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.

Dominoes

All the time, nature is working, and summer is the culmination of its work. Autumn is a time of preparation. Winter is for saving energy. Spring is for birth and for growth. Summer is what it’s all for–a time to live.

It’s September now, and Labor Day has passed, so the secret is out: summer is beginning to end. From here on out it’s the falling of the dominoes. At the end of summer, a whole year’s growth begins to fade away into next year’s generation. This time of year is the end of that great cycle. Now we are plunging toward fall, and winter in turn, and back toward spring and then summer again.

With this end comes a deep and unshakable sense of sadness. It becomes easy to slip into a nostalgic and wistful mood. It must be partly the fault of the ghost of our childhood brain. Fall means the return to school, and thus to responsibility. An undeniable slowing down follows the end of summer vacation, even for those who didn’t have one. There are fewer festivals, no more families visiting the botanical garden in the middle of a Tuesday morning, a dwindling number of nighttime activities as the twilight starts to move in earlier. All season long the city has been reeling from a feverish thirst for summer fun. And now, as the trees stop producing leaves and begin to drop them, we slow down and start getting reflective.

Something about this time of year is inherently bittersweet. Soon the air will be crisp and the nights will be cool and the days will be warm instead of hot. We know that summer is ending, but on its tail comes autumn, bearing its own gifts.

Call of the Cicada

The song of summer evenings is has risen to a blaring ruckus: It is the call of the cicadas.

Familiar as that noise is, there’s some serious confusion about the bugs that create it. Here in the Midwest, we refer to them colloquially and erroneously as locusts; really, locusts have nothing to do with cicadas and are much more like grasshoppers behaving with mob mentality.

And adding to the locust-cicada confusion is the common knowledge that cicadas are only supposed to emerge  every 17 years, lying in wait underground. But those periodical cicadas aren’t the only cicada there is—there are all kinds of cicadas out there, and most of them are annual visitors.

In Missouri, the Dog Day Cicada, Swamp Cicada, and Scissor-Grinder are a few that make their presence loud and clear from the moment the heat begins to creep into the day. Their noise grows louder all afternoon and crests, finally, in a wild and desperate whir just before nightfall.

Nothing evokes late summer like that loud and longing whine. The cicadas sing their loudest in this month of August, just before the intense certainty of summer heat, summer green, and summer humidity begins to fade. With September’s arrival they will gradually quiet, dropping out of the chorus one by one until the evenings are calm. In the same way that their raucous shriek grows as the light disappears from the sky, their ringing rises to its peak as summer starts to fade. When they leave, they carry the life out of the air with them, having sung the season to sleep with commanding fanfare.

Deafening August

Mid-August.  So it’s back-to-school and pools closing and cinnamon brooms appearing at the grocery stores. We adjust our consumables to match the false ending that the beginning of the school year creates. But summer is a long ways from over. The constant hum of bugs will tell you that much—crickets in the morning, cicadas in the evening, katydids in the night. And this week will see some of the season’s most hot and humid days yet.

August is the month that demands to be seen. It’s wet and hot and loud; like a big fat final har-umph before abundant summer starts to give in to tempered autumn. Here in St. Louis, August is so humid that tropical plants thrive on patios and at the Botanical Garden. Anyone who spends time outside knows that autumn is still a distant thought in the mind of the natural world. Nobody can smell it coming on the wind just yet—we must stand in the smell of our own sweat and bugspray until deafening August has had its say.

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.

Summer’s Smells

Each season has its own scent, but midsummer must be the time of year when the smells are the strongest in the city. On a Saturday morning, cut grass tickles your nose when the neighbor’s lawnmower hums you awake. On a weekday morning, when the trash pickup comes, the whole neighborhood stinks with the rotten smell of sun-cooked garbage. The warm smell of wet pavement hangs around for your day at the zoo, in the amusement park, on the blacktop at summer school. A fresh sweat follows you with every outdoor hour. The smell of charcoal brings the evening in as you drive home through the neighborhoods. Bug spray and citronella are threaded into a tiki-torch-lit twilight.

Spring’s perfume is delicate; autumn’s fresh; winter’s subtle. But summer demands attention. In the city, summer’s aroma is made by humans. Summer smells like us because it is the season we spend outside. What would summer be without cut grass, bug spray, sunscreen?

Have you ever wandered far off the path in Forest Park and smelled the hot grass sweetened by the sweltering sun? Or walked through the Botanical Garden on a day so hot that you could smell the lavender simmering in the heat? These are the smells of summer that exist with or without us, riding on the breeze even when there’s not a nose in sight to sniff the air.