May is the month when Mother Nature goes on a roll. The azaleas and dogwood are gorgeous this year, the trees are leafing myriad shades of green. Forest Hills has never looked better.
The oak trees are doing their thing again. Swaying in the breeze, golden tassels have dusted our windshields and allergized our noses. The tassels are starting to drop off now, making a mess in the gutters. Their job is done – the tiny blossoms on the oaks have been pollinated and the acorns just starting to develop. We can’t tell yet whether will have another bumper year like 2012.
The early butterflies are out. Most butterflies lay eggs in the fall, to overwinter until the spring, but a few “hibernate” in leaf litter and come out early. I had an orange Question Mark and a brown Mourning Cloak the middle of March. Nowadays I am seeing the Cabbage White, a butterfly that came from Europe and has become one of our most common.
With those butterflies who rely on eggs to overwinter, the eggs don’t hatch in the spring until the plants their caterpillars eat are growing and making a lot of caterpillar fodder.
Every butterfly species has a few host plants, and their caterpillars usually won’t eat anything else. The Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly, a tiny half-inch pale blue “sprite,” prefers to lay its eggs on clover. I have seen one already, and since I have lots of clover in my lawn, they will be around all summer.
Temperature is what brings the bees out of hibernation. Honey bees come early to my yard. They were collecting pollen from crocus blooms in late February, although it’s risky to come out of hibernation that early – the days may be warm but they could freeze in the frosty nights.
Bumblebees wait a bit – until it is at least 50 degrees. In early April, I saw my first bumblebee, cruising low over the garden, looking for a nest spot. I knew it was a queen – that’s all there is in early spring. She is a new queen who mated last fall, then overwintered alone in leaf litter. Her first job in spring is to
find a hole or crevice for a nest and start a colony.
By the end of April she has probably found a suitable dry hole and has laid a number of eggs. She will fertilize most of these first eggs, because they are going to become female worker bees. Unfertilized eggs become males. By May the eggs have hatched and she is gathering nectar and pollen to feed the larva. If you look closely, you can see that the pollen baskets on her hind legs are full of yellow pollen.
When the new work force reaches maturity (about five weeks), they will do the work, and she will retire, to spend her time laying more eggs. I used to think that bumblebees were nothing but useless drones, but it turns out that they are important pollinators. They were here before the honey bees (which came first with the colonists at Jamestown), and they are super-efficient pollinators of many of our native plants (as well as tomatoes.) They don’t produce big quantities of honey, however, and yes, they can sting, if surprised or provoked.
One night recently I woke up at 4 a.m. and heard a robin chortling softly. Seems a bit early in the day, although the cardinals often start a little after 5 a.m. Despite the cold, many of our resident nesters are well along and feeding young – cardinals, robins, song sparrows, house finches, blue jays.
The males sing from time to time, to remind others that “This is my patch.” In daylight hours you’ll hear a snatch of song, then the male flies off to get the worm or the fly for his offspring. Goldfinches are swooping into the garden to eat the forget-me-not seeds, but they procrastinate and put off nesting until June. The ruby-throated hummingbirds are arriving now, so get your feeders out.
Forests Hills foxes
Yes, we have baby foxes. A resident in my area saw a pair of adults with two kits about a week ago. These kits were probably born in March, and their parents are starting now to take them out of the den. Hikers on the Soapstone Trail are also seeing an adult fox occasionally. We at the Connection would love to hear when and where you see one.
Enjoy the month and be grateful – we’ll remember May with nostalgia when the dog days of summer come.