Monday, August 31, 2009

Almost September = late July??

Does this look like almost September to you? It doesn’t look that way to me either. I guess this is what buckets of rain in August means. Almost September looks like mid-late July. Usually, this late in August, the forest, the grass, the fields are all turning brown. As August is usually hades-hot and dry here, brown vegetation is not a surprising result.

This year August has been cool and wet, and this morning’s photo shows the result of that. Today, the weather feels like early fall, like late September perhaps. The temperature was in the upper 50’s this morning; the humidity has crashed to about 0 (after a deluge of 2" on Friday evening that cleared it). I’m not complaining, though I feel this weird disconnect about a forest that looks like late July but feels like late September. Usually, I don’t see a two month spread between how the forest looks and how it feels.

I have no idea what will happen in September this year. I suspect the long stretch of wet weather will extend the life of the leaves hanging on to the trees, even if the temperatures stay on the cool side. We’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out in another 4-8 weeks. I’d like to think the moisture would help create brilliant fall colors in another several weeks. The fall colors haven’t been much to speak of for the past few years, mostly because of dryness. Last year was better than the year before, but still wasn’t up to standard, in my opinion. I wouldn’t mind if the fall color lasted longer than a week, either. I just hope it’s not the green shade that lasts into November.

About the only prediction I think I can safely make is that I don’t expect to see a "typical" September because of August’s weather. What form that untypical September will take, though, isn’t something I can predict. And how deeply this unique August weather will affect the forest even later into the fall is yet another mystery. Stay tuned. I think it’s going to be interesting.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The hazards are different here...

Over the years, I’ve learned that the road hazards associated with living in the woods are different from those of suburbia. Falling or fallen trees can appear out of nowhere. So can deer, which are usually worse than the tree issue because they move. Squirrels and rabbits dart across the road, zigzagging like mad. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost hit one, despite a panic-braking stop.

Hazards like snapping turtles or box turtles are of a different class. With those, I usually stop the car and either move them or try to lure them off the road. Then, the hazard is that some other driver, rounding a curve or coming down one of Pennsylvania’s ever-present hills, isn’t paying attention and doesn’t stop for me. Of course, where I live, it’s easy to go 20-30 minutes without another car passing by, but still, people who live in rural areas don’t pay attention while driving to any greater degree than anyone else.

Today, my hazard was these wild turkeys. I was past the forest and into rural lands by about a quarter of a mile when I crested a hill and—there they were. I hit the brakes and let them slowly amble across the road. They were in no hurry. They gave a look as though I was at fault for disturbing them.

A man I used to work with, who was a dedicated turkey hunter, once told me that turkeys had the rare ability to seem like the smartest animal in the woods—and the dumbest. I’m not sure which category this morning’s episode falls into.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Busy day around the mountain

Today’s butterfly is another summer resident at Roundtop—the great spangled frittilary. These are large butterflies, nearly the size of the swallowtails, so they are hard to miss. I don’t think I’ve ever met an ugly butterfly, but somehow the bigger ones are even prettier than the smaller ones. I guess it’s just that there’s more prettiness to look at in the big ones.

Perhaps it’s only that the weather has improved, but I am seeing more animals and birds around the mountain this week than I have for a while. Raccoon paid a visit to my front porch last evening, to the outrage of Baby Dog. The foxes have been tooling around the woods, too. I’ve been hearing their barks again, often at some distance from the cabin.

Swallows seem to be gone entirely now, replaced by crows who gather in groups large and small and wander around looking for trouble so they can happily announce it to the world. Crows are only happy, I think, when they find trouble to report. Of course, trouble to a crow is often of a minor nature. If there’s no big trouble to report, they are just as happy to report on someone walking across a ski slope or Dog nosing in the grass. If the trouble turns out to be something major, like a Red-tailed Hawk sitting quietly in a tree, so much the better, but really, any kind of trouble will do.

The teenaged titmice and chickadees also seem to be on the prowl more than they were just a week or so ago. Animals really understand the mean of the old farmer’s adage about "making hay while the sun shines." They know when to lay low and when to be out and about. Right now, they are all out and about.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sorry about that

I just realized that I haven’t posted any butterfly photos for a long time. Watching several of them yesterday evening reminded me I was overdue. Actually, 2009 has been a pretty good year for the larger butterflies, at least according to my totally unscientific memory of their numbers. Tiger swallowtails, zebra swallowtails, the first of the migrating monarchs, all seem to be in decent supply.

I’ve seen more zebra swallowtails this year than I ever remember seeing, though I haven’t been able to snap a photo of one. You’ll have to settle for this photo of a tiger swallowtail. Usually, butterflies are, well, flighty and skittish. Last evening, the ones I saw weren’t. Perhaps they were simply drunk on thistle nectar. Perhaps it was the approach of evening and the need to fill up that kept them still for so long. In any event, they were cooperative.

On Roundtop, several places are great butterfly magnets. One is down at Roundtop’s oldest snow-making pond, often dubbed "the west pond." There, in the sun along the edge of the pond are cattails, thistles and nice puddles of drying mud that always attracts butterflies. It’s down there that I’ve occasionally spied but never photographed Roundtop’s rarest butterfly, the giant swallowtail.

The second good butterfly spot takes less time and arranging of my day to get to, and that’s where I took this photo. Believe me, this little spot is nothing special. It’s just a patch of mostly thistle at the edge of the north parking lot. The patch gets morning sun, and goldfinch find it nearly as wonderful a place as do the butterflies. I don’t know why the spot is so special. To me, it looks like any other patch of thistle that is commonly seen around the mountain. Perhaps, the number of thistle are a tad more here. Perhaps, the plants look a tad more sturdy. Perhaps. It’s a very close call, in any event, to my eye, but apparently not to the goldfinch and butterflies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A season's changes

Ah, what a difference a day makes. Even just a hint of a breeze from the north or northwest is enough to chase out the humidity that comes on the southern breezes. The temperature is still warm, but the lowered humidity makes it feel about 20 degrees cooler. And best of all, at least from my point of view, the forest may even start to dry out for a novel change.

A few hours of nicer weather, and I’m already plotting visits to hawkwatches and deeper forays into the woods. I am actually thinking about cooking dinner for a change. Perhaps my back forest will dry out enough to start some weed-whacking. Fall is in the air, so close I can smell it.

Around the cabin, the year’s crop of young birds are growing into wild teenagers. Yesterday a young blue jay sat on the door handle of my screen door and screamed at the cat inside. That’s not the kind of thing an adult blue jay would do. I didn’t think the door handle was big enough for a blue jay to perch on.

I am already seeing signs of songbird migration heading to parts south, though Roundtop’s summer residents don’t yet appear to be among them. The pewee still calls in the early morning. The woods are still overcrowded with chipping sparrows. Eastern kingbirds still float across the grassy ski slopes. Swallows and chimney swifts appear to be on the move. Crows too, perhaps, as I seem to be seeing more of them and those frequently moving to the south. Little signs of fall, another one or two each day now, are coming to the mountain.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Change in the weather, change in the season

Soupy weather is on its way out here at Roundtop, though as you can see from this morning’s photo, not all the cloudiness is yet gone. Hurricane Bill kept the moisture around for two days longer than it was supposed to stay here, though at least I didn’t get a hurricane’s rain or wind from that bad boy.

I’ll be happy to see everything dry out for the first time in several weeks. Dealing with mud and finding that food went bad quickly became a regular occurrence that soon got old. Given that it will soon be September, I am hoping that the drier weather and high pressure also signals a solid step towards fall. The timing is favorable for that to be the case. I fully expect some more hot days before cold weather arrives, though the time for heatwaves and continued high humidity could, just could, be past. Or so I fervently hope.

Northwest winds bode well for cooler weather and the start of hawkwatching season. For me, fall hawkwatching is hunting season, fishing season, football season and NASCAR all wrapped up into one. There is spring hawkwatching, too, of course, but usually that is only good enough to keep me from going mad until the next fall. I suppose I should say that other birds will begin to migrate soon too, but it’s always the hawks that capture my attention this time of year. Bald eagles are already moving in half-decent numbers, and Ospreys and Sharp-shinned hawks have also made appearances at the first dozen of the more than 100 hawkwatches that will eventually be spotting birds.

Perhaps the most unusual sightings already this fledgling hawk season are reports of a few northern goshawk, normally one of the latest migrants, best seen on a frigid day in November. Perhaps these early appearances signal a good breeding year for these uncommon and northern birds or perhaps just a lack of food in their home ranges. It’s too soon to answer that question, but the question itself is intriguing enough for these early days of the season.

This change in weather signals that it’s time for me to dust off my binos and ready the pack for another season on a hawkwatching hill. I don’t care which one—as long as the wind is from the northwest, I’ll be happy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Old roots, new day

I love the old roots that hold this tree into the ground. The gnarls and twists look as strong as the earth itself. The roots coil and wrap around rocks both seen and unseen like a Gordian knot. Solid is the word that comes to mind.

Last evening made me wish I could be as solidly planted. Tornados pushed through the area, fortunately doing limited damage and no injury where they did land and none at all at the cabin. One tornado passed nearly overhead at my office, never touching down or even coming close to touching down. I saw the second tornado heading away from me as I was driving home, a huge, tightly twisted thundercloud with a large black and pink area hanging down.

Today we are warned it may happen again. Hopefully not. But whatever the storms bring today, behind them, finally, comes some cooler and less humid weather. Once the soup clears out, the worst of summer may well go with it. After all, Labor Day approaches.

Waiting for the summer season to break and bring the first, cool breezes of fall means making it through the day. That shouldn’t be too hard, even if I’m not as solid as the roots that hold this tree to the ground.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

You lookin' at me?

I’m starting to think that frogs will take over the world—at least the part of it that includes Roundtop. Here’s what it’s like here now: hot, humid, hazy, with 2"inches of rain in a thunderstorm that begins between 5-5:15 p.m. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Or is that ribbet, ribbet, ribbet? The two words are nearly the same, n’est-ce pas? And I’m starting to think the local frogs all have attitude. They know they are soon going to be taking over the world. That’s why I’m getting the slimy eyeball from this one.

Usually frogs are shy creatures, disappearing into the water before you know where they are sitting, refusing to return to their perch for an hour after they make that leap into the pond. Not this fellow. He leaped and then immediately returned, eyeing me with disdain and willing me to move away so he could hop out of the water and return to his fishing spot.

If this weather keeps up, it won’t be long before that frog won’t even bother to leap into the water. Frogs will be the kings of the forest.

Seriously, the 2" of rain every evening, all falling within 15-20 minutes is getting old. And the forecast doesn’t show an early end to it. I’d need a wet suit stay dry in my back forest right now. My weed whacker took one look at it and fainted. I’ve completely given up trying to keep it walkable out there this year. Maybe I’ll just wait for the first killing frost to clear it out. That sure would be easier.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Here and there, in just a spot or two, I am beginning to see signs that fall is approaching. Somehow the plants just know. It can’t be that the weather is slightly cooler, because normal summer weather has finally reached this mountain. The dreaded three H’s—hazy, hot and humid—hold sway again and have for at least two weeks now.

It can’t be dry weather, because it hasn’t been dry here. Almost tropical downpours drench the mountain nearly every other day.

It could be that the plants are responding to the ever-shortening hours of daylight. If so, the Virginia creeper is the plant most sensitive to that change, as it is always the first in my woods to show color.

Or perhaps the plants just know. Perhaps their lifespan is geared to a certain number of days or months, and weather or daylight plays little part in impacting that. Whatever the answer, the change has begun. Today, it’s only a leaf or two. Next week it will be a few more. The week after that it will likely be a different species of plant. Today, in the midst of the hottest days of the season, the first glimpse of fall brightens the forest.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A "new" bird for the mountain

After living in my cabin on Roundtop for as many years as I have, the pace of discovering new species of birds has long since slowed. So over the years I have found new ways to document "old" birds. A common bird seen in a new month, for example, is worthy of note.

Today’s bird, a double-crested cormorant, falls into my "new" category. Actually, it falls into my "new" category twice over. The photo itself is rather poor, but it clearly shows the bird sitting on Roundtop’s newest and largest pond.

So what’s new? Well, this is the first time I’ve seen cormorant sitting on a Roundtop pond. It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve even found cormorants flying over the mountain. I have always added flyover birds to my personal list of "birds seen on Roundtop." That’s how I’ve gotten common loons on my Roundtop list, as well as several other species. But this marks the first time I’ve seen one stop.

The second "new" category for this bird isn’t quite as exciting. It simply marks the first time I’ve seen the species in August. My other sightings were always in April and September. This bird is a bit of an oddity in another respect, too. My other sightings were all of the birds in a small flock. This one was apparently traveling on by itself. This bird might be a younger bird. In an even blurrier enlargement of this photo the bird seems pale on the throat, though I couldn't see its belly to be certain. Even if not, the pretty crests the bird shows in its breeding plumage are clearly gone. Fall is on its way.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Relaxing in the woods

Whew! I’m glad that’s over.

"That" is the annual Christian music very-hard-rock Purple Door festival that happens each August at Roundtop. Hours of listening to young people screaming into microphones is not my idea of a relaxing weekend. And I do mean screaming. Even though the cabin was a couple of hundred yards away from the nearest stage, the music was so loud on Friday night that I had to watch TV with the closed-captioning on.

Fortunately, Sunday was a better day. I stuck my nose out of the burrow of the cabin where I’d been hiding and came out for a walk. Summer has finally arrived at Roundtop, long overdue as it is, since Labor Day is fast approaching.

Perhaps I took my walk at just the right the right time of the morning to see a lot of activity, or perhaps the animals, like me, were just coming out of cover after the events of the weekend. For whatever reason, I saw and found some interesting things, certainly enough to blog about for most of the rest of the week.

So what did I see? The first signs of fall color in the Virginia creeper and a first non-flyover sighting of a double-crested cormorant, a box turtle and an assortment of frogs, to name a few. An hour’s walk in the woods made the music festival feel already long gone. Thank heaven for that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Orange pinwheels

Ferns aren’t the only plant that are happy on Roundtop this summer. With all the rain (more last night, more later today), the mushrooms and fungus are doing extra well, too. Today’s photo is of the cutely named orange pinwheel mushroom.

Pinwheels come is several colors, including white, pink and rusty. All are tiny members of the marasimus family. I haven’t been able to find much information about them. Edibility is listed in several places as "unknown," which leads me to translate this into not yet being able to find anyone who is brave enough to try one. I don’t blame people for that, given how poisonous so many mushrooms are.

They seem to range between Canada and the Carolinas, but information about how common they are within that range is lacking. They appear from July through October and are considered to play a vital role in breaking down the litter layer, especially in the oak-hickory woods of eastern North America, which of course fits Roundtop perfectly. This plant continues its work even during hot and dry years, so perhaps that explains why it is suddenly so numerous in a season that has been cooler and wetter than typical. One expert helpfully reported 60+ species in the family and to "not expect to identify the species."

Another interesting note is that during dry seasons, the mushrooms simply shrivel up and wait. Apparently, if you pick one then and plop it into water, it will soon revive and be ready to go to work on that leaf litter again pretty soon.

For me, finding out about the mushroom is fun but kind of non-essential. I just appreciate occasionally seeing something that isn’t green in the middle of the summer forest.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A walk in the ferny woods

Perhaps it’s the weather, but I’ve been in a "fern-y" phase this summer. I’ve always enjoyed ferns, but this year I have grown more interested in them. I’m surprised by the poor quality of the fern identification guides I’ve encountered, though all are obviously written by people who know much more about ferns than I do. One guide has great information but poor illustrations, which makes IDing the little emerald gems difficult. Another writes endlessly about fern spores and has only drawings of ferns, which is no help at all.

I have this niggling idea that a really good fern guide should be written for everyday enthusiasts like me and not just for the fern geeks of academia. Good photos, good range maps, interesting information—is that really too much to ask? But as usual, I digress.

What I wanted to show you this morning is one stretch of the woods on Roundtop where I’ve been finding some of the ferns. This photo was taken in an area slightly more open than average. You can see how lush and green the forest is right now. The lushness is not typical for mid-August. To my eye, this photo looks more like one I’d expect to learn was taken in mid-June.

The little two-track road leads down to the bottom of the mountain, though I took this shot about midway down, still some distance from the valley floor with its rocky stream and moist loam. Here, the forest is typically more sandy or at least better drained than down below, though I'm not sure you'd guess that from this appearance. Usually, this section of forest looks much drier in mid-August than it does today.

This summer has been especially rainy and cooler than average, which has likely made the ferns pretty happy and probably also accounts for their current abundance. It hasn’t hurt my feelings, either.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A new discovery

Sometimes a little investigation into the natural world leads to unsuspected and interesting discoveries. Today’s photo is of a long beech fern. This fern is apparently common in Canada and the northern U.S. In the east it’s found down to West Virginia and Maryland, apparently skips over Virginia and Kentucky and then magically reappears in Tennessee and North Carolina. I found this pretty little fern on Sunday when I was down in the woods.

Despite owning several fern identification guides, putting a name to this fern proved more difficult than I expected. To me, the fronds are pretty distinctive and somewhat untypical of the general run of ferns. The fronds are broader than most of the ferns I see, the overall color a paler green, and when I looked closely, I noticed that the last pair of fronds closest to the base were always pointing down at a diagonal. So on the surface it looked as though the ID should be easy.

Partly, my difficulty came from the fern guides themselves. One has photographs but the photos aren’t always great and are even a bit blurry in the close-ups. Another has drawings, and frankly, they all look alike to me. In any event, I eventually figured it out and that’s when the discovery happened.

Yesterday, I posted the photo of the pretty little maidenhair fern that I also found on my walk in the woods. The beech-fern is within a few feet of that fern, and one of the field guides said the beech-fern is often associated with maidenhair ferns. Suddenly, the whole fern picture got a little clearer. First off, that little note helped to confirm the beech-fern identification, and in some ways it also helped clear up the maidenhair fern story. On the surface, the spot where I found the maidenhair seemed an uncharacteristic location for it. But now, learning that it is often found with the beech-fern, which I found in the same spot, the location for the maidenhair must be less uncharacteristic than I first assumed.

All in all, finding these two ferns together forms a tidy little package, all tied up with a bow.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Surprise in the woods

Regular readers of Roundtop Ruminations know that I’ve spent my most of my Thursdays since the start of the summer taking groups of kids from an adventure camp into the woods to show them interesting things in the forest. It wasn’t just the kids that found interesting things, I found some things I didn’t know were here either.

Today’s photo is one of them. It’s a northern maidenhair fern, also called five-finger fern, the first I’ve ever seen in these woods in nearly 20 years of living here. I dutifully showed it to each group of kids and told them it was the first one I’d ever found here. They were not completely impressed. To these suburban kids, finding, picking and eating one tiny black raspberry was far, far more exciting than some ratty old fern.

Of course, at the beginning of the summer, this "ratty old fern" didn’t look quite as ratty as it does today. While I was hiking with the kids, I didn’t take my camera, so it was only this past weekend, now that camp is over, that I got to make a trip into the woods on my own, with camera. Part of the reason I was so surprised to find the fern here on my first trip into the woods with the kids is that where I found the fern on Roundtop is pretty far from the fern’s optimal habitat.

Maidenhair ferns favor rocky ravines, preferably ones with at least a seasonal stream running down the ravine. Moss-covered banks, stream, splashing water, rocks, that kind of thing. This particular fern is mere inches from the edge of a woods road, still well up on the mountain, with no ravine or stream in sight. I feel a little sorry for the plant. The only true part of this plant’s favored habitat that matches where it sits on Roundtop is that the plant likes limestone and limestone soil and rich deciduous woods. We’ve got that part here.

The plant has been reported in every county of Pennsylvania, so it’s not uncommon in and of itself. I have looked for it when I fern-gaze down along the banks of Beaver Creek that flows between Roundtop and Nell’s Hill. That area is fern heaven and far more closely fits the maidenhair’s preferred habitat. Funny, that I’ve never found one down there, but here one is up on the side of the mountain.

Between this plant’s chosen site and the marginal habitat on which it sits, I’m more than a little surprised it has survived the summer so far. I was actually tempted to take some water along on Sunday and see that it got a nice watering, but a little rain on Saturday night doused the forest enough that I didn’t.

For me, finding a maidenhair fern here on Roundtop was a big thrill, if not for the kids. It really beats those ratty old black raspberries by far.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Happy Friday

Happy Friday! After two days of high humidity and heat, this clear and almost cool morning feels wonderful. Dog and Baby Dog both misbehaved, often a sign of improved weather. They are simply too wound up to listen, instead finding all kinds of smells suddenly far more interesting than paying attention to me.

This morning Dog was certain that a deer had only instants before walked on This Very Spot, and if I only allowed it, he could catch up and give chase. Baby Dog plugged her nose into the earth and inhaled deeply as though she was trying to get high from the scent. The deer, far up on one of Roundtop’s slopes, raised its head from grazing only briefly before returning to its breakfast.

Both of them completely missed the fox trotting across the lane perhaps 50 yards ahead.

My photo this happy Friday was taken at an orchard near Roundtop. The apples on those trees will soon be ready to pick.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


This morning the air has cleared and cooled. Last evening I could almost feel the humidity draining away. Now I even feel the tickle of a breeze too slight to rustle the leaves. The sky is overcast, with light rain periodically sprinkling small patches of ground for a few seconds. The cloudiness makes the morning even darker than it would otherwise be, a preview of mornings in the weeks to come.

I want to try and remember how this morning feels and hold it within. For today and the day after, this is how my weather will be. But then, the heat wave will start. The days ahead will be in the mid-90’s, with humidity. Maybe if I can hold onto these two days, somehow, those ahead won’t feel so oppressive.

This little respite is much welcomed, whatever my ability or lack of that will bring to the hot days just around the corner. Even if I can’t visualize myself into cool weather, I can enjoy this momentary break from the hot days behind me and the hot days ahead. I hope that will be enough to help me reach the next respite.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Night and dawn

The forest was dark when Dog and I began our morning walk today. The night sky was already starting to pale, but the trees still held the darkness close under the canopy of leaves. Today, the first sound I heard was not the sweet summer call of the pewee, the forest’s earliest riser. It was the hoot of a great horned owl, the night hunter.

The owl was a short distance up the mountain from us, its hoots loud enough to resonate. What better sign could there be that the days are already shortening? Instead of the morning bird calls I’ve been accustomed to for the past several months, today the night caller was still reigning the woods.

Dog and I hadn’t gotten far before the pewee began to sing, and for a few minutes I heard both the last call of night’s creature and the first call of morning’s. The owl would hoot, and it seemed the pewee answered, the two calling back and forth with perfect timing. For a few minutes the two shared the forest, in that hazy time when both night and dawn appear to be the same. And then it was truly dawn, and the owl retreated, while the pewee continued its song, this time a solo.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Woodpile, abandoned

It’s a scorcher today, so the woodpile at the end of this lane won’t be needed for a while. This morning the local birds seemed extra active, perhaps because they are expecting not to do much later today. The hummingbird, eastern towhee, black-capped chickadee and the rooster-crowing mockingbird were all out and busy this morning. The mockingbird is especially funny. He’s got the cock-a-doodle part down, but he forgets all the doos.

The humidity is worse than the heat, of course, especially since everything is still damp from all the rain of the last week. Nothing is able to dry out as more rain has come every other day. My sneakers got soaked on Saturday morning and I still can’t wear them. Soon, even my mold will have mold. I can feel the dampness even inside the cabin, and it’s pretty unpleasant.

The forest is about as lush as it ever gets and certainly as lush as I’ve ever seen it in early August. Usually by this time of the year, rain is something I may see once a week and between that and the heat, some plants are usually already looking brown-ish. Not this year.

Some days I feel that I am living in a jungle. I don’t know why we don’t call these eastern forests jungles. I’ve been in several jungles, and believe me, none of them have anything over on the forest around Roundtop right now. Machetes would be needed in both cases if you strayed off the trail.

This is the kind of weather where no project seems so urgent that it can’t wait until tomorrow, or maybe the next day. I think I’ll go have another cup of coffee. I wouldn’t want to rush into anything.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Honey bees are buzzing at Roundtop

I know I said I wouldn’t post any more photos of non-native plants, so please try to ignore the invasive black knapweed and focus instead on the honey bee on one of its purple flowers. By this time, anyone who has been paying attention has likely heard about colony collapse disorder that’s been killing bees around the world, especially in North America and Europe.

So far, here at Roundtop, my impression is that honey bees are in good supply. Truthfully, I never paid too much attention to the number of bees until I started hearing about colonies collapsing, but I believe I have a general sense of them—at least enough to notice if suddenly I didn’t have many.

Instead, I seem to have a normal or perhaps even a slightly higher than normal number of them this summer. In the past Pennsylvania has experienced severe losses of bees for non-colony collapse disorder reasons. For example, during the winter of 2000-2001, nearly 50% of the bees disappeared, though natural winter losses are typically in the 15-25% range, according to Penn State University. The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group is based at PSU.

CCD, as it’s come to be abbreviated, is still incompletely understood, with researchers now believing that many causes contribute. Focus is on everything from mites, a virus, fungus, cell phones, nicotine pesticides and bacteria that might somehow all work together to suppress the bee’s immune system.

Researchers also indicate that propagation of the CCD is much like a contagious disease in how it spreads. Healthy bees become contaminated with CCD when they enter a diseased colony’s hive to rob its provisions for their own use. Even climate change is implicated in CCD, with suggestions that it has made bee hives more vulnerable. As plants are now blooming at different times of the year, nectar flows are also much earlier and this may contribute to increased bee stress. At this point, climate change is not considered to be a direct cause of CCD.

The most recent information I’ve found is located here, a preliminary report published in mid-May. Total colony losses in the U.S. for ’08-09 are just under 29% of managed bee colonies, a reduction over the two previous years. In those years, bee colony loss was at nearly 36% and 32%. While this sounds like an improvement, researchers note that the rate of loss is unsustainable. Still, colonies lost from CCD symptoms last year was put at 15%, compared with 60% during the previous winter.

Bees can roam pretty long distances—several miles from the hive. As Roundtop is about a mile from one edge of an apple orchard, many of the bees I see are likely from their hives, though I have also seen several wild (or perhaps escaped) hives down in the woods this year. In any event, seeing bees is now something I pay more attention to than I used to, and I’m glad that there seems to be plenty around to look at.