Return of the Blues: Wildlife Wednesday, March 2019

Ah, the winter blues.  More accurately, the late winter blues.  Blue Orchard Mason bees, Osmia lignaria, are exiting their year-long incubation chambers and buzzing my garden.

The goal for their short lives is to mate, rummage around flowers and foliage for nesting material, lay eggs, and pack the eggs safely to ensure the next generation of bees who will appear, on cue, next February.

The blue bee bonanza is an annual event in my garden.  These beautiful insects–an eye-popping, rich, iridescent blue–zoom from the native bee houses where they grow up, to the garden and beyond, and then back again, as they mate and then gather pollen and other material for the next generation’s nesting chambers.

These bees are important for commercial orchards, but thrive in welcoming home gardens, too.  In our garden, we’ve placed several boxes with drilled wood and lengths of cut bamboo.  These bee houses are utilized by a variety of native bees throughout the year.  Because the Blue Orchard bee adults emerge in February, they’re the first native bees to pack away their babies in the bee houses.

Packed nursery holes, as well as some where a bee (or bees) have exited, and a new adult.

After mating,

…the females begin their egg-laying process in a hole in wood or masonry which is of a size and length that the adult female finds appealing.  The first eggs laid–those at the back-end of the cylinder–are female, and the eggs at the front–potentially the most exposed–are male. Between each egg laid, mom bee builds a wall of mud and pollen so that each is snuggled into its own room.  The entire nursery, all chambers therein, is then sealed firmly until the next year.

Do the girls get pink rooms and the boys, blue?  Nah, the rooms are gender-neutral, as far as color choice goes.  However, gender differentiation is present: the female eggs-larvae-adults are at the furthest end of the nursery cylinder so that those most responsible for successful procreation are best protected, or so suggest the entomologists who study these bees.  The male eggs-larvae-adults are situated at the front of the nursery cylinders, emerging as adults first, so that they’re ready, eager, and awaiting their potential mates.

The two bees in this photo are males; one is fully emerged, the other peeking out, ready to take on his corner of the world.

Males have a white patch on their faces which is a mustache-like clump of white hairs.

Hairy dudes.

This fella rested on an upturned plastic bin under one of the bee houses.  He posed handsomely for me.  Or was he challenging me to a duel?  Or perhaps wondering what I am?  Who knows what a bee thinks?

The females (with the males, of course) mate, then begin preparations for laying eggs and provisioning for their offspring.  This female wriggled and writhed around the pollen-laden center of a Desert mallow bloom. 

Unlike honeybees, who carry their pollen packs on their legs in what are formally known as corbiculae or pollen baskets; I call them pollen pantaloons, but that’s just me. Blue Orchard bees,  members of the Mason bee family, carry gathered pollen on their tummies.  This is the best shot I  managed of a female heading into a nesting chamber with pollen.  These gals are fast fliers!  I’ve observed creamy white pollen-coated tummies, as well as cheery yellow and orange, color depending upon what bloom, or blooms, the female worked.

The females fly into the holes head-first, making their way to the back of the cylinder, then working their way forward–one egg and egg prep–at a time.  Mom bee rolls the pollen into balls, adding nectar and microorganisms, to make pollen bread. Each egg is laid on its own ball of pollen bread, which will be the food source for the larvae.  A mud wall is built, sealing in the egg and its food source.  Then mama works on the the next egg and chamber, so it goes until she reaches the front of the hole, which she seals thickly with mud and pollen.

The female has chosen this bamboo cylinder for her nursery. To the left, see the two cylinders with holes; adult bees, plopped in last year, have exited their nursery chambers.

I don’t grow any fruit trees, though I have some early spring blooming trees in my garden  There are flowering fruit trees in my neighborhood–peach, apple, and pear–and I expect that the blue bees nesting my garden visit those flowers.

Building native bee houses, or hotels, is easy.  Using untreated wood and providing a variety of different sized holes for different sized bees, you’ll attract a wide array of native bees to your garden.  You can even leave cut logs from downed, or pruned, trees in your garden, and with some aging of that wood, the native (carpenter) bees will find them.  Check out these links for instructions and ideas about attracting these fascinating and beautiful pollinators to your garden.

https://www.nwf.org/en/Garden-for-Wildlife/Young/Build-a-Bee-House

http://www.foxleas.com/make-a-bee-hotel.asp

As much as the appearance of new buds on trees or the thickening of bloom stalks on spring perennials, the arrival of the adult Blue Orchard bees heralds the onset of Spring in my garden.  New life emerging and continuation of the alliances between flowering plants and their pollinators confirms a time-honored environmental zeitgeist of the natural world.

What indicates spring–or autumn–for your garden?  Please share your wildlife garden observations and insights, then leave a link to your post when you comment here–and happy wildlife gardening for March!

Winter(?) Blooms

While it flies in the face of garden normalcy, it’s been a good winter for many of the flowering perennials in my garden.  Few plants were sent deep into dormancy, so flowering florals have been a constant.

This cheery cool season bloomer has brightened the edge of a garden for months.  Four-nerve DaisyTetraneuris scaposa, is a tidy little thing.  Evergreen slender leaves serve as a base for sprightly yellow daisies.  Even after a hard freeze, this is a typical winter bloomer.

 

Owing to the mild winter, there are a couple of Purple coneflowerEchinacea purpurea, eager for spring to begin.  Interestingly, the established plants, some of which are years old, haven’t bloomed up yet.

This group volunteered themselves for a pathway decoration.   I’ll leave them be–who am I to yank them up when they’re so charming?

 

Another beneficiary of our lack of freezes this winter are the Tropical sageSalvia coccinea.  This particular one is red, but the white ones have bloomed all winter too.  They’re a little lanky now, but I’m still enjoying the accents of red, so they’ll remain until the new growth catches up with the old-growth blooms.

 

A cousin of the S. coccinea is this salmon-colored Autumn sageSalvia greggi.  It’s not a bountiful bloomer, but only because it grows in too much shade.  Still, the blooms are beginning and will grace the garden for the next couple of months, taking a break during our hot summer, resuming flowering in fall.

 

Another “victim” of the mild winter is the Mexican honeysuckleJusticia spicigera.  This is a funny plant as it doesn’t have a specific bloom time. In mild winters like the one this year, it blooms all winter, well into spring.  In a “normal” winter (whatever that is), it’ll be knocked to the ground, requiring several months to flush out before flowering ensues.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these winter-orange blooms and so have the honeybees.  Most of the native bees are dormant for now.

Mexican honeysuckle is also a great plant for part shade–yay for me as I have plenty of that!

 

My two red roses have produced luscious blooms all winter, non-stop.  This, the Martha Gonzales rose,

…and its botanical doppelgänger, the Old Gay Hill rose.  Easy to grow, disease-free, and gorgeous against the blue Texas sky, both roses are head-turners.  I’m not going to prune them just yet, against common gardening wisdom;  there will be time later for that.

 

In the last week or so, the Southern dewberry, Rubus trivialis has burst out in blooms.

The sweet, snowy flowers attract skippers and honeybees, and dot the back of the garden, clambering up a fence and creeping along the ground.

The buds are a pure pink, so provides a bit of a color two-fer.  Alas, it’s more than likely that the birds will pick off the berries before I get to them.

 

I finally found the one spot in my garden for Desert mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua.  Native to regions west of Texas, this lovely requires full sun and excellent drainage.  It’s a high elevation shrub, but the best I could do was pop it into a raised bed.  I love it, blooms or not, and the tangerine flowers paired with that grey-green ruffle of foliage is a winning combination.

The native Blue Orchard bees, recently awakened from their own year-long dormancy, have enjoyed the pollen provided by this mallow.

 

A passalong plant,  Giant spiderwort, Tradescantia gigantea, delivers blasts of purple for this gardener and loads of nectar and pollen for the pollinators.  Honeybees are in a frenzy gathering the pollen as they gear up for spring.

I have quite a few clumps of this spiderwort and they seed out prolifically.  They’re easily pulled up and tossed into the compost, or even better, gifted to unsuspecting gardeners.

I like that the insect (a fly or native bee?) is also interested in the plant.  I wonder if he/she is responsible for the hole in the leaf?

Purple power rules the garden with these spring pretties.

Most of these perennials and shrubs bloom at least some during a colder winter, but this year, that floral show has been richer.  Of course, as we enter March, the month of spring, an overnight light freeze or two is predicted in the next few days.

Typical.

The native plants will be fine, the irises, reaching to the sky and starting their blooms, might be damaged.  Time–and actual temperature–will tell.  Regardless, spring is now knocking at the garden gate and winter is mostly done.

How has your winter garden fared?

Spring Critters: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2018

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, spring has sprung and we’re savoring the warming, blooming results.  For those in the southern part of our little Earth, the growing season is winding down.  But for all who pay attention, wildlife is around:  living, breeding, hatching, or, fledging and becoming independent, and preparing for winter.  Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday, celebrated on the first Wednesday of each month.  We gardeners love our blooms-n-foliage, but it’s the critters who need and rely on the blooms-n-foliage that  bring life to the garden. Viva wildlife!

At the end of February, I spotted the first of the Blue orchard beesOsmia lignaria, who’d burst out from their bee nurseries after pupating for a full year.  These deep blue, metallic bees were raring to go: ready to pollinate, mate and create new incubators for their bee babies.

Empty pupa shell. It housed the Blue Orchard bee for a full year.

Love among the blue bees!

As I write, the few adults left are adding their final touches on the eggs’ nests.  Their incubating progeny is tucked-in and safe for the coming year.

Caught in the act! One of the last adult Blue Orchards packing her nest.

There were so many bees looking for nurseries this year, that I scavenged more blocks of drilled wood and some extra cut bamboo to fill the housing needs.

No vacancy!

There are empty holes in this hotel, but we need to make more bee nurseries for the later season, different  bees.

I’ve placed an order with Bee Daddy for more holey wood and cut bamboo for next years’ bee babies.  So long Blue orchard bees–and thanks for your work in my garden.

 

Winter avian residents are eating, drinking, bathing, and squabbling in the garden.  That said, spring migration is imminent and I’ll soon say a bittersweet farewell to the feathered winter Texans that who share my garden.  The Ruby-crowned kingletRegulus calendula, was a shyer fella than either of last years’ pair, but I managed glimpses of his cuteness.

I saw more American goldfinchesSpinus tristis, than I usually do in winter, though only captured a few shots of these yellow, black, and white beauties.

A handsome male in his not-quite-breeding plumage.

I usually see greater numbers of Lesser goldfinchesSpinus psaltria, throughout the year, but this winter, they’ve been scarce.  Still, there were a few.

It’s a date!

Interestingly, my sister-in-law, who lives in west Austin (we’re in central Austin), experienced just the opposite:  plenty of Lessers, few Americans.  Wildlife have their preferred hangouts–much like people–critters appear in greater or fewer numbers, depending upon what’s available in food sources and cover–and whatever unknown quality they’re looking for at a particular time.

 

A favorite bird showed up this past month!  Cedar waxwingBombycilla cedrorum,  flock together on the wing and in the trees.  These gregarious birds typically perch too high (and invariably, it’s too windy) to capture good shots, but I lucked out a few times.

You can see the red “wax” on the tip of the wing of the upper bird. It’s not clear what this bit of bright red is for, but may be related to attracting a mate.

Rakish mask, bright yellow flare at the tip of the tale, and a splash of red–who wouldn’t find these birds attractive?

It’s rare to find them alone; they enjoy one another’s company and sometimes, the company of others.

Cedar waxwing chatting up a female House Finch.  I love the look on the finch’s face.  Whahh???

I’m still hearing them as the flock from tree top to tree top.  They’ll be around for a while, but they breed far north of here and they’ll migrate soon enough.

She’s gorgeous–and knows it!

 

This is the third year that at least one Lincoln’s  Sparrow,  Melospiza lincolnii,  has visited in late winter/early spring.

The coloring is subtle, but lovely.

A view from behind; it’s a beautiful pattern in those feathers.

An elegant looking little bird, Lincoln’s Sparrows hop jauntily through the garden in search of seeds and flutter and flap in the bog of the pond.  There have been at least three of them at various times, though I certainly can’t tell one from another.

Named for a traveling companion of John James Audubon (yes, THAT Audubon), Mr. Thomas Lincoln, these charmers are in my garden briefly before they migrate.   I sure enjoy watching them hippity-hop for seeds and preen-n-shake after baths.

 

Another winter Texan whose appearance I anticipate is that of the Yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata.  Butter-butts (as Yellow-rumps are affectionately known) have been no-shows in my garden until recently; only in the last couple of weeks did one (actually, three) appear.  I’m happy to welcome them–better late than never!

Not a great photo, but you can see his yellow rump and isn’t that what it’s all about??

Look how cute I am!!

 

I’ve put the commercial suet away, as it’s too warm now, but the one Orange-crowned warbler, Oreothlypis celata, who enjoys the suet, still shows up to bathe.

The streaking on the breast is pretty. I wish I could capture the orange crown. Maybe next year…

He’ll be leaving soon too. Sniff.

As for the year-rounders, they’re always welcome.   A rare set of photos of the female Red-bellied woodpecker,  Melanerpes carolinus, shows her beauty.

The male’s head is completely red;  it has no gap in the color,  like this female.

Red-bellies are shy birds;  I see the male daily; the female is a rarer visitor, but both love  suet.  Since removing the suet, they partake of the black-oiled sunflower seeds.  I don’ t know where they nest, but hope to see their offspring later in the year.

 

Blue JaysCyanocitta cristata, are always photogenic–and chatty.

Are you talking about me?

‘Nuff said!

This winter was different from the last few winters: fewer Starlings (yay!), but also, fewer Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers (boo!).   There were more American goldfinches and fewer of the Lessers.  Hawks wouldn’t stay out of the garden, but the Eastern Screech owls, who’ve been nightly companions for years, have vacated the neighborhood.  Things are changing and as migration season kicks in, I hope to observe unusual birds as the come to rest, feed, and bathe on the path to their breeding grounds.

 

Finally, a non-bird.

Yup, these cuties are back and rumbling around!  The unofficial mascot of Wildlife Wednesday–Green AnoleAnolis carolinensis, hasn’t lost his wariness of this gardener.  He has nothing to fear from me, I adore these charmers.

As an aside, I was asked by the nice folks at Gardening Know How to write as a guest blogger and wrote about our beekeeping adventures.  You can find a link to the articl here.    Thank to Gardening Know How for the opportunity to spread the word about bees–some of my favorite critters!

Whether you’re gearing up for growing, or settling down for resting, what critters kept you company this past month?  Please share your photos and stories of wild critters this past month.  Remember to leave a your link when you comment.

Happy wildlife gardening–and viva wildlife!