Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dog Days Of Summer

Thank goodness the ‘dog days of summer’ are almost over. However if you find yourself feeling a bit 'off' it is nice to know the reason. Notoriously sultry and unbearable, the name of these days occurring in the Northern hemisphere originates from the star Canis Major or Sirus, the big dog. During late July through August, Sirus is in conjunction with the sun, meaning they both rise at the same time in the sky. This led to the ancient belief that the miserable heat this time of year was caused by the star’s effect upon the sun, making it hotter thus the 20 days before and after the conjunction are called ‘dog days’. Regardless of the fact that the heat arrives now from the tilt of the earth rather than the presence of Sirus, some 50 million miles from earth, the long held belief that the lovely star is responsible is still maintained.

It is easily imagined that the stars were a major influence on mankind before the night sky was obscured by artificial lighting and smog. Images from the pattern of the stars were drawn by ‘connecting the dots’ and each culture saw a different pattern emerge from such connections. From the Asians, Native Americans, Europeans, Persians, and so forth, each society created mystical explanations for the changing patterns in the heavens and the ensuing weather conditions. The star-pictures mapped in the night sky by our European ancestors are now known as Constellations.

Ancient people believed dog days to be an evil time so accordingly, a brown dog was sacrificed to appease the rage of Sirus. According to the famous Greek Phiny (AD 23-79) there was risk of attack by rabid dogs at this time so he suggested feeding them large quantities of chicken droppings as a preventative measure. By 1729 in the British publication The Husbandman’s Practice, survival was intent upon mans ability to ‘abstain this time from a woman’ and further to ‘take heed of feeding violently’. This handy guide warns, ‘The heat of the Sun is so violent that men’s bodies sweat at midnight as at midday’ and any illness may be worsened ‘yea, very near death’. By 1813 in Brady’s Calvis Calendaruim, it was said to be a time ‘when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers or hysterics. My grandmother warned that a cut will not properly heal in these days and to beware of a ‘summer complaint’ of stomach aliments as well.

Today Sirus appears several weeks later than in ancient times as the stars and constellations have shifted in relation to the Sun. Regardless of the cause of the heat, most certainly one must admit a feeling akin to ‘hysteria’ while still dragging hoses and waiting for Issac's shower.   

Monday, August 27, 2012

Zany Zinnias

The rains arrived again on Saturday with substantial enough amounts to add a tinge of green to the grasses along the hiway. The rains seem to appear as the season changes and towns are having their annual harvest fairs. Saturday Hinton received a deluge as the grateful crowd dispersed, happily drenched to the bone.

With the fair comes the flower show where entrants choose the most perfect specimen in the garden to enter in hopes of winning a blue ribbon. The categories include the darling Zinnia, whose dutiful countenance is bound to cheer the garden even during a drought. The bright and shining little zinnia originated in Mexico where it was considered a weed.

There is record of the first seeds arriving in Europe around 1627 however the Zinnia remained in quiet obscurity until 1750 when the seeds called mal de ojos were sent by the European Ambassador to Johann Gottfried Zinn. Although Zinn died at only 32, his contributions to science were vast including the first detailed study of the human eye.

Respect for him was so universal that a colleague, famed botanist Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern botany and ecology, designated a genus of flower as Zinnia in his honor.

Typical of most flowers originating in Mexico, Zinnias come in an array of colors which resemble a traditional serape and cover the entire color spectrum. The colors are bold and range from intense yellow, bright orange, rocket red, rose and fuchsia, with an occasional pink. There is nothing pastel about a Zinnia! There are both miniature and giant varieties, domed and flat petaled… all are drought tolerant and like it hot. Their somewhat funky coarse foliage is not attractive to many insects so they are a sturdy and steadfast addition to the garden

The Zinnia will bloom from mid summer until the first frost and attract a multitude of butterflies and bees. Pick a bouquet in the morning and the flowers will remain fresh for a week or more. Unfussy and among the easiest of flowers to grow, the Zinnia has remained a popular addition to the garden for over a hundred years. Children love to plant and pick them!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mosquitoes and Purple Martins

The rain Saturday was such a blessing; it was perfect… not too much and not too little. It was exciting to see it at a distance slowly rolling toward us. First the wind arrived, lowering the temperatures ten degrees in half an hour. The sky darkened and it began to pour; it was lovely! Several weeks ago a meteorologist reported two tenths of an inch arriving with several intermittent rains is better for breaking a drought than a three inch gully washer so we were in luck.

Our devastating drought did provide an unexpected boon… we have not had many mosquitoes. Mosquitoes eggs are laid in water and the larva and pupa require it to reach adulthood. The pupa are those squiggly little black ‘bugs’ jerking about in water and the adult emerges as a mature pupa floats to the surface. Their lifespan is anywhere from several weeks to several months. All mosquitoes are bloodsucking and as such, their bite will carry with it whatever the prior host had coursing through their blood.

Apparently the rains that missed us and poured in central Texas during the summer created perfect conditions for mosquitoes. Dallas and the surrounding areas are experiencing an alarming outbreak of West Nile Virus which is caused by a mosquito biting an infected bird, and then a human. Dallas is currently aerial spraying each morning and evening to kill the mosquitoes and stem the outbreak. Since we finally had rain, it will be necessary to scout the garden and dump any standing water… a creative mosquito will lay eggs in water left in a saucer under a plant!

Fogging for mosquitoes in the 1940-70's

The natural way to curb the mosquito populations is the lovely Purple Martin. This little bird gets all of its food and water while in flight and skims the surface of ponds scooping up water in its lower bill. Each Purple Martin can eat over 10,000 mosquitoes a day.
For over 100 years it has nested almost exclusively in backyard birdhouses, making it very people friendly. Native Americans knew the benefits of the Purple Martin and hung empty gourds for them long before the arrival of the first Europeans.

They migrate to Brazil for the winter and return each spring with older Martins returning to places they have inhabited before. Several weeks later younger birds arrive and several couples are happy to take up residence in bird houses resembling apartment complexes. For a conservative method of mosquito control, they are simply the best alternative available.

Purple Martin Apartment~

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Field Crickets

*Photo: An Asian Market selling Cricket Cages~

The lovely song of the field cricket is heralded this month and its melodic symphony can be heard each evening. Fall is the time for cricket mating and the male, who is the only voice of the cricket, is singing to potential sweethearts. Although the female can not sing, she can hear the song through her ears which are located on her front legs just below her knees.

A shy and reclusive little insect, the cricket rarely makes a public evening appearance until the urgency of mating begins. Following fertilization cricket eggs are deposited in the soil in the autumn soon after the rains begin. They will rest there until time to hatch in the spring; once they are born baby crickets hide during the day. They emerge to eat in the evenings and enjoy grasses, pieces of grain, wool and their favorite snack... book bindings. Apparently the darling cricket will sing, mate, then come inside to eat a good pair of wool pants and a book or two before its life cycle ends.

In China singing crickets are kept as pets in special cages and it is believed they bring a household good fortune... prized specimens fetch amazing prices. In fact the cricket culture in China dates back to the Tang Dynasty from 500 BC to 618 AD. It was during this time the crickets first became respected for their powerful ability to “sing” and a cult formed to capture and cage them. Naturally the obsession escalated and in the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1278 AD the sport “cricket fighting” became popular.

The sport became so popular that China actually produced a Cricket Minister, Jia Shi-Dao who reigned from 1213 to 1275 before being deposed for irresponsibility. Then from 1427 to 1464, a Cricket Emperor, Ming Xuan-Zhong ruled in favor of cricket fighting, making his palace a major tribute to this important insect. Racketeering, gambling, and even suicides were reported over Chinese cricket mania.

Luckily, the Asian fabric of choice is silk...not wool!

Spiders on the Move!

A Black Widow the size of a thimble

A Huge Fiddleback spotted on a Lampshade Yesterday!

Most spiders live one season, however some species live long lives and spend the winter in a semi-hibernation. The Fiddlebacks have hidden in the rafters, behind the books, under the bed, and in other out of the way places and are now beginning to emerge as spring is approaching. Over the Winter they have grown and shed last years 'shell' leaving behind the empty casing... the empty casing is a sign that a more mature one is lurking somewhere nearby. The gentle Tarantula has an extremely long life expectancy and will easily live up to 20 years in captivity. The record has been set by a female who resides in LA and although her age was unknown at the time of her capture, she is now fifty years old.

Spiders are a most interesting invertebrate in both appearance and habit. All are predators which make them valuable to the gardener as they will eat flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, locusts, cockroaches, and aphids. The habits differ among species with some making intricate webs to trap their prey while some lie in wait on flowers and some simply travel about on the ground.

Orb Weaver web from last Summer

Spiders are found in every corner of the planet, making them one of the most common invertebrates and they alone have eight legs. True spiders (thin-waisted arachnids) evolved about 400 million years ago, and were among the first species to live on land. There are many references to the spider in popular culture, folklore and symbolism. The spider symbolizes patience for its hunting with web traps, and mischief and malice for its poison and the slow death they cause their prey. (Who could forget the pitiful death sequence in the movie ‘The Fly’?)

Though not all spiders spin gossamer webs, spiders have been attributed by numerous cultures with the origin of basket-weaving, knot work, weaving, spinning, and net making. Lovely pottery artifacts featuring spiders may be found in all ancient cultures, so respect for them is universal.

Any talk of spiders includes the two most dangerous in North America and they must be addressed. All spiders have venom however the Black Widow and Brown Recluse(Fiddleback)are very dangerous species whose bite may have disastrous affects on humans. The Brown Recluse likes living in quiet corners of the house while the Black Widow resides outdoors. A member of the Tangleweb family, the Black Widow makes an untidy web as the name implies and will aggressively guard her egg sac. Both have thin legs and a fragile skeletal structure, making them easy to squish... do not hesitate to kill them.

A favorite spider which comes to mind is the darling fuzzy black jumper.
One summer we had a black fuzzy with emerald green fangs who took up residence in the kitchen. Every morning as the household awoke and greeted her, she would would lift her 'arm' and wave... a marvelous trick by any standard.

John-Michael and a friend!

There is an entire psychological phobia named after fear of spiders called Arachnophobia. So popular is this fear that comic book creator Stan Lee embraced it, introducing an irresistible spider hero in 1962. Spiderman instantly became an all time favorite!


Monday, August 6, 2012

Mississippi Kite Hawks

Early Sunday it felt as though we have finally rounded the corner on the Summer; for several hours it was a delightful temperature with a gentle breeze. As with every season, change arrives on schedule and thus it is with the ending of the summer of 2012. And quite a Summer it has been as Oklahomans endured record breaking heat and wildfires. Some years it is distressing to see the Sun marking the inevitable arrival of Fall… other years, such as this one, it is a relief. The plight of our birds was an odd occurrence this year. The high temperatures seemed the opposite equivalent of a winter blizzard and they were desperately in need of our help. Often it is unnecessary to feed in the summer months, however this year the poor birds have been extremely stressed. The hummingbirds truly needed their feeder since the flowers were lackluster, sparse, and dry. All of the birds have needed water we provide since so many natural sources are dry. Our native birds have need an easy source of food since the heat has taken a toll on their energy levels, making foraging difficult. The media reported last weekend the Mississippi Kite Hawks have suffered a terrible trauma. Soaring high, smoothly floating on air currents, they are also called the Mosquito Hawk since they are able catch and eat insects while airborne. Pairs come here to nest each year and their young hatch much later than other hawks. The nest is built high in the tree tops for safety and the brood usually consists of two, who are raised by both parents. Kites are extremely protective of their young and have a reputation for fearlessly ‘dive bombing’ people who venture too close to their nests. As the temperatures climbed this summer, the heat in the nests became excessively high, sometimes reaching 130 degrees. Consequently many Kites that were too young to be on their own abandoned the nest. Every rehabilitation sanctuary in Oklahoma is full of baby Kites that are being cared for until time for their release. The Mississippi Kite Hawk is truly beneficial for insect control and the loss of a generation may be an ecological disaster. *We found this youngster in the driveway Friday. He was too hot and weak to protest so we cooled him off and fed him minnows until he regained some strength, then let his grateful parents take over. Pray for Rain!