Apples

Photo credit – Debbie R

I am often struck by how powerful it is to put assumptions aside, pause, and take a closer look at things. You can apply that to everything from politics to apples. Since I will not discuss politics, I want to talk about apples. This interest in apples is thanks to a friend who wrote a wonderful middle grade book about apples that forced me to rethink this common fruit.

When we go to the grocery store we see the same 5-10 varieties of apples in the produce aisle. Yet there are more than 7,500 types of apples worldwide, 2,500 of which are grown in the US! Ever heard of a dazzle? How about an envy, kanzi, Lady Alice, pazazz, or a smitten? Me neither!

Only one type of apple is native to North America…the crabapple. Not only that, apple pie is not native to the US either. Its origins are in England at a time when sugar was too expensive to use in a pie, so figs or other sweet fruits were used instead. Despite that, apple pie is the most popular pie in the US. Personally, I’d take an apple crumble!

Apples originated in Kazakhstan and were domesticated between 4,000–10,000 years ago. They were later moved east by traders via the Silk Road and then colonists who moved to North America in the 17th century brought apples with them. Johnny Appleseed was, in fact, a real person not just a man of legend. He developed apple trees across the US over the course of fifty years, starting in the late 1700s.

And finally, my re-examination of the mighty apple has also revealed that the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is not without merit. Apples contain vitamin C and fiber (but you have to eat the peel!), and they help balance gut bacteria. Studies have also shown that apples lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. Now I need to figure out where to get the rarer varieties of apples and do a taste test!

Pollinator Week

This week is pollinator week – a time to celebrate the essential role they play in our world.

Bees and butterflies get most of the credit for pollination. But bats, birds, small mammals, and countless insects are pollinators too. Even pesky flies and wasps are pollinators. Plants need these pollinators to help them spread pollen to reproduce. By doing so, these small creatures sustain entire ecosystems. Those healthy ecosystems, in turn, maintain and support biodiversity and sequester carbon.

Not only that, but did you know that pollinators are responsible for 1 in 3 bites of food we eat? It’s true! Pollinators are responsible for pollinating more than 1,200 different crops. Translated to dollars and cents, the services of pollinators adds 217 billion dollars to the world’s economy annually.

But pollinators need our help. At home and in our yards, one of the easiest things to do is to eliminate the use of toxic pesticides. We can also provide habitat for pollinators by leaving parts of the yard wild and letting leaves and branches stay where they fall. Helping pollinators means less yard work!

People wanting to go one step further can plant pollinator gardens, making sure to provide a variety of native plants that bloom throughout the season and into the fall. I want to stress the word “native” in that last sentence. Insects and other pollinators prefer plants native to an area; they’ve co-evolved with these plants for millions of years. This creates stronger, more resilient ecosystems. So to support biodiversity, plant native!

What else can you do? Spread the word about the importance of pollinators and the simple steps everyone can take to help them!

Blow Lugworms

At low tide in Washington state one recent afternoon, I discovered the shoreline dotted with little mounds of coiled sand. They were everywhere – a beach dotted with mini sandcastles! I’d never seen such a thing and was instantly wondering who made them. I later discovered they were made by creatures called blow lugworms which can grow to be nearly 8 inches long.

Before getting into the natural history of a blow lugworm, let’s start with the fact that the tiny, coiled mounds that captured my attention are essentially worm poo. Ha! More scientifically, they are called casts. The worms ingest sandy sediment within their burrow. They feed on the microorganisms in the sand and the indigestible material is cast off above the surface into coiled mounds.

Blow lugworms play an important role in the coastal ecosystem. Like their terrestrial cousins, earthworms, their burrowing aerates the sand! They also recycle nutrients that other organisms thrive on and break down decaying matter. Of course they are also an important food source.

While their burrows may be 8-16 inches below the surface, the lugworms are vulnerable when expelling the indigestible material because their tails are close to the surface. Savvy crabs, birds, and animals nip at their tails. Lucky for the lugworm, the tails are fragile and will break off. Thus the predator gets a bite and the lugworm lives to create another cast. I never cease to be amazed at the intricate workings of Mother Nature!

Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

Photo Credit – BMC Ecology

They’re baa-aack! One of the wonders of spring is when the air fills with the trill of hummingbird wings. For the longest time I thought the local hummingbird visitors were the ruby-throated variety. I was wrong. There are 300 species of hummingbirds in the world, but only four in Colorado. None are Ruby. Instead, the birds that buzz through the yard are likely broad-tailed hummingbirds which also sport a magenta throat patch.

This particular species of hummingbird is a hardy one. It summers at elevations as high as 10,500’, where the nights get cool; many nights the temperature falls below freezing. To survive, the female builds a well-insulated nest. In addition, the birds enter a state of torpor when the outside temp hits 44° F, and maintain a body temperature of just 54° F. I am completely amazed by that because those little birds are only 3-4 inches in size and weigh less than 0.2 oz. That is not a typo. They only weigh about as much as a quarter. I must add that the males, who do nothing to build a nest or raise the young, often leave their territory when cold air descends to find warmer areas. When the going gets tough, they go!

Like other hummingbirds, they maneuver like a helicopter – the hover and can move forward and backward, up and down, and sideways. The broad-tailed hummingbirds beat their wings about 50 time per second when hovering. The trilling sound of the broad-tailed hummingbirds is only made by the males. It’s produced by their wingtips. Interestingly, these feathers wear down throughout the season so the sound is less audible. In the spring, though, new feather grow and the air fills with sound once again. I’ve heard them this spring, now I just want to see them.