Giant Ragweed

ragweed and hoverflyIt is getting closer to that time. Allergy season. If you are not horribly allergic to the Giant Ragweed, you probably know someone who is. This plant has caused so much suffering that it is nearly universally despised.

Last year I decided to champion the lowly hackberry (Celtis). This year’s project: ragweed, a much tougher sell. Like most people you probably hate ragweed, but maybe I can help you admire just how well adapted it is for survival. And though it is the bane of so many people, it is extremely important for wildlife.

Why Is Giant Ragweed So Invasive?

Remember when Terence McKenna said plants invented animals to do their work?

Well, Giant Ragweed must have invented two powerful friends: Humans and Earthworms. The two organisms work in perfect harmony to ensure that Giant Ragweed can grow happily and abundantly ALL OVER THE PLACE.

Naturalized European earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) think Giant Ragweed seeds are exceedingly delicious. They will tirelessly hunt the seeds down by smell. Earthworms won’t eat those seeds right away — they can’t. Instead, they cache the seeds deep underground and wait until the hulls decompose into a tasty slime. That might not sound appetizing to you but earthworms are picky eaters. Decomposed is the way they like things; in fact, they think the inner seed is disgusting and inedible so they just leave those bits behind. They kind of remind me of those people who need to cut the crusts off their bread.

This behaviour creates a handy seed bank in the soil. Those deposits will bide their time waiting for humans to disturb the earth. And humans love to dig. They dig into their gardens, they plow up fields and bulldoze construction sites. All that turned earth brings the banked seeds up to the proper germination depth. Next thing you know weeds seem to be growing everywhere.

Here’s a little movie that shows an earthworm gathering ragweed seeds. I haven’t decided if I find the accompanying music or the comments more amusing.

Giant Ragweed seed hulls are hard and need to be weathered away. So hard that the seeds can remain viable for several years. The embryo can also remain dormant. Those strategies give the plant many opportunities to wait out bad growing conditions.

Multiple Strategies Ensure Success

The plant is just as tough as the seeds. Shade. Sun. Who cares? And as long as it can get some moisture it seems to be able to grow in most soil types. Ragweed is native to continental North America and seems to grow pretty much everywhere with the possible exception of Nevada. And it seems to be spreading across the globe. I once saw a Giant Ragweed complaint that came from Korea.

Giant Ragweed plants don’t need pollinators, a breeze will do the trick.

And Giant Ragweed is one of the infamous resistant superweeds everyone was talking about awhile ago. Dosed with poison (even at 5x the recommended application) a genetically resistant plant will just grow extra shoots. At maturity that resistant plant will produce just as much leaf mass, pollen and seed as a plant left untouched.

What is it good for?

Yeah, I know. You probably channelled Henry Rollins’ emphatic: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Ecology of Giant Ragweed

As an early succession plant, Giant Ragweed is important for stabilizing disturbed soil. It is one of those annuals that can grow quickly and abundantly. I have seen it grow more than ten feet tall in some places. The roots hold onto soil in danger of erosion. While alive the leaves offer shade and wildlife habitat. When they die, those leaves return organic material and nutrients to the soil. Giant Ragweed is sort of like a soil band-aid.

Because it is tall enough to stand above the snow pack Giant Ragweed is especially important as a winter food source in colder areas. Besides earthworms, many animals use it as a food source.

  • Insects: moth caterpillars, aphids, the bordered patch imago, hover flies and various grasshoppers. Honey bees love ragweed pollen.
  • Birds: the Greater Prairie Chicken, Dark-eyed Junco, Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Bobwhite, Purple Finch, Mourning Dove, American Goldfinch and the Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Mammals include the Eastern Cottontail, Meadow Vole, deer, horses, sheep and domesticated dogs. Long ago it was a source of food and medicine for humans. The oil content of the seeds compares to soy. The resin is anti-bacterial and anti-viral

The most interesting thing I learned about Giant Ragweed is that it is self limiting. When the plant dies the roots release a toxin that only seems to affect ragweed itself. When the concentration gets high enough the ragweed dies out making way for new plants to take its place. So really. Please keep the herbicide locked up. It really does make things worse.

Want to learn more? —

Worms and Ragweed

Eat the Weeds

As a Resistant Superweed

Ecology of

Lizard burrow in ragweed

Lizard burrow in ragweed patch

This Week’s Propaganda “Simply” Brought to You by the Washington Post

I hate to say it but I think I might be turning into this guy from the XKCD comic:

duty calls xkcd

As a newb bee-haver I am obsessed with reading anything and everything about bees. And so much has been written. Bees have inspired some of our best literature (Sylvia Plath’s bee sequence in Ariel for example) and some of the best (and worst) examples of science. Bees have even inspired great works of architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudí and others have openly expressed their admiration for the geometrical forms associated with bees. The result: I am slowly working my way through my local library’s shelves, not to mention the information chaos known as the Internet. If only I had started this several lifetimes ago …

Because our food security is threatened, the topic of honey bee deaths has found its way onto Current Events boards and into many mainstream media propaganda pieces such as Christopher Ingraham’s, “Call off the bee-pocalypse: U.S. honeybee colonies hit a 20-year high” in The Washington Post.

I know the word propaganda is loaded but I think it is the correct descriptor in this case. First clue: seeing the same cut-and-paste phrases popping up in a wide variety of copycat pieces. This repetition is important because most people only look at headlines. If enough sources say the crisis is over many people will simply accept the lie as fact. But just in case some fool might actually take the time to read the content, Ingraham loads his little article with a number of effective propaganda devices.

Transfer

The first clue that his article is more like propaganda than a source of credible information comes from the caption under the picture of bees:

The perfect capitalists: industrious, efficient, single-minded in their pursuit of success.

That sentence declares the real hero of the article: the capitalist system. This particular device is more commonly seen in advertising so it really caught my attention. The caption juxtaposes the undeniable charisma of honey bees with capitalism creating the suggestion that the economic system itself is a pretty good thing. The irony is of course that it is this very system that has placed honey bees into jeopardy. Long distance trucking to monoculture fields sprayed with pesticides creates a truly toxic work environment for those perfect little workers. Workers, not capitalists — after all, they don’t really own the means of production; they simply provide the labour.

Card Stacking

On the surface, the article’s main idea is that since the total number of commercial bee colonies/hives has been increasing since 2006, people must be overreacting to mass bee deaths. Because graph. This is an example of card stacking: selecting choice bits of information to misrepresent the complexity of a problem. While the number of bees may be increasing, bees are still dying at an incredible and unsustainable rate. Ingraham notes that beekeepers have found workarounds for mass bee deaths but he fails to report that those fixes probably can’t be maintained over the long term. Ingraham doesn’t even mention the problem of native and feral bee deaths. Since many of our food crops co-evolved with native bees, imported honey bees aren’t really a good fit for the job. Nobody is breeding extra orchard bees or squash bees or carpenters. A slight increase in the number of honey bee colonies since the crash in 2006 is simply not enough proof that the crisis has truly been resolved.

The Market Will Simply Save Us

A classic capitalist subtext in the piece is the one that goes like this: any problem big or small can be solved through shopping. Beekeepers can ‘simply’ buy a “bunch of bees to replace” the ones they lose each year. Ingraham points out that queen bees are easily ordered online & can be had for a reasonable price. He even provides a link to prove his point. The situation of course is not so simple. Can we really supply a million or more quality replacement queen bees every year through mass production? What does it mean for the bees forced to live under such circumstances?

Bees are living beings with limited powers to protect themselves from exploitation. Is Ingraham really suggesting we treat them like slaves by pushing them to exceed their normal limits? Even if one could somehow work around the moral implications of treating any life form with such disrespect, there is a practical argument against the mass production of queen bees. One price to be paid for convenience may be quality. And I have to wonder at the long term sustainability of using weak hives as the source point for the gene pool. Will mass produced queen bees make the problem worse?  This article does a better job than I can of explaining some of the problems of ‘simply’ replacing queen bees.

Disaster Capitalism

Capitalizing on disasters is a well established form of doing business and Ingraham even states that mass bee deaths may in fact be a victory for the free market. Every disaster provides an opportunity for someone to make some money.

So, beekeepers who provide pollination services can simply increase their prices. He also suggests we don’t really need to worry about our honey supply because of the global trade network. While domestic honey production is way down thanks to global trade networks we can simply import honey from overseas. Like, from China. Never mind that samples of imported honey have a tendency to be tainted with pesticides, antibiotics and heavy metals. And that a lot of jars labelled as “honey” contain almost no honey at all.

The idea that the bee crisis is actually a victory comes from The Property and Environment Research Center which is a group claiming to be “dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.” But as Naomi Klein argues so well in This Changes Everything if business as usual can fix our environmental problems how can we explain the fact that everything seems to be getting worse instead of better? Carbon emissions are increasing. Species extinctions have reached a record high. So far, Capitalism seems to be failing miserably.

Who Speaks for the Bees?

As someone who is merely a hobbyist I realize I am treading into some murky water here but I am frankly appalled at the lack of credentials and credibility behind some of these recent reports on bees.

Let’s start with Christopher Ingraham. He is no expert on the subject of bees or even data analysis. He has a B.A. in Comparative Religion. The economists he links to are far from impartial. Their report was published by PERC, a think tank with the stated mandate of promoting the free market. The WP headline suggesting we call off the “Beepocalypse” as alarmist probably stems from Angela Logomasini’s influential report published this April. Is she a biologist? No. In fact, she is a realtor with a Ph.D in American Government granted by a college that struggles with the issues of free speech and academic freedom. Her past writings suggest she isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. She is on record for championing the use of plastic bags. She continues to speak in favour of PCBs and arsenic. When not investing in various properties, she works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  CEI has very old connections to the tobacco lobby. These days it promotes climate change denial policies, pharmaceutical companies and other industries that rely on the use of dangerous chemicals. I’m sure you can guess who founded this group and continues to pay the bills.

Simply put, these people are not qualified to influence our opinions or policies on this issue.

aster & bee

Bioregional Quiz

EDIT: oops. I forgot to link to Rambling Woods a really fine blog that hosts Nature Notes each Tuesday.

I found this little pop quiz in Communicating Nature: How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages by Julia B. Corbett.

I was happy to see I did not know all the answers. More to learn! And even happier that I knew some things today that I didn’t know ten years ago. Progress.

Try it for yourself if you like. Do any of these questions leave you wondering about the place where you live?

bioregional quizAnswers:

1. As far as I know, my drinking water comes from the surface of the Colorado River. There are a couple of treatment plants that pump the water through pipes. I do not know which one I am connected to. Wastewater gets pumped to Hornsby Bend where solids are removed and chlorine is added. The water is then returned to the Colorado River. =/

2. As I type this the moon is waxing. My husband is pagan so he keeps me informed. =)

3. This was an easy one. Since a drought was officially declared I knew the number had to be under the typical average which is around 32 inches annually. I had to look up the actual amount though which turned out to be around 26.5 inches.

4. Edible plants! Easy. Central Texas is a wild food paradise: wild grapes, turk’s cap fruit, wild carrot, pecans, Mexican plum, wild persimmon etc etc. Native grasses? Little bluestem and my favourite, the Eastern Gamagrass.

5. This might be a trick question as there isn’t a simple answer. The winds typically come from the south. Sometimes in the winter they come in from the SW. But if there is a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico we can get some wind and rain from that direction (east-ish). The really cold winter winds come from the north.

6. Not exactly sure about this one. I do know that there are several dumps in the area. All but one of them have really serious emissions problems.

7. The growing season might be considered year round though very little actually grows in January.

8. I hate to admit I don’t have any first hand experience on this one because I haven’t even seen a deer here. o.O I would actually say the main herbivore here (besides leaf cutter ants and/or snails) is probably the squirrel. I would guess that the rut happens in October. I do know that the babies are born in the early spring (around February) thanks to various blogs like TexasDeb’s Austin Agrodolce

9. Resident birds. Easy. Cardinal, Grackle, Mockingbird, Carolina Wren, Red-winged blackbird, a billion more. Migrating birds? Way less easy. Birds don’t fly south for the winter here; this is where they kind of end up so it is tricky to know if someone is a year round resident or temporary. Robins, Goldfinches and Rough-legged hawks all head north for their summer vacations. Ruby Throated Hummingbirds and Nighthawks come here for the summer. This is an area I would like to learn more about.

10. Here goes nothing. Please correct me if I am wrong. The Edward’s Plateau might be the area’s most important geological feature. The old fault lines along its edge are called the Balcones Escarpment. A good place to see this formation in Austin is to go to the top of Mount Bonnell. Don’t go when school is in session as it is a popular 4th grade field trip destination. West of this area is the hill country where the limestone has helped create the Edwards Aquifer. I suspect most of that water is probably underground but there are places where it reaches the surface like at Barton Springs. East of the Balcones Escarpment is a prairie which once upon a time was a sea bed then later become a home for migrating bison. Now it seems to be mostly urban sprawl with some token ranches here and there. Another important feature of the local geology is Lady Bird Lake created from water diverted from the Colorado River.

11. Many years ago when I liked to travel a lot I got into the habit of knowing where North was. Easy.

12. On our property the first native flower has always been the Anemone berlandieri. Soon after we will see evening primrose, spiderwort, hollies, the Texas mountain laurel and redbud flowers.