh, Anyway?

If you have a blog, you have no doubt checked your blog statistics from time to time to see who's linking to you, how many people have visited, and the like. (C'mon. Admit it. I know you do.) The best part of this procrastinating is seeing the search terms people have used that led them to your site.

In checking out this feature last week, I saw that someone ended up here because they wanted to know "how much does an aphid weigh?"
I am sure they were disappointed, because my aphid post contained no weights and measures and was just a rambling about how...well, how darn cute the little guys could be.

Never mind that they are such pests and so utterly reviled--all 4,400 or so species of them. The garden writer in our daily paper called them "sucking insects that can cause serious havoc on most every kind of plant" just last week. Field guides and other books spare no words when it comes to describing them: "among the most destructive agricultural pests" (Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders); "Major agricultural and garden pests" (Insects of the Pacific Northwest);  "pests of crops in temperate parts of the globe" (Encyclopedia of Insects).

Even dictionaries libel the little guys: "any of numerous small sluggish homopterous insects...that suck the juices of plants" (Webster's); "A family of minute insects, also called plant-lice, which are very destructive to vegetation" (OED); "a very small insect that lives on plants and destroys them" (Macmillan dictionary). (Hmm...the latter makes me think they could define a human as "a rather large primate that lives on planets and destroys them.")

The horror of aphids is legendary, as reflected in one online thesaurus site that offered no synonyms for "aphid" such as "ant cow" or "greenfly" but instead queried, "Are you looking for Bigfoot?"

Weight! Weight! Don't tell me! I forgot all about that weighty question about aphids (which, yes, are related to scale insects).

According to a writer of a monograph on aphids published in 1876, "Except for accidents, a single aphis in one year might produce more aphides than is represented by the weight of the population of China." As I am too lazy to find out (a) the population of China in 1876, (b) the weight of an average Chinese citizen, (c) the world population of aphids in 1876, and (d) the result of an equation involving division, we will glide right past this and simply seize information from a more modern source.

Which might be an animal encyclopedia published in the mid-1900s that claimed something about the weight of "500,000 stout men," but isn't.

To wit: According to an article published in New Scientist on August 9, 1979, one aphid, over the course of its life, weighs about 0.2 milligrams. That's about 1/20th of a house fly. Or 1/250th of the amount of acetaminophen in an Extra Strength Tylenol. Which you will need if you find hordes of aphids on your nasturtiums.

The author went on to state that an aphid-infested British wheat field with 500 shoots of wheat in it could harbor as many as a billion aphids, meaning that the larger area he was examining could contain upwards of 800 million million aphids, or 200,000 times the human population on Earth at that time--or about 200,000 tons of aphids.

No matter how you measure it, that's a whole lotta aphids.

And that is quite enough math for my brain in one day.

(To use a phrase popular in today's press, which I hate--the phrase, that is, not the press, because it's overused--"Full Disclosure": I did run across one writer who is rather fond of these dreadful pests, namely Anna Botsford Comstock, who wrote a well-respected nature handbook in 1911. She states, "I know of no more diverting occupation than watching a colony of aphids through a lens. [ed. note: an early version of Youtube, clearly.] These insects are the most helpless and amiable little ninnies in the whole insect world...their eyes, so large and wide apart, seem so innocent and wondering....they are, in fact, merely little animated drops of sap on legs." Then she goes on to describe how to kill them using a nicotine solution.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Camera battery is recharging so any brilliant and not-so-brilliant ideas for posts must be postponed (ha! a new meaning for this verb), making this a good time to toss out some links to other people's blog postings that I recently enjoyed.

A kindred spirit across the waters has these beautiful pictures of Spanish and Portuguese horses and riders performing classical horsemanship.

Another kindred spirit in England who also happens to be a dear relation wrote about horses, too,  but in quite a different vein in "The New Forest Pony Survival Guide" (as in her survival of camping in their realm, not the perpetuation of the breed).

A local author who has written about crows and other Northwestern creatures muses on tidying up a sewing box one morning, which resonated with me because my sewing basket is in a similar muddle, a veritable spider's web of tangled thread and odd items such as a doll's tiny pair of black riding boots.

I loved this post by an Arizona photographer and writer about nature photography because I laughed so much when she shared outtakes from her shoots to show that that "perfect picture" is obtained only after taking a great many not-so-hot ones.

Ever notice how things come in threes? This morning I discovered that three news-oriented blogs I subscribe to featured, of all things, penguins. One was about some NYC kids Skyping with the penguin keeper at the local zoo, another explained the intricacies of movement within a huddle of emperor penguins in Antarctica, and the third was about the wonderful book Mr. Popper's Penguins (and hopefully at least a bit as wonderful) soon-to-be-released movie version.