Monday, June 28, 2010

Shoo, fly — especially those painful yellow ones

Egrets eat flies which bother cattle...and people

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 27, 2010)

Yellow flies are nasty little buggers.

I was showing a customer around the bamboo nursery on a hot weekday morning when it became obvious that something was biting us. We politely tried to ignore the bites at first, but our sense of propriety was short-lived. With arms, legs and necks suddenly punctured by painful pecks, we stopped talking and started swatting.

The yellow fly, Diachlorus ferrugatus, belongs to the Tabanidae family of insects, which includes the equally annoying horse and deer flies. Although adult flies are present in Florida from March through November, tabanids are most active from April through June, especially in the early morning and late afternoon.

Renowned for their relentlessness, these yellow-winged fliers provide no audible warning. When they are ready to attack, they do so silently.

Females — the only ones who bite — wait for their warmblooded prey in the shade. When a mammal unwittingly ambles along, the female uses sight, smell and an awareness of carbon dioxide emissions to sense its presence. Once her target is located, she abandons her shady retreat in pursuit of her intended meal: fresh blood. Although adult flies of both sexes survive on a diet of nectar and pollen, females need blood for the development of eggs.

I have a generous nature when it comes to wildlife, but I draw the line at offering my own vital fluids for insect sustenance. Unfortunately, my preferences were not honored. By the time the yellow flies found us, it was already too late. Enough blood had been withdrawn to assure the continuation of the species.

Unlike mosquitoes, yellow flies don't inject an anesthetic when they bite. That explains why their bites are so painful. They puncture the skin by making a serrated cut before sucking blood through their tubelike mouthparts.

Until that day in the nursery, I rarely gave yellow flies a thought. That wasn't the case 30 years ago when we lived on Cape Cod. On the Cape, flies were a seasonal nuisance. Along the Massachusetts coast, we were bothered by another member of the Tabanidae family, Tabanus nigrovittatus, better known as the salt-marsh greenhead.

These equally aggressive pests appeared in late July, making it impossible to spend any time outside without suffering multiple bites. They pestered us mercilessly for two weeks until the first high tide of August, and then they disappeared. I miss many things about Cape Cod, but greenheads are not among them.

Since we've been in Florida, I can't recall a time when yellow flies were a nuisance. We have plenty of killdeer and cattle egrets on our property, and both birds consume tabanids, so perhaps the birds have helped control the fly population. At least they may have helped until now.

"Expect the unexpected" is one of my mottoes, and although most of my discoveries are joyful, every now and then I have a less-than-pleasant encounter. The yellow-fly incident was a reminder that life is not all sunshine and smiles and that some things in nature just plain hurt.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Rowboat ride leads to bouquet of discoveries

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 20, 2010)

I came in from rowing carrying a bouquet of flowers.

"I thought you were out in the boat," Ralph said, as he watched me arrange a vase of blooms.

I admitted that I was.

"Then how'd you pick flowers?" he asked.

I told him: "From the boat."

Rowing provides many pleasures, not the least of which is the ability to see things from water that I'm unable to see from land. Certain plants — those with a tolerance for fluctuating water levels and perpetually damp soil — are often unnoticed from the house or yard.

However, as I drift along the shoreline, those same plants pop out and catch my attention. When I'm on the lake in my old aluminum rowboat, I'm looking back at land instead of seeing things the other way around. I'm on the lookout for discoveries.

Buttonbush was one such discovery.

Cephalanthus occidentalis is a woody shrub that likes having wet feet. Growing 3 to 10 feet tall, it usually roots in damp shorelines, surviving even when rising water submerges the lower limbs and leaves.

I've often thought that buttonbush was misnamed. Its white flowers aren't flat like buttons. They're round, like pingpong balls, with what looks like dozens of short, yellow-tipped needles sticking out of them. It's a most unusual and striking flower. I paddled up close to the plant and snapped off a few bloom-laden branches.

A bit farther along, I saw an expansive spread of peelbark St. John's wort. Hypericum fasciculatum is a yellow-flowered perennial herb that grows about 3 feet tall. The cheerful blossoms of this evergreen shrub are small but plentiful. Unlike other varieties of St. John's wort that prefer dry, sandy soil, peelbark does best when its rhizomes can spread through ground that's perpetually damp.

In our lake, a large stand has rooted on what used to be an exposed island of peat. With the rainy season here, the peat island is submerged, but the peelbark remains. As I rowed around through the shallows, great masses of yellow blooms grew out of the water, and I picked off a few to add to my collection.

The final flower to catch my eye was marsh-pink, also known as Sabatia stellaris pursh. As its name implies, marsh pink is a pink-flowered plant with a preference for soggy settings. The five-petal bloom grows at the end of a tall, slender stem with small leaves. At first glance, marsh-pink resembles a rose-colored coreopsis. Both flowers have similar faces — bright, open blooms a little more than an inch wide. Individual plants tend to cluster, but without the density exhibited by peelbark. Marsh pink brightens the landscape by adding a splash of color to surrounding greenery. I picked several blooms, making sure to clip them with plenty of stem intact.

When I got home, I arranged the flowers in a vase and set it on a ledge next to the kitchen window. Now, when I stand at the sink doing dishes or preparing food, not only can I see the lake, I can look at the bouquet and think of my row.

Being on the water provides a different perspective, a different way of seeing the familiar and discovering the hidden. Picking flowers is a treat for the senses as well as a way to connect with nature. Put the two together and you have ingredients for Memory Stew, a mental meal that's healthy, hearty and good for the soul.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A stinging reminder that summer has arrived

 Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 14, 2010)

Every summer I manage to get myself stung by a wasp.  This summer is no exception. 

On a recent Sunday, I was sitting in the porch reading.  On the other side of the porch is a garden bed in which a rambling rosemary bush had sprawled over the walkway and grown about four feet tall.  For months – okay, maybe it’s been over a year - I have been meaning to trim back the fragrant herb but I kept putting it off.  I told myself I would prune it when I was ready to propagate the cuttings.  Rosemary sprigs propagate easily and the idea of wasting potential plants bothered me.  The problem was I had no idea where to put all those potential plants.  Without a plan, I opted for inaction allowing the plant to expand exponentially.

Although I was in the porch reading, I kept putting down my book to look at the lake.  However, every time my gaze swept outward the overgrown rosemary bush obstructed the view.  Impulsively, I decided to trim it back. 

Impulsivity was my undoing.  Had I stopped to think, I would have at least put on some gloves and spent a few minutes scanning the shrub carefully before making any cuts.  I knew wasps nested in the dense cover provided by the untrimmed branches.  Paper wasps have lived in that rosemary bush for years.  I’ve even been stung on previous occasions when trimming it back.

People often learn from their mistakes.  Not this time.  With a burst of energy, I grabbed the hedge trimmers, opened the screen door and enthusiastically began to hack back overly tall top and side stems. 

I was making impressive progress.  The wasps must have thought so too.  I snipped.  They swarmed.  I screamed and ran for cover.

One snap of the blades exposed the wasps’ previously hidden home.  Paper wasps build open-cell structures out of wood fiber mixed with saliva.  These normally non-aggressive insects often construct their honeycomb-like nests under roof eaves or in the center of protective bushes.  A queen wasp is the core of wasp community, which also includes fertile male drones that don’t have stingers and a contingency of infertile females called worker wasps.  The workers do have stingers.  It is their job to tend and defend the eggs whenever they perceive a threat.    

I was that threat.

Although many wasps fly out of the nest, only one wasp managed to make contact.  It stung my left pointer finger.  A wasp’s stinger connects to a venom sac inside its body.  Chemicals in the venom cause pain and irritation.  Unlike bees that die after stinging a victim, paper wasps can sting repeatedly.  I don’t know how many times my attacker pumped chemicals into my flesh but I know its venom was effective.  Despite liberal applications of witch hazel, vinegar and Benadryl, my finger swelled up immediately.  By the next day, my left forearm resembled an overinflated balloon.

The way I see it, one sting was a small price to pay for my lapse of judgment.  Paper wasps are not evil animals out to get people.  They are actually beneficial insects that consume many of the pests – caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae – that damage garden plants.  The secret to avoiding painful interactions with paper wasps is to be aware of them and to exercise reasonable caution when working around areas where they may be living.

Impulsive behavior can be charming or, as I so recently experienced, it can also be alarming.   Next time an urge to control untidy plants strikes, I’ll try to control myself first. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Cross-country by tandem bike: Dreaming, then doing

Jenny and Brett pose in front of the Rans Screamer recumbent tandem bicycle they are riding across country

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 7, 2010)

My daughter and son-in-law left today on a three-month cross-country trip. If you're wondering why it will take Jenny and Brett so long to cover the 3,000 miles from their central Massachusetts home to the California coast, it's because they're not traveling by car, train or plane. My daring daughter and her adventurous spouse are pedaling their way across the nation on a tandem recumbent bicycle.

If you've never seen or even heard of a tandem recumbent bike, you're not alone. Jenny and Brett's preferred mode of transportation is not your ordinary two-wheeler. Their 46-pound, 27-gear riding machine is a Rans Screamer, considered by bike enthusiasts to be one of the highest-performing, best-climbing and most stable recumbent tandems.

As a parent with a propensity to dwell on potential problems (my son Toby has nicknamed me Queen Hysteria), the Screamer's stability is a comforting feature. I also find it reassuring that Jenny and Brett have anticipated many of the questions and concerns that run — or should I say cycle — through my mind.

On their blog (, a post is devoted to answering questions such as: How will you carry all your stuff? Where will you spend the nights? Can you pedal at different speeds on your tandem? What about the Rocky Mountains? What will you eat? How will you get home?

Their answers are both amusing and informative. After reading another entry about their pedaling preparations, I found myself awed and inspired by Jenny and Brett's initiative, focus, determination and ability.

Although this trip will be their first long-distance excursion on the tandem, is not their first cycling adventure. On their honeymoon in May 2009, they explored Cape Cod on two wheels, and last summer they joined another couple for a five-day pedal up and down the Maine coastline.

Brett has more long-distance cycling experience. Several years ago he bicycled alone from Massachusetts to North Carolina to join our family at a juggling convention we all attended. Even Brett's work – at one of his three jobs – involves daily cycling excursions. He's a part-time employee of Pedal People, a worker-owned, human-powered delivery and hauling service for the Northampton, Mass., area.

It's an odd feeling to see your children grow up and undertake unexpected adventures. Our son Timmy was the first of our four children to surprise us. When he was 18, he spent four months hiking the entire 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail by himself. Now it's Jenny's turn to amaze and inspire.

As I sit here in my office just a few feet away from a well-stocked refrigerator, gas stove, electric teapot and fruit-filled pantry, it's hard to believe my daughter and her husband are carrying everything they need to complete such a long journey in four blue "panniers," each about the size of a large backpack.

I was happy to see that in addition to tools, spare parts, clothing, toiletries, food and utensils, the gear list included a cell phone, solar charger and netbook computer. Thanks to technology, friends and family will be able to track the cyclists' route and stay in touch while they're traversing the nation's scenic byways.

I'm excited for Jenny and Brett as they head out on what will undoubtedly be an amazing adventure. I'm proud of them for many things, but I am especially pleased with their ability to make play a priority and turn dreams into reality.

We all have the opportunity to follow dreams, but so few of us actually do. For several years, one of Jenny and Brett's goals has been to pedal across the country. As of today — Day 1 of their 80-plus-day journey — they are on their way to making that dream come true.