Harvest Moon

Last Friday was the harvest moon. Garden-growers have been harvesting all summer: lettuce when the nights were still cool, then kale, then tomatoes and peppers, then squash and figs and apples–it’s just now that the ripening seems to be most rapid.

Summer is a time of slow and steady growth, and right at its very end comes the bounty. Many folks think of harvest as a word synonymous with autumn, but really it’s a time that bridges summer and fall. Go to any orchard and they’ll tell you that a lot of people don’t show up for apple picking until October–they wait ’til the leaves have changed and the days have a chill because they think of apple picking as a fall time activity. By the time they get there, the season has passed, and the apples are all overripe and picked over.

Now’s the time for apple-picking, and it’s a long-running tradition here in Missouri. Eckert’s has been in the same family for 7 generations. Centennial Farms has been in operation since 1821–so long ago that President James Monroe signed the document that granted its founder his land–and it’s now been in the same family since 1854. Being born into a family like that must be something like being born a royal–like it or not, one of the siblings is going to have to grow up to take over the throne and run the apple kingdom.

Modern life has made harvesting into a leisurely day-trip activity, but we owe our fall fun to the farmers who’ve been working to keep it alive and well all summer. Our apples and pumpkins and peach preserves are the product of a spring’s worth of preparation and a summer’s worth of upkeep. In these last few days before autumn, we fill up our bags and collect summer’s leftovers.

The Arrival of the Orb-weavers

We’ve found ourselves again in a distinctly in-between season. For now, the 90 degree days and still-growing gardens are shouting over the whispers of autumn. We look to the trees for hints of fall, but one sign of the season is glittering, nearly invisible, in between the branches: the webs of the orb-weavers.

Orb-weavers are the designers behind the classic image of a spider web. They spin in a spiraling, circular shape. If you’ve been noticing more spider webs in the past few weeks, it’s because there are more out and about. This is their mating season, so they’re all out in the open trying to find each other.

There’s not just one orb-weaver. There are all kinds, and many of them are eye-catchers. Most female orb-weavers are characterized by a large and especially colorful abdomen. The black and yellow garden spider is one such spectacle. Their size makes them intimidating, but they are actually a huge benefit to yards and gardens because they feast on the pests that would otherwise torment our plants. 

The spiders that are laid this fall will overwinter in the egg sac, then hatch and mature this coming spring and summer. In late summer fall, they’ll come out from hiding again to create the next generation of orb-weavers, and to tell us, without a doubt, that autumn is well on its way.

Harvesting Honey

In the world of beekeeping, late July and early August is harvest season. Spring and summertime means hard work for honeybees, just as it does for farmers. Bees depend on pollen for a food source, and they won’t leave the hive once the temperature drops below 40 degrees. That means they have to produce like crazy all summer long to make sure the hive has enough food to survive the winter.

So the bees process some of their pollen to make the nectar they eat, and for some of it they create little wax caps so they can save it for later. Over time, this capped nectar loses some of its moisture. And that’s when it becomes sweet, thick, golden honey.

They depend on that honey as a source of food throughout the winter, so you would think it would harm them when we harvest it. But the bees produce a huge amount of extra. Even a modest hive will produce 30 pounds of honey or more. The bees don’t set a certain quantity and then stop when they reach it. They just push forward, full speed ahead, until the last flower has died and they can push no more. Beekeepers can calculate how much honey their hive will need to survive the winter and harvest the excess with that in mind. Even if the worst does happen, and they notice that the bees are running low on their stores, they can feed sugar water to the hive to help supplement the honey.

To harvest honey, the bees must first be encouraged to leave the super, which is the section of the hive where their extra food supply is stored. Different methods can be used to get the bees to migrate to different parts of the hive. Bees have a powerful sense of smell, so the easiest way to get them to leave is to fill the super with a scent they don’t like, like smoke or almond extract. Then the frames are inspected to pick the best candidates for harvest. For the bees’ sake, the friendliest way to get to the honey is just to remove the caps. If only the caps are removed, the bees won’t have to rebuild the whole honeycomb structure when they get their frames back. Lastly, the frames have to be spun at a high speed to get the honey to run out, and as soon as it’s run through a simple mesh filter, it’s ready to sell, just the way it is.

Beekeeping has been going on for a very long time. We have images of humans collecting honey from as long as 10,000 years ago. It’s not hard to believe, though. Can you imagine what a discovery it was to stumble upon rich, sweet, liquid gold? Anyone would put up with a few stings to get their hands on that.

Wildflowers Dominate

This kind of heat isn’t friendly to fragile beauty. Mild weather flowers and cool weather crops have burnt brown in the sun. A humid evening at a summer wedding has the groomsmen itching in their suits and the bridesmaids sweating off their makeup. It’s a hard thing to look shipshape in late July.

But not all living things are deterred by this weather. At this time of year, the wildflowers thrive. Primrose, cardinal flower, and columbine endure in rocky glades and creek beds. Vibrant butterfly weed and blazing star dominate the prairies. The coneflowers are particularly radiant, shooting up past the sky-high grass to get their daily dose of sun.

These flowers are a far cry from a delicate iris or a fragrant rose. They’re sometimes scraggly, often unkempt. But they require no attention and get on just fine without us. In midsummer, they overtake our wild landscapes. They know summer is no time for measured elegance. It is for growth, for life, for movement, for color. A time to leave the air conditioning behind and to jump in the pool, sweat in the sun, and, when the night comes down, to lay down expended in the dew-soaked grass.

Fleeting Flowers

The daylily buds have been swollen for weeks, and now they are finally blooming. It’s been an unusually mild and rainy June, but the arrival of the daylilies is sure sign that summer has indeed arrived.

It’s hard to find a flaw with these flowers. They do best in full sun, but they do fine in shade, too. Their cascading green foliage sticks around even when the flowers aren’t in bloom. They can tolerate both oversaturation and drought.

Easy as they are to grow, they’re not a common-looking flower. Daylilies can be huge, opulent, multi-colored, and fascinatingly ornate. There’s a kind for every inclination–they’re easy to hybridize, so there’s a wide variety to choose from. It’s so surprisingly simple, you might be tempted to try it yourself.

First, choose the two daylilies that you want to cross. Take the anther from one daylily and brush its pollen on the stigma of the second. It’s as simple as that. You’ll know you’ve succeeded if a seed pod appears on the pollinated plant. You can harvest those seeds once they’ve matured and plant them. Now comes the hard part: you wait. Even if the daylilies sprout that first year, they won’t necessarily bloom. So it will probably take 2 years or more for you to see the results of your experiment.

The one flaw of the plant is in its name. “Daylily” comes from its scientific name, Hemerocallis, which translates to “beauty for a day.” Each flower blooms for just one day before it starts to close, wither, and fall away. It will soon be replaced by a new bloom, so the plants manage to remain colorful through the whole blooming season. Still, these fleeting flowers advise us that even the strongest among us are only here on Earth for a short while. It’s a gentle reminder to enjoy each beautiful thing in its own brief moment.

The Lightning Bugs Arrive

The nights, too, are warm now, and that brings the promise of life at its swarming peak. The bugs now return in great numbers. Bugs are cold-blooded, so some remain inactive when it’s under 50 degrees. With the chill is gone from the air, all creatures are safe to come out.

Bugs tend to be unwelcome at human affairs, but there are a few for whom we make exceptions. The firefly is one of these special few. Who can resist the beauty of the lightning bugs floating on the mist of a sticky summer night?

Long before they emerge to light up your backyard, lightning bugs are doing good deeds. Firefly larvae–glowworms–are carnivorous, so they feed on the pests and grubs that would eat up our gardens. It’s been said that when they do emerge as adults, it’s safe to plant warm-weather crops. The fireflies know that the cold snaps are over.

Lightning bugs love the humid weather that St. Louis summers are so well-known for. The stickier the night, the more fireflies you’re likely to see. And after a wet spring like this one, they tend to come out on the early side. Some have already been out and about in the daylight, just crawling around and getting familiar with their new world. They ought to be arriving in numbers soon, here to set our backyards twinkling. Haven’t they been there for every summer you can remember? Something about it sets your heart beating. They are tiny miracles, little glowing bugs that embody, perhaps more than any other creature, that simple magic of summer.

The Bees Are Back

The sun returns with a buzz. The buzz of the weed-whacker. The buzz of your neighbor’s lawnmower waking you up on a late Saturday morning. And the buzz of the bees, zipping through gardens and bumping into bushes.

You might wish you could banish stinging bugs from your yard entirely. But bees aren’t aggressive. They’re just fuzzy little fellas minding their own business and working the day away. They might give you a sting if you don’t respect their space, but that’s not so different from a house cat.

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for awhile, you know that for quite some time there’s been an effort to educate the public on bee benefits after some alarming numbers came out about declining bee populations. Now the general consensus seems to be that the bees are on the upswing, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. Overall, it seems that the commercial honeybees that we use for agriculture are doing fine these days, and, in Missouri at least, our native bees are doing better too.

Still, it doesn’t hurt anything to give them a little extra help. Yards and gardens will benefit from having more bees around, too. You can help them out by laying off the pesticides. If your vegetables are being attacked by pests and you have to use some, it helps if you wait to spray until dusk when most bees are back home inside the hive for the evening.

If you have a yard or a balcony, you can also give native bees a boost by planting native wildflowers. A few of their favorites are butterfly milkweed, blue wild indigo, aromatic aster, and purple coneflower, among others. They tend to like bright colors—so much so that you might even find them landing on your shirtsleeve if you’re wearing something bright blue or yellow. Don’t swat them when they do! They’ll figure out where they are in no time and buzz off to the next flower, then the next, and back to the hive, where every worker bee supports the life of all the others, and where the colony together supports the life of countless plants.