Tuesday, July 20, 2010


July 22, 2010

It's been a hell of a summer in New York City, with temperatures topping 90 degrees for days at a time and only the occasional thunderstorm to cool things off and moisten the earth. The Dog Days of August started in June this year, and all you want to do is lie under a tree and sleep. The usually lush lawns in the parks are brown and prickly, so even lying under a tree is not pleasant. Criminals too have grown lethargic, and street-beat reporters — from the New York Times, no less — with nothing much to write about but the heat, experiment with frying eggs on Manhattan sidewalks. (They haven't quite succeeded as yet, but it's only July.)
The upstate reservoirs that feed the city are down to 83 percent of capacity — normally they're almost full. Street-corner grandpas, never giving a thought to where water comes from, pull out their wrenches and open up fire hydrants so neighborhood kids can get knocked back in the gusher and passing cars can get a free wash.
Genesis Park Community Garden in the South Bronx is looking pretty wilted these days. We put upstate water to better use, giving the drooping plants a morning drink that allows them to survive if not prosper. Only the cucumbers and melons, which thrive in the heat, are producing well. Bean-plants are brown and scraggly, and the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are just holding on.
My colonies of honeybees are sweating it out, too, thousands lolling outside the hives to cool off, the bee-version of the apartment-house stoop. In this weather, even bees aren't busy.
Honeybee colonies are more like an organism than a society. Though individually cold-blooded, the bees as a group control conditions thermostatically, maintaining the temperature inside the hive at precisely 92 degrees year-round. In the cold of winter, they accomplish this by shivering their bodies, just as we do, to generate heat. In summer, they use fans, just as we do, fluttering their wings to draw in cooler air and circulate it throughout the hive — apian air-conditioning.
Other pollinators seem impervious to the heat. Bumblebees by the double dozen move about the cucumber and squash blossoms, and many other kinds of bees — carpenter bees, green metallic bees, mason bees — visit flowers that suit their size — mint, cilantro, hibiscus, butterfly bush.
This year the garden is participating in the Great Pollinator Project, a citizen-science experiment sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. In late spring, the project provided gardeners with several kinds of bee-attracting plants — sunflowers and cosmos for summer blooming, goldenrods and asters for the fall. Participants are asked to sit in front of the blooms and count the bees that visit them — five bees or half an hour, whichever comes first. They then enter the results in an on-line database, pinpointing their location using GoogleEarth, noting the date and time of the observation, the type of flower, and the kind of bee. At season's end, the data will be consolidated to map the abundance and variety of bees throughout New York City.
We've seldom had to wait the half-hour. Usually, at any time of day, the sunflowers are laden with bees, sometimes two or three per bloom, jostling for space.
All this in the heart of the South Bronx.
Kevin Matteson, the Fordham University entomologist coordinating the effort, has been researching urban pollinators for almost a decade. With their rich vegetation and pollinator- friendly habitat, he told me, "community gardens are incredibly important to maintaining bee and butterfly diversity, especially in heavily developed neighborhoods of New York City."
Sitting before a sunflower in the evening shade, sipping a gin and tonic, tallying up the bees — that's turned out to be one of the better ways for a wilting gardener to beat the heat.

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