Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Late Season Bees and Flowers

Bees and blossoms go together,  and truly they are going.  It is almost fall and the number of species of bees and flowers blooming have decreased noticibly in the past while.  I haven't noticed any, ANY, native bees in my garden excepting bumblebees for over two weeks.  On a hike up a mountain over the weekend, there was some small native bee ( type not known) collecting pollen on goldenrod, and I was cheered by seeing her even though I know she is probably doomed.  Her pollen load is most likely packed into a cell along with an egg that will develop and hatch next summer sometime.  In the meantime, non-native honeybees are frenetically collecting pollen and especially nectar from goldenrods and asters, among the latest wildflowers to bloom in Maine, and very important sources of food for the overwintering cluster in the hive.  In fact, in years when the numbers of goldenrod and aster flowers are down or during a drought and no nectar is produced, many hives are likely to starve, adding to the stresses that this important pollinator has to deal with.  This year appears to be a good one from the amount of glorious glowing goldenrod and purple-to-white asters now in fields and roadsides in the midcoast area.  And they are still blooming in my garden too!

Here are a few photos of bees on flowers still in bloom in the garden....

Bumblebee female on annual sunflower,"Zebulon."

Male bumblebee (I think) on Anise Hyssop 

Bumblebee flying with tongue extended toward Salvia hormonium blossom

Honeybee on Rudbeckia, "Prairie Sun"

How to photograph a smell

When I took the dog out a few minutes ago, it hit me.  Adrift through this warmish September night, misty almost with high humidity, is the overpowering fragrance of goldenrod honey-in-the-making, a smell only a beekeeper can appreciate.  If someone was strolling in our yard who was not familiar with  the emanations from beehives at this time of year, they might be holding their nose and wondering where a pile of stinky gym clothes was moldering, and why.  Similarly described as sweaty socks, this odor can only be called fetid and is as unpleasant as one only a locker room full of well-worked-out athletes-pre-showering might provide.  Yipes. From the smell in our yard, even at quite a distance from the hives and at night, our three honeybee hives must be filling with goldenrod nectar.

There are about 20 species of goldenrods in Maine that bloom from mid-summer into October.  Some are tall and bushy, others are short and spikey.  Some people claim that eating goldenrod honey helps decrease allergic reactions to the plant's pollen.  Another theory suggests that it is not goldenrod but rather ragweed that blooms around the same time that is the real culprit in allergy attacks. Whatever the case, since becoming a beekeeper, I have transplanted goldenrod plants around our yard and leave any that volunteer in the vegetable garden.  They do tend to be large and sprawly when growing in more fertile ground.

Being a beekeeper and having an interest in bees in general can change the way one not only chooses what plants to grow but also what to pull up as weeds !

Obviously you can't photograph a smell, but fragrance plays a role in attracting pollinators, so, the insects that visit the goldenrod are in a way evidencing the fragrance.  But only our heroine, the honeybee concentrates the nectar in her hive to such an extent that it can perfume the neighborhood!

The following photographs were made on the same day, on the same plant, showing some of the varieties of pollinators on this important plant species... goldenrod!

Wasp - yellow jacket
Unidentified native bee

Another wasp species
Yet another wasp species

Honeybee moving between blossoms

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pollinator Particulars #4: Late-season Foragers

Bumblebee on annual sunflower.  Note pollen on her leg.

Another bumblebee, possibly a male, dusty with pollen, feeding on anise hyssop flower

Megachile (leafcutter)  female bee on Mexican sunflower

Possible long-horned bee female on rudbeckia, 'Prairie Sun' . Note pollen 'pantaloons.'
Fall is not the best time to be a bee.  Unless you are a honeybee whose colony maintains a low level of activity all winter (It’s true – they do not hibernate but form a cluster around the queen and feed off the stores of honey put away during the summer. The queen actually starts laying eggs in January, in the depths of the winter.) you will die if you haven’t already.  Most bees are solitary, making nests either in the ground or in hollowed woody stems of plants such as raspberry canes.  There they lay their eggs and provide food for the developing larvae which can overwinter as adults ready to hatch out in the spring.  But it is the end for the female egg layers.  Males fare no better, lasting only to mate with the females and then to perish with the passing of summer.  Male bumblebees, for example, become more numerous only in late summer when they emerge to fertilize the newly hatched queen bumblebees that overwinter by digging down a bit in the ground.  They are the only bumblebees to live; the queen of the year along with all her offspring except the new queens do not survive into the winter.  They, alas, fall in the fall.

Unidentified wasp on Clethra

A note of practical significance here – the same is true of wasps. A hornet nest full of potentially aggressive insects dies over the winter so save the poison spray if the insects are not endangering anyone. The nest is unlikely to be reused, but if you are concerned, after the first frost, you can put a rock or other barrier in the entrance to the nest. Only a mated queen will survive and you are not likely to find her. Remember that wasps are actually beneficial insects in the role they play as predators keeping insect populations under control, and for the role they play in pollination.