Honeybees Part II

If I had a blog, today I would write some more about my love for honeybees.

00-10032012_105516 webPondering honeybees again today. I mentioned in an earlier blog that we are hosting a large number of bees at our hummingbird feeders this summer and my daily interaction with these little souls has given me food for thought.

This afternoon, I spent twenty minutes trying to entrap a bee that had come in the house on one of the hummy feeders. She sneaked in underneath the feeder and immediately flew to the high windows in the dining room in an attempt to regain her freedom. First I tried gently wrapping her in a Kleenex, but she wriggled free and went even higher. Then I got a tall chair and a glass bottle and tried to coax her inside, but every time I pulled the bottle away, she flew out. Finally, I trapped her in the bottle and slid a piece of cardboard over the opening. Success! I took her outside and away she flew.

Why all the bother? Why not just get the fly swatter and make an end of the little stinger? Because honeybees are brave in my book. They are gentle, and wise, and have chosen a life far nobler than that of human beings because a honeybee cannot defend itself or its hive without paying the ultimate price.

When a worker bee stings an animal with thick skin (like most mammals), her barbed stinger (all workers are female) remains embedded in the skin of her victim. When the bee pulls away after stinging, her internal organs and the venom sac come out with the stinger. This kills the bee, but the venom sac continues to pump venom into the victim making the barbed stinger a very effective weapon against large predators such as bears and humans, who can decimate an entire honey-store in minutes. Also, because worker bees do not reproduce on their own, their sacrifice insures the survival of the queen and thus the survival of the colony.

Another reason for this altruism is genetic: Female bees are more closely related to their sisters than to their own children. This is because bees are “haplodiploid,” meaning females have two copies of every chromosome, but males only one. You’ll have to trust me on the math, but the end result is: Worker bees are 75% genetically identical to their sisters, but would only be 50% identical to their children. This evolutionary process, called kin selection, means it makes evolutionary sense for a worker to forgo reproduction, and even sacrifice her own life, if it helps her sisters.

Although I don’t suppose bees ponder whether to sting or not to sting, it still gives me pause to consider that there is a species where this kind of selflessness is built in. It makes me wonder what the world would be like if humans had the same kind of limitations. What if we had to give our life if we took that of another? Would we so readily go to war,  brandish guns against intruders or engage in violent crime? In a time where humans are killing one another with seeming indifference, what a change would take place if we had to choose whether to kill based on whether or not we were willing to sacrifice our lives in the process. Just a little food for thought.

Walking With Giants

If I had a blog, today I would write about my friend, Big Bluestem.

09032013_180602 WebI call big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) my friend because it has been part of my life for over twenty years. Big bluestem is a native grass of the tallgrass prairie, a vast domain of largely treeless expanse that, before the coming of the white man, dipped down out of southern Canada, expanded to over 600 miles in width across the Midwest, and ran for more than a thousand miles towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, we touch the boundary of the prairie that extended, and broadened, as it went north. Plants native to the tallgrass prairie grew here, though not in the lush abundance found to our north and east. To honor the sea of grass that once touched The Greenwood, we planted grasses and wildflowers common to the tallgrass prairie here on our farm and big bluestem is the first of the grasses to bridge the gap from summer to fall.

09212013_070226 webGrowing up to nine feet high, big bluestem was a wonder to the first settlers. In his book Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, author Joan Madsen writes “[big bluestem] was a marvel to the early settlers who plunged into it and left accounts of big bluestem so tall that it could be tied in knots across the pommel of a saddle.” I see these slender sentinels as the guardians of my homeplace, keeping watch over the long gravel lane that connects our farm to the outside world.

In August, big bluestem begins to go to seed and as it opens, reveals a three-branched seed head that has given rise to another name, “Turkey Foot.” Its unmistakable silhouette tells me fall is near.

10282011_155806 (1) webI am not the only one to await the ripening of big bluestem. From late September until November, the seed-heads are an endless bounty to sparrows, juncos, and a host of migrating birds who rely on the nutritious seeds to fuel their winter stores of fat. Driving along the lane on a fine autumn afternoon, the giant grasses are bent to the ground under the weight of feeding birds. The continual rise and fall of the stems makes it appear as though the plants are moving under their own power, bowing to the mellow sun.

09202013_181510 webThis year, the big bluestem began to open on July 31st. It will take some time for the seeds to cure, but already the sparrows are gathering, testing the crop to measure the breadth of the harvest to come.It is a welcome sign that summer’s reign cannot last and the time of harvest, then rest will come.

There are only a few tallgrass prairies left today. Most fell to the settler’s plow over a century ago, so I am proud to know the big bluestem, so see them dance, as Wallace Stegner wrote: “in the grassy, green, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it.” I walk among giants as my forbears did and dream of what lies just out of sight, oven the next wave of green.


If I had a blog, today I would write about my hiking mantra.

Continental Divide Wildflowers webIf you polled avid backpackers, or even day-hikers, you would find that most of them have a mantra: A phrase they repeat over and over to help them manage the monotonous parts of the trail. I use mine to get up tall hills or to get through long stretches of hot, featureless trail. It focuses my mind so I don’t feel overwhelmed by the mountain or desert stretching before me.

I adopted my hiking mantra from a woman who wrote about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and it goes like this:

We are the thru-hikers,                                                                                                                                      Mighty, mighty thru-hikers.                                                                                                                            Everywhere we go-o, people want to know-ow                                                                                                    Who we are and so we tell them:                                                                                                                            We are the thru-hikers,                                                                                                                                     Mighty, mighty thru-hikers…..

073116_2088I was using my mantra this morning to get me through the sun-baked expanse of Big Valley, in a hurry to get through into the shade on the far side, when I saw the rose mallow. It has been blooming for a while now, but I’ve blazed by so fast, I hadn’t really taken it in its depth and breadth. It covers a whole side of Big Valley and in the morning it glows pale pink, its hibiscus-shaped blooms angled towards the sun. It was stunning – and enlightening.

Seeing the rose mallow made me realize the danger of using distraction to get us through the unpleasant parts of life: It can easily become a habit that robs us of the experience of being alive.

When I am chanting, I am focused inward. That’s the point, after all, but if I use my mantra all the time, I don’t see the landscape around me. I miss the flowers blooming along the trail or the chance to see a rare bird flit into the forest. I miss the sun on the clouds, the ripple of the trout stream, and the fragrance of moist earth, bursting with life.

I know this phenomenon extends beyond just my daily walks. Sometimes I get so focused on fast-forwarding through the uncomfortable parts of life, I forget to look around me and really live.

The Little Engine That Could had a mantra. His repetitive, “I think I can, I think I can,” got him up that mountain, but we can’t stay in that state forever. At some point we have to shout, as he did, “I KNOW I can!” and sail down the other side of sorrow, drinking in the glory of being alive.

So, I will save my hiking mantra for the really rough spots on the journey and take a chance being present for the rest. I will let myself be uncomfortable or bored or tired and still experience what is going on around me – in nature and in my relationships. From now on I promise I will stop and smell the rose mallow.09242014_084459 web

Walking Into the Sun

If I had a blog, today I would write about revelations on my morning walk.

It’s a dangerous thing, submitting to the ministrations of Nature. When such a pact is made, just stepping out your front door can have dire consequences. When I hide indoors for a long period of time, I begin to grow arrogant, building a belief system that says I know things, I comprehend the width and breadth of the Universe and have a firm grasp on the order of things. I become jaded and tell myself there is no need to get out in the heat, that I have seen forty-seven Missouri summers and I have seen it all, done it all, felt it all. Then, I go on a morning walk and I am remade.

09252008_184946 webThe valley was full of fog this morning. We’ve had rain showers off and on this week and the air is heavy with moisture. Mom, Gus and I walked down to the river valley again and once we left the barn lot, we descended into a world of pale pink mist where every blade of grass sparkled with drops of dew.

09192011_190311 webThis time of year, the main activity in the woods and fields is that of tiny spiders. Their species are many and they create a world of intricate webs through which we pass wherever we go. The most prolific are the orb-weavers: Minute, triangle-shaped spiders who weave beautiful round webs that cross our woodland path and that hang glimmering on the taller grasses in the fields. There are other weavers too: The pasture roses are draped with long festoons of web that hang like strands of diamonds in the dewy morn. Still other spiders make broad, thick mats of web along the ground, complete with little tunnels in which their creators hide. This morning, every gossamer thread was alive with color in the soft, misty light.

Coming back from the river, the sun had emerged from the fog and was beginning to heat the earth. Although it was nice to have the heat on our backs, not our faces, I noticed our world of webs had disappeared from sight. I knew they existed as the had just half-an-hour before, but that rare moment of misty morning light had passed, and with it, our moment of epiphany.

09252008_185405 (3)webTo experience the rapture of Nature, you have to be out there come rain or shine. The beauty of the natural world does not appear for our benefit, we must be present when the miracle happens, and miracles are happening every day. No matter how long I live in this little valley, there will always be something new, something rare and wonderful waiting for me if I will set aside my cynicism and get out in The Wild.

Naturalist John Muir knew the truth of these things. In the early part of the century he wrote, “I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half-made, becomes more beautiful every day.

I must read this quote each morning when I rise. I must remember that I haven’t seen it all. I must remember that all I have to do is step out the front door and walk into the light of the rising sun.




10102013_183150 web.jpgIf there is one thing I’m good at it is resistance. Give me a good reason to dig in my heels and you’ll need a tow truck (or two) to get me moving again. Recently, my resistance has been to the heat and humidity of our Missouri summers. It happens to some extent every year, but this summer we no longer have any livestock, so being outside is purely a matter of choice, and my choice has been to stay indoors.

For a while it was all good. In my spare time I watched movies and worked on photo projects and lounged around with my dog, Gus, but now the party is over. I’m bored and feel more than a little claustrophobic, even in the air conditioning. So, despite my refusal to acknowledge the existence of summer, yesterday I decided to go for a walk to the river.

08112013_122313 webWe live about a mile from the Little Piney and the walk is fairly easy in terms of terrain. Not much upping and downing. So, when my mom started on her walk yesterday morning, Gus and I decided to give it a try and, much to my chagrin, something amazing happened: Despite the sweat and the bugs and my determination to dismiss summer as entirely useless, I felt better for having done it.

The key, it seemed, was in the hardship itself. Spending an hour getting soaked with sweat, feeling like a chicken under the broiler was worth it because it felt so amazing to rise to the challenge and return victorious. Not only did I have a sense of accomplishment, I also got to enjoy the bliss of returning to the cool  house, taking a shower, and slipping into soft, clean clothes. It was the contrast that made the experience an epiphany.

Web of Purpose

I don’t know if it is true for all people, but for me, going out into the uncomfortable, uncertain natural world without resistance is life affirming. I need to get my hands dirty, rip my jeans on a greenbriar, get bitten by bugs, and become soaked with sweat as a sort of daily baptism – dying to the ease of modern life and being reborn a child of nature. It is an exhilarating experience.

I will have to push myself to go back out there every day. The dark coolness of my office says, “Just stay here and check Facebook or work on a blog,” but I have to get out, go wild, get messy first or the pleasantry of my life loses its meaning. I need The Wild to keep me strong and in love with life.

So I go forth in hope, hope that I can remember the bliss nonresistance can bring. I will fall open-armed into the discomforts of summer and emerge a creature of joy.