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On Fire

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Hummingbirds surf the desert willow as she continues to throw out waves of flowers.
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Sunset the other night behind the western edge of Grand Mesa. Smoke from a distant fire… also some closer fires, including the Buttermilk Fire just ten or twelve miles away.

This is the first day in over a month that I’ve been able to spend a whole morning outside. I usually get to spend two, at the very least one day a week devoted to the yard and gardens. With oppressive smoke and heat outside all day and night these recent weeks, and inside flames, of love, fears, blame, I’ve been neglecting my garden, my center, my path. I am still learning to walk.

The patio pots are out of control, in desperate need of deadheading and trimming. Stellar can’t stand that I’m talking to myself about it and not to him. He flops onto his left side and rolls his head toward me, then tries to roll his bulk onto his back, pawing at the path and making little noises. Rolling after running and eating is dangerous, so I go to him, get up baby, such a fine boy… He comes to standing, shakes, leans against my knees as I fold over him rubbing his belly, my cheek pressed to his velvet ear, his chocolate cheek, murmuring love words as he emanates his whole-hearted response. I’ve been neglecting the dogs as well as the garden.

A light shower last night and an even cloud cover this morning gave hours of enjoyment and work, nurturing the place that gives me succor: pulling prostrate knotweed and bindweed from paths, deadheading rampant gladioli and snapdragons, cutting back early salvias and dahlias, pulling from cracks between flagstones the errant catmints; leaving thymes and gourmet salad-size purslane. All the pots are buzzing with bees and other aerial creatures. Below, honeybee drinks from abundant Gaura in the pink clay pot.

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Honeybee prays for clarity on a smoky day

The sky has also been abuzz. The Buttermilk Fire at the west end of our mesa held my attention for a full week. I readied the Mothership for evacuation though I didn’t really think it would be necessary. This time. To date, around 750 acres have burned, mostly in wilderness piñon and juniper in steep canyons and ridges. Firefighters have contained 15% of the burn area and remain focused on keeping the fire heading south and east into the wilderness, protecting human habitations at the northeast edge and minimizing the threat of an ember rain.

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One water chopper coming in empty just south of the house, on its way to the reservoir. Below, another heading back on the north side, carrying 2000 gallons of water in its bucket. We all, when we gather, speak of our gratitude for these hardworking women and men. People bring them treats. Little kindnesses matter in the midst of chaos.

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Honeybee treats herself to pollen from a dahlia, gathering as she wipes her face.

What blooms along the seam of the path and the patio foundation varies year to year depending on what seeds sow, what weeds grow, what gets mowed down by the tortoise, dogs, garden cart or hose in daily passing. I keep hoping snapdragons will self-sow here, as they do at Rosie’s house, but so far the seeds haven’t landed in optimum conditions. As I trim and weed around the patio I wear gloves and watch closely. There’s always a chance of a black widow, though they don’t tend to inhabit this kind of niche, they prefer a deep and secret place with little or no traffic of any sort.

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Bumblebee on a snapdragon, maybe Bombus griseocollis, the brown-belted bumblebee.

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A bee fly, Bombylius, feeds at the Gaura. This delicate beauty is a parasitoid, feeding in its larval stage upon the larva of a solitary bee, killing it. In a sense, a predator as well as a parasite. Who would guess, from its gentle appearance?

Leafcutter bees have been crazy for the dahlias this week. I’ve finally figured out how to overwinter them: leave them in pots, bring the pots into the mudroom after the foliage dies back, and keep a paper bag over them. All those I saved in a box or a bag over the past few years since I started growing dahlias have withered, despite occasional misting, and failed to revive in the ground. Those I kept in pots last year grew again in abundance. Next spring when I bring them out I’ll divide them into even more pots. They bloomed early this year, like everything else, but they keep on going as long as I keep tending to them, and it’s hard to name a more cheerful flower.

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Share and share alike, at least with flowers…

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…or maybe not. Next time, more fun with Rocky Mountain Beeplant, Cleome serrulata. 

All the west is burning. Smoke obscures horizons for days. This is chaos, not change. The practice is to witness. The work is love. Our living planet needs each of us to rise up. Some hearts burn with passion, some with shame. Mine smolders with both but at least I’m on fire again.

 

These Planetary Winds

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Weidemeyer’s Admiral butterfly in one of the hanging baskets. Don’t see many of these and it’s always a thrill. This was as close as I could get, and he skipped away seconds after this shot, never to be seen again. Yet.

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The dahlias are blooming nicely with lots of buds coming on, and finally snapdragons are opening in their vivid hues, blue and red salvias are filling in. Gladioli are budding, and the desert willow is packed with more blooms and buds than I’ve seen since it was young, almost twenty years ago. Pink gaura, also called wandflower or whirling butterflies, accents the corner patio pot with a spray of pale pink flowers dancing in the breeze, attracting bees.

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Gaura, or whirling butterflies, or wand flower, with roughly 22 species in the genus.

Funny how some things like the dry, I’ve heard a few people say this summer, unrelated incidents in exactly the same words. Certain cacti thrived this spring, blooming abundantly despite the drought, notably the claret-cup, or hedgehog cactus, Echinocereus. And some other plants did surprisingly well after the driest winter I remember; though not the hayfields…IMG_9345.jpgIMG_9346.jpg

But oh! these planetary winds! I’ve spent hours this spring, more hours than last, and more hours last spring than the spring before, holding down the patio table and monitoring the umbrella so my outside office doesn’t get blowed away. Days like these the gaura wands crack like whips, and swallowtails struggle to hang onto flowers.

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Note the little claws grasping, above and below.

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We’ve had a few brief reprieves from wind this spring but mostly it’s been consistent, day after day after day, swirling and gusting like the winds of Mars, shooting out tendrils that grab a bucket from the table and leave a book unruffled, dropping down microbursts from the larger, raging currents high above.

Nearly constant winds dehydrate leaves on limbs, evapotranspiring plants to their own doom, and fan the flames of wildfires all over the west, not to mention drying our eyes and noses and skin. But on the bright side, at least it’s been an assist in weed management, with ground drying so fast that one or two good mowings leaves bare brown dirt with no more cheat grass…

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Sometimes we feel like this butterfly, tattered and holding on for dear life to what sustains us…

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…or stalled, making no headway against the wind…

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These planetary winds have been building for years, exacerbating global drought, excessive flooding, and crop unpredictability. Most people aren’t talking about it, though: it’s as if most American politicians imagine the world is one big golf course and they can manage climate chaos just fine with enough groundskeepers; or worse, as if they know how terribly it’s affecting the poorest people on earth, and are eager to ramp up the demise of equatorial countries.

But the world is not a monocultural, controllable golf course. It is a vast and miraculous and mercurial thing, with millions of unique ecozones and ecotones, whose climate grows more complex each day as our species continues to blunder over and into it with little comprehension of our devastating effect on our only home. With each war, each oil spill, each frack job, each billionaire born, the cost to Earth grows more complex and irrevocable.

And so we gardeners, we givers to and lovers of the planet, continue as best we can to create as small an ecological footprint as possible, wanting what we have, cherishing beauty and life in its many forms. We provide habitat, water, and food for the wild where we’re able, and TLC to our own food plants, with deepest gratitude to the birds, bees, snakes, frogs, butterflies, and other creatures that keep life spinning in our own little lands.

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The peach tree benefited from all the bees this spring, with abundant fruit. And yes, neighbor, I’ve thinned them since this picture, leaving only a couple to each twig… painful as it was to do.

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Marla Bear, here are those butterflies you loved on the Coreopsis.

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This one tattered tiger swallowtail fed on the patio flowers for hours the other day, braving planetary winds and bringing me into deep contact with my better nature.

 

 

Color Explosion

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Color everywhere! From the garden to the skies. Last weekend was the Crawford Pioneer Days fireworks display, possibly the only one in the state for the rest of the summer. Through the year, the Crawford Fire Department, a dedicated volunteer corps, keeps boots out on cashier counters everywhere, and people drop in change or a larger donation. They shoot off a spectacular long display from the peninsula in the middle of Crawford State Park reservoir, so there is no danger of sparking a wildfire.

Everyone in my house seemed a little wigged out when I got home. They haven’t seemed to mind fireworks before now. The dogs rushed outside and one was reluctant to come back in, and one of the cats streaked through the house from door to door as though she couldn’t wait to get out. A little more active energy than has greeted me in previous years when I returned home from fireworks. But everyone settled down quickly. I’m glad I’m not home for the fireworks, so I can imagine it doesn’t bother my dogs. Rocky trembled in our arms for awhile, but then he settled down when we kept his ears covered.

They are routinely among the best fireworks displays I’ve seen in my life, and that includes Manitou Springs 4th of July, and the 1976 US Bicentennial fireworks over the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in DC. Those were both spectacular in their own way, but never in my life would I have ever imagined that I would sit in a small group of good friends year after year enjoying the best fireworks ever in our own back yard.

This year we watched from the yard of a Reluctant Host at the north end of the reservoir. Here, in the shallow V formed by the valley, fireworks filled the sky, sometimes startling us with how high they blew up, or their size, or color and intensity, the largest blooms filling the entire night sky. Patterns, colors, trajectories, subtleties, each firework is its own one-time moment, taking up our attention completely as we watch its trajectory.

Our host was reluctant because for years his dogs were undone by the explosions. Also his tender heart knows the terror that numerous other pets and wildlife feel with that horrendous violent noise. It’s been a few years since his sweet old dog died, the one he hid in the closet with to comfort during every fireworks, while the rest of us partied and watched from across the reservoir. I persuaded him, bribed him actually, to let us watch from their house this year; promised they wouldn’t have to host anything else for five years. Silly me. Because (despite having some grim thoughts about “rockets red glare” and our increasingly militaristic society) after that display I want to watch from there every year.

And then the next morning, at the top of the driveway as I was heading out, a small white dog, some smooth-coated terrier, ran in from the road. I stopped and got out and crooned to it but it ran on past the car too fast for me to catch, clearly running from something, likely the previous night’s fireworks. He wore a collar and was panting hard but not close to stopping as he trotted on over the hill through the sage flat toward the neighbors’ fence. I hope he was on his way home, but he looked disoriented and lost. I notified a few neighbors to the south, and hope someone was able to stop him. It made me so sad.

The tracks my mind goes down sometimes. I let my feelings turn into thoughts and pass through me, but still sorrow lingers when I let my speculation go again. Exactly the kind of heartbreak that’s made our Reluctant Host unfond of fireworks for years. 

Weights and measures. One night of fireworks, though, is nothing compared to the havoc the 416 Fire is wreaking on the San Juan National Forest north of Durango, well over 100 miles south as the crows fly, and flying they are now. We’ve waked to the smell of smoke several mornings this week, and I come inside off and on during the days depending on winds. I woke yesterday early and shut all the doors and windows to keep out the smoke, then lay back down and meditated on the ramifications.

The last known grizzly bear in Colorado was killed in the San Juans in 1979, but no one has been able to prove that no more survive. I imagined a grizzly mother with two cubs trying to outrun the rampant monstrous fire that has been devouring those mountain woods for the past two weeks, now up to 33,000 acres and unstoppable. Or a black bear mother with cubs. Or a herd of pregnant cow elk or mule deer does. Rabbits and foxes and coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, mice, and birds: hawks and eagles, songbirds, hummingbirds, all fleeing for their lives and getting incinerated as the fire creates its own erratic winds in what is known as extreme fire behavior. Access to the entire national forest has been closed for the foreseeable future, with some hikers and campers alleged to remain in the wilderness. More than 2000 homes north of Durango have been evacuated. The fire is not expected to be contained until at least the end of July.

It’s on our minds. We can’t help it. We’re praying for rain, not only for the San Juans but for our own parched ground, our fields scorched and fraught with water wars. Blessed is standing in the rain this morning, a single three-minute sprinkle with the sun shining, wetting me no more than if I’d stepped through my garden sprinkler slowly. We have high hopes that remnant fringes of Hurricane Bud will saturate our sad land tomorrow. We are not concerned about new shoes or handbags or golf clubs, or where to go clubbing tonight. We country mice are praying for rain.

Meanwhile, while I have water I am spreading it liberally throughout my own little paradise, my refuge, my sanctuary, and sanctuary to birds and butterflies and bees, and any other wild creatures who pass this way; and I am breathing deeply the penstemon perfume, and thinning peaches, and cutting lettuce, and doing the best I can to cultivate some peaceful shred of mind in the midst of climate and constitutional chaos. Making these images soothes me, and may seeing them soothe you also.

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Western tiger swallowtails circle the yard in seemingly random loops that resolve into patterns when observed over a long enough afternoon. The ancestral butterfly bush, Buddleia alternifolia, attracts them as well as other butterflies and lots of bees.

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Penstemon palmeri, and hybrids, self-sow with abandon throughout my yard, and are buzzing now with Bombus borealis, huge yellow and black bumblebees, gentle giants.

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Yellow Bucket

 

Predators and Prey

IMG_4250-79-80The juniper titmice have a nest in the half-alive juniper in Biko’s round pen, not far from the patio. I set up the tripod by my lunch chair and played with various exposures and lens lengths. They, like most birds, are so acutely aware of any potential threat to their nest, that I had to pretend I wasn’t watching for a long time, with the camera aimed at the hole in the tree. Then I shot a few frames, a few times when there was no one around. After awhile, I waited til one of the parents flew to the tree, shot just a couple at a time, until they were coming and going without paying me too much mind. Above, one is taking food to quiet the tiny plaintive flutter of squeaks inside; below, removing a fecal pellet, I think. What else could it be? Like many (but not all) birds, they like to keep their nest clean.IMG_4232-86-87IMG_4312A rare visitor to the garden, this Bullock’s Oriole flew to the hummingbird feeder one morning and looked in the window, so I immediately sliced an orange in half and staked the pieces out in the yard for it. That’s what I’d heard they like, but he ignored the oranges and poked at a flower on the hummer feeder, licking leaking nectar. They prefer riparian habitat to more arid places like my yard, and are medium distance migrants, so I seem to only see them for about a week during late spring as they’re passing through in search of moister breeding grounds.IMG_4309IMG_4461Topaz is an incorrigible lizard hunter. Though it distresses me that she hunts lizards, at least she’s not going after birds… She comes to me with a particular yowl when she’s got one in her mouth, and then she drops it. The lizards freeze when she pounces and carries them, and it takes them a few minutes to liven up and try to run after she sets them down. In that moment I try to catch them, and carry them to a safe brush pile outside the fence. Not that the fence stops the cat, but that they have a chance to hide and live another day. Every now and then she plays with one long enough to kill it, but when I catch her first I can save it. This is one grateful Sceloporus. IMG_4465The irises have begun blooming earlier than usual. There is one true white iris, and one whitish-lavender iris, and both these light colored flowers attract these little yellow and black beetles. I watched for quite awhile trying to determine the nature of this behavior that looked like a vicious attack, but because time after time the smaller beetle emerged unhurt and came back for more, I suspect it was either breeding or just a territorial display. IMG_4080IMG_4082IMG_4085IMG_4091IMG_4094IMG_4497Though the beetles do have a little competition for their irises, like this Agapostemon, or green sweat bee. Below, a honeybee packs her pollen baskets to overflowing on the pink honeysuckle, which is now the bee magnet of the week, and smells almost as sweet as the fading lilacs. IMG_4424The garden roller coaster is in full swing now, and I can hardly keep up with the watering, much less photographing the abundant, diverse, and beautiful life that makes the ride into summer so raucous and delightful. Heirloom arugula is ready for picking for pesto, asparagus is winding down, lettuce is fresh and tender. The peach tree is loaded with small fruits, as are both apples, and I found about a dozen intrepid apricots on that tree that was hit so hard by several deep frosts during its prolific bloom. Late summer will be full of fruit!

Spring Feeding Frenzy

 

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Through the crabapple tree, Eurasian collared doves perch in the old feeder tree, with the West Elk Mountains beyond still white with recent snow.  

The first of these exotic (read invasive) birds arrived in Colorado in the mid-nineties, and twenty years later they now inhabit all 64 counties, with a recent Christmas Bird Count total of almost 20,000 individuals. Purist birders despair, hunters revel, and me, I just think about how fast our world is changing, how many species are going extinct, how arbitrary some of our values are, and how glad I am to have any doves at all in my yard. I don’t feel as tolerant of invasive exotic plant species, however, like cheatgrass, whitetop, tumbleweed… that list goes on and on, and is the bane of any gardener’s existence.

May just may be the sweetest month here. Mountain bluebirds perch on fenceposts, swooping on grasshoppers; house finches nesting in the gutter over the front door fledge in the dead juniper, and magpie babies squawk from their high nest north of the house. From inside yesterday I watched a fragile house wren flap its new wings like a butterfly, and got outside just in time to see the last one leave the nest in the adobe wall. Black-chinned hummingbirds court and feed in the yard. A large black and yellow bumblebee as big as my whole thumb circles the lilacs and leaves, a small fast hawk flaps and glides across the flat bright sky on this unusually cloudy humid day with no chance of rain.

It looks like I’ll have peaches and apples this year, as those trees transition from bloom to fruit. The mingled scents of newly flowering trees waft through the yard and into the house through open doors. I’ve stood with my face in the crabapple tree inhaling deeply, watching bees, who scatter if I exhale without turning my head away. Honeybees don’t like carbon dioxide, and who can blame them.

I can capture all the photographs and video and audio I could store and more, and never capture the scent of these flowering trees, this luscious pink crabapple, this effulgent lilac, or last month the almond tree at night. The fragrance seems to pulse, as though the trees themselves inhale and exhale at their own extended respiratory rate, slower than we notice, mostly. Certain times of days the bees will flock to one or another.  

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The crabapple has never been more beautiful than it is this year, and never had more bees.

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Possibly Bombus griseocollis, the brown-belted bumblebee.

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For a few days this ornamental plum shrub was full of bees and other bugs.

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Get your nose out of our business! cried the little bugs to the honeybee, all pollinating the apple tree.

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A tiny sweat bee drunk in a tulip cup.

My bumblebee anxiety has dissolved even further this past week, with scores of them on NepetaAjuga, and the mind-bending lilac, another tree that’s never been more full of flower and fragrance. I sit with it an hour a day all told this time of year if I can, breathing its cleansing, intoxicating scent. So moved by its power over me, I sought lilac essential oil online with mixed and disappointing results. Many sources say essential oil can’t be derived from lilac for various reasons, and there are many brands of lilac ‘fragrance’ oil for sale, but I did find a few sites with directions for infusing lilac flowers in oil or water.

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This is me, these days, wallowing in lilac like this Bombus huntii.

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Fat red Anthophora bomboides, or digger bee, and below, a moth.

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So I’ve ordered a bottle of grapeseed oil, and trust the deep purple lilacs on the north side of the lilac patch will be in perfect bloom by the time it arrives. Meanwhile, I’ll make lilac scones again this weekend. Last year Chef Gabrielle and I candied lilac flowers, and that was a lot of work for a lovely but minuscule result. The lilac scones provided much more gratification for significantly less work. The lilac, by the way, is also a non-native species, though not aggressive enough to be considered a weed…

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In other spring food news, I’m set for the next few weeks for my greens intake. I made a dandelion smoothie for breakfast the other day, with apple, flaxseed, nuts, yogurt, blueberries, and ginger root. Yum! There’s a nearly infinite supply of dandelions to share with the bees, and Biko the tortoise who relishes both flowers and leaves.

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Wild asparagus from along the neighbors’ driveway, and a secret place in the woods, chopped small for Cream of Asparagus soup: vegetable stock, sautéed onion, asparagus, and fresh cow’s milk blended with a dash each of salt, pepper, and homemade paprika, garnished with a dab of yogurt mixed with parmesan cheese and lemon zest, topped with nutmeg. 

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Mourning Cloak

IMG_2690The first butterfly I see in spring is the mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa. The species ranges throughout the northern hemisphere, and is called mourning cloak in many other languages, though in Britain it’s called Camberwell beauty, white petticoat, or grand surprise. It gets a jump on other species because it doesn’t migrate long distances, instead overwintering in suitable habitat tucked into tree cavities or under loose bark, emerging in early spring to begin its reproductive cycle. After mating, females lay their eggs around twigs of host trees upon which their caterpillars feed, including various species of willow, cottonwood and birch, and in American elm, hackberries, wild rose, and poplars among others.

The slightly worn wings of the mourning cloak above attest to his long life, having metamorphosed mid-summer last year and overwintered nearby (maybe in my birch tree, or wild rose). This week he is out searching for females, and after breeding he will live only another month or two. Sources say mourning cloak adults prefer to feed on tree sap and decaying fruit and rarely flower nectar, though I always see them in the flowering fruit trees. Not in the compost pile!

In my quest for bumblebees, I’ve been grudgingly rewarded this week. I caught one a few times in the mystery tree, saw one last night on the Nepeta in the south border, and this morning one in the peach tree. Frequency of sightings is increasing, though I still think there should be many more by now than I’m seeing. IMG_2626IMG_3042IMG_3046.jpg

Frozen

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Ojo loses his footing in the apricot tree, full of frozen blooms. We had a few nights around 20 degrees just at its peak bloom. Then it snowed three inches a couple of nights in a row last week, which brought much-needed moisture and melted beautifully by afternoon each day.

 

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So while the early tulips on the southwest corner pull back their energy from flowers to foliage and bulbs, these later tulips on the southeast corner are just coming into their glory.

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Meanwhile in Bees: I finally caught one bumblebee on the almond tree before its flowers also froze, and another in the mystery tree who has just come into full bloom. The best guess is this is a wild plum, but nobody knows for certain. I dug up a sucker from the roots of the almond tree some years ago and planted it, and this magnificent being came to pass. When it flowers it is a crazy bee magnet, and draws more fast little native bees than any other plant in the garden. When you think you’ve got spots before your eyes watching this video, those are bees.

 

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The one elusive bumblebee (Bombus huntii I think) on the last gasp of the almond tree.

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Also making the most of the flowering trees, this glossy black creature which resembles a wasp more than a bee. There are a couple of native bee genera that are black and largely hairless, but as far as I can tell, they are all smaller than half an inch, and this one is about an inch long.

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Anthophora, I think. I’m open to expert ID on any of these.

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And a little mason bee, all on the peach tree last week before it froze so hard.

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Another Andrena in the Tulipa tarda, along with a very tiny native bee. Notice her mouthparts in the photo below, and her companion below that.

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Those were last week’s bees. Below are this weeks picks so far. But I’m not going to try to ID them because frankly I am fried. First world problems all, but the past five days have been pretty challenging. On the phone with Apple support today I almost had a panic attack. It all started Friday morning, when the plumber came to replace a faucet that he had installed last week but it was defective, so I spent a week turning off the hot water between using the sink. He got the new faucet in but it required non-standard fittings which he didn’t have, so I spent the weekend washing dishes in the bathroom sink and eating take-out pizza.

That afternoon I discovered all the contacts on my laptop had disappeared, which turned out would have been a simple fix if I’d known how, but instead I tried to restart the computer. After that, 24 hours with Apple support and the conclusion was a fatal software corruption: the computer has to be wiped clean to even think about making it work again. ACK! I kept my cool. I’ve got backups for most of the photos and all but the last three months of everything else. Oh well, meditation seems to be helping as I really didn’t wig out, though I may if it turns out nothing can be salvaged. And really, Apple support could not have been more pleasant nor tried any harder to help, all nine people I’ve spoken with since Friday.

Overnight Friday a log smoldered in the woodstove, filling the house with smoke, but I’d been to such a good party the night before that I slept right through it until morning and the house reeked like a stale campfire all day while I kept the fire roaring and doors and windows open. Everything was still ok, and this morning the plumber came and fixed the faucet, and then… the Mail app on my desktop quit functioning. Another four hours on the phone with tech support, and it’s still not back. This is the universe telling me to stay away from machines for awhile and spend even more time out in the yard!

And still I’m not nearly as freaked out as I might have been if I hadn’t started taking an anti-depressant last Tuesday. I had so much to write: about the garden, and meditation, and the forest coming back to spring life, and about why I’m finally taking a drug for my state of mind, before all this computer nonsense started, and now my brain is just numb. Time to try again another day, and go out in the garden with a gin gimlet, and watch the sunset light up the peach tree.

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What IS this gorgeous moth?

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At least four creatures feeding on they mystery tree in this image.

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Another species of Anthophora, on the peach tree. Unlike honeybees which have a pollen basket on their back legs, most native bees are equipped with a scopa, a brush of specialized hairs in which they collect pollen. Her exceptionally long tongue makes her adept at gathering nectar from long tubular flowers, though none of them are open yet so she’s working the trees.

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