Rerun: Men of Rice

Feeling nostalgic tonight, looking over our almost frozen backyard, so I decided to rerun this old post from 2012.  That trip was one of the formative experiences of my life.

Men of Rice

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Where the Words Live

An old friend.

An old friend.


Writing about our backyard requires words.  Lots of them, of high quality.  So I keep a supply of all the best words handy, and, in this house, they mostly live in the book up above, which, as you may or may not be able to make out, is Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

It has seen better days.

I bought this particular piece of word habitat in 1983, from 710 Bookstore in Carbondale, Illinois.  I was just returning from a couple years living a more or less simple life in the African nation of Malawi and preparing to embark on the new adventure of graduate school.  I figured a grad student might need words.  I don’t remember what I paid for it, but I seem to recall that it wasn’t much.  It quickly became my constant companion, being carried around in a student backpack wherever I went, even though at about 1565 pages, give or take, it has some weight and takes up space, but I felt lost without it.  Still do.  Now it sits next to my main reading chair and also serves to support my coffee cup or wine glass, depending on the time of day.  As you can see, sometimes it absorbs spills and dribbles and has become warped and stained over these many years, but the words remain safe and dry inside.

It is one of my favorite books.  I seldom run across a word that I can’t find in it, although new tech lingo is lacking (not that I care much).  It is skimpy on word origins, but otherwise pretty darn reliable.  There are, I’m sure, better dictionaries out there, but this one has served me well.  

It may even have helped save me from injury once, when I was biking to my student office one day and hit a piece of pink Tupperware with my front wheel.  The offending bowl had been lost or tossed and when I ran across it a vehicle was on my left, so rather than dodge and get hit by a car, I chose to bump the Tupperware out of the way.  But it did not bump away.  Instead, it somehow wrapped around the bike tire, making it skid, and I went down in a heap, right over the handlebars, doing a somersault with a backpack holding said dictionary and a full thermos of coffee.  I came up on my feet and reassured a very scared and concerned pickup truck driver than he really hadn’t hit me and that I was fine.  Except for a tiny scratch on one hand, I was unscathed, and I suspect that the dictionary provided just enough cushioning to keep the thermos from bruising the bejesus out of my back.  But anyway.

_dsc7531-001I mark every word I look up, as you can see, making a sort of history of my puzzlings and curiosity.  It is extremely hard to find a page in this book without at least one mark, and there are usually several.  1565 pages.  Do the math.  I think I have gotten my money’s worth out of this old tome, and it’s still going strong.  It’s a long-time friend.

Posted in Books, Musings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Going Native


A view from the front (with purple coneflowers and more).

Our yard—front and back—is a curious place, located at a cultural and environmental crossroads.  Depending on one’s point of view, our yard is a treasure, an eyesore, an oasis of biological diversity, a blight on the neighborhood, something to be celebrated in the local press (this has happened), or something to be reported to the local authorities for code violations (this has also happened).

Ah, the times they are a’changin’, but sometimes it feels like they are a’changin’ awful slow.

The decision to dedicate a yard to native plants, rather than turf-grass, is a decision with many facets.  One the one hand, we have said goodbye to fertilizers, frequent waterings, hours of mowing, soil aeration and those little yellow signs informing the world that our yard is a toxic place after being treated for weeds and/or critters.  On the other hand, we have said hello to lots of variety in plant, insect, bird and other life.  We have greeted a different type of yard maintenance, as a switch occurred from encouraging one kind of plant to grow so we could mow it, to keeping exuberant growth from taking over completely.  There is a loss of control involved in letting natives do their thing.  Indeed, that is a big part of the fun, but a native yard is NOT a maintenance-free yard, at least in the city, and if anyone says it is they don’t have one.  The truth of the matter is that we spend more hours working in our native yard than we ever did in our turf-grass.  The good news is that we enjoy it way more.

And that’s one cool thing about our yard full of natives—we spend a lot of time out there, because, well, there’s a lot to see and do, what with about 150-plus Missouri native plants (aka “weeds” to some) and their associated retinues of pollinators and other inhabitants (aka “bugs and pests” to some).

Nadia taking yard notes.

Nadia taking yard notes.

Part of that time is spent thinning and pruning, but more is spent watching and recording, as life marches along its seasonal route and old friends come and go.

This is in stark contrast to almost everywhere else within walking distance in our part of town, where it is extremely unusual to see anybody out in their yards at all, unless they are mowing, and even that is more and more done by lawn service professionals.  We can literally walk a couple miles along the surrounding streets and not see another soul, except for people in cars and other walkers on the sidewalks, even on weekends.  The yards appear deserted (but well kept!).  An visitor from another planet could be excused for thinking that this region was uninhabited, except for the streets and sidewalks.

The decision to go native takes, or should take, some thought.  It may not even be an option for those living under the wise and benevolent protection of a homeowner’s association, where every detail of what a yard is may be specified in excruciating legalese.  But barring that, there are still considerations.

We, for example, live in a nice, conventional neighborhood with green , well-kept lawns all around, which is to say our yard sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Fortunately, we have tolerant neighbors who are truly nice people, and we live in a city with a fair amount of tolerance of its own.  This is not to say that all of our neighbors LIKE our yard, but they do accept it gracefully and remain friendly, and this is a wonderful thing for which we are grateful.

A view in the back. There's a rain garden in there somewhere.

A view in the back. There’s a rain garden in there somewhere.

There is a dynamic that must take place when “cultures” collide, of course.  As members of a neighborhood, we must be aware of such things as property values—our neighbors’ more than our own, truth be told.  If our native yard becomes too “weedy”, for example, it might signal to potential buyers that we are bad neighbors, or maybe they just don’t want to see our kind of landscaping outside their windows. This can have a real effect on the finances of nearby friends trying to sell their property.  The perception of “weediness” varies, of course, along a continuum, dependent upon the viewer.  Our yard may sometimes push the boundaries for many people—or not.  Hard to tell.

There are other practical considerations, too.  If moles, for example, show up in our little ecosystem, they will certainly not pay much attention to property lines, digging their way happily over to the neighbors’ lawns and doing their probably unwelcome thing.  How do we deal with this in a critter-friendly, non-toxic yard?  Do we have a responsibility or liability for damage to other people’s lawn?  Dialogue might be in order, including perhaps an offer to help pay keep them under control on adjacent property.

Also, there might be times when neighbors want to use herbicides and pesticides on their own yards, as they have every right to do.  Sometimes drift happens and some of our natives suffer or even die.  What to do?  I advise tolerance and willingness to accept some compromises for the sake of peace and harmony.  After all, they may have to deal with our plants and fauna spreading into their territory, and a little understanding on both sides goes a long way.  Fencing may be called for—just ask Robert Frost.

Native yards have other issues which may contribute to culture shock in the ‘hood.  A yard full of natives can be gorgeous when in full bloom, filled with blossoms and alive with butterflies, bees and birds.  But when the flowering stage is done for many plants, they may not seem so attractive to passers-by.  They may look weedy and unkempt, and in point of fact, they probably will.  But the neighbors’ yards will still look tended and neat.  Their plants look perfect, unchewed and whole, because nothing eats them.  They are pretty because they are purposely unpalatable to the local wildlife.  Ours are breakfast, lunch, dinner and housing.  They are paying taxes to the neighborhood ecology, and they can get pretty shopworn after a while.   Hmmmm…..

Damage from broom moth caterpillars.

Damage from broom moth caterpillars.

Another thing—not everyone appreciates the abundant wildlife that accompanies native plantings, meaning mostly insects and birds, but also including squirrels, rabbits, amphibians, spiders, lizards, turtles and other citizens of the untamed world.

A visiting possum. Probably eating persimmons.

A visiting possum. Probably eating persimmons.

People passing by on the sidewalk can be intimidated by the sight of myriads of bees and wasps that hang out on the flowers, even though Nadia and I mingle with them on a daily basis, often at very close distances, and have never been stung or bothered by them.

Golden digger wasp.

Golden digger wasp.

Not everybody is convinced that leaving them alone will assure that they will leave you alone.  What I mean is, not everybody is fond of bugs and critters.  Some folks are downright disgusted and/or scared by them.

What to do?  Nature is untidy.  Nature doesn’t much care what the neighbors think or what the city regulations are.  We have to do that part.  So far we have not had mobs with torches and pitchforks rioting in our front yard, so we hope we’re walking an acceptable line, especially when we see walkers stop often and explore the plants, reading our labels and enjoying our little ecosystem.  This seems to happen on a regular and increasing basis, and it’s fun and rewarding to talk with the passersby who like this sort of yard.

We like our yard, too, and interact with it daily.  It can be hard to control and is often a lot of work, but, for us, the benefits are many. For us, it is an endlessly fascinating, always evolving, sometimes almost mystical, place.  We’re keeping it.

A mystical place.

A mystical place.


Posted in Gardening, Landscaping, Musings, Native Plants, Society, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Backyard Gooseberries are Saucy Little Things

The gooseberries in our backyard try to get our attention with their tart little green offerings every year in the mid- to waning days of spring, but mostly they end up being overlooked as contributors to our partly wild larder.  Why?  Mainly because I could never get enthusiastic about the taste, which is mostly just tart.  I’ve tried letting the berries ripen past the green stage into their ruddier maturity, which tones down the tartness a bit, but doesn’t seem to replace it with anything better.

Gooseberries (Ribes missouriense)

Gooseberries ready for the picking!

These are not, in my book at least, munching-off-the-bush berries.  Something must be done to them.  In most recipes that seems to involve copious amounts of sugar and calling it pie filling or pudding, which gives a sweet-sour contrast that can be really tasty (ah, the rhubarb puddings of my youth!), but that never seemed to tempt me enough to get moving.

This year, however, Nadia came home with a small supply of gooseberries from somewhere else, so I determined to figure out something to do with them other than making sugar bombs out of them.  I set out to do some research and expand my gooseberry horizons, as it were, and found that there really are a few things to do besides pastries, puddings, jams and preserves.

In particular a recipe I found online for gooseberry ketchup caught my attention.  It was easy and fast, with a short list of ingredients.  Great place to start!   So I marched out the back door and harvested more berries from our own bushes and got to work.  Mind the stickers!

Gooseberry bush (Ribes missouriense)

Gooseberry bush (Ribes missouriense)

Ribes missouriense

Prickly stem of the gooseberry bush.

I said the recipe was fast and easy and so it is, as you will soon see.  Getting to the cooking point, however— not so much, since the tough little fibrous ends and stems of each berry have to be removed.  Gooseberries are small and it takes several many to make a cup, so I recommend parking thyself in thy backyard and observing nature while cleaning the berries or putting on a video— preferably something educational, to make yourself feel virtuous.  A cooking show maybe!  Back in the day farmers/gardeners would make a family affair (well, women and kids, mostly) out of shelling peas or dry beans and similar tedious tasks, making a social occasion out of it, maybe around the family radio.  You can try that, I guess.

At last, however, the berries were beautiful and the fun began.  I piled a cup of the berries into a saucepan with a bit of sugar (not much), some cider vinegar, chopped onions, a little salt, Worcestershire sauce, and tomato juice and cooked the whole concoction down for about fifteen minutes at a good simmer.

And it was not bad.  Not bad at all.  Nadia agreed and so did some of her colleagues who got samples.  So I got ready to make another batch and did some tweaking.  Here is where the recipe stands at this point—a little, but not too, different from the original.

1 cup cleaned gooseberries
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbs. red wine vinegar
1-2 minced garlic cloves
~3 tbs. chopped onions
~1/3 cup tomato sauce or paste (too much seems to make it too tomatoey and less   gooseberry-ey.
1 tbs. plus a glug Worcestershire sauce
1-3 splats soy sauce (splats are glugs through one of those pour spouts)
1/4-1/2 tsp. salt

Throw all into a saucepan and simmer for 10-20 minutes.  The gooseberries should get soft and start to break down.  Stirring helps to do that.  Taste and adjust ingredients as desired and continue to cook uncovered until sauce thickens.  The original recipe called for pressing the mixture through a fine sieve and discarding the pulp.  Well, not in this house.  We like the pulp and we’re keeping it.

This is a good sauce for meats and, Nadia discovered, is also really tasty on one of our easy snacks—melted cheese on crispy toast.  I expect that a grilled cheese sandwich would be great with this stuff.  I also expect it would be great to baste with on the grill.

So.  Now that I’m curious I’m ready to tackle more gooseberry cuisine, depending on the supply of berries.  For example, I found a recipe for Moroccan chicken tagine that had been adapted to replace the preserved lemons with rhubarb.  Rhubarb to gooseberry doesn’t seem like such a quantum leap, now does it?

We’ll let you know.


Posted in Cooking, Edible Native Plants, Foraging, Native Plants, Photography, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spring Rerun: Kimchi from your backyard to you

Spring is sprung and we have cup plant and lamb’s quarters in our backyard, with goldenglow within an easy hike (soon to join our other natives around the house).  In honor of this wealth of native edible greens, we are doing a rerun of an earlier posting on the making of kimchi, or fermented Korean vegetables, from whatcha got around ya.  It’s easy, it’s tasty, and, with wild ingredients for the asking, it’s almost free!  Plus, it can made in hundreds of variations—just check the web for recipes and switch in your own ingredients and preferences for spiciness, etc.  (I would imagine that an enterprising person could adapt this to make a native greens sauerkraut without too much difficulty.)

Native edible greens, korean kimchi

Korean-style kimchi made from native edible greens

So here’s the link:

Backyard Haute (or at least, Hot) Cuisine

Go thou and ferment likewise.

Posted in Cooking, Edible Native Plants, Foraging, Gardening, Native Plants, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Seagull Named Emma

We have never had a seagull in our backyard, at least to my knowledge. So let me be clear up front that if you are expecting a heartwarming tale of an errant seabird squawking its way into Nadia’s heart or mine, you will be disappointed and probably wondering why someone would call an article “A Seagull Named Emma” and then not bother to put a seagull in it. Well, we’ll get to that.

Instead, let’s talk about names and naming, because I seem to spend an incredible amount of time trying to do that for the things we find in our little urban wilderness. During photogenic times of the year, we might take hundreds of photographs a week out there. That’s the fun part. What is sometimes less fun, and occasionally frustrating, is trying to put names to what we see, even though tools abound to help with this, from nature guidebooks, to invaluable websites with interactive identification tools, to myriads of phone apps to carry with you in the field (or yard), to friends smarter than me.

I started to wonder why this was so important. I mean, it seems obvious that we would want to know what it is we are observing, right? But must we be so obsessive about it? I recall a conversation with friends years ago about local grasses, and someone pointed out some attractive specimens nearby. “Indiangrass”, she said, to which someone replied, “Sorghastrum nutans?” At that point, someone else snorted and exclaimed “Ah, you people drive me nuts when you do that!”.

His point, as I understood it, was why not just appreciate what we’re seeing and experiencing, without trying to label it and stuff it into a dusty mental museum case? Fair enough.

But that is much, much harder than it sounds. In fact some folks spend years, even lifetimes, in intensive training in how to experience the universe directly without filters and overcome their tendencies to name and categorize. The rest of us spend years, even lifetimes, learning how to name things. In fact, this is the training that starts before any other.

When we first pop into the world we are probably as close to pure non-intellectual experience as we are ever likely to get. My memories are a little foggy from those days, but I expect that the feeling we later name “wonder” is routine for some time after first taking breath. Then along come these warm patterns of sight, sound and feeling called “parents” and the first thing they do is start telling us what things are called.

Well, actually, that’s not the first thing they do. The first thing they do is to name us, and then they start by telling us what our own names are and that we should call them “papa” or “mama”. At this point, all this is just vibrations traveling through air impacting our delicate newborn eardrums, but soon the damage is done. Meaning arrives on the wings of sound and sight, and the slippery slope of categorization has begun. Soon we’re perched on Mama’s and Papa’s laps looking at books with pictures of dogs, cows and birds. Pretty soon after that, we’re expected to know this stuff cold and show it off for Mama’s and Papa’s friends.

How could it be otherwise? How else could we survive without constant care from Those Who Name? How else to know what to eat, what to run away from, how to communicate anything at all to others, who those others are and how they relate to us?  I mean, naming stuff was one of the first tasks Adam was given, back in the day!  There was a reason for that.

Adam naming the animals.  Photo of stained glass in Dublin Christ Church Cathedra by Andreas F. Borchert

Adam naming the animals. Photo of stained glass in Dublin Christ Church Cathedral by Andreas F. Borchert

I said that it seems a no-brainer that we want to know what we are observing. That “what” entails knowledge about the properties of the observed thing and how those properties potentially affect us, an amount of knowledge that can be encyclopedic for any given item we confront. We abbreviate all that with names, shorthand for volumes of information about what those names represent. When someone says “Indiangrass”, I get a mental picture of a type of grass, what it looks like and where it grows, and when someone says “Sorghastrum nutans”, I’m pretty sure that she and I are talking about exactly the same grass, avoiding much confusion. For most people, I think it’s fair to say, the “what” of an object is its name, as in:

“What is that?”

“That is a bug.”


(Along these lines, in an historical aside, there is a group of Christians known as the “Name Worshippers” who believe that the name of God is the same as God himself. This got some influential folks so worked up that once upon a time an archbishop backed by a small Russian naval fleet with armed troops invaded a monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, beating and imprisoning some name-worshipping monks. But since this article is not about Greek monks, any more than it is about seagulls, I won’t mention this again.  Sorry.)

It is not just a staple of fantasy and folklore to assert that naming things gives us power over them (even dragons!). Like the wizard Sparrowhawk in Ursula K. LeGuin’s famous Earthsea Trilogy, we spend many years in our towers learning the names of the things in our lives, because knowing these names allows us to understand them, manipulate them and communicate with others about them. It even helps us get at things that we don’t know the names of, because we can use names we know to describe things we don’t know in ways that help us put names to them, too.

“What kind of bug is that?”

“I don’t know. But it kind of looks like a stink bug.”

“Ah! I’ll get my book and see if I can find one that looks like that!”

Then there are names that give us some information about things, even if we know nothing else about them. Can you spell “onomatopoeia“? (I couldn’t, but my computer’s auto-complete could.) Onomatopoeias are words which “sound like” the things they describe, and these words abound. We all know some and it’s not hard to imagine that describing things by imitating the sounds they make may be one of the origins of human language. If I think of a “whip-poor-will” it brings back the sounds of that bird calling during night-time fishing expeditions in deep Southern Illinois. Or my favorite, “njinga” (pronounced like enjinga), the word for bicycle in the Bantu language of Chichewa. Does a bike make a sound like that? Sure does if its got a warning bell on the handlebars! Later, as motorbikes became more popular, this was modified to include “njinga ya moto”. See how it works? An existing name was used to lever a new thing into a category that could be put on people’s mental maps. Genus: Njinga. Species: ya moto.

Finally, some names just fit, even if it’s hard to say why. Psychologist Wolfgang Köhler made up two names, “takete” and “maluma”, then showed people two drawings, one spiky and angular figure and the other rounded and curvy.  Then he asked them to decide which name went with which figure.

Takete and maluma.

Takete and maluma.

Overwhelmingly, and I bet you’re not surprised, subjects chose takete for the angular figure and maluma for the curvy one. This is called the “Bouba/Kiki Effect” (you heard it here first, folks) and basically says that somewhere down in our wiring we can consistently map types of sounds to categories of shapes. This may be yet another clue to origins of human speech. Some things just sound right.

Which brings me finally to Emma the Seagull. The German poet Christian Morgenstern wrote that, “The seagulls by their looks suggest that Emma is their name…” (This was also translated as, “All seagulls look as though their name was Emma”.)  I mean, come on. Now that you’ve read this, will you ever be able to see another seagull without thinking “There goes Emma!”? It just fits.

Why? Who knows? In fact, maybe to you it doesn’t, but it did to me.

All of this seems trivial at first read, but the more I think these things over, the more they seem to be about the bedrock, scaffolding and framework of our conscious experience in the world. Trying to imagine living in a world without using names is a near-impossible task. Trying to imagine oneself being nameless is frightening. Both of these conditions would seem to take us back to newborn status or maybe into the state of Zen consciousness that monks spend years and decades trying to capture through meditation. Direct experience. Things as they are, without the baggage carried by labels.

At any rate, when I spend hours going through trying to decide if the bee in my pictures is a Megachile mendica or M. brevis (see the last two postings), I am trying to discover the essence of that bee. Knowing the name opens doors to all kinds of published information about that particular bee. It lets me talk about it unambiguously with colleagues. It gives me a certain level of acquaintance with the next one I see in our backyard.

It gives me a little control over that part of my world.

And that sounds right.

Megachile mendica at nest.

Megachile mendica at nest. Meg, for short.

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The Long Travelers: Leaf-cutter Bees, Part II

Life travels, and a lot of it has made the journey to our backyard.  That includes Nadia and me–a few hundred miles from my point of origin for me and considerably more for Nadia.  Some of this life travels north to south and back each year and passes through on the way to grace us with its presence for a time, and some has meandered here haphazardly from far-off climes in all directions, welcome or not.  Some of it stays here pretty much all the time, but all of it has journeyed through vast distances of time and evolution, those other dimensions of change that we can only peruse indirectly and with awe.

Our last post described such a traveler: a Leaf-cutter Bee, Megachile mendica,    plying its trade and reproducing in our yard.

Megachile brevis or mendica

Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile mendica) cutting leaf disk for nest cell.

Now this particular specimen probably didn’t travel far to get here, since both of these species are native to Missouri, but a little research led to the discovery of some immense journeying indeed.  Back into the mists of time.  Way off yonder to a continent that split apart long, long ago.  To a time and place where huge reptiles made the earth tremble and plants were just learning how to make flowers.

It is thought that bees originated around 125-150 million years ago in Cretaceous times, splitting off from wasps and chasing the promise of the rise of angiosperms, the flowering plants  (“Let’s hustle, guys!  New niche!  Snooze and lose!”)  and in turn fueling the rapid spread and diversification of these new and wondrous plants.  This event probably happened on the fabled continent of Gondwana, before it separated into the South American and African continental plates, and it left the world a very changed place.

Old Gondwanaland and Laurasia (From U.S. Geological Survey)

The group that eventually gave us our leaf-cutter seems to have been one of the earlier bee groups to develop—the Megachilidae, an event which some researchers believe happened about 126 million years ago (making the case for an earlier origin for bees proper than was originally thought).  But it was still quite a hike to get from down yonder in old Gondwana to our Missouri backyard.  How did they do it?  Possibly by developing the very behavior that they are named for—cutting leaves.  It seems that bees have been making nests and laying eggs in them for a very long time, but bees that simply dig holes, lay eggs and provision them tend to be restricted to areas where moisture is not a problem.  Exposure to moist conditions can result in microbes and fungi infecting the eggs, larvae and provisions, killing the young bees or reducing their chances of survival.  The meant that the safest places to reproduce were in very arid deserts with little chance of rainfall during breeding season.

But then, somewhere along the line, some bright bees came up with the strategy of lining their nests to protect their contents.  Some used  Dufour’s gland to coat the nest and/or its contents with antimicrobial and antifungal secretions and some got the bright idea of using foreign materials, such as mud, plant resins or, like our little friend, leaves (fossil evidence for that here).  They were off to the races after that: vast new areas were opened up for colonization by these clever pioneers, who could now waterproof their nests and guard against organisms that would attack them.  It was time to see the world!  Wherever flowering plants spread, the bees followed in a symbiotic frolic that we enjoy watching daily in our own yard, sitting outside our own lined cells (3 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, etc.).

Fellow travelers, all of us.  And now our Leaf-cutter Bee has been joined by another immigrant–a Giant Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis) that has made the trip from Asia relatively recently, first being reported in this country from North Carolina in 1994.  This large interloper uses plant resins to line and seal its nests, instead of rolling segmented cigars to lay eggs in.  The result is the same.  The kids are snug as bugs in rugs.

Megachile sculpturalis.  Giant Resin Bee.

The Giant Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis) with a mouthful of resin for its nest in a dead tree.

Megachile sculpturalis nest

Capped nest of the Giant Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis)

There is one more twist in this story.  Bees had something in common with the dinosaurs, being present when a comet or asteroid bumped into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the Cretaceous Extinction that wiped out maybe 75% of all the world’s species (but also see here).  Fortunately, some bees, some flowering plants and at least one shy little mammal squeaked through, unlike the non-avian dinosaurs which soon thundered no more across the landscape.  If they hadn’t our world would be a vastly different place.

Descendants of all of them, echoes of cosmic events and epic history, now share our backyard, carrying on as best we can, journeying on to wherever and whatever is ahead, all connected forward and back.

Life travels.

Posted in Insects, Musings, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cutting-up in Columbia: Leaf-cutter Bees in the Yard

One of the joys of yard-watching in our urban wilderness is that you never know what you might find and where curiosity might take you.  One fine summer day as I patrolled our domain, camera in hand, I came across this:

_DSC3105Followed shortly by finding the little cut-up that was responsible:

Megachile brevis/Megachile mendica

A Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile mendica) on a Desmodium leaf.

And so, I was witnessing my first ever leaf-cutter bee at work, busily cutting disks of Desmodium and rushing them off to I knew not where.  Now these are gentlebees and not excitable, so I was able to photograph several sequences of disk cutting at very close range while being politely ignored.

(The bee was later identified as Megachile mendica with the kind assistance of Mike Arduser, naturalist with the Missouri Dept. of Conservation, with later confirmation from Dr. John Ascher on the invaluable site BugGuide.  And you thought a Megachile was a giant jalapeno…)

_DSC3120_DSC3121_DSC3122_DSC3123_DSC3124_DSC3125_DSC3126The speed of the work was surprising, with the bee cutting a complete disk in about 5-10 seconds, then flying off with it firmly grasped in its feet.  I’m sure that takes practice, but this bee had it down cold.  Where it was going was a mystery for a while, because it didn’t tarry for questions.

It wasn’t until later that we noticed that some holes we had drilled in a dead snag standing in our backyard were finally being used:

Megachile brevis nest

Leaf-cutter Bee nest in dead maple. Megachile mendica. July 11, 2014.


And, finally, success!

Negachile brevis nest.

Empty nest!  Larvae emerged!  July 31, 2014.

Now this is good news, because native bees like our Megachile are becoming increasingly important as honeybees continue to decline.  Leaf-cutter bees are efficient pollinators, with up to 242 species known in North America and, according to Mike Arduser (personal communication), 27 reported from Missouri.   We’ll take all the help we can get.

From the images above, it’s obvious how these bees got their nickname.  They cut and use these little leaf (and flower petal) plugs to fold into cells that get stuffed into suitable cavities in wood, plant stems or even in the ground.  Then they are provisioned with a mixture of pollen, flower nectar and mom’s patented antifungal/antibacterial saliva, followed by the laying of an egg in each cell.  These cells are often in rows, forming structures that look something like a hand-rolled cigar.

Leaf-cutter Bees and Nests

Public domain image from Lydekker, R. 1879 The Royal Natural History. Volume 6. Frederick Warne and Co.                (from

Some people consider these bees to be pests, since they “disfigure” foliage in their landscapes, but we encourage them, along with all other native bees, by providing nesting habitat and lots of nectar and pollen sources for them.  You can, too, by planting a variety of nativeplants to keep blooms going all season long, providing a supply of suitable stems for bees to bore into and lay eggs, making nesting boxes for them and/or drilling holes in suitable stumps and snags, and by leaving patches of bare soil for the ground-nesting bees (spare the mulch, save the bees!).

The holes I drilled in our dead maple used by our leaf-cutter were about a quarter-inch in diameter, but we had a selection of sizes available.  (Larger ones were used by another bee—see our next post, coming soon.)  For plant stems, we simply leave plants such as cup plant and other large-stemmed natives standing after they die and clean them up the following spring after (we hope) the larvae have hatched out.  This also provides winter cover for other wildlife that it just won’t find in a golf-course yard.

Dead trees, dry, bare ground and brittle plant stems poking up through the snow may not fit everyone’s idea of a beautiful yard, especially in the city.  But nearly fifteen years of observing our little patch of Columbia have taught us that all these fit into the larger matrix of how life works around here, with very real connections to other places and times.  We’ll never figure it all out, but the web reveals its connecting strands a little at a time.  We’ll follow a couple of these threads a little farther in the next post.

Stay tuned!



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More Caterpillar Creepies

Our backyard has many amazing things, but this one had me puzzled for quite awhile.  However, I think I may have found the answer to what exactly this is:

Braconid wasp cocoons

Braconid wasp cocoon mass

Until I sat down and really looked at this carefully, I thought it was a cocoon.  When I magnified the image it was quickly apparent that it was many cocoons crocheted together into a dangling mass.  After some extended searching, BugGuide again came to the rescue.  Not only did they provide a solid lead to the identity of these little Q-tip wannabes, but one commenter came up with this link to a video.  (Viewer discretion advised.)

It appears that an unfortunate caterpillar was parasitized by wasps which laid eggs on or in it, which happily developed into larvae inside the caterpillar, but carefully avoided killing it.  Then they cut their way out, paralyzing the caterpillar temporarily, and entering their own cocoon stage.  However, they may not have been done with their host just yet.  In some cases, the parasites somehow have enough control over the host’s behavior to force it to cover the wasp larvae with a protective layer of silk and even physically defend the mass of cocoons from attack by other wasps, until the host dies.

Consider this “Gruesome caterpillar stories: Vol. 2”.

Life ain’t easy out there, folks.

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Death on a Milkweed

Walking out of our yard today to walk Bonita the Beagle, I glanced quickly over a few young milkweeds growing on our curb next to the street.  Something under one of the leaves caught my eye.  This, to be exact:

Podisus maculiventris

Spined Soldier Bug nymph eating Monarch Butterfly caterpillar

Bonita the Beagle was visibly miffed at being dragged back into the house and stashed in the foyer while I grabbed a camera and rushed back out to record this unusual (to me) life and death drama.  At first I was convinced that this was some kind of a small weevil feeding on this young monarch caterpillar.  Later on, after the heat of the battle had faded and I had time to scour the internet, I’m pretty darned sure that this is the nymph of Spined Soldier Bug (Podisus maculiventris).

Podisus maculiventris

Spined Soldier Bug nymph (Podisus maculiventris)

Judging from the 2-3 millimeter size and the coloration and patterns, I suspect it is a 2nd instar (to see more stages, go here).

These little munchers seem to be pretty voracious in all their stages and are found pretty much all over the U.S. and up into Canada, but I had never seen one doing this before.  Keep in mind that this tiny bug is bearing the entire weight of the relatively huge caterpillar by its mouth parts, probably slurping that poor thing up like a malted milk shake while it’s doing it.  Yum.

Podisus maculiventris

Spined Soldier Bug nymphcarrying Monarch Butterfly caterpillar down milkweed stem

Too bad in a way.  Monarchs don’t need any more enemies these days, but nature is what it is.  In our yard, it’s pretty much what it wants to be.

Oh, yeah.  Bonita the Beagle got to resume her walk a little later.  She seems to have forgiven me.


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