It’s been a challenging few weeks. Between internal and external events, I’m tired all the time. It’s hard to rise to each occasion. But from this glum place, I’ve reached a conclusion: I need to return to my daily gratitude practice. And why bother with a thousand words, when a couple of numerals and some pictures can do the job? So, catching up for the past couple of weeks, here are just some of the things I’m grateful for…
42+ is a gratitude practice from the Active Hope course I just completed this evening. It’s freely available online, and one of these days I’ll probably facilitate a group engagement similar to the one that just ended, hosted by a friend. Today, I’m grateful for (4) having been given the opportunity to take the course, having made the commitment to take it and participated in it fully, and for the wonderful classmates I shared the eight-week journey with. I’m grateful to (2) Deborah Sussex for offering the course for free, and for her skillful and open-hearted facilitating of it through an increasingly difficult time in our country, when active hope is needed more than ever. The + part is how I will express my gratitude: right here, right now. Many thanks, Deb, Denali, Kes, Renee, and everyone else, for the inspiring experience of virtual connection.
It was a big day here. I’m so exhausted you’d think I were fledging. I came downstairs shortly after sunrise to let Stellar out after hearing his nails click on the floor. I was horrified to see a Phoebe fall from the nest – but wait, it hadn’t fallen, it had flown. I couldn’t miss this, so I didn’t even go back upstairs for the camera phone. I grabbed the big camera and went outside.
There were three phoebes already out of the nest, squatting all over the patio.
They could barely fly, with their brand new wings and their stubby little tails, yet they kept fluttering from one surface to another.
Once they discovered the cat ladder, the real fun began. Back and forth, back and forth. Topaz, however, had by now been locked inside for the first hour of the day, given up, and gone back upstairs to bed. Not a peep from her the rest of the day. More hours went by, well-spent as far as I was concerned. I’d been waiting for this day since May 19, when the chicks first hatched. In the previous week, the speed of their growth astonished me.
From the ladder, back and forth to the old cable wire that I leave hanging just for this reason, to the old insulation hole in the adobe double-wall, to the ladder, to eventually, hours later, the honeysuckle and the rose bush beyond the patio. Mama and Papa continued to take turns feeding the babies, but how could they tell who was who? I noticed that sometimes they’d feed the same chick three or four times in a row, until it just wouldn’t open its mouth again, then they’d take their bug to another. Their instincts came through though: when any of them approached another, well, they just kept opening their mouths to receive food, even if it was just another chick coming in for a landing. Sometimes they got lucky.
Even after being fed they squawk.
Everything went really well. Four chicks out of the nest, each getting its turn getting fed, but the fifth chick just would not leave the nest. Even as the others explored sensations of flight, tested their quickly growing limits, I swear even their tail feathers seemed to grow before my eyes, stretched their wings, the fifth chick simply wouldn’t leave.
Mama continued to feed it, teasing with the insect and making the chick reach for it again and again before relinquishing it, and once actually got on top of the chick, I think urging it to leave the nest. I began to despair of it leaving ever, as the first four chicks flew from the ladder one by one, out into the trees east or north of the house.
The last chick flexed its wings a few times, but remained alone in the nest for more than an hour, before finally joining a few remaining nest mates on the ladder. But they, too, flew off, leaving the last little bird alone on the ladder for a long time. I couldn’t leave. I pretended to read, time marched relentlessly on, it was getting close to noon, I could hear the rest of the family chirping from around the north side of the house, and still the last little bird lingered on the ladder.
Some other things happened.
I was grateful that I had no firm commitments on my calendar until evening, when I had a group to lead online. I could bide my time outside. I had started the morning rapt with joy, completely immersed in the huge little drama unfolding with the Phoebe family. By eleven, as I sat anxiously watching the last little fledgeling sleeping on a rung of the ladder, anxiety assailed me: what if they left it there? what if no one came back for it? what would I do? how would I save it? I observed these thoughts arise, only mildly disturbed by them. Even as my mind raised anxieties, a more detached awareness simply watched it all unfold, waiting patiently, reassuring the rest of me that it would all be okay no matter how it went down, and more specifically, calmly insisting that they would never have invested that much energy into bring the chick to this point in its life only to abandon it. Finally, I saw a parent approach it with food, trying to entice it off the rung. It took another hour, but eventually, the last chick flew to the rosebush, then to the maple, then on around beyond the house. I went inside. By then it was hot, and I was exhausted from my irresistible seven-hour vigil. I went inside to meditate and nap.
Come evening, cooled down, I went outside again to water the vegetable beds; stepping around the north end of the house to turn on the hose, I saw them all stacked up along a shelf support in the tool area. Before dark, they had dispersed to several other perches. I kept thinking they’d return to the nest overnight, as last year’s clutch did for a few days after hatching, but didn’t see that before I went in at dusk. I’m grateful for an absolutely perfect day watching the greatest show on earth, a participant observer in the thrilling action of a special day in the life of a single bird family. May they all live through the night, and the summer, and the next few years.
Thankful for the physical well-being and energy I’ve had this summer that has enabled me to keep up with the garden (though not with sharing its joy online!). Above, a selection of late-summer delights, starting with a plumtini, just a martini shaken with a very ripe plum, yum!
Thankful for half a dozen perfect strawberries gleaned from as many plants. Maybe next summer they’ll do better, but each fruit was certainly a burst of flavor as bright as its color.
The past months have been a whirlwind of harvesting, pickling, canning, freezing, cutting back, drying, fermenting and other fun fall festivities. I’ve been spinning through each day drenched in gratitude, swimming in astonishing colors, savoring and storing for winter the flavors of summer.
It’s almost impossible to believe I am the same person as that awkward little girl in the DC suburbs who spent every free minute curled up in an armchair reading books. How did I come to be here? Living close to the land in this fertile valley for almost half my life now has allowed me to approach some understanding of my true nature, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
Hummingbirds surf the desert willow as she continues to throw out waves of flowers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bumblebee on a snapdragon, maybe Bombus griseocollis, the brown-belted bumblebee.
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.
Share and share alike, at least with flowers…
…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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
The one elusive bumblebee (Bombus huntii I think) on the last gasp of the almond tree.
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.
Anthophora, I think. I’m open to expert ID on any of these.
And a little mason bee, all on the peach tree last week before it froze so hard.
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.
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.
What IS this gorgeous moth?
At least four creatures feeding on they mystery tree in this image.
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.
This week in sunflowers… and other yellow things. Diverse native bees, including the sunflower bee (Svastra, I think: the males have unusually long antennae) are buzzing and feeding in the sunflowers, and a few goldfinches have come for seeds but fly too fast from me when I come out with the camera. Grasshoppers continue to maraud every living plant, including the gladioli, giving me a window into a bud.
Dahlias are suffering worse than glads from grasshopper predation, though these later blooms are in better shape than those in early summer; enough flower left to provide for this bumblebee. Bumblebees are so complicated, with any one species having so much variety in parts and patterns, queens and workers and males all different sizes with different color sternites, tergites, and corbicular fringes, variable leg part sizes and cheek ratios… It would take more time and focus than I have now to even try to learn them. We have about 13 species in this part of Colorado. But I can’t even remember that many. One, two, or possibly three more species below, on Prince’s Plume, mullein, and Rocky Mountain beeplant respectively.
Meanwhile, the fernbush, Chamaebateria, has also been blooming, attracting more flies than bees, and a few butterflies as well, including this Painted Lady.
But who will this adorable, soft creature turn into one day? I rescued it from porch sweepings, and dropped it into some leaf litter, but not before examining it on my breakfast plate. Its antennae surprised me, popping out when I scared it, then sucking back into the top of its round face. Here, they’re halfway back in, after shooting straight out in alarm.
Dragonfly perched on a radish seedpod.
Those horrible thunks against the window… I heard one on the west kitchen window last week and saw the body drop. Dashed outside, around the Foresteria loosing masses of purple berries to the ground, beyond the woodpile, and tiptoed through the mess of palettes, hoses, wire cages, and empty pots to find this young yellow warbler out cold on the ground. I carried him around to the south side of the house looking for a good shady perch, and set him in a sturdy crook in the apricot tree. Brought the cats inside and left him there for awhile. When I went back he had flown, so that was one good deed for that day.
Then, just this afternoon, another smack into the east window. Outside, a tiny hummingbird facedown in a geranium pot. Its beak was a little askew. In my hand it was weightless, but its minuscule heart pounded. Cats secured inside, I set the hummingbird in a shoebox in the shade, putting a twig under its barely perceptible toes, and set a small bowl of water in front of it as it wobbled on its perch. I shut the lid for awhile, then checked, and tipped the water bowl so it could reach without moving. It flicked its threadlike tongue into the water. I dumped the water and filled the bowl with nectar, and it drank again from the tipped bowl.
I shut the lid for another ten minutes; checked again, tipped again, left again. The fact that it was still alive encouraged me, though I was distressed it didn’t fly right off. Half an hour later I returned and opened the lid, tipped the bowl for another drink. I left the lid open and checked again in another half hour, dismayed to see the bird still there. But as I moved toward the bowl, the little bird cocked its little pea-head then zipped out of the box, up and out of sight! Sometimes all they need is a safe space for long enough to get their head on straight.
Not long after that, I caught a goldfinch in the sunflowers.
Two native Osmia, or orchard bees, enjoying the cerulean blooms of Penstemon cyananthus.
The demise of my honeybees has spawned a silver lining after all: It’s opened my eyes to the wider world of native bees. The first summer with my captured swarm of “wild” honeybees, I bought a macro lens specifically to photograph them; I also bought a special pair of binoculars, Pentax Papilio, the only binoculars I could find after hours of online research with a focal length short enough that I could sit close to the hive and watch the bees go in and out. It’s not the best for watching faraway birds, but turned out to be amazing for getting a better view of things that are already pretty close up.
When my close-up vision began to deteriorate about fifteen years ago, I just let go of the need to see small things without my glasses. Consequently, I missed a lot of what was going on in the garden. Aphids, for example, until they had already done a lot of damage to a plant. But with the Papilios and the new camera lens, the world of small things opened up to me, and I was thrilled with it.
A ladybug taking off from the aging blossoms of catmint, Nepeta.
As I photographed my honeybees on all the various flowers in my drought-tolerant landscape, I found myself taking pictures of other small creatures in the same blooms, some of them really quite minuscule. Smaller than gnats, even.
I remember when Joseph came over to help me open the hive that first time, he looked at some flowers abuzz with bees and said, “Oh, nice, native bees.” It registered, but I didn’t understand it. How could he tell from where he stood what kind of bee was moving around just inches above the ground?
After three summers of photographing and observing bees, I can now tell a whole lot about which kind of bee is feeding on a flower, even from my gigantic height of five-eight. I’ve taken many photos of pollinators (honeybees, native bees, flies, beetles…) over the past few years, and I’m so busy all summer that I promise myself I’ll take some time in the winter to identify them, look up all their proper names. (My dear friend Paul calls the common names of plants and animals the “vulgar” names, and the Latin binomials the “proper” names. He’s got plenty of cred, so I go with that.)
But about a decade ago, because I’m fundamentally lazy (though curiously driven at times) I decided that I no longer need to know the names of things; it’s enough that they are here, living, and that I witness their glory, each and every unique living thing I come across. So I haven’t spent any time the past three winters learning the names of all the native bees I’ve photographed. Because something else is always above that on my To-Do List.
A native bumblebee (Bombus) in the small blue penstemons that grow between flagstones. The proper names of all the penstemons in the garden? Another story. And it turns out it’s not so easy to ID bumblebees down to species.
Chris sent me an email last spring announcing a national Pollinator Photo Contest, and so I entered some of my images. There were actually two contests, one sponsored by the Center for Food Safety, and the other by the Wild Bee Gardens app. I was pleased to learn that I won in both contests, with different images of a native leafcutter bee, Megachile sp. So there is half of the proper name that I have learned. The app creator also wanted to use some of the other images I submitted in the new version of the app, so I happily consented to that.
And then I checked out the app.
It is elegant, and brilliant. And the introductory video changed my life.
My purpose felt extinguished when my honeybee hive died. Through the first half of this year, I’ve felt more and more bereft in their absence. It is beyond noticeable; it is flagrant. Sure, some honeybees have finally arrived, mid-June, in my garden. But they’re not my honeybees. My honeybees would have been smothering with caresses all the flowers in the yard as they bloomed, from February’s croci on through March’s (absurdly early) fruit trees, April’s daffodils and tulips, May’s irises and penstemons, and June’s profusion. As it is, yes, they’re coming, slowly growing from a few into hundreds, thousands; feeding on the wild pink roses, Buddleia alternifolia,Gallardia…
Gallardia, Salvia, and Penstemon with the new birdbath, a gift.
Wild rose, Rosa woodsii, blooms profusely, hosting many species of pollinators during its short bloom cycle.
Yet another Osmia on the wild ancestor of the common butterfly bush, Buddleia alternifolia.
This shrub native to north-central China lives up to its common name of “fountain butterfly bush” with its arching sprays of richly scented flowers, attracting many species of butterflies including this western tiger swallowtail…
… and this elusive Monarch.
Last year my entire yard was loud with the sounds of bees, especially honey; now it buzzes discretely with the wingbeats of native bees. And my eyes are opened. I learned from the app that there are around 4000 species of native bees in North America, and they are responsible for pollinating far more of our native and staple food plants than are the introduced honeybees. For example, blueberries, green peppers, and tomatoes are best pollinated by bumblebees.
And that raises the question of neonicotinoids. I jumped on the “decline of the honeybee” bandwagon even before I found my swarm. I’ve preached about neonicotinoids poisoning honeybees since science first suggested the connection. I’ve sweated about the alarming decline of honeybees, and I never once wondered what that implied about native bees. (As a self-proclaimed naturalist, I feel pretty stupid about that.)
Fortunately, someone else did, and she pursued the question to its natural conclusion: a digital field guide to the native bees of North America. Celeste Ets-Hokin, an Oakland biologist, conceived and created the Wild Bee Gardens app, an elegant and intuitive research tool for gardeners, farmers, and others interested in preserving pollinators. With cross-references among native bee genera and the plants that host them, fabulous native bee photographs (including, in the newest version coming soon, some of mine), and extensive written guides on their ecology, lifecycles, anatomy, behavior, and how to create a wild bee garden, the app is a wealth of information, a whole college course in one package, and an inspiring creative work. It’s holding my feet to the fire, and making it fun, once again, to learn the names of things.
Not quite last, this very tired young hummingbird roosted on a broken sunflower stalk a couple of inches above the ground for hours on October 2nd. Intermittently he’d fly up and drink some nectar from the bountiful hummingbird mint, Agastache, that seemed to be a godsend for a lot of late birds. It’s still blooming! I’ve seen two more since this one, the latest last Wednesday, October 8th: a record in my 14 years taking note.
Not only the hummingbirds but bumblebees and wasps are enjoying the long-lasting blossoms of this licorice-scented Agastache.
Sandhill cranes spiral and soar overhead on their raucous way south.
A lone monarch was lucky to find some nectar left in late-blooming Gallardia.
Snapdragons still blooming profusely are also providing late nectar for hummingbirds and bees, their colors and velvety texture keeping some hot spots in the garden’s yellowing autumn palette.
A honeybee seeking something along the turning leaf of the Amur maple beside the hive.
For a few weeks, rabbitbrush was buzzing…
Preparing for a show in spring, we’re naming all the bees again. This one is Saddlebags.
…and in photographing bees, I found this tiny little creature which appears to belong to a group called Micromoths.
A honeybee hovered at a single late flax flower at my feet; I ran in to get the camera. In that one minute, the bee flew and its breeze blew four petals off the bloom.
Checking on the medicinal herb I found this tiny white spider.
Garlic chives are the early October “bee-tree,” swarming with honeybees, flies, and small wild bees…