A Pest you Can’t Help but Love

Love For the Hornworm

by Sandy Swegel

Yesterday was a bright sunny day and pollinators were out gorging on the nectar of asters. It’s been a good year for asters, those vigorous re-seeders.  Besides honey bees and some native bees, there were at least seven hummingbird sphinx moths in a small garden area. Their very long proboscis lets them eat from many kinds of flowers and carry pollen about.  I was watching them while scooping up ten inches of topsoil that flood waters had moved about 15 feet away from the raised tomato bed.  So I was scooping the soil up and putting it back.  Easy enough.  In one shovel there was an enormous mud-covered caterpillar squirming.  Slowly I realized that underneath all that mud there was a bright green tomato hornworm and my gut reaction was to kill it right away so I could save my tomatoes.

Fortunately I also immediately thought about the hummingbird moths I had just been admiring. My brain cells reminded me the hummingbird moth and the tomato hornworm are one and the same creature.  How can I both love and hate one creature?  I also found myself filled with compassion for the hornworm because we had earlier pulled and thrown away all tomato plants. Between the ecoli the flood waters carried, the fungus growing on the leaves from too much water, and the forecast of 34 degrees tonight, there was no good reason to keep tomato plants.  So no more food for the hornworm.  Poor hornworm….flood and famine.  He was really big and fat so I hoped he had enough calories to pupate and I threw him on the pile of mud and dead tomato debris that was going to the landfill and wished him well.

Next year I just have to remind myself to plant enough tomatoes so one or two hornworms can grow up into the beautiful hummingbird sphinx moths that pollinate my flowers.

Photo Credit http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-07/lifestyle/41153436_1_light-tomato-darkhttp://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/

Going the Extra Mile for Pollinators

Saving the Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You know the basics for saving bees and other pollinators:

- Create a native plant wildflower habitat that provides season-long sources of pollen and nectar.

 – Provide a water source if a natural one is not available.

 – Stop your own use of pesticides that affect bees.

Just doing those three things will do a lot to invite pollinators to your yard and give them safe harbor.

This week, I’ll be posting about people and organizations who do even more…who go the extra mile for pollinators, sometimes with the simplest measures.

Winter Feeding Pollen Patties My neighbor Kathy has kept bees and for many years on a large suburban lot and like many beekeepers has endured the increased death of hives in recent years.  Going into this winter, she was very pessimistic about one of her hives that had almost no honey stores.  Since she had lost healthy hives in the past, she wasn’t too hopeful about a weak hive.  However, she found a new product for feeding bees in winter….rather than just putting out sugar water, she fed her bees Winter Pollen Patties. She used a product by Dadent and simply put the flat sheets of pollen substitute right on top of the bees.  When this Spring turned into a disaster for pollinators (multiple late freezes meant no spring blossoms on trees, a significant source of food for bees and other pollinators), Kathy continues to put the pollen patties in her hives.  Both hives are thriving the best she has seen in years.  And both hives are making babies.

It wasn’t a lot of work to go the extra mile of feeding bees in winter.  You have to learn to think about beekeeping from a bee’s perspective:  What does the bee need to eat?  The protein of pollen, not just sugar.  Just like humans can’t survive on soda.

Once you get your pollinator habitat growing, start thinking about what the next extra mile is you can do for pollinators in your garden.  Perhaps it’s nesting sites for wild bees. Perhaps it’s educating a neighbor about pesticides.  Let’s share our knowledge about what are the extra things that make a difference.

For more info on scientific methods for feeding bees in winter, check out “Scientific Beekeeping” http://scientificbeekeeping.com/fat-bees-part-2/

For a video on how to feed pollen patties:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBZCL33fNHY

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.

Bugs are Our Friends

Getting Along with Your Garden Guests

by Sandy Swegel

“Stop! Spiders are Our Friends” is the phrase I’ve been shouting lately.  A young teenage house guest has been alarmed at the wolf spiders (big but harmless to us) that seem to make their way into our bathtub.  I’ve been in another room in the house and heard a high-pitched squeal and a quick fumbling around for a weapon of destruction such as a shoe.  My house guest can’t help it…she’s grown up in a city condo and isn’t used to the wild ways of my semi-rural house. I’m happy she hasn’t noticed the cricket who happily lives beneath the steps by the water faucet.

Spiders and all kinds of bugs are our friends.  Not everyone of course, and I’m not suggesting you invite black widows spiders to live with you.  But I cringe when I am in public places and notice people enthusiastically killing bugs and spiders because they think they are bad.  Ants, in particular, seem to be the target of children who stomp on each one with glee.  Nearby adults usually take no notice because they think of crawly things as something to be destroyed.  The shelf space at the local hardware store devoted to weedkiller is matched only by the shelf space of bug killer.  Here at BBB Seed, we educate people a lot about pollinators and we’re especially protective about bees. But we also respect the other lesser known pollinators like flies and ants.  When we respond to crawly things as creepy and something to be feared and killed, we actually hurt the environment by disturbing the natural balance of insect life and the many creatures that work hard to pollinate our plants or eat the bad bugs.

One of my top garden rules…don’t pull any weed if you don’t know its name…applies to the insect world as well.  Don’t kill any bugs if you don’t know their name and what purpose they serve in your little ecosystem.

This doesn’t mean I think your house has to be crawling with bugs.  Just as the garden has designated “no weeds here “zones,” I think you can declare the house a “bug-free” zone. But the world around you doesn’t have to be bug-free.  And you can teach your friends and your kids the difference.  If you are killing an insect (more often I catch them with a glass and put them outside…it’s easier than cleaning smooshed bug), act with a clear purpose to remove it from your home not because all bugs are evil.

My rule for bugs is that they have to respect my space and play well with others.  No flies or ants in my kitchen, but ants and native flies outdoors are great pollinators.  A few aphids, or even a cabbage worm or two are fine in the garden because the predators usually come to eat them. But if the plants start suffering, the insects lose their right to stay. Aside from a few miscreants, most of the time the garden world is a zoo of beneficial insects.

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