Spring Flowers and Wild Bees of “Slabsides”

It is hard to imagine a more fitting place to explore and observe nature than at the woodland retreat of, American naturalist, John Burroughs.   Today’s outdoor enthusiast can follow in his footsteps and sit on the porch of his rustic home called, Slabsides situated on a rocky crag overlooking Celery Swamp.    This 200 acre oasis is located in the Black Creek watershed on the west side of the Hudson, in West Park, NY.  In these hallowed forests one is inspired to appreciate nature much as John Burroughs had when he purchased the property in 1895.

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“I was offered a tract of land, barely a mile from my home, that contained a secluded nook and a few acres of level, fertile land, shut off from the vain, and noisey world of railroads, steamboats, and yachts by a wooded, precipitous mountain, I quickly closed the bargain, and built me a rustic house there, which I called “Slabsides” because its outer walls are covered with slabs.”
[From “Wildlife About My Cabin,” Far and Near]

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If the trees could tell stories (and there are trees here certainly old enough), we can imagine them telling stories of such fabled characters as Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt or even John Muir.   It is even plausible to surmise that the ancestor’s of the bumble bee’s we see today once pollinated the Dutchman’s Breeches and other spring ephemerals that bloom each spring.  A walk down the stone steps that meander among mossy waterfalls is a perfect setting for early spring blossoms that fade away to a parade of flowers that each take their seasonal turn until the last woodland aster succumbs to the repeated frosts of autumn.   Further down the path skunk cabbage grows in a beaver swamp whose unpleasant smell attracts the attention of flies and gnats.  Don’t be fooled by the beauty of the trillium, a quick smell and you will understand why it’s nicknamed the “stinking Benjamin”.  It is the sweet smelling flowers of spring, such as trout lilies, spring beauties, hepatica and spicebush, that call out to our wild bees and of course, to the familiar honey bee.

Queen Bee Visiting a Dutchmans Breeches
Queen Bee Visiting Dutchmans Breeches

In  John Burroughs essay, “The Pastoral Bees” his description of the honey bee’s spring flight is simply poetic.

“The honey-bee goes forth from the hive in spring like the dove from Noah’s ark, and it is not till after many days that she brings back the olive leaf, which in this case is a pellet of golden pollen upon each hip, usually obtained from the alder or the swamp willow.”

[From “Pastoral Bees,” from Bird and Bees]

Hepatica growing in the forest of Slabsides
Hepatica growing in the forest of Slabsides

His observations of the first blooms of spring point to the fact that many spring flowers forego the effort of producing nectar but just pollen, which in the spring is vital to bee reproduction.  Those pollinators seeking out a nectar reward, like a bee fly, are greatly disappointed when they visit bloodroot or hepatica.

Bloodroot growing at Slabsides
Bloodroot growing at Slabsides

“The first spring wild-flowers, whose shy faces among the dry leaves and rocks are so welcome, yield no honey. The anemone, the hepatica, the bloodroot, the arbutus, the numerous violets, the spring beauty, the corydalis, etc., woo lovers of nature, but do not woo the honey-loving bee. It requires more sun and warmth to develop the saccharine element, and the beauty of these pale striplings of the woods and groves is their sole and sufficient excuse for being.”

[From “Pastoral Bees,” from Bird and Bees]

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Mining Bee Resting on a Serviceberry Branch

Visiting the secluded forest of John Burroughs at any season makes for a pleasant day and every season brings its own natural wonders and distinct flowers.  The spring time is particularly enchanting as the forest seems to yawn and stretch as it awakens from a long winter of dormancy.  It is at this time of year the most subtle flower, that would be lost in summer’s bustle, is mostly and truly appreciated by people and by hungry bees.

Spicebush Grows throughout Celery Swamp.
Spicebush Grows throughout Celery Swamp.

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