If You Plant Them, They Will Come

Them in the equation are native plants, they, the pollinators. Pollinators and native plants share a long evolutionary history, having developed mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships: plants rely on pollinators for procreation and genetic diversity; pollinators rely on plants for sustenance and protection. Additionally, both plants and pollinators are gorgeous, admirably intricate and visually appealing, especially when working together, creating biodiversity magic.

Most people casually acquainted with the idea of pollination view bees and butterflies as front and center in the pollination world. But a huge variety of other insects also pollinate and they are important contributors to the health of plants in particular, and of ecosystems in general. For example, flies are key pollinators in most environments. In spring, I spied this Long-bodied syrphid fly, Fazia micrura, nectared on a cluster of spring blooms of Roughleaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii. No doubt, the fly carried some pollen to other dogwood trees, and to plants beyond.

Wasps comprise a huge group of insects and are often maligned because they sting. But like this Euodynerus megaera on Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, they are common flower visitors and important pollinators.

On a different cluster of Yarrow florets nectars a different kind of wasp, a Mexican Honey wasp, Brachygastra mellifica.

While most blooming plants will attract some pollinators, native plants are particularly important sources of food for variety of pollinators. This Henry Duelberg Sage, Salvia farinacea ‘Henry Duelberg’, hosts a native Horsefly-like Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis.

And here, a related native bee, a Southern Carpenter bee, Xylocopa micans, zooms in for a sip on the same plant, though a different flower stalk.

Both of these bees are native, or wild bees. There are about 20,000 native bee species in the world, about 350 of those are here in Texas. Most are solitary, unlike the better known honeybee. They come in an array of colors and sizes. Some, like the two carpenter bees above and most bumble bees, are large; many are tiny, like this Ceratina bee (probably?) who is crawling along the pollen offerings on the diminutive bloom of White Avens, Geum canadense.

The White Avens flower is about one-half inch in diameter. The bee is…itty bitty.

Like bees, butterflies partner with flowers and add beauty, movement, and life to gardens and natural areas. This Little Yellow, Pyrisitia lisa, pairs nicely with its pink provider, the open bloom of a Rock Rose, Pavonia lasiopetala.

For most of us, it’s the big, bodacious butterflies that we notice in a garden. And why not? They’re stunning as they waft through the garden, a pleasure to observe! I was pleased to capture the underside of this Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor, as it sipped from a Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii.

Wings-up is another Pipevine enjoying the bounty of an American Basket-flower, Centaurea americana. Non-native sunflowers look on with envy, though they have plenty of visitors of their own.

One of the reasons that Pipevine Swallowtails regularly visit my garden is that I grow a host plant called Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia fimbriata. Though I extol the virtues of native plants and choose them when I can, the Aristolochia fimbriata is not a native-to-Texas plant. Unfortunately, the native Aristolochia in Texas aren’t easily available commercially, so a non-native is a good substitute. This pretty ground cover of green leaves decorated with spidery white veins loves shade and spreads nicely–that is until the Pipevine caterpillars munch it to oblivion. That said, after the caterpillars lay waste to the plant, it pops back vigorously, rapidly unfolding its foliage for the next generation of hungry, hungry caterpillars.

The sweet blue flowers belong to a different ground-cover, Leadwort Plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. Dutchman’s Pipe blooms, but the flowers are often hidden under leaves.

In addition to providing both nectar and host plants for butterflies, it’s good to have limb and branch piles in the garden for insects, including many native bees, to create nests for their young. It’s important to leave the leaves in your garden after autumn’s drop, so that over-wintering insects–and there are many–have a safe haven in cold, wet weather conditions. Allowing some bare soil is important for ground nesters, as there’s so much land dressed with impervious cover or sterile, mono-culture turf. Providing water is always a must and pesticides should never be used in a pollinator garden. Insects aren’t pests, but instead are vital components to a healthy, vibrant ecosystem and that’s what a garden should aspire to.

Some plants seem to attract every pollinator around. Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, is one of the flowers that all kinds of pollinators flock to, like this Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus,

…and this American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis.

The big butterflies are easy to spot, hard to miss, and lovely to behold, but there are scads of little butterflies that also contribute to the pollination party. This Green Skipper, Hesperia viridis, matches its small flower’s size. The skippers are often tricky to identify, as there are many with similar coloring and markings, and they’re typically fast fliers. They’re fun to watch, challenging to identify, and important in the fabric of the ecosystem.

Some pollinators are specifically aligned with certain plants, much like some animals only eat certain plants. When my Barbados Cherry, Malpighia glabra, blooms its ruffly pink flowers, several individuals of this fuzzy golden and black bee arrive, buzzing all over the shrub. I don’t know what the bee is, I’ve never definitively identified it. I’m now thinking that it may be a Foothill Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniflormis ssp. orpifex–but I’m far from certain that’s correct. It could also be some kind of bumble bee, or perhaps, a long horned bee. I’ve never seen this species of bee at any other time or on any other plant except for the Barbados Cherry. Could these two organisms–plant and insect–exist in a mutually exclusive relationship? I don’t know the answer to that, but will continue to observe and with some additional reading, learn more.

I love native plants and I always encourage their use in the garden. But sometimes, they aren’t so readily available and gardeners must rely on non-natives for their pollinator party needs. I also love hardy non-natives, especially when they provide for wildlife and aren’t invasive. In my own garden, two summer favorites are annual sunflowers, common in urban settings thanks to commercial black-oiled sunflower seeds,

…and the perennial, blooming shrub, Mexican Honeysuckle, Justicia spicigera.

As long as flowers provide, Monarch butterflies partake!

This week is Pollinator Week celebrating the importance of pollinators in our environment. It’s not hard to encourage pollinators to live in your garden. Decide on a patch (or more!) in which to remove turf, research plants which grow well where you live–and get planting! Always add some host plants for butterfly larvae, some wood piles for other insects, some bare soil for the ground nesters, and water for everyone; don’t use pesticides and you’ll be in pollinator business. Installing a pollinator garden is less work than toiling over high-maintenance turf and it’s more interesting, full-of-life and lovely. You’ll be amazed at who will show up to be part of the garden experience. Bees, butterflies, bugs, birds–they all have a part in a pollinator garden.

A garden isn’t a garden without the wings of life that give it purpose.

Honeybee on Plateau Goldeneye, Viguiera dentata

Umm, Peanuts?

This little dude regularly sits at one of several windows, peeking in, looking cute, and hoping for a handful of peanuts. I keep a cup of peanut pieces handy, tossing them onto the patio for the fluffy-tailed mammal and his feathery friends.

It’s been hot recently, really hot. We’ve just passed our eighth day of over 100F temps and this past weekend, the hot out-did itself with highs of 105/106F. Sigh. It’s only June.

Wildlife enjoy plenty of available water in my garden and shady spots protect from the sun’s harsh rays. But it’s the love of the legume that brings this character to my window and I’m happy to oblige with a handful of treats. But even with the heat, he’s not getting an invitation to the air conditioned house.

The New Woody

In honor of the World Bee Day 2022 I thought I’d post about our most recent addition of honeybees: meet “new” Woody!

Last summer our honeybee colony, Woody, weakened (for unknown reasons) and was invaded by wax moths, which you can read about here. Since it was late in the season and too late to hive a new colony, we dismantled the physical hive and were left with only one hive, Bo-Peep. Over the course of winter, Bee Daddy cleaned and refurbished damaged hive parts and built some necessary new ones in preparation for a new colony of honeybees which arrived in late April.

Here’s our newest honeybee colony, packaged up, strapped in the car, and ready for the trip to their new home.

In this scary-to-most-people package are 10,000 worker bees and a mated, clipped-winged queen. Actually, the crew of honeybees aren’t frightening at all and are quite gentle. Even if a bee escapes the package, it hangs around its sisters and queen.

Pheromones are powerful things.

Since we began beekeeping, we name our hives after Disney/Pixar characters and the last couple of hives were Woody and Buzz and following those, Woody and Bo-Peep. If you know the Toy Story movies, you understand that Bo-Peep and Woody belong together. Am I right??

Here’s the new hive for Woody: a brood box ready with sugar water for feeding bees and building comb. The bees will forage for nectar and pollen immediately, but the sugar water helps the colony get a strong start. We’ll feed them for a couple of months, maybe longer, depending upon weather conditions.

The round metal circle at the top of the package is a can with sugar water; there are holes in the bottom to feed the bees while they await their new hive. About 2/3 of the sugar water was gone by the time we hived Woody. The queen is in a “queen cage’, in the package, but separated from the workers. She is constantly spewing out her pheromone vibes, assuring the colony’s devotion to her and to one another. The cage has two holes on either end of the little box, both of which are plugged with small corks. In this photo, the hole on the bottom is also covered by a strip of yellow tape, which I removed. I then removed the cork, revealing a plug of candy, which the workers and queen will eat through, physically releasing the queen within a few days into the hive to begin her life’s work.

We stapled the queen cage to a frame fitted with commercial wax, called foundation; this is where the bees will build their comb.

Bees don’t need foundation to build comb; they build comb because they’re driven to build comb. But giving them a base onto which they comb makes it easier for bees and the tidy frames allow for efficient checks of the hives. Extracting honey is also simplified with well-combed frames.

The gals are checking out the queen cage.

The photo isn’t clear, but if you look closely, you can see the elongated abdomen of the queen in the cage; she’s about 1/3 longer than the worker bees.

To hive a colony, we placed four brood frames with foundation in the brood box. The queen cage is attached to the center-most frame and the package of workers is placed in the open area of the box. That’s it, the colony is hived and we close it up!

We checked Woody about five days later and the queen was out of the cage and in the larger population of bees and they had already combed some of the frames and there was honey in some of the comb cells. When we checked, we removed the package and added more frames. Honeybees are in the hive doing all the things required to build their colony: caring for the queen, cleaning the hive, removing sick/dead bees, caring for eggs and larvae when they appear, foraging for nectar and pollen. As of a check earlier this week, half of the frames were combed, with plenty of capped and uncapped brood in that gorgeous new comb.

While beekeeping is complicated, it’s hard for me to imagine having a garden without honeybees, and for that matter, plenty of native bees, who are more than worthy of their own special day. Pollinators of all sorts are vital to the beauty and value of a garden and of the wider ecosystem.

Go bees!