Monthly Archives: May 2014

deadlakesfog

Wewahitchka: Dead Lakes Kayaking and Tupelo Adventure

Video: We explore Wewahitchka’s famous tupelo honey, from the ogeechee trees in the Dead Lakes, to the bees who make it, to the apiaries that bring it to us.

Dead Lakes

The Dead Lakes: October 2012.

I have been wanting to do a video on the Dead Lakes and Wewa Tupelo honey for a couple of years now.  I caught the briefest glimpse of the Dead Lakes on the next to last day of RiverTrek 2012, as we were shuttled from our campsite in Wewahitchka back to Gaskin Park on the Apalachicola River.  The water was low then, during the dry part of a dry year, and so the cypress knees and pine trunks were well exposed.  Revisiting the same spot via kayak a couple of weeks ago, I passed over submerged and unseen knees.  For this video, we needed to visit just as the rainy season was ending.  I wanted to to see tupelo blooming and bees working.  Matt Godwin from Off the Map Expeditions set me up to do just that.

The Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) is a sensitive plant.  We learned on RiverTrek how reduced water flows on the Apalachicola over the last 30+ years have led to a 40% loss of tupelo in the forested floodplain.  It likes the water, but, as beekeeper Donnie Harcus of Donnie’s Bees tells us in the video, rain will knock tupelo flowers onto the ground where bees won’t pollinate them.  So it has to be wet, but it can’t rain too much, and it has to be fairly hot.  I guess flowers that produce premium honey have the right to be a little demanding.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie's Bees in Wewahitchka.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie’s Bees in Wewahitchka.

The other part of the honey equation is the animal that makes it: the honey bee.  “You can talk a week on bees,” Donnie told me.  “They’re just an amazing creature”  His job as a beekeeper has him racing to keep up with the bees and the blooms of the area.

When you visit the bee yard, you’ll see stacks of boxes in long rows.  Each box is a hive, and when the bees finish filling one box with honey, Donnie and his crew have to lay another one above it or the bees will swarm.  His most efficient bees have stacks that are five boxes high.

The bees we visited were busy making tupelo honey.  Donnie hadn’t yet touched it, as the hives weren’t filled.

He has to move the hives to the flowers he wants them to pollinate.  Before the tupelo bloomed, the hives were closer to where titi, maple, and highbush gall berry trees were flowering.  The bees create from a combination of these flowers something called red honey.  When the tupelo bloom ends, the boxes go to California not to make honey, but to help with almond harvest.  Bees do much more to feed us than make honey, aiding in the production of $20 to 30 billion of produce in the United States alone (which makes their rapid decline all the more concerning).

Back where Donnie extracts the honey from the honeycomb, his crew was still working on red honey.  This is bakery grade honey, Donnie says, meant to be processed and used in cereal, bread, and shampoo.  The tupelo is table grade; you are meant to drizzle it on your biscuits and taste it.  The red honey wasn’t bad though.  When they offered us some honeycomb to chew on, I felt sad that, as Donnie says, this honey will be “run through a whole line of filters.  It probably won’t have any pollen when they get done.”  It was a rare treat to eat honey right out of a container built for it by bees.

Bee hives in Wewahitchka

Beekeepers can’t control where bees will fly, so they will never produce 100% tupelo honey. Apiaries get their honey tested, and that which has at least 51% tupelo pollen grains can be called tupelo honey.

At Smiley Apiaries, we sampled some more varieties.  I’ve always been partial to wildflower honey and its particular tang.  Every year, different flowers bloom in different quantities, and so the character is different from one year to the next.  The fall bloom is different than the spring bloom.  We tasted very different wildflower vintages from this year and last, as well as orange blossom (with a subtle hint of orange flavor), highbush gall berry, and of course tupelo.

Tupelo is prized for its flavor and its reputed resistance to crystallization.  It’s a fitting product for so unique a location.  Many of the bees are positioned around protected lands that sit along the Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers, lands that shelter tupelo swamps.  We drove through the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area to get to Donnie’s Bees. As long as enough water keeps flowing into these swamps, there will be enough ogeechee to sustain the industry in Wewahitchka. Nestled between the mighty Apalach and that place where the Chipola turns into the Dead Lakes, Wewa is a river town that makes the most of its water.

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Purple pitcher plant flower

Video: Liberty County’s Carnivorous Plants are Colorful and Deadly

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Wildlife watching is big business in Florida. In a state with the unique natural resources we have, that’s no surprise. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that it brings, more or less, $5 Billion to Florida a year. When we say wildlife watching, we usually mean birds and butterflies. Animals that are cute, colorful, and/ or ferocious. What Eleanor Dietrich wants you to consider is that wildlife watching could also mean wildflowers. And just as it is thrilling to watch an eagle or a heron catch a fish, carnivorous plants might be the most thrilling of wildflowers. Luckily for those in our area, the Apalachicola National Forest in Liberty County is a hot spot for these strange and beautiful killers.

Eleanor Dietrich

Eleanor Dietrich holds one of her free self-guided Liberty County Wildflower tour guides. She has several local businesses distributing these with the idea that wildflower populations could benefit the local economy.

State Road 65 between Hosford and Sumatra is unofficially the Liberty County Wildflower Trail.   For many, this is the scenic route to St. George Island.  What Eleanor wants people to do is to pull over every once in a while to notice the incredible life peeking through the top of the grass growing on the shoulder.  She has enlisted local businesses to help distribute free self-guided tour maps, and helped create a partnership between Tallahassee Artist Helen Dull and Pam Richter, owner of T&P Florist and Gift Shop in Hosford.  Helen’s renditions of carnivorous flowers grace shirts, tote bags, and post cards at the T&P.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re interested in seeing these flowers, though I admit we’re past their peak period:

  • It’s seasonal.  Just as certain hummingbirds pass through the St. Marks Refuge in late spring, certain flowers bloom at a certain time every year.  The Chapman’s rhododendron usually blooms for a couple of weeks in March.  Carnivorous plants in and around the Apalachicola National Forest start blooming in April and go through early May.  Another set of wildflowers explodes there in the fall.
  • You never know what you’ll see.  If you go birding, you’re not guaranteed to see any specific bird.  It’s the same with these flowers.  When we got there, the yellow trumpet pitcher plants had lost their flowers, but their remarkable pitcher leaves retained their strong presence in the woody tangle surrounding the New River.  Purple pitcher plants were going strong and the dewthread sundews were just beginning to flower.  In a week, it would look entirely different.  These flowers bloom in waves, and there’s no fixing a specific date on when they’ll start.
  • White topped pitcher plantLocation, location, location.  We went to three different spots within a twenty mile range: two roadside locations and one further into National Forest.  One roadside spot had non native Venus flytraps and showy white topped pitcher plants (pictured to the left), the only place where we saw them.  In the forest, we saw an abundance of yellow trumpet leaves and of the sticky dewthread strands getting ready to flower.  At the second roadside spot, we had to do a little searching to find the carnivorous plants among the wildflowers.
  • It helps to dress appropriately.  The day before our shoot, FSU Biologist Dr. Tom Miller, who accompanied us, warned me to wear closed toed shoes.  You’ll see why in the video.  He also suggested a long sleeved shirt to minimize gnat biteage and that I spray that nasty bug spray on my socks to discourage ticks.  The best places to see the really cool plants and critters aren’t always comfortable.

Some Science Stuff to Impress Your Friends

When you go out to look at the flowers with your friends, you’ll want to drop some biology knowledge on them.  You know, to sound smart.  This is what Dr. Miller, who is smart about these things, told me, who is working on it:

  • Carnivorous plants are found in what are known as a ecotones.  Ecotones are the spaces where one ecosystem overlaps with another.  The Apalachicola National Forest has some well maintained longleaf pine/ wiregrass habitat, with the characteristic wide spacing of trees.  Through the trees you may see dense tangles of wood surrounding rivers or other wet places.  Carnivorous plants can be found in the seam between the two.
  • As you may know, all life needs nitrogen (if you didn’t know, Dr. David Kimbro broke it down for us last year).  Plants usually get it from the soil, where bacteria can convert it into a useable form (David explains it better than I do), and where decomposing plants add to it as well.  Animals get their nitrogen from plants.  The bogs where carnivorous plants grow have soils that are low in nutrients.  The plants get their nutrients from the bugs they eat.
  • Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest

    A controlled burn on S.R. 65 on the day of our shoot.

    Carnivorous plants are dependent on fire ecology.  More specifically, they are dependent on disturbances to clear spaces for them.  Longleaf pines maintain their spacing through regular fire.  It clears the forest floor of oak and other woody plants and makes space for wiregrass and succulent plants.  That fire also clears a space at the fringe of the forest, where the pretty killer flowers live.  Annual mowing along highway 65 also helps.  The spot where we saw the white tops and Venus flytraps had a crew go through in recent months, installing telephone poles.

  • These flowers are pretty resilient.  They need wet conditions, but during the harsh droughts of the last fifteen years, Dr. Miller observed their numbers decline.  “I was concerned about losing the population,” he said, “instead, they seem to be pretty resilient to drought.”  That makes sense for plants that get burned and re-sprout.
  • One thing that Dr. Miller studies, and I think this is pretty cool, are these food webs contained entirely within the leaves of pitcher plants.  At the bottom of the food web are the decomposing bugs caught in the leaves.  Bacteria break them down and they are eaten by single celled protozoa.  Those are in turn eaten by mosquito larvae, which we of course find in any pool of standing water.

 

Pitcher plant leaf samples

Samples taken from pitcher plants along S.R. 65. The one on the right is from a newer leaf, and is swimming with mosquito larvae. The one on the left has mostly the undigestable remains of ants, where as the one in the middle has both larvae and still edible insect remains.

For more information on carnivorous plants in our area, this web site featuring Eleanor’s photos is pretty helpful.

A bee on our camera

Where there are flowers, there are bees. Our next EcoAdventure will feature more flowers and many more bees. We’re heading to the Dead Lakes, where the tupelo are in bloom and honey is getting made.

Music in the piece by pitx and Greg Baumont.

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