Darwin-Walking in the Back Garden
Part II: Looking Closer and Closer...Posted on: June 11th, 2020
Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #10
PREFACE: Today, we continue our exploration of a backyard garden, discovering the species that call it home, sketching, taking photos, doing a little filming, and researching names and natural history. Our backyards are filled with wonder and natural phenomena. All we have to do is look closer…a little closer yet…there! Now you’re face-to-face with a bee, or a tiny beetle, or a spider, or a blade of grass. In the next essay, we’ll show you how to become a true backyard explorer. Enjoy the journey!
It is a dark and stormy night, for real. Dark banks of clouds begin to stream past the garden as we sit in the early evening having cake and tea outside under the canopy of old birch trees. Their branches stream down delicately over the table, slowly swirling in the breeze; delicate leaves, small catkins hidden between them, ready to open and release their pollen to the early summer air. The sun makes sporadic appearances, turning bits and pieces of the landscape golden, its waning light streaming through the cloud banks. A few drops begin to fall after dark as we get ready for bed. By midnight, the skies are loud with thunder and heavy raindrops bang against the windows. The long, bright lightning flashes are followed by lengthy, ponderous thunder, which rattle windows and give the impression of a giant growling beast outside. By morning, the scattering of leaves around the garden and the mossy-brick driveway are all that’s left of the nighttime rumble. That, and a general heaviness in the birch and other trees and plants, loaded with water droplets and moisture and pressed down by wind and the pounding of the rain.
The changes in the garden are evident even in the short span of a week. A new batch of roses are already blooming, taking the lead from the hedge of wild roses that covers the western edge of the property. A variety of the Japanese import Potato Rose (Rosa rugosa), they grow tall and thick, spiny and incredibly aromatic. Brought to Europe in 1756, it established itself, went wild, and later was cultivated for its aromatic flowers and beautiful hedge properties. With their single row of petals, these large but simple flowers attract numerous insects including bees, bumblebees, beetles, and several species of wasps and flies. Their wide “landing area” leads to a simple center of anthers and nectar, which is aromatic and sweet, the original scent of roses. The petals carry the smell as much as any other part of the flower. Our host, Klaus, mentions how expensive rose essence, the attar of roses, is and how difficult it is to extract it in quantities from these simple petals. Rubbing one between my fingers returns a soft, velvety or even slightly waxy surface, perhaps a bit slick for a landing insect, which would slide into the all-important center, thump against the pollen-laden anthers, and be greeted by a sweet reward. To reach the nectar, the insects must work their way through the stockade of stamens, ripe with pollen and ready to unload at the slightest disturbance. Honeybees crash busily through the center of the flowers in a dual mission: nectar and pollen. The cream-colored pollen is collected in a special segment of their rear legs, which end up looking like creamy overfilled pockets of a cargo pants’ leg.
The newer roses are also very aromatic and beautiful. More of the “classic” style, these thick and petal-heavy roses are aromatic, colorful, varied in size and shape, and busy with bees. These are the roses one finds in the stores, and here in the Echte Garden they are about to burst into color. Hundreds of flower buds poke above the prickly shrubs, pointing skyward. I will miss the spectacle of their bloom, for we’ll be leaving tomorrow for Denmark and Rømø, to sand dunes and salt marshes, pines, woodlands, islands, and tide country. But today I’m still here, watching the sun evaporate the rainwater and imagining, almost giddily, the push that the rain will be for the summer flower fest.
Numerous insects are starting to appear among the flowers, several species a single individual. Large jeweled scarab beetles slowly work their way through the tall white marguerites, or Wiesen-Wucherblume (a type of daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare), oblivious to me and my fussing a couple of inches from them with camera and flash. A particularly impressive one is the Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata), a medium-sized, ¾-inch metallic green beetle, with touches of iridescent copper, bronze and other colors. This is a result of the beetle’s entire external surface (head, thorax, elytra or hardened forewings) reflecting circular polarized light, left-handed polarized light at that (What are you talking about? I’m not making this up. Just Google it and good luck!). Across the elytra, cross-cutting white marks look like cracks or stretch marks on the otherwise smooth metallic surface. They are somewhat early and will be out in force when the bloom of roses gets started later in June and July. Other recognizable beetles include a click beetle (family Elateridae) and a few dozen dermestid beetles, with their tiny elytra dotted with yellow, black and white scales that give them a “hairy” or speckled appearance. They tend to be found largely on the daisies as well. A very interesting species in its behavior is the small Malachius bipustulatus, or Common malachite beetle or red-tipped flower beetle. At first look it is remarkable in itself, with metallic-green elytra ending in two round light orange spots, making it look from behind like it is giving the viewer the tiniest “moon.” As you look closer, it notices you, faces you, head held high, turning as you turn (I’m trying to get a side view here to no avail), ready for battle. Hmm. Brave little guys, eh? They have defenses and they know how to use them. They display bright orange pouches or processes from behind their heads and their sides that allegedly produce a noxious smell. “Take that, you giant…predator… or whatever you are!” Yes, I tried it. I grabbed one, held it gently by one leg, put my humongous (to the beetle) 10X loupe a quarter of an inch from its face, and watched its little pouches extrude fiercely, all while the little beetle tried to bite my finger. The smell? Eh, not so bad. Almost beyond my capacity to detect it. I would have eaten you, buddy. You’ll have to do a little better than that.
And so, the explorations continue. I could keep on talking about beetles for a few more paragraphs, but I’ll spare. Their sheer abundance and diversity in this micro-location of the planet I’m enjoying right now reminds me of the British scientist J.B.S. Haldane’s famous quote when answering the question: What can be inferred about the work of the Creator from a study of his works? To this, he allegedly replied “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” I find that I am also very fond of them too, in all their range, from almost microscopic to gigantic sizes; for their diversity, with more than 350,000 species described so far and many more to come; and because of their extraordinary adaptations to life in this little backyard garden.
Carlos de la Rosa