Celebrating bees

We tend to take these busy little workers for granted, and many people are afraid of them (with good reason, for anyone who has an allergy), but in their tiny unassuming way they’re one of the most important creatures we have on our planet. Without their pollination of plants, we’d have a lot less to eat. Today’s post is in honour of World Bee Day.

It’s challenging to get a good photo of a bee. You need a lot of patience to try and catch them hanging around in one spot long enough; they do live up to the saying ‘busy as a bee’. I’ve tried many times; the photo above is one of my best, but I have plenty of photos that are as fuzzy as their little bodies.

I’m lucky enough to not be allergic, so I really enjoy watching bees zip around from flower to flower. I was stung many times as a child — we lived on a farm in northern Ontario that had an extensive patch of wild blueberries across the road and up a hill, and my mom and I would go picking as soon as the berries ripened. Sometimes we emerged unscathed, but I remember quite a few times when we fled back to the farmhouse sporting a few welts. My mom was a nurse, so she kept a ready supply of vinegar around to make compresses for the stings. The berries, and the adventure, were worth it 🙂

At my home now we have several plants that the bees love to visit: a pink spirea in the front, a pea bush in the back that fills with yellow flowers in the spring and is a favourite of area bees, and a big linden tree also in our back yard which, in years when it blooms, spreads its wonderful fragrance through the air. The huge bumblebees really love the linden, and there’s something about their drowsy buzzing that makes the world feel perfect for a while. We are proud bee supporters!

There are many plants available for home gardeners that invite bees; if you’re worried about having them around, as far as I’ve observed every summer, they’re really not interested in us at all and we’ve never had an issue — except when our late dogs each caught one in their mouth and learned that wasn’t such a good idea :/

You can learn much more about bees and World Bee Day at the Food and Agricultural site of the United Nations, and you too can “Bee Engaged”.

Photo by me and all rights reserved.

Blossom time in Niagara

This week we’re celebrating blossom time in the Niagara region, which is Nature’s sign that spring has truly arrived.

Every May fruit trees all over our farmlands cover themselves in gorgeous flowers. The blossoms don’t last long, and the timing is tricky if you want to see them — like fall colours, it’s all dependent on the weather. This year, with plenty of mild weather, sunshine and rain showers, the blossoms have arrived right on cue, and I thought I’d share them with everyone who can’t come and see them in person during the continuation of the pandemic.

Our sublime May light makes the blossoms look almost incandescent — rows of glowing colours in orchards, lining our parks, and dotting our city streets.

In the photo below, cherry trees line the fringes of a historic site called McFarland House, built in 1800, and the thick showers of pink blossoms contrast strikingly with nearby red maples also flaunting their best spring outfits.

The resplendent clusters of pink flowers pop against the trees’ craggy grey-green bark.

I believe these are Japanese flowering cherries; here’s a closeup of the blossoms and new leaves for anyone who might have a better idea than I do.

It’s not just fruit trees that are livening up our landscapes; here at Queenston Heights in Niagara Falls, vibrant tulips are showing off their best colours. This historic site, which commemorates the first major battle in the War of 1812, is also the southern terminus of the Bruce Trail, the famous hiking trail that runs for 900km (about 560 mi) from Niagara northward to Tobermory on the shores of Georgian Bay.

I’m partial to variegated tulips…

…but all of the flowers were putting on a grand display of their lush petals and intriguing variety of reproductive configurations.

Niagara Falls also boasts quite a pretty 10-acre lilac garden.

The garden is free to visit; you can spend an entire morning or afternoon there, inhaling the wonderful perfume of the flowers…

,,,and admiring the different varieties. There were a handful of us getting some outdoor exercise on a lovely day, although rain was on the horizon.

I loved the pretty variegated leaves on this shrub.

Turning back toward Niagara-on-the-Lake, I found numerous pink-strewn cherry orchards…

and white apple orchards lining the roads.

Clusters of white apple blossoms were bursting out on all the branches, their sprays of delicate pistils making them look like lace.

Even the other trees are sporting froths of bright new leaves. I love this time of year, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and the sunshine begins keeping its promises.

Heading to the Fonthill area, numerous farms are studded with the stubble of last year’s corn stalks.

Even though the region is starting to drown under the weight of wineries (over seventy in about 700 square miles), if you take the time to wander the back roads you can still find pretty farms tucked away.

In fact, a leisurely wander is the best way to see the region’s spring beauty when you have a chance. You might even spot some of the area’s wild turkeys searching a field for lunch. There used to be one that patrolled an intersection near where I live, stopping traffic for the better part of an hour as it strutted up and down the road. (If you’ve never seen one for yourself, they’re huge birds, up to four feet tall and rather ornery.)

Hiking trails abound; this section of the Bruce Trail is twinned with a trail project in South Africa, surprisingly enough.

Even here the trails were luminous in the afternoon light.

At some time in the future, when life has returned more closely to normal, you may want to visit the Niagara Region in the springtime, when it shows all of its prettiest colours. In the meantime, I hope you have some lovely areas to explore and let Nature work her magic.

Celebrating Earth Day Part 2 – Lake Nakuru

Countries in Africa all seem to abound with amazing, varied landscapes, and Kenya is no exception. The country is split horizontally by the Equator, and longitudinally by the massive tear in the earth known as the Great Rift Valley. The widening divergence of the two tectonic plates has given rise to a string of soda lakes — shallow salt lakes where masses of algae bloom, which in turn attract masses of flamingos that throng the waters to feed. Lake Nakuru, about three hours northwest of Nairobi, is one of those, and it’s a fascinating place to visit.

Approaching the Lake Nakuru National Park in the dry season, we were in for something of a surprise. An ominous white plume stretched across the sky. I asked our guide what it was. “Just a bush fire,” he replied serenely. “It’s not near the lodge, so nothing to worry about.”

Sure, I thought. As he checked us through the park gate and we drove the winding road towards Lake Nakuru Lodge, our home base for the night, we were surrounded by charred bush on both sides of the road, with flames still dancing in spots.

He hadn’t mislead us — the lodge property was intact in its beautiful Kenyan landscape, and the air fairly clear, although we could see great billows of smoke across the hills from the area down by the swimming pool. The fire was definitely still burning away in parts of the park.

Wildfires can happen from about November to March north of the equator, and may start from a lightning strike, but they’re also sometimes set by the park to preempt larger fires. I’m not certain why this one started, but judging by the sign on the lodge grounds, such fires are a common-enough occurrence.

They can often be beneficial for the ecosystem, eliminating old dead trees and clearing space for new growth to thrive. We’d spotted numerous wildlife, like the tawny eagle and black-backed jackals above, prowling through the haze to search for the fire’s bounty in the form of small wildlife who hadn’t escaped the flames or smoke. Nature has a cycle of constant renewal that’s much wiser than anything we humans have done to the planet.

The lodge is tucked into a hillside above the lake, set in a pretty garden-scape filled with native plants.

We noticed this sign outside the restaurant, and there were a number of native Kenyans in traditional garb walking about to chase off the pesky primates.

It didn’t take us long to spot the troupe lurking at a dried-up little pond just beyond the lodge’s perimeter fence.

After lunch it was time to head down to the area around the lake. We were treated to the sight of the rare and very endangered Rothschild’s giraffe along the way. Lake Nakuru Park is one of the few protected areas where you can still see their beautifully-delineated spots and white ‘stockings’.

This Thompson’s gazelle watched us carefully on the flat grasslands. We had stopped just close enough that we were encroaching on its safe zone — often animals won’t even pay attention to visitors, but if you’ve gotten their attention it means that you’re getting too close. Any closer and the animals will do one of two things: bolt, or charge the vehicle. A pretty gazelle will only flee, but there’s one animal you don’t want to push the boundaries with.

Cape buffaloes are huge and cranky, and when they take a run at you they mean it. They are extremely dangerous.

Evidence of the lake’s salinity is visible as you near the shores: thick incrustations of salt coat the sand and scrub.

Animals often go down to the lake for that very reason — a huge natural salt-lick.

We even had our one and only sighting of the almost-extinct white rhino. They’re not actually white — their name comes from the Afrikaans’ word weit, which refers to their wide mouths that are made for grazing along the ground. (Black rhinos can be distinguished by grazing higher up among the shrubs.) We’ve seen no rhinos on any other of our safaris. The few remaining white rhinos in Kenya are watched around the clock; I hope this mother and son are still alive.

Many types of birds spend their time at the lake, including cliques of fishing pelicans, who swim in groups and by some unseen signal all dunk their heads to fish simultaneously.

The dry season at the end of February wasn’t peak time for the Lesser Flamingos, so while the populations on the lake can rise to the millions, there were far less when we were there, but it was still something to see – several thousand of the birds turned pale pink by the pigment in the algae they scooped up from the alkaline water. Groups gathered to do the strange choreographed dances you may have seen on television, shuffling along and swinging their heads in unison.

As the sun began to sink and our guide headed back to the lodge, we came across another rowdy bunch of Olive baboons, which are much fluffier than their Chacma cousins in southern Africa. This group was busy grooming and getting ready to settle down for the night.

Back at the lodge we watched another glorious African sunset cap off another amazing day in the wild.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at two lesser-known marvels of Africa, and that they’ve provided some insight into how precious such places are. We humans are the caretakers of the planet, and we’re failing at the job. If things don’t change, the children of our nieces and nephews may never get the same chance to see the wonders of nature.

All photos, unless otherwise specified, are by me and all rights are reserved.

Spring fever

We’re having an early spring here in southern Ontario — a relief after what seemed like a long, dreary winter lurking around our homes. Over the past few days I’ve been out documenting any signs of spring, and for everyone who needs a virtual dose of sunshine and fresh air, here are some of the treasures I came across.

Trees on a local farm are coming into bud, creating a reddish haze in the orchard
At a large pond, dried reeds languish in the dark water
A Canada Goose keeps lookout atop its log island
Plump red berries hang temptingly atop a waterside shrub
These Bufflehead ducks were hard to take a clear photo of — they really zipped around the pond (male with a full white ‘shawl’ top left, two females with white cheeks lower right)
The bushy head of one of our most invasive weeds, Phragmites, glows in the afternoon sun
Painted Turtles warm up on a log
Fishing ducks
Tiny grape hyacinths have started spreading at our local botanical garden
Beautiful white crocuses
A lone clump of daffodils, my favourite flower
A bee making the most of some Coltsfoot
A rainbow of crocuses carpets the ground beneath a wide tree still waiting for its leaves
I loved these pretty Variegated Crocuses
Paved pathways wandering through the grounds wait for the return of visitors…
…as does this shady rustic gazebo
Vivid school of goldfish in one of the ponds
Clusters of snowdrops popping out
Fuzzy catkins bursting out all over some of the trees
Even a few tulips breaking ground

All photographs are by me and cannot be used without my permission.

Ice blue and shamrock green

Apologies – I completely lost track of time this week and thought today was still Thursday! It must have been the giddiness from the unusually fine weather we’ve had this week: shining sun and temperatures like a warm spring day, which, coupled with a lessening of our Covid restrictions, drew a lot of people out of their homes into the fresh air.

I headed over to the Welland Canal, the system of locks which transport ships between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Lake Erie is at a higher altitude – 326 feet higher – than Lake Ontario, so beginning in 1824 a series of versions of the canal system were built over the next 153 years into the one we have today.

Residents have a love-hate relationship with the Canal. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that holds up road traffic numerous times every day during shipping season as the bridges are raised to let boats through.

The ships passing up and down the canal are a continual attraction, though, and the waterway is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, which employs a lot of people.

Over the winter, from January to March the canal is almost completely emptied of water, which usually freezes up and would be impassable to ships for several months.

This year the canal is set to reopen on March 31, but I was surprised to find that it’s already been filled back up – this past weekend there was still only a shallow trickle of water along the bottom of the deep canal.

At most of the locks you can park and walk around to get a good close-up view of the system of gates that close to allow each lock to either fill with water to raise a ship upward toward Lake Erie, or slowly empty to lower a ship downward toward Lake Ontario.

There are ships in the Port Weller Dry Docks getting their winter repairs, and tug boats waiting to guide them out when ready.

Despite temperatures of 21 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine, a thin skin of ice still floated on much of the canal water, raised upward itself as the gates began allowing water to refill the canal like a series of overflowing cups from Lake Erie.

A trail runs along the canal for walkers and bikers, and ship enthusiasts, with handy benches for rest stops or just ship-watching.

On this flat section between Locks 2 and 1, the ice blanket was extensive, but a wide crack had opened up and zigzagged almost all the way from one bank to the other, and some Canada Geese were resting at the edge. It was a great photo op that I had to stop for.

Chunks of ice also crusted the rocky banks, glittering in the warm sun.

It was a great afternoon outing, and then it was time to hit the grocers for supplies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day next week.

Although I have no Irish background at all, each March this holiday promises that spring is just around the corner. I’m not into the green beer type of celebration, but the Irish love good food and March 17th is another great excuse to cook up something delicious.

What did we actually eat when we were in Ireland two years ago?

It rains a lot in Ireland, and I believe there’s a direct correlation between the weather and the comfort factor of Irish food.

Irish Stew, hearty and filling, is ubiquitous, and also seafood, and fish pies stuffed with a melange that often includes salmon under a topping of mashed potato.

A filling bowl of Irish lamb stew

You can find all the classics in the restaurants, from soda bread (delicious with fresh creamy Irish butter, by the way) to boxty and colcannon, but other cuisines are well represented. One evening in the Temple Bar district of London I had a fabulous Mediterranean chicken dish with lemon and olives, and in Killarney we had great pizzas at a pizza-and-ale joint just across the street from our hotel.

Breakfasts are filling, from scrambled eggs, bacon, roasted potatoes, baked beans, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and toasts to rich bowls of oatmeal strewn with fresh fruit.

Barry’s Tea seems to be the tea of choice for a lot of restaurants, and the Irish make a pretty stiff cuppa indeed – a pot for two people usually held three teabags! Barry’s is hard to find around here, though, so typically at home we’ll drink Twinings Irish Breakfast tea.

Sweets in all their forms are really popular and just the thing to shore up your energy after a few hours of exploring. I had one of the best cinnamon buns ever from a roadside food truck as we zipped from the north to the west coast. Lunch was several hours away as we stumbled upon the little truck miles from anywhere, so we bought cups of tea and buns and perched on a picnic table enjoying the view while we refreshed.

Individual lemon meringue tarts are a common sight, and also Banoffee pie, trifles topped with whipped cream and bread pudding with sauce.

Rich slice of Banoffee pie

So if you’re of a mind to have some cozy Irish food on what, for us, will be a chill and cloudy day just on the cusp of Spring, you have lots of choices to evoke a trip to the Emerald Isle. In fact, I’m making myself hungry just completing this blog. Slainte! 😊

All photos on this site were taken by me (unless otherwise indicated), and may not be copied or used without my permission.

A spring flower refurb

Outside our house the world around is drab and brown still, although the snows have melted and we’re seeing some scraggly grass again. At least the sun has been shining, but this winter has felt extra-long being cooped up at home.

Don’t me wrong, our Covid cases have dropped dramatically since we went into lock-down and I feel it’s been well worth the effort. The number of people who’ve suffered with the illness because so many others couldn’t be bothered to take preventive measures is truly heart-breaking.

Hopefully we’ll continue to make progress, even though all our stores have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity.

in the meantime, bringing some fresh flowers into your home can add some much needed cheer. If you’ve never created your own arrangement from some inexpensive cut flowers that you can buy at any grocery store, here’s how to do it.

I started with a fading Valentine’s arrangement my hubby gave me. Usually he buys me a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses, which are my favourite flower, but this year I asked for a garden-style arrangement to make our house feel a little like Spring. This is what it looked like when it originally arrived:

It lasted for quite a while, but eventually the floral parts began to wither, leaving a scattering of deep pink carnations and some greenery that still looked good. My first refurb was with three bundles from the grocery store: daffodils, a bunch of pretty pale green carnations ruffled with purple, and a thick bundle of thin-leaved eucalyptus that you can see frothing all over the arrangement-in-progress below.

The original arrangement was one-sided, perfect for our foyer table, so I kept it that way. I moved some daffodils around after this to balance the colours evenly throughout, creating a loose informal look.

The daffodils were a mistake, though: in the stiff wet-foam that the florist had used, I had a lot of trouble inserting the delicate stems of these flowers well enough for them to draw water, and they didn’t last very long. The florist had used a piece of foam that rose over the top edge of the ceramic container, with a very tight fit, so I could only pour in bits of water from the top to avoid dribbling all over the table. (When I make my own arrangements, I like to recess the foam below the top of the water receptacle, so that I can pour in more water to easily soak the foam without overflowing.)

Important tip: If you’re making an arrangement from scratch, you’ll need to buy ‘wet foam’, called Oasis, to stick your stems into and to hold them in place. There’s another type of foam, called Sahara, that will not absorb water no matter how much you try — it’s only used for dried/silk arrangements. You can find Oasis at craft stores like Michaels.

The pink carnations also finally reached their limit, so it was time for another change of dress anyway. Back at the grocery store I spotted this pretty pre-made bundle, and I particularly loved the large lavender-tinged chrysanthemum.

Here’s how I incorporated the new flowers:

1) I removed all the spent flowers and greenery. I love big bundles like the one above because they include a nice amount of greenery to fill in the empty spaces and background of your arrangement. We’ll get to those in a minute. Here’s the stripped down arrangement, with a smattering of greenery and all of the green and purple carnations. I began working with the carnations in place, and then tweaked them as I started filling in the new materials.

2) In the same photo, I’m measuring the height of what will be the focal point — the single large lavender-tipped chrysanthemum — against the existing arrangement. You can always shorten a stem further, but if you cut it too short to begin with there’s no going back to lengthen it. I do the same with each stem of flowers or greenery as I work my way through them.

You want to give the focal point pride-of-place in the arrangement, of course. I tend to like my focal points on the right lower side of an arrangement, whether it’s a one-sided arrangement or rounded. I’m not an expert arranger by any means — this is just a style I’ve picked up from watching how the florists do it.

You’ll need to trim all of your stems — they need to be re-cut before they’re added to your arrangement. Scissors will work, but they can pinch the new cut end a little; I use a little guillotine-style cutter that I bought so long ago I can’t recall where I bought it. It has a razor-style blade inside a slot where you insert the stem and make a perfectly clean, slanted cut.

3) You’ll also need to trim most of the leaves below any flowers, as they’ll only clutter up your arrangement. Remove any that are damaged already or are too close to where you’ll be inserting the stem into the foam. In the next stem I positioned, the purple alstromeria, you can see in the photo below where several lower leaves were already crumpled and wouldn’t have helped the arrangement.

4) In the next photo you can see where I placed the alstromeria, close to the chrysanthemum so that the purple colours and the different petal shapes could compliment each other. This placement wasn’t fixed in stone; as I added more stems I ended up repositioning the alstromeria a small amount. Don’t worry about making your arrangement perfect as you go; before the end you’ll look at it from different angles and likely tweak it a bit for the final version.

5) I like arrangements to be three-dimensional — I don’t want my arrangements to look like the floral equivalent of a bowl-shaped haircut. So even for multiple stems of the same flower, or the same greenery, I like to cut them in different lengths so they have some depth within the arrangement.

My bundle of flowers included several stems of a common florist greenery called salal. It has medium to large-sized deep green leaves that set off the flowers beautifully. There are clusters of branches on one main stem, which you can separate and cut to a variety of lengths, as I did below. In a one-sided arrangement, typically taller stems go in the back and the height shortens as you get to the front, so you’ll want at least three lengths to fill in your arrangements.

As you position the different elements, consider how different textures, shapes and colours offset each other. For example, a frothy sort of flower like the smaller white chrysanthemums in clusters below will contrast well with the distinctive leaves of the salal, while the many-leaved thin eucalyptus in a medium green serves as a great filler for empty spots and to dangle over the edges of the arrangement for a more informal look. I also like to let the greenery, and sometimes even the flowers, dangle over the edge of the container to break the container’s visual boundary. A more formal arrangement would keep the flowers and greenery more tucked neatly in.

6) Once you’ve placed almost everything, you may find that you have something large like a palm leaf left — its size and distinctive shape is meant to become the dramatic backdrop of the arrangement. There was also only one fern stem, so I placed that at the back as well, although for a more triangular arrangement I could have tucked it in on the bottom right.

7) Finally it’s time to walk around your arrangement and look for any spots that are too bare, or where the several stems of some flowers (like the green carnations) haven’t been evenly distributed, or where you might want to adjust the colour palette. Don’t fuss too much — the net effect is to make you smile, not to win a floral award. The more of these you do, the better eye you’ll develop for placing things. You can also learn a lot by looking at online photos of arrangements on a florist’s website: how they cluster and contrast deep and light colours, how they create the overall shape of the arrangement (round, triangular, rectangular, etc.) and whether they incorporate a single dramatic focal point as opposed to a less formal look.

Here’s the almost-finished version of my arrangement. I ended up moving the tall green carnation on the far side over to the left to balance the overall shape.

I hope you embark on a little floral adventure of your own. No one can beat Mother Nature for sheer beauty, and to bring some of her artwork into your home can lift your spirits during these times. Once you’ve learned how to do it, you can make yourself a pretty flower arrangement any time you feel like it, at far lest cost than buying one from a florist if you need to be frugal. For special occasions though, it’s a wonderful surprise to have your doorbell ring and open the door to find a beautiful arrangement waiting for you, fresh from the florist and already put together so you only have to decide where to show it off the best 🙂