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Army of 500

The Bald Range is an open, grassy mountainside tucked in among the pine forests of the central Okanagan. Elegant bunchgrasses and hardy balsamroots abound. Native bees and other insects attend the flowers while overhead, solitary raptors work the thermals. The Bald Range is a landscape well suited to epiphany, but its humble beauty has been marred. Historical overgrazing, fire suppression and all-terrain vehicles have each left their legacy of damage.

Part of that legacy is a truly spectacular infestation of a noxious alien weed known as Saint Johnswort, on a portion of the Range. This European weed is common in many parts of BC’s southern Interior and the Lower Mainland, but the populations are typically small and scattered. This is due to a highly successful biological control insect known as Chrysolina. This fat, glossy beetle was purposefully introduced in BC in the early 1950’s and it became a very successful immigrant, spreading its progeny throughout the southern half of the Province. The beauty of Chrysolina is its voracious appetite for Saint Johnswort, and its total disdain for any other plant.

As a longtime volunteer and occasional consultant on the Bear Creek Bald Range (one must be specific—BC has several Bald Ranges), I was acutely conscious of its Saint Johnswort infestation, which in places made up 90 percent of the vegetation, displacing bunchgrass, balsamroot and pretty much everything else. But oddly, there were no Chrysolina attackers. This particular beetle is easy to spot, due to its iridescent black body, but several close inspections of the Bald Range during peak season never revealed a single beetle. This was strange, since the beetle is considered well established by Provincial authorities, and can be found everywhere that its host plant is found.

So I added this observation to my list of Bald Range questions and curiosities, and carried on. But by the summer of 2015 it was obvious to our cadre of Bald Range volunteers that the Saint Johnswort infestation was spreading, and spreading rapidly. Saint Johnswort is a well-known herbal remedy for depression, and I figured we now had enough biomass to cheer up several provinces and territories.

I put in a call to Catherine Macrae, an invasive plant specialist with the Ministry of Forests in Nelson, BC, to see if there was any chance of getting a few beetles. She told me the Chrysolina was experiencing one of its periodic down cycles, and few were available for capture and re-release. But she promised to keep my request in mind. Then in the spring of 2016, Catherine’s technicians found a burgeoning population near Nelson, and I got an urgent notice that 500 beetles were coming via express bus to my home town of Summerland.

I arrived at the bus station promptly at the appointed arrival time and—no bugs. Frantic and knowing the beetles experience high mortality from shipping delays, I called Catherine. She gave me the tracking number and I contacted every depot on the various bus routes between Nelson and Summerland, the destination. No luck. “In transit” was the standard unhelpful answer. The Bald Range’s chances for a Chrysolina rescue were fading fast. I waited several anxious hours, made the round of phone calls again, and found the package was sitting at the bus station in Kelowna. The warehouse person reminded me that it was Saturday morning, they were closing in 45 minutes, and would re-open again on Monday. In turn, I reminded myself that it was over an hour’s drive from my house to the Kelowna bus station.

Pedal to the metal on Highway 97, my ancient Suzuki smoking from overexertion, I had visions of beetles dying slow and excruciating deaths in the airless, weedless Kelowna bus warehouse.  But somehow the gods of Kelowna’s endless out-of-phase traffic lights smiled on me, and I sailed right through to the north end bus station, where the package awaited. The warehouse person was not at all pleased to hear that the box was full of insects, and he very reluctantly loaned me a razor knife to open it with. And there, carefully packed in five vented plastic containers, nestled in Styrofoam and sharing a cold pack, were five hundred live, active insects. I thanked the apprehensive warehouse man profusely, and made a beeline, or rather a beetleline, for the Bald Range.

To get to the Bald Range, one drives twelve kilometers up the supremely dusty and washboardy Bear Creek road, a kilometer up a spur road, and finishing with a steep ten minute hike to get on to the Bald Range itself. I had transferred the bug containers from the box into my pack, and now I began to worry that my black backpack was acting as an unintentional solar oven, and the bugs would overheat and die on the very last leg of their epic journey. So I did the hike in record time. Arriving at the middle of the Saint Johnswort infestation, I was relieved to see the bugs were still active in their containers. Now I faced a dilemma that I hadn’t thought of before—where was the best place to put them—a dry spot, a wet spot, a spot with young plants, or mature plants? In the end I decided on five separate locations, each slightly different, and I marked them with my trusty GPS for future reference.

 

I have been on the margins of biological control for many years, but never actually participated in an insect release. So gently emptying these bugs from their containers was the culmination of a very long personal and ecological loop. Now I was embracing the full contradiction of biocontrol—introducing a new alien species to control an existing alien species. But these are exactly the kinds of delicious paradoxes that keep drawing me back to ecology.

My Chrysolina release was one of the handful of acts of random beauty one gets to be a part of in a lifetime. This delivered beetle population may, in their insect wisdom, take to the Bald Range, or they may reject it and die. After all, they were many kilometers and generations removed from their home country of England. One very plausible outcome of the release: the beetles will be successful, but the niche that Saint Johnswort formerly occupied gets filled by a new alien species from our foul and burgeoning cornucopia of invasive weeds.

Most of my tiny iridescent army of 500 came out of their containers easily, but there were a few which I had to coax out on to my finger, and then place on to a carefully chosen Saint Johnswort leaf. Those last few holdouts seemed genuinely grateful, and so was I.

Bottling the 2015

“We’ve been making wine for 3,000 years, how hard can it be?” George, my vinicultural Jedi master, was fond of repeating that deceptive statement. For several years, George and I batched our separate Zweigelt grape harvests together, and then he would do the technical vinting part. I would be around to help with the crush, and later to wash bottles and press corks. Eighteen months after each harvest, I was the grateful recipient of several cases of the lovely ruby-red Zweigelt, to which I affixed my own appellation: Yippee Calle. Regrettably, George and his wife Gerri moved from the Okanagan in 2016, but just prior to their departure, George brought me two 23 liter glass carboys full of the 2015 Zweigelt harvest, still fermenting. “Rack it in December, and then bottle it in June of 2017,” he said, making it sound so easy. I carefully stored the carboys in our unheated cellar, along with the black widows and boxes of childhood momentos our kids have yet to claim.

The racking went okay. You transfer the young wine from a full carboy to an empty one, leaving half a bottle worth—and the residue—in the bottom. George had instructed me to top up the newly filled carboy right to the top with a bottle of plonk—to exclude as much oxygen as possible. There was no way I was going to pour bad wine after good, so I cracked a bottle of the precious 2014 Zweigelt, to top things up.

All through the month of May the two silent carboys weighed in the back of my mind. Would the June bottling be successful? Did I have all the right paraphernalia? What if I’d already wrecked the wine? Three millennia of anxiety pressed down.

June arrived. Taking a preparatory inventory, I had plenty of bottles, but no corks. All that was on offer at the winemaking store were plastic corks of standard length, and short ones made of real cork.  I debated with myself, and opted for the short real corks; there was already enough plastic in my life.  If the wine started to go bad because of short corks, I planned to start an accelerated drinking program.

The cork dilemma resolved, it was time to set up a bottling station in the kitchen. First I brought up the two full carboys from the cellar. One at a time, I negotiated the steep, rickety stairs, holding the carboy like a sleeping child so as not to awaken the sediment. Then a few more trips to fetch the empty bottles and the corking machine. The carboys were set up on the kitchen counter, with bottles bunched tightly on the floor just below them, so I could gently and continuously siphon wine to fill each bottle.  I knew this would be a messy process, so I put a bunch of bath towels down first. Fortunately the towels were all of a dark red color.

The siphon. I had bought this crucial piece of equipment custom, a rigid tube that had a baffle at the bottom–to avoid siphoning up wine residue. The siphon was just the right length: when placed in the carboy, the shepherd’s crook at the top projected a few inches above the carboy mouth. But it did not come with a hose, so I bought a length of aquarium hose at a petshop, and slid one end on to the top of the siphon. Everything now in place, it was now time to prime the siphon, and allow gravity to do its work. I emulated George’s deft, time-honored and highly symbolic move, bending down to suck on the far end of the hose, then switching the hose from mouth to bottle just when full siphon is achieved, but not before you are left with a surprisingly pleasant half-mouthful of young wine.

It was working! I sat back to relax for a minute, and then saw the bubbles. Wine hates oxygen, and there was a tiny stream of air bubbles entering the wine flow right where I had attached the hose to the siphon. Panicked, I shut everything down. Crimped the hose with a gear clamp at the connection point, to no avail. Added a second gear clamp, but the evil bubbles continued. I went back to the petshop and bought a smaller diameter hose, plus a short connecting fitting that would go inside both the siphon and the hose. The air leak continued but the bubbles were less dramatic, so I was making progress. I pulled out the fitting, and wrapped it with plumber’s Teflon tape, which has essentially no thickness, and after wrapping on about twelve feet of it, I finally achieved an airtight, wine-worthy seal, and re-started the bottling process.

Bottling wine

The trick to filling the bottles is to get that all-important half inch of airspace between the wine and the bottom of the cork. George could hit it bang on, by switching the siphon hose from the newly filled bottle to the next empty one, at precisely the right time. I was overfilling one bottle and underfilling the next, so once the carboys were emptied I had to laboriously readjust the levels in most bottles, using a funnel and a spare bottle.

The final stage was bottling, which actually went quite smoothly. The corking machine consists of a spring-loaded platform for the bottle, a receptacle that holds the cork, and a lever that pushes the cork into the bottle. As you begin to press down on the lever, the cork holder compresses the cork slightly. Then you press harder, the cork slides down just the right distance into the neck of the bottle, a satisfying thump is heard when the lever reaches the end of its travel, and you have finished corking the bottle. Slide that bottle into the waiting 12-compartment cardboard wine box, position the next bottle, load in a new cork, and repeat.

Don bottling

It was suppertime when I finished lugging the wine boxes down into the cellar and cleaned up the kitchen floor. The half liter or so of chewy wine left in the bottoms of the carboys called out to me, so what the hell. I emptied it into a large wineglass, residue and all, and enjoyed it with a supper of sockeye salmon marinated in fresh Saskatoon juice.

Yippee Calle
Yippee Calle