Saturday, January 10, 2009

The first pussywillows

It is January 9th. As I drive through the neighborhood in the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a regular check of the male Scouler’s willow trees in a nearby alley. These are always the first ones I’ve found anywhere in Olympia to produce the classic pussywillows. In the 15 years I have lived in westside Olympia, I notice that the arrival of the pussywillows is coming earlier and earlier. Today I saw the first ones: this is the earliest date ever.

This is a plant that has spoken to me from childhood. In high school, my best friend Geva and I would keep an eye out for these, and gift each other with them. We considered the soft grey catkins a powerful badge of the best kind of friendship: “The Royal Order of the Pussywillow”. Just last year, she sent me some from California.

Also last year I spent quite a bit of time sitting with willows. I was doing a field survey project for our local bumblebees. I had read that the earliest emerging queen bumblebees seek out pussywillows for food. So near the end of February, I parked my camp chair in the alley beneath these blooming trees. I chose a sunny late afternoon, on one of those freakish warm days. I was astonished by what I saw: the bumblebees were out in herds.

I had read that they love willow pollen. Bumblebees use nectar and pollen to fuel themselves, and in late winter, there are few sources of either. But some willow catkins break dormancy early, morphing over a few weeks from fuzzy grey into producing long yellow stamens stuffed with bright yellow pollen at their tips. This is a fabulous late winter food. For the early emerging bumblebees, it’s as if the only local food market opened its doors for the first time since fall. These early willows may make the difference between life and death for these queens.
It also turns out that even male willow catkins produce nectar. Bumblebees find food by smell; though I could not see the fragrance drifting on the slight breeze, I am guessing that an irresistible willow fragrance drifted out into the neighborhood, calling in all bumblebees. This is likely how they found these trees.

As I sat there drowsing in the sun, the bumblebees came and went; the willows were buzzing with queen bumblebees. I was entranced and enraptured, totally engaged in these bees and the amazing spectacle of new life they were showing.
In the neighborhood nearby, people were out washing their cars, looking at their gardens, tinkering with their projects. But no one saw the bees. Here at these willow trees, bees from all over the west side are pouring in, finding critical food, and getting read to build their nests for the year. This is a spring miracle, the festival of the returning bumblebees. And only I, sitting on my chair in the late February sun, noticed.

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