The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

Growing up, my parents had an artificial Christmas tree. It was hauled out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving and assembled and decorated, ushering in the Christmas season.

I remember one year having a real tree—I loved the smell in the closed-up winter house.

When my husband and I married, we spent a few years finding our Christmas tree tradition. For the first two years, we had an eight-inch tall artificial tree in our mud house in Panama. After we returned to the US, we wanted something bigger. So we spent months making a six-foot papier-mache tree, binding on raffia needles and painting bark on the branches. It was a labour of love, and we used it until we had to move across the country, and knew it wouldn’t survive the experience. 

Then babies happened, and for a few years, our Christmas trees were real trees—there was no time or energy for creativity in those early years.

By the time we moved to New Zealand, we were settled into the parent routine enough to be creative again. And summer Christmases invited creativity. We fashioned trees out of driftwood, dead branches pruned off trees in the yard, an old fishing net, fencing wire and flax stalks, copper plumbing, live runner beans—most trees were inspired by what was lying around the property at the time.

Last year, we fashioned a DNA strand as a Christmas tree. Elegant and simple.

This year, we went for crazy, creating an architectural monstrosity from cardboard boxes.

You might wonder what the point is—wouldn’t it be easier and more, well, Christmasy to do a more traditional tree? Yes. But what is a Christmas tree for?

I view a Christmas tree as a focal point—somewhere for family to gather. Our trees have always been decorated with ornaments that have a history—maybe they were made by someone special, or given by a friend, or came from an exotic location. Decorating the tree has always been a time to celebrate the family stories behind the ornaments.

Why shouldn’t that family activity extend to making the tree itself? This year’s tree took a lot of time to make, and we spent several evenings as a whole family working on it—making a tremendous mess of the living room, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and creativity. That’s exactly what Christmas traditions should do.

So, perhaps our trees don’t meet the traditional definition of a Christmas tree, but I think they embody the spirit of the season.

Summer?

It’s been decidedly un-summer-like recently. We’ve had an exceptionally wet two weeks—there’s a puddle in the yard, Coes Ford is flooded, and weeds and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere.

Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the strawberries. When my daughter braved the rain to pick, she found a surprising number of slug-bitten but delicious ripe fruits.

Strawberry shortcake for dessert, strawberries on my morning muesli, strawberries every time I walk through the kitchen…it must be summer!

Now, if only we’d see the sun…

A Bird in the Hand

I’ve had two funny encounters with birds recently. Two birds in-the-hand, so to speak.

A few weeks ago I was in town, doing some writing in Hagley Park, because it was a beautiful spring day. I sat down on the grass with my lunch and my laptop.

A few minutes later, I noticed a male European blackbird eyeing me up. He hopped closer, stopping when I met his gaze, but then, deciding I was no threat, sidling even closer. My lunchbox sat open between us, and I knew he was sizing it up.

Well, I don’t feed wildlife in general, and I certainly wasn’t going to feed a non-native invasive bird. Besides, I wanted to eat that lunch myself. I finished off my sandwich and started in on my apple.

The bird watched my every move. When I set the apple into the lunchbox to type, he rushed in. I clapped my hand over the box, and he backed off.

The bird was undeterred. When I brought the apple to my mouth again, he lunged for it. He flew up and took a bite out of it while I was biting the other side. His wingtips brushed my cheeks, he was so close.

Well, how could I refuse after that? I gave him the rest of the apple (which wasn’t much more than core at that point, anyway). 

But I made him work for it.

I put it back in the lunchbox, and set the box next to my leg. And that cheeky bird perched on the lunchbox and ate the rest of the apple. Other birds came to see what he had, but none were brave enough to come close, so he had it all to himself. He was terribly smug about it—quite pleased with himself, I’m sure.

My second recent bird encounter happened last weekend. My husband was mowing the lawn, and there was a fledgling magpie in the way. The magpie wouldn’t move out of the mower’s path, so I tried to shoo it away. It still wouldn’t budge, just cheeped at me, as if to say, “Yeah. What do you want?”

So I gently picked it up to pop it over the fence, out of the way. It gave one alarmed squawk, and suddenly its parents were arrowing straight for me from where they had been feeding in the neighbouring paddock. They swooped and screeched as I walked away, and I had to wave my arms over my head to avoid being pecked. The fledgeling, meanwhile, hopped away as though nothing had happened. I could almost hear him chuckling.

So, yeah, I’ve been had by two birds recently. A human in the beak is worth two in the bush, apparently.

A Weakness for Weevils

I was excited to find a new weevil on our property the other day. At least until I identified it.

Meet Otiorhynchus sulcatus—the black vine beetle—pest on a wide range of garden plants, including grapes, black currants and strawberries (all common in my garden).

I admit, I have a weakness for weevils—no matter how much of a pest they are, I think they’re cute. And this one is no exception. She’s lovely, in spite of her diet. And I’m certain she’s a ‘she’, because no males of this species have ever been found. The black vine beetle reproduces parthenogenetically, producing viable eggs without the need for fertilisation by males. 

This ability is the result of a bacterial symbiont in the genus Wolbachia. When researchers in California eliminated Wolbachia in black vine beetles (by giving the beetles antibiotics), the beetles’ unfertilised eggs were no longer viable. It’s a clever little ploy by the bacterium to ensure its own reproduction—only infected insects can reproduce, and they can do so without the trouble of finding a mate (I wrote more about this fascinating relationship in Putting the Science in Fiction and on Dan Koboldt’s Science in Fiction blog).

Another cool feature of the black vine beetle is that it is flightless. It’s not uncommon to find flightless insects and birds here in New Zealand, but it’s a little unusual to see it in invasive pests like the black vine beetle. Native to Europe, the black vine beetle is now distributed all around the world. Pretty impressive travelling for a 6 mm-long flightless insect.

Apparently black vine beetles can cause significant damage to plants. The larvae eat roots in the soil and do the most damage, particularly in potted plants, where root growth is limited. I’ve decided not to worry about them at the moment. I’ve got more damaging pests to worry about, and to be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing them again. They are awfully cute.

Pity the One Percent

I enjoy springtime for its warmer temperatures, flowers and the opportunity to get outdoors more frequently. But it’s the bump in our standard of living that I enjoy most.

Garden excess comes early, in the form of artichokes and asparagus. Add in some home grown oyster mushrooms, spinach, leeks and herbs, and I begin to feel like we have unlimited wealth. Like we’re in the ‘one percent’.

Except, I doubt the one percent gets vegetables as fresh as ours.

And I expect they don’t have the pleasure of strolling among head-high artichoke plants, breathing in their earthy scent and picking twice as many as they need, because, well, why not?

And I know they don’t enjoy passing their excess vegetables on to the neighbours, spreading and sharing riches that cannot be saved, banked, or invested.

So I feel sorry for them, in springtime; they are so poor, and I am a queen.

Spring Babies

It’s that time of year again! The preying mantis egg case I collected in the autumn is hatching.

Because these mantids were in the warm office for half the winter, they’re early. Mantids in the egg cases outdoors haven’t yet emerged. So they need a little extra care. As the babies emerge, I transfer them to a large tank where they’ll be warm and well-fed for a few weeks while the weather improves. Eventually, I will release most, keeping only a few for use in educational programmes.

I never tire of this annual event. I love watching the newborn mantids stretch their legs and catch their first meal. And I’m always amazed that so many insects can emerge from such a small egg case. The current one, just 15 mm long, has disgorged 35 mantids so far, and only half the case has hatched. The mantids don’t all hatch at once—hatching seems to progress from one end of the egg case to the other over the course of a few days. In the wild, I suspect most of the later hatchlings are eaten by the early ones—it’s a mantid-eat-mantid world out there. It happens in my tanks, too, though I try to minimise cannibalism by spreading them out as much as possible and giving them plenty of hiding spots. I used to raise each individual in its own peanut butter jar, but that gets to be pretty time and space-consuming when there can be 70 mantids in each egg case.

Everyone’s heard the sensational ‘fact’ that female preying mantids eat the males after mating. It does happen, sometimes, in some species, but not as often as you might think. Mantids are creatures of instinct, and one of their most powerful instincts is to capture prey. In fact, this urge is so strong that, even when their digestive system is completely full, and they can’t actually eat anything else, they will continue to capture prey.

So it’s no surprise that a female mantid might snack on her mate, especially since she’s bigger than he is. In species where the females are significantly larger than the males, there’s a higher incidence of cannibalism after mating. Among New Zealand mantids, cannibalism at mating is rare—females are only slightly larger than males, and so the males have a good chance of fighting off the females. I’ve seen this in action in captivity—one of my females had a go at her mate, but he was every bit as feisty as she, and their tussle ended with both alive and unharmed.

My little babies won’t have to worry about mating cannibalism for a while yet, but there are plenty of other dangers out there—other predators, parasites, pathogenic fungi, freezing weather, and careless gardeners all take their toll. Of the maybe 70 mantids that will hatch from my egg case, only one or two are likely to survive to adulthood.

I’ll give my babies the best start I can, and then they’ll be on their own. Watching them now, catching gnats like pros, I think they’re well-equipped.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Help Conserve Species

It’s Conservation Week here in New Zealand. Fittingly, one of the kōwhai trees we planted years ago has chosen this week to flower for the first time.

Conservation week is a good time to talk about backyard biodiversity. I’ve blogged more than once about biodiversity issues. It’s a topic near to my family’s heart, and something we strive to improve all the time.

Our yard is, unfortunately, home to a wide variety of non-native weeds, but it also sports native plantings (and even a fair number of native ‘weeds’). Here are just a few of the simple things we’ve done to improve the habitat value of our back yard for native organisms. You could do these, too.

  1. Plant natives instead of non-natives. Here in New Zealand this is especially important, but it’s a good rule of thumb wherever you live. Native vegetation will best support native wildlife, because they evolved together. Choose plants that provide food and shelter for local wildlife—shrubs with berries for birds and lizards to eat, dense grasses that provide hiding spots for invertebrates, and flowers that provide food for insects.
  2. Create lizard refuges. A pile of rocks or a stack of broken terracotta pot shards makes a nice refuge for lizards—the rocks and terracotta warm up in the sun, making a convenient basking spot for the lizards, and the little cracks between ensure a quick, safe get-away when predators appear.
  3. Just add water. Birds, insects, and other animals all need water to survive. Provide a bird bath, a small pond, or an attractive water feature, and you’ll find many more animals drawn to your yard.
  4. Kill non-native predators. Less important in some places, but here in New Zealand, protecting native birds and lizards requires controlling invasive predators. Trap out possums, stoats, and rats to give native birds a chance to nest successfully. Put a bell on your cat and keep it indoors around dusk and dawn when the birds are most vulnerable.
  5. Learn what you’ve got. No matter how small, your yard teems with species. Look closely, and you may be surprised at the diversity. Though our yard tends to be quite dry, we’ve discovered half a dozen species of moisture-loving slime moulds on the property. Once you know you an organism is present, you can tweak your planting and maintenance to protect and encourage it.

And that brings me back to the kōwhai tree, finally blooming. It’s not enough, yet, to attract bellbirds or tūī, across the vast stretches of agricultural land between us and the nearest populations, but someday, our kōwhai and flaxes, along with the neighbours’, may very well support a healthy population of native birds. All it takes is for each of us to care for our own backyards, and collectively we can improve the habitat for all our native species.