What a Bum

A Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata, has finally arrived in my winter garden!

Most years I begin observing winter warblers in November. This migratory season, I’ve spied a zippy, hard-to-photograph Ruby-crowned Kinglet (a few times) and a female Orange-crowned Warbler, who is now making daily visits to the the peanut and suet feeders. But the Yellow-rumps have been tardy, or maybe just elusive.

This Yellow-rumped is a Myrtle Warbler, easily identified because of its white throat. During breeding and nesting season, Myrtle Warblers tend to spend time East and North, the Audubon species hangs out in the West. In winter, I’ve seen both species in my garden, but usually, it’s the Myrtle that is more common. I also think this one is a fella bird, given the little dab of yellow on his head. He isn’t yet in breeding colors, so perhaps he’s a hatch year dude, not quite out of his juvenile stage?

But he does rock that yellow rump. What a cute bum!

I’m glad to see the yellow rump flashing in the trees and hope that, instead of being a flash-in-the trees, he’s a daily visitor and that some of his butter-butt buddies will join him.

No Rest for the Honey Obsessed

Winters here in Central Texas are mild, punctuated from time-to-time by cold snaps which typically don’t last long. This winter has been historically warm and the honeybees have remained busy with their obsessive collecting of nectar and pollen for the hive. Before winter made an appearance last week, there were still a few blooms available and the bees were all in. These little gals are collecting pollen from the pretty pink flowers of Purple Heart, Setcreatsea pallida.

At the last blooms of Forsythia Sage, Salvia madrensis, these two are sipping nectar, using a process called nectar stealing or nectar robbing. This is a foraging activity where an insect doesn’t crawl into the flower to nectar, but instead bites or pokes a petal and sticks its proboscis through, directly sipping nectar and bypassing pollination. Interestingly, until this year, I hadn’t seen honeybees on this sage, only native bees, particularly the Horsefly-like Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis.

Before the sage’s bloom cycle was ended by the blast of cold last week, honeybees, alongside one or two Mexican Honey wasps, Brachygastra mellifica, and a couple of small skippers, were the main pollinators visiting these yellow lovelies.

The blooms are gone now, the plants freezer-burned and dormant. In my garden, there is little for the bees to forage on. Honeybee activity slows during winter, but they still need to exit the hive to pee and poo and they’re driven to forage for whatever they can find in this flower limited period of the year.

When we last checked the hive in mid-October, Bo-Peep’s second (top) brood box was honey-bound and its honey box (the top-most box) had several frames of honey, but it wasn’t full. That’s probably enough honey until spring, especially given the protracted blooming in autumn and winter. Even so, I always fret in winter: do they have enough to sustain through winter and when do I add some supplemental feedings?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to open a bottle of honey and let the bees have at it. It took them one full day and part of the next to clean up the trays where I’d poured the gooey goodness, but like good girls, they cleaned their plates. That’s a quandary: should they get dessert? After honey, what would that be?

You might wonder about the sticks on the platters. I place sticks across the honey so that the bees have something to crawl on as they’re eating. Otherwise, at least a few drown in the gooey goodness. Sad, but at least they die happy.

For January and February, once a week or so, I’ll be mixing a bottle of sugar water (a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water) as a feeding supplement. If the hive was larger and more established, I probably wouldn’t bother, but I suspect Bo is just young enough to need some extra feeding during this time before the first spring blooms appear. I won’t feed more often than once per week because I don’t want to encourage the queen too much, so that she decides its time to get busy with new brood and ramps up for spring egg laying. That’ll come, but I prefer to delay that until mid-to-late February. That said, the queen will do what weather conditions and her DNA demand and she probably won’t consult me about her decisions.

By the time I got around to taken a photo, Bo’s bees had emptied the bottle.

With cooler temperatures, I finally covered the bare ground of the bee ‘yard’ with a thick layer of newspaper, topped with an equally deep layer of pea gravel. Going forward, when we check the hive(s) after a rain, we won’t come away with mud-bound shoes.

Instead, there’s always at least one rock wedged in the treads of my shoes.

It’s always something.

Frost After the Freeze

On Saturday, January 1, 2022, it was 78 F. The next morning I awoke to a garden at 26 F. Brrrrr! Shorts and t-shirts one day; leggings, layered jackets, cap and gloves the next!

The first thing I saw when I walked into the front garden was a hummingbird zooming past me heading straight for Mexican Honeysuckle. Unfortunately, the orange flowers were freezer-burned and the poor little bird, after trying several blooms and clearly not finding any nectar, flew off to find his breakfast. My SIL ambled over I and pointed to the hummer and suggested she put out her hummingbird feeder so the hummer could get its energy drink.

After this freeze, there’s little for pollinators. Hello winter! Sunday was a cold, windy day and it was clear that most perennials in the garden would have some freeze damage, time would tell just how much.

By Monday morning the wind had died down, but it was another very cold day, 26 F, a hard freeze. What brought me into the garden so cold and early was the appearance of the frost sculptures of Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. So named ‘frostweed’ this particular plant is known for its elaborate ice sculptures along the stems, caused by the first hard freeze of a season. The sculptures develop when water in a stem freezes and expands, breaking through the stem’s epidermis. As the water moves up the stem, it freezes into thin, fragile ribbons. The curls of ice that develop are delicate and can be quite elaborate, though I thought this year’s ice show was a bit restrained.

Frostweed produces substantial ice sculptures along its main stems, but it isn’t the only plant to rock these ice designs. On Sunday morning several perennials burst outward in icy winter performance art.

Firecracker Plant, Russelia equisetiformis:

Lemon Rose Mallow, Hibiscus calyphyllus:

Behind the frostweed, the stems of Barbados Cherry, Malpighia glabra:

The destruction of these stems means that a complete pruning to the ground is now required. The stems that grew during the year are permanently damaged and new spring growth will come from the roots. If the freeze wasn’t so hard, the plants might have suffered some freezer burn (like the aforementioned Mexican Honeysuckle), but not the bursting of the plants’ frozen pipes, effectively killing the plant above the ground. These plants are hardy, at least to 8F, so they’ll come back with warm spring breezes and longer days.

What I found interesting is that the ice sculptures happened on Monday, the second day of the freeze, not on Sunday, the first day of the freeze. Typically, it’s the first hard freeze that produces the ice sculptures. Best guess? I think because our fall and early winter has been very warm, the ground temperature prevented the stems from freezing that first night/morning, therefore there was no breakage and no ice. By the second morning, warmth from the soil had dissipated and all bets were off–it’s ice art all around!

The winter gardening chores are now set: raking and shredding of leaves, most of which go into the gardens, the rest into the compost; pruning of perennials, which is a weekly chore through February, and cleaning the pond which will be a very long, stinky day, indeed!