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A Winter Bee Adventure

Lexy Podlesney, Austin Eubanks, and “yours truly” checking out the bee log

That old dead sycamore tree was leaning over the driveway. I knew it was just a matter of time before it fell and blocked the driveway. We knew we had to take it down. It was a branchless snag about 40 feet tall. Up near the top was a large hole made by a pileated woodpecker. We didn’t relish the idea of destroying the woodpecker’s nesting cavity, but it was mid-January, well before the breeding season so there would be no nestlings there.

Our friend Austin fired up his chainsaw. A few minutes later the tree came crashing down and broke into a number of pieces when it hit the driveway. When we looked at the top of the tree where the woodpecker’s cavity was, we realized right away that it was far from vacant; it was full of honeycombs and honey bees! The weather was cool and the bees were hardly flying at all, so we got to sample a little bit of fresh honey without any stings. Yum! We carefully sawed off that piece with the bee colony and took it to the bee yard. We set it on top of my weakest bee colony, put some empty supers around it with a cover on top and hoped for the best. A month or so later during a warm day we checked on the hive. The bees had cleaned out all of the honey from the log and moved down below into the hive. The new bees moving in with new honey stores gave the weak hive a boost and it looked stronger, so we are still hoping for the best.
Viva la buzz!

Lexy Podlesney, Austin Eubanks, and “yours truly” checking out the bee log

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The Butterfly Hitchhiker

Male Diana Butterfly

I was delighted to see the somewhat rare Diana butterflies in our garden and then I saw a post from Juniper Odell featuring a huge, fierce-looking Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar. These two amazing organisms made me think of the time I picked up a hitchhiker with a butterfly net. It’s a bit long for a blog post but it’s an amazing true story excerpted from one of the chapters in my Swarm Tree book. I hope you enjoy it.

I was driving to Elkins, West Virginia to teach nature and craft classes at Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops when I spotted a hitchhiker on the road ahead.

In checking him out, as I drew closer, I could see this guy was a little rough looking – missing a couple of front teeth, wearing a funky baseball cap with some day-glow paint on it, and a rat tail of long hair extending down to the nape of his T-shirt. In spite of his rough edges, there was an honest directness in his face. As I slowed down, considering whether to stop or not, I noticed he was carrying a partially filled pillow case, and could that be – a butterfly net!  “Oh this is too much,” I muttered and pulled right on over. No question about it, anyone hitching through West Virginia with a butterfly net will likely get a ride from me. I watched with curiosity through the rear view mirror as he jogged up to my truck. We greeted each other as he climbed in. Strong northern accent, I noticed.

“Don’t mind this,” he said “this is my butterfly net.”

“I thought so,” I said. “Where you headed?”

“I’m headed over into Virginia, east of here about thirty or forty miles; gonna do some butterfly collecting in a place called Poverty Hollow. I’m gonna try to catch some of these…  Here, I’ll show you.”

He reached into his pillowcase and pulled out a cigar box.  When he opened it, I could see it was full of the triangular folded specimen envelopes that butterfly collectors use to store and transport their specimens. He lifted out a large one and read his notations on the fold. “Yeah, July sixth, 1990.  I caught this one almost exactly a year ago today. This is the time of year they’re flyin’.”

He opened the envelope and showed me a large dark butterfly with a speckled pattern and a four-inch wingspan. I was surprised that I didn’t recognize this butterfly. Having been interested in butterflies for years and having collected them in my youth, I can usually identify almost any large eastern butterfly.  But this one stumped me.

“It’s a Diana,” he said. “They’re sort of rare and local, but not where I’m going. I been there almost every July for the last eight years. I even lived down there for a year or so,” he said.

This was Speyeria diana, considered to be the largest and most uniquely beautiful of the fritillaries (Nymphalidae).  A real prize for collectors.    

“Where you from?” I asked.

“Lockport, New York. It’s just outside of Buffalo.” 

“You hitched all the way down here to go butterfly hunting?”

 “Yeah, my car would never make the trip. I started yesterday morning. I’m making good time… so far. Where you headed?” he asked.

“I’m on my way to Elkins, West Virginia.”

“Elkins! Oh yeah, I been writing to a guy up in Elkins that collects butterflies. He works for the Forest Service. His name is… Tom… can’t think of his last name. He caught a bilateral gynandromorph of a Diana.  I read about it in the Lep. (Lepidoptera) Journal…”

“Now hold it a minute,” I interrupted.  “He caught a what?”

“A bilateral gynandromorph of a Diana.” 

“What’s that?”

He went on to explain that Diana butterflies are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the males and females are very different from each other. The males have tan-orange wings and the female’s wings are black with blue on the margins. This collector, he was telling me about, had caught a specimen that was male on one half of its body and female on the other – an extreme oddity.

(It turns out that the hitchhiker was speaking of Thomas Allen, who six years later, in 1997 authored a book entitled Butterflies of West Virginia. A photograph of that bilateral gynandromorph is on the back cover of the book.)

“A specimen like that is worth thousands of dollars,” he commented.

“Do you sell the butterflies you catch?” I asked.

“I used to, but not so much anymore. I usually donate most of mine to the Buffalo Science Museum. In fact, these days I usually release most of the ones I catch. I’d like to get into photography.” 

I remembered that Diana is the Roman name for Artemis, the wild virgin huntress. Not only was she goddess of the moon, but also of the chase. She was fleet of foot, an expert archer and frequented wild places armed with bow, arrows and a javelin /spear.  She was wild, beautiful and untouchable – chaste and pure – as were the bevy of nymphs who followed her.

I asked my new companion what it was about butterflies that so attracted him. He went on to tell me about how when he was a youngster in western New York, his dad used to take him on fishing trips. Rather than fishing, he would always end up with his dad’s landing net chasing butterflies. “Something about their color,” he said dreamily, “and I been into butterflies ever since.”  

Now here he was, an adult traveling hundreds of miles with little more than a soft silken net following his dream, passionately pursuing these untamed, elusive fluttering bits of color. At this moment, he was seeking the queen of them all – Diana, the one named for the goddess of the chase – the archetype of passionate pursuit.                                      

The story of Diana’s encounter with Actaeon, a young sportsman, reveals the power and ruthless intensity of her wild, untouchable nature. Actaeon was a mere mortal, but like the goddess, Diana, he loved to hunt. One day he was out hunting with his buddies and his pack of dogs. Around noon, that fateful hour when the sun reaches its zenith and begins its descent into darkness, the hunting party stopped in the shade of a tree to rest. As it turned out, Actaeon and his buddies were not the only ones hunting that morning.

Diana and her nymphs, after a long and exciting pursuit had also halted their morning hunt and retired to a favorite secluded glade, “…deep in the recesses of the wood, where the cold crystal of a mossy pool rose to the flowery marge… The cool waters rippled so invitingly that the goddess and her attendants gleefully flung their short hunting vestments aside and plunged into the clear waters to lave their heated limbs.”

About this same time, while his dogs and companions were resting, Acteaon wandered off into the forest, and hearing bursts of silvery laughter, he crept cautiously through the underbrush and there in the cypress-lined pool he saw the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing. He was awestruck by their beauty. He could not take his eyes off the scene. When they saw him, the nymphs shrieked in terror and tried to cover Diana with their bodies but the goddess stood well above them. Diana was taken completely off guard and she was furious. She was inflamed with indignation. Ovid reports, “a color that tinges the clouds at sunset or dawn came over the countenance of Diana.” Her clothes and weapons were out of reach, so she slowly reached into the pool, caught some water in the palm of her hand and flung it into Actaeon’s face. She looked him right in the eye, pointed a rosy finger at him and she shouted, “Now, you just go ahead and say you have seen the goddess, Diana, nude — IF you can!”             

As soon as the glittering droplets of water touched him, he began to get horny, literally. Antlers sprouted from his head and his neck and limbs began growing longer. His hands and feet turned into hooves. He fled, and as he bounded through the forest he marveled at his own speed until he stopped at a pool to drink and there he saw in the reflection that he had been turned into a stag – a young buck. When he returned to his resting dogs and companions, they didn’t recognize him. And they promptly pursued and killed him.

As the hitchhiker and I drove, our conversation rolled rapidly along, from the more common swallowtails and fritillaries to the more esoteric, skippers, heliconias, and saturnid moths. He went on to tell about unusual butterflies he had hunted in many locations around the country. As we talked, he was pleasantly surprised to realize that I also knew something about butterflies. We introduced ourselves. (I’ll call him Fred.) When I told him I was going to teach workshops about nature lore, he reached into his sack again and pulled out a plastic margarine container with holes in the lid. He opened it and said, “Here’s some viceroy caterpillars I’ve been raising. They are almost ready to pupate but they need some more poplar leaves soon. Take ’em with you and you can raise them for your class.” (I did and they all pupated and emerged in the next two weeks.) 

Soon we came to the fork in the road where I would need to turn north toward Elkins and he would head east into Virginia. I offered to take him to his butterfly hunting ground since it was only about twenty miles out of my way.

“I’d love to see a Diana flying,” I said. “Is there any chance we might see some?”

“No problem,” he assured me, “they fly till 6:35.” He looked at his watch.  “Oh, it’s later than I thought.  It’s almost six o’clock. Well, we might make it,” he said hopefully.

As we drove along, I learned more about my rider – about how he works construction sometimes, but lately he has been getting into pin striping cars and vans, and painting signs for a living. He has a couple of estranged wives and a few kids that he was doing his best to support. Wondering about the extent of his interest in the natural world, I asked if he collected anything besides butterflies.

“Baseball cards.”

“Oh no,” I exclaimed, “This is outrageous.”

“What, do you collect baseball cards, too?” he asked. 

“No, I did when I was a kid, but I’m just surprised, that’s all.” 

“Yeah that would be too much of a coincidence, wouldn’t it… I mean if we were both into butterflies AND baseball cards…”

As we got closer to his destination, he began to point out certain billboards that have lights that are good for collecting moths. Before long we came to the turn-off from the highway and soon we were cruising down a country road, both of us craning our necks at any patch of sunlit meadow for the last evening wing beats of a butterfly. “Okay, now, up ahead on the right, around this next curve is my favorite clump of milkweed. The sun should still be on it.  If they are flying anywhere, they’ll be flying there.” We pulled over at the milkweeds; they were in full bloom but not a butterfly was to be seen. The sun had just dropped behind the ridge. We got out and wandered through the patch, Fred waving his net through the weeds hoping to flush out a roosting butterfly. He looked at his watch. “Yeah, it’s almost seven. They’ve all settled down for the night.” We had talked earlier about Dutchman’s pipe vine, the primary food plant of the pipevine swallowtail. Since he couldn’t recognize it, I wanted to show him a plant. So we cruised down the road watching for the vines with the distinctive heart-shaped leaves along the creek where it flowed through wooded areas. Soon we got out again along the edge of a pasture and wandered into the woods exploring and looking for Dutchman’s pipe. I noticed that every time we stopped the car and got out, Fred would carefully take out his pillowcase and set it on the ground.  This is a sign of an experienced hitchhiker – never leaving your possessions in someone else’s car. When we came back out of the woods, he pointed across the road to the house of some acquaintances with whom he was hoping to stay. It was a nice looking rural ranch house, two cars in the driveway, pastures and a barn out back. When I asked him how he got to know those folks, he said that when he was here collecting butterflies other years, he spent every day hiking an 18-mile circuit of back roads. They had picked him up so often, they got to know him and eventually offered him a place to stay. As he walked over to collect his sack, I asked him if he had any of his baseball cards with him. He did. He pulled out not one, but two photo albums and started leafing through pointing out various treasures. “See that one, that’s worth $600 …  and these here are worth $200 each and this one here – $150.  And these here,” he said. flipping to another section, “aren’t so old but they are gonna be worth something one day. See, I got ’em autographed.”

I asked him if he had a Mickey Mantle card, as that was the best card you could get when I was a kid. I was curious if I would recognize that vintage. “Let’s see, that would have been about 1958,” he said and in the course of figuring the dates, we realized that we were the same age. (This precipitated a fleeting second of eye contact; sizing each other up; of recognition; brotherhood.)

“How come you brought your cards down here with you?”

“Well you see, it’s my wife… that I’m separated from…  Now I keep up with my support payments and my responsibilities, but say I got into some good butterflies down here and I wanted to stay another week or so…”

“She might throw out your cards?”

 “No, man, she ain’t that dumb.  She’d  SELL ’em… or threaten to, anyway.  If I have ’em with me, I don’t have to worry.”

In the course of showing me his collections, I realized that with his two albums of baseball cards and his cigar box full of butterfly specimens, (and an old Beach Boys record album I didn’t ask about), he hardly had room for a change of clothes.  He was here to stay for at least a week or two. He walked across the road and up the driveway to the farmhouse. The man of the house was just pulling out in his car. I heard Fred’s part of their conversation as I turned around to drive off. “Yeah how ya doing? Yeah I’m back again this year. Hunting butterflies again. I was wondering if I could stay here again… I got some money this time. I’d be glad to give you a few dollars…”  He went in the house and that was the last l ever saw of him. 

Just before we parted, Fred left me with this story:

“I had been raising some hickory horned devil caterpillars, and they were getting really big, man. You’ve seen ’em haven’t you?”

I had seen them and they made a big impression. The hickory horned devil is the larva of the royal walnut moth. They are very large and noted for their weird, fearsome appearance. They are thick bodied, bright green in color, with short fleshy legs and a cluster of curved orange and black horns behind the head. 

“Well, these were just about ready to pupate. I had a half-dozen of them in a big paper shopping bag. They were beauties, man. They were as big as hot dogs and their horns were an inch long! I was on the city bus in Buffalo and I got off to go to the burlesque show. I went inside and I folded the top of the bag up and tucked it in the corner. I stayed about an hour and I spent forty bucks.” (I didn’t ask what he spent it on.) “Well then I left the burlesque show, got back on the bus and I don’t know what I was thinking about, but I got all the way across town before I realized that I’d forgotten my caterpillars. I’d left ’em there at the burlesque show!  I didn’t have the nerve to go back for them, man. Can you imagine what somebody would think, opening that bag of caterpillars at the burlesque show?”

“Like some new kind of French ticklers?” I guessed.

“That’s right!” he said with a preposterous laugh.

Next time he goes to the burlesque show to view scantily clad nymphs, I hope he doesn’t encounter the real goddess, Diana. She might cause him to lose more than his caterpillars! 


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The Milkweed — Dogbane Dilemma

‘Herb Teacher Poisons Students,’ I can see the headlines now,” she said with exasperation in her voice, as she gestured at the newly sprouted green plants in front of us. ” You tell me one of these plants here is poisonous and the other is edible and nutritious. Here they are growing right beside each other. I’m an herbalist and I can’t tell them apart! How am I supposed to teach my students if I can’t even figure them out? “

It was mid-May at an herb conference in Massachusetts. A group of us were on an herb walk and we were exploring an open field where we found young shoots of dogbane, Apocynum cannabinum, growing intermixed with common milkweed, Aesclepias syriaca.

The two thinner stalks on the left are poisonous dogbane and the one on the right is milkweed.

Milkweed shoots at this time of the year are edible and delicious as a cooked green vegetable or pot herb. They can be cooked by dropping the fresh picked shoots in a pot of boiling water and simmer them for 20-30 minutes, until tender. I’ve eaten many a “mess” of these tender milkweed greens and I find them delicious and well received by anyone I serve them to.

Dogbane, however, is highly toxic. It contains the cardiac glycoside, apocynamarine, which can cause cardiac arrest. As little as half an ounce of the dried leaves mixed in hay can kill a large farm animal. (Dogbane is also known as Indian hemp because the mature stalks yield a fine hemp-like cordage or textile fiber.)

When these plants are mature they are easy to tell apart by their distinctive flowers and seeds. The milkweed stem becomes thick and hairy while the dogbane stem is more slender and takes on a reddish hue. But these plants we were looking at here were hardly a foot tall. Both species have opposite, oval leaves and both plants exude a white, milky latex when the leaves are broken. At this time of the year they were almost identical.

These herb enthusiasts wandered around the field getting very confused and discouraged. I could tell the difference between the two species, but I have been studying these plants for a number of years. I kept trying to point out the subtle differences, like the more robust structure of the milkweed, but it was almost impossible to convey the differences especially when we could find a delicate, young milkweed shoot with a slender stem next to a large, older, thick-stemmed dogbane. Many of these folks were experienced with plants and it was disheartening to think that a group like this could not positively differentiate between a common edible wild plant and its highly poisonous look-alike.

Finally someone piped up, “Did anyone taste them? We need to let our whole body speak. What do they taste like?” We started tasting and within a few minutes we all could agree the milkweed leaves were mild and chalky tasting while the dogbane leaves were powerfully bitter and acrid. The difference was clear as could be. Using our taste buds there was no mistaking the poisonous plant. It was also comforting to realize that in this instance the toxic plant was much too bitter to eat.

We all learned an important lesson that day. Identifying plants is not a dry intellectual exercise using only our brains, our eyes and our field guides. To identify plants effectively we must use our other senses as well–touch, taste and smell. Identifying plants at its best is a whole body, holistic experience that can deepen our connection with the plants and the world in general in many ways.

Is it dangerous to put poisonous plants in our mouths? Most experts agree that a small amount of any wild plant (and even deadly mushrooms) can be tasted and spit out with no adverse effects. (The exceptions might be dermatitis causing plants like poison ivy and nettles.) This does not mean that all poisonous plants taste bad. Some deadly mushrooms and poisonous members of the carrot family, like the highly toxic water hemlock, are mild and pleasant tasting. So as you explore wild plants, use your senses but also use your head and your good common sense as well as your reference materials. Enjoy the taste, touch, smell, the visual beauty, as well as the intellectual stimulation that this rich, complex, miraculous, green world that surrounds us provides.

Speaking of edible wild plants, Sam Thayer has done it! He has produced the most comprehensive field guide to the edible wild plants of eastern North America ever written. He covers 700 edible species. If you’re interested in edible wild plants anywhere east of the Rockies, this is the book for you. Truly a masterwork!

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Rat Bait

My latest and probably my last CD recording, “Ginseng, Golden Apples and the Rainbow Fish” recently received special recognition. Of my 10 recordings, it is special in many ways. It was a live concert recorded at the National Storytelling Festival where it got a standing ovation. My fiddler son Todd and our guitarist friend Keith Ward accompanied me musically. The story I tell is a fun, wide-ranging true tale that covers everything from ginseng hunting, possum sex, and the fungal web of life to an Appalachian Jack tale, ancient Greek myths, as well as a personal mythic journey where I meet three strangers on the road and catch a trout by hand. This has been a fairly popular CD but it just received a new appreciation from an individual whose proper name is Neotoma floridana.

It all started in our cluttered shop, a portion of which I call my “fulfillment center.” This is where I store and ship out my various books and recordings. One evening I thought I heard some rat-like scurrying sounds.

Occasionally woodrats will come down off the mountain and move into one of our sheds or buildings. The woodrat is a native animal. Unlike the invasive, gray, scaly-tailed Norway rat, woodrats are rather attractive creatures — colored like deer with brown fur on the back and sides, pure white belly fur, and delicate pink toes. The tail is bi-colored with brown fur on the top and white underneath. Woodrats are also known as pack rats because of their propensity to build large nests where they assemble heaps of leaves, sticks, and pieces of bark. They also like to decorate their nests with interesting treasures such as bones, feathers, mushrooms, and shiny things such as bullet shells, bottle caps, and pieces of metal or plastic. Neotoma floridana is the eastern woodrat’s scientific name.

I baited a live-trap with peanut butter and walnuts, but had no luck after two nights. So, we investigated a little further and climbed up into the loft. There we found the classic big pile of debris: a few sticks and leaves, but mostly cardboard, paper, rags, plastic fixtures, pencils, etc. foraged from around the shop.

There, tucked in with all the other junk were two of my CDs! The woodrat had stolen them out of the carton and hauled them up to decorate its nest. It didn’t open the CDs. (It turns out woodrats are not technically advanced enough to operate a CD player.)

Eastern wood rat nest in loft
Eastern woodrat nest in my loft

Good taste in recordings or not, we had to get rid of this pack rat. The trap with peanut butter and walnuts had not worked so this time I baited the trap with one of the CDs. Sure enough, next morning there was the culprit, wistfully leering out of the cage, holding on to my CD! After a brief photo session, I took the little rascal down the road a few miles and released it near an old abandoned house.

Doug Elliott with eastern woodrat in a live trap

So, you too can have one of these special CDs. They’re on sale here this month. Not only are these recordings entertaining, inspiring, and educational, but they’re also good for rat bait!

Doug Elliott visits Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks, who is famous for his tales about the mythical folk hero Jack. Along with Jack’s exploits, Ray tells a few of his own hair-raising adventures, like when he was followed by a panther. He also recounts colorful folklore about the love life of ‘possums, bloodsucking owls, and tips for successful ‘seng hunting.

Driving home with his head full of wild tales, Elliott embarks on a true modern-day mythic journey where he catches a trout by hand; harvests wild apples, ginseng, and mushrooms; ponders Greek myths, Biblical verses, and the fungal web of life; meets three strangers; and finds himself living out his own folktale.

You’ll hear a poem by William Butler Yeats, quotes from the Roman poet Ovid, and a risqué herbal ballad by the great botanist Jim Duke. You’ll find out what happens when Artemis (aka Diana) gets caught skinny dipping and when Atalanta loses a foot race, as well as what happens when Jack leaves home to sell a cow and comes back with a rock. In this live recording of a standing ovation performance at the National Storytelling Festival, Elliott is accompanied by guitarist Keith Ward and his son Todd Elliott on fiddle.

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Taste of Coon

“Will you come tell our senior citizens group some stories?” It was our neighbor Polly calling. “We have fellowship every day at the Shingle Hollow clubhouse around 11 and we have lunch around noon. We’d love for you to come tell us some stories during the fellowship hour.

“Now the only thing is, Doug, we can’t invite you to lunch because it’s a government subsidized lunch for senior citizens and you have to be over 65 to qualify. I hate that, Doug, but we gotta follow the rules.”

I assured her that was fine with me and I’d be glad to come tell stories and not to worry at all about lunch. So, we arranged a date. I went, told stories and everyone seemed to enjoy it. After I was finished, they all lined up for lunch. Polly said, “Come on out to the truck. I have something for you.” She handed me an aluminum pie pan covered with foil.

“It’s coon,” she said, “We cooked it on the heater all last night and I fried it in batter this morning. It’s still a little bit warm.”

I thanked her profusely.

This was some years ago when there were a number of raccoon hunters in the area. Many coon hunters were in it for the adventure of roaming the woods at night listening to the baying of the hounds, but they didn’t really want the coon after they killed it. So, they’d bring the coon to Polly and her husband. They were very earthy country folks who wouldn’t want to see good meat wasted. They were always willing to take a fresh-killed raccoon.

Polly knew how to expertly prepare wild meat. To ensure tenderness she parboiled it, letting it simmer for hours, using spicebush twigs in the water to moderate any gameyness. Then she rolled each piece in a spicy batter and fried it. The final product was tender, succulent, rich-flavored meat that was coated with a golden-brown crispy crust. It was delicious!

In those days we didn’t have a lot of meat. We kept a few chickens and we occasionally made soup or stew from a rooster or an old hen who stopped laying. As good as they were in soups and stews, these birds were too tough to make fried chicken.

Well, Polly’s southern fried coon rocked our world! We had a little boy around the house at the time. Our son Todd was about 3 years old. He loved that southern fried coon. He would toddle over to the refrigerator–he could barely reach the door handle–and say, “Coon?”

We called Polly and told her how much we appreciated her gift. Over the next few years, every now and then, we’d get a phone call, “Doug, meet us up by your mailbox. We’re going to be driving by your place in a few minutes. We got a plate of coon for you.”

One time I remember, as she handed me a plate, she said, “Doug, this ain’t the whole coon. We ate some of it and Johnny Robinson wanted some of it, but there’s still a lot left for you. I realized right then that we had become part of a sacred circle honoring this noble wild creature who even after its death nourished and connected the community.

Fast forward a decade or so. We were at a community supper. Todd was a teenager. He filled his plate with a selection of home-cooked dishes. The first thing he tasted was a piece of fried chicken. He took one bite and said, “Yum, that tastes like coon!”