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THE NATURALIST
by Dave Evans

It's a Hard Life
June 23, 2004

I've developed particular admiration for several plants and animals that are common at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. They're the ones that have been able to flourish in the most difficult circumstances to be found on the Island...and in the back of my mind I suppose there lurks an analogy to the "can-do" outlook of human Kodiak Islanders.

My candidates for Kodiak's hardlife organisms are two plants: the narcissus flowered anemone and the Kamchatka rose (or rhododendron); and one animal: the bumblebee (actually several different species, but with fairly similar life activities).

The narcissus flowered anemone and the Kamchatka rose are found on the brows of windswept cliffs out here at Miller Point. They're completely exposed to the elements and thrive in the strong winds that shoot up the cliff faces. Wildflower watching becomes an extreme sport in this kind of habitat; there's a patch of Kamchatka roses on Miller Point that I've only seen through binoculars, and I'm not even tempted to lean far enough over the edge for a closeup look.

Both flowers have brief blooming seasons within Kodiak's overall short summer season, and both have showy flowers that attract insect pollinators. The white anemones and the red Kamchatkas are striking, but the windswept cliffs they use also means that the plants must depend on insect pollinators that have considerable flying ability and stamina themselves.

There's not much competition with other plants in this habitat, and little competition with each other because of a distinct time separation. The narcissus flowered anemone blooms in very early summer. Right now there's a nice field of them close to the cliff face at the top of the wildflower meadow trail. I expect to see the Miller Point Kamchatka roses sometime in early to mid-July.

I remember how much Kodiak's bumblebees impressed me during my first summer at Fort Abercrombie some six years ago. With Kodiak's cooler temperatures and the wet, rainy conditions, the bees go out in some very bad flying weather. Before they fly, they often need to do an engine warm-up by rapidly vibrating the wing muscles. That process brings the internal temperature up enough to allow takeoff. Our cold-wet combination is sometimes lethal. At the end of a cool, drizzly midsummer day, it's not unusual to see worker bees chilled, wet, and doomed, on the pushki heads. They've been running at an energy deficit by day's end, and energy gained from nectar they've consumed has been insufficient to get them back to the nest.

Seasonally, the earliest bumblebees we see on Kodiak are queens that were fertilized at the end of the previous summer. Each needs to find an underground burrow-an old mouse nest will do nicely-to start her own nest. Then enough flower nectar must be collected to serve as an energy source for maintaining herself and producing the all-female offspring from her fertilized eggs.

She has to feed these female larvae until they reach maturity and become workers. Most of the bees we see working the flowers by this time of season are these sterile workers, which collect nectar and pollen to feed new larvae that the queen continues to produce.

Towards the end of summer, the queen starts producing males, while the workers feed some of the females protein-rich secretions which cause them to develop as queens-to-be. Males leave the nest and find rocks or branches where they can view the scene conveniently, and they wait impatiently for queens-to-be to fly by. If one is spotted, they'll fly out, and, if accepted, mate with her. (These males don't have exquisite discrimination in their reproductive responses-throw a rock in front of one and he'll fly after it just to check it out as a possible mate...I trust this isn't part of my human Kodiak Islander analogy.)

Everybody dies when winter comes, except for the newly-mated queens-to-be, who start the whole process over again in the following spring.

Kodiak's plants and animals give us good examples of this persistence through adversity, but the adversity is only one facet of the environment. The persistence allows survival in a place with long summer days, plenty of food, and little competition with less Kodiak-adapted populations. And that leaves me not being able to get away from my human Kodiak Islander analogy.

David A. Evans, Volunteer Naturalist
Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park


http://www.kadiak.org/naturalist/hardlife.html Updated 2004 June 23

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