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Water Moves: Into and Out of Your Home and Watershed

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
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Teams of children try to remove water from a central pool without stepping over a red line.

I was happy to hear that our station was going to create a game where children would learn about the movement of water in our area. Not enough people know where their drinking water comes from and where it goes. The short answer is: from the earth, and back into the earth. The longer answer led me to the specific place that drains FSU, FAMU, TCC, and Tallahassee’s downtown. The water we drink and the water we use for recreation in lakes, rivers, and on the Gulf, that water is all part of a system. There are subsystems within that system. There is the manmade network of pipes and treatment facilities that take water from the aquifer and place it in our homes; or the aquifer itself, replenishing with rain and feeding springs.

With Water Moves, WFSU aimed to teach children about systems thinking. Our local game is part of a larger initiative from PBS Kids Digital, which wanted something that had kids running around to compliment an upcoming computer game. Six teams of six kids had the same goal, to fill their buckets (houses) from a central pool (the aquifer) using tools they bought by earning points. Jamie Shakar from the City of Tallahassee then talked with them about the actual system, through which rain sublimes into the ground and is filtered through sand, clay, and ultimately limestone, finally reaching the sites where the city pumps our water.

In our Red Hills EcoAdventure, I made a connection between sinkholes in our lakes and our drinking water . Technically speaking, the water we drink does not come from surface water (lakes and rivers), but from groundwater (filtered and made clean as it makes its way down). To our second presenter of the day, though, all water in the aquifer is connected and must be protected.

Where Munson Slough flows into Lake Henrietta.

Where Munson Slough flows into Lake Henrietta.

Karen Rubin is with the City of Tallahassee’s TAPP (Think About Personal Pollution). She showed that, as rain falls and filters through the ground into the aquifer, it also travels off of lawns and parking lots and down streets, looking for a low point. As this is how water flows, the low points tend to be lakes. For the most urban areas within Tallahassee, that low spot is Lake Munson. It is the most compromised body of water in our county. It is fed by Munson Slough, which runs through Lake Henrietta along the way. I visited Lake Henrietta, where the county has built barriers to catch some of our trash and keep it out of Lake Munson. What I saw, and smelled, kind of surprised me. I thought that the Munson Watershed’s problems would be more subtle, evidencing themselves in water quality readings on a table in a report. I was wrong.

What is being carried into Lake Munson? Think of our roadways, and all of the car exhaust that hits it. Do you notice a little puddle under your car when you run the air? And in and around our homes. People fertilize their lawns and vegetable gardens (As we’ve covered before, an excess of nitrogen from fertilizers ends up feeding algae, which blooms, sucks up oxygen and kills aquatic life). We use pesticides to kill those ant piles that pop up everywhere. We pressure wash our houses with chemicals. Water washes off of our lawns, picking up these chemicals and compounds as it drains to that low spot in our watershed.

Now, if Lake Munson was the final resting place of these pollutants, we might well say “Munson can take one for the team” and let it collect our refuse. We have so many great lakes and rivers already. But Munson Slough continues southward from the lake. It disappears down Ames Sink and a percentage of its water end up in Wakulla Springs.

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An anhinga, surrounded by hydrilla, on Wakulla Springs. By occupying the space where water runs against vegetation, hydrilla may have prevented apple snails from laying their eggs and ultimately depriving limpkins of  food.

Wakulla Springs has an outline of a limpkin on its sign. And while some comments in a 2012 post regarding limpkins offer some hope for their return, that bird disappeared from the park in the 1990s. No definitive cause has been determined, but many look at invasive hydrilla as a culprit. Fed by excess nutrients, it is a major presence in Wakulla Springs. So much so that it encroached upon the bases of plants where apple snails lay eggs. When its source of food disappeared, there was no reason for the bird to stay.

Johnny Richardson is a water quality scientist with Leon County. He told me that while 11% of the nutrients in Wakulla Springs are known to come from streams and sinks, they don’t know exactly how much comes from the Munson system.

And while the water that flows from Wakulla Springs into the Wakulla River is considered compromised by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the system seems to clean it before it reaches the lower Wakulla, where it meets with the St. Marks River. St. Marks is a town that celebrates its fishing heritage with a Stone Crab Festival that we visited last year. While we in Tallahassee are connected through water to this fertile fishing ground, and to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, our pollutants seem to dilute or get filtered out before reaching them.

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A television lies in algae just downstream of a dam on Lake Munson. From here, the lake flows into Munson Slough, through the Apalachicola National Forest, and into Wakulla Springs.

It’s hard to say how much one leaky car or one overzealous gardener might degrade our beloved natural resources. Tallahassee can take the blame for Lake Munson, accept that it has some negative influence on Wakulla Springs, and feel okay that it isn’t contaminating seafood in St. Marks. What we do know is that we can make the problems better or worse. We can control this.

Over the summer, we’ll look at ways to reduce our personal pollution. For instance, instead of leaving a TV and its toxic innards on the curb for a few days, or heaving it into a lake, you can take it to Leon County’s Solid Waste Facility. It’s a little out of the way, but maybe you were going to Tom Brown Park or Walmart anyway?

Also over the summer, we’ll get back to the fun EcoAdventures. Also, Randall Hughes and David Kimbro will look back at the research into salt marsh, oyster reef, and seagrass bed ecology that we’ve been following over the years. Our area has some amazing ecology, and there are places we haven’t been and connections we haven’t yet made. I never tire of learning how it all works.

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Can crabs hear? (Revisited, with answers!)

P1050260Four years ago, we traveled out into the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor with Dr. David Kimbro.  It was both the start of an ambitious new study and of our In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Last June, we went back to those reefs with Dr. Randall Hughes as she, David, and their colleagues revisited study sites from North Carolina to the Florida Gulf.  In 2010, they sampled the reefs with nets and crab traps, and harvested small sections of reef.  This more recent sampling, which unfolds in the opening scenes of our recent documentary, Oyster Doctors, was conducted with underwater microphones.  Randall explains how sound became a tool in further understanding fear on oyster reefs.

The research in the following post was conducted while Randall and David worked at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

Dr. Randall Hughes Northeastern University

A little over a year ago, I wrote about our research project, motivated by a question from WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas, to test whether crabs can hear the “songs” made by their fish predators. At the time, the work had not been published, and so I was not able to share all of the juicy details. But now it has, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, so I can finally answer with a resounding YES!

To review a little bit, Rob’s question really had 2 parts:

  1. Can crabs hear (anything)? (They don’t have ears.)
  2. Do crabs respond to the sounds of their fish predators?

To answer #1, we paired up with Dr. David Mann. Dr. Mann is an expert in bioacoustics, and particularly in evaluating whether marine critters (primarily fish) can hear different sounds. We modified his methods slightly to accommodate our mud crabs – basically, we needed to immobilize the crabs on a ‘stretcher’ so that we could insert one electrode near the crab’s antennae, and another in the body cavity to pick up any background “noise” the crab may be produce that was not in response to the acoustic stimuli. Although it looks like mud crab torture, all the crabs survived the experiment!

Mud Crab Hearing TestWhat did we find? The crabs had a neurological response (i.e., they “heard”) a range of frequencies. They certainly wouldn’t ace any hearing tests, but if a sound is low- to mid- frequency and relatively close by, they can likely hear it. They do this using their statocyst, a structure containing sensory hairs that can detect changes in orientation and balance, and in this case, can detect changes in particle acceleration associated resulting from the acoustic stimuli.

Although cool to someone like me who is fascinated by marine biology, many of you are probably thinking “So what?”. And for that, we turn to the second part of our study, where we tested whether mud crabs change their eating habits in response to the songs made by their fish predators. We compared the number of juvenile clams that crabs ate when we played them either a silent recording or a recording of snapping shrimp (a common organism on oyster reefs that doesn’t eat crabs) to the number of clams that they ate when we played them recordings of songs from 3 fish that DO eat mud crabs – hardhead catfish, black drum, and toadfish. Apparently catfish and black drum songs are the same to a crab as the Jaws theme song is to me, because they hunkered down and did not eat nearly as many clams when they heard the calls of those two predators.

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Phil Langdon feeds a catfish in an iteration of a mud crab hearing experiment.  They had already noticed that mud crabs were eating less when they heard sounds made by catfish and other predatory fish.  Here, they sought to measure whether the response was more intense with chemical cues (pumped via those tubes into tubs), or predator sounds (played from underwater speakers).

So, now we know that mud crabs can hear, and that they don’t eat as much when they hear some of their predators. But we also know from our earlier experiments that these same crabs don’t eat as much when exposed to water that hardhead catfish have been swimming in, most likely because they can “smell” chemicals in the water that the fish give off. So which catfish cue generates a stronger response – sound or smell? Turns out that both cues reduce crab foraging and to about the same degree, although in our experiment the effects of catfish songs were slightly stronger than the effects of catfish smell.

So what’s the take-home message from this work? For one, it highlights that we still have a lot to learn about the ocean and the animals that live in it – we (and others) have been studying these mud crabs for years and never thought to consider their ability to use one of the 5 major senses! In addition, it’s a reminder that in studying the “ecology of fear”, or the effects that predators have on their prey even when they don’t eat them, we need to remember that few predators are silent, and the sounds that they make could be important cues that prey use to escape being eaten. And finally, it demonstrates that science can be really fun!

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Video: Bradwell Bay Wilderness Hike- Night and Day

Watch and listen: what does a Wilderness sound like at night?

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

P1060490-SmallerIt seems like a good premise for a movie: Under a full moon, on Friday the thirteenth, a group of people wander in the Wilderness. You could be a part of this movie on Friday, June 13 (8 pm), as Haven Cook of the U.S. Forest Service leads a hike into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. It’s one of a series of events being held in the Apalachicola National Forest to celebrate 50 years of the Wilderness Act. Passed in 1964, the act designated certain protected areas as Wilderness.

So how is a Wilderness any different than any other protected land? We are surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Management Areas, state parks, and large greenways. There are some waterways near here where you could spend hours and not see many signs of civilization. It’s already plenty wild around here, right?

A Wilderness area restricts the use of motorized or mechanical equipment. Not even a bicycle or, as the sign at the trailhead states, a hang glider (the WFSU hang glider was sadly left behind in our vehicle). No structures can be placed on the grounds, though any that were historically found there can remain. It has to, as the act states, retain “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Section 2(c) of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The primary force affecting the Wilderness must be nature, not man. The idea is that you can go there and experience total solitude in nature, and that means freedom from the buzz of a chainsaw or seeing that glider over your head.

The primary man made feature of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is the unpaved trail that runs through it. In the pine flatwood area leading up to the swamp, it was an old road that Haven believes might have led to an homestead, likely belonging to the Bradwell family. It has a ditch running along either side of it, where you can occasionally see pitcher plants growing (as we learned a few weeks ago in another part of the Apalachicola National Forest, carnivorous plants love ditches and their found-in-nature equivalents). There is an old bridge that takes you over a small creek that drains into the Sopchoppy River. While they won’t put any forest roads through the Wilderness (its boundaries are formed by forest roads), the trail is maintained as a part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. In places, that doesn’t mean much more than an orange blaze on a tree.

Some Wilderness areas don’t even have that level of human footprint. The Mud Swamp/ New River Wilderness, also in the National Forest, is one. In general, Wilderness areas in the Eastern United States tend to be smaller and less isolated than in the less populous Western half of the country. In 1975, congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Act, which created the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. This act acknowledges that “additional areas of wilderness in the more populous eastern half of the United States are increasingly threatened by the pressure of a growing and more mobile population, large-scale industrial and economic growth, and development and uses inconsistent with the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the areas’ wilderness character.” Section 2(a)(3) of the Eastern Wilderness Act.

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Often in the Forest, you’ll see these burnt woody shrubs among the palmettos between the pines. Longleaf and slash pine can tolerate fire and palmettos grow back, but hardwood trees do not fare well in this ecosystem.

It should also be noted that, though the area is intended to be as much as possible like it was when this country was founded, the pine flatwood area is a second growth forest where you can still see rows of planted slash pine. Like many of the places that we consider wild around here, it had been cut at some point. It is, like the rest of the forest, maintained by prescribed fire. This is to replicate the fire regime that occurred naturally before the area was settled by Americans. Since the Wilderness won’t burn every three to four years without assistance, The Forest Service keeps the “primeval” character of the area by simulating the regime that had occurred there.

We didn’t make it to the swamp, as we were previewing the full moon hike, though a little earlier to get more shots in the light. We’ll have to save that for another EcoAdventure. If you’re going on June 13, the sun will set within the first hour of the hike, and there will be mosquitos. And also ticks. This isn’t out of the ordinary for a hike at this time of the year. But when the moon comes out, you’ll see the Wilderness entirely differently. More strikingly, it will sound different. And, you know, there’ll be that slasher movie plot thing happening.

Coming Up

One value of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is that, without motorized vehicles or human made structures, the stormwater runoff flowing from it to the Sopchoppy River is clean. We spend a lot of time on our EcoAdventures visiting well preserved, healthy land and water resources. On our last EcoAdventure of the season, we’re going to visit some places where you don’t want to touch the water or eat fish from it. We’re talking drinking water (which is clean) and stormwater. Wait until you see the bodies of water that collect our runoff.

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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.

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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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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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