I’m Done with Winter

We’ve had a fairly normal winter until the end of December, then WHAM!! Early in the morning on December 31, we dipped below freezing and stayed there for over a week—200 hours—breaking a record from 1979, and the first week of January was the coldest ever on record.

There was snow on Wednesday, about an scant inch here and more west and south; the lowest it got here in Durham was 3°F, and in Pittsboro with more snow, it got down to 0°F! We finally rose above freezing Monday morning. Tuesday we reached 63°F, and by Friday we hit 73°F—100° above the low just five days prior.

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Reusable vs. recycleable

Do you know where that blue can of mixed recyclables goes every two weeks?

Much of it goes to China, but that may end in January. In July, China informed the World Trade Organization that it would ban “imports of 24 types of recycled materials including various plastics (PET, PE, PVC and PS), as well as unsorted mixed paper, textiles, and some trace metals. And according to Beijing, starting in January every waste container entering China is to be inspected for contaminated materials”, according to Bloomberg BNA. Much of the recycling we send is contaminated, meaning that it’s mixed with other recyclables or garbage. When it get to the Chinese processing plants, it requires people to pick through it, and the garbage has to be disposed of in China—after being trucked and shipped all the way from the U.S.

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Two Weeks in 2017 – Fire, Flood, and Wind

In the last two weeks (Aug. 25 – Sept. 10), 19 U.S. states were affected by either hurricanes or fires. I’m no expert in climate change, but global increasing temperatures would seem a logical cause for two record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires.

Warming seas and sea-level increases are part of the formula for the current hurricanes’ strength, but not all. Bob Ward has written a good summary of climate change and Hurricane Harvey for The Guardian. The consensus is that as temperatures rise, hurricanes will be stronger and possibly more numerous.

In the western area of the U.S. and along the Canada border, massive fires are burning. Increasing and earlier spring temperatures means that snow melt is happening earlier, and summer temperatures are also increasing; normally dry areas just bake in these conditions. However, an increase in the  “wildland-urban interface”, where people want to live near wilderness areas, also increases the property damage during wildfires, as does preventing natural fires from burning to keep fuel down. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a good site on how to mitigate some of the fire damage at Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks?, but they say regardless, the fires will increase.

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white crab spider, Mecaphesa sp.

It’s like a Pet Sematary out there!

The milkweed is full of life and death tonight, like the terrifying cemetery in Stephen King’s novel. I was late getting out in the yard, so it was close to dusk and storm clouds were rolling in.

I wandered out to harvest a couple more figs from my baby tree, which is next to the milkweed patch. I always looked for Monarch cats; I haven’t had any this year. As I searched for any missing leaves among the throngs of oleander aphids, I suddenly stop. Could it be…?

Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus
Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus

YES!! Only one, but there it was! (Apparently, when the light is low my iPhone camera doesn’t focus as sharply.)

Continue reading “It’s like a Pet Sematary out there!”

Sleepy Bees in the Milkweed

Walking around the garden tonight (July 30), I admired the swamp milkweed  (Asclepias incarnata) in bloom. Then I noticed a bee on the underside of the flower head; it was an eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica). I’ve got tons of them this year, and fortunately they are leaving my house, deck, and fence alone for the most part. I’m surrounded by woods including a fair amount of dead trees that I leave out for the fauna.

Then I saw another bee, and then three more – all on the milkweed!

3_carpenter_bees_Jul 31.17
Do you see all three?

Only female carpenter bees can sting, but you have to grab them to make them go that far. Males have a pale yellow dot on their face. In spring, bees emerge from their nests and mate; then females may use the old nest or excavate a new one and lay eggs, which hatch in August. These babies will overwinter in the same nests and emerge in spring to  begin the cycle again.

Carpenter bees are great pollinators of eggplant, tomato, passionflower, and blueberries.

male_carpenter_bees_Jul 31.17
Male carpenter bee


For more information…

Penn State has a great page about the carpenter bee life cycle.

Here’s a scholarly article on using carpenter bees instead of honeybees for commercial crop pollination.


Review of “Green Metropolis”

New York, NY at night
Would you like to live here?

Note: I’ve decided to post a few book reviews on sustainability and related subjects. Please feel free to comment!

Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country about True Sustainability

Author: David Owen, 2009

David Owen makes a compelling case that the most environmentally friendly way for humans to live on this planet is in high-rise, densely packed cities that are definitely NOT car friendly. He offers Manhattan, NY as a great example, noting that with 1.5 million people living in 23 acres, they have to live small.

In such a tight space, owning a car is simply not practical for most people, because of the parking cost and frustration of driving as cars aren’t a priority on the roads; people live in smaller homes because of expensive housing, which then reduces purchasing anything but the necessities. All of which make walking, biking, or taking public transport to all shopping or work places that are also nearby means greenhouse gasses, trash, fuel, and water use are all reduced. New Yorkers’ average greenhouse gas production is 7.1 metric tons a year, versus a national average of 24 metric tons.

The typical actions that most suburban dwellers do to be more sustainable – composting waste, recycling, organic or local food purchases, and installing solar panels and high-efficiency windows – all amount to a tiny effect, often with bad side effects. Owen says do the boring stuff first, such as increasing the insulation in your attic and subfloors, use curtains and keep your thermostat nearer to the outdoor temperatures, cut down the number of car trips or even the number of cars, and reduce the square footage that you have to heat and cool.

Many of these things Owen hasn’t done himself, he admits, because the price of fuel isn’t low enough to make it a priority. Granted, both he and his wife work from home and have one car, so they have made a large change already.

His recommendation to make cars too expensive to own seems to run counter to his later suggestion that electricity costs should be priced on how efficiently it is used, which would mean NY would have very low rates instead of some of the highest – which would encourage more use. He doesn’t consider electric cars or tiny cars a solution because they still encourage people to spread out from work and shopping; the electric cars are a sore spot because you still have to get electricity from somewhere, and that may actually mean more electricity plants burning fossil fuels will have to be built to keep up with demand. In the eight years since he wrote this, however, solar technology has made huge strides and should be able to produce a lot of the power for the electric cars.

He bases many of his recommendations on how humans naturally react to their environment, but I think education and ease-of-use can also make things like green spaces more used. However, he doesn’t see the suburban dwellers’ change in behaviors to be something that can be built on; clearly education has done this along with making certain things like recycling easy. Continued education might influence more change, such as future home purchases that consider availability of public transport and a smaller home, for example.

One of the most glaring issues not covered are how healthy people are in these cities, since he seems to be concentrating only on the middle class who could afford alternatives including moving away from the city. These high prices have a devastating effect on the poorest residents.

He also doesn’t consider rain and the effects of hundreds of acres of impermeable surfaces on aquifers, downstream waterways, or the water treatment in the city. He thinks open spaces should be small parks (his best example was a completely paved vendor and carnival area), and green roofs don’t have much environmental impact for the amount of infrastructure they need.

He readily admits that his home out in the country is terribly unsustainable, as he constantly hammers on the distant one has to drive to do anything, the larger houses that are so wasteful, the SUVs that guzzle gas. Yet he has lived there for over 20 years, so he seems a bit hypocritical.

I listened to this as an audio book, and I admit that the thought of living, walking, and working with that many people all shoulder to hip doesn’t sound at all appealing to me. However, the version of high-density development in my town are narrow streets filled with average to large homes with alleys between them and a small back yard, all of which face other homes just a few feet away. I’ve always wondered who would want such a home, because it’s like the worst of apartment living with the noise and neighbors combined with the worst of owning a home with its less efficient heating and cooling costs, distance from work, and yard maintenance. Yet that’s what many people can afford to fulfill their dream of home ownership. If apartments were cheaper than owning a home, had good noise insulation, and were close to work and parks, then I agree that we should be building more of these than those sub-developments, but with rental rates higher than mortgage payments I doubt it will happen.

Owen is right as far as he goes that living in pedestrian-friendly cities is better for the environment and cost is the main factor for any fast changes, but I believe education beginning with children can create more lasting change.

Mountain mint

I’ve got a second year of Narrowleaf Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)  growing, and usually it pulls in every pollinator around. But on June 18, it was quite cool (76 degrees F), and not a single bug could be seen on the mountain mint. Yesterday afternoon, I had my camera out in the hot afternoon (90 degrees) and it was covered. Whew! Here’s some the visitors.

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