The Problem with Pollinators

On the heels of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report about the potentially catastrophic worldwide decline of pollinators, I’d like to offer some  gentle reminders to home gardeners and all others concerned about the health and maintenance  of our food supply and the natural world as a whole.   The report paints a dire prediction of decline and extinction of  pollinators–honeybees, wild bees, butterflies and moths, and all other pollinating animals who play a vital role in production of managed crops and propagation of native plants and trees.  I certainly hope that this report will bolster efforts to support educational and research organizations in their work toward encouraging local, state and federal authorities to set aside land for prairies, native grasslands, and wild space in general, and to manage that space in appropriate and sustainable ways.

Skipper nectaring at Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower.

Skipper nectaring at Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower.

There are simple practices that the home gardener can engage to assure a safe haven for pollinators and all wildlife in general:

Refrain from pesticide and herbicide use.  Not only will abstaining from chemicals save you money and time, but usually, these chemicals create more problems than they fix. If you plant appropriately for your region, the need for chemicals in the garden decreases or disappears.

Osmia ribifloris (?), Megachilinae, sp. preparing nest in the mortar of the outside wall of a house.

Osmia ribifloris (?), Megachilinae, sp. preparing a nest in the mortar of the outside wall of a house.

Use native plants!  There is no easier way to attract and sustain wildlife than to plant native plants–for pollinators, birds, bats, reptiles–every native critter will visit when their preferred food source is available.   Where native plants are hard to find, plant non-invasive, well-adapted pollinator-friendly perennials and annuals.   When replacing shade or ornamental trees, plant native trees; a large native tree is life-giving in so many ways.  Your locally owned nurseries and Agricultural Extension Agent offices and websites are excellent sources of information on appropriate plants.

Honeybee working the blooms of a Sophora secundiflora, Texas Mountain Laurel.

Honeybee working the blooms of a Sophora secundiflora, Texas Mountain Laurel.

Allow some “nature” in your garden.   It’s perfectly fine to have a few leaves, branches, and garden detritus  in your garden for critters to use as cover and for nesting purposes. The 1950’s swath of lawn and scraped garden are so…yesterday.  A water-hogging, sterile lawn coupled with a few pristine, non-nectar producing plants (usually sold at big box stores) and placed solely at the foundation of a house, are antithetical to how nature exists and functions. Birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and beneficial insects have no place to live and thrive in that kind of “garden.”

Leaf litter and rotting wood as part of the garden design and structure.

Leaf litter and rotting wood as part of the garden design and structure.

Your garden doesn’t have to be wild  to attract wild.  No matter what garden style the gardener appreciates and aspires to, incorporating plants that are beneficial to wildlife–those providing nectar, seeds, berries, and cover–is easily accomplished as time and budget allow. Whether in a formal or a cottage garden style–or anything in between–using wildlife-friendly plants, pruning after seed production, and refraining from chemical use is the ticket to a successful and life-nurturing garden.  And isn’t that what gardening and gardens are all about?  The creative endeavor of nurturing and sustaining life and beauty.

Provide water!   As simple as a bird bath or as complicated as a series of ponds with attached streams and waterfalls, water is a requirement for life and should be a part of any garden.  ‘Nuff said.

Honeybee drinking from a bird bath.

Honeybee drinking from a bird bath.

There are already places in the world where, because of mismanagement of land and misuse of chemicals, there are no pollinators available.  None.  They’re all dead.  Crops grown are hand-pollinated by people.  Surely this is not what we want worldwide, but that scenario is exactly where we are headed.  We can choose a different route and it doesn’t require great inventions or new technologies, but instead, thoughtful gardening and agricultural practices, as well as the political will to acknowledge and edit the environmental costs of industrialization.

Honeybee gathering pollen at Tradescantia gigantea, Spiderwort.

Honeybee gathering pollen at Tradescantia gigantea, Spiderwort.

Please consider the health of your local environment when you plan a garden.  Support private, municipal, and federal efforts to set aside land for wildlife.  Our survival, as well as the maintenance of the remarkable and diverse biology of the Earth, depends upon our acting NOW.  This is a solvable problem.  Let’s solve it.

Osmia ribifloris (?), Megachilinae, sp. flying into an insect hotel, preparing nest.

Osmia ribifloris (?), Megachilinae, sp. flying into an insect hotel, preparing a nest.

Pollinators are our friends and co-workers.  It’s in our interest to do right by them.

Xylocopa tabaniformis, Horsefly-like Carpenter Bee at a Salvia guaranitica, Blue Anise Sage.

Xylocopa tabaniformis, Horsefly-like Carpenter Bee, at a Salvia guaranitica, Blue Anise Sage.

Wildlife Wednesday, September 2015

It seems that August was mostly about the insects in my gardens, though a sprinkling of birds and spiders and lizards added a bit of spice to things. Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday, marked each month on the first Wednesday in observance and celebration of the wonderful wild creatures that we share our world with and who are necessary for gardens to be.

My good camera has spent this past month at the camera hospital, with a full recovery predicted.  No matter, I took decent photos of most things–plants and critters, with a reliable, but limited, point-n-shoot camera.

I’m flustered when birds don’t perch still and pose nicely for me.  With the good camera, shots are crisp and clear, birds flitting and flying notwithstanding. With the point-n-shoot, bird photos are never quite what I see in real life. Nevertheless, there are lots of birds in the late summer garden and a few presentable photos in which to profile them. The birds of August in Austin are the the usual suspects–Grackles, European House Sparrows, doves of various sorts, hummingbirds, Blue Jays, and Northern Cardinals, Cardinalis cardinalis, like this awkward juvenile male.

Doesn’t he look like a typical teenager, pretending to be cool and looking around to see if anyone notices him, but underneath his splotchiness, just so terribly unsure of himself?   He can’t decide if he’s ready to take on adult responsibilities and the blasting, brilliant red that is his namesake, or if he’d rather be safe, with blander coloration, blending into the background as he prepares to make his way in the big, bad world.  Personally, I look forward to his adult suit, to his attracting a partner, and to the next generation of scarlet and mottled visitors to my garden.

Lesser Goldfinches, Spinus psaltria, girls and boys alike, continued to enjoy the long-lasting sunflower seeds.

And also, the water provided during this hottest month of the year.

This guy,

…a Leaf-footed BugAcanthocephala terminalis, hung out in the front garden for a couple of days.  Common in Austin, these bugs and their kin feed on leaves of many plants.  The terminalis part of the name is because of the red to yellow marking at the end of its antennae, though in my photo, the red isn’t all that noticeable.  I love this shot of the bug:

I imagine it as a Leaf-footed Superhero Bug, profiled handsomely in shadow as it poses, stalwart and brave, overlooking the territory it protects. Dramatic music plays in the background as it surveys its realm.

I do believe that my brain is fried from the heat.

The dragons and damsels are busily hovering around the pond, hunting anything smaller than themselves, mating, and being gorgeous.  This male Blue DasherPachydiplax longipennis,

…and a female of the same species are two of the many who are living in my garden.

I love to watch them–the combination of beauty, fascinating life cycle, and flying agility make the Odonata species worth attracting to the garden.  If you build a pond, or similar water structure, they will come. 

Green Anoles, Carolinensis anolis, regularly adorn foliage, and often, the walls and fences in my gardens.  There are smaller ones roaming the verge in August, the offspring of the older, early summer generation.

Just as charming as their parents, these little garden buddies hunt insects and stare ( or is it a glare??) at the gardener/photographer.

I was thrilled one morning to observe this native Metallic Sweat Bee, Augochloropsis metallica(?)sunning itself on the leaf of a Drummond’s Wild Ruellia.

So beautiful and such valuable pollinators, I have a hard time capturing these bees in photo form because I usually see them hovering over blooms in constant, flashing-green motion.  They alight on a flower, moving quickly around the bloom, before taking off in flight a few seconds later.  I’m  content with watching and marveling, rather than wasting time attempting to capture with the camera what my eyes behold, thus missing the action.

I wrote last month about the common garden spider, the Black and Yellow ArgiopeArgiope aurantia, who’d taken up residence in a large shrub of Turk’s Cap.  Ms. Giant Spider had a sweet spot here in the Turk’s Cap because the flowers are favorites of bees and butterflies, therefore, no shortage of meals for her.

She’s been in the Turk’s Cap since July, ensnaring and devouring some “bad” bugs, but more commonly, my sweet honeybees.

All wrapped up and no place to go–except into the spider’s digestive system.

Poor bee.

Poor bees.

I saw several caught in the web, everyday.

I think this spider meal is one the native or wild bee species that’s common in my gardens and that I’ve written about before, a Horsefly-like Carpenter BeeXylocopa tabaniformis.

The previous morning, before I’d had my full dose of caffeine, I’d seen a newly trapped Carpenter bee of the same species.  Well, I can tolerate Ms. Giant Spider catching my darling honeybees, after all, I know that the honeybee queens are strong and actively creating the next generation, but I’m not quite so open-minded about this colorful menace wrecking webbed havoc on  the wild bees.  I know the native/wild bees have a welcome home in my garden, but things are dicey for them elsewhere.  Completely ignoring the prime directive (and for those of you who have no clue what that phrase means, please read), I carefully extracted the trussed up and buzzing madly Carpenter bee from the web and gently (VERY gently) pulled away the well-woven webbing and was able to release an angry and no doubt, terrified, Carpenter bee back into the world.

This wildlife gardener interfered with wildlife.

My bad.

In my defense, the spider had two other hapless victims hanging on the web and the bee was still alive; Ms. Spider had other meals waiting and the bee had a chance to live.

I just couldn’t help myself.

I hope the Carpenter bee in this photo wasn’t the same one I rescued, but if it was, maybe it’s best  that the can’t-learn-a-valuable-life-lesson DNA is out of circulation.

In this photo, the little silver-colored spider is, I think, a spiderling–the tiny offspring of Ms. Giant Spider, enjoying the meal trapped by Mom.

It’s possible that it’s an unrelated species, but given Ms. Giant Spider’s voracious appetite and penchant for killing anything in her wake, I’m guessing Silver Bells is probably family.

In the last few days, Ms. Giant Spider has disappeared. I thought maybe she’d moved her web, because she’s done that a couple of times, but instead, I located  a smaller version of the same species about a foot away–lying in wait, web at the ready, in a different part of the Turk’s Cap.  I suspect Ms. Giant Spider has gone to her reward and has been replaced by Ms. Junior Spider.

And the cycle begins again.

Lastly, I’m fairly sure this lovely green critter is a Spotted Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca emarginata (also known as Schistocerca lineata).

He/she was hanging out in the Turk’s Cap, probably noshing on foliage.  I warned it about the webbing that’s situated just behind.  According to literature, the Argiope spider species are big enough to capture large bird grasshoppers. The grasshopper must have made its way safely, as I never saw it packaged up in the webbing.

And that’s about all for this month.  So long!!

Kudos to all of you who garden for wildlife, no matter how much or little:  you’re part of the solution.  I hope your gardens received wildlife visitors this month and that you will join in posting for September Wildlife Wednesday. Share the rare or mundane, funny or fascinating, beneficial or harmful critters you encounter. When you comment on my post, please remember to leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post so readers can enjoy a variety of garden wildlife observations.

Happy wildlife gardening!

Wildlife Wednesday, August 2015

As a general rule I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  However, this past month I’ve begun to think that they’re all out to get me.  Or rather, they’re conspiring against me, so that I don’t get them–in photograph form, that is.  The them I refer to is all the wild critters that inhabit and visit my gardens.  This past month, whenever I spied an interesting garden visitor nectaring, breeding, or otherwise creeping, crawling, or flitting,  I struggled to fetch or focus my camera quickly enough to snag a photo.  I’ve come to believe, cross-species, that there’s an understanding among the wildlife in my gardens:  Hey! Tina’s got her camera–let’s vamoose!!  And vamoose they did.  Even when strolling into the gardens, camera in hand and ready for a wild photo shoot, those in the garden, right there, busily slurping on a bloom or nipping at a seed suddenly, weren’t.

Is it my breath?

I do have lots happening–bees a’buzzing, butterflies a’flying, birds a’twittering, but they don’t seem to want to mug for the camera.

Maybe it’s just too darn hot.

It is hot.  The dog days of summer have settled in Austin, but it’s also the first Wednesday of the month and time to celebrate wildlife in wildlife gardens.

There were a few things that didn’t scamper away from me like this nest that I discovered while pruning the blackberry bramble.

I have no idea who this belonged to and I don’t know when it was built.  I didn’t see it during blackberry season (May), so I assume it was built afterwards.  I wonder what happened to the builders and/or the residents?

On the other side of the blackberry vine this beauty has built a lovely summer home.

A deadly home though for anyone who bumbles into her webbing, but I welcome these common garden spiders, the Black and Yellow ArgiopeArgiope aurantia.  I saw that she caught some of the insects that were chewing on some of my veggies and milkweed plants which are nearby.   I definitely have mixed feelings about her hunting as I know she also caught at least two of my beloved Horsefly-like Carpenter Bees, Xylocopa tabaniformis,  like this one.

Another Black and Yellow Garden spider set up shop in the back garden, as well.  If you’re a regular reader, maybe you’ll recognize the wooden structure in the background?

Yup, she hunting honeybees and I know that she caught at least one.  No doubt, there were others ensnared in her web.

It’s been a couple of years since I had these spiders in my gardens; some years they’re common, some years not.  I take a hands-off approach to spiders, insects and most critters in the garden.  Even with a very compromised local environment (lots of sterile lawns and few pollinator gardens), my garden space is healthier and relatively balanced if I let everyone do their thing, even if it means eating some of my favorite insects.


The male spider is much smaller and cruises around gardens,

….looking for a female to mate with.  I guess these two are enjoying their summer fling.

More spiders in my garden’s future….

Other beneficial garden inhabitants are wasps, like this social Paper Wasp, Polistes exclamans.

This insect is widespread in Texas and much of the South. I’ve seen a number of them this past month–resting on leaves, feeding at blooms, and sipping at bird baths.

Paper Wasps are  nectaring insects and categorized as social because they live in groups with a breeding queen and workers, though many wasps are solitary and are also common in Texas gardens.  These particular Paper wasps build nests that are made of cellulose, either out of wood or paper, with cells similar in design to honeybee combs; nests hang from a single stem attached to some object. I know I’ve seen the nests around my property, but of course couldn’t find one to photograph for this post. However, you can see one here.

The squirrels are not happy with me. I don’t always fill the bird feeders, but I am this summer. By default and population, I’m also feeding the squirrels.   Several of these enterprising rodents began climbing up and then hanging onto the solar screen while nibbling seeds at the ceramic feeder in front of the kitchen window. They were emptying this feeder in front of the kitchen window in less than a day.  NOT cool. I finally removed the screen, to their great frustration.  Since then, the screen-vanquished squirrels have tried, in vain, to figure out how to get to the feeder.

Glass is not so easy to hang onto.

One morning, this little guy sat on the window ledge, looking quite despondent at his inability to reach the feeder.  I swear that he had his arms folded and was tapping his foot in annoyance.

It’s a good day when I can out-smart the squirrels.

These female Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Archilochus alexandri (or maybe it’s the same one) have visited on a regular basis.  In the first set of photos, the flower-of-choice is the Big Red SageSalvia penstemonoides,

…and in this second set, the meal source are blooms of Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus.

I’ve seen one or more Black-chinned males and male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds-alas, no photos other than those above though.    They’re hard to catch, these winged jewels, but I’m enjoying their visits, however fleetingly, as they feed at the plants they favor in my garden.

For several days in mid-July, I was  hearing an unfamiliar bird call.  I couldn’t find the singers for the first day or so, then finally spotted the jazz-like crooners.

The Logger-head ShrikeLanius ludovicianus, is a year-round resident of much of the United States, though I’ve never seen one–ever.  I was surprised to see several of them, though all I could photograph was their lower halves, due to their perching high in neighbors’ trees around my gardens.  They have a varied diet, but also eat insects.  Were they after my honeybees?  Hmmm.  I heard them, finally saw a few, then I left town for a bit.  I’ve heard none since.  Too bad.

I loved watching this parent  Black-crested TitmouseBaeolophus atricristatus, feeding a young’n.

Actually, I guess it was the young’n that I really watched, as he/she looked this way and that for this parent to show up with the seed.  Adorable, and gratifying that there’s enough to feed the next generation.

This lovely little Bordered Patch butterfly, Chlosyne lacinia, flitted in the garden for days before I could catch this mediocre shot.

The host plant for this pretty are sunflowers, which are plentiful in my gardens this summer.

Feeding on the going-to-seed sunflowers are the Lesser GoldfinchSpinus psaltria, gang–boys and girls alike.

Lessers love the seeds of Asteraceae plants, like sunflowers.  I chuckle as they hang upside-down for their food; it’s a neat trick, though I’ll take my meals at the table, thank you very much.

These guys-n-gals will soon finish up with the tall spring-germinating, summer-towering sunflowers.  I’ve already pruned a couple of stalks because there was little left on them, either in bloom or seed form.  But several sunflowers still have viable blooms, which the honeybees and butterflies are feeding on and seeds which the Lessers and also House Finches and Sparrows, are enjoying.

To the “pretty plant” gardener–one who wants the sterile, pristine lawn or perfect, non-insect attracting bloom-n-foliage plants, I’m sure my sunflowers look hideous.  But to myriad wildlife–bees, butterflies, moths, syrphid flies, and a variety of birds, the stalks are beautiful for their life-giving  bounty.  And that is what wildlife gardening is all about.

I lamented that I didn’t have much to show and tell for this month, but I guess there was enough. Thank you critters–for your presence and for enlivening and completing my garden.

Kudos to all of you who garden for wildlife, no matter how much or little:  you’re part of the solution.  I hope your gardens received wildlife visitors this month and that you will join in posting for August Wildlife Wednesday. Share the rare or mundane, funny or fascinating, beneficial or harmful critters you encounter. When you comment on my post, please remember to leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post so readers can enjoy a variety of garden wildlife observations.

Happy wildlife gardening!

**Just a quick and timely addendum. This article is from the Washington Post via. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A must read for anyone who understands the wastefulness and pointlessness of the American lawn.

Also, the original, beautifully written essay from Ohioan Sarah Baker about her experience in allowing her property to become a wildlife habitat.