Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Don't be sweet

The bees are really bad this year,” someone said the other day.

He was wrong on two counts. Bees are rarely bad. Nearly all of the 3,300 species of bees in North America provide a service without which we would be very uncomfortable. They pollinate flowers, which produce most of the fruits and many of the vegetables we eat.

Of course, he was not speaking of bees, but of wasps, the yellowjackets, which are so common at this time of year. Because it's yellow and looks something like a bee, it is a “bee” to many people. It's a bad rap for the bees.

Yellowjackets become so pesky in late summer and autumn because workers are seeking sweets for the new crop of queens, the only ones who will overwinter. Unlike most bees that limit their foraging to flowers, yellowjackets are drawn to anything sweet: the perfume you're wearing, the soap you used, the food you're eating.

If you are annoyed by yellowjackets and especially if you're sensitive to their sting, shun perfumes, hairsprays or scented laundry products; use unscented soaps; don't drink sodas or eat fruit outdoors; and stay away from fallen apples and other sugary fruits. In other words, don't be sweet.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The oothecas of autumn

In the autumn, if you snoop around a goldenrod grove, you’re apt to come across the ootheca of the Praying Mantis. You might want to bring it home and put it in the freezer.

Mantises love goldenrod. When it’s blooming, they perch near the flowers and prey upon the wealth of visiting insects, enjoying their last meals before the cold kills them. “Mantis” means “prophet,” and as they sit motionless with forelegs folded, they seem to be in a religious trance.

Before departing this world, the female will often use the goldenrod’s stiff stalks to attach one or more oothecas, the cases that hold the eggs until they hatch the next spring and provide a new season of mantises.

Why bring egg cases home? Praying Mantises are among our most beneficial insects, consuming many pest species. Serious gardeners buy egg cases, containing up to 300 eggs each, to hatch in their gardens and greenhouses. The mantis is so much admired that Connecticut has declared it the “state insect.”

So for some natural pest control next season as well as some insectival entertainment, put some oothecas in the freezer. Take them out next spring, put them in the garden to hatch, and watch the prophets pray for prey.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Thorny thoughts

Thorns have gotten a bad rap. Jesus Christ was tortured with them, issues with them are troubled, and they're generally synonymous with problems and pain.

But thorns, in fact, often help package wonderful things.

Thorns are a kind of spine that plants use to protect themselves from the mouths of grazing mammals. Both thistles and nettles, among prickliest of plants, are tasty and nutritious foods. Be they wild or cultivated, roses are among our most beautiful-looking and beautifully scented flowers, as well as among the best defended.

Creatures of all sizes must be wary of the raspberry, whose arms are so prickly even birds fear to tread – all the better for us humans who, with long arms and careful hands, can pluck the sweet berries for late summer treats.

Finally, consider Androcles: Without that thorn to pull from the lion’s foot, he would have been cat food.

So think of thorns not as threats, but as invitations to something special beyond.