Gardening in the Face of Change

I know it seems like I have Bumble Bees on the brain, but I just read a very cool email from the Xerces Society and want to share it with you.

Their “Gardening in the Face of Change” message is a clarion call to anyone who has a patch of grass or a planter: Help bring back the pollinators. Habitat fragmentation – i.e. more lawn than garden and more house than lawn – could be a factor that drives many species to extinction in the next 30 years. Lord knows the last 30 years have been disastrous for creatures like the beautiful Yellow-banded Bumble Bee and the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee. The next 30 could see them disappear forever unless we do something about it. And yes, we CAN do something about it.
Bring back pollinators
Xerces’ Matthew Shepherd says the rest much better than I can.

“The Xerces Society’s Bring Back the Pollinators campaign promotes four principles that can be adapted to any location – grow flowers, provide nest sites, avoid pesticides, and share the word. Fill a window box with flowers. Add planters to a deck. Create a colorful garden border. Mix flowers with the vegetables in a community garden. Enhance the grounds of a school or church. You can do this is a city park, golf course, corporate or university campus, or farm.

Insect habitat doesn’t need to be big, but it should offer a mix of nectar-rich flowers and be free of insecticides. The importance of flower choice was underscored during a recent visit to a large show garden. There were acres of gardens but butterflies and bees were limited to a very few plants. Woodland skippers loved the Pacific aster, as did a variety of bees and flies. Bumble bees were happy on purple coneflower, English lavender, and catnip. Black-eye susans and sneezeweed were humming with all sorts of bees. In between, the brightly coloured bedding plants and flower-less shrubs were quiet, devoid of interest for passing bees.”

I know, I know. Bumblebees on the brain. And gardening. I hope it’s contagious.

A few suggestions for the pollinator garden: Mountain Mint, Golden Alexanders, and Rattlesnake Master

A friend of mind is experimenting with native plants in her perennial beds and is doing research on how well they perform as host plants for caterpillars and as nectar and pollen sources for pollinators. She claims that the hands-down winner in her garden is Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), a beautifully scented native with delicate blooms that is an attractive garden specimen in its own right.

My personal favourite is Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), a plant that I became aware of after seeing it in her garden. It’s attractive and is a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies – what’s not to love?

Eryngium agavifolium
Eryngium agavifolium

Eryngium has a lot of drawing power for pollinators. Although not native to Ontario, I can vouch for Eryngium agavifolium, also known as Agave-leaved Sea Holly. I worked at Lost Horizons last summer and it was by far the most popular plant in the nursery for bumblebees. It is also a very striking architectural plant for design purposes, though a bit spiky to handle. A close second were some vibrant rose-coloured nativars of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); bumblebees would invariably cling and hitch a ride rather than abandon ship when customers brought pots to the cash counter.

Check out more examples of native plants for the garden in this great article by Benjamin Vogt:

15 Native Flowers That Feed Native Bees
These perennials offer superfood to hundreds of bees and are gorgeous in their own right

Bees gettin’ it on…

One of the reasons that orchids are so interesting is that they have some pretty interesting strategies for getting themselves pollinated, including playing some neat head games with bugs.

In Europe, there is a species of orchid growing wild that is called ophrys, and it uses a pretty heartless technique to attract pollinators — a technique designed to waste the time of love-lorn wasps and bees: Pseudo-Copulation. These flowers are the ultimate sexual cheats of the floral kingdom.

Each species of ophrys woos a particular variety of bug, using pheromones and a bloom that looks remarkably like a hot little female. Eager and wily, the blooms come out at the same time that the males emerge in the spring, just before the females. The males do their rutting thing, and end up with pollen sacs stuck to their bodies — at which point they figure out that they’ve been duped and fly off in a huff. Not even a snack of nectar for their troubles.

Being males, hormones cancel out all rational behaviour. The next time they come across a fancy little ophrys waving its bloom in the air, it’s party time all over again. Thank you very much, the now-pollinated ophrys says to the bug, don’t forget to close the door on your way out.

The funny thing is, some of the young and more inexperienced bees come to prefer the easy company of flowers than females of their own kind. It takes a seasoned and wise old bug to choose a real woman.

Check out Gunther’s site for more cool pictures and information:

Bamboozled Bees
Hornswoggled Wasps

I watched a bumblebee the other day….

…and was enthralled because it was the first big bumble I’ve actually seen on the deck. It was interesting to watch it as it checked bloom after bloom, dipping in to some to sip nectar, rejecting others after a quick hesitation and hover. I was struck by the fact that it showed absolutely no interest in the dinner-plate sized blooms of the hibiscus moscheus, surely a triple super-sized pizza from a bug’s perspective. The bee ignored the cascade of white petunias over the railing, and even the profusion of jewel-coloured nasturtiums spilling over the deck. It even ignored the flashy pink and white Martha Washington geranium positioned right in its field of vision. The bumblebee’s entire attention was focused on the small, insignificant-looking flowers on the herbs: mint, oregano, catnip, and basil.

Ordinarily I snip the flowers off of the herbs, thinking that perhaps the leaves will lose their pungent flavour once the plant goes to seed. But seeing this fat bumblebee value most highly the least of the blooms on my deck, I was glad I had let this particular chore slip. He reminded me that it’s easy to miss the true beauty and worth of small, decidedly humble things, unless you take the time to see the world through a different set of eyes once in a while.