What You Can See on March 9
Submitted by Ted Williams on Thu, 03/09/2006 - 10:05.
From Audubon’s Earth Almanac by Ted Williams and compiled in “Wild Moments,” edited by Connie Isbell, Illustrations by John Burgoyne, Storey Publishing, 174 pages. Flight of the Bumblebee A bumblebee may not be the first insect you see this year, but it’s likely to be the first you hear. “The sound of [the] buzz,” offers poet Mary O’Neill, “is a rick-racky singsong / Muffled in fuzz.” It starts suddenly on some hushed day in late winter over snow-bent grass or along the sun-washed side of your house where the wet earth splits over swelling bulbs. Never will you see bumblebees bigger than the ones you see now, for they are queens laden with fertilized eggs—the sole survivors from last autumn. A queen’s flight is not wild and erratic, as Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic score would imply, but slow, low, and purposeful. She is searching for a nest site—an abandoned chipmunk burrow, perhaps—which she’ll stuff and camouflage with grass, moss, and leaves. Next she’ll make a wax pot the size of a thimble and fill it with honey; finally, she’ll knead pollen and nectar into a loaf of “bee bread.” The honey will sustain her while she’s brooding, and the larvae will eat the bread. Six of North America’s 51 bumblebee species are parasitic—cowbird analogues whose queens lay eggs in nests of other species and let the workers rear the young. The bumblebee’s dense hair allows it to live in colder climates than most other flying insects. Colonies have been found 545 miles from the North Pole. We are particularly fond of our bumblebees, for reasons both obvious and elusive: They are harbingers of fine weather, they resemble winged teddy bears, and they are so good-natured that getting one to sting you is a major undertaking. But most important, perhaps, they are ours; unlike honeybees, they are native to the continent. River Dance How lifeless seem the rivers and rills that meet the cold Atlantic in mudtime. All that moves within them are caddis fly larvae shuffling over stone and log or perhaps the brown carcasses of last year’s water milfoil and coontail waving languidly in the swollen current. Then, in a storm of protein from the sea, come the river herring. In pools below the outfalls of ancient mill dams and rickety fishways, they spiral like galaxies, swollen with eggs and milt, spooking themselves, dashing downcurrent, then returning and holding again until the town herring warden releases water for their upstream journey. River herring is the collective name for two nearly identical species occurring along most of the East Coast: the alewife and the slightly sleeker, smaller-eyed blueback herring, which starts its spawning run a few weeks later. Don’t walk by a coastal stream without looking. Mostly they pass unseen, save by herons hunched over the pools like old men in ratty down jackets standing at a truckstop counter.