Monday, February 28, 2011

Tiny ants...big OUCH!

Immediately after a red imported fire ant nest is disturbed, the ants launch a merciless attack.

Given the choice of wearing shoes or not wearing shoes, I always opt for going barefoot.

But being barefoot is dicey in a state where the potential for ant bites is great. Floridians whose unshod feet touch the ground are apt to come home with painful stings inflicted by a tiny insect with a long name: Solenopsis invicta Buren.

Nicknamed RIFA, for red imported fire ant, it's one of two species of fire ants that live in the Sunshine State. The RIFA is widespread, but Florida is also home to a less common species known as the native or tropical fire ant. Neither of the species takes kindly to being stepped on, and they respond to such unwarranted behavior by attacking mercilessly.

If you spend any time outside, you know what I mean. According to a University of Arkansas report, these powerful dirt movers infest more than 275 million acres of land in the United States and Puerto Rico and inject their venom into millions of people annually.

Although we call them ant bites, what we really experience are painful stings.

Fire ants grab the attacker's skin with their strong mandibles to inject a venom that causes an immediate, localized pain. Within minutes, a red, raised spot usually develops, followed a day later by a white, pimple-like pustule that itches like crazy.

Because each ant can sting repeatedly — and because several ants often attack simultaneously — multiple stings are the norm. It's not uncommon to run away from a fire-ant encounter with dozens of stings.

Ubiquitous as fire ants are in our lawns, fields, driveways and sidewalks, they were not always a part of the Florida landscape. In the early 1900s, these South American natives made their way into the southern United States by way of cargo ship. Early seafaring vessels used soil as ballast, and it's likely the dirt-dwelling ants came aboard inadvertently and were then unloaded in America.

Once here, the ants prospered. Colonies multiplied and spread rapidly. Red, imported fire ants now populate every county in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. They exist in parts of Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Puerto Rico. They have even made their way to California, Missouri and across the Pacific to Hawaii.

The insidious fire ants can't tolerate cold. If temperatures drop to freezing for more than a couple of weeks, the ant colonies die. Fire ants dig into their complex underground burrows for protection. Although they don't hibernate, they are increasingly less active when it's cold outside.

Although it isn't exactly barefoot weather, winter is the safest time to venture outdoors shoeless in Florida. I mention that because as of this past week — if judged by fire-ant activity — winter is officially over. My feet are proof. At the start of the week, I was going barefoot, but by the end of the week, I wasn't. My toes were so dotted with ant bites that I refused to leave the house without some sort of foot covering.

From an entomological point of view, fire ants are fascinating critters. They have complex social systems, unbelievable strength and an impressive ability to adapt to a broad range of environments. But that doesn't mean I have to like them.

The bottom line is that these small insects with the big sting are painfully annoying, practically impossible to avoid and incredibly difficult to eradicate. The best we can do is tread carefully and keep a spray bottle filled with vinegar handy. If applied immediately, white vinegar helps quell the discomfort of a fire-ant attack.

Being barefoot may be my preferred state, but practicality trumps preference when it comes to fire ants. I may hate shoes, but I love the way they protect me from ant bites.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Savoring the moment

Undulating hills in shades of green highlight a stretch of Florida's Turnpike a few miles south of Exit 285

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 20, 2011)

A stretch of Florida's Turnpike is especially striking this time of year. When I drive through it, I am awestruck. For just a moment, I gasp. It's that lovely.

The section I'm referring to is only a few miles from my home. I see it shortly after I get on the turnpike at Exit 285. About five miles south — still in Lake County — the road snakes its way over and around a series of hills.

In flat Florida, it's unusual to chance upon a vista with such contour-rich terrain, but this area is the exception. Gentle curves and slopes dominate, and the road follows their lead. The engineers who designed the road could have taken a different approach. In 1964, when that segment of the turnpike was built, they could have sliced through the hills with straight-line efficiency. Fortunately, they chose not to.

Although topography makes this spot special, it's only one reason why I find it so attractive. Trees are the other. This is especially true during springtime, when new leaves have formed and the land is greening up after months of brown.

Two types of trees cover the hills — pine and deciduous. The pines are about 20 years old, tall, straight and orderly. Like many local pinewoods, this is an intentional forest. The trees grow in rows with even spacing. Citrus growers probably planted them. After several severe freezes in the late 1980s, many grove owners turned to pines to maintain the land's agricultural status.

If scrub pines were the only trees covering this stretch, the landscape would be pretty but not exceptional. What makes it extraordinarily beautiful are the deciduous trees that have sprung up between the pines. They're mainly chokecherries, planted not by man but by birds and squirrels. Over the years, the chokecherry trees have flourished, growing as tall and broad — if not more so — than the planted-by-man conifers.

When I drive this part of the turnpike, I feel like I'm back in Pennsylvania or traveling through North Carolina. It's that different from the Florida I'm used to seeing from behind the wheel. It's as if I've entered a landscape painting. Shades of green are dazzling. Light greens and dark greens blanket the hills. No houses are in sight. A jewel-like lake shimmers in a hollow. A curving road weaves through the hillocks. It's a portrait of serenity, peacefulness and springtime.

And then it's over.

About a mile after it begins, the landscape returns to Florida highway normal. Hills give way to flat terrain. Straight passageways predominate. The tree line diminishes until only a few scattered evergreens border the road. Homes begin to appear. Many homes. So many houses bank the turnpike that the developments require concrete walls to buffer road noises. Welcome to the Sunshine State Parkway.

No matter where you live, there are bound to be things you love about your chosen home and things you dislike. I'm not wild about massive developments, and I hate seeing trees cut down and hillsides carved up to make way for ticky-tacky, zero-lot-line homes. I especially dislike seeing such things happen to landscapes as beautiful as this one.

For now, this acreage remains undeveloped, but if the past is any indication, it won't stay that way long. At some point, trees will give way to home sites. Hills will be paved over, and lights will brighten land that's illuminated now by the sun, moon and stars.

That's why, whenever I drive this stretch of the turnpike, I take in the view. I savor the moment and appreciate the scenery because beauty is that most fleeting of intangibles. It's as transitory as cars passing on the highway.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My fuzzy Valentine

A soft beard, a sweet baby - put them together...what's not to love?

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 13, 2011)

Today is Valentine's Day. On this day of love, my heart belongs to a man whose face I've never seen.

Not all of it, anyway.

My husband, Ralph, is my amour. He also happens to be a person with a beard. It's a full beard, wild and untamed. It covers most of his cheeks, all of his chin and that narrow space above his lips. Ralph had a beard when we met in 1970. I've seen his entire face only in photographs of him as a teenager.

It's a good thing I like beards. I like the way they look and the way they feel. Many people find facial hair unappealing, but I'm not among them. I'm attracted to bearded men the way some men are attracted to women with long (or short) hair. It's a hard-wired part of my persona.

Like many men of his generation, Ralph's hair fell below his shoulders when he was in college and he had a full, untrimmed beard. Although he looked the part of a hippie, he wore a beard then for the same reason he wears one now — he doesn't like to shave. I can't fault him for that. I don't like shaving either.

Over time, Ralph's thick, brown locks have become grayer and a bit thinner on top. His beard, however, is just as big and wild as ever. Occasionally, I take out shears and hack it back a bit, but that's akin to trimming a hedge. Within a few weeks, a fuzzy fringe has returned, as thick and full as ever.

Choosing to go through life with an unruly swirl of facial hair has had its downside. Some people just don't get it. My parents felt that way. They could never understand why their son-in-law didn't shave. If he must have a beard, they reasoned, why not have one that's neatly trimmed?

But my husband has never been the manicured type. He's a casual person who's more concerned with how things work than how they look. He thinks independently and questions social norms. When he believes in something, he sticks with it. I've always admired him for that.

There have been times when I've wondered how Ralph would look without a beard, but I've never taken the next step and asked him to shave. If I insisted, he'd probably cut off his beard to please me. When you love someone, you want that person to be happy. But that's also why I haven't (and probably never will) ask him to shave. I wouldn't want to make my husband do something he doesn't want to do just to satisfy my fickle curiosity.

There is no secret formula for attractiveness. No one look is right or wrong. Fur may cover my husband's face, but no amount of facial hair can hide a person's compassion, kindness, gentle nature and intelligence. For 40-plus years, my husband's words and actions have demonstrated his feelings for me and for our children. We are secure in his love and support.

Actions, not appearances, define a person's heart.

My heart belongs to a person whose entire face I've never seen, and I like it that way. In any marriage, a bit of mystery never hurts.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Signs of spring

Mulberry trees are among the many plants that are responding to warm temperatures by sending out new leaves.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 6, 2011)

It is only February, but the plants think it's spring.

The tips of the fig and mulberry trees have swollen with potential, as new leaves get ready to unfurl. Meanwhile, other deciduous trees have already completed the process. The tender, young leaves of maples and tupelos appeared weeks ago. They now cover the winter-bare branches with a blush of color.

Beneath the trees are weeds, those tenacious volunteers that thrive on neglect. Weeds have spread across brown lawns and bare patches of ground.

Plants are either extremely optimistic or very foolish. Don't they know it could still get cold?

Last year around this time, we had 10 days of chilling weather. Temperatures in the low 20s and high teens turned green leaves black and dashed the hopes of new buds that dared to emerge. That experience made me cautious. The plant world might be saying that spring has arrived, but I'm hesitant to believe.

Despite my hesitation, I was outside the other day pulling weeds, transplanting broccoli seedlings and planting pansies. It's hard to resist gardening with such beautiful weather, especially after an unusually cold winter.

Temperatures in the mid-60s to low 70s are enticing. Leaving my jacket on a hook in the hallway, I go for leisurely strolls, work in the garden or settle into a chair to absorb the day. Blue skies and bright greens herald the promise of spring. Even if the promise is broken, the pleasure of these lovely moments remains.

Back in December, our loquat trees were in full bloom. Clusters of lightly scented white flowers covered the branches. When winter arrived prematurely, the flowers withered. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen next. Would the trees recover? Would fruit ever set?

It is now February, the month when loquat fruit usually ripen. Clusters of flowers once again cover the branches. On some limbs, the flowers have already started to develop into small orbs of goodness. The crop will probably be later than normal, but there will be fruit. Unseasonable weather hasn't stopped the trees from doing what loquats do — flower, fruit and produce new seeds — just delayed it a bit.

I'm encouraged by how the loquat trees overcame the winter hardship. If another cold snap strikes this month, the same thing probably will happen again. The trees will respond with more flowers and an even later, smaller crop.

Plants handle adversity with amazing resilience. From my office window, I see the dead leaves of three kinds of gingers. At first glance, they look awful — all lifeless and limp — but upon closer inspection, I see new shoots emerge. The overall appearance is barren, but hope is afoot. Beneath the dead tops, new life has begun.

Maybe plants are neither optimistic nor foolish. They are growing organisms responding to internal triggers without the shackles of human thought. They go about their business without hesitation, without worry, without frustration. They simply live.

Weather is unpredictable, but plants are the essence of predictability and patience. No matter how extreme temperatures get, the plant kingdom responds with faith in the future. Spring will come. Plants will grow. They know it, and despite my hesitancy, I know it too.