Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hive Heroine

I suppose if you just have to have a dinner out and the only place in town that is open is pretty bad but you go anyway could be the analogous situation to yesterday's sight.

Honeybee on Bellis perennis

 Yesterday while covering the roses for the winter (despite the warm temps and unfrozen earth, but not willing to wait any longer) I found a honeybee, one single bee, foraging on little daisies, the underplanting of the shrubs.

Bellis perennis, or common daisy, native to Europe, still insists on blooming ( and has spread by germinating seeds in this bed otherwise dedicated to a selection of David Austin roses) into December. This charming little flower has naturalized in parts of the country.  I love the look of it in the lawn as seen last summer in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle.

Bellis carpet
Bellis daisies
 I never saw any insect on these plants all summer, perhaps merely by coincidence but you might think that with all the time I am looking and working around, I might have seen something. Not one, not until today.  One honeybee made two trips, and the second visit for sure she went home laden with pollen.  She didn't advertise her unseasonal windfall.  Maybe it just wasn't worth it.  Her hive sisters and neighbors were busy at the birdbath, collecting water....

Afternoon at the Birdbath Bar!
  Meanwhile, the one dedicated worker found something, maybe not the best, but better than nothing, something to bring home.  Bellissima!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Busy Bar Scene at The Oak Tree Saloon

Do Not Disturb! Honeybees at work extracting honey. 

Yesterday, a tropical-esque day for mid-November, I brought outside a frame of mostly capped honey and placed it on the ground under an oak tree.  The honey was still liquid for the most part even after more than a year in the freezer - I checked this in the process of scratching the cappings, the wax coating with which bees seal the honey-filled cells, so the bees could access their favorite food.  The frame had actually been in a very warm place for about a  month and just by gently running a comb-like pronged kitchen implement over the surface started some sweet drippings!

Why, oh why did I think that this was a good idea?  Sometimes I don't know what comes over me when I get into the bee mood.  It has been way too warm for too long this fall.  Almost counterintuitively, the warm temperatures spur the bees to eat more than if it is colder, hence they are working down their winter stores.  My idea was to feed them back some food and give them something to do on this pretty day.  Hardly anything is still blooming, although there were some foragers on the Nicotiana.  With three hives and eeny meeny miney not an option, the only way to do this was to put the frame outside and let scouts from all three hives find it and spread the news.

It didn't take long.  In five minutes one scout had landed on the back side of the frame and I watched as she gave it the first taste test with her tongue.  Must have passed the test. More bees collected in very short order.  Even as the weather deteriorated during the day, the bees were at work, slurping - if they slurp  - up the honey.  Lots and lots of bees.  On both sides of the frame which was leaning against the trunk of an oak tree about 75 feet from the hive.  At about 4pm, under ever grayer and darker skies, they were still at it.  At 415pm, I started to wonder if they would go home or camp out on the frame, especially on the sheltered side facing the tree trunk. This I would not let happen, I decided, and just in case, I pulled out of the garage and had ready a hive body box, makeshift top and cardboard bottom, and a stone to weigh the top down against inquisitive skunks.  I checked them again at 430 and not discerning if they were starting to commute back to the hives but having the plan ready to implement, went back to my whatevers.

At 630pm, with a flashlight, I went outside to check.  It was raining.   The bar was closed.  All the good little bees had gone home.  What a dummy I was to doubt their instinct!  In their place there were a number of moths feeding on the honey.  They kind of had that guilty look of being caught in a dishonest act. Well, not really, but they did appear to be crouching.

Today, not quite as warm but otherwise a copy of yesterday's weather, I replaced the frame.  But I was only doing what they were telling me to do because even at 730am, bees were flying around the area under the oak tree, looking.  Where is the honey?  So I brought out the frame again which still had a couple of pounds of honey in the cells.  This afternoon at 4pm, their day was done, and most all the honey had been extracted.  Here is closer photo of the action on the frame....

Busy bees at the honey bar
I love how their wings, folded back along their abdomens, are shiny and shimmery in the light.  I wonder if they work tightly packed together like this as a heat-saving technique.  Standing room only....The cells on the inside of the L-shape of the cluster are empty.  The ones to the left were not scratched as well and some in this photo are still full.  When I picked up the frame this afternoon, this section had been cleaned out too, all but the ones near the top of the frame.  Maybe tomorrow.... weather permitting....Or maybe this was their snack at season's end, or rather, their Thanksgiving feast.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Morning Buzz

Two honeybees graze on a poppy in a warmer season

As I continue to marvel at the slow decent into colder temperatures which has me still gardening in practically summertime garb - as still is the case on this cloudy day - today I noticed a very dramatic change in the overall look to the landscape.  Suddenly, overnight, it looks more like the November it truly is.  The golden light in the woods has morphed to brown.  Beech leaves have given up on their bright color; their moment on the stage of fall over. The driveway is covered with oak leaves that fell overnight.  On a walk today, the leaves drifted down to the roadways, landing with a soft tap without much air movement to encourage them.  It is time.

Yesterday, which now seems like another season,  a little moment in the early morning inspired a few thoughts.  I let our very old, mostly blind dog out the back door, his second outing of the day, but I did not totally "suit up" for going outside.   I stood on the pathway from our back door in my "indoor" shoes, monitoring his meanderings, noticing once again that the English holly shrubs continue to show tiny flowers as well as bright red berries and yet-unripe green ones.  Yet another sign of the long fall that seems in no hurry to be off.  Also I was contemplating a comment said the day before that made me very sad - but one that bolstered my resolve at the same time.  The suggestion was that gardening - non-specific but since the meeting was mostly about flower gardening, that is how I interpreted it - is on the decline in the same way that cooking as an endeavor was several years ago.  In my mind I was revisiting my hope - and a motivating force - that gardening for pollinators will be the next big thing when I became aware of a noise that sounded like a bee's buzzing.  As a beekeeper, that noise is an attention-getter.  Next thought - oh, only traffic on Route 1, less than a mile away.  But then I saw a honeybee eyeing my tea mug, held at waist height.  What?  Traditional lore says that honeybees don't fly at less than 50 degrees, and usually wait until later on in the morning to make an appearance.  It was 7:30 AM and about 48 out.  Not to mention November 9.

The bee hovered and gave the mug a good inspection before landing on the edge and walking down the inside.  I saw her extend her tiny tongue and work over the surface getting ever closer to the liquid. This was going to be interesting, I thought.  Hardly had the thought formed when her close approach to the tea evidently warned her about the temperature. Up and out she flew.  What mission was she on?  Why so early?  What energy source was warming her flight?  How and why was she attracted to my mug of tea?  MY mug?  The mysteries of beekeeping....

If truth be known, I did glance at our three hives and did notice more than a random few bees flying from one of the hives that was more in the sun even at this early hour.  As a beekeeper, you learn that extended periods of warm temperatures are actually bad for bees in the fall.  It keeps them more active than they would be normally,  and eating up their stores that need to last all winter.  There are no more sources of nectar to refill the larder.  But, given to pondering the season, the gardening question, and with a tendency to go a bit beyond the face value of this little morning moment, I couldn't help but think that this honeybee had a message.  

She is unique in our biome, an insect that overwinters with thousands of her kind, cloistered in a box, eating honey that she and her sisters, mostly now deceased, made from hundreds of thousands of foraging forays during the preceding weeks and months.  Most native bees exist now in forms that will emerge only next spring.   So now the honeybee is the only available flighted messenger.  She was reminding me again of the importance of her existence and by transitivity that of all pollinators.  Yes, that is the right idea, she seemed to be reminding me. Garden for us, the pollinators!

That was what the buzzing was about so early in the morning.

Honeybee forages on a bachelor's button flower

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tattered and Torn, Weary and Worn, But Still Tasty (or Maybe the Only Item on the Menu)

Today I had my lunchtime lounging next to the sprawly collection of corn marigold, Chrysanthemum segetum or more properly Glebionis segetum,  plants in the vegetable garden.  The sun was warm and added to the golden glow of the flowers which, despite several fairly hard frosts, were not flattened like the nasturtiums have been.  Certainly many individual flowers were not in great shape - petals all a-fray or missing; the pollen patch spent on many.  But foragers were out!  My seat was front row for noting the flying visitors, whom I watched and photographed for a good enough time to be almost confident I had recorded them all.  Quite a crew it was!  The small slender bees (first photo) were the most numerous but there were a remarkable number of bee and fly species on this one type of flower!  Yes, I know  - not much choice, left or right.

Here are the bees, including a honeybee who seems to be looking at me.

Here are the flies, a couple of syrphid or flower flies and others more like house flies. What is the brownish one with the folded-back wings?

Meanwhile, on the next plant over, at least two bumblebee individuals were using their long tongues to get to the last drops of nectar. Their heads were nuzzling way into the flowers.   Here they are:

After my long settee, to stretch a bit, I walked to the end of one of the long raised beds where another yellow flower had managed not to succumb to the freezing temperatures.  What a difference - nobody was visiting the lonely pot marigold, Calendula.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Is It Finally Over?

The storm last night that brought early snow and gusty gale-force winds might have put the final period on the last sentence in the last paragraph written about the gardening/gathering bee season. For several weeks now, things have been slowing down, but the weather continued very pleasant for gardeners and bees alike.  Yesterday before the wind picked up, my husband and I dug the dahlias and hustled them into the garage along with other late season groundskeeping tasks.  In the midst, he noticed a honeybee that had landed on one of the hives packing bright orange pollen in her pollen baskets.  Yesterday, it was still not over, at least not for non-native honeybees.  Today, except for them, it might be.

On Thursday, I  scrounged a few cuttings of a bright burgundy coleus from a neighbor's yard, with permission.  The next plant over, a helenium with mottled orange, gold and red blossoms, hosted a small bee.  Since I had my little "happy snap" camera in the car, I quickly ran to get it and was able to make at least a 'record' of the little bee who was slowly navigating around the pollen patch.  On a nearby yellow Dahlia, a bumblebee was tucked in.

On Friday, a walk to a nearby outdoor chapel led to a conversation with the gardener who was in the process of cutting things down.  A group of Montauk daisies in the late stages of bloom had a group of pollinators actively flying around  - bees, she said.  I love showing people the difference between flies, which they were, and bees because they are usually so amazed that an insect could look so much like a bee but is really a fly!  But, there was one solitary bumblebee amidst all the drone flies, clinging to one of the mostly-spent daisies.  I think they finally run out of gas and spend their last hours resting on the petals of a flower.  Could this bee have been the last native bee I see until next spring?

Here are the latest yet of fall native bee sightings:
Native bee on Helenium

Bumblebee curled up on Dahlia

Monday, October 24, 2011

No Holds Barred

Flowery landscape of October 23 - with butterfly.... and bees

On Sunday, the early morning sun was warm, and the temperature and windless condition made it seem more like early September than late October.  We released two of our captive-raised Monarchs into the landscape of yet-blooming flowers that were attracting bees at a great rate.  In fact, some of the plants I had never seen with pollinators on them until now!  Most of them, including dahlias, nearly at peak - AT PEAK! - have never been very popular with the bee set.  But today they were, along with mixed-breed nicotianas, purple ageratums, pinwheel striped marigolds, white cosmos, the ever-attractive Verbena B.(bonariensis), red and gold Gaillardias, corn marigolds, various colors of zinnias, and 'Prairie Sun' rudbeckias. Also blooming but without visitors during my observation were Mexican sunflower, the monarch plant - Asclepias curassavica, Salvia uliginosa, several David Austin roses, 'Tangerine Gem' marigolds and... and...I can't remember any more.  The garden, needless to say, was spectacular for the dates, and a-buzz with bees and more butterflies than I ever saw at the same time during the summer!  If music had been playing, it would have been full and sonorous with a memorable melody.  How could I not relate it to our release of the butterflies and that all nature concurred that it was a happy event?

Here are some photos of pollinators on the blooms of the day, including one of, well, you'll see!

Unknown tiny native bee on corn marigold

Bumblebee on Gaillardia

Honey bee on ageratum

Bumblebee aiming for Nicotiana mutabilis  hybrid

Queen bumblebee on Nicotiana

Bumblebee on dahlia

Here is a bee look-alike, a flower or hover fly, feeding on a corn marigold:

Feeding fly

But if there were stars of the day, it had to have been the released Monarchs, one of which started feeding immediately upon release.  

Monarch female on Verbena bonariensis

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Meddling with Monarchs

On October 6, just prior to a predicted frost, I found three large monarch larvae feeding on an annual milkweed plant in my garden.  I had planted Asclepias curassavica, known by various common names such as silkweed or blood flower and for its reputation as a good provider of pollen and nectar, to attract bees.  Of course!  But could this be an unintended consequence?  I brought the caterpillars inside on some sprigs of the plant.  On October 7, the day of a predicted freeze, I found three more and brought them inside also.  They made a lovely living centerpiece on my dining room table, and I made a few photos.....ok. More than a few.  Here are two.....

Two monarch larvae grazing on flowers of Asclepias curassavica.
Monarch larva eating seed capsule of milkweed plant.

On October 8, my husband and I left for a long weekend.  Just before we left, I found one of the larvae floating in the water that was sustaining the milkweed fronds.  Luckily, the unfortunate tumble hadn't happened too long before I found the critter because after a bit of a paper toweling off, complete with a few body pumpings a la CPR,  the caterpillar started moving.  Back to the flowers it went.  Coming home on Monday, October 10, we found some surprises, as our dog/house sitter wrote in a note.  Five of the caterpillars, including the one that had been swimming,  had formed chrysalises, but two of them had wandered off their floral arrangements to dangle off the edge of the table.  Here they are:                                                                                             
Two chrysalises hanging from the table edge.  Notice the fine web that attaches the pupa to the table. 

The sixth caterpillar was in chrysalis on Tuesday morning.  Chrysalises are beautiful, jade green and jewel-like with delicate golden details.  Every morning I checked on them.  It didn't take long to start to see some wing elements such as veins through the skin of the pupa.  This morning, October 20, two of the chrysalises had lost their green coloration and the distinctive orange and black markings of the butterflies were visible through the now- transparent casing.  It looked like this:

Chrysalis skin has become transparent.  You can still see the gold necklace on the left.

Throughout the morning, I  monitored the pupa.  My camera was set up and ready and I made photos with and without flash.   In the early afternoon, even while someone was visiting me here, I interrupted our conversation repeatedly  to check on the progress and suddenly noticed that the back of the chrysalis had split!  And as we watched, the butterfly began to emerge, or, in proper entomology speech, eclose.  Not to keep you in suspense, here is the sequence of photos I was able to get of the emerging: 

This happened in just about the amount of time it takes to look at the photos!  Then the unfolding of the wings took much longer, with the butterfly twisting and swinging on the empty shell of its chrysalis.  In the above photos, note its proboscis all awhirl, and its very bulbous abdomen.  In a while, it jettisoned quite a bit of liquid, the waste product of its miraculous metamorphosis, now on the floor.  

Here are two more photos of wing-drying:  

And one more photograph before I put the butterfly in a temporary enclosure with his newly emerged sibling.  There seems to be a spot on the hind wing just visible in this photograph that is the telltale mark of a male.  Also visible is the yet-remaining chrysalis on the table edge.

If there is more, the butterflies alone will know.  But there is a prequel.  I made the following photograph on September 19.  The adult Monarch is on the same group of flowers where I found the larvae a little more than two weeks later.  Could they be her offspring?  And if so, was there something about this yet-blooming, non-native milkweed that inspired the butterfly to breed at the late date?  Did she then migrate?  Otherwise, why did she lay the eggs instead of migrating?  I will try to find out whether this plant selected for bees somehow meddled with the Monarchs, well, like I did too.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Bee B and B

At the edge of light tonight I was preparing an area to plant a new shrub and wandered by chance by a sunflower.  I peeked into its slightly downturned head to find a surprise - four bumblebees that seeming to be resting. I ran for my camera and flash, thinking to myself that this truly was a bee bed and breakfast, offering a safe overnight haven plus the ready availability of a morning repast.  When I got everything set up and focused on the few square inches that comprised the scene, however, I could see that the bees were not "asleep" at all but rather roaming slowly around the middle of the flower.  So rather than a bed and breakfast,  it was a more like a late snack and lounge, a hostlery with kitchen privileges.     I hope I remember to go out later with a flash light to see if they are still grazing.  

So, this is what bees do if they don't have a hive to huddle in overnight....I am wondering if they are all male bees....In the close-up you can see how they are dusted with the pollen grains....

Bumblebees grazing in center of sunflower

Dusted with pollen