Thursday, June 28, 2012

First The Egg....

Yesterday a monarch butterfly, the first of the season I have seen, laid a few eggs on a tropical milkweed plant that overwintered in our solarium/greenroom.  She fluttered around, settling on several leaves.  In this photograph, you can see her abdomen curved toward the leaf in the process of egg-laying.

Monarch female on  Asclepias curassavica

She did not like my presence and flitted around on the terrace seemingly to chase me away, not returning to the plant until after I had retreated inside.  This was repeated several times as I tried to get a photo but she would not tolerate my getting close enough to get a decent image of this delicate process. Can you blame her?

The egg is delicately fluted.  There are several on the plant which I am not quite sure can stand the defoliation that is coming.  I am prepared to transplant the caterpillars to a common milkweed in the field if necessary.

Monarch egg
And so it begins....

Friday, April 27, 2012

Presenting a Package of Bees

A rite of spring for many beekeepers is ordering new bees either to replace a hive lost over the winter or to add to an apiary.  One way to accomplish this is to order package bees - a package of bees that typically is delivered by US Mail.  Think of it!

Since we had started our bees from a different method, I just had my first look at a bee package a couple of weeks ago thanks to Jean and Dick Vose of the Knox and Lincoln County Beekeepers Association in midcoast Maine.  They played postoffice, in a way, and acted as a distribution site for people who had ordered package bees from a nearby commercial beekeeper, Rick Cooper, and gave a demo on how to 'hive' the bees, or install them in their new home.  

I can truly see why postal service workers would be wigged out by having to distribute bees in this way.  The package is a box with screening around the sides that hardly seems enough to keep the mass of bees safely inside.  It is outfitted with a metal can that contains - or contained - sugar solution for feeding the bees in transit.  Somewhere in the protection of the thousands of bees inside is a smaller package that contains the queen and a few so-called attendants, worker bees who feed the queen and groom her, the only really royal treatment the queen gets.  She is more accurately described as an egg-laying slave.  Such is life for the queen honey bee, the life of the hive, the most important individual bee in the hive but who makes no decisions, no royal decrees, no proclamations, but whose health is monitored as closely if not more than that of any head-of-state.  She is tucked inside the screened-in box and will soon be released into the dark safety of the hive box when the beekeeper picks up the package and transports the buzzing throng to its new home.

Package bees contain three pounds of bees - about 10,000 - 12,000 bees. They will get the hive set up and going until the queen starts laying eggs which then take about three weeks to develop and emerge as the next generation.  And they don't need any instructions.

 Here are a few photos from the package pick-up....

Jean Vose sprays hungry bees with sugar syrup while Susan Smith-Riedel looks on.

Package bees.  In right segment see small white area of new comb!
Closer look at bees in package.  
Removing the syrup container from demo package.

Jean demonstrates queen cage.

Empty hive body ready for bees!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Don't Dis Dandelions

Dandelion landscape with pollen-toting honey bee
Dandelions need more respect.  Possibly a bee for a public relations agent would help. 

Dandelions are one of the first flowers to bloom and they are most definitely used by our most beneficial of insects - the bees!  There is a place if not a need for an area of dandelions in any yard.  People just require a new way of thinking about them.  They are not weeds but rather bright yellow flowers that provide nectar and pollen for flower foragers! 

These photos from last year present four species of bees that utilize dandelions.  I am on the look out for more this year.  Note how the pollen turns orange when the honey bee packs it in her corbiculae, tamped in place with a bit of regurgitated nectar that helps preserve it.   

Honey bee, front view, nose-diving into flower

Andrena  sp. female on dandelion

Nomada sp. (a nest parasite) on dandelion.  This male bee is also a pollinator.

Unidentified native bee on dandelion

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

And So It Begins!

They say that one bluebird doesn't make a spring and certainly beekeepers know that a honey bee doesn't either, but maybe one Andrena bee does?

On Sunday, April 1, as I was marveling at the number of honey bees foraging on early-blooming and invasive weedy coltsfoot flowers, I noticed a bee that was not a honey bee!  Here it is:

Andrena sp. on coltsfoot

For years, we have noticed a myriad of low-flying insects over a part of our lawn.  When I became a beekeeper and suddenly found myself much more aware of insects of all kinds, I realized they were a native bee species.  A bit of searching in the wonderful Xerces Society book, Attracting Native Pollinators,  led to the identification as an andrenid bee, otherwise known as a miner bee for its method of excavating a nest tunnel in the ground.  They emerge in the spring, often the first bees of the season, as they possibly are here.  Last year I first noticed them much later than April 1, and after I made note of this one solitary individual, I ventured over to the area where they typically have had their numerous nest holes.  Yes!  There they were, not in the great numbers that hopefully there will be later in the spring, but at least 20 or so flying close to the ground.

Several of the photographs allowed me to count the segments in the insect's antenna. The odd-numbered result leads to the identification of a male andrenid, but the species is unknown.  As is the case with most native bees, a positive identification would mean killing the bee and examining it and several dissected body parts under the microscope.  I am happy enough to know that it is a miner, and that it is the first of hopefully many kinds of bees to forage here this season!  No April Foolin'!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Beesy Herbs

How can I resist?  Here is my short list of herbs for bees, honey and otherwise...

Bumble bee on borage
Borage - this is named on many lists of suggestions for bees.  An annual, it has an array of blue flowers that face downward from fuzzy stalks.  I only grow it ornamentally - in fact that is true for quite a few of the herbs.  It is supposed to be good in iced drinks and the  young leaves evidently taste like cucumber.  It reseeds itself every year  -  the visiting bees are responsible for this - and I usually let it grow where it may. 

Bumble bee on lemon balm
Lemon balm - who would have guessed the insignificant little flowers would attract bees?  But they do.  I found my star bumble bee of last summer on them.  This herb is a perennial and tends to spread by seeds.  This one makes a delicious tea with the fresh leaves.  But in order to attract the bees, you have to let it grow and flower!

Honey bee on catnip

Catnip - almost the same as above, not just for cats.  I grew the lemon-scented variety last year and it is already quite a nice cushion coming up in the garden, but its demure stature right now will not last.  I expect to find seedlings as well. 

Honey bee on apple mint

Mint - apple and others - another perennial and if you have never grown it, beware.  This plant can take over.  Either make use of that trait and plant it where you need a vigorous ground cover, or encircle the plant with a bottomless pot or other barricade to prevent the ranging roots from escaping.  Even that might not be foolproof.  I  repot ours every year and sometimes find sprigs that are quite far from the pot grabbing some turf.  Don't get me going on the spearmint that I just let go one year.  Applemint seems a bit tamer but I think maybe it's just playing a deceitful game.  However, of all the mints, applemint is very attractive, soft green with softer fuzz, and attractive sprays of purple flowers.  Not my favorite for ice tea, but a good one to keep for bees.  You can then feel free to cut the spearmint!

Two bumble bees on spires of anise hyssop

Anise hyssop - now here is a wonderful bee plant.  Dense spikes of small purple flowers that especially bumble bees go for top this perennial that also sends seeds flying.  In the fall, gold finches also love eating the seeds so it has multiple uses in the garden.  It's not a particularly long-lasting perennial but no worries because there are always new ones coming somewhere and they are easily transplanted to wherever you want them.  Like all the three previous, this is a tea herb. 

Honey bee on spotted beebalm

Spotted beebalm or horsemint (Monarda punctata) - this unusual herb which I grew from seed last year flowered late with several layers of pale yellow spotted flowers arranged in a circle around the stalk.  Topped off with a halo of pinkish bracts, this plant really surprised me with its understated beauty.  And honey bees were regular visitors.  Sources suggest medicinal uses or tea for this US native plant, neither of which I have tried.  But thanks to the experience with this beebalm, I am going to try several others this year, also from seed. 

Notice how most of these plants have blue-purple-white flowers?  They attract the most bees.
Other plants I will be watching more closely this year for bee and other beneficial visitors are common garden chive and garlic chive blossoms and basil flowers.  Garden chives are quite pink but the garlic chives trend more toward purple so I will be interested if bees favor them more.  Basil is hard to let flower because it is so handy and tasty for cooking.  Dill and fennel are not as attractive for bees but I have had swallowtail larvae on especially the fennel fronds. 

And one more herb of note that I know is a bee magnet is thyme.  Our rock garden area that has reverted au naturel over the years still has quite a bit of very low growing thyme that is covered with bees when it is blooming.

Next on the list will be perennials that are more traditionally in borders or in fields that attract bees.  Often all of these plants, herbs, annuals or perennials, attract other pollinators such as flower flies or hover flies and butterflies making them especially useful plants to add to a garden.  Pollinators add color, sound and their presence that all augment the beauty of any backyard or border.  And they pollinate to ensure a storehouse of seeds for the future and for food for wildlife as well.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Thinking of Spring 1: Plan for Pollinators, Especially Bees!

Native bee, Agapostemon sp.,  on Cosmos
Springtime in Maine has nothing to do with the calendar.  On March 21 or 22, we are more likely to have drifting snow than drifts of daffodils. Despite yesterday's 60 degrees and incredible honey bee flights far from the hive - activity more like summer in front of the hive with a hundred or more bees at a time hovering waiting their turn to reenter the hive - we are still a long time away from blooming flowers.  Well, with the exception of spring-flowering witch hazel, blooming now, and snowdrops,  demurely huddling close to the ground with their white hoods on.

What is a gardener-beekeeper to do?  Plan, that is what!  And luckily seed and plant catalogues are happy to aid and abet the activity.

As a beekeeper and advocate for native bees, I am always trying to add to the collection of bee-friendly flowers in my yard.  And get rid of lawn.  Because of my very strict requirements for cultivation, I admit that I am reluctant to buy plants off anyone's shelf for fear of pesticides lurking unknown in the potting soil and in the plant.  Some of the more prevalent insecticides are systemic - that is they go throughout the plant and can be found in leaf, stem, nectar and pollen.  If you fancy your back yard as a pollinator paradise, these pesticides are to be avoided, and, because you can't find out much about where plants or how plants are grown these days, in most cases, one of the easiest if not only options is to grow the plants yourself.

Enter seed catalogues.  Oh, to dream of seeds, glorious seeds.  And I have many more wants than time or space, as usual.  But, how to chose the best ones?  There are lots of catalogues whose descriptions of flowers include such intriguing phraseology as " attracts butterflies"  or " hummingbird magnet." But what about the bees?

Here is my take:  Plants people are afraid.  They are afraid that if they advertise plants or flowers as attracting bees, people will shy away, fearful of attracting swarms of stinging insects.  So the safe road to mentioning plants that are good for pollinators is to forget about bees, definitely the most important of all pollinators, and to hype a plant as good for butterflies and hummingbirds.  In Maine, remember, there is only one species of  hummingbird, the ruby throated hummingbird.  It is a beautiful, charismatic bird, and I don't want to take anything away from it.  Butterflies?  One has to appreciate that  butterflies for the most part are not strong fliers.  In order to have butterflies on one's property, the best thing to do is to plant plants that are for the larvae, the caterpillars, and hope that a passing fancy  - painted lady, great spangled fritillary, or other spectacular winged beauty - will lay some eggs.  Then, and as a gardener, you need to be very much on a higher plane to do this, you need to tolerate the caterpillars eating your plants. No bug spray.  That means maybe you need to learn to recognize the larval forms of the butterflies.  And then, if all things go well, maybe you will enjoy the adult butterflies, the true objects of your affection.

Attracting pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds is all fine and good but what about the bees?  We need seed and plant catalogues to get more gutsy and put forward flowers and plants for bees.  Bees are not getting the respect or the acknowledgement they deserve.  For gardeners, it's time to take a stand for bees.  And I would like to highlight one catalogue that is trying to help - Select Seeds of Union, CT   The printed catalogue of mostly flower seeds but also some plants and vegetable seeds, features ten symbols that are attributes for each of their offerings. These icons point out cultivation hints such as sun or shade requirements, but also other characteristics such as fragrance or cut-flower appeal.  Best of all, they highlight flowers that are favorites of honey bees with a little bee icon that is separate from the butterfly icon for plants that are for those flower foragers.  Yay!  On line, it is very easy to find good choices for bees by clicking on the bee icon on the home page where there is yet another option for selections - native plants.  Often, native plants are excellent for pollinators of all types.  My gardening cap is off to the people of Select Seeds for taking this step for our very important bee pollinators!  What is good for honey bees is likely to be good for other bees - our native bees - as well.  

Honey bee about to land on annual poppy, 'Lauren's Grape'

The next posts I will devote to highlighting some of the plants in my garden or yard last year that were attractive to bees - native and honey bees.  And there will be photos as proof!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bees of New Zealand

New Zealand introduction: Bombus ruderatus packing orange pollen! (see note at end)

Inspired by the whereabouts of my daughter, Caitlin, currently in Wellington, New Zealand doing an internship in marine biology, I decided to investigate what New Zealand offers in the way of bee fauna.  One book, Bees of The World, by Christopher O'Toole and Anthony Raw, suggests that islands typically do not have many species, and those that are found tend to be ones that nest in wood.  You can see how this might have happened - a log housing larvae or adult bees that haven't emerged, whose cells are waterproofed enough to survive an ocean voyage, arrives on a beach.  The bees suddenly find themselves in a new land.   At least 7 of New Zealand's 28 or so species of native bees are Hylaeus ssp. that nest in twigs or branches or reuse old holes bored by beetles.  Other native species, Lasioglossum ssp., of which there are 4 types,  nest in the ground as do the most numerous kind of natives, 18 species of Leioproctus bees.  Both the Hylaeus and Leioproctus bees belong to the Colletidae or so-called polyester bees which line their nesting cells with a cellophane-like compound that protects the egg, larval and pupal stages from moisture and the potential of fungus and bacterial infection.  That could be handy coating on a long sea voyage as well, a sort of insect foul-weather gear.  Native bees are known to pollinate the wild vegetation found on the islands, what is referred to as "the bush."

New Zealand also has 13 species of introduced bees, including the European honey bee, and 4 species of bumble bees which were imported to pollinate clover crops.  Two of the bumble bee species are now found across both the north and south islands, one of which is foraging in the above photo.  New Zealand has about 300,000 honey bee hives and the bees, as they are everywhere, are very important to agriculture.  However, the native species are also found in agricultural areas where kiwi fruit and apples are grown, for example, so they are thought to play a role in crop pollination as well.

If you are interested in reading more about bees and wasps which have many more representatives in the island nation,  this is a very informative site:

nb:  This is the only bee photograph I have in my collection from a trip to New Zealand in 2009.  It was made in a botanical garden on the north island.  From the internet search, I am making an educated guess at the species.