Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Coteau du Missouri in 35mm B/W

Somewhere northeast of Bismarck, North Dakota. The scale is deceiving - notice any clues?
If you've not been to the prairies - that portion of the prairie region that still grows grass and wildflowers, ducks and pheasants, you should go. I had the opportunity to visit the area with a group of Ducks Unlimited staff and donors in May, 2006. It was one of many great trips I've enjoyed in my life, but it was most noticeable because it was the last time I shot a 35mm camera. Since then (literally, upon returning home from that trip) I have gone completely digital, other than occasional dalliances with lomography and our three old medium format cameras. At the time, I was smart enough to have the photo lab burn a CD of my black & white prints. Until last week, I was not smart enough to make a backup copy of these photographs. I thought I might share them.

Cinnamon Teal flee a cattle watering hole in central North Dakota.
The Missouri Coteau - a gigantic regional scar full of potholes and glacial soils - is responsible for the production of anywhere from 5-25% of North America's ducks in any given year. This is all dependent upon snowmelt, spring rains, and the whims of north-flying ducks, so the number varies widely each year. Conservation groups focused on migratory birds - notably Ducks Unlimited, the Audubon Society, and Delta Waterfowl - are all highly engaged in research, restoration, and the protection of this area for future generations of wildlife (and people).
Black and white may seem like an odd choice for this trip - visiting a land of green and sunshine, full of well-camoflauged wildlife. Well, what can I say - I'm an odd bird. I hope you enjoy these photos.

This windmill was used to power a cattle watering facility. It was built by the Aermotor Company of Chicago, which surprisingly still exists.
As you may know, I come from a part of the United States that was settled by Europeans over 400 years ago, and is yet constantly redeveloped. This leads to a very dynamic human-driven landscape. This mindset - which many of you on the east coast would likely share, consciously or not, makes a visit to the prairies quite odd. If you discount the amount of prairie that has been converted from native grass to corn, then the landscape of the region didn't change appreciably between the end of the last ice age, and say, the arrival of the railroads in the late 1800s. I'd also argue that the landscape hasn't changed significantly between 1930 and 2010. In fact, there are fewer people in North Dakota now than there were in 1930. Wrap your head around that.
Nest of duck eggs - very poorly camoflauged

Nest of duck eggs, very well camoflauged

Abandoned homestead from ca. 1930
If any of you are politically inclined, you certainly understand that a vacuum of citizens + open land = land change decisions led by remote government and business interests. The state's economy is dominated by agriculture, and any attempt to change that has been met with resistance. Last year, a North Dakota county government did the unthinkable in a conservative state by blocking a private land sale that would protect 429 acres of prairie and wetlands. Their fear? That some additional acres, currently under row crops, might be converted back to prairie and wetlands also, decreasing the county's agricultural production (and of course, County tax revenues). Sadly, this story is being replayed this year in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin. People are so opposed to lower tax revenues that they do not want to allow people to sell their land for conservation. Short term thinkers get short term results. The last 10 years (if not the last 100 years) has taught us that.

13-lined Ground Squirrel - first one I'd ever seen
The prairies are facing a variety of other conflicts these days, rooted in the ones I've described above. Proposals to grow corn-based ethanol threaten to break remaining portions of virgin (and restored) prairie. Simultaneously, proposals for wind farm development (each one spanning, say, 100 miles north and east) could have a literally unknown effect of migrating birds in the seasons when they fly at night. These are real world conflicts that our generation - and the next generation - are going to have to deal with very quickly. When (if) the choice is a permanent reduction in waterfowl populations vs. a reduced dependence on fossil fuels, what will we - or our childrens' generation - choose? It will be interesting to see.

Even with absolutely poor cover, these mallards seem to blend quite well.

Canada Goose nest

Monday, April 26, 2010

Plugging Along

Veggie seedlings soak up the "sun"
This spring has been an exercise in patience. A few beautiful days followed by days of rain or cold, or cold rain. A few brief windows of free time for gardening or other outdoor pursuits, and many more hours and days logged toward the completion of more necessary projects - or my still relatively new job. But we're getting there. We (and Hank) have enjoyed a steady stream of visitors here in Baltimore and it's time to dedicate some more serious time to work....and play. Sneaking in an hour of fishing, or a half-hour in the garden, has become a significant part of my calendar planning. And I'm not ashamed of it. Work in the garden has moved ahead, slow and steady:

Above: a bin of tomatoes (Tiny Sweet Million), peppers (Mole', Early Jalapeno, and Red Hot Cayenne), and Bee Balm (Pink Supreme) ready for their final ride out to the garden. Most of these plants have been transplanted at least twice since I planted seeds and cuttings on February 26.
Other spring and summer plants are in the ground already, both in the yard and in my new community garden plot (more on that in a future post!). Hard to tell what's successful so far, but certainly Little Gem lettuce has done outstanding, when started inside and transplanted outside. I'm looking forward to a few months of sweet, fresh salad greens (the Regatta hybrid spinach remains a disappointment so far).

Closing in on May 1st, and the indoor growing area is looking a little sparse! Another 3 weeks (enough to start one last round of lettuce) and we'll be done until...gulp...February 2011!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Solitary Bees Part I

Solitary Hornfaced Bees pollinate a Callery Pear in Western North Carolina, Spring 2010
When people think of Hymenoptera - the order of insects that contains ants, bees, and wasps, we generally think of social creatures that operate in a hive or nest environment, with various individuals living their entire lives dedicated to one single task - whether it be defending the nest, finding and delivering food, or simply reproducing over and over again. Our most well-known species within the order certainly fit the bill - honeybees, sugar ants, yellowjackets, just to name a few. These are highly specialized species with highly specialized social skills.
Just as interesting is that there are hundreds of species of bees that contact another adult of their species only once a year - perhaps once in a lifetime - with the sole purpose of reproducing. These bees live the rest of their lives alone, and because of that we call them "solitary bees." What we've just started to learn in the last 50 years is that these bees are more durable, efficient, effective, and even more speedy pollinators than European honeybee - a species used for human agriculture for well over 2,000 years. As you may have heard, the honeybee - used to pollinate over 100 commercial crops worldwide - is in great danger, thanks to an aggressive mite called "Varroa" and a disease (perhaps a fungus) called "hive collapse disorder." For this reason, people are starting to look at our other bees, and whether they can be managed to help produce food for humans.

Carpenter Bee (a large solitary bee) pollinates a Redbud shrub in our Baltimore yard
- Spring 2010
Let's take a look at a solitary bee that you already know - the Carpenter Bee. In mid-latitudes (most of the continental USA for example), the large, slow black buzzing bee that you may encounter in spring flower gardens (or under your deck if you are a landowner!) is not a bumblebee at all - but a Carpenter Bee. Bumblebees form small colonies holding less than 100 bees - but they are colonies nonetheless. Carpenter bees drill holes into soft, old wood, including lumber, to lay an individual egg and to provide the egg with food for after the hatch.
Carpenter bees have naturally evolved to emerge in early spring and take advantage of spring flowers before many other pollinators have emerged from hibernation. In areas where a lot of high quality nesting habitat exists (like my neighbor's rotting, abandoned garage), Carpenter bees will intentionally nest near their relatives - while never providing for or defending their "sisters' " nests. Wikipedia states that the bees will occasionally work together, but it seems rather dubious. Carpenter bees are used in some areas to pollinate food crops with wide, open flowers.

Bumblebee - a large, social bee - on Hyssop var. Black Adder in our yard, Summer 2008.
Note the difference between the Bumblebee and the Carpenter Bees above and below.

Carpenter Bee on Common Milkweed - Northern Maryland, 2004.
Our modern agricultural system is so intensive that every year, hives of honeybees are moved across the United States from orchard to farm to orchard to help pollinate food crops. This costs farmers millions of dollars per year. Always interested in "efficiency farming," the USDA conducted a study in the late 1970s to confirm the accepted thought that honeybees are the world's best pollinators. They found out that humans had been wrong all along.
In a move that could best be described as somewhere between "haphazard" and "suicidal," the USDA Research Farm in Beltsville, Maryland introduced a new, highly efficient solitary bee into the United States - the Japanese Hornfaced Bee. How could the USDA be so reckless? Well, as it turns out, one Hornfaced Bee does the work of ONE HUNDRED honeybees. The Hornfaced Bee has expanded its range throughout the Mid-Atlantic and possibly into the Great Lakes states. Logically valid concerns exist about the impact these bees could have on other (native) solitary bees, but almost 30 years later, no negative impact has been observed (except that an accidentally imported Japanese predator wasp has found the Hornfaced...as well as its American relatives). And yes, they are for sale, but please, buy genetic stock that has already been introduced to your region! A picture of two Hornfaced bees can be found at the beginning of this post.
The Hornfaced Bee is known as Osmia cornifrons, and as it turns out, North America has a few Osmias of our own that do a pretty amazing job of pollination (though perhaps not quite at the level of the Hornfaced). I've been managing different types of "bee condos" for solitary bees for several years, and these girls have just showed up in the last two years....can't quite identify them:

A Mason Bee (of some variety) delivers food to the drilled out stump I provide for them in our Maryland yard. Last year, they used every cavity!
In my next post on this topic (unless someone requests more pictures of our mystery bee here), I'll discuss the effects that good management of solitary bees can have on your garden and fruit trees, and some "lessons learned" on how to increase the use of your property by solitary bees.
Thanks for stopping by, as always!

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