Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mullein over the Smoke

Up until yesterday, we have been living in this. This is smoke which originated in several fires in our region of Oregon, along with the other fires in the states that make up the Pacific Northwest. Considering decades of fire suppression, record drought, record heat, and an increasing occurrences of thunderstorms, the perfect conditions for large intense fires is created. This is the third year in a row that we have lived in smoke, which for the past two years persisted until the Autumn rains settled it down. Thankfully, we have just had a large rainstorm which helped curb the smoke and reportedly tamed some of the fires, giving the firefighters the upper hand.

Mountains, mere miles from where I was standing
The smoke, added to the heat of Summer (it had been hovering in the mid 80's to 90's F) has made life difficult for many of the plants in my garden. Smoke and ash, it seems, has a stronger drying affect than heat alone. Many of the plants in my garden, particularly those not from hot and dry environments, were showing more stress in the smoke than they were when there was no smoke but temps were ten degrees hotter. Could aerosol ash be wicking away moisture more efficiently than evaporation could accomplish alone? (See this article: Aerosols: Tiny Particles, Big Impact)

The smoke has largely kept me inside, not taking photos, and not observing pollinators. I have noticed bees working on Agastache foeniculum and a few others. This is a bit surprising initially, but they are like us and need to eat and feed their children at all costs. I do the same!

Staying inside has given me a chance to redesign this site! I felt the previous design became a bit bland, and navigation was poor. I have added some interesting pages for you to explore should you choose to do so:
Please have a look around, and do feel free to share your thoughts or ideas about how the site could be better by using the contact form, or leave a Comment below.

Croton setigerus
So no, I am not going to leave a post without plants. I just can't do that. So here is a plant that I've always found interesting: Croton setigerus. Known alternatively as Eremocarpus setigerus (a synonym), turkey mullein, doveweed. yerba del pescado, fishweed, and drouthweed. It is an annual species native to Western North America. Wild turkeys and Mourning doves eat and potentially distribute the seeds, thus the common names. However, plants have been known to present seed di- or trimorphism, with two or three different seed colors on a single plant (grey, brownish, and speckled) leading some to determine that doves or other birds favor one color and leave the other (the grey, produced on dying plants) to remain uneaten, i, and germinate in Spring.

The plants are in the Euphorbiaceae (spurge family), and like the spurges have toxins in all tissues, except the seeds. Foliage of the plants, along with the nuts of California buckeye (Aesculus californica), were pulverized by many Native American tribes and spread on the surface of pools to stupefy fish and cause them to float to the surface where they could easily be collected. The effect would eventually wear off and caused no harm to the people when they were eaten.

Croton setigerus
The plants form neat little cushions on practically all roadsides for miles around my house, larger cushions where resources are more plentiful. I admire plants like this; I would nearly consider them to be "extremophiles" (not quite, but nearly so) because of the harshness of their chosen habitat. Roadsides bake from radiant heat, and are probably deficient in nutrients after runoff from the road washes them away (I speculate). A small but surely impactful added problem is the wind caused from cars. I speculate that the strong brief burst of air (hot air in Summer) also has a drying affect on plants on the side of the road.

Plants like this out of necessity MUST be resilient against such difficulties as a multi-faceted drying affect and other challenges. The dense hairs are the most obvious adaptation against desiccation. An advantage of growing in such a harsh habitat as a roadside is there is little competition from other plants, except themselves, which they cope with by growing at distance relative to each other (like in the photo). The "cushion" plant form serves two purposes: to reduce the affect of wind by being more or less aerodynamic, and to reduce evaporation by having vegetative parts closely grouped (less exposed surface area). Some of the plants, possibly depending on the availability of resources, do not form cushions but rather sprawling mats.

Croton setigerus
The plants are monecious, having separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers are at the top/center of the inflorescences, while the females, consisting of only an ovary and an exerted style, ring the base. They are most likely wind pollinated, but this doesn't mean insects don't visit the flowers (honeybees were speculated to work the flowers in this old publication, though doubtful I am).

So, we will all be resilient against the forces that work against our well being. Croton setigerus can survive harsh conditions; we (including you) can withstand the smoke and other adverse life conditions. Rains bring hope; the approaching Autumn brings relief and great happiness. It is at the cusp of bulb-planting season, we have another daughter on the way (yes, you read that right, yay!), and life is good. More flowers next time, I promise!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Floral Visitors 15

Echium vulgare, still a bee magnet
Gardening has been great therapy. As I engage the craft and learn from my experiences I am humbled by the lessons nature forces upon me. The natural world, however defiled and masked by my very presence as a participant in "humanity," is more powerful and godlike than we can ever hope to be. If I may be allowed to personify, Nature is as generous as anything we know, but is also a great destroyer. There is, however, comfort is knowing that there is no judgement here, Nature's acts of destruction are by no means a result of any acts of immorality or other foul behavior (unless of course the acts are the direct cause of the destruction, or are facilitative by some other means).

Sometimes it is not easy to fully wrap our heads around this. Recently, for example, a gang of wild turkeys razed a large portion of my shade garden, causing me great anguish, and initially intense rage. Frankly, I reacted poorly; and I regret my actions of the time and so shall not repeat them here in for you today. Upon reflecting on the event, I helped myself to a "reality check" and have reminded myself that in a year's time there will be no sign of the damage the small dinosaurs inflicted (yes, turkeys are dinosaurs: watch this) because I will have seeded and planted the areas again; this time with "turkey resistant" plants (unfortunately not a common piece of information on plant labels). Nature teaches hardship, but it also shows the value of patience. The ability for the gardener to adapt to changing conditions is just as important as the adaptability of the plants themselves. A failure for either results in frustration and disappointment. This shows the importance of observation and an open mind, good for the garden and good for life.

Borago officinalis and a honeybee
Though I have barely covered borage, it has been an attractive plant to honeybees and bumblebees. It grows in our vegetable garden and self seeds around. I tend to let it grow where it wants, a few plants produce a lot of seedlings. The flowers are edible and mildly sweet (like honey flavored cucumber), yet my daughter has no interest despite my repeated attempts to strike her interest in it. No matter, more for the bees.

The nectar is produced at the base of the petals from five lobed appendages, similar to Cynoglossum. It is related to Echium, but has a completely different flower form. Both share the characteristics of petals joined at the base (in Echium forming a tube) and having foliage covered in stiff skin-irritating hairs. The related Anchusa, and many others in the Boraginaceae, share these characteristics. Most are attractive to bees of various types.

Cucumber (Cucumis sativus) and a honeybee
Also in our garden are some lemon cucumber vines. The flowers are easy to tell from larger squash and pumpkin plants, being much smaller. Like the larger cucurbits, the flowers are usually monoecious (male and female parts on separate flowers, but on the same plant). Both male and female flowers produce nectar, but only the male flowers produce pollen, in cucumber in a much lower quantity than in squash. Bees work these plants in my garden on occasion, but not as frequently as the larger shorter-lived squash blossoms. I suspect if my entire garden consisted of cucumber then the bees would be more interested. The Borage and Echium are also in the garden, possibly stealing the spotlight.

A honeybee inundated by cucurbit pollen
In our garden this year we have yellow squash, zucchini, pumpkin, and what I think is an acorn hybrid (all of which are members of the genus Cucurbita, most likely C. pepo). They all have large somewhat ephemeral monoecious blossoms. The male blossoms provide the pollen en masse. Bees often enter the flowers for the nectar, then become absolutely engulfed in pollen. Quite often I find small patches of pollen left on the leaves of the plants from where the bees landed to clean themselves off and pack the pollen into their corbicula (pollen baskets, on their hind legs).

This video shows the behavior of honeybees inside a yellow squash blossom. Though she attempts and succeeds at acquiring nectar (I presume) she is forced against the large productive anthers, becoming completely coated in pollen. They often stagger out of the flowers, perhaps partially blinded from so much pollen coating their compound eyes and filling the creases of their joints. I speculate it would be akin to jumping into a vat of flour.

Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis (Dow gok) with a honeybee
This photo marks the first time I have ever seen a bee in my garden visit a "pea" blossom. Most beans and peas are considered "self-fertile" (such a vague term, can mean so many things) and will produce without cross fertilization. The snap peas I grew in Spring received no attention from bees as far as I could tell, while the flowers of the long beans (dow gok) are getting noticed a bit. These grow easily from seed, better if soaked for a half hour prior to sowing (despite the advice on the seed packet against soaking). A drop of dish soap in the soaking medium aids in breaking the surface tension, a tip I learned from reading Ian Young's Bulb Log on the SRGC website. What you get is long beans, some up to or over a foot long, though mine tend to stay under eight inches. My daughter eats them, which makes me so happy because at two years old, she is terribly difficult to feed!

Strawberry hybrid with a honeybee
Speaking of my daughter, the strawberry patch in the center of our veggie garden is her favorite part of the garden (besides any bare patch of dirt, always fun to play in). We grow a few different varieties, all everbearing. This year is the first that I have ever seen honeybees visit the flowers, albeit rarely. This speaks volumes to me about the lack of forage they must be facing. It is easy to be deceived into thinking there is a lot of floral forage for the bees when they fill the garden, working every flower found within. The truth is, when there is a good nectar flow of something or another (like an orchard of fruit trees in bloom), they will forsake the small groups and specimen plants found in a typical garden and instead go for the largest food source. The fact that they suddenly lose their pickiness and work a specimen plant suggests there are no other largely productive resources in the area, forcing them to take what they can get. This is actually a good thing, they are well equipped to be adaptive.

Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata' with a solitary bee
Pineapple mint (aka Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata') has taken over a shady corner of the yard along with Galium, Symphytum, Geranium, and a few other mints. The mints, particularly this one, spread aggressively by underground runners to form large colonies. This is fine where they are at, but if they somehow made their way into the adjacent beds then there would be trouble.

The plants have a fruity-mint flavor, not particularly to my liking. I tried making a tea of the leaves once, it was not pleasant. Suggestions for its use are mainly as a cocktail garnish, other uses include using it to top various fruit salad recipes. To me, that doesn't sound too good, I think I'll leave this one for the bees.

Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata' with a solitary bee
Fortunately, the plants have been happy this year and have been very floriferous. Small bees like this one have capitalized on the abundance of mint flowers. I have not seen honeybees on them yet; honeybees seem to be more interested to the oregano growing nearby. Mints (including related oregano and thyme) contain chemicals that are beneficial to the health of bees, sometimes repelling pests, even mites. Mint honey is said to have a minty aroma, though I have never tried it.

Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata' with a syrphid fly
Syrphids, apparently less active in Summer than Spring, have expressed interest in the pineapple mints. I have not seen this type of fly in quite some time, perhaps not since early spring.

Hyssopus officinalis with a honeybee
A few years ago I grew some hyssop from seed and planted it around the garden. The plants are adaptable and easy to grow; they also coexist well with other plants. Honeybees and bumblebees are frequent visitors, despite their disjunct distribution throughout my garden. Being a mint family member, they have a characteristic "minty" odor and taste, though fairly distinct. There is a faint reminiscence of licorice, but not so much as "licorice mint" (Agastache foeniculum); in fact hyssop tastes and smells most like hyssop.

Agastache foeniculum with a bee and spider
Licorice mint is in full effect right now. These plants, grown from seed the same year as the hyssop above, are also distributed throughout the garden. Bees of all kinds, even the odd hummingbird, visit the purple flower spikes. The leaves, and to an extent the inflorescences, have the strong but pleasant taste of licorice. Deer obviously avoid the sturdy one- to four foot branched plants; they are not fans of mint in general, so typically avoid members of the mint family as long as they contain the typical "minty" scent. It is a shame they don't sell this type of Agastache in nurseries all too often, I believe they are superior to the other species and hybrids due to their resilience and adaptability.

Verbena lasiostachys with a small solitary bee
A distant relative to the mints (in the order Lamiales, family Verbenaceae), Verbena lasiostachys is a native that grows out in dry fields and roadsides. In the wild the plants would have likely set seed by now and ceased flowering, but one that I have planted in a raised bed is thriving. The plant is, I admit, out of character, but it is covered in tiny purple flowers that bees of all shapes and sizes (including honeybees) work ferociously at all hours of the day.

Verbena lasiostachys with a small solitary bee
This small metallic black/green bee was working many of the flowers. It was so engulfed in the act that it barely noticed me or the camera looming overhead. Like the mints, this vervain produced a lot of small florets with a higher ratio of nectar than pollen. Dedicating less to pollen production and instead producing more nectar entices many pollinators that will spread the small quantity of pollen available.

Achillea millefolium with a fly
Common yarrow grows both wild here and in a few places where I have seeded it. It is easy, requires nearly no water as it is very efficient at extracting what it needs from the dry soil. I have a small patch of it growing in the dry border around our vegetable garden, it has formed a nice mound of feathery foliage with several flowering stalks, which to the uninitiated superficially resemble a member of the carrot family despite being closer to sunflowers in relation. Like Daucus they are attractive to small insects, mainly flies but occasionally small bees and beetles. The plants are used in herbal medicine for a variety of non-specific applications; it's also safe for children.

Calendula officinalis with insects
Calendula is an easy going composite that has the curious habit of self sowing despite large cumbersome and strangely shaped seeds. This plant is great for xeriscaping, even self sowing in areas of my garden that receive no Summer irrigation. The shallow florets are sometimes visited by small bees and flies. This scene was quite different; the beetle (same as seen on Madia elegans in the field) was accompanied by nearly 100 tiny insects, barely visible on the petals as little specks. They were on every flower, a most peculiar observation.

Helianthus annuus with three solitary bees
Sunflowers have volunteered in one of my vegetable garden beds, a welcome guest. Eight foot tall "sun-trees" were topped by comparably small composites attaining a width of around six inches. Nonetheless they were the source of great appeal to these small solitary bees. Honeybees visited them on occasion, but it was these small bees (just smaller than honeybees) that were on every single flower head. This shot, I had to edit the peripheral to eliminate the glare of taking a photo pointing up at midday, was the best of several.

Helianthus maximiliani (?) with solitary bee
Another sunflower in my garden, a perennial species gifted to me by a friend, grows in an area that receives no Summer water. The flowers are not so large as compared with the "typical sunflower," reaching widths of three inches across. The plants stay relatively compact, under two feet, though would undoubtedly attain great heights if planted in a pampered bed of rich soil and irrigation. I was considering moving them, but seeing their success this year, flowering well during the hottest days of the year, I may just leave them in place.

Helianthus maximiliani (?) with solitary bee
The same bees that visited the large annual sunflowers were also interested in the much smaller inflorescences of what I think is Helianthus maximiliani, don't hold me to that though. I may try them from seed if I have the time and remember to collect it!

Zinnia × hybrida with a honeybee
I was in town one day and I saw a large raised bed filled with zinnias. I happened to have my camera with me, so I had a look. I typically do not think of honeybees as being interested in these flowers, and from the looks of it I am still holding onto that notion. The highly doubled flowers have confounded this female, able to detect the nectar but unable to reach it. A few anthers managed to form despite the deformation of almost all of the florets into petals. This bee sat patiently as I took the photo, and just for fun I imagined she was trying to come up with a strategy for solving such a puzzle.

Zinnia × hybrida with a skipper butterfly
The skipper, as compared with the bee, had likely had better success. The long proboscis makes a butterfly better equipped to forage on even the deepest doubled flowers, assuming the countless folded petals aren't physically blocking the path.

Allium 'Sugar Melt' with a honeybee
This past Spring I obtained a single plant of Allium 'Sugar Melt' from Brent and Becky's Bulbs. The plant was shipped bareroot. It is a rhizomatous hybrid between Allium nutans and Allium senescens, bred by Mark McDonough (Plant Buzz). There were two bulb-like growths attached to a single rhizomatous structure. Very carefully, with a sterilized blade I cut down the center of the rhizome, separating the two bulbs. After dipping them in a rooting compound (containing a fungicide) I planted them in my small rock garden. Success! Both plants are thriving.

Allium 'Sugar Melt' with a honeybee
When I saw the plant in the catalog, it claimed it was attractive to honeybees. This is accurate! Honeybees flock to this Allium, not always the case with other species or hybrids. It is not uncommon for me to see at least two honeybees on an umbel at once. The bees move around probing for nectar, undoubtedly spreading pollen around. I hope it sets seed!

Allium 'Sugar Melt' with a honeybee
Allium 'Sugar Melt' with Ammophila wasp
Other pollinators appear equally enticed as the honeybees. Butterflies aren't uncommon, occasionally two skippers (the most common type of butterfly at this time of year here) will be on an umbel at a time. This large wasp, a predatory thread waisted wasp of the genus Ammophila, spent a long time on this umbel.

Allium 'Sugar Melt' with a solitary wasp
Adult Ammophila wasps, related to mud daubers, parasitize their prey (usually caterpillars) and drag them to their nests which are underground. Their larvae, once hatched, will feed on the essentially living food. Gross. Yet this is a beneficial trait in an insect, welcome in my garden.

Petunia × atkinsiana with a hawkmoth
For Mother's Day, I surprised my wife with several hanging baskets on our front porch so they can be seen from inside the house. Petunias do well here, so that's what I chose. Hummingbirds occasionally visit the flowers, as do large carpenter bees (Xylocopa, one of the easiest native bees to identify). One evening, I was taking something to the trash when a strange movement in the corner of my eye captured my attention. A gigantic moth, with a wingspan of nearly five inches was moving from flower to flower! These things are as fast as birds (and, presumably, bats) and weary of people with bright flashing cameras. I was lucky to capture this one photo, the flash from which prompted the hawkmoth to move on.

A very large garden spider
Now, to ruin your plan of not having nightmares, I present to you one of my new friends. This large spider, about the size of a half dollar coin, is not a pollinator or a floral visitor but is deeply connected with the two, quite literally in fact. These gals (I assume the males are tiny, and maybe dead already) make their large webs (many feet across) where there are flowers. Then, they catch bees. I've seen many dead honeybees in their webs, even a butterfly once (though it got away).

Spider imbibes a honeybee
I consider the loss a few honeybees a necessary sacrifice. I like spiders. My wife is not such a big fan, particularly in the house. I have said to her: "They are just trying to make a living." But for them a "living" is to live, they must eat, and they must find things to eat, so they look in the house. I would rather see a spider than a wide variety of other insects in my house. Spiders do not hunt people, they do not "feed" on us. They will bite if you roll on on by mistake in bed, but this is their attempt to not die. Pretty reasonable, yeah? A variety of other insects will "hunt" us and suck our blood (while we're sleeping). Fleas, chiggers, kissing bugs, bedbugs, thrips, mites, and you get the idea. Many of these vile bloodsuckers are eaten by spiders. If you have more than one bite, you can probably rule out spiders. I choose the spiders.

Sweet dreams!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Floral Visitors 14

This post is about a month in the making, Summer is a busy time in all areas of life, yes? Here in Southern Oregon, we have been experiencing our typical hot-enough-to-cook-eggs-on-the-sidewalk weather, with a surprise downpour a few weeks ago coinciding with California's unexpected rain. And now, fire is "breeding" everywhere around us in Northern California and Oregon, smoke and ash appearing right on time like the past two years. While the dry heat isn't enough to stop pollinators from foraging (everyone's gotta eat) the smoke might hinder their activity. In past years I had observed reduced pollinator activity when smoke was thick, probably an instinctual response to the threat of fire. But before the smoke, there was this:

Crocosmia 'Lucifer', 7:20 PM
Crocosmia is a genus of cormous Iris relatives (family Iridaceae) mostly from Africa. I grow what is known as the most cold hardy, Crocosmia  'Lucifer' (C. masoniorum × C. paniculata), originally bred in 1963 by Alan Bloom (Blooms of Bressingham, Norfolk, UK) in a batch of several hundred seedlings, later narrowed down and finally named in 1966 (the first named of six selections). The plants grow to about three feet tall, flowering at the start of July. The leaves are Iris-like, but pleated and a bit thinner. In warmer climates, like coastal climates, this selection (and others, I imagine) are terribly invasive and so should be avoided. Here they have not self-seeded, but to reproduce a bit asexually.

The difference between the photos above and below was the use of the flash in the upper photo, a feature which can often have the effect of darkening the background giving the impression the photo was taken at night. While the photo above appears dark, the sun is out to at least 9:00 PM during the longest days of the year here.

Crocosmia 'Lucifer', 5:30 AM
The most common visitors to 'Lucifer' were definitely hummingbirds, as you can see they work the plants from the early morning to the late afternoon into the evening. Other visitors were the large Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) and, for some reason, a few wasps. In Africa, they are pollinated mainly by sunbirds (related to hummingbirds) who perch on the branched inflorescences and feed on the nectar.

Allium carinatum subsp. pulchellum f. album with a honeybee
Past years have led me to believe this Allium was uninteresting to honeybees, but I now see I was either wrong (I just didn't see the proof) or this year they've decided they like it. No matter, it's the present that counts. Honeybees appear to forage strictly for the nectar, but a small amount of pollen seems to be collected by accident.

Allium cernuum
These I grew from seed, this is the first year they've flowered, yay! The color is nice, they open white and fade to pink. Allium cernuum is an adaptable species, doing well in both sun and shade. My experience is that they do better with some summer moisture and not soil that isn't overly porous. The plants I have are a bit variable in height and bloom time, some already having formed seed pods while others are still in bud. It will be interesting to watch over time and see the differences.

Allium cernuum
Bumblebees seem most attracted to these, even foraging on the individuals I have growing in pots in the shade, awaiting a final planting site. I have also seen tiny black bees, the same ones to visit the white Allium carinatum selection as seen here. The plants are in fact growing in close vicinity, except cernuum blooms a bit later. There is a chance that some accidental hybridization had been carried out, not an unwelcome occurrence to be honest.

Calluna vulgaris with a honeybee
In the same bed as the above to Alliums is a nice compact mound of Calluna. Heather, not to be confused with closely related heath (Erica), is a European native, famed for the honey produced by honeybees who work the heathland where the plants are so abundant. The monotypic genus (having only a single species, or type = "mono-type") can be differentiated from the related genus Erica by a few characteristics. First, Calluna typically flowers in the warm part of the year, for me in Summer, while Erica flowers through Winter. Second, Calluna has scales for leaves, overlapping flattish small green scales, while Erica bears needle-like leaves that are mostly perpendicular to the stem that do not often touch.

Likely due to the fact that I only have a single plant, honeybees are rarely seen working it, and I have never seen a honeybee touch it before this year. However this year I think the bees might be under stress, so they are working many plants that the have ignored in the past (including strawberry!) This year, honeybees are common on my heather plant, though I have yet to see more than one bee work it at a time.

Calluna vulgaris with Vespa(?) wasp
The wasps (Vespa?) have been the most common visitors to the heather over the years. Adult wasps feed on the nectar, but they do not collect it for their young. Instead they feed their young other insects, a protein rich food, similar to how bees feed their young pollen (also protein rich). Wasps are pollinators, though not considered as efficient due to the lack of the dense hairs as are found on most bees.

Lotus corniculatus with honeybee
I spotted this small weedy looking clover lookalike while at a river side park with my daughter. Honeybees, bumblebees, small solitary bees, butterflies, and a variety of flies were abundant in the area. Lotus is a genus that ranges from the beautiful, and possibly extinct in the wild, Lotus berthelotii (common in cultivation as an annual) to the somewhat weedy Lotus corniculatus. Being a member of the family Fabaceae (pea family), they are used to fix nitrogen in fields and also as a good anti-bloat feed for livestalk.


Composite Family (Asteraceae)

The composites, named for the composition of tiny florets that make up the typical "daisy" are one of the first forms many children associate with what a "flower" is. The family, Asteraceae, is hugely variable in appearance and morphology, and has also attracted a wide range of pollinating insects. Many, like Calendula, Madia, and Matricaria (chamomile), have very shallow florets and so attract many flies and small bees who all have relatively short proboscises and mouth parts. Others, like Liatris and Veronia (do not confuse with Veronica, family Plantaginaceae), have long floral tubes where the nectar can only be reached by large bees and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Some genera, like Artemisia, are believed to be wind pollinated, and are in fact insect deterrents.

Echinacea and swallowtail
Echinacea has floral tubes that aren't particularly deep, but the protruding orange-tipped bracts exclude short-tongued insects from reaching the nectar or pollen. The large Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) is the most prominent visitor, though as Summer has progressed I have seen less of them and more bees visit the flowers. Of the variety of bees, bumblebees and honeybees are the most abundant. I have seen a few honeybees work the flowers of my Echinaceas in the past, but this year I must have achieved critical mass because honeybees have been more abundant on the purple coneflowers than ever before. I have once read a study on how bees can attain minute quantities of active constituents from medicinally active plants that help with fighting infections and diseases (like thymol from Thymus, the active ingredient in most Varroa mite controls). I wonder if some of the immune system supporting constituents in Echinacea are passed into the nectar, and if they are useful to the health of bees (the same way Echinacea tea is good for humans)?

Echinacea and a skipper butterfly
Smaller butterflies, like this skipper, are also common visitors to the Echinacea. On a quick stroll around the garden one evening, I spotted a large hawk moth (Sphingidae) visiting the Echinaceas. I wasn't able to photograph it, it was dusk (too dark to get a good photograph at a distance) and far too fast for me to get close enough to it. This was special for me because it represents my very first observation of a hawk moth in my area. Hawk moths are large, similar in size to the large swallowtail butterflies, but as fast as hummingbirds. They are sometimes confused with hummingbirds because of the way they fly, and hover, able to fly backwards or any other direction to avoid predators.

Cichorium intybus with a honeybee
One of my favorite "weeds", chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a lettuce relative from Europe naturalized throughout the United States and elsewhere, probably introduced accidentally as an agricultural hitchhiker or escapee. The bitter leaves are used in salad, the roots roasted and ground to make a drink similar to coffee (or as a coffee additive), and the plants are used as a forage crop for livestalk. The leaves are rich in protein and other minerals, and the long taproot breaks through hardpan. Bees love the ephemeral flowers, borne early in the morning and withering quickly as the sun rises and the heat escalates (illustrated in the photos below, same plants, note the times).

Cichorium intybus, 6:30 AM
Cichorium intybus, 10:30 AM
Cichorium intybus with a small black solitary bee
Honeybees occasionally work the flowers, as do a number of other bees. This small bee, similar to one seen on many other plants in my garden (Madia, Allium, Centaurea to name a few) spent a while on this compisite to make sure every floret was visited before flying away.

Cichorium intybus with a small black solitary bee
Cichorium intybus with a small black solitary bee
Centaurea maculosa, solitary black bee and honeybee
The Eastern European spotted knapweed, Centaurea maculosa, is an invasive weed growing in roadside ditches and banks. It spreads aggressively by seed, and it is no wonder considering how appealing the purple flowers are to bees. I made the mistake of introducing it to my yard two years ago, only to pull it as soon as I learned of its ferocity. I have seen a few seedlings in the direct area since, which were promptly dealt with. I believe I have eradicated it from my garden, but more observation will be needed to be sure.

While at the river with my daughter, the same place as the Lotus above, there is a large somewhat steep bank packed full of flowers, native and noxious, including this knapweed. Bees of all kinds, including the small solitary black bees seen elsewhere, were practically swarming on the plants.

Centaurea maculosa with honeybee
The plants are difficult to remove, very tough stemmed, and have deep tough taproots that regrow when pulled. Persistence is key to removing this species, and removing any flowers that develop is key to preventing seeds and the further spread.

Centaurea solstitialis and honeybee
Yellow starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis, is second only to blackberry when it comes to my least favorite invasive weeds. Yellow starthistle is native to southern Europe and western Eurasia, likely introduced through agricultural means. The plants spread aggressively by seed, and are difficult to kill. They are the most difficult of Centaureas to remove, owing to the sharp spines, modified bracts, on the inflorescence. Like Centaurea maculosa, they will regrow from the tough taproot when pulled. Also like blackberry, however, they are very attractive to honeybees. In a square foot of space, it is not uncommon to see at least three bees feverishly working the spiny inflorescences. The honey from starthistle is said to be one of the best, mildly sweet, subtle flavor, and slow to crystallize.

Madia elegans and male long horned bee
On occasion I go around the garden before work (I depart for work around 6:00 AM), because I know Ill find scenes like this. In an area less than a square meter I counted at least four of these male long horned bees, apparently sleeping (or too cold to move) on the opened Madia flowers. The males don't make nests, but instead wait in the flower patch for a female. This is common for solitary bees.


Mint Family (Lamiaceae)

The mint family is good as a rule for attracting bees. The plants are often easy to please, and flower over a long period. Some are very drought tolerant, and they are usually safe from browsing deer who dislike the minty flavor of the leaves of some species (though not all "mints" have the characteristic mint smell or taste). True mint, genus Mentha, should generally be avoided in the open garden and left in pots. Otherwise they are sure to spread like mad and become a huge problem, smothering out other plants. Bees will occasionally work mint flowers, but there are other less invasive species that also attract bees and other pollinators.

Origanum vulgare and honeybee
Like many in the mint family, oregano is generous with nectar but skimpy on pollen. This is one strategy when the plant uses it's energy to produce many nectar rich flowers with little pollen. The small flower size helps ensure that the minuscule amount of pollen is transferred to the bee (or whatever), who then visits countless other flowers, increasing the chance of fertilization to take place. This is opposite the case with genera like Tulipa or Lilium which produce few flowers in comparison and a large quantity of pollen.

Nepeta cataria and honeybee
Nepeta (catnip) is something I planted around my garden from seed sown in situ about four years ago. They have attained great size, reaching four feet in height and width, covered in tiny florets. Honeybees and bumblebees work the flowers from dawn til dusk. Deer obviously do not bother them, too minty (but not invasive). Another plus, I almost never need to water them. Even with the drought, weeks in the 100 F degree range, the plants continue to thrive, produce nectar, and attract bees en masse. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to attract bees to their yard.

Agastache foeniculum and honeybee
Another well behaved member of the mint family, Agastache foeniculum (AKA anise hyssop, do not confuse with true hyssop, Hyssopus sp.) was grown easily from seed a few years ago. The plants have mint-like leaves that taste like licorice, edible flower spikes of the same flavor, and tough upright branched stems that hold the plants steadfast through inclement weather. The densely packed flowers are highly attractive to bees. Bumblebees are often found very early in the morning, well before honeybees emerge from their hives. Honeybees are soon to follow once the day warms. The plants are tolerant of dryish soil, but will do best in a somewhat irrigated situation in full sun. Where there is shade or if they are too crowded, they will grow tall and gangly, not the best situation for them.

Agastache foeniculum with small black solitary bee
Once again we see this tiny black bee, an apparently common solitary bee here where we live. Perhaps someone has experience identifying bees and is willing to shed some light on this bees identity?

Agastache urticifolia with a solitary bee
Another Agastache, the variable nettleleaf giant hyssop, grows large and happy alongside the river in association with Centaurea maculosa, Lotus corniculatus, and Melilotus albus (not pictured, but it was visited by a variety of pollinators in the area) among others. This species is native inland from Eastern Washington into Canada, south to coastal Southern Oregon and into Northern California, and East into Colorado. It is large and very floriferous, no doubt a very important pollinator plant wherever it resides.
Agastache urticifolia and honeybee
Agastache urticifolia and tachinid fly
All types of insect pollinators were visiting the countless flower spikes. The florets are very plentiful in nectar, shallow enough for flies and beetles yet enticing enough for bees and butterflies. Though I did not see any, I would wager that hummingbirds also visit the flowers in the mornings or evenings before there is too much human activity.

Monardella purpurea
Siskiyou monardella grows in both full sun and shade, more prostrate in the latter. The plants are attractive and well behaved members of the mint family, coexisting well with other garden plants (even more aggressive neighbors). This genus, as well as the closely related Monarda, represent a different form of inflorescence when compared to the "spiked" inflorescences of the above genera. Instead of a spike, the florets are arranged on a ball that does not elongate or extend, but blooms from the inside first, much to the opposition of the florets of members of the Asteraceae (Echinacea, Helianthus) which bloom from the outside in.

Monardella purpurea with beetle
While bumblebees are the most frequent patrons of the tiny purple tubular florets, beetles and other pollinators are also attracted.

Monarda didyma with an unidentified insect
I planted this a few years ago, both for the name (bee balm) and for the leaves which when rubbed onto the skin are supposed to keep mosquitoes away. I haven't been able to substantiate the latter claim, I think the leaves just act like a marinade to make me taste better to the blood suckers, because I still get gnawed more than a dog's favorite chew toy by the little disease spreaders. Nonetheless, I planted it in the border surrounding my vegetable garden where it mingles happily with the catnip. I grow it in full sun with a drip hose. While it is said to tolerate drought, I think it does best with irrigation.

Monarda didyma with a carpenter bee (Xylocopa)
The bee balm (interesting name, the flower tubes are far too long for any bee to reach the nectar properly) have in fact received a lot of attention from bumblebees and honeybees. They steal the nectar by biting a hole at the base of each floret. Hummingbirds do it right, and I've seen them from time to time visiting this plant. The one bee I have seen most often is the giant Xylocopa sp., a large and loud species of solitary carpenter bee. The bee is the largest in the region, larger than bumblebee queens, and probably has a longer proboscis. Much of the time, I observe the bee foraging at the flower entrance, other times it bites a hole at the side.