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Posts Tagged ‘Pollinators’

…and other news. Here are a few stories that we’ve come across in the past few days that we think you might find interesting.

School Wildlife Habitats

We loved this one in particular. We all know about the life-enhancing lessons that kids take away from school (food) gardens. Well here’s another powerful way to engage them, help them learn, and improve their lives in the short- and long-term.

The Leo Politi Elementary School, in one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles, removed 5,000 square feet of concrete and lawn and replaced it with native plants and trees. Amazingly (or not, as most gardeners know), insects, birds and other creatures appeared so quickly that the principal said it was almost as if they were waiting for this oasis to appear. Not only were the kids fascinated with the activity in their new habitat, but the school’s science scores increased six-fold.

Let’s hear it for school gardens, both edible and habitat gardens. They enrich the lives of students, teachers and their neighborhoods by creating green spaces for all kinds of creatures. Read the whole story here.,

Historic Garden Photography

Anne Raver (one of our favorite garden writers) writes in the NY Times about a collection of garden photos taken from the late 1800′s to 1935 by Frances Benjamin Johnson. A catalog of her hand-colored glass lantern slides is available here. It’s a wonderful resource for anyone planning a new garden.

Conservation

Finally, here’s a thought-provoking editorial, Drop That Bog, that appeared in the NY Times on April 11. It’s a pretty convincing argument against using peat moss. We’ll quote it here in its entirety:

“To gardeners, there is something deeply gratifying about opening a bag of sphagnum peat moss. It’s the smell and texture, as well as knowing that peat makes a good ground cover and soil improver. But, like so many other things in our lives, peat moss looks different, and far less gratifying, when you take climate change into account.

What gardeners are buying in those compressed bags of peat is the remains of what was once a living bog. Extracting peat requires a kind of surface mining — laying back the top layer of a drained wetland and digging out the peat. The stuff you’re forking onto your garden is a broken-down version of stuff that has been used for centuries as fuel in Scotland, Britain and Ireland.

Here’s the trouble. Peat results when bog and wetland plants decompose partially in the absence of oxygen. Instead of emitting carbon dioxide as they decompose, they become the carbon in peat. In other words, peat acts as a carbon sink, trapping carbon that would otherwise have been released into the atmosphere. But once peat has been dug up — even before it is burned or dug into the corner of the garden where you’re hoping to plant blueberries — it begins to release its stored carbon, adding to the climate-altering carbon dioxide we are already pouring into the atmosphere.

Compared with the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when gardeners drive to the nursery, the problem may not seem that big. But every reduction helps, and there are easy alternatives. The best substitute for peat in the garden is compost, which you can make at home, unlike peat, which takes thousands of years to form. Peat should stay where it does the most good: in the place where it formed, beneath the complex ecology of a living wetland.”

That’s it for now.

P. S. Yes, we have been on an extended hiatus which was quite a bit longer than we intended, but we’re happy to be back. Tomorrow’s Tuesday’s Tips will be a primer on creating succulent terrariums. It’s super easy!

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Or we might have titled this post “Why Bees Are So Important.”

In January the press reported that scientists had noticed a significant decline in bumblebee populations in the U.S. — first it was the honeybees that were disappearing and now it’s bumblebees too. Scientists are not sure why just yet, but one thing they can agree on is that this is not good news because bumblebees pollinate about 15% of all crops in the field — blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, squash and watermelon; and in the hothouse — tomatoes, strawberries and peppers.

And it’s not just the many different variety of bees (honeybees, bumbles, carpenter bees, mason bees, metallic sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, ground-nesting bees, and various localized native bees) that pollinate flowers. There are many other creatures that do this work like ants, beetles, moths, flies, birds, butterflies, wasps, bats, and even a few mammals that transport pollen as they make their rounds.

Which is kind of the long way round to the question of problems with fruit set in squash, melons and cucumbers. Several people have asked why the flowers on squash and cucumber plants have been falling off. There are several reasons.

The first thing you should know is you might not have a problem. Squash, melons and cucumbers belong to the cucurbit family and they all have a unique flowering habit. Each plant bears male and female blossoms. The female blossom has a miniature fruit (ovary) at the base of the flower. Male blossoms don’t have this swelling. The male flower’s only job is to provide pollen to fertilize the ovary in the female flower and they depend on bees to do this. If the pollen isn’t transported from male to female flower fruit set will never happen.

Early flowers tend to be mostly male and these will fall off with no sign of fruit set. Not to worry, this is normal. On certain hybrid varieties of summer squash the early flowers are mostly females that don’t get fertilized and they will drop as well.

When the plants start producing both male and female flowers at the same time things should start clicking — unless there are no bees around. Cucurbits have sticky pollen and need bees to transport it from male to female flower. If your garden doesn’t have enough bees to pollinate the female flowers you will not get fruit.

In the absence of bees the only option is to hand pollinate. Get a small artist brush and pick up the yellow pollen that you will find inside the male flowers. Take the pollen-coated brush and paint it onto the stigma in the female flower. It is important to do this to only flowers that have just opened as they are only receptive for a single day.

It would be so much easier to have bees do the work! Without them crops will fail, plants won’t thrive, and we will be hard pressed to find solutions to this growing problem.

How can you help? Rule number one is to NEVER use pesticides in your garden. No matter how careful you are you will almost always kill at least a few bees. Rule number two is to create a garden that will sustain bees and all the creatures that help us grow food and the other plants we love. You can find tips on creating bee-friendly gardens in this post and by clicking some of the links on our resources page.

One last note, though we always recommend lots of mulch for your garden beds be sure to leave a few small areas bare for ground-nesting bees. Mulching is thought to be one of main reasons that this type of bee population is diminishing.

Save the bees!

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Block Island, Rhode Island

Irvine, California

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It’s been such a thrill to see our Mama Hummingbird as she cares for her eggs. I wrote last week about finding her nest and promised to keep you updated on the latest. Well, drumroll please…both of her eggs have hatched!

Last Tuesday and Wednesday I noticed Mama spending more time than usual in her nest. On Thursday she left her perch long enough for me to take a peek and I saw two funny-looking little gumbys laying in the shattered remains of their eggs. One baby was all curled up and the other bobbled it’s noggin, beak up, looking for it’s Mama.

I was able to grab a couple more shots on Saturday at which point the two little babies started to look more like birds than tiny aliens. You can see that they are starting to get their feathers.

I haven’t been able to get any shots this morning, but as soon as I do I’ll add it the to this post.

Below are some tips on how you can create a garden that hummingbirds will love to call home.

Provide Food and Shelter

Hummingbirds eat flower nectar and small insects (which is what they feed their babies). They also will eat a sugar and water solution from a feeder (1 part sugar to 4 parts water – NO RED DYE, no honey), but you must be diligent about keeping your feeder clean by washing it with a brush and warm water (no soap) every 3 – 4 days. I don’t keep a feeder because when I do the ants always find it and it’s a terrible mess.

Plants provide food, shelter and nest-building materials for hummingbirds and all manner of small creatures in your garden. And don’t be such a neat freak — our Mama Bird used lots of spider webs to build her nest, which is why I leave them all over the place (not really, I just never get around to removing them).

I’ve been watching Mama Bird as she makes her way around my garden. Two of her favorite stops are the lavender and the jasmine. Hummingbirds prefer red and yellow flowers, but will visit others as well. As you see on the list below, you can (and should) plant plants that will provide nectar for most of the growing season.

  • Azalea
  • Bee Balm (Monarda)
  • Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)
  • Canna
  • Cardinal Flower
  • Cape and Coral Honeysuckle
  • Columbine
  • Coral Bells
  • Currants
  • Firespike
  • Flame Acanthus
  • Flowering Quince
  • Four O’Clocks
  • Foxglove
  • Fuchsia
  • Gooseberries
  • Hosta
  • Hummingbird Mint (Agastache)
  • Lantana
  • Lavender
  • Lupine
  • Manzanita
  • Monkey Flower
  • Penstemons – especially red and yellow
  • Scarlet Runner Bean
  • Salvias
  • Summer Holly
  • Trumpet Creeper
  • Weigela
  • Yucca

Many of these will plants attract and feed other pollinators, like bees and butterflies, as well.

Provide Water

A reliable, clean source of water is another thing birds look for when deciding to build nests. The bees will thank you too. Did you know that bees drink water? They do — check it out.)

NEVER Use Pesticides

I use only organic or mechanical means of pest control and I leave some of the bad bugs in the garden so the birds (and beneficial bugs and lizards) have food. Pesticides will kill all the small bugs that hummingbirds eat for protein. Pesticides can also make birds sick, or could kill them.

Our babies should be in the nest for a couple of more weeks and I will, of course, be sharing more pics. Then they’ll be out on their own and hopefully coming back to my garden when it’s time to build their nests.

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We’ve written a lot about Colony Collapse Disorder and the nearly overwhelming problems that affect honey bees, but things are at least as dire for our native bees, most notably the lovely bumble bee.

Bumbles are the stuff of our childhood memories. Who, when remembering walks through wildflower fields, doesn’t see in their mind’s eye fuzzy, funny bumble bees drifting from flower to flower? These pollinators were plentiful years ago, but now, like many plants and animals, bumbles are suffering from loss of habitat, pesticide poisoning, changing climates, and diseases that were introduced along with non-native bees.

There are almost 50 bumble bee species native to North America and many of them are threatened not with just a serious decline in numbers, but with extinction. In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a study done over the last three years shows a widespread pattern of decline in bumble bee populations. The western bumble bee, the rusty-patched bumble bee and yellow-banded bumble bee used to be very common, but their numbers have decreased by 96 percent and their range shrunk by as much as 87 percent. (This is video Native Bumblebees features an interview with Scott Black of the Xerces Society who’s been tracking the disappearance of the western bumble bees in Oregon.) Franklin’s bumble bee, found in a relatively small area covering southern Oregon and northern California, is now thought to be extinct.

Many other bumble bee species have also experienced serious declines in their numbers and ranges which is a big problem because bumbles are an important pollinator for high-value crops such as cranberries, blueberries and clover. They are also important elements in many ecosystems, pollinating wildflowers and plants that produce seeds and fruits that feed everything from songbirds to bears.

Bumble bees are unique in that they are able to fly in colder weather than other bee species and this makes them key pollinators for native plants in the tundra, prairie and  higher elevation climates. In fact bumble bees are the most effective pollinators for certain plants and seem to have evolved along with particular species of plants — the length of their tongues is exactly what is required to pollinate them. So if that particular pollinator is in decline you can reasonably expect that the plant that depends on it will decline as well. And that’s exactly what appears to have happened in parts of Britain and the Netherlands where native insect-pollinated plants have declined along with bee populations.

There are many ways you can help bumbles survive and perhaps thrive. The most important is DON’T USE PESTICIDES in your gardens. The stuff on the shelf at your local big box stores and nurseries is dangerous to man and beast. Really, this stuff will poison you, your kids, the dog, the cat, the chickens, and any other creatures that happen to be in the vicinity. Make a resolution to forego poisons in your garden this year. (We’ll write a post or two about organic alternatives and how to safely use them in your garden soon.)

Other ways to help the bumble bees:

  • Plant natives in your garden and plan for a succession of pollen and nectar-bearing blooms throughout the season.
  • Bumbles like asters, bee balm, blueberries, borage, clovers, lupines, mints, and rhododendrons to name a few.
  • Bumbles will nest lots of different places like logs, trees, old mouse burrows and grass tussocks. Leave a bit of your land wild if you can.
  • Bumbles are very gentle and won’t act in a threatening manner. If you find a nest move away slowly and walk softly and they’ll leave you alone.
  • Learn to identify the different types of bumble bees. Free I.D. guides can be downloaded here.
  • You can participate in studies that are tracking bumble bees. Athena Anderson at the University of Georgia has developed a nest site survey to learn more about nest site and habitat features for bumble bees throughout North America and make this information available to anyone at no cost. If you find a bumble bee nest, please click on this link to fill out the survey and increase our knowledge of the range of native bumble bees: Bumble Bee Nest Survey
  • The Xerces Society has asked that folks send them photos of yellow-banded and rusty-patched bumble bees and the locations where they were spotted. Email to bumblebees@xerces.org

May the bumbles be with you! Mary Beth and Barbara

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Colorado

Block Island


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This week marks the fourth annual National Pollinator Week. Bees are probably the first thing that come to mind when we think about pollinators, but there are many others that deserve our gratitude and care — hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, and beetles to name a few. I love honeybees best so that’s what I’m going to focus on for today’s tips.

Tip #1 — Bees Need Water

Water is essential for a honeybee colony and if there is no natural source nearby then you should supply it. Bees use water evaporation to cool the hive and for diluting honey to feed to their larvae. A hive can use over a quart of water a day. Think about that — think about how tiny bees are. Now that’s a lot of water hauling!

Supplying your bees with water also keeps them from being a nuisance to your neighbors. In the absence of water you supply, they will use your neighbor’s swimming pools, dog water bowls, leaky water spigots, etc. So give them a water source of their own to keep them happy and healthy.

Make sure the water source is clean, has good footing and provide something they can climb on if they fall in. A bit of straw, small sticks floating on the surface or rocks placed in the water will work.

If you get really ambitious you can make a small pond, a water fountain in a container, or a water garden in a whiskey barrel with a few water plants for the bees to land on to take a drink. I started on my own pond a few weeks ago and will be posting on it soon. I’ve been fascinated with the many kinds of bees and insect drinking from dawn to dusk in the shallows where the water splashes on the rocks. Honeybees will come to the same spot every day to drink, so once you start don’t let the water supply run out.

Tip #2 — Extracting Honey

  • Don’t take uncapped honey. Most of the frame, 7/8, should be capped before you harvest any honey. Unripe honey (uncapped honey) will spoil because of the high water content.
  • Harvest your honey when it’s warm. Honey flows best at 80 degrees.
  • After extracting the honey let it settle a few days to get air bubbles out.
  • Honey is acidic so use stainless steel or glass to store your honey.
  • Save your wax cappings. Drain them of honey and melt them down into a block. Beeswax can be used for making lip balm, polishing furniture, candles, and more. An old sewers trick is to draw thread through a block of beeswax. It makes pulling thread through thick materials so much easier.

Remember, a honeybee colony needs 60 to 90 pounds of honey to survive the winter. If you feel your bees have a surplus then take a frame or two of honey. A medium super will contain 35 to 40 pounds of honey, or 3 – 4 gallons and that should be plenty for you and to share with friends and family.

Tip #3 — Learn Something New

Listen to Organically Managed Beekeeping Methods podcasts. The podcasts are very interesting with great guests speaking about how they manage their own hives and deal with the sometimes complex issues of beekeeping.

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