Monday, August 23, 2010

Of Birds and Bees

During the mid 60’s Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled “Silent Spring”. It detailed the horrors that were becoming evident throughout the world – tho’ focussing on North America – concerning the industrial use of pesticides and insecticides. The title refers to the fact that if our societies continue to use these poisons that the world may one day witness a silent spring as the birds and bees that we need for our survival may soon all become extinct – thus no chirp chirping or buzz buzzing!

This book had such an awakening impact in both Europe and North America that soon many of these harmful farming practices were abandoned, but not totally. Over the last several decades we have joyed in the fact that the Bald Headed Eagle is no longer on the endangered species list and this is a great cause for celebration. However, to this day many of these poisons are still be manufactured in North America – even here in London, Ontario – to be exported to countries that don’t have such controlling environmental laws. We should be wary of the bananas and other fruits that are then imported into North America as our vicious cycles of trade and export continues.

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Two summers ago, I was riding my bike home after a small gathering of local environmentalists – a very interesting evening – and I was taking a short cut through a downtown parking lot – now empty, except for one lonely shadow. I noticed that this person was standing, with clipboard in hand and staring high above the surrounding city buildings. I became curious and wheeled around to see what was up – so to speak!!!

She told me that she was conducting a study to find out how many of the downtown buildings – with old chimney stacks – were being occupied by the Chimney Swift. They fly into their homes right at dusk. She told me about these birds, never taking her eyes off of the building tops, and I learned a great deal. One fact that I found fascinating is that the Chimney Swift never lands once it has left it’s home in the early hours of the day – they fly all day long, resting only after they have returned, by hanging (almost bat like) along the inner walls of chimneys.

She told me that during the daytime they fly around eating a variety of insects. Then she started a short talk about insects and how different species fly around at different levels in our atmosphere. The Chimney Swift only flies in one layer of our atmosphere eating the bugs that share this same space. She told me that one thing people are starting to recognize is that car and factory pollution is killing many different varieties of insects and the Swift is finding it harder and harder to find food.

I shared a short story with her, about my first Swift encounter…

Joanne and I were living in Nova Scotia in 2003 and one evening – at dusk – I drove our Jeep into Wolfville to pick Jo’ up from the pub where she was working. I turned a corner to enter into a public parking lot and I noticed a lot of people standing around looking up. I parked and joined them.

It looked like a black disc of swirling shapes – at first I thought that they were bats. Then suddenly, one of the shapes broke away from the disc and started plummeting towards the ground and then it seemed to just vanish. Then another shape dropped and then another. Suddenly the entire black disc disintegrated and all the shapes fell. During this time I could see more clearly and I realized that they were vanishing into the chimney stack.

After chatting with some folks I learned that I had witnessed the daily return to home of the Chimney Swift. I was told that the town of Wolfville had preserved this old chimney, and had built a small display around it to tell the story of the Swift.

The lady in the downtown parking lot thought that it was good that I had heard of and seen the Chimney Swift before. Then we picked up our conversation about insects again…

We talked about how the insect population is steadily declining. I mentioned that when I was young, my mom used to drive me and a few friends to soccer practice and that it was a bit of a game to make comments every time a bug squashed on the windshield. I said, “You just don’t see that anymore. Even after a three hour drive through the country, to visit my parents, my car has only a few splat marks where 20 years ago the entire front of the car would have been a mess.”

We both agreed that this was a very serious matter.

So, this all brings my story to the present, as I continue on, talking about the bean plants that I am growing along the handrailing at the front of my house.

These are called Scarlet Runners and as you can see they grow like a vine. I hope you like the funky effects I used to make this image a little more interesting. All summer long I have been carefully feeding the vines in and out of the staircase handrailing to make a small wall of green…with sprinkles of red dots.

What I’ve been noticing is that the plants are producing very few beans, although I am seeing lots and lots of flowers all the time. I started noticing that when the flowers were not pollinated by the bees that the plant would grow another set of flowers, a little further along the vine. If these flowers were not pollinated then this cycle would continue.

It’s gotten to the point that sometimes up to ten rows of flowers were being produced with no flowers being pollinated thus no beans being produced. I have seen an occasional bee visiting these plants but I’m thinking that the normal routine would be to see many bees on these flowers at the same time.

I mentioned this to a friend who told me that sometimes she has pollinated her plants herself, using a feather from her duster. I had heard about this before but I had never tried it… until recently. I don’t have a feather duster, so after a bit of searching and thinking I thought that I could use a Qtip – I just had to pull the cotton off of the stick to make it a bit more ‘feathery’.

By lightly touching the insides of each flower I was able to spread pollen to many flowers. Incredibly this has actually worked. For the last two weeks I’ve watched my bean crop more than triple. I’ve even gotten into the habit of using this technique on my squash and zucchini plants with great results.

Now, I realize that environmental conditions are always different from season to season and from year to year – that’s why one year we will see an enormous amount of one kind of bug when the next year (maybe it’s a cooler year) we’ll hardly see any of the same kind of bug – so I’m not panicking about the less than normal bee activity I’ve seen this year. But it is something that I will be watching a bit more closely over the next several years.

I do think that it is important for all of us to start recognizing all of these seemingly small and subtle changes in our world. It will help us to understand Nature’s patterns a bit more intimately and hopefully this new relationship will help us make the needed changes that will allow our species to flourish on Earth instead of existing in fear of our future.


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