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!

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