The Little Black Kitten

When I was 12 years old my family and I lived in an old house with a carport. We had a medium-sized, roly-poly, fluffy black dog named Rascal. One spring day Rascal started whimpering at the screen door that led outside near the carport. Rascal rarely whimpered. “What is it?” I asked him. Then in between his whines I heard it.

“Meow! Meow!”

I peered through the screen door and saw, peeking up from the steps to the carport, a little black kitten face.

My heart leapt. I loved cats! Although we never had a cat of our own, I always wanted one.

I opened the screen door a crack and slid outside, blocking Rascal from charging through the door toward the poor kitten. “Hi there!” I said to the kitten in my gentlest, most sing-songy voice.

“Meow! Meow!”

The kitten trotted right up to me. I was a goner. She (he?) was the cutest little thing. Not having had much experience with cats I was a little afraid of her claws, but I pet her hesitantly and that seemed more than enough for her. She purred and leaned all her weight into the movement of my hand. She was so soft! I could hear Rascal having a conniption fit on the other side of the screen door.

I played with the kitten and talked to the kitten until it was dinner time. By then everyone in my family knew there was a kitten outside, but the intensity of my dad’s hatred of cats was such that I didn’t even bother to ask if I could bring her inside.

The next morning when we let Rascal outside to do his business, there was the little black kitten, trotting along behind him. Rascal seemed to tolerate her.

Then I remember doing my homework up in my bedroom, my mom sitting beside me, helping me. Dad wasn’t home. We heard my brother’s voice behind us say, “Look what I have!” My mom and I turned around and there was my brother, slowly walking up the stairs with the little black kitten in his arms. He was scratching the kitten’s chin. The kitten looked as if it was in heaven.

My mom scolded, “What are you doing? The kitten is going to want inside all the time now!”

Secretly I cheered my brother.

“We can’t keep it,” my mom said gruffly. But I knew through her rough exterior she thought the kitten was to-die-for cute, too.

The next day my mom made a make-shift crate and brought the kitten to the Humane Society. I tried not to think about it.

It’s almost 30 years later and I still think about that kitten. Of course she’s long gone by now. But what would we have named her? Probably something typical like Shadow or Magic or Midnight. Would she have slept on my bed? Would my dad have warmed up to her?

I hope that Shadow/Magic/Midnight ended up in a good home and had a good life.

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Head-bangin’ bees

It was hard for me not to read an article with the title, “Shakers and head bangers: Differences in sonication behavior between Australian Amegilla murrayensis (blue-banded bees) and North American Bombus impatiens (bumblebees).”

A little background first: Sonication is another term for buzz pollination. Buzz pollination is a special way that some bees get pollen from flowers. For a number of flowers, bees collect pollen sort of accidentally by just rubbing up against the flower parts naturally as they drink the flower’s nectar. They become dusted with pollen and thus collecting nectar is almost “by mistake.” The bees then use their legs to brush the pollen grains from their fur onto their back legs so that they can carry it back to the nest.

Pollen is the bees’ source of protein for feeding larvae, so that the larvae can grow into adult bees. Collecting pollen also helps the flowers, too, because any stray grains on the bee’s body that she misses can be transferred to the next flower she visits, thereby allowing for plant reproduction.

In some flowers, like tomato plant blossoms or blueberry plant blossoms, bees can’t get pollen so easily. For these types of flowers, the pollen is kept inside cone-like structures called anthers. There are pores in the anthers and somehow the bee must get the pollen out. And how do bees do this? Bumblebees use buzz pollination: they grasp the anther tip with their mandibles (mouthparts), curl their body around the anther, and hang on with their legs. It looks like this:

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A bumblebee buzz pollinating a tomato flower. Image courtesy of The Pollination Homepage.

Then comes the cool part: The bumblebee shakes her flight muscles really fast, without flapping her wings, causing the bee and the flower to vibrate. This shakes the pollen out of the anther pores and the pollen falls onto the bee’s belly. (Think of it like shaking a tree to get the fruit to fall down.) This is called buzz pollination because when the bee shakes her flight muscles it actually makes a high-pitched buzz sound. (If you find yourself by some blueberry or tomato flowers, listen for the quick bzzzzzttt! sound of the bumblebees!) The bee can then brush the pollen from her belly onto her back legs and voila! She scored some pollen.

Honeybees have never been observed buzz pollinating flowers, so bumblebees are quite special in this regard.

Anyway, back to the article: So up until now I thought that bees buzz pollinate by using the procedure I just described: grabbing onto flower anthers and shaking like crazy! But it turns out there is a species of bee in Australia–the blue-banded bee–that does things a little differently…

 

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A blue-banded bee approaching a tomato flower. Image courtesy of Pollinator Link.

The authors of the article report that they observed both North American bumblebees and Australian blue-banded bees as they pollinated cherry tomato plants. They took some high-speed videos and found that the blue-banded bees grasped the flower like bumblebees, but they didn’t grab the flower with their mandibles. Instead, when they shook their flight muscles, it caused their head to bang up against the anthers. The tapping of their head up against the anthers released the pollen.

Head-bangin’ bees!

The authors couldn’t conclude which was a more efficient way to get pollen: by shaking or head-butting the anthers. But it shows just how unique different species can be in their behaviour.

Another cool point is that little brown marks are left on the anther cone after it has been buzz pollinated. Commercial tomato growers call these marks “bee kisses,” and they are a sign that bees have visited the flowers. The authors note that the “bee kisses” left by head-butting the anthers were similar to those left by shaking.

A special note: Have you heard of neonicotinoid pesticides in the news? They are a type of pesticide that have been linked to colony collapse disorder in honeybees and to other damaging effects in bees. There is evidence that these pesticides interfere with bumblebees’ buzz pollination behaviour.

 

Reference: Switzer, C. M., Hogendoorn, K., Ravi, S., & Combes, S. A. (2016). Shakers and head bangers: Differences in sonication behavior between Australian Amegilla murrayensis (blue-banded bees) and North American Bombus impatiens (bumblebees). Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 10, 1-8. DOI: 10.1007/s11829-015-9407-7.

Fetch!

It’s painful to have to walk a dog around 5:45 a.m., especially in winter.

But in some ways it’s rather peaceful.

If it’s not cloudy then you can see the stars. There’s hardly any cars on the roads. There’s a bunny here and there.

And all you can hear are our footsteps. The world feels fast asleep.

Lately it’s been rather playful on our walks, too. I’ve brought along a cloth frisbee or a Kong toy on the end of a rope and tossed it for Spirit, our almost-one-year-old border collie/lab mix, in a schoolyard nearby. Spirit is a natural at fetch. There’s something about seeing her race after the toy, grabbing it, and proudly prancing back to you, that warms the heart. Especially when she does a little victory lap before dropping the toy at your feet.

It’s also endearing to see the accumulating frost around her snout and on her whiskers, the longer we play in the cold.

By the time we need to head on home, the chickadees have woken up and are chirping their hellos. The sky has turned an almost sepia tone.

And Spirit is still prancing. And I have a bit of a spring in my step, too.

Simple pleasures: a dog, a toy, and a field.

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Spirit with her chin on her favourite blanket.

Small friends, school, and survival 

Last weekend at the cottage I found my little half-tail friend! And like no time had passed, s/he took peanuts straight from my hand again.

Half Tail is back! And s/he took the biggest peanut.
I think Half Tail is going to take the biggest one again…
It had been over a year since I’d seen Half Tail, since this summer was rather cold, buggy, and rainy. But on the very last day before we went home we found each other. Amazing that s/he remembered after so long. 

The meeting was bittersweet. For me it marked the end of another summer. The next day would be a flurry of back-to-school. Well, back-to-school for my 7-year-old son, and the very first day of school for my 4-year-old daughter. Nervous prickles started to line my skull and my stomach.

My own very first day of kindergarten is my earliest vivid memory. I remember thinking that my mom was going to stay with me, so when she turned to leave I flew into a panic. I chased her down the school’s hallway, howling with tears streaming down my face. Bless Ms. Loveland, my kindergarten teacher, for having patience and for calming me down.

I like to think that I couldn’t have been too traumatized since I ended up staying in school long enough to get my PhD…

So on my own kids’ first day of school when I saw the tears well up in their eyes, I understood. And it all came rushing back to me. I tried to think: what eventually calmed me down? I honestly can’t remember. My husband and I tried to soothe our kids but to no avail. I told them how I used to cry, too, but I learned that everything is okay. We eventually had to leave them, tear-streaked and stressed. 

Oh, what a long day at work that was…

I picked them up as early as possible. My son was just fine, chattering away about who is in his class, how his teacher changed the seating arrangment because my son was talking too much (!!!)… Is this the same kid I dropped off this morning?

My daughter, on the other hand, looked haggered. She apparently cried for an hour after drop-off and cried again during the transition to the after-school program. Oh, my heart broke to see her looking so sad! Cortisol rushing through her body all day….she must have been exhausted. I gathered her in my arms and gave her the biggest hug possible. “You made it through your very first day of school,” I whispered proudly. She just buried her face deeper into my neck.

I was a full week of tears. And the beginning of this week, too. 

I know my daughter is in good hands. Her teacher is a tiny willow of a woman who always wears bright, happy-coloured head scarves, and who is not afraid of giving a hug when one is needed.

I know my daughter will survive. But I want more than just survival for her. I want her to enjoy school. To love school. To look forward to it every day.

Maybe one day she will. And maybe she won’t.

For now my husband and I will do our best. To reassure her. To comfort her. To love her. 

School is a big transition. It will get better. It will get better, it will get better…

My first visitor!

I was sitting on our new patio yesterday afternoon when I heard a BzzzzZZZzz…

My heart did a little skip. I looked over at my flower bed and saw…a bumblebee!


My first fuzzy-buzzy visitor to my little garden! And she chose some purple flowers that I had thought would catch the eyes/antennae of a bumblebee or two.

I’m not sure what those flowers are called, but the bee did indeed spend quite a bit of time on them. Then she moved on to my spray of catmint.


I was thrilled to finally see a bumblebee on my flowers! Not only just for the sake of having bees in my garden, but mainly because I’ve seen so few bumblebees in general this year. It’s rather alarming.

One thing we do know about bumblebees is if they find a good patch of flowers, they tend to return to it over and over again. Will I see this little cutie on another day?

Sure enough, this morning I looked out the kitchen window and spotted a speck hovering amongst the catmint. A bumblebee! The same one as yesterday? I went out to have a look and she looked similar, but I’m not certain. 

It still amazes me that as big as the world is compared to the size of a bumblebee, she was able to spot my flowers amongt everything else in the backyard. Are the purple blossoms like a bright, blinking beacon? Or was she reeled in by the scent, almost undetectable to the human nose? Or both?

Please come back, busy-buzzy bee! And bring your sisters and friends.

What is it about horses?

Yesterday our kids went to a birthday party at a horse farm, where they got to groom and ride horses and ponies.

My daughter grooming a horse named Henry. She insisted on wearing a ballet outfit.

The kids did such a good job brushing the horses that most of them almost fell asleep.

They rode the horses in circles in an arena for quite a while. On occasion the horses were instructed to go a bit faster, and it was a hoot to watch the semi-terrified-but-thrilled looks on the kids faces as their backsides bounced significantly up and down on the saddle as they sped up.

Henry woke up in time to give my daughter a tour.

As I watched the kids ride around and around (and around and around…), I noticed each one had a huge smile and were enjoying themselves immensely.

(I also noticed I had a slight twinge of envy, having never rode a horse myself.)

I couldn’t resist giving some of the horses a rub on the nose or a pet on the side. And to just stare at them for a while.

What the heck is it about horses?!

The attraction is different than that to dogs, cats, or other domesticated critters. It’s deeper down in the gut, more fundamental. More primitive. Or maybe more mystical, like there’s a part of my brain that’s still 5 years old and expects the horse to sprout a horn and/or wings and transform into My Little Pony. 

Or maybe there’s a cultural archetype burned into the female psyche of a princess and her loyal steed (I admit I’m rusty with my Jungian psychology…). That as soon as she mounts the horse she is no longer [insert name here] but is now Princess [insert a much more flowery name here]: Ruler of Lands and Fairest of them All. Forever and Ever.

Who knows. I’ll try to ride a horse one day and let you know if I channel my inner princess.

A horse named Honey. She was a bit grumpy but I liked her.

I’m glad I went for a run today

Bzzzzzzz… There goes the alarm on my Fitbit. 

It’s 6 a.m. Ouch. I promised myself yesterday that I would haul my butt out of bed early and go for a run. Before I could let my gloriously comfortable pillow convince me otherwise, I sat up, swung my legs over the side of the bed, and told myself this was a good thing.

There’s always a space of time when my feet first hit the pavement and I’m huffing and puffing before reaching a rhythm when I wonder why I do this to myself. But then I get into a groove and I reach the trails and I know it’s worth it.

Especially today. I rounded a corner and suddenly this came into view:

A gorgeous surprise on my run this morning. At what point did it hear me coming? It was pretty chill.

I’ve never seen a deer on those trails before. And I’ve never been so close to a deer before, either: it was about 10 feet away.

I thought it would bound away as I scrambled as calmly as I could for my camera, but it stayed and continued to munch.

And then it came closer.

Hello! Did you know you are totally making my day?

It was seriously about six feet away from me. It was surreal. I could see the velvety fuzz on its antlers. I could almost reach out and touch them. 

We gazed at each other for quite a while. What was going through that deer-brain? Why wasn’t I scared of me? Regardless, it was certainly a Moment.

I eventually turned and continued on my way. Later on my route when I circled back, it was gone.

So I’m glad I went for a run today. Had I decided to snooze for a few minutes longer, I might have missed the whole thing.

Will I get up early again tomorrow to see what I can see? Depends: I pulled a calf muscle on my way home (grrrr…). Plus, I have a feeling that deer doesn’t make many repeat appearances.

Four bits of magic

Cottages always hold such potential for little bits of magic. We went up to our cottage last weekend, kept our eyes open, and we were not disappointed.

1. If we leave peanuts out for the chipmunks, will they find them? The answer: yes! Well, at least something took them. We didn’t hang around to see who or what, since the mosquitoes were out in full force.

Lexi on her way to see if the peanuts had been taken.

2. Sitting in the sun, minding my own business, when this big blue friend stops for a visit. We hung out for quite a while. I wonder what it was about my knee that was so attractive? Regardless, it was a treat to marvel at this big beauty up close.

A big, friendly dragonfly. I don’t think I’ve ever had one land on me before.

3. What I think is a damselfly landed on my foot after I had gone for a swim. I transferred it to my hand and it stayed to visit for a while. It even let me put it on my son’s hand, too, before it decided to fly away.

I think this is some kind of damselfly… Whatever it is, it liked our hands!
Our (blurry) damselfly friend on my son’s finger.

4. “Mommy, can you find me some sea shells?” I searched and searched and found these snail shells in the water next to shore. I think my daughter kept them clutched in her fist for the rest of our trip.

Three “sea shells.” The long nails on my daughter’s hand are actually fake Canada Day-themed nails.

I wonder what bits of magic await us for the next time?

Cupcake, the Dock Spider

Hello. My name is Cupcake. 


You might not see me very well, but I’m hunched in the corner of this metal thing. A few seconds ago I was stretched out in all my hideous glory–a perfect photo opportunity–but the humans got too close. I high-tailed it to the closest, darkest corner I could find. Their yelps suggested they were shocked yet impressed by my speed.

The human boy gave me my name. Cupcake? I sense he was not intimidated by me.

I was successful in scaring away the smallest human. I could feel her trembles. I could also tell that the adult was putting on a brave front but was inwardly both disgusted and terrified.

Now they are gone. And so I wait. Wait in the shadows until the urge to swim hits the humans again. Then I will make another grand appearance, and imprint myself forever upon their summer memories.

An Arctic Bumblebee

It’s been a while since I posted about bees. My post about Costa Rican bumblebees gets quite a few reads, and apparently it’s pollinator week! So I thought I’d go to an extreme place to find bees this time and post about Bombus polaris, an Arctic bumblebee.

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Bombus polaris, courtesy of the New York Times.
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What?! There was a postage stamp with Bombus polaris on it, and I missed it?! Image courtesy of Canadian Postage Stamps: https://www.canadianpostagestamps.ca/stamps/17734/northern-bumblebee
 

I had a hard time finding anything on this cutie. I’m guessing it’s at least partly because research in the Arctic is expensive and it’s hard to get up there. Plus, I’m sure the Arctic is not the first place people think of when it comes to bumblebees and pollination!

However, I did find one study done in the ’70s on pollination of Arctic flowers at Ellesmere Island, Canada. Bombus polaris was one of the main pollinators of a number of plants such as the Arctic willow (Salix arctica) and the Arctic lousewort (Pedicularis arctica). But the main pollinators of Arctic flora? Flies!

Bombus polaris lives in a unique area of the world where the growing season is very short, there’s 24-hour sunlight, and temperatures might only rise to 10 degrees Celsius in the summer. To adjust to this cooler climate, Bombus polaris is fuzzier than temperate bumblebees and as a higher body temperature.

Recently there was a New York Times story on Arctic bumblebees. Perhaps with increasing interest in pollinators and effects of climate change, there will be more to report on this fuzzy critter in the near future!
References

Heinrich, B., & Vogt, F. D. (1993). Abdominal temperature regulation by Arctic bumblebees. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, 66(2), 257-269.

Kevan, P. G. (1972). Insect pollination of high arctic flowers. The Journal of Ecology, pp. 831-847.

Wikipedia. Bombus polaris. Retrieved 22 June 2017 from: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombus_polaris.

Wikipedia. Climate of the Arctic. Retrieved 22 June 2017 from: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_of_the_Arctic.