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A Master Pollinator in Action

4 Sep

The phrase “busy as a bee” came about for a reason. Bees never seem to stop. And we are all better off because of their tireless search for nectar, which makes them prime pollinators. This weekend, I watched one bee as it attempted to get into each flower on our two, tall Rose of Sharon plants. That’s a lot of flowers to visit. But according to my trusty Botany for Gardeners, a bee’s habit of flying back and forth between flowers of the same species is what leads to successful pollination. That, and a few incentives. First, there’s the nectar, usually found at the base of a flower — meaning the bee has to brush past the flower’s reproductive organs to reach the jackpot. Then, to make it easier for the bee (or any other pollinator) to get to the nectar, many flowers have nectar guides–markings that say “this way to the good stuff.” Those guides can be stripes, patterns, dots, or heightened color, etc.

In the photos below, a bee is lured inside a Rose of Sharon flower by the darker red stripes on each petal and the darker red inner circle that forms when all the petals come together at the base of the flower. The bee is already carrying pollen from the other Rose of Sharon flowers it has visited. It then burrows down to the base of the flower to reach the nectar — and in the process drops off some of the pollen it is carrying and picks up a bit more. Then, it heads up and out — off to pollinate the next flower.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Carefree

16 Aug

This photo, taken furtively with my phone, is not a great one. But it is the embodiment of “carefree”: Schnauzer 1 and Schnauzer 2, sleeping on their backs with legs in the air, dreaming of balls to catch and toys to chew, of doorbells to bark at and houses to defend, of future meals and loved ones coming home at the end of the day, and–best of all–dreaming of many a memorable squirrel chase through all the flower beds in the yard.

Garden Pests: Meeting a Soapy End

5 Jul

Turns out, while we were busy laying a patio and admiring our zucchini crop, certain nefarious activities were taking place in the garden. I must be a bit slow on the uptake, because I only noticed a day or so ago that many of the large leaves on our exploding Hibiscus (Kopper King) were being eaten into oblivion. Upon closer inspection (and these days, I have to get quite close to see anything that small), I noticed tiny green caterpillars happily chomping away.

The green “caterpillars” are actually the larvae of the Hibiscus Sawfly (Atomacera decepta). The adult female Sawfly very kindly lays eggs on the leaves, viewing them as a great source of food for the next generation. And those larvae sure know how to eat–they pick the leaf clean. How they can eat that much leaf without falling into the void is beyond me, but I am certainly not going to waste any time worrying about them. I also have bigger bugs to battle. Here is a Japanese Beetle on a Rose of Sharon leaf. Clearly, both pests have similar tastes, though in this case I cannot appreciate their discerning palates.

What to do? Battle Tactic #1: Put on the garden gloves and flick the larvae and beetles into a bowl of soapy water. I positioned the bowl under each Hibiscus leaf where larvae were visible, and pushed them straight in. I lost count of how many larvae met their fate this way, but I only came across one Japanese Beetle–on the Hibiscus, not the Rose of Sharon.  The two Rose of Sharon plants looked suspiciously pest free early this morning; will have to check up on them later.

This skirmish goes to me–but I came in a bit late in the game, so the victor of the battle itself remains to be seen.

Postcard from Senegal, Part II

2 Jun

After a week of meetings in Dakar, we had a nice opportunity to get out of the capital city and go on a field trip: first to a farming cooperative east of Dakar and then south to the Bandia Wildlife Reserve. It was lovely to be able to see a bit of the countryside.

The area around the farm and the reserve (and in fact, a large part of Senegal) is savannah. The landscape is dotted with the famous baobab trees, which store water in their trunks and can live for thousands of years:

… and also with acacias (new foliage, left; old vine creeping around acacia trunk, right).

On the farm, okra plants were in bloom. I had never thought about okra flowers before (which shows that I have never grown okra)–but I now know that okra flowers are quite lovely–as are the pom-pom like flowers of the Acacia robusta trees lining some of the farm’s roads.
We did not make it to the Wildlife Reserve until the afternoon, when most animals would normally be taking a siesta in a shady spot, but we were lucky to see monkeys, antelope, warthogs, ostriches, zebras, rhinos (from a suitably safe distance), and giraffes.

A Bird’s-Eye View

4 Nov

We were very lucky in that we emerged relatively unscathed from Hurricane Sandy. Heartfelt thoughts to all those who are still coping with the aftermath, especially in Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, New York, and New Jersey.

One small bright spot, at least in our area, is that after the rains came the birds. They were everywhere after the hurricane, flapping their wings, puffing up their feathers, and trying to dry out. But birds like water, so it was a cheerful exercise. As they hopped, skipped, and flew here and there looking for worms, berries, and seeds, they were an optimistic sight.

There were cardinals, finches, mourning doves, nuthatches, robins, sparrows, woodpeckers, and a tiny grey/yellow bird I hadn’t seen before: a Goldcrest, who hopped on shrubs to get the seeds that had fallen from the bird feeders above. There were other birds, too, whose names I do not yet know. I consider it a significant step that I can now recognize a sparrow well enough to deduce that it must be either a House Sparrow or Field Sparrow–beyond that, they are all brown/grey and fluffy to me. But known or unknown, the avian visitors to our yard are a joy to watch.

Female Cardinal                                               Male Cardinal

Goldcrest                                              Sparrow (House or…Field or…?)



28 Oct

This autumn, I’ve seen numerous immobile bumblebees hanging upside down on flowers in the garden. At first I thought they were dead, or perhaps sick. But now I know they are male bumblebees, recuperating from all the wining and dining they do–ie, drinking nectar and trying to get lucky with new queen bees.



Once a male bumblebee leaves the colony, it doesn’t usually go back. It must feed itself and find somewhere to sleep–either in or on a flower. My garden doesn’t have too many big flowers left to crawl into, so the bees latch on to the smaller flowers (in the photos above: gaillardia, lavender, basil, and hyssop) and let gravity do its work. Because the body temperature of a bee matches its surroundings when it is at rest, it quickly becomes immobile in colder weather and has to wait for more sun to warm up again. It can also re-energize by drinking more nectar, but that is somewhat difficult to do when comatose. Luckily, bees warm up fairly quickly. That is a good thing since a male bumblebee’s #1 job is reproduction, and the chase requires lots of energy.

But what is the reward for all the male’s effort? Not much. Most male bumblebees don’t ever get a chance to mate, since it’s a very competitive world out there. And even if they do manage it, the one who benefits is the new queen. Once she has mated, she tucks in for the winter and hibernates underground, awaiting the moment next spring when she can start her own colony. The males (and the rest of the bees: the old queens, worker bees, etc.) do not survive the winter.

A Flock of Starlings

8 Oct

I was in the living room this afternoon when a spectacular dark wave passed by the window with a whooshing noise. I looked out and an enormous flock of birds was conducting an aerial ballet, swooping gracefully between our yard and our neighbors’, landing momentarily to search through the grass on each side for insects. They were a sight (and sound) to behold.

I grabbed my camera.  But I have a big problem when it comes to animal photography. Actually, I have two big problems: Schnauzer 1 and Schnauzer 2. As soon as they see me pick up the camera, they erupt in a cacophony of barking and make their way to the back door at full speed, sliding across the hardwood floors, scrambling frantically for purchase, and crashing into each other in a frenzy of anticipation. Why? Because somehow, they have come to associate the camera with good things to chase outside. I don’t know why–only a small fraction of the photos I take are of animals. But there you have it. All I have to do is pick up the camera, and the dogs will promptly bowl over anything in their wake–so desperate are they to go after my photographic prey.  This is a minor annoyance when I am planning to take a picture of salad indoors. When I actually do want to take a picture of animals outside, I have to resort to various levels of subterfuge.

But today, there was no time. I managed to get one not-so-great photo of the birds on our grass (through the window), but it fails to adequately capture the magnitude of the scene: the flock of black/brown birds completely covered our yard.

After a little investigating, I discovered the birds were Starlings, and they are beauty in motion. A Wired blog post, The Startling Science of a Starling Murmuration, features a must-see video and describes some of the physics behind the birds’ flight patterns.  I was watching the video when, lo and behold, the starlings returned, perching on my neighbors’ roof. This time, I stealthily snuck by the dogs and made it outside before their radars went off.  I managed to get a couple more photos of the birds before they again departed, leaving silence in their wake.

Nefarious Nuthatch?

15 Aug

The Monarch caterpillars are gone. In the end, there were three in total, one plumper than the others. I am hoping that the biggest one managed to make its way to another leaf under which to pupate. But the situation looks grim for the other two. Not wanting to name any culprits, I will simply say that most birds do not eat Monarch caterpillars because the caterpillars ingest toxins from the Butterfly Weed/milkweed leaves they eat, and as a result, the caterpillars taste terrible. Thus, smart birds only make that gastronomic mistake once.

But there is a bird that likes insects for another reason: to use them as mini brooms with which to sweep the entrance to its nest cavity. That bird is called a White-Breasted Nuthatch.

Among its other eccentricities, the Nuthatch likes to hang out on trees face down.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers, but in contemplating the loss of the caterpillars, I noticed a small bird that seemed immune to the forces of gravity on the tree trunk right above the Butterfly Weed  (previously home to the caterpillars). Furthermore, it remained immobile for long stretches of time, staring straight down at the Butterfly Weed in rapt concentration.The clues were piling up.

Appearance at the scene of the crime? Check. Motive? Check. Opportunity? Check.


Conclusion (based on total conjecture): having recently swept its nest with a couple Monarch caterpillars located very conveniently under the bird feeder and tree, the Nuthatch was so pleased with its efforts that it is now looking for a few more of those excellent brooms.

Lesson: Take the caterpillars indoor next year.

Mad for Monarchs

12 Aug

Yesterday, having vowed to clean up my act (and the yard, too), I discovered that one of our Butterfly Weeds had become home to two Monarch caterpillars:


Butterfly Weed is a type of milkweed, which Monarch Butterflies love. The butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and not long afterward, a caterpillar emerges, snacking away on the leaves until it is nice and plump, whereupon it attaches itself to a nice spot, hangs upside down in a sort of J shape, and turns into the pupa from which a new butterfly emerges, completing the cycle.

Judging by their size, the two caterpillars in our yard will pupate fairly soon. I’m hoping they stay put on the Butterfly Weed, though some caterpillars wander off and undergo their metamorphosis elsewhere. If these two are happy where they are (and if predators do not get to them), I may be able to post a pupa update in the near future. I am going to let nature takes its course this time around, but if I lose track of the caterpillars, I may consider bringing the 2013 generation indoors so they can pupate in safer quarters.

In the meantime, here is another critter that loves milkweed–the Milkweed Bug. There are two types, both of which are orange and black: the Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) has a distinctive black band across its back, while the Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) has an orange X on its back. We have both, which may not be a good thing. These bugs multiply like rabbits and can denude a Butterfly Weed very quickly; right now, there are only a few of each type hanging out on our plants, but I’ll have to monitor them to make sure they don’t reach critical mass and chomp away the leaf under which a Monarch pupa might be hanging….


Summer Sloth

11 Aug

The sad fact about gardens  is that it takes work to look good. The flowers and herbs in my garden have a great deal of natural beauty, but that beauty requires maintenance — and those poor plants have only me to provide it. So, at the moment, the garden is looking a bit sorry. I am trying to figure out where to apportion the blame for this state of affairs, and have settled on 1) intense heat, 2) mosquitoes, and 3) the Olympics, combined with a houseful of vacationing children, guests, and a couple of impromptu trips. But the reality is, I have slacked off in my gardening duties due to summer sloth.

For starters, a spectacular weed has taken up residence and is now taller than I am;  I left it in place partially out of curiosity to see just how far it would go (whereupon it proved that it can outgrow anything else in the yard, even without water) — but the truth of the matter is procrastination: I assured myself I would take care of it “next time.”  However, even I acknowledge that its time is now, though it did put on an impressive display.

But that’s not all: I need to cut down spent plants, yank out the grass that is trying to creep into the flower beds, do some more preventative edging, resuscitate the latest dog-trampled plants, undertake an emergency transplant operation, and do a lot of dead-heading: roses, gaillardia, echinacea, oregano, and basil to name just a few plants in need of a trim. Here is the flowering basil–the bees love it, but if I don’t pluck off the basil flowers soon, the plant will put its energy into the flowers rather than the leaves, and there goes our pesto.

Following on this theme of neglect, our garden has become pretty quiet. Why? Because I have failed to refill the bird feeders. I am a sad friend to the local avian community. And this slump has extended to the canine members of the family as well–Shaggy Schnauzers 2 and 1, who by now must be embarrassed to be seen by other, perfectly coiffed members of their breed. So, by the end of this weekend, I hope to have made significant headway on the garden, lured the birds back, and cornered at least one of the dogs for a buzz cut.