Bumblebee inserting its tongue into wild bergamot floret. Sept. 17, 2019. Photo: Judy Isacoff

NATURE’S TURN: Autumn light, enlightenment

I am more attentively following the flight of the bees, which are among the few insects around my garden during these days before killing frosts.

September 23 – October 6, 2019

Mount Washington — As autumn begins, the countryside is infused with the new season’s sparkle and spacious quiet. It is so quiet that I hear a bumblebee’s whirring wings. The black and gold insect moves from floret to floret, inserting its tongue in each, all around the rim of a wild bergamot’s (monarda fistulosa) lavender flower head. Having completed the circle, the bee lifts its husky body ever so slightly to place itself in position to continue its foraging rounds in an adjacent blossom. Another bee extends its tongue into a swelled, tawny floret in the galaxy of florets that are ripening into seeds in a giant sunflower. Another is burying its head into a scarlet runner bean blossom.

Despite shorter days and a light frost last Thursday, runner bean vines bear blazing red flowers and pendulous clumps of green beans. Climbing together on an 8-foot-tall trellis, these are intertwined with cucumber vines that are studded with yellow star flowers and lemon and pickling cucumbers. Adding to the beauty of the tapestry, a profusion of velvety purple morning glories bloom into mid-afternoon.

Bumblebee sipping nectar; note pollen sac on near leg. Scarlet runner bean blossoms, buds and nascent beans. Sept. 16, 2019. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Inescapably, the growing season is coming to an end. New York ironweed, in full bloom two weeks ago, seems to be rushing to set seed, like the flurry of monarch butterflies that fed on the brilliant flowers one day and were gone the next.

While I work through the early autumn garden care checklist I prepared for my “Nature’s Turn” column published on Sept. 9, I have been captivated by the insects that (who) work beside me, foraging for their own food and pollinating flowers that grow into fruits and seeds that feed my family. The little animals are so focused, industrious, fascinating, dynamic! My appreciation for the bees, in particular, is being energized and informed by the very readable just-published natural history book “Dancing with Bees” by Brigit Strawbridge Howard. The book is also described as a memoir of a wildlife gardener.

Three migrating monarch butterflies feeding on New York ironweed: left, left of middle and right. Sept. 11, 2019. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Brigit Howard clarifies our thinking about topics we might assume to know, like this one:

“… the terminology you use is extremely important when talking about bees and pollination. The term ‘pollinator’ refers to creatures that actually pollinate the plants they visit whilst all the others are called ‘visitors.’ A bee or butterfly on a flower is not necessarily pollinating it. It might simply be supping nectar from a flower without making contact with the plant’s reproductive parts or getting pollen on itself to be transferred to another plant.” Also: “Honeybees that live in hives are often referred to as ‘domesticated,’ though to my mind this term applies more to animals that have changed their wild behaviour to fit in with humans, than honeybees, which as far as we can see, have not changed their behaviour one bit to suit us. I believe the word ‘managed’ is far more appropriate – or, in the case of … large-scale beekeeping … ‘farmed’.”*

I am more attentively following the flight of the bees, which are among the few insects around my garden during these days before killing frosts. “Dancing with Bees” has entered the scene just as more contemplative days are in sight.


*Page 10 and Page 4 – Brigit Strawbridge Howard, ‘Dancing with Bees,’ Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT and London, UK. September 13, 2019. Hardcover and audiobook available: https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/dancing-with-bees/

https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2010/07/a-closer-look-at-bees-pollen-and-body-parts.html and https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=8049

Late summer through early autumn garden care checklist