Cherry blossom time

Our Weeping Cherry tree started to bloom on March 28, an old lady now yet still graceful. She has a voluminous floral dress spread wide from her ‘hips’ by branches like the hoops and side panniers of a woman in the court of George III. She cheekily displays through the cascade the one silvery leg she stands on. We hope she dances in the spring breeze for more years.

The same day, the National Park Service announced the famous lines of cherry trees lining the National Mall reached peak bloom. Fewer people stroll there in a pandemic year but can view them at #BloomCam. This year the blossom that celebrates beauty and grace is a brilliant contrast to the chaos and violence viewed from the Mall of the Capitol steps on January 6. But it also symbolizes the impermanence of life.

The trees were gifted to Washington DC in 1912 by the Japanese, who celebrate bloom time with spring festivals (hanami). This year the peak occurred in Kyoto on March 26, earlier than usual, as in the Mall. Bloom times have been recorded in Japan for 1,200 years. The date varied depending on when winter lost its grip, but on average stayed constant over centuries or rose slightly until the 19th century since when it has steadily advanced.

The ancient recorders of first blooms and shoots could not imagine why they should interest us today. But there are no more blazing signs of a  warming planet than trees exploding in color. On March 28, Red Maple buds burst at Mechanicsburg, PA and Pawpaw at Gibsonville, NC, although Redbud is still dormant at Spring Hill, TN (already rose pink here in Williamsburg, VA). If you doubt our climate is changing, ask the trees.

Confessions of a beekeeper

The blogger is back after pausing to finish a novel

Even if some days still feel wintry, birds and bees think otherwise. Carolina wrens and bluebirds have started nests in our boxes. My hive boiled with insects, rising like steam out of the opened hive when I inspected it, every frame covered with industrious bodies filling the comb with pollen and nectar. To avoid them swarming to find more accommodation I need to ‘split’ the hive soon.


After losing some every year (40% on average for Virginia apiaries), I decided to abandon beekeeping if I failed again, but bees won’t let me go this time! Among the threats, careless gardening is high on the list of suspects. Since bugs and weeds flourish in hot and humid Tidewater summers, a huge market exists for pesticides and weed killers.

Some years ago, I wrote to the manager of our local Lowes store asking to draw customer attention to products that can harm pollinators. I didn’t get a reply, but perhaps someone in a distant office had the same thought. Plants for sale now have warning labels in case they have been exposed to pesticide residues in nurseries.

Neonicotinoids (neonics) are synthetic analogues of nicotine and among the most deadly insecticides (think how smoking deters bugs). They affect nerve transmission via the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR), a molecule I am familiar with from research on electric rays at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples. Their electric organ has such an extraordinary density of these receptors it helped biochemists to characterize a protein of great medical significance. Rays need them to stun their prey with an electric shock but made me wary of dipping a hand in their tank.

Skipping the digression, our nACh receptors are different to insects, making us less vulnerable to neonics. If only honeybees were more like us! Mounting evidence shows they have multiple impacts on development, sleep (yes, they do), navigation (finding home) and diet (preferred flowers). Absorbed into the vascular system, they are distributed systemically, including the nectar carried in the crop of bees.

Neonics are used worldwide, except in the EU where they are banned. A backyard hive is not safe from the range of products sprayed on gardens even when a beekeeper carefully avoids them because his/ her bees forage for miles from home. The practices of neighbors, lawn care companies and farmers can destroy bee colonies, often unknowingly. Gardens are supposed to offer a connection with nature but are killing fields to beneficial insects. Home owners bothered by a biting species reflexively call Mosquito Joe to mist their yard and the street, making victims of honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators. To love these insects you must live hopefully and prepare for grief.   

Categorized as Nature
%d bloggers like this: