Posts Tagged ‘Pollen’

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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Mary Beth: With the weather calm and warm since the heavy rainstorms came through last week everything is exploding into life.

The bees aren’t drinking as much sugar syrup and they’re beginning to bring in large amounts of pollen. The major source seems to be the red maples. I added a few bars to the TBH (Top Bar Hive) to give the bees more room since they’re starting to build the comb up.

Next week I’ll be checking to see if the Queen is laying eggs. If she is then I’ll have no worries that this hive has made it through the winter in good shape. (Phew!!!)

Barbara: Ever wonder what it’d be like to spend some time with the bees? Mary Beth’s great photos made me feel like I was right there — a “bee’s-eye” view!

Bee Meeting

On a Mission

Back With the Goods

Coming in for a Landing

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Mary Beth: One warm day last week I wondered why my bees hadn’t visited the witch hazel. Seemed weird that they would pass up this opportunity to gather pollen from the only plant in bloom in the garden. Well, yesterday I wondered no more. They were giddy with it. It was a pollen party for the hive and probably the first taste of pollen for all the new bees that emerged from their cells over the winter.

Why it took them a week to find it, I don’t know. Maybe the pollen wasn’t ready for the bees, or perhaps the bees weren’t ready for the pollen. If only I could peek into those little brains!

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Mary Beth: Winter is coming, I think, and even though the weather continues to be unusually warm for this time of year, I’ve been getting the bees ready.

So, what about the bees? Every time I tell someone that Ray and I are moving back to Colorado (Ch, Ch, Changes), I hear this question. I’ll say, “We’re leaving.” and then, wait for it, wait for it…a look of dismay and “What about the bees?!” Of course it’s logical, but I’ve been a little surprised and amused that the fate of my bees worries them. On the other hand it’s nice that my friends and readers have become so engrossed in this story that one of their first thoughts is for the bees.

So here is the answer.

Out of the three hives that I ended up with after the swarm season, the Top Bar Hive is the only one that survived.

The Hippie Shack

For some reason the other two lost their queens after they swarmed (read about it here and here) and I ended up shaking out the remaining bees in front of the TBH in hopes that they would be accepted into the hive. Losing the Blue and Green hives made me very sad — I was surprised by how much I’ve come to love my bees.

As for the Hippie Shack (named in honor of the laid-back nature of these bees), I checked it recently and it didn’t have as much honey as I thought it should. I think the hive was being robbed. I put an entrance reducer in to make the the hole smaller to give the guard bees less area to defend. Now, even with the warm weather prolonging the season, I’m worried that they won’t have time to store enough food to make it through the winter.

Since Ray and I decided to leave after the holidays, I’ve been trying to figure out how to leave the bees with enough food. I researched fondant ‘bee candy’ and it seemed like a good solution, so I made a frame to hold it and placed that in the hive.

This small frame holds 5 pounds of sugar fondant!

Another good thing about the bee candy is it won’t cause the moisture problems inside the hive that the sugar syrup did in the early spring. I placed the fondant between the false back and the last comb hoping it wouldn’t attract any more robber bees.

I hope the warm weather will last long enough to let them build up their supplies. Every day they’ve been coming in with a lot of pollen, which is a very good thing.

I think she's posing!

Dandelions and the last of the aster are blooming, so I think this is where they are getting the bright orange pollen.

Another sign that the bees are preparing for winter is each day a few more drones have been getting kicked out of the hive. I watched this play out one day — those girls are ruthless!

Poor drone!

One poor male was pulled by his leg and tossed out like yesterday’s paper. It’s a cruel, cruel world my friends, but there is not enough to go around in winter for lazy freeloaders.

I moved the hive from it’s original spot so it will get maximum sun exposure all winter. This should allow the bees to break cluster on sunny winter days.

I also wrapped the hive to give it a little more insulation and to keep the wind out. Now it’s up to the bees. Other than a few more feedings before we leave for Colorado, my girls are on their own until March.

You may wonder why I haven’t given the hive away. I did consider moving the hive to my friend’s property, but I was afraid if I moved it up the steep, bumpy road to my friend’s house, a comb or two might break off ruining any chance of the bees’ survival. So I decided to leave them where they are on my family’s property. I’ll fly back east in the spring for a visit and check on the bees and I’ve arranged for my beekeeper friends to check on them now and then. Fortunately the TBH needs little maintenance and the bees will take care of themselves.

Becoming a beekeeper has been a wonderful journey. Learning about honeybees opened up new worlds for me, not just the world of honeybees in my garden, but the important roles of all pollinators and how critical every last one of them is. It’s led me to examine the negative impact we’ve all had on our environment. I’ve been reading about the decline of the honeybee from Colony Collapse Disorder — just one of many examples of our carelessness towards our environment. But the good thing is it’s made me more aware of what I’ve been doing.

So, with that new-found awareness, I try to do my part to help by adding native plants to the existing flower gardens. And I’ve decided that I will delay mowing the outer fields until after the first frost to allow time for the last of the butterflies to emerge from their cocoons and to let the wildflowers reseed themselves for next year.

Of course, at the center of it all is the honeybee, the incredible little powerhouse.  If you have not yet read any books on honeybees, you should. Some of the things you learn will astound you.

It’s been a great year even with the loss of two hives and no honey to harvest. And next spring I will have a hive in Colorado with even more challenges — bears, skunks and who knows what else, but I have a plan!

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Mary Beth: Is there anything more amazing than a butterfly, especially a monarch? From its very beginning as a tiny larva, to the chrysalis, to the magnificent winged creature migrating thousands of miles to begin the cycle anew, there isn’t a moment of its life cycle that isn’t breathtakingly beautiful.

Swamp Milkweed grows wild on the back slope of my garden and for the past three years I’ve been encouraging it to expand. It provides food for my honeybees and for the monarch butterflies that call Block Island home. Both of them love it and, although it threatens to take over the back half of my garden, I’ll keep letting it seed itself because it is a valuable food source for these pollinators (monarchs are second only to bees in that category) and a critical link in the life cycle of the monarch.


Milkweed blossoms in early July

So I provide food and water for the butterflies, and they give back endless hours of fascination and joy — there’s nothing that lifts my heart more than company of the monarchs as I work in my garden.

In a good butterfly year, the elm trees that separate the garden from the rest of the property will be draped in monarchs, though we haven’t seen this phenomenon for some years now. Wondering why they always come back to that spot, I did a little research and found out that some scientists have speculated that the monarchs might leave a scent on the trees that attracts the next generation.

All summer I watched for signs of the monarchs. First there were the little larvae.

Tiny monarch larva

Then they fattened up and became plump caterpillars hungrily munching great chunks of milkweed. (Honestly, between watching the bees and the butterflies, it’s amazing I got any work done.)


Hungry caterpillars

Soon milkweed city grew quiet and I started to search for the chrysalis. And I searched and searched. I’d almost given up on that mid-September day when I was sitting in the garden eating grapes. Suddenly a small green capsule caught my eye.


The chrysalis was hard to spot

I kept a close watch on the chrysalis for the next couple of weeks.


Almost ready to hatch

Gradually it turned dark and I could more clearly see the butterfly folded up inside. I knew it would hatch very soon, so I made sure I always had my camera with me at all times so I wouldn’t miss the big event.

The next day the sky opened up. As it had all summer, it rained buckets.  Suddenly, in between downpours, the sun burst through the clouds. I grabbed my camera and ran for the garden. Surely the butterfly wouldn’t hatch in this foul weather.


Minus its inhabitant, but still beautiful


The female monarch — newly hatched and drying her wings


A magnificent creature — her wing webbing is thicker and she lacks the black spot on each of her hind wings that mark the male butterfly

I missed the hatching, but got beautiful pictures of the minutes-old butterfly. This gorgeous creature, the fourth and longest-lived generation of this season’s monarchs, is on her way to Mexico now. She’ll spend the winter there, reproduce, and finally die.


Soon she'll be off on her long journey

Vaya con Dios little butterfly. Send your babies back to my garden!

P.S. See our Resources page for links to lots of monarch butterfly information, including how you can make your garden more monarch-friendly.

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Bees from the third swarm moving into Green Hive.

Bees from the third swarm moving into Green Hive.

Mary Beth: Crazy days! For a couple of weeks things were so chaotic that I got the point where I didn’t want anything to do with my bees. Thankfully they’ve settled down, but those bad girls sure gave me a run for the money. At the end of the swarming, four in all, I ended up with three hives — the original Old Blue, home to a much smaller, much crabbier bunch of bees; Hippie Shack, the Top Bar Hive which houses the very laid-back bees from the first swarm; and Green Hive, the bees from the third, much smaller swarm. The second swarm was the one that got away.

I’m not sure what will happen over the winter, but based on what I’ve seen in the last few days I’d predict that the Hippie Shack will make it through just fine. I’m a little concerned about Old Blue, but if they can expand their numbers enough I think they’ll limp through. Unfortunately Green Hive looks underpopulated and there really isn’t very much activity in the hive, so I’m thinking that they may not have the resources to survive the long, cold Block Island winter.

Old Blue on the left and Hippie Shack to the right.

Old Blue on the left and Hippie Shack to the right.

Swarms aside, the thing I’ve found most interesting about this first bee season is that the honeybees haven’t been hanging out in the garden much. I had high hopes that I’d be watching the girls working hard to pollinate my vegetables, fruits and ornamentals, but that hasn’t been the case.  It’s most likely because I don’t have large enough patches of any one type of plant. Honeybees typically visit only one kind of plant during each outing and, while my garden has lots of plants, they are probably too scattered to make it worth their while. So instead of heading to the garden, the girls been gathering nectar and pollen from the plants in the swamp and beyond.

Rose petal in the swamp behind the hive.

Rose petals floating in the swamp behind the hives.

This week the milkweed is in full bloom and the bees are going crazy for it. They are working this area all day. One very curious thing I’ve noticed is that some of the bees get stuck to the leaves. They eventually work themselves free, but the poor things kind of flop around for a while until they get their feet unstuck. Has anyone else seen this?

One of the girls working the milkweed.

One of the girls working the milkweed.

Poor little bee with her foot stuck to the milkweed leaf.

Poor little bee with her foot stuck to the milkweed leaf.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that the real workers in my garden have been the bumblebees. These plump fuzzballs have been feverishly pollinating the garden while my prissy honeybees wander off in search of greener pastures. I’ll have them to thank for my tomatoes, squash, beans and the like. Kudos to the bumblebees!

Marybeth puts sage and lavender into the smokepot.

Marybeth puts sage and lavender into the smokepot.

Barbara and I suited up and opened Hippie Shack to see how the hive was doing. We were so relieved to see how very hard at work they’ve been building their new hive, which is about halfway full of comb. And my worries about a virgin queen were laid to rest when we found lots of larvae in the comb cells. There was also a decent amount of honey.

Workers tending to bee larvae on the TBH comb.

Workers tending to bee larvae on the TBH comb.

The Top Bar Hive, what some call a more natural hive, is designed to let the bees build their combs without a foundation. Most of the combs in the Hippie Shack were nice and straight and there was only a little wild burr. What little there was was easily removed with a small tool I made from a piece of copper.

MB lifted out a few of the bars so we could inspect the comb. This one is still a work in progress. A finished TBH comb extends all the way to each side and tapers to a squared-off bottom, matching the shape of the hive box.

MB lifted out a few of the bars so we could inspect the comb. This one is still a work in progress. A finished TBH comb extends all the way to each side and tapers to a squared-off bottom, matching the shape of the hive box.

When I removed the burr a little honey got on my glove, the tool, and the wall of the hive. The girls rushed in to recover it — no way they were letting any of it go to waste.

The bees were determined to recover every last bit of honey that got smeared onto my tool and glove.

The bees were determined to recover every last bit of honey that got smeared onto my tool and glove.

My biggest challenge with the TBH was putting the hive back together without squishing anybody. As you can see from the pictures, the bees were everywhere and that made it really hard to slide the bars back together. Unfortunately I did crush one of the sister bees and everyone, including me, got all worked up. I had to smoke them a bit more to get them calm enough to close up the hive. Too bad that smoke doesn’t work on me. I get really upset when that happens, but the bees seemed to take it in stride and they were back to business as usual a few minutes after the top was back on.

Trying to move the bars back into place without crushing any bees was extremely challenging.

Trying to move the bars back into place without crushing any bees was extremely challenging.

My girls have their work cut out for them. Over the next few months they’ll need to reproduce enough workers to lay in a nice amount of honey to get them through the winter months. Hopefully it’ll be smooth sailing from here.

One of my largest garden beds.

One of my largest garden beds.

Deer News: From looking at Tweets and search keywords it appears that deer troubles have increased a lot in recent weeks. The deer fence that Ray and I built around our garden has kept the deer out of the vegetable garden, but the flower beds are still vulnerable. For these areas I use an organic spray recipe that I got a few years ago in my Master Gardener class. I’ve had great results with it and highly recommend that anyone having trouble with these pesky, destructive animals give it a try. I’m not guaranteeing anything, with deer you never can, but this concoction will give you a fighting chance. Be forewarned, its pretty stinky, but it’s definitely worth the trouble. Try it out and let me know how it works for you.

Deer Spray Recipe:

There are many recipes for homemade deer spray online. Here’s how I make it.

4 raw eggs
1 tablespoon or more of hot sauce, the hotter the better
1 teaspoon dish soap
2 teaspoons of garlic juice or garlic powder
2 teaspoons of white pepper

1. Blend all ingredients in a blender with a quart of water. It helps to strain it before putting it into your sprayer because it will clog it, which is really annoying.

2. Pour in a gallon sprayer, add more water to top it off to a gallon and let it sit out of the sun for a couple of days so it gets good and smelly.

3. Spray your plants with a fine mist to coat all the foliage and flowers.

4. Respray new growth and after it’s rained.

I no longer measure anything out because I make gallons of this stuff every season. I use it on my gardens and all of my client’s gardens as well. I think the secret is to switch it up a bit from time to time, because deer will get used to the spray after a while and it won’t be as effective.

So you should add things like a few drops of clove oil, peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, or 1 cup of milk, etc. to change the smell and taste a little. I’ve been adding a sliver of Irish Springs soap to my batches lately and this seems to work really well. I find that the deer may take a bite here and there, but after tasting the spray they move on.

We’ll be posting more photos from the garden soon. Meanwhile, Barbara’s back on the West Coast working on a special post about farmer’s markets. Until then, bee well!

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B: My plants are finally in the ground. It seemed like such a long process. And the truth is it kind of was. Per my usual habit, I had to research EVERYTHING; partly because I just need to know and partly because I HATE making mistakes. And that’s ridiculous, of course. I mean really, what’s the worst that can happen? A plant will fail to thrive or die? Frustrating and sad, but not a tragedy.

I did a crazy amount of cross referencing among California native, drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly plant lists (with special attention to honeybees) to see what would thrive in a difficult, part-shade location that’s under a canopy of eucalyptus trees, in heavy clay soil, and in a bed that tends to be dry in the back and wet in the front. “List mania” took a lot of time, but I learned a lot about backyard restoration, native plants, my micro-climate and my soil. In a way all of these limitations made the final selections easier because I ended up with a list of only 25 plants, mostly natives, which might work. I hope. I hope. I hope!

Tree of Life Nursery

Tree of Life Nursery

My list was shortened a little more by what was available at the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. TOL grows California native plants and they have many mature specimens on the property that helped me visualize what my plants would look like a few years down the road.

Salvia greggii Autumn Sage

Salvia greggii Autumn Sage

The bonus is that this place is a true oasis. When I feel like I need to get away from it all, I’m always tempted to call and ask if they’d let me move into the office. I go there just to soak up its wild beauty. Which ends up being a dangerous thing to do with all those beautiful plants begging to be taken home.

Can I live here? Please?

Can I live here? Please?

After much poking around and many questions answered by the knowledgeable staff, I came home with 14 little beauties. And little they are, too. These natives are a bit fragile in that they have brittle roots and so it’s much better to start out with 1-gallon sized plants, rather than the larger 5-gallon size. I’m told they’ll survive transplanting much better at the smaller size.

Selecting my plants.

Selecting my plants.

Here’s the list of my babies:
These are the plants that will get pretty big. Most of them will grow to be from 6 to 10 feet tall.

I’m in love with the Arctostaphylos bakeri/Manzanita ‘Howard McMinn’. With some careful pruning this shrub will mature into a beautiful “tree” with twisting branches covered in mahogany-colored bark. It will provide nectar for hummingbirds and bumblebees in the spring.

Carpenteria californica/Bush Anemone — A big shrub with large, fragrant white flowers with bright yellow stamens and ivory and tan peeling bark. I think it will look lovely against the brick wall. Provides spring and summer pollen for bees.
Ceanothus/Wild Lilac ‘Sierra Blue’ — A pretty blue-flowered shrub that grows to 10 feet. It likes dry, poor soil. (No problem there.) Pollen and nectar in spring for butterflies, honeybees and bumblebees.
Philadelphus lewisii/Western Mock Orange — It has white, highly fragrant blossoms on arching branches. Supposed to be easy to grow. This wasn’t on the pollinator list; for the life of me I can’t remember what possessed me to buy this. Oops!
Rhamnus californica/Coffeeberry ‘Eve Case’ — At TOL this shrub was literally covered with all kinds of bees and other insects gathering pollen and nectar from tiny lime-green flowers. The berries color up through the spring and summer going from lime-green to rose to red and then to burgundy-black in the fall at which point they become food for the birds. Butterflies like it too. The nurserywoman said, “I can’t say enough good things about this plant.” Sold!
Ribes malvaceum/Chaparral Currant ‘Dancing Tassels’ — This one worries me a little. In the spring it has beautiful light-green leaves and dancing light-pink flower tassels, but it’s deciduous. Will I be happy with it when it drops its leaves in the summer? Not on the bee-friendly list, but hummingbirds love it’s nectar and birds like the berries. Those lovely dancing tassels seduced me.

On the smaller side:
Ribes viburnifolium/Evergreen Currant ‘Catalina Perfume’ — A fragrant groundcover. Supposed to eventually do well under mature trees. Note eventually — we’ll see. Not on the pollinator’s list. Why did I get this? Can’t remember.
Salvia greggii/Autumn Sage ‘Annie’ — A delicious orangey-pink. Not a California native, but it is drought tolerant and my options were limited. Besides the specimen at TOL was gorgeous and I couldn’t resist. Butterflies, hummingbirds and honeybees love the nectar. My Anna’s Hummingbird came to visit everyday as I was planting. Soon he’ll be sipping nectar.
Salvia greggii/Autumn Sage ‘Lavender Rose’ — Another one for the hummingbirds, etc. in a lovely lavender-tinged pink.

Heuchera Coral Bells "Canyon Chimes"

Heuchera Coral Bells "Canyon Chimes"

Heuchera/Coral Bells ‘Canyon Chimes’ — I can’t overstate how excited I was to discover that this plant was a California native. A favorite of mine from my East Coast gardening days, this was a gift, something familiar. A favorite of hummingbirds.

Mimulus aurantiacus Monkeyflower

Mimulus aurantiacus Monkeyflower

Mimulus aurantiacus/Bush Monkeyflower — With a sweet apricot-colored flower, this was the first CA native that I was able to recognize in the wild. Provides spring pollen and nectar for bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.
Monardella villosa/Coyote Mint — Love the name, it sounds so outlaw. The fragrance of the leaves is delightful – mint with an edgy twist. Soon bees, butterflies and hummingbirds will be sipping nectar and gathering pollen from its purple blossoms.
Iris douglasiana/California Iris — another familiar plant! I love this old-fashioned beauty. This one has a lovely pale-blue flower that really pops in the shade. Not on the pollinator list, but too pretty to pass up.
At TOL I spotted a gorgeous dark-blue variety under a massive 200 year-old sycamore. When I asked where I could find a pot of it, they told me that this plant just appeared and they are waiting for it to get big enough so they can propagate it. Put me on the list. This is a spectacular flower.

Sisyrinchium bellum Blue-eyed Grass. This poor blossom is a little beat up, but you get the idea.

Sisyrinchium bellum Blue-eyed Grass. This poor blossom is a little beat up, but you get the idea.

Sisyrinchium bellum/Blue-eyed Grass — What can I say? Another plant that stole my heart. It has the most delicate little blue flowers with bright yellow centers. This dainty plant sways in the slightest breeze.

Once I got my babies in the ground, I spent the next two days checking them every hour or so to see how they were doing. When my husband started worrying about my mental state, I limited myself to checking every few hours. I’m happy to report that they have responded to my constant attention and, except for the sulking Chaparral Currant, all have new growth.

I tried as much as possible to get plants that would provide food for insects and birds. Those that don’t will provide cover and nesting places. Soon I’ll need to fill in with some that bloom later in the season. And I have lots of containers that I want to convert to what Mary Beth calls “bee pots” — container plants for bees. These might be CA natives, but I also want to plant bee favorites like rosemary and borage.

Now that this first bed is enlarged and planted, I love taking my morning tea out to the garden to admire my handiwork. Soon I’ll be making my plan for replacing the rest of the lawn with pathways and new beds. I can hardly wait to see the transformation of a wasteful lawn-covered space into a wildlife habitat. This really is turning out to be quite the adventure.

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