Friday, 10 July 2015

Here's to Bumble Bees and Sacs Full of Pollen

Every day, in tribute to the natural world that surrounds us, I attempt to re-enact abundance. The fruits of my efforts are best sown in early morning as the dawn slowly nudges out the night. Spread a little seed there, hang some suet here, pour fresh water over there, a bit of weeding here, a pat of cedar mulch there, and check the pond. Wait patiently ‘til the sun ascends, then carefully follow its
rays as they cascade over creation. Poise the camera - and begin painting with the light.

My joy in watching and photographing birds, butterflies and wildlife that interact in this scenario knows no bounds. Witnessing the new beginning of each day is especially poignant when more of the years one has lived are now past than those remaining on the future tab. Knowing and accepting this reality tends to focus the mind.

Ever aware of the devastating effects of human-made pollution contributing to climate change, we established our property as a legally protected environment for wildlife habitat, including bees, butterflies and other pollinators, as well as a myriad of other species, trees and plants that share our beautiful intact deciduous forest. From time to time, we work with wildlife experts, foresters, entomologists, and naturalists to encourage species and wildlife restoration. It is a work in progress.

One day, much to my surprise, a bumble bee with large orange balls flew by. After a bit of school-yard snickering, my curiosity gave way to a flurry of research.

We all know that honey comes from bees gathering pollen and nectar from plants. But how do these little critters actually do what they do? To better understand, we need to take a closer look at those lovely, little bee legs, all three pairs of them. Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be a bee. So there you are, flying and hovering in mid-air, flitting about from flower to flower, dislodging and licking pollen off the anther of the flower.

Sometimes you’re just 'rollin’ in the pollen' for the sheer joy of it all. You look down and realize you’ve got it all over yourself. If you’re a squash bee, you are also in a drunken stupor, having spent the night trapped inside the long pouch of the squash flower before making a slit and heading home to the hive.

Moving the pollen to where it needs to be involves all three sets of bees legs. First, the bee removes wet pollen from its antenna, head and mouth using its forelegs. The forelegs then pass the pollen to the middle set of legs. These middle legs then comb more pollen from the underside of the bee's sweet wee chest, and add it to the batch accumulating.

So far, so good? I think that the evolutionary 'pièce de résistance' is found in the design of the rear legs. The lower rear leg on a bee is called a tibia. Think of your calf. The bee’s tibia is flat, shiny, and somewhat convex and is surrounded by stiff hairs. This area forms a pollen basket. Workers and Queen bees have a pollen basked located on the outside of each rear leg. Next, on the lower end of the tibia is a comb-like structure. Think of your ankle - with a rake sticking out of it. Lastly, moving further down is the metatarsus, which is the press. Think of your heel - flattening things. The comb and this press work together, sort of like levers.

The middle legs continue to pass the pollen down to the rear legs. The bee manipulates the comb and press levers by rubbing her hind legs together. The rake of the opposite leg forces the sticky pollen into the bottom part of the basket. As the bee continues to visit flowers, each new batch of pollen she gathers is pressed with the heel onto the bottom of the basket, pushing the previous batches further further up. When the pollen basket is full, it will bulge with upwards of one million grains of pollen.
Voila – the large, orange balls on my bumble bee are created. Mystery solved!

Do you know it takes a honey bee about an hour to collect one pellet – which is about one full pollen basket?  For even greater perspective, a teaspoon of bee pollen contains about 1200 of these pellets! Nutritionally-speaking, bee pollen is a complete protein and contains more protein proportionately than meat or fish. It also contains all 22 amino acids that the human body needs but cannot produce for itself. If consuming a bee pollen supplement, try to ponder the effort it took for bees to produce this amazing food.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share another strange coincidence that happened during this journey of discovery. I was led … no … I stumbled into becoming a novice bee-keeper. Knowing my fascination with anything that flies, my good friends had given me a butterfly house. I painted it lilac and set it out in the garden by the pond. I would check and re-check it, but nary a cocoon did I find hibernating there in the first year. So early this spring, I decided to move it over a bit. I lifted the lid - and came face-to-buzz with the Queen bee and her minions. I don’t know who acted first or quickest, but I dropped the lid sideways and well … this well-known bee-keeper sign says it all.

My butterfly house is now a hive full of happy bees. And how did I get that lid back on without annoying them further? Picture this. A no longer curious but rather terrified woman crawling on her stomach across the porch floor with long BBQ tongs in hand, reaching through the space between the wooden railings, and carefully nudging the edge of the lid back in place. I will consult with a local bee-keeper to prepare the hive for the coming winter.

The odd person asks me from time-to-time if I ever get bored living in the country. When I have finished laughing, an insightful quotation comes to mind. 

"Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone, or weary of life."   Rachel Carson

(A special thank you for advice on this post goes to and Google+ Master Bee-Keeper Zach Dunham)

Sunday, 31 May 2015

First Puppy Training Class for our Kuvasz

Our beautiful Bella Layna went from 12 to 35 pounds by the time she was 15 weeks. As a young,
growing puppy, she loved to wrestle and tackle anything that moved. Since I was the only one
around, I was considered target practice. With the big brown eyes of an angel, she would calmly await my arrival around any corner - and then pounce. I later learned that as a guardian dog, the first instinctive move of a Kuvasz was not to bite, but to use the strength and power of their weight and shoulders to knock a predator off-kilter, and back behind a safety perimeter.

But that first summer, I was just trying to figure her out, often muttering to myself that my Bichon Frise never tried to take me down. I reasoned that Layna obviously lived in a rich puppy fantasy world, not unlike a child. I remember my own young son always wanting to wrestle too. He used to claim that he was the strongest. Of course being the sly female that I was, I would always agree with him. One day, when he was about three-years-old and hollering his battle cry of: ‘I am the strongest mommy’, I quickly replied, “Yes dear, but smell isn’t everything”. Hearing this, he collapsed on the floor in gales of laughter. Together we shared one of those spontaneous moments of joy over silly humour that easily rivalled a Monty Python skit. Those times of joy are indelibly etched in my memory to this day.

But back to the dog. I wondered whether Layna pretended that I was some great predator about to go
after her toy chicken – and must be taken down. Lightbulb – it's dominance behaviour – and time for puppy training! I registered her at the local dog training facility, and was told that she was the youngest one of the group, but she would eventually learn by watching the older puppies. Of course, as I had registered her over the telephone, the trainers had not actually seen her. When we walked into the training room, there was a bit of a stunned silence. It was evident that while Layna was the youngest, she was by far the biggest puppy in the class. The following is an account of her first day in puppy training class.

Puppy Training Room Setting:

Picture a large training room with easy-to-clean floors. A selection of different types of dogs from retrievers, mutts, to golden doodles to whippets, all smaller than Layna, except for maybe Coco, the chocolate Lab. Owners are asked to form into a large circle. Picture myriad dogs wriggling and writhing about - all doing various imitations of ‘get me outta here’.

Scene 1: The Main Actors

Coco: the chocolate Lab straining at his leash throughout the class, eyes fixated solely on Layna.

Layna: standing coolly off to my right side, about ten feet away from the panting Lab. Despite his antics, she doesn’t even give him a passing glance, and stares at the instructor.

The Instructor: a good dominatrix teacher, tiny as a Yorky herself, but with an authoritative voice that catches the dogs’ attentions.

Scene 2: Surveying The Room

The Instructor teaches about clicking and reward method, and chooses to demonstrate with every dog in the class, except Layna. Is it because of Layna’s sharp, puppy teeth? The teacher cryptically states that she wants to be successful in her demonstrations.  Huumm... Layna sits quietly, intently watching
all the other dogs. At times, she appears to sleep at my feet, perhaps giving rise to the inaccurate assumption that she is calm.

Scene 3: Clicker Means Treats

With the help of a few cookies, Layna completes an array of first class challenges. She likes the clicker as it is now associated with a treat.

The class comes to an end, and owners and puppies file out of the area, except for me and the couple with the chocolate Lab. Coco is still straining on his leash, eyes focussed on Layna as we approach the exit gate. The woman leaves Coco with her partner, and comes over to us. She asks about what breed is Layna, and comments that she is so very white and fluffy. ‘Yes, she’s a real puff girl,’ I replied, ‘but as a Kuvasz, Layna is classified as a guardian breed’. The woman paused for a moment and said, ‘Well, she sure doesn’t seem like a guardian breed as she didn’t even bark during class!’ Meanwhile, in the background, Coco is now hyper-ventilating, straining to join his owner. So I casually suggest that she let her Lab off the leash, and we let the two dogs play.

Scene 4: Chocolate Meets Vanilla

Leashes off, Coco bounds quickly toward us and heads for Layna. In one swift move, Layna grabs him by the ruff at his throat, flips him over and pins him onto his back on the floor. Coco submits, but Layna is not yet finished with him. She quickly straddles him and with her front paws, pins each of Coco’s shoulders to the floor. Next, she goes nose-to-nose with the hapless Lab, and pins his head to the floor. Then, with an almost a visible smile on her lips, her tail slowly begins to wag. My little lady then turns around 180 degrees, and rubs her butt in his face. Coco’s pickle emerges as he lays blissfully on the floor. A quick jump off and Layna walks away to her stunned owner, who quickly gives her a cookie, without using the clicker.

Coco-puff that! 

Thus ends Layna's first puppy training class. No doubt, somewhere in the County, a chocolate Lab anxiously awaits for his next training class!

Today, our trained guardian of Blue Maples, Bella Layna rests peacefully on her two-seater couch. She may still give the illusion of calmness - but is watching for the squirrel that tries to steal seed from the bird-feeder. Whatever you do if you visit, call ahead. And please don't mention the 's' word in her presence.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

A Bumblebee Caressing a Flower

It was a good day for our wild pollinators here at Blue Maples. The sun was shining and the flowers are blooming profusely. The wild honey bees and bumblebees were in ecstasy as they dove into these pollen-laden treasure troves. One could almost sense their joy as they fulfilled their ‘raison d’etre’.

Fulfillment of the natural design brings harmony across the web of life. If only we humans were more in tune with the natural design.

I love science, especially the natural sciences. But it seems the more advances in science and technology, the more we are altering this interconnectedness of all things - and not always for the better. As you have no doubt heard by now, the majority of food crops like soybean, corn, canola, and sunflower seeds planted in the US are coated with neo-nicotinoid pesticides. These chemicals travel through the plants and effectively kill insects that eat their roots and leaves. But neo-nicotinoids are powerful neurotoxins, and are also decimating populations of non-targetted insects, namely all pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

 Reverence over profit should be a core value. As stewards of Nature, can we collectively meet our ‘raison d’etre’?

Or will we continue down the path of mutually-assured destruction as illustrated by this little bee 
cartoon posted by an insightful harbinger of pending doom from YouTube, MrPeakCrackers.

Now that my Facebook and Google+ links are better established, I will return to Blogging more regularly with stories of natural happenings, hopefully of interest to us all.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Phooey to the Pecking Order

My dog Layna noticed them first while she was out for her morning constitutional. I came outside to find her standing upright on her hind legs, no mean feat for a 140 pound canine. Her head was poised upwards, gazing over the garage roof toward the Eastern forest. High up in the towering maple trees, were four wild turkeys, comfortably roosting. They slept there all summer, leaving their nightly perch as the light of dawn hit the tree ridge. And then, ever so gracefully, they would glide down to the valley below. 

About this same time, a troupe of twenty wild turkeys began marching single file up the road in front of our property, continuing  down the hill and out of sight. Have you ever watched a precision drill team of soldiers marching? Well comparatively speaking, a drill team of humans had nothing over these turkeys. Slightly stooped forward, the lead male walked with its chest puffed out, followed by a succession of smaller males, hens and younger turkeys. What was fascinating was the movement of the lead male. With an undulating side-to-side hip roll, and a rhythm that would rival a southern blues man, he would proudly marched his aligned troupe past us daily. In anticipation of this new ritual, Layna and I began to sit on the front porch, waiting for the troupe to round the bend in the road. (In case you are wondering, yes, I taught my Kuvasz not to bark at wild turkeys, in exchange I might add, for many dog cookies.)

One morning, the marching parade came to a sudden halt as the lead turkey stopped at the base of our driveway, about 100 feet from the porch. A slight moment of hesitation seemed to hang in the air like a Salvador Dali clock. The line behind him started to wiggle and jiggle as if made of a long roll of jelly turkeys. Maybe in cruising past our place, they had observed other birds feeding at the maple tree in the yard? Whatever the trigger, suddenly, with a burst of chaotic energy and feathers flying, they all raced helter-skelter down the driveway toward the feeding tree. 

Phooey to the Pecking Order – it was every wild turkey for itself. Road runner style!

Many of my friends call Blue Maples a “Bird and Breakfast”. Like a drive-through restaurant for wildlife, I place seed out at the feeding tree daily for our 48 mourning doves, 37 Blue Jays, countless red-wing blackbirds and grackles, a smattering of chickadees and juncos, a few, lovely red cardinals, two ravens, five annoying squirrels, and six kamikaze chipmunks. The numbers vary with the season. Finches, pine siskins, hummingbirds, orioles, robins, warblers, rose and yellow grosbeaks feed in another designated section of the forest restaurant. But that morning, my diversified bird clientele were not prepared for this tumultuous tsunami of copper-hued feathers barreling down the driveway toward them. I am sad to report that all regular bird clientele flew madly off in all directions.

Three distinct thoughts entered my mind simultaneously. Thought number one. Had the wild turkey flock been casing my joint for the past week, pretending to be uninterested in the feeders - while stealthily figuring out how to take Rome?  Thought number two. Ever seen a stand-off between squirrels and turkeys? The squirrels ran about hyper-ventilating in ever-increasing circles around the tree, trying their best to agitate the flock away from the seed – to no avail. Finally, something had put squirrels in their place. Thought number three. Watching the disintegration of the pecking order brought a delicious sense of inner delight to me, as I had recently retired from thirty years in the bureaucracy. Timing can be so sublime.

The wild turkeys are now part of our regular clientele, albeit we had to develop a slightly revised training program to fit them into our diversified clientele. I learned to imitate their major calls, so they would come toward me when I approached. My father used to call me a turkey - maybe he was on to something. They preen, they play, they joist on our front yard every year. Sometimes they chase each other with a left leg over right leg side-step that must have spawned the turkey trot – a dance popular in the fifties. They are tribal with rituals - and appear to genuinely care for members of their own.

As in many areas across North America, wild turkeys were extinct in Ontario for nearly a century due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. As reported by National Geographic, the loss of habitat was most challenging as wild turkeys thrive in areas that are part deciduous forest and part grassland. When forests are cut down, brood cover, a major breeding requirement is lost. Brood cover is the wooded area that provides overhead protection and easy ground movement for young turkeys or baby poults.

For the past 25 years, dedicated partnerships between conservationists and government has resulted in the successful restoration of wild turkeys to most of their former range in Ontario. These efforts have led to a mandatory course to hunt turkey and to regulated hunting.

Here in the natural forests of Blue Maples, we have witnessed their rites of passage and totally enjoy the sheer joy of their life energy. Take a peek at this minute or so movie of the strutting dominant Jake cruising his brood of hens for the upcoming breeding cycle.

A future blog post will feature this rather interesting breeding rite, as well as the exuberance of baby wild turkeys that come to the feeding tree, along with their watchful moms, Lilac and Goldie.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

There's a hole in our forest leading to wonder...

There's a hole in our forest that acts as a doorway to a wonderful canopy of trees, birds and wildlife.
Typical of this part of Hastings County, the landscape has been heavily shaped by glaciation. It combines rolling rock outcrops of the Pre-Cambrian Shield and the more gently-sloped Limestone plain. The diversity of our intact forest landscape is maintained by allowing natural succession to determine species mixture. This is the most effective way of ensuring plant diversity, and thus wildlife habitat. Abiding by Nature time of course, not necessarily human time.

Mature deciduous trees are abundant on the property, and include Red and White Oaks, Sugar Maples, American Beech, Basswood, Hickory, Ironwood and Silver Birch. The endangered Butternut tree is also prevalent.
Our conifer trees offer protection in winter and provide nesting and resting opportunities for migratory birds such as warblers. The super canopy trees that tower above the forest are important to our raptor population of hawks and owls. They also provide roosting trees for our Wild Turkeys. Forest plants abound, including lady-slippers, trillium, violets, jack-in-the-pulpits, and the rare walking fern indicative of areas of undisturbed woodlands.

In spring, we love to go for walks in our forest. The smells and sounds of the earth regenerating itself after long, winter months of hibernation is especially invigorating. When one spends considerable time in a dense forest, you become aware that you are
but a microdot within a deep and mysterious life support system. Studies on Forest Bathing, a term coined by the Japanese, have shown that a leisurely stroll through green spaces lowers the pulse and blood pressure - certainly key determinants of human health.

How trees and plants communicate has also captured scientific attention. A study on how microscopic fungi colonize the root system of a host plant to create a mutually beneficial relationship was first published in the journal Nature. It was also reported in the National Geographic magazine honouring the 2011 United Nations 'Year of the Forest'. Professor Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist from the University of British Columbia, discovered an underground web of fungi that connects trees and plants together. Called the mycorrhizal network, these networks exist all over the world in all eco-systems. The fungi form microscopic conduits or highways beneath the soil, providing inter-plant linkages for the transfer and distribution of nutrients.

Professor Simard realized that the fungi were not only transporting carbon, water and nutrients between trees, but the fungi facilitated this distribution based upon which tree needed the nutrients most. The older trees were subsidizing the younger trees through this fungal network – and that without this help - many of the new seedlings would not survive. Her discovery has major implications on the restoration of forests. Professor Simard concluded that without Mother Trees – the large ones that dominate the forest – the regeneration of a forest will fail. If all the large trees are cut down, the survival rate of new seedlings
will be very low.
In popular culture, Canadian scientist and Film Director James Cameron featured this web of inter-connectivity most vividly through the Tree of Souls in his movie, Avatar.

Trees literally clean our air, soil and water. Scientists and many folks now agree that our climate is changing, and that many of these changes are caused by human activity, especially the increase of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. The changes in temperature and precipitation are well-documented, along with observations on how these changes are affecting key interactions and timing between species.

One of the best things we can do to combat climate change is to conserve and restore forests. Forests have a cooling effect on our climate because they naturally capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and store vast amounts of this carbon in the tree trunks, branches, leaves and soil. They keep this carbon out of the atmosphere for as long as they remain healthy, intact forests. If they are cleared or degraded, there is a net flow of carbon to the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

The solutions to climate change are complex and linked to various financial and trade systems around the world. However, at the heart of the issue is whether humans, as a species, can co-operate enough on the scale that is required to help the planet survive their numbers.
So for starters, take a walk on the wild side. Appreciate a forest. Appreciation leads to wonder. And without a sense of wonder, how can humanity be motivated to care enough for the natural inheritance that has been bestowed upon this planet?

Will wonder be a more powerful motivator than fear?  We wonder...

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Choosing the Dog for Blue Maples

Before retiring each evening, we tell our dog, Bella Layna, the bed-time story of why we choose her
to be with us here at Blue Maples. She gives us her very best 'kissy face', and then promptly falls asleep as we speak. So this is her story.

Once we had found our beautiful forest retreat, our thoughts turned toward what kind of dog we should get. We already had Sir Renaissance Riley (aka Riley), our sweet, aging Bichon Frise. However, any walk in grass taller than ten inches quickly proved to be his undoing. Every seed, burr, or thatched thingy would get stuck in his fur, causing him to protest loudly and demand to be picked up and carried.  We took to calling him
‘Velcro dog’, and heeding his protestations, left him at home alone on the couch, basking in his favourite position.

As we spend considerable time in the forest, we agreed that a larger dog was necessary. A guardian-type dog would be ideal, but our son's allergies to short-haired dogs such as Labs and German Shepherds ruled many of the breeds out. Could we find a large dog that would be good with family, be fairly hypo-allergenic and be a guardian?  We read everything there was to read on dogs. We visited kennels and humane societies, and thought carefully about each breed.

One day, we came across the story of the Kuvaszok (plural), a guardian dog breed with a past history that filled us with wonder. Rumoured to be originally from ancient Sumeria, the breed had travelled  through the mountains into the area of Hungary. It soon became a favourite of peasants and farmers as it guarded their livestock with great care. The fur of the breed was also usable, and could be spun and knitted into warm mittens, hats and scarves. And strangest of all, the breed had huge webbed paws and loved to swim! 
However, great misfortune was to befall the Kuvaszok. During World War II, invading armies plundered the areas of Hungary and Poland. So fierce were the Kuvaszok at defending their families and flocks, the invading armies sought them out and shot thousands of them, almost completely wiping out the breed. 

One can only humbly marvel at such nobility in sacrifice by an animal for their master. When I learned of the fate of the Kuvaszok, my heart filled with great sadness. History is replete with the horrors that befall the innocent by humans devoid of virtue, and bent on control through destruction. 

I was now determined to meet one of these noble dogs, and bring the breed to Blue Maples. As luck would have it, a nearby farmer raised alpacas and had a Kuvasz (singular). He allowed us a visit. While the friendly alpacas headed gaily towards us from behind their corralled fence, the Kuvasz watched us intently from behind the same pen. Soon it began what could only be called a series of stealthy,strategic maneuvers as it moved toward us. Never taking its large, brown eyes off of us as we walked along the fence, the Kuvasz kept subtlety inserting itself between us and the alpacas.The dog never barked, but that steady gaze and purposeful movement left little doubt about who was in charge of this visit. Pointing at the Kuvasz, my son said simply, 'Mom, that's the one'.

Within a month, we had found a reputable breeder in Canada, ordered our puppy, and picked her up in June 2010. May we introduce you to our eight-week old Bella Layna of Huron Reg'd Kennels, just weighing in at twelve pounds! 

Little did we know that within two years, she would weigh-in at 140 pounds (63.50 kilograms), with the upper body and shoulder strength that would be the envy of many a hockey player!

Stay tuned for more postings on our lovely Layna, as we grew to understand more about this  intelligent dog breed, and the service this breed performs for humanity.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Rediscovering our nature within Nature

Some may wonder what possessed us to move from a bustling city to a small, quiet town in rural Ontario. Well, it has proven to be an unfolding process for sure, and each day we
discover more reasons that support why we made this trek. After what felt like many life-times lived, we had searched for a place that would best represent the values we had gleaned over the decades. Always naturalists at heart, we had yearned for a forest in the Canadian Shield where wild things could flourish, and wherein we could have the honour of observing, painting, photographing, and enjoying the natural world in its sentient state. And, as lovers of the Socratic dialogue, we wanted to share our joys and truths with those of common interests.
A country bed and breakfast situated in wild nature seemed ideal. When we first walked the property that was to become Blue Maples, we knew we had found something special. The Nature was wild and overwhelming; the residence ethereal and beautiful to behold. Much
love had built this home in the forest, and I knew I could write here. Thoughts were put to pen, visions of possible futures sketched. I say possible because, at that time, it was not evident how these thoughts could ever become relevant, let alone be captured in a book worth reading, or in a nature venture worth sharing. Also unbeknownst to me at that time, would be the unexpected death of my partner, and that our son and I would have to continue our life journey without him.
Time spent in silent reflection in the forest can help heal one from profound loss. I suppose my inner nature is one of hope and optimism, similar to the new seedlings that
break forth in spring, despite dying every winter.  In time, a website was written with words and pictures born from the dream that we had shared so long ago. A Bed and Breakfast on a somewhat smaller scale also took form.

This Blog will be an ongoing tribute to a host of people, animals, birds, bugs and odd critters that have made our reality so rich and full of natural wonder. Some posts will focus on the health of trees and the role of intact forests and climate change, or on the comings and goings of our forest wildlife and beautiful birds. A few posts will interview some of the wonderful people involved in wildlife rehabilitation and forest restoration, while others will feature significant artists, writers or scientists who seem to have the virtue of a special vision that speaks to our collective soul.

And last but not least, a few posts may be akin to a rant at the Philosophers' Pub - ably refereed by our girl of the barrow - Stella the Toad. 

We hope you will enjoy our adventures, as we rediscover our nature within the Nature here at Blue Maples.  

Happy St. Patrick's Day, Michael, RIP.  No doubt you are probably entertaining the Heavens!