Floral celebration

California poppy 2

I’d like to share this celebratory photo of the first California poppy in my garden ever. For many years I’ve admired this sunny, prolific flower from afar, but I’ve never grown one. This spring I planted some seeds. Yesterday I found the first bud, and this morning it bloomed for admiration. Already it’s attracting pollinators. When I first saw it, a tiny, iridescent insect was crawling in the cup.

I have limited space for gardening: one raised bed under the living room window and a few barrels. For the past three summers since we moved to this house I’ve grown as much food as possible in the available soil. However, I missed having flowers. We can buy an abundance of fresh, local produce from St. Jacobs Farmers Market every week, but flowers feel like a luxury we can rarely afford. Besides, vegetables demand lots of water and maintenance, becoming problematic when I want to escape to the cottage for a week.

This year the garden focus has changed to include mostly flowers for colour, fragrance, feeding pollinators, and even feeding us. Many are edible and delicious: violets and pansies, calendulas, begonias, and California poppies, to name a few.

I haven’t given up my favourite plants: the culinary herbs. Mediterranean herbs are well adapted for the hot, sunny exposure of the front yard. Their foliage adds a handsome, varied texture from big, shiny, lush-leaved basil to glaucous sage and the delicate lacework of thyme. A native herb, wild bergamot, has taken well to being let loose in the garden and will soon provide a profusion of light lilac blooms. Herbs do well in barrels, too.

But perhaps my favourite plant this year is my old boyfriend, ‘Abraham Darby’.

'Abraham Darby' rose

This is a popular variety of David Austen rose. I’m partial to yellow roses, emblems of friendship. It starts with apricot hues and opens to a soft yellow, with a light, delicious fragrance. I had one of these in a garden many years ago, and it’s nice to have him back again. I had qualms about planting it in the hot, dry soil at the foundation of the house. After an initial battle with opportunistic leaf-chewing bugs, the bush appears to be flourishing. This week the Abraham Darby rose opened a second wave of blooms.

A newfound benefit of flowers is they keep me enamoured of the garden. I don’t take the hot, humid summers of Ontario well. With vegetables I would perform my watering duty and then disappear inside as early as possible. This summer as delicate blossoms open their gentle, aqueous answer to the ravishment of fire, they persuade me to linger and admire. Might as well pull some bindweed while I’m there.

Awakening: images from a day in Prince Edward County

Lake Ontario, Prince Edward County

After posting a daily photo journal on Flickr for more than seven months in 2008 I seemed to burn out for one reason, and then another. Over the next few years I often took photos but did not process or share them. I have shared many on this blog since it began in 2011, but photography has often been secondary to the topic of discussion.

A landscape photography course with Rob Stimpson​ in 2013 reawakened my interest. The purchase of a good macro lens opened new vistas in 2015. However, I had difficulty doing photography during an episode of depression in 2015/16.

On one stage of the path to recovery I consciously chose not to take my camera on walks. Photography can provide ecstatic distraction. However, at times the camera impedes a naked, mystical, personal experience of nature I had been missing. The past 14 months have grounded me in a deeper sense of meaning and purpose that was previously lacking.

Abandoned farmhouse, Prince Edward County

This journey has included recovering a spark for creative writing that eluded me for the past decade. Since last year, much of my writing has focused inwardly out of necessity as I become more confident in my writing process, and what matters to me.

This practice in turn has encouraged me to use photography more often in recording experiences, inspirations, and simple beauty. I have begun posting photos more regularly on Flickr again.

I would also like to recover some images and memories that have lain hidden for a few years. Two evenings ago I reviewed a number of photos taken in Prince Edward County on October 25, 2011, a date and place chosen completely arbitrarily. I fell in love during that first visit to The County, which juts into Lake Ontario.

Prince Edward County shoreline

The only photo I ever posted on Flickr from that first day’s shoot was the one above, a bit of rocky shoreline somewhere around Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area. I took many photos that day. Apparently the others failed to inspire me at the time. However, I have learned a trick or two about processing in the past seven years. I saw potential in many other images. The five here plus two more also worthy of posting to Flickr come from that single solitary day.

During later trips to Prince Edward County I found an idea for a writing assignment in 2013 about a bed and breakfast. However, I have never blogged about it until now.

Self-portrait, Prince Edward County, 2011

The self-portrait above has a story attached. It was a fine day but windy and chilly. Moments after I took the photo, the wind snatched the beloved Outback hat I had bought during a road trip across Northern Ontario in 2010. It landed in the harbour, too far from the dock for me to reach with any implement at hand. It was off season and there was no one else around. The water was too cold and deep for me to go in. I found a stick long enough to try sweeping a current that would drag the hat toward me, to no avail. The wind seemed to carry it closer to shore. Then a current drifted it toward Lake Ontario again.

I must have spent an hour trying to retrieve the hat, but in the end I gave up. I wonder what became of it. I was not able to replace it until August 2016, when I purchased another Outback hat at Kingston Sheepdog Trials.

I still have many unprocessed photos from the intervening years. I will try to process more of them as time allows and see what stories they recall.

Henderson House, Prince Edward County

What gorillas and chimps can teach us about eating well

Adult female and infant wild chimpanzees feeding on Ficus sur

Adult female and infant wild chimpanzees feeding on Ficus sur fruits in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

A new study of chimpanzees and gorillas offers clues about how diet may affect human disease. The research was led by food scientists from Columbia University. Collecting feces from free-ranging apes in the Republic of Congo for three years, they investigated seasonal shifts in the microbiome, the bacterial community of the ape intestine.

While fruits are in season, they make up about 70 percent of the diet of western lowland gorillas. Fruits are rich in easily digested sugars but low in fibre. During the dry season gorillas switch to their regular fibre-rich diet of leaves and bark. Meanwhile, chimps are fruit specialists so their diet changes less. Analysis of microbial DNA from fecal samples showed that the bacteria shift in response to diet.

This study caught my attention because of my interest in wildlife. However some of my writing for Gluten-Free Living has focused on the microbiome and its likely role in autoimmune disease.

By now most of us know what we eat affects our risk for cancer. That probably relates to the microbiome, which helps digest our food and interacts with the immune system. New research is looking at the likely role of the microbiome in autoimmune diseases such as celiac and type 1 diabetes. Celiac disease involves an immune response to gluten in wheat, rye and barley. However, experts believe the rising prevalence of celiac disease relates to disturbances in the microbiome rather than an intrinsic human intolerance for gluten.

The ape story in Nature Communications points out the microbiome in hunter-gatherer societies, such as Hadza people of Tanzania, mirrors seasonal shifts observed in gorillas and chimps. This casts doubt on the notion of a static microbiome. The supermarket diet eliminates seasonal changes and makes foods available all year that are tasty but not necessarily healthy. In ScienceDaily, Brent Williams, PhD, an author of the study, comments many people may be living with constant fibre deficiency.

This research also highlights the importance of conserving threatened species and ecosystems. They deserve protection for their own sakes.

However, from a selfish standpoint, humans should protect creatures that can help us understand ourselves and how to survive. Science is breaking down the boundary between us and other organisms like our close cousins and the bacteria that help nourish us. Gorillas and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and both are endangered.

They possess essential information about who we are and where we came from. Losing them would threaten our own chances of survival.

Lessons from trees

We experience gratitude in different ways. The other day I was walking along a side street obsessing about the past. On my approach to Twin Oaks Woods, the sight of its trees lifted me suddenly. I could describe that emotion simply as joy, but it arose from a deep updraft of gratitude.

Decades ago, some farsighted city planner elected to preserve this woodland rather than leveling it to make more room for suburban dwellings and plazas. The woods behind our house was a benefit I noted when my partner and I chose this neighbourhood three years ago. Perhaps I believed too strongly that this home would be temporary, because I didn’t readily form an attachment.

Over the past year I have deliberately drawn close to Twin Oaks Woods. This week, busy with multiple story deadlines, I find myself drawn instinctively to the path whenever I can manage a 20-minute break. Exercise for it’s own sake hardly appeals to me, so I’m grateful for any motivation. Recently I discovered I can make a pleasant 0.75-mile double loop through the woods, without retracing my steps, and avoid having to follow the busier surrounding streets.

I’m grateful for the pleasure, exercise, and refreshment. I’m grateful for the numerous saplings of American beech, my favourite deciduous tree for its clear bark and golden-orange leaves that hang on till spring.

I’m grateful for the splendid ephemereal spring wildflowers that will erupt from the ground in a few more weeks. But more than that I’m grateful to be falling deeper in love with the woods during this long, cold, bleak Ontario winter.

Trees themselves offer us many lessons. They communicate with one another under the ground (though not in a language we readily understand) via natural chemicals in their roots and networks of symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. Sometimes I wonder whether trees speak too slowly for us to hear. What’s the meaning of that baleful howl of winter wind in their bare branches? Tree bark looks broken and pockmarked, but it’s a kind of armour.


Trees in this northern climate provide a lesson in resilience. It’s hard to fathom how a large organism with so much surface area can endure months of turbulent freezing weather, but they do. When a branch doesn’t receive enough sunlight to produce nourishment, they know to let it die. Humans would do well to study trees and how they handle the inherent tragedy of life.

Gratitude seldom comes to me spontaneously as it did the other day. Most of the time I need to practice it.

When we experience emotional pain, we raise walls to protect ourselves. This is natural and healthy. It provides time and space to heal. It’s like the protective bark of a tree in winter. I’m impressed with the knots and gnarls displaying a tree’s life history, how it overcame difficult weather or injury, and sometimes how it died. Meanwhile life continues underground as the roots delve more deeply in the esoteric wisdom of their connections.

But the tree also knows when and how to sprout outside the bark. We must extend ourselves in order to live and work. Progress takes practice, risk, learning from what doesn’t work, and learning to keep doing whatever works well.

Gratitude works well, I’ve learned. It takes practice during the hard times. It displaces grief and disappointment with an appreciation for good things in the present, however small. In noticing them, appreciation grows.

Practice opens the mind for unexpected joy: the kind of gratitude that is deeply felt, but takes nothing for granted.

January afternoon

Depression and the double-edged sword of mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t an easy skill to learn for anyone. For someone with clinical depression, it can be dangerous. I’m saying this from personal experience.

However, I’ve passed through danger into a better place. Mindfulness may be the most important cognitive skill I’ve learned in my entire life. It has helped me respect my own feelings, but first I needed to understand them better. Mindfulness in itself doesn’t provide the skillful reflection needed to address harsh self-judgment that characterizes depression.

This story has been unfolding for me for over a year. I’ve kept relatively quiet about it on this blog because I needed to write for myself for a while.

One tool I’ve used on a daily basis to develop a mindfulness practice is Headspace, and I’d recommend it for many people. However, the claims made by cognitive apps may not have a scientific basis. Someone with depression must approach mindfulness carefully and with adequate support.

When I launched Speed River Journal seven years ago, I chose the subtitle, “An urban naturalist’s progress.” This referred to the 17th Century testament of Protestant Christian faith, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which I read 30 years ago. Later, around 1998, I became an atheist.

However, regardless of what we believe, life is a pilgrimage. We traverse the landscape of time and consciousness toward some final destination. Now I care less about where I’m going, more about what I learn along the way.

Psalm 84 in the Old Testament says people who have set their hearts on pilgrimage bring water wherever they pass. Ancient people knew their lives depended on rainfall and clean wells. I take this water as a metaphor for compassion, with which a traveler may improve the lives of others.

When I registered for an eight-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive (MBCT) therapy in September 2016, I had no idea what a challenging boundary I had crossed. I received fair warning. The introductory material and the doctor teaching the course cautioned me that it was beneficial for people with a history of depression as an inoculation against relapse. It wasn’t recommended for anyone experiencing active depression.

In other words, it would likely be a rough haul for me. I had experienced depression and anxiety most of my life, and had a serious extended episode during 2015 and 2016. I discussed the risks with the doctor and a counselor who knew me well. I desperately wanted any tool that could improve my quality of life.

So I took a risk and undertook one of the hardest lessons ever. At first I was elated to establish a capacity for calm, one of the essential benefits of mindfulness practice. But we can’t sustain calm without acknowledging all emotions that may arise, when they do.

People with depression have an overdeveloped capacity for rumination and self-judgment. Many emotions relate to hopelessness and a sense of inadequacy. They run deep. In hindsight, I would have benefited from having a skilled therapist enlisted to help me through the process. But I couldn’t afford one, so I did the best I could.

The hardest part came after the course ended and I lost regular support from the doctor teaching, besides a class of about 14 other students. That was November 2016.

Two months later I asked my partner to take me to emergency because depression had become unmanageable. Never had I attempted suicide or seriously considered it, but in January my thoughts crossed a terrifying line.

I requested and received help from both friends and the hospital. That occurred exactly one year ago, and my recovery began in earnest. I have been free of depression symptoms for some months now, perhaps since April or July depending on how I look at it.

Despite its challenges, mindfulness initially provided the most valuable tool. MBCT teaches how to entertain one’s feelings with kindness and curiosity, rather than resistance and judgment. Long ago I decided there’s no such thing as a bad emotion. MBCT has reinforced that belief.

However, we need skillful reflection to be able to endure the painful ones and not get distracted by pleasure all the time. MBCT provided some training, as did the day hospital program where I enrolled for 12 weeks beginning last January. I don’t think of mindfulness as a path to happiness necessarily. It helps us experience any emotion with calmness and clarity, and that’s the key benefit.

For me, the most powerful additional therapy alongside mindfulness has been writing. I’ve kept a private journal on and off for most of my life. I started again in earnest after the trouble last winter.

Journal writing received a boost from a new acquaintance in September when I started a yoga course for relaxation. During the second class, the instructor talked about how people put up walls to protect themselves when others hurt them. This may be necessary for emotional survival. However, in the long run we need to let down those walls in order to give and receive love. That love could be for someone close, a pet, nature, a cause, or something you’re passionate about doing.

After the class I went up and told her my love is writing.

She said, “Be sure to use some of that love for yourself.”

A revelation came over me. All my life I had wanted to be a good writer, so I had even written my journal with an audience in mind. I had never written for myself with a sense of intimate privacy.

By serendipity, the previous evening at a bookstore I had picked up a title by an Australian self-help author I read many years ago and liked, Stephanie Dowrick. Her book, which I brought home on the eve of insight from the yoga teacher, was Creative Journal Writing: The art and heart of reflection.

Armed with guidance from this and several other books in my libary, I began writing for me. The work waded immediately into even deeper water, but this time it brought more pleasure than terror. The journal has allowed me to grasp spirituality more tangibly than had been possible for 20 years since my beliefs changed. I have been motivated by compassion for others, and realizing compassion must begin with myself.

Mindfulness teachers often stress compassion. Guided meditations on Headspace do. The practice encourages us to notice and let go of critical self-judgment. However, in depression the layers of painful emotion may become too thick to excavate so easily.

Ultimately, I have found a kind therapist who knows me better than anyone else possibly could: myself. Years of practicing clarity and metaphor as a writer have helped me explore my own narrative in new light. One can write with a poet’s honesty one day and a journalist’s detachment the next. I can even take someone else’s perspective. It only takes a little imagination.

Some people express caution or even disapproval when I talk about this. They mistrust any process that stirs up pain and old memories. But these are my emotions, they’re related to my life and I choose to investigate them thoughtfully.

Early in life I learned to hide my emotions. That lesson served me poorly when I suffered painful loss and ostracism. Coming out as a gay man in 1996, I was surrounded by people who didn’t want to hear how I felt. Instead of grieving or expressing anger appropriately, I soldiered forward, determined to start a new life.

Now I need to listen kindly to my younger self so he can stop persevering and simply live each day. I’ve had a long journey back to an authentic understanding of what, how, and why I feel the way I do. This is necessary for who I am becoming, not least in my work as a writer.

Natalie Goldberg says writers live life twice. I’ve never grasped this fully until the past few months of journal writing. It requires a lot more than just the words of a story.

Over the past year I’ve used Headspace to support mindfulness meditation almost every day. Andy Puddicombe’s guidance is mostly great, although the important 30-day segment on depression seemed superficial went I tried it last winter.

Today I came across an article by Stephanie Tlalka in Greater Good Magazine casting doubt on the merits of mindfulness apps like Headspace. It questions the scientific evidence that they can make you feel better. I don’t wish to disparage a website that has benefited me, but I agree with the concern that such apps may fall short of their claims.

I have a psychological asset: essentially I like myself and want to live this life. When the firestorm became too intense, I asked for help. Depression isolates people, and some might hurt themselves rather than reach out. That’s what’s at stake here.

For healthy people or those who have experienced depression previously and want to become more resilient, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend mindfulness training. And in the long run it may provide hope for people who are suffering now. However, beware of the self-judgment intrinsic to depression. It can quickly become toxic when the pain triggers old coping mechanisms. Even with the self-awareness afforded through a journal, I haven’t navigated alone.

If you are depressed and think mindfulness might help, talk to a trusted, knowledgeable person and make sure you have someone at your back. Likewise, if you think someone close to you might benefit, don’t recommend mindfulness training without ensuring they have adequate support.

Drawing water from the spring

Danny at the spring

At our cottage in Haliburton Highlands, Ontario, we collect drinking water from a nearby spring. The water is sweet, clear, refreshing and arises from one of Earth’s most ancient land masses.

I’m grateful for the work of local cattagers who maintain the spring. They have covered the main source to keep out dirt and fallen leaves. A plastic pipe brings the flow conveniently to a platform near the road. This year someone has replaced the old wooden trestle with a secure metal grate.

Whenever we go there, I enjoy reading a simple poem someone nailed to tree years ago.

Poem at the spring

Its fading blue typeface reminds me of the transience of human life—all our pleasure, tragedy, and quest for meaning—overtop a geological history lasting billions of years.

Standing on this trestle
While water fills my vessel
I contemplate with wonder
The water source that’s under

How deep, how wide, how far around
The crystal sea that’s underground

Sustaining life, nourishing health
Praise be given for such wealth

The municipality has also posted a sign, far more prosaic.

The spring arises near the roadside leading to a secluded region of seasonal properties not far from Algonquin Provincial Park’s southwest border. Nearby, ambitious canoeists can penetrate one of the park’s backwoods access points via Dividing Lake Provincial Nature Reserve. A few rare old growth white pines are reported to dot the forest there, though one of their stands was destroyed by a tornado about 20 years ago.

My father and I once hiked the requisite portage from Kimball Lake to Rockaway Lake. It’s 2.7 kilometres long and ascends at least 70 metres. We scrambled through soggy wetland and slippery crevices. I couldn’t imagine carrying a canoe and a week’s supplies, at least not in this body and lifetime.

Haliburton is less famous and more laid-back than adjoining Muskoka, both part of Ontario’s cottage country. In Ontario, Adirondack Chairs are called Muskoka Chairs. With that naming, Haliburton and the Kawarthas got overlooked along with all the wilderness further north.

Popularly called Haliburton Highlands, this is one of the highest points on the Canadian Shield in Ontario. In researching this, I discovered it was named after Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a Nova Scotia politician in the 19th Century, international best-selling author, and a founder of North American humour. I’d never heard of him before.

Geographically it is part of the Laurentian Uplands of Southern Quebec and Central Ontario. This formation extends into parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York, where it is known as the Superior Upland. Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains and New York’s Adirondacks belong to it. These rocks were formed about 2.5 billion years ago.

They collided with some even older land masses up to 4.2 billion years old. The resulting Canadian Shield covers most of Ontario, Quebec and Labrador, northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, all of the Canadian Arctic, and Greenland. It once contained mountains higher than any on Earth today, but they have been worn down by erosion.

Glaciation during the past few million years has shaped the landscape existing today: more rolling than mountainous, with thin topsoil. Thousands of small lakes and rivers dot the Canadian Shield. Young watersheds still haven’t sorted themselves out. Bogs are common, known in many parts of Canada by the Cree word, muskeg. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painters made this scenery more familiar to the world. Muskoka and Haliburton Counties are famous for low cliffs of pink granite emerging from serene lakes.

Although the Shield has supported important logging and mining industries, it has resisted agriculture and urban development. For this reason Canada, the world’s second largest country by area next to Russia, has the second lowest population density next to Australia. Most Canadians live in fertile regions south of the shield.

Canada famously contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, largely due to lakes and rivers on the Canadian Shield. However, the majority of this is fossil water in lakes, glaciers and underground aquifers that can’t be renewed.

In fact, Canada contains only 7 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water resources. About half of that flows north across the Canadian Shield to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. It is inaccessible to the vast majority of Canadians living along the southern border.

Our cottage is located on Fletcher Lake, one of more than 2,000 lakes in the Muskoka River watershed, which flows southwest from Algonquin Provincial Park to Georgian Bay, part of Lake Huron and the Great Lakes. This watershed area features relatively moderate summer temperatures and high precipitation, nearly 1,000 millimetres per year. Vacationers come to Muskoka and Haliburton to escape the sweaty heat of Southern Ontario.

And they come for the water. Especially the water. Personally, I go there also for the solitude, wildlife and plant life, but I’m a reclusive botany geek. Even to me, cottage life wouldn’t be the same without that clean, sweet water, a delight for swimming. Fletcher Lake is probably spring fed, perhaps from the same fossil aquifer feeding the nearby fount where we draw our drinking water.

Drinking water

I don’t think I take this water for granted. I’m always grateful. On the other hand, I assume the spring and our lake are too far from anywhere, that no one will ever come demanding our water.

The Ontario government recently raised the fee for bottled water companies from $3.71 to $503.71 per million litres of water they extract from natural resources. However, critics doubt it will deter Nestlé Waters from mining an aquifer near Guelph. They argue that clean water must be protected as a human right, belonging to the commons. It should not be privately owned or commercially exploited.

The flow of water never fluctuates from that pipe someone has kindly set up by the spring. It will probably keep flowing as long as I live, but no one can tell. I doubt anybody even knows where it comes from.

Rights come with responsibilities, as demonstrated by invisible caretakers who graciously share this spring. A right is actually a privilege until we lose it.

Know your hoverflies

Bees attract attention. Even if you’re not afraid of them, when there’s a bee around, you take notice. Besides the fact that they sting, bees have been in the news because of their decline due to the mysterious colony collapse disorder. But don’t be too quick to judge that yellow-striped insect pollinating your parsley. It might not be a bee at all, but an equally important hoverfly, like the one on my parsley, shown above.

Honey bees provide the essential hard labour pollinating many valuable food crops, especially the vast majority of fruits and nuts that we eat. So their decline has raised alarm in the food industry. Ironically, industrial agriculture might be partly to blame. Some research has shown bees exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides collect less pollen. Poorer foraging could threaten the survival of the colony.

Honey bees are a managed species like cattle or wheat. The most common and important species, Apis mellifera, is believed to have originated in Africa or Asia. It became the first domesticated insect. It spread with the help of humans, and they introduced it to North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand and East Asia within the past five hundred years.

Honey bees as pollinators contributed an estimated $2.03 billion in additional harvest to the Canadian farm economy in 2013, while honey and related products were valued at only $200 million.

How can hoverflies be that important? Maybe they are not, considering only their direct economic value. A 2011 study found that wild pollinators performed more than one third of the pollination of crops in California. Wild pollinators include wild bees, wasps, hoverflies, other flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles.

Hoverflies represent just one part of a diverse mosaic of species that pollinate our crops and native plants. An industry that relies so heavily on one species such as the honey bee is at risk. Biodiversity is essential to achieving food security. Small farmers have known this and diversified crops for centuries.

But hoverflies also do double duty as biocontrols. The larvae of some species are voracious predators on aphids and other soft-bodied prey. They are as effective as ladybug and lacewing larvae at controlling insect pests on plants. Other hoverfly larvae feed on rotting wood and some are aquatic.

Hoverflies are common, often colourful, and easy to recognize if you know what to look for. They are often mistaken for bees, bumblebees and wasps, and that is no accident. Adult hoverflies are defenseless, but by imitating stinging insects they trick predators into leaving them alone. Like bees they have a slim waist above the thorax, which is often brightly decorated with bee-like stripes.

So which insect should you avoid, and which is harmless?

The most obvious indicator of a bee or wasp is its long antennae. For example, take a close look at the wasp on the goldenrod (above left) or the bee on the daisy (further above). A hoverfly has much shorter, stubby antennae with a bristle. Sometimes they are hard to see at all, or look like no more than whiskers (above right).

Another important characteristic of hoverflies is that (like all flies) they have only one pair of wings. All that remains of the hind wings is a pair of small knobs called halteres, which they use for balance. Bees and wasps are typical insects, having four wings. However, they are transparent and the bee folds them over its back when not in flight, so the two pairs are often hard to distinguish.

I have sometimes mistaken a bee for a hoverfly. This error you do not want to make. Trust the antennae!

Another difference you might be able to see is in the mouth parts. Most flies have a proboscis with spongy pads at the end for soaking up food. Like most insects they also have mandibles, but these are much smaller. Again, bees are more typical, with larger jaw-like mandibles. However, these are often hidden.

So take a closer look at that bee, which might not be a bee! As often as not, what appear to be native bees or wasps are actually hoverflies. You have nothing to fear from them. And in beginning to notice, you will appreciate the great diversity of insects pollinating our plants.

Hoverflies make up a family called Syrphidae. According to the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes, northeastern North America has 397 species of hoverfly. Their website has a photo gallery to help identify some of them. BugGuide shows images of many of the 813 species in North America. As many as 6,000 species have been described worldwide.

Some species are tiny, like this one I photographed, which was only a few millimetres long. If you spot a glittering fleck darting gracefully around the flower garden, it might be a hoverfly.

There has been little research on hoverfly populations, except on certain species known to be rare and endangered. However, many experts suspect insect populations in general have been declining due to the widespread use of pesticides. The most important evidence comes from the well-documented and dramatic decline of a group of bird species known as aerial insectivores, which includes swallows, swifts, flycatchers and a few others. This phenomenon is poorly understood, but probably indicates a loss of insects for them to feed upon.

Gardeners and farmers can help by providing habitat for beneficial insects. Hoverflies are going crazy around the parsley blooming in my garden right now in mid-July. I have often seen them on tansy and goldenrod. Some other plants said to attract them are buckwheat, alyssum, candytuft, and yarrow.

Midsummer is a great time of year to look for hoverflies wherever summer wildflowers bloom along roadways and bicycle paths. But hoverflies are also some of the first pollinators to appear in early spring. So look before you duck!

Hoverfly on crocus

Backyard habitat for black swallowtail caterpillars

Two weeks ago today I chanced to witness a black swallowtail butterfly, Papilio polyxenes, taking advantage of my backyard habitat. It was laying eggs on dill plants in my garden and the neighbour’s. The eggs were yellow and smaller than the head of a pin. Over the weekend they turned orange.

After four days tiny black caterpillars appeared. They looked like frass. That’s the technical word for insect shit. It’s probably a good look for avoiding attention when you’re small. Not so effective when you’re fat and juicy. The ones in this photo, taken today, are about as long as my thumbnail. They’re starting to show some colour. As they mature they’ll grow more vivid and poisonous looking.

So far the mob of robins and starlings on our street hasn’t noticed them. Or maybe they’ll leave these bugs alone. The caterpillars taste bad and can release a foul smell to deter predators. In any case, hopefully a few will survive to turn into chrysalises and metamorphose into their gorgeous adult form.

The caterpillar is known as parsley worm because it favours parsley. It will feed on other umbellifers (Apiaceae), the family that includes carrots, celery, fennel and various seedy herbs such as coriander. This particular butterfly passed over a nearby parsley plant in preference for dill.

I’ve seen this before, long ago in the herb garden I planted as a teenager. I didn’t notice until the nearly full-grown caterpillars appeared in dramatic colouring on the dill plants. I hadn’t seen the butterflies, but with adolescent persistence I figured out what they were.

I make no allowance for cabbage worms on the kohlrabi, or earwings and leaf miners in the chard. But swallowtail caterpillars are allowed to live. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we judge creatures differently if they are beautiful? The world has no shortage of white cabbage butterflies, but black swallowtails are also widely distributed across North America, and one of the most familiar butterflies locally. Undoubtedly somebody somewhere regards these striking insects as pests. I don’t begrudge them one or two dill seedlings, which volunteer themselves abundantly each spring.

I count 10 caterpillars on the one little plant, which doesn’t appear to be suffering yet. That’s likely to change because these caterpillars are growing quickly. I might even move some of them to a new plant.

Just call me a swallowtail farmer. Or a cultivator of beauty.

If the worms began gnawing at the crown of my zucchini vines or boring into ripe Brandywine tomatoes, I might treat them differently. Honestly, I wouldn’t think twice. So much for aesthetics.

Native among the herbs: Monarda fistulosa

One of my favourite native wildflowers is Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot. It’s the slightly plainer sister of the showy red-flowered herb M. didyma or bee-balm. M. fistulosa produces lavender-coloured flowers and is called wild bergamot because the whole plant smells like a bergamot orange. This fruit is hardly familiar to North Americans except as the flavour of Earl Grey tea. Anyone who uses essential oils has likely come across bergamot oil.

One of the reasons I have a soft spot for M. fistulosa, is that it was the first native plant I ever grew from seed, and it happened almost by accident. As a teenager I began collecting native wildflower seeds and trying to germinate them. Mostly they proved a challenge for me as a novice horticulturalist.

I came across a dried out seed head in the vacant lot beside my house and collected some seeds, not knowing what it was. They germinated more easily than anything else I had tried. When the plant finally bloomed the following year, it turned out to be a wildflower I had never noticed before. Its ring of delicate florets formed a distinct coronet. But having grown M. didyma in my herb garden, I immediately recognized wild bergamot for what it was. Besides, it has the square stem distinctive of the mint family, which includes a large proportion of familiar culinary and medicinal herbs.

The plant in the photo above is not directly descended from the one I grew as a teenager. But I did germinate this one from purchased seed about five years ago.

Wild bergamot’s flavour is a little less intense, a little greener, a little wilder than that of domesticated bee-balm. I like to add a few leaves to my morning pot of green tea. Native pollinators love the flowers.

I’ve decided to dedicate more space to herbs in the garden this year. Well, not exactly in the garden. I’ve planted the main collection in four plastic barrels by the front porch, formerly occupied by tomatoes and peppers. Tarragon, thyme, lavender and wild bergamot survived the winter. Parsley and dill are already volunteering. New lemon verbena, oregano, sage, marjoram, rosemary, pineapple sage and some other plants came from the nursery. Meanwhile, chocolate mint will prefer the shady back patio, where chervil sprouting between the bricks and is ready to bloom white sprays any day now. There’s enough peppermint growing wild in the creek behind our house to supply the entire neighbourhood, though I suppose hardly anybody knows it’s there.

Sadly, I made the choice to dig up and discard lovage. It’s another one of my favourite herbs, with an intense celery flavour for soups. But the monstrous plant has no place in my small raised vegetable bed any longer, and the deep taproot won’t adapt to container living. Besides, it breeds discontentment, making me long for a bigger yard.

Many, many herbs are well suited to container gardening and small spaces, so let’s make the most of them. This herb garden is taking shape. It reminds me of the one I planted as a teenager. Herbs have played a subtle but important role throughout my life, with their savour, richness and hint of magic. Most are immigrants from the Old World, with ancient lineages barely decipherable.

But not wild bergamot. It grew from the same soil as me, and I met it there. It has a softer, more polite stature than cultivated bee-balm. In fact it holds a distinctly Canadian posture beside the Mediterranean oregano and very English lavender that will share its barrel this summer.