A Place for Pollinators

This week is National Pollinator Week, a week to celebrate and appreciate the vital role that pollinators play in healthy ecosystems.  Pollinator Week is sponsored by Pollinator Partnership whose mission it is to support pollinators through research, conservation efforts and education.

Syrphid fly

Nurturing environmental conditions conducive for pollinators, and allowing for pollinators to be–to exist, to procreate, to pollinate, are worthy gardener goals in establishing and maintaining biodiversity in urban and suburban areas.

Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus)

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

There are many reasons for the deeply concerning and potentially catastrophic decline of pollinators.  The average person doesn’t have much sway over the varied and complicated issues involved with this decline.  But gardeners, whether in their own personal space or at a school or community garden, can certainly contribute to the creation and implementation of lovely and living pollinator and wildlife habitats and with that, affect their local environmental paradigm by gardening for pollinators.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Mosquito? Fly?

What does it mean to plant or garden for pollinators? Several practices are key to a successful pollinator gardening.

Even if you’re new to the gardening world, you’ve probably heard it:  limit chemical use.  Insecticides and “gardening” chemicals don’t produce balanced systems where wildlife flourishes, and pollinators are especially impacted by home and agricultural chemical use. In fact, the use (and over use) of chemicals typically causes more problems than it solves.  Additionally, if you plant native and well adapted annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees, most, if not all, chemical use is unnecessary.

Honeybee and Syrphid Fly

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)

Accept that nature is sometimes messy!  Have a few holes in your leaves?  Don’t grab the bottle of insecticide and spray, willy-nilly, everything in sight.  Instead, observe who’s munching.  It’s probably a moth or butterfly–in childhood form (caterpillars!)–munching away contentedly before building strong exoskeletons, wings, and antennae, on their way to morphing to responsible, pollinating adults.  When you’re invested in butterfly gardening, you must be willing to tolerate some foliage damage in the garden.  Yes, adults butterflies and moths sip nectar and therefore pollinate, but their offspring–the very hungry caterpillars eat the leaves of host plants; if you want a butterfly garden, you’ll must plant for their larvae.  Clearly, spraying insecticide does not produce a good outcome for butterflies and moths, or any other beneficial insects.

Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina sp.)

To encourage all wildlife–pollinators included–minimal or no chemical interference is a a given.  Avoiding chemicals is also less expensive than constantly purchasing on the chemical treadmill.

Commit to ridding your property of at least some of the sterile, water-guzzling turf.  Americans’ love-of-the-lawn is a direct contributor to declining insect populations, especially pollinators. Carving out areas for wildflowers, shrubs, and perennials will allow habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including pollinators.

If you plant them, they will come.  The them are flowering plants:  native plants are always best because they’re easier to grow and have fewer disease problems.  The they are the pollinators: butterflies, honeybees, native bees, flies of an astonishing variety, moths, and hummingbirds.  Truthfully, planting perennial gardens is less work than a lawn.  I’ve experiencd both and my full-on urban wildlife/pollinator garden is less trouble, less work, and more interesting than a swath of grass.

Honeybee

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)

There are a few simple practices that every gardener can employ to help our beleaguered bees, both native and honey. The easiest is to simply leave some untended spots in your property.  Maybe it’s where you keep your gardening shed or garbage bins, or perhaps, where you store firewood.  Allow bare soil–no mulch, no plants, no cement–just a solid plot of open dirt left untouched for ground nesting bees. Unless you’re very lucky, you probably won’t even know they’re there, raising their little pollinators to help the Earth–and your garden.   One reason that the American Bumblebee is declining is that they nest in the ground and there’s little uncultivated ground left. The sterile, neat yard is not a normal, healthy yard.

Set out some older wood in a protected spot for wood nesting bees.  Their babies will thank you and it’s fun to watch the adults drill into the wood. The downside? You might have to sweep after they’ve drilled baby drilled.

Build an insect hotel–there are many easy DIY plans available–and see who moves in.  For excellent information on building and maintaining insect hotels, please read this article from The Entomologist Lounge.   Insect hotels have become a cool garden thing to do, but they require effort to safeguard the insects who utilize them.   My own insect hotels are small and easy to keep and clean.  Thanks Bee Daddy!  (aka, The Hub)

As well, you can go all-out, bee-crazy and get into honeybee keeping.  It’s fun!  It’s fascinating!  It’s also work, especially at the beginning.  The learning curve is steep and everyone you know will think you’re weird, but will want some of your honey. That said, our beekeeping efforts have been rewarding, especially with the best honey (according to everyone who’s ever tried it) and we congratulate ourselves as gardening do-gooders with our backyard beehives.

I adore the honeys, but for what it’s worth–native bees are actually better pollinators (in general) than honeybees. The suggestions I’ve mentioned are easy ways to develop the right environment in which native bees will thrive.  Most homeowners and community gardeners can easily afford the time and funds required for hosting pollinators in their garden spaces, directly benefiting their personal gardens and the greater ecosystem.

Planting the lovely flowers that pollinators need,

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon texanus)

…and the host plants that butterfly and moth caterpillars eat,

…means that you’re part of the solution.

For all the good reasons to convert your space into a pollinator garden, I’ll add one more:  they’re beautiful.

Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia)

Horsefly-like Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa tabaniformis)

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

A Bracket of Beehives

A few years back, I visited the Oregon State University (OSU) Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture which is a 6.5 acres space dedicated to research involving sustainable agricultural practices.  OSU is well-know for its horticultural programs.

On a partly cloudy, cool and breezy autumn day, I wandered the fields of experimental and heirloom vegetables, lined with perennial gardens abloom with pollinator plants.  During the walk, I happened upon a charming apiary hosting an array of beehives.  Tucked in a shady grove, the apiary was adjacent to a lab located in an older home renovated appropriately for the work of horticulturists and entomologists.  The delightful OSU apiary showcases different types of bee homes and augments research about and demonstrations of commercial and home horticulture.

At the time, I wasn’t yet a backyard Bee Mama, but was definitely interested and learning about the buzzy beauties.  I took photos of the apiary, dutifully downloading them to my computer upon my return to Texas, fully intending a post about the apiary.  I focused on writing about other gardening subjects near and dear to me, though I certainly recall the apiary adventure and planned a post about the apiary.  Recently, with year-end/beginning-of-year photo file tidying, I was reminded that the ‘OSU apiary’ folder was awaiting its turn for a blog post with a round of accompanying photos.

On that lovely afternoon in Corvallis I meandered along a mulched pathway and viewed a variety of beehives which sat, perky and productive, in service to honeybees buzzing in and out and all around,  going about their important business.

 

The classic Langstroth hive is a staple of any honeybee hive demonstration.  These two hives are each stacked with three brood boxes, or deeps.  This is where the queen hangs out, laying eggs and being taken care of by the worker bees and where the workers tend to the other tasks for hive integrity–making comb and honey and cleaning the hive.

At the bottom of these hives, the entire length of the box is open about a half-inch tall for the bees’ entrances and exits.  This is called the bottom board.

I typically reduce the bottom board opening to my hives so that my bees don’t have to defend a large area;  I leave about 2-3 inches for their comings and goings, but I think the standard practice is demonstrated above–leaving the entire width open.

 

I like this hive!  Just in case you’ve just landed from outer space and you have no idea what these stacked boxes are for, there’s a  bee door ‘knocker’ of sorts which may give you a clue!  I’ve often seen honeybee hives painted white, but I prefer boxes of natural wood, or boxes painted in brighter colors, as well as bee boxes with painted decorations or decals.

You’ll notice that each of these boxes differ slightly in height.  The taller box is the brood box which houses the queen, larvae, workers, and lots of honeycomb.  The shorter boxes are called supers and contain honeycomb (and worker bees of course!), but no larvae.  Once a hive is robust, a beekeeper may place a super at the top of the hive so that the honey is more easily extracted without damaging the queen and larvae. For those supers where the keeper only wants honey for extraction, the queen is prevented from crawling into the shorter boxes by a mesh called a queen excluder.  The mesh is too small for the big-thoraxed queen to squeeze through, but worker bees are svelte enough to easily manuever as they go about their daily routines.  In the white Langstroth above, the strip of unpainted wood between the top and second-to-top box is probably the queen excluder. In some hive management techniques, beekeepers will rotate boxes, placing a super at the bottom of the hive; you can see that demonstrated in the above photo.

This hive is a Kenyan top bar hive.  It has only one chamber and no frames. Bees build the honeycomb downward from bars, top bars, which hang horizontally across the width of the box.  The bees enter and exit through holes drilled in the box,

..like so.

 

With honeybee hive displays, it’s always fun to see the innards of a hive. This one demonstrates the workings of a top bar hive.

 

I liked this one!  It was a replica of an ancient Greek hive, discovered in an archeological dig.  This pot was thrown by a local Corvallis potter; she threw the pot, carving an opening at the bottom for the bees. I think this would make a very hot hive in the Texas summer, but perhaps Oregon is cool enough for a ceramic hive to function.

 

Have an old commercial plant pot sitting around and don’t know what to do with it?  As I recall, this makeshift hive was just such a pot.  The beekeeper drilled holes for the bees and placed cut wood atop the pot.

It’s a bit slap-dash for my taste, but there were bees living in it, so I guess it works just fine for a hive.

The apiary wasn’t just about honeybee hives, but also hosted examples of native bee/insect hotels.

Bee Daddy constructed our honeybee hives first, but we’ve since added Bee Daddy built bee/insect hotels for our native bees, which you can read about here.  If you want bees, but don’t have the time or interest in honeybee hives, check out the many designs for native insect hotels on the internet.  They’re easy to make, and it’s fascinating to observe and learn about native bees.  Native bees are even more threatened–and arguably more important for our ecosystems–than honeybees.  Leaving bare ground somewhere on your property, placing bee/insect hotels and cut limbs in the garden, refraining from pesticide use, and planting native and pollinating plants will help both the wild/native bees and the honeybees.

For an informative story about native/wild bees and their importance, check out this story from National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday: Honeybees Help Farmers, But They Don’t Help The Environment

I’ve been to Corvallis several times since the apiary visit, including for the complete solar eclipse in August 2016.  Unfortunately, I haven’t returned to the OSU apiary, but I imagine that it’s still there, housing happy honey and native bees, and serving as a fun and interesting educational exhibition for people.

Blue Bees!

Last year at about this time, I noticed some stunning metallic blue bees buzzing around my newly installed native bee houses. They worked quickly to fill some of the holes and bamboo pieces in the homes, then they disappeared from my sight and garden.  Many different native bee species–big, small, shiny, fuzzy–followed those early blue gals during the growing season.  But that startling blue pollinator was a nice introduction to a long period of native bee activity.

These early spring blue beauties are Blue Orchard Mason beesOsmia lignaria and they’re making their appearance again.

RICOH IMAGING

RICOH IMAGING

Earlier this week,  I spotted one working at a small cluster of a salmon colored Autumn sage, Salvia greggii and thought that perhaps I should  pay closer attention to what’s going on with the native bee houses as spring is in its infancy.  Sure enough, some of the mud nests have been breached and there they are: blue bee adults emerged, mating, (I assume. I don’t watch.) and are in the process of busily preparing for the next generation of Blue Orchard bees.

RICOH IMAGING

 

You can clearly see holes that have been opened in the packed mud and that’s where the adults emerged from.

RICOH IMAGING

Interestingly, according the the information from the US Department of Agriculture that I linked to above, the eggs or “brood cells” that are laid first are female and placed at the back of the nesting hole and the last eggs laid at the front of each hole, are male.  The female bee packs the hole with pollen and mud for security, tucking in the brood safely for the year.  In case of predation, the male brood are the first in line to get eaten, thus assuring more protection for the females.  Poor guys, but the females are more important in survival of the species.

I observed two adults flying around the bee house, entering various holes and most likely laying eggs There are more than two holes opened in the packed mud nests, indicating that more than just these two adults have emerged.

RICOH IMAGING

Blue Orchard bees have a short life, but are vital for pollinating the early spring blooms, including those of fruit trees.

Not only did the Blue Orchard bees find a nice nursery and baby-bee day care in the bee houses, but other bee species laid eggs in neighboring holes last year.  Those will emerge in their due time–whenever that is.

I know that a different species of carpenter bee, a Horsefly-like Carpenter beeXylocopa tabaniformis. drilled and packed nests in a few spots of the mortar between limestone rock of my home to protect their progeny.   It looks like an adult has emerged,

RICOH IMAGING

…though I haven’t seen one yet.   I look forward to watching these charming, blue-eyed carpenter bees sporting their cool racing stripes as they zing from flower to flower.  This species is active for most of the year.imgp6840-new

Isn’t she a cutey?