I’ve addressed the personal life of my backyard maple tree several times over the years. The Red Maple stands within clear view from the house and is situated directly opposite the back door. Sadly, the tree is slowly dying from within. It is riddled with cavities and rains down dead branches with every passing wind storm. Someday it may take out a corner of my ramshackle back porch if the wind spirits deem it so. Even so, I appreciate it too much to have it removed. Not yet. Even in slow decline it is full of life.
Some of the life present in, on, and around the tree are present only because the thing is in decline. A regular stream of woodpeckers, from tiny Downies to medium Red-bellies freely peck away at the dead branches to retrieve grubs. Large laughing Flickers hop about the base to lap up carpenter ants. Upside-down Nuthatches probe bark crannies from above and right-side up Brown Creepers investigate them from below.
Huge Horntail Sawflies show up from time to time to deposit their eggs deep into the wood. The hatching larvae spend several years tunneling through the trunk on their way to eventual maturity – spreading fungus as they go. The adults appear to be armed with a formidable horn off the end of their abdomen. They are not wasps, however, and this is not a stinger. It is only an ornament. The well-named horntails will assume a menacing pose and flaunt this pseudo-stinger in the air if threatened. It’s a good act and one certain to deter all but the most determined of predators and timid people.
One large cavity located in the main trunk has hosted a parade of alternating tenants over the past five years. The first major occupation, beginning about five years ago, was a family of Red Squirrels. This active little gang enlivened the tree with a half dozen little squirrelets which poured into and out of the cavity all summer long. The tenants enlarged the entrance to suit their needs and brazenly stole cardboard and paper from my shed (trashing it in the process) to fill it.
After a lull in the squirrel action the following year, a colony of honeybees established themselves in the hole. They re-altered the hole to fit their needs. By applying thick layer of resinous “bee glue” (propolis) around the edges, they narrowed the opening according to the honeybee pattern book. Inside they constructed intricate hanging combs, according to the same book, and filled them with eggs, stores of honey, and pollen.
The colony thrived into the following autumn but was stopped cold – literally – by the intensity of last winter. It appears that they were doing fine as of mid-season, but the prolonged and intense cold was too much for them to handle and the entire colony died.
After a summer of vacancy, Red Squirrels moved back into the cavity this past fall. I doubt they were the original squirrels, but probably the offspring with a nostalgic opinion of cavity life. Pieces of the old bee comb began appearing on the ground at the base of the tree as the squirrels cleaned up the mess. Most of the old combs were simply cast out whole. Starvation drove the bees to completely empty the combs so there wasn’t even enough honey remaining for a squirrel tongue to probe. One of the pieces revealed the beautiful freeform design typical of a wild hive unconstrained by frames and supers.
Chewing away most of the old bee glue, the squirrels further altered the cavity to meet the requirements outlined in their design book. So, it looks like the Reds will once again rule the maple tree hole this winter. Out with the old and in with the renew.