Basket Case

This lavender, spidery beauty is an American Basket-flower, Centaurea americana.

In July 2020 I wrote this post about the single American Basket-flower growing from seeds gifted me two years before by Shoreacres (author of Lagniappe and The Task at Hand). I was thrilled when I saw the sprawling, low-to-the-ground individual nearly hidden beneath a Mexican Orchid tree. I took photos, checked on the plant from time-to-time, let it seed out and moved on to appreciate other surprises in the garden.

This past spring, I noticed some new growth that I didn’t recognize. In a rosette form with lanceolate, slightly serrated leaves, I watched several specimens for a while, then decided to pull them up, assuming they were unwanted weeds. Next door neighbor, sister-in-law (SIL), found the same in her garden, but was a wiser gardener than yours truly.

SIL left her unrecognized and unnamed plant alone and it grew tall. Then, grew even taller. Since we didn’t know what the mystery plant was, she named it ‘Audrey II ‘ from The Little Shop of Horrors. Several Audreys appeared in her front garden SIL left them alone to grow and bloom. We mused and wondered what Audrey would be when she grew up. When the first Audrey was about 6 feet tall, it flowered and we easily identified the plant: so long Audrey, hello American Basket-flower! The photo below doesn’t show the original Audrey, but another of the same species amidst tall summer sunflowers.

It’s not a great shot, but just off-center, to the right is an open Basket-flower. The plant stands nearly 6 feet tall.

No doubt these plants have come from those seeds that I haphazardly scattered in 2018, but I would have never guessed that they are Basket-flowers until they bloomed and left little question about their identity. Basket-flower literature suggests that the plants grow between 2-5 feet tall; the one I found in my garden in 2020 was about 12 inches tall. That being said, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website, American Basket-flowers can get as tall as 6 feet–as these have done. As well, these annual wildflowers supposedly only bloom in late spring and early summer, but SIL’s bloomed in July and there have been blooms opening since that time, with more to come.

SIL left her “weeds” to see what they would become, but I yanked most of mine. Impatience is not a virtue, especially in gardening, but I missed a few and once we identified the plant, I left the ones I hadn’t pulled. In August, I finally enjoyed blooming Basket-flowers of my own. This lovely was the first Basket-flower that bloomed for me. It wasn’t as tall as the ones in SIL’s garden, only reaching about 3 feet in height.

This lanky, arched single stalk sports two open blooms at its terminal end at the left side of the photo. There are other buds forming that will bloom in the next month.

The plant stood tall until SIL’s very large and mostly dead Arizona Ash tree was pruned to a shrub. The arborists who did the work were careful, but the ash is a huge tree and a few garden inhabitants were mushed, crushed, and bent over from the traffic. This Basket-flower plant was one of them. Also, the photo was taken after a heavy rain and the water-logged plant hadn’t had a chance to dry off and stand up a bit.

Another is about to open.

American Basket-flowers are excellent pollinator plants, attracting butterflies and native bees.

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) visiting one of my Basket-flowers.
Hairy-legged bee, Apidae enjoying crawling around another bloom.

A Basket-flower has-been, it is ready for seed production. Once the seeds develop, the pod becomes a warm, toasty color.

SIL has been diligent about collecting seeds; I’m letting my Basket-flowers seed out at will.

After my Arizona Ash is removed in November and without a tree canopy, my front garden will undergo a complete make-over; the garden will transform from shade to full-sun. I’m confident that some Basket-flower seeds will find their way into soil and bloom next season and seasons beyond. As well, the Basket-flower case has been a good reminder that it’s good gardening practice to leave alone unknown plants until they’re known: friend or foe, desired or not. With that tolerance, I’m better able to decide whether a plant or plants should be a thread in the fabric of the garden, a valuable part of the garden ecosystem.

Dinner

Sitting in my new, husband-made Adirondack chairs, I mulled needed changes to the back garden. As I gazed outward toward the targeted area, considering what needs to go, what needs to stay, and what replacements are best, or desired, I glanced to my left, up and over my privacy fence, to my back neighbor’s mostly dead Arizona Ash. The poor ash might be dead, but it regularly hosts plenty of life, including this gorgeous, immature Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, who was enjoying dinner.

(Just a warning: there’s a slightly gross photo coming, not too bad, but if you’re squeamish, you might want to move on to some other reading.)

I watched this magnificent bird for about an hour, by far the longest period of time I’ve ever observed a hawk. I’ve seen this hawk plenty of times, swooping through the trees and gliding over the neighborhood in search of prey, but it’s a rare treat to watch a raptor for such a long time, relatively up close and personal, and not startle it away. A few years ago–in the Before Times–I spent some time observing a hawk in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, dining on some of SF’s finest. That was bird nerd entertainment, but this observation of the Cooper’s Hawk’s meal time, comfortably in my own garden, was fascinating and revealing. As the hawk pulled and stretched its meal, I could hear the slight snap of skin and sinew. As it plucked its prey, feathers, big and small, sleek and fluffy, floated down, probably settling in the neighbor’s pool. I imagine those feathers are still floating. During the meal, some small, downy feathers attached to the hawk’s sharp beak–as in the first photo. The hawk didn’t mind the bit of fluff as it ate.

The hawk was focused on this meal, hungry no doubt. I’m sure its hunting isn’t always successful; I’ve seen it swoop through the neighborhood trees, scattering birds, but flying off empty-taloned. This time, the hawk was victorious; the poor White-winged dove a victim of the hawk’s hunger and hunting prowess.

At one point, something startled the hawk and it mantled over the meal, keeping a keen eye out for someone intent on stealing. I didn’t see anything that would threaten dinner, and within a minute or so, Hawk was back at it: pulling, eating. Later, a group of noisy Blue Jays voiced disapproval of the hawk’s activity, but none ventured too close and kept a respectful distance while Hawk continued its meal, undisturbed and unimpressed with the Jays’ cawing. The Jays flew off in a huff.

Such a beautiful hawk. As it matures, the streaking on the chest and tummy will become more of a red and white checker-board pattern. Its wings and back feathers will turn slate grey. The hawk’s eye color will morph from its current golden to burnt orange. Cooper’s Hawks dine mainly on birds, but I’ve seen one with a squirrel, and I’m sure when hapless rat comes within catching range, they eat them, too. Raptors eat what they can catch. Cooper’s Hawks are common in urban settings and have adapted well thanks to the number of people who feed birds; there are plenty of birds to pick from, especially fat doves!

While I watched Hawk, someone else was at dinner, too. This juvenile or female Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri worked the flowers of nearby Turks’ cap. As it’s early October, most of the males have migrated, but I’m still enjoying the zooming, chirping, and chasing of the females and juveniles. They’ll be gone soon too, headed south to Mexico and Central America.

Just as I acknowledged my own rumbly in my tumbly, being ready for dinner, Hawk flew off, the remains of his catch firmly in talon, ready to settle in for the evening with snack for later.

Au revoir, Woody

The honeybees are still at it: pollinating flowers and carrying pollen and nectar to their hive to provide food for their hive-mates and larvae, and perhaps in the future, a bit of honey for their human neighbors.

You might notice that I wrote hive not hives.

Honeybee nectar stealing on the closed bloom of a Globe Mallow, Spaeralcea ambigua

In August, we checked our honeybees, as we do roughly every two to three weeks during the growing season. We were late at this particular hive check; it had been closer to four weeks since we last peeked into the gals’ homes. Four weeks between hive checks is too long and a poor beekeeping practice.

What we found in Woody, our older hive, was horrific.

Lesser Wax Moths had infiltrated the hive and destruction ensued. There are Wax Moths in all, or certainly most, hives that reside in warm climates. We’ve seen Wax Moth larvae from time-to-time in our hives, and crush them when we do. A healthy, thriving honeybee hive will keep any invaders in check–honeybees are a tidy bunch and take care of their own. But if a hive is weak–for whatever reason–it becomes vulnerable to invasive species and the Lesser Wax Moth, Achroia grisella, is one of several insect species that can bring catastrophe to a hive. Hive carnage happens quickly.

We’d added a second honey box to Woody in late June; the colony was thriving and needed more space to make honey. In a follow-up check, it seemed like there were fewer bees, but we didn’t take a deep-dive into the hive to check one or both brood boxes for a laying queen and noticeable larvae. Our only excuse is that it was July and hot, and it’s easy to be lazy beekeepers. That shortcut was a mistake. The fewer bees gave us pause, but we considered that maybe Woody had swarmed (which takes the old queen and half the workers) temporarily decreasing the population. Swarming is a natural and healthy process and is how honeybees procreate; a hive that has swarmed is nothing to fret about. But fewer bees could mean that the queen is weak or something else has impacted the hive. Between hive checks, we observed from the outside, but there were no clues of impending disaster, only fewer foraging bees going to and from Woody.

What we found in the August check was the ruin of the frames and comb.

Poor Woody. Poor bees.

We disassembled Woody, top to bottom, pulling out each frame, in both honey boxes and the two brood boxes. As we examined each frame, we killed as many larvae as we could and scraped and smashed the pupae as we found them. Disgusting work, but it was necessary. There were hundreds (thousands?) of larvae of all sizes, and many dozens of pupae biding their time to release adult moths, ready to mate and create more honeybee hive killers.

We left the annihilated frames and fouled boxes out in the hot July sun for several days after our Wax Moth larvae/pupae killing spree. Wax Moth offspring like the dark, moist of the hives, but won’t survive with exposure to bright sun. Interestingly, Woody’s bees hovered around the comb during those days. For weeks afterward, long after we’d put away the damaged frames, I’d see a few bees each day nosing around the area. Pheromones are strong magnets.

The honey frames and boxes were mostly unscathed, the primary damage occurring in the heart of the hive–the two brood boxes. Female wax moths fly to a hive at night and before dawn, ahead of the bees’ daytime activities, and lay eggs in an exposed crack or crevice. A single female lays hundreds of eggs in her lifetime. The eggs hatch and the larvae weave silk trails through the comb to protect themselves as they eat through the comb, honey, and honeybee larvae. Wax moths destroy the comb beyond repair.

As we worked that awful morning, we noticed that the other hive, Bo-Peep, had more bees hanging around the entrance. Also, Woody’s homeless bees had to deliver the minuscule amount of honey from their former home somewhere. We’re confident that Woody’s bees, after slurping the remains of their own honey, took that honey and joined up with Bo.

In the photo below and at the top right, you can see the remains of the chrysalises along the sides of the box. Looking at the frames, you’ll notice that some frames have intact comb, though it’s dark and dirty, but other frames only have bits of the comb remaining. The incomplete comb is the result of the Wax Moth larvae having eaten through it.

In this photo, the webbing spun to protect the larvae is obvious, and you can see that the caps on the comb cells (where baby bees are nurtured to adulthood) are all open. The moth larvae open the caps and eat not only the honey and comb, but the honeybee larvae. In a strong hive, the bees can re-cap and dispose of the moth larvae, but when overwhelmed by large numbers of moth larvae, the task becomes impossible.

During the days that we left the frames out, I hope that some of the juicy caterpillars were snatched by birds, but honestly, we didn’t leave too many of the moth larvae alive.

Here are more disgusting, destroyed hive frames.

This photo shows the underside of the roof of the hive. All those bits that you see are the remains of pupae that we scraped and smashed.

So what do we do with the frames and the boxes? Through the rest of summer, we mulled whether or not we’d replace Woody. I’m a little burned out with beekeeping; it’s work and sometimes more of a burden than a pleasure. Our decision to purchase a new colony can’t be made until late September, when Beeweaver Apiary announces their honeybees for sale during the following spring, so we’ve had time to consider options. I wouldn’t mind having only one hive, but if disaster hits that hive, we’re fresh out of honeybees until the next year. With that in mind, we’ve decided to get another package of honeybees (a mated, clipped queen and 10,000 workers), and this winter we’ll prepare the hive for this new colony.

Visually, the honey frames are in good shape, but freezing the frames for 48 hours kills remaining eggs and larvae, though we haven’t seen any larvae. As for the brood frames, we’ve removed all the polluted comb (whatever was left), disposed of the mess, and will clean and freeze those as well. The boxes are too large to freeze, so we’ll scrub them with a bleach solution sometime this winter. They’ve been outside all summer and we’ll leave them out during winter, too. There’s little possibility that any Wax Moth eggs will survive and be a threat to the new hive next April or May. Fingers crossed!

We’ve never lost a hive to Wax Moth infestation until Woody. But we’ve learned that when we take honey frames from the hives and if it’s going to be more than a few days before we extract that honey (which is typical; it’s usually weeks later before we extract), there are always Wax Moth eggs and larvae in the frames. We might not see anything amiss initially, but given a week or two, they’ve hatched and are crawling around and eating the comb, potentially ruining our prospects for beautiful honey. Before we understood the importance of freezing the frames, we’d keep an an eagle eye on the frames and commenced the squish squad whenever we spotted the creepy crawlies. Now that we know that freezing kills the bad guys, we pop the frames into our freezer for a couple of days kill the eggs and larvae. Constantly checking the frames for signs of those nasty critters isn’t necessary.

We started our 2021 beekeeping with one hive, Woody, after our hive Scar froze in February. We end the season with only one hive, our newest, Bo-Peep. We checked Bo each week after Woody’s debacle to make sure it was healthy. At the the first hive check, we found 4 Wax Moth pupae attached to the underside of the roof. I smashed those immediately. Since then, Bo-Peep has been thriving at each check: lots of brood and honey stores, and her foragers are bringing home the goods.

Bo is a particularly sweet hive, too, which I appreciate, especially when we open her up and muck around in the hive. Her bees are very patient.

Standing beside Bo-Peep, Woody’s base waits for a new colony of bees and a cleaned, disinfected hive.

As the days grow shorter, bees are busy. Here in Central Texas, we’re heading into our second spring of mass blooming. There are at least two months of flowers available for foraging, and even in winter, there will be some flowers for the bees to visit. We’ll check Bo-Peep a few more times before it grows too chilly to open her up.

It’s been a mixed bag of beekeeping this year; I’m glad to have this new, strong hive, but saddened at the demise of our two beloved hives, Scar and Woody. While my garden enjoys the presence of a decent variety of native bees, it’s hard for me to imagine it without honeybees. Honeybees, along with so many other insects, are integral to the garden’s health, vitality, and beauty.

Rock on, little bees–do your thing.

Can you spot all the bees in this photo? Not only is the honeybee working, but there are several native Ceratina bees. One is near the honeybee’s head, the other two, different species, are on the top bloom of the Coral Vine. There’s also one zooming across the photo, though it’s nothing more than a smear.