June Bugs

In St. Louis, the June Bug is an annual summer visitor. When they first arrive, they startle you tapping on the window. They whack and crack on the glass until you get up to see who’s at the door; then you remember the yearly summer flight of these brown beetles.

These bugs are harmless to humans but unpopular nonetheless. In large numbers, they can damage lawns or crops. They make people squirm when they bombard porchlights and screen doors. Their armored little bodies and thorny little legs give them an unsettling prehistoric look.

But have no doubt: they aren’t going anywhere. They were here long before we were. Every year, they will announce their arrival with a buzz straight into a brick wall. And they’ll depart in a lifeless parade, floating down the lazy river and into the filters of the community pool.

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.

Blackberry Winter

Have you heard of a blackberry winter? It’s the name for an out-of-place rush of cold that comes late in the spring to make sure you haven’t forgotten what it feels like. Blackberry winter is spring’s equivalent to autumn’s “Indian summer.” It’s named after the blackberry blossoms that will wither in this unexpected cold.

It has other names, too, depending on who you ask. Some call it “linsey-woolsey britches winter,” and they won’t pack away their long underwear ’til it shows its face and passes. It’s safe to say—to hope—that this wet and shivery past weekend was our blackberry winter, and the cold is behind us once and for all.

The animals seem to think so. As the weeks have grown warmer, the babies have started arriving. Young squirrels are huddled up in their nests, many still too feeble to climb. Opossums ride along safely in their mothers’ pouches. Baby robins are everywhere, learning to fly. Foxes are still tucked away in their dens, as baby rabbits are in theirs. In the coming weeks they’ll all emerge with confidence, ready to take on the world. Ready to live, to eat, and to avoid getting eaten.

For now, most still depend on their mothers. But blackberry winter is past. Close quarters aren’t so cozy when it’s hot outside. It’s time now for us to put away our sweaters and long underwear, time for the critters to step out into the world they’ll learn to live in. This is the moment their mothers have been waiting for all winter long. It’s the moment that millions of years of their species’ survival has come to: the beginning of new lives.

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.

Flowers on the Dogwoods

The slow slide into warmth this year was easy on the living things. In recent years, winter has turned to summer with a sudden bang, leaving spring almost totally out of the picture. But this year was different, and the flowers are showing it.

The dogwood trees are part of that exhibition this year, blooming in full swing right on time for Easter Sunday. The dogwood does best in the upper South because it needs humidity to thrive. Missouri is the perfect climate for the dogwood tree, so it seems only right that we’ve claimed it as our state tree. It’s in our area that they grow to their tallest potential.

When the tree thrives as it does here, it gives a lot back to its welcoming home. The most obvious benefit of the dogwood is its beauty, and it’s easy on the eyes all year round. Pink and white varieties dot the landscape in springtime. Once the flowers fade away, the dogwood bears a bright red fruit in summer. It’s technically edible, but its terrible taste makes it pretty much off-limits for humans. After the fruit comes the color—the dogwood’s got bright red leaves in fall. Even in winter, the wide, spreading crown of the tree reaches outward in a graceful pattern.

Dogwoods benefit their environment beyond the surface level, too. They’re good for attracting pollinators, especially bees. They also give a lot back to the soil they’re planted in: dogwood flower petals are packed with nutrients, and after they fall, they decompose more quickly than most other tree flowers. That means they make a quick job of enriching the soil they’re planted in. In fact, they’re such efficient soil-revivers that sometimes they’re specifically selected for rehabilitation projects. So enjoy their blooms for now. And when all the petals start to come down in the coming days, remember that the soil that they fall on is receiving a gift—one that will give back to the tree and anything lucky enough to grow near it.

Here Come the Storms

Driving rain and roaring thunder kept quiet all winter. Finally now, they push the silent snowfalls and feeble drizzles out of the picture. Springtime storms have arrived with a bang.

In St. Louis, we all have a story about a close encounter: a flood in the basement, a tornado in the neighborhood, hail the size of baseballs. We’ve seen it all, and we’re not afraid anymore. Who doesn’t like a good storm every once in awhile? To Midwestern folk, a big blasting thunderstorm is a little bit like a holiday that you can’t plan for.

The birds stop singing. The leaves start to fly as the wind whips up, and you know what kind of storm is coming. People get excited. It’s a special occasion—everybody’s day revolves around the same event.

And we’re stubborn. Even as the first drops fall and the thunder starts to rumble, you’ll see neighbors out and about walking their dogs, just strolling along without a hint of panic in their step. It’s only when the downpour starts that we finally step inside to stay dry. The whole family gathers around the big picture window or pulls up a chair on the front porch to watch the storm. You wouldn’t want to miss it.

Then the lightening bolts flash across the sky and the thunder grows from threatening grumbles to splitting cracks. This is when dad will say “Count the seconds between the lightening flash and the crack of thunder. For every five seconds, the storm is one mile away.” You count and count, and soon the sound and the light are simultaneous. If you close your eyes, the spray of the rain blowing up onto the porch makes you feel like a fisherman at sea.

Even when the sirens come on, most people brush them off. But if the storm gets serious enough, everyone will hide in the basement. Mom is excited to bring out her emergency crank-powered radio. The wind howls. Hail hammers the siding. And when it’s all over, everyone creeps out together, puts their hands on their hips, and surveys the damage.

Sometimes there are branches down over here and shingles gone over there; hail dents in the hoods of the cars who don’t have garages. Other times there’s hardly a sign at all of the storm that just raged. The golden sun lights up the wet streets, and the raindrops on the grass and windows sparkle. The birds start to sing again, and we know that the danger has passed.

Watching a thunderstorm brings a different kind of satisfaction. Tending a garden or walking in the park reminds us that, in spite of our urban environment, the natural world is always there to welcome us back. But a storm proclaims nature’s power. It brings us the story of a different kind of world, a world where nature calls the shots. And it reminds us that that world still exists.

Sweet February

February’s got a bad reputation. It’s wet and dull, and somehow every year it’s colder than we remember. But beyond the grey skies and the dirty roadside snow, new life is beginning in the branches above us and the burrows below. Lots of animals—woodchucks, minks, screech owls, opossums, rabbits, coyotes, American woodcocks, salamanders, flying squirrels, mourning doves—are mating this month as they prepare to bring forth new life in springtime. And there’s life at the heart of Missouri’s sugar maples in February too.

When you think of maple syrup farming, it’s probably Canada or New England that comes to mind. In fact, it’s possible to tap sugar maples in Missouri too, and February is the time to do it here. The thaw of February’s slightly warmer days paired with its freezing nights is the perfect recipe to make the sap flow more freely than it does any other time of year.

maple leaf filledYou can tap trees yourself, but make sure you read up before you dive in. You should know, for example, that you shouldn’t tap a tree that’s less than a foot in diameter. And don’t plant a new sugar maple, either—they’re somewhat of a problem in Missouri because they spread like wildfire and cast too much shade for a healthy amount of forest undergrowth to survive. But if you’re lucky enough to already have one on your property somewhere, February is tappin’ time. Right the middle of winter, tapping a sugar maple can bring you the same satisfaction as tending a summertime vegetable garden. It’s a lot of work, though—it takes around 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup!

But plenty of people who live in the city don’t have a sugar maple in the yard—if we even have a yard at all. For us, it will have to be enough to remember that new life is on the way, and that even now, at the core of the sugar maples, golden sap runs through the veins of a living Earth.