Bumblebees Love Purple

Why Do Bees Have a Favorite Color?

by Sandy Swegel

 

I visited one of my favorite suburban lawn alternative gardens yesterday.  It’s a true pollinator’s heaven of nectar and pollen, right on a neighborhood street. Full of perennial gaillardia and rudbeckia, and reseeding annual larkspur, cleome and sunflower, the garden uses about the same amount of water as your average lawn.

Bees were everywhere.  Neighbors stop by in wonder at what can be done with a front yard instead of plain old grass.  In the median strips in front of the flowers, kales and lettuces produced greens for the neighbors. This time of year, gaillardia and rudbeckia are dominant with their yellows, oranges and reds.  But something different this year was a plethora of purple larkspur.  Curious, I  asked community urban farmers Scott and Wendy about the variation.  They and the landowner are all careful gardeners, unlikely to throw in something different without a reason.  Scott explained matter-of-factly, “Well it’s for the bumblebees. They prefer purple.”  I was skeptical since I see bumblebees all day on different colored flowers.  He assured me they had watched the field the last couple of years. The bumblebees always went for the purple flowers.  And walking on the path, huge fat bumblebees were on the purple larkspur, gorging away.

 

I couldn’t resist a little more research and sure enough, studies in Germany showed that baby bumblebees love purple flowers. Purple flowers are thought to contain more nectar than other colors and that baby bumblebees who chose purple flowers had a better chance of survival…they then passed the purple preference onto their offspring.

I’m not sure what most piqued my curiosity this day…I loved learning that bumblebees like purple flowers best.  But I think I was more intrigued by Wendy and Scott just noticing all season that the bumblebees liked one particular color.  In the end, though, I’m most impressed with the bumblebees who somehow got the humans to plant their favorite food.  Very clever bees.

Photo credits:
http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/21/bees-can-sense-the-electric-fields-of-flowers/

 

Make Your Own Mud Puddle

How To Attract More Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

I’m always in search of how to do things more easily and efficiently in the garden. Once again today I was at the garden center eavesdropping and heard a typical customer question: ”What should I plant to get pollinators to my yard?” The answer the garden center owner gave surprised me.  I was expecting a list of bright colorful flowers that were good sources of nectar and some host-specific plants for butterflies. Instead, I heard the best and simplest answer to this common question: “There are lots of good plants to use,  but the most important thing you can do is provide a good source of water.” He then elaborated that it couldn’t just be a birdbath or water fountain…it needed to be shallow and ideally have the minerals pollinators crave.

So the quick and easy way to get LOTS of pollinators to your yard is to make mud puddles.  Or if you’re a bit tidier, a water sand bath.

Any way to get small puddles of water will work. You’ve seen this when flying insects gather around a dripping spigot, or when there’s a ledge in your water feature that water flows slowly over. In nature, pollinators gather along the edges of streams and lakes.

To mimic nature, take a plant saucer and fill it half with sand and fill with water to just over the sand.  The sand is the source of minerals and gives an easy surface to rest upon.  Bees especially will drown in deeper water.  To make it extra nice, sprinkle compost over the sand to add extra nutrients.  If you’re out in the country, a nice flat cow patty will do the trick…Put it in a big round plant saucer and add water.

If you’re in a very dry climate like me, the water evaporates much too quickly in hot weather.  The customer I was eavesdropping on at the garden center had a burst of inspiration: “I’ll put one of my drip lines in it so when I water the plants, the “puddle” will get water.”

A less elegant solution is to take a one-gallon water bottle and put a pinhole in the bottom and place it on some bare soil. Fill the bottle and water will drip out slowly keeping a mud puddle going.

I’ve put out an attractive saucer with sand, and a water bottle over bare dirt to see which works better. So far, the plain wet dirt is winning when they’ve got a choice. Now, why do I suspect they’d probably like the wet cow patty the best.

 

 

Pollinator mixes

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower seed mixes

Buzz Pollination

An Important Part of Pollination

by Sandy Swegel

We love pollinators at BBB Seed and we keep learning how many kinds of pollinators there are beside honeybees.  There are all the native bees and the moths and the flies.  Yesterday’s comely pollinator in my garden rounds was a giant bumblebee that was rather drunkenly going from iris to iris.  A bumblebee can be very big and noisy.  I could hear its buzz from several feet away. It was a delightful way to be digging weeds on a sunny day.

I wondered about the loud buzz and big hairy size of the bumblebee.  A little Googling later and sure enough, the buzzing is an important part of the pollination. I love how this bee pollinates. It has its own kind of pollination: buzz pollination.

The bumblebee flies up to the flower and literally grabs onto the flower tubule and starts to vibrate up to 1000 times a minute.  All that vibration makes the loud buzz.

Botanist Mario Vallejo-Marín wrote in a fancy scientific journal about buzz pollination: “The bumblebee has to hold on because the vibrations are so strong that otherwise, it could come flying off the flower.”

Wow.  Just to make the process even more dramatic, the bumblebee maximizes its pollen pickup by using its hairy body to create static electricity as it flies. As soon as that bumblebee hits the pollen, say hello to static cling.

Bumblebees remind me of Tim Allen’s old TV show Home Improvement.  Tim always wanted “More Power” when working in his shop.  The bumblebee has “more power”! Its little motor generates a powerful electrostatic field.  Then its bee vibrating motor sends pollen flying everywhere which effortlessly clings to its hairy body like Velcro.

Gotta love how clever nature is.

Photo Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bumblebee

A Wild Thicket

Keeping a Little Wild in Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

When it comes to our gardens, we Americans are of a divided heart. Deep in our ancestral memories are the manicured gardens of Europe.  We swoon over the groomed roses and delphiniums of England, We admire the orderliness of rows of Tuscan poplars. We see the almost mathematical grid of Versailles echoed in Jefferson’s Monticello. We use raised beds to confine our vegetables just as the medieval cloister gardens were enclosed.

 

 At the same time, we Americans are a frontier people, dazzled by the wildness and grandeur of raw untamed nature.  Grassy plains and dense woodlands and mountains majesty tug at our hearts even as we tend our suburban plots.

 

To fill the needs of our wild nature souls, I think it’s always good to have a wild area in our yard. One that manages to thrive only on what nature provides and provides a haven for small wildlife.  Generally, there is some place in your yard that already refuses to be tamed. Someplace wild plums keep sprouting and sumacs come unbidden.   This is the area to encourage in your yard – your secret garden, if you’d like – or just the area you see from your kitchen window reminding you that beneath the dishes and chores and children and jobs, you have a wild spirit too.

My favorite thicket started with the wild plums that kept coming back. Over time, a couple of chokecherries worked their way in, and the patch of lemon balm appeared all on its own.  Birds planted wild roses. Squirrels brought in nuts. I decided to play along with nature and seeded an unruly pollinators’ hedge filled with the nectar and pollen-rich flowering plants that bees and butterflies crave. I let the wild queen anne’s lace have some space in the back and I didn’t pull the dandelions. I did plant one of those tall dark purple butterfly bushes for structure and I seeded a buffer zone of grasses and wildflowers to create a neutral zone of sorts between “The Lawn” and “The Thicket.” 

 I don’t really “garden” the thicket but over time I’ve planted some naturalizing crocus and daffodils and a handful of seeds a decade ago that keep the spring display stunning.  About the only care I give the area is water during really dry spells and a birdbath of water because butterflies and birds and bees need something to drink.

 I am proudest of my tended garden…the showy beds of vegetables and annual flowers, the elegant stretches of roses and flowering shrubs and tulips in Spring. But deep down, it is my thicket that I love the most.

Bring More Color to Your Wild Areas

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

At this time of year when we’re mired in cold and snow, I yearn for two delights of Spring:  when the daffodils and tulips bloom and when the meadows burst with wildflowers.  One thing about wildflowers though, especially in our suburban gardens.  A few years after planting it seems that just a few wildflowers start to dominate.  Often it’s the bachelor buttons and California poppies, both beautiful flowers, but we need diversity and variety and wild color to really shake winter off.

The secret to a lush wildflower area (besides good rainfall) is to over-seed the area every once in a while with some of your favorite flowers.  I usually take the easy way and just throw out a packet of our mixed wildflower seeds to get an overall refreshing of the original mix I planted years ago.  But for one friend who has created a “hot colors” theme of red and orange in her garden, we throw out packets of red wildflowers.  This year we just did a search for Flowers by Color and picked out the flowers we liked with the truest red colors.  We settled on red columbines for Spring, red firecracker penstemons for early summer and red gaillardia for mid-summer.

Finally, my absolute favorite reseeding in the Spring is to seed the Parade of Poppies mix.  There just are never enough poppies of any sort in my mind.  This year I’ve slipped a seed packet in my coat pocket for some guerilla gardening during my sunny day walks along old abandoned properties and ditches that grows lots of weeds.  Poppies will brighten my path this year!

This year I’m also going to try taking a baggie full of our new StrawNet (pellets of straw) when I do my wild area guerilla gardening.  The biggest problem with just throwing seeds out onto abandoned land is that I can’t water them every day.  StrawNet absorbs water and helps create a little moist barrier for new seeds so I expect it to help more seedlings survive even if we have a dry Spring.  Sometimes nature needs a little help to be as beautiful as she can be.

Photo Credit: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/columbines/images/aschockleyi/aquilegia_schockleyi_habitat_katewalker_lg.jpg

How to get your Neighbors and Friends Interested in Pollinators

Saving the Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to get your neighbors and friends interested in pollinators too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?

I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.

It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids

Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff.

It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes

Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others

Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Taking Care of the Bees and other Creatures this Fall

Planting Flowers for the Bees

What’s your favorite flower this year?  That’s the question our local gardening magazine posed to its readers this issue.  Many candidates came to mind, but I realized my criteria in Fall for a good flower is one that blooms late to feed the bees and other pollinators that are still around scrambling for nectar and pollen to sustain them or their babies through winter.

So my favorite flowers right now include the dandelions that have responded to our recent rains with a bloom worthy of Spring.  Every time I see a dandelion now, I don’t respond with a desire to pull it, but with a word of encouragement because it’s not a weed when it has a happy bee gorging in the middle of the flower.

Other favorites that are feeding bees and other creatures:

Cosmos are tough annuals, and still blooming despite some frosty weather.
Scabiosa has won my garden awards for several years for being the last flower blooming in November.  It’s one flower I keep deadheading instead of leaving the seed because I know it makes new flowers as long as it can.
Violas and Pansies planted now will make flowers to please me and the bees during warm spells this winter.

As always, there is one really important thing pollinators and especially bees need in Fall:

WATER.  At my house, the seasonal ditch dried up in August, and standing water is rare in our arid climate.  I keep water in the birdbath and in the flat little saucer with pebbles for the bees.  I notice signs that other bigger creatures like the squirrels and rabbits and field mice sneak water when I’m not watching from the bird bath top that I left sitting on the ground. I got pretty angry with the ravenous rabbit over-population this year, but when I see one lonely bunny hunkered down in the dry leaves under the trees, I can’t help but leave water out for her.  I know I’ll be rewarded with hungry baby bunnies in the Spring, but as the cold winds of Fall send chills through the gardener, my heart goes out to all the creatures who live outdoors during the long winter season.

Squash Bees

Checkout These Wild Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

My friend and local pollinator expert Niki fretted greatly this Spring because there weren’t any bees in her yard.  She grows her native plants and large vegetable gardens in her yard that is surrounded by typical perfect looking suburban lawns. Despite her pleas with neighbors, they maintain suburban perfection by pouring pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on their lawns, and over time, the bee count in her yard has dropped precipitously.

But there was no fretting during a recent tour of her garden.  There were still very few honeybees but the garden was abuzz with many native bees and native fly pollinators.

Niki eagerly led us over to her huge squash patch.  She did the usual humble gardener thing of apologizing for her garden and how poorly the plants were doing.  Naturally, her plants were double the size of anything in our yards. We walked right into the squash bed as she gently lifted a giant leaf so we could see…a “Squash Bee.”  With great animation, she described how one bee comes early in the morning and throws itself completely over the pollen…and then proceeds to eat all day long.  This bee seems oblivious to us and looked like it was lounging in its own little opium den, covered in pollen and eating as much as it could. Niki lowered her voice and said, “Sometimes there are two bees.”  The male comes first and then is joined by a female…and the two of them spend the day in a frenzy of mating and eating, mating and eating (she watched). Once they finish one blossom, they moved to the next one.

There are two genera of native squash bees, Peponapis and Xenoglossa, and they are specialist bees. Cucurbits are all they pollinate.  And they are very resourceful and start pollinating earlier in the morning before the honey bees are even awake.  So take a look under your leaves one morning and peer deep into squash blossoms.  In areas with healthy squash bee populations, there can be as many as one bee per every five blossoms.  Another marvel of the natural world….hidden in plain view before us.

Of course, while you are peeking under giant squash leaves, don’t forget to look for that pest of the squash kingdom…the squash bug…and pick it off and throw it away.

The International squash bee survey: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=16595