Saturday, June 29, 2013

Bring Back the Pollinators

Bee Balm and Bumble Bee
This summer, I've started paying more attention to bees. We've heard about the honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder for a few years now, and I knew that honey bees were imported by European settlers when they arrived. But somehow, I never gave much thought to pollinators  before that time, although logically, the Western Hemisphere had to have its own pollinators.

Bee Balm and Gray-headed Coneflower
 Dick has worked to establish a native plant garden in our yard since his retirement, and this morning, everything is in wonderful, full bloom!

Blanket Flower
 Tavia Cathcart (Executive Director at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, and co-author of Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians) and I signed up to attend a native pollinator short course this week, sponsored by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.  What wonderful timing this was!  As part of the course materials, we received a copy of Attracting Native Pollinators, which is a fantastic book, with everything you never knew you didn't know about pollinators.
Bumble Bee on Bee Balm
 Did you know there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the United States? In fact, in many instances the native bees are much more efficient pollinators than honey bees. They forage longer during the day, at dawn and dusk, and when weather isn't bright and sunny. Native bees always forage for both pollen and nectar, while honey bees assign some workers to only pollen or only nectar. Certain crops require a "bee buzz" to loosen the pollen, and honey bees can't vibrate at the right speed for this. You can transport a hive of honey bees from field to field, but you have to provide the right habitat to attract the native bees.

Butterfly Weed
 About one in every three mouthfuls of food you eat requires the presence of a pollinator. Without bees, there would be no apples, pumpkins, strawberries and many other fruits and vegetables. Other wildlife, from songbirds to grizzly bears, depend on the work of bees. The economic value of bees and other pollinators is in the billions of dollars, as farmers are finding now that there is a scarcity of bees.

Common Milkweed buds
The problem is that some flowers require a specific pollinator, and some pollinators require a specific flower, either for the adults, or for larvae to survive on. The emergence of adults must be at the same time as that flower blooms for both to thrive. You have noticed the drop in butterfly numbers and variety in the last couple of years, haven't you?

Purple Coneflower with Sweat Bee
 The course also addressed land management for pollinators - aimed at famers essentially, although most of the attendees seemed to be government folks. When I read through the handouts, recommending native plants for our area, I discovered that we were already doing all this in our backyard native flower garden!! 

Native Honeysuckle
 Take a look at Southeast Plants for Native Bees.  Patches of flowers can be grown almost anywhere and will form an important food resource for bees. Even small beds along a field or roadway can help make a difference. It needs to include a variety of plants which bloom at different times throughout the season. Since the native bees reside in the area, they can't just go somewhere else when a particular crop is finished blooming.

Pineapple Sage
Some other recommendations are:
  • Use local native plants, which are as much as four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers.
  • Choose several colors of flowers. Native bees are especially attracted to blue, purple, violet, white and yellow blossoms.
  • Plant flowers in clumps. That way the bees don't have to fly so far to pollinate another flower of that species.
  • Include flowers of different shapes. Bees come in different sizes, with different length tongues and  need a variety of flowers to feed on.
  • Have a diversity of plants flowering all season. This supports a range of bee species that fly at different times of the season, and certainly makes your garden more interesting.

Rattlesnake Master

Royal Catchfly


Sure, I'll brag on my husband, who has done a wonderful job with our garden. And every year it gets better and better!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Color Purple

I ask myself weird questions sometimes. In spring, I wonder why the early bloomers are mostly white. Now that summer has arrived, more of our flowers in the garden are purple...sort of.

Dick planted all these, so I don't know the names of many of them, but I always think of them as  "purple." Or I did until I started putting this blog post together. As I worked with the photos, suddenly I wasn't so confident about their color. Well, let's see what Google can find.

Purple is a range of hues of color occurring between red and blue. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a deep, rich shade between crimson and violet. In the traditional color wheel used by painters, violet and purple are both placed between red and blue. Purple occupies the space closer to red, between crimson and violet. Violet is closer to blue, and is usually less intense and bright than purple. While the two colors look similar, from the point of view of optics there are important differences. Violet is a spectral, or real color – it occupies its own place at the end of the spectrum of light, and it has its own wavelength (approximately 380–420 nm). It was one of the colors of the spectrum first identified by Isaac Newton in 1672, whereas purple is simply a combination of two colors, red and blue. There is no such thing as the "wavelength of purple light"; it only exists as a combination. Pure violet cannot be accurately reproduced by the Red-Green-Blue (RGB) color system, the method used to create colors on a television screen or computer display. It is approximated by mixing blue light at high intensity with less intense red light on a black screen. No wonder these flowers keep looking different on the computer!

Simply put, flowers are colorful for one main purpose, survival. Flowers are the reproductive systems of plants and are therefore responsible for assuring that the plants can survive from one generation to another. Their bright and varied colors help make reproduction and survival possible in several ways. One way is by attracting insects that carry pollen from one flower to another allowing the reproduction process to continue through the creation of fruits and fertile seeds. The color of flowers, such as the red in roses and yellow in marigolds, are found in pigments that are decided upon in the hereditary genome of the plant. Flower colors of red, pink, blue and purple come mainly from the pigments called anthocyanins, which are in the class of chemicals called flavanoids (what gives plants their color). One study says that purple flowers have more nectar.

But flowers may not "actually" change color, rather the "perception" may change. This can vary with people--men tend to see primary colors such as blue or green, women more distinctions such as turquoise or chartreuse. Perceptions among genders is actually related to differences in genetic eye anatomy. Perceptions may also vary with light conditions. Seeing flowers in the warm (reds) light of morning or late evening will give them a different appearance than in midday, or on a cloudy day compared to a sunny day, or under the green light of trees compared to the blue light of open sky. Since the color we see is actually the color of light reflected off the petal or plant surface, anything that can change this reflected light, will change our perception of the color.  
 Flowers which appear to have one color to humans in full spectrum light, may show different colors and patterns in ultraviolet light, which we can't see, but many pollinators can.
Some bee flowers tend to be yellow or blue, often with ultraviolet nectar guides and scent. Nectar, pollen, or both are offered as rewards in varying amounts. The sugar in the nectar tends to be sucrose-dominated. There are diverse types of bees, however. Honeybees, bumblebees, orchid bees, etc. are large groups that are quite distinctive in size, tongue length and behavior (some solitary, some colonial). Thus generalization about bees is difficult. Some plants can only be pollinated by bees because their anthers release pollen internally, and it must be shaken out by buzz pollination (also known as "sonication"). Bees are the only animals that perform this behavior. Bumblebees sonicate, but honeybees do not.

After all this "scientific" investigation, I think I've come up with the real answer. When I was a kid, I only got to have a box of 24 Crayola crayons. I know there are many shades and names for "purple," but they weren't in my crayon box, so I never learned them!

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Night Jars and Technology

Tree Swallow
My friend, Birder Barbara, is tops at identifying birds at sight, but also from their calls. She hears a soft chip and immediately knows what it is. I don't know how she ever learned all this, but I'm glad to take advantage of it. She mentioned that she had gone to a place in nearby Oldham County, KY, where she found both Whip-Poor-Wills and Chuck-Will's-Widow. Nightjars are not exactly common birds, so when she called with plans to go there last evening, Dick and I were excited to join. Morgan Conservation Park is billed as an "urban forest," but we first noticed the beautiful meadow of native grasses and purple smooth vetch blooming, while the Tree Swallows took turns guarding the nest box and swooping after insects for their babies inside. The park was acquired in 2003 using Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Funds and contains 4.3 miles of trails.

Henslow's Sparrow
While walking down the road, trying to avoid exposure to ticks as long as possible, we heard an unfamiliar bird calling. Tossing around ideas, we though maybe a Cowbird? Bob O Link??Grasshopper Sparrow? Finally Barbara suggested a Henslow's Sparrow, and just as she said the magic words, this gorgeous little sparrow jumped to the top of the vetch, and posed for pictures in the purple blossoms. I pulled out my brand new iPhone with Audubon's bird app, and we confirmed by picture and voice that is was a Henslow's Sparrow!  A LIFE BIRD for me! Who Hoo! Barbara was excited to see one in this part of the state, since she says she usually drives several hours to Western Kentucky to find them.

Narrow Leaf Verain
The park features an unusual geological outcropping identified in a biological inventory as a glade. The Morgan family referred to the area as a marl bed. Generations ago, farmers valued marl as a fertilizer for lime-deficient soils and as a soil conditioner for sandy soils. The lime in marl cements sand grains together, so the soil can better retain heat and water. When added to clay soils, marl has the opposite effect: soil particles became less cohesive, allowing more air, heat, water and plant roots to penetrate. The feature is noteworthy because glades are known to house rare plant and animal species. The soil is hard, bare and rocky, yet special plants have adapted to the poor conditions. We notice this small narrow leaf verain (no, I didn't know what it was, but found it in the flower field guide this morning). It was no taller than 6 inches anywhere we found it growing. The guide says it is common, but I don't recall seeing it anywhere else.

We saw evidence of animals all along the trail. I have no idea what kind of bug travels around with a hole punch to put round notches in the leaves it samples. Coyote scat was abundant.

I would suspect the deer have been nibbling on the white blades of these daisies, leaving the yellow centers.

Around 9:00, as the sunset blazed in pinks and purples, we heard the first Nightjar - a Chuck-Will's-Widow. It sounds like he's just saying "widow, widow." In a few minutes, Whip-Poor-Will joined the evening chorus. I'm always amazed at the names these birds have. Once again, I pulled out the iPhone and tried the DragonSpeak dictating app to record their songs. Click HERE and listen to the serenade. Blogger isn't good at sound files, so I hope this works, since the song is really neat. On later reflection, it might have been easier to just take a video and post it on YouTube. I had to figure out how to get the sound file off the phone, into iTunes, and then edit it, since I left the recorder on too long and picked up some conversation as well. You learn with experience, and I was just playing with my new toy. So this was a pretty good trip - 2 life birds (the Henslow's Sparrow and Chuck-Will's-Widow) and a chance to use some high tech birding tools! I itched all the way home, just imagining all the ticks climbing under my clothes, but after close examination was tick free, for this trip at least.

Sunday, June 02, 2013



The raucous Red Winged Blackbird is an easy bird to identify, and very common any place where there is a bit of water. The black males have a red shoulder with a yellow band below. Most of the photos I have show him with mouth open. When the nest is nearby, he is constantly defending his territory or chasing away intruders.

The Red-winged Blackbird is a highly polygynous species, meaning males have many female mates – up to 15 in some cases. In some populations 90 percent of territorial males have more than one female nesting on their territories. But all is not as it seems: one-quarter to one-half of nestlings turn out to have been sired by someone other than the territorial male. No wonder he's always so defensive!

Occasionally, you may see a black bird with only the yellow band. Is that a different kind of bird? A juvenile perhaps? No, it is the adult may when he's not in an assertive mood. At feeders he'll look like this, sending the message "Hey guys, I'm just looking for a bite to eat and don't want to start a fight right now."

His seldom seen mate is also a very attractive bird. The first time we ever saw one we spent half an hour searching through all the sparrows in the field guide looking for the biggest sparrow we could imagine! Of course, she must blend in with the cattails where she builds her nest.

When you live in the marsh, you have to land on anything available, even if you do the splits!

The female of any species lays only one egg per day. The brown splotches on these are added just before they are laid, and each egg has a different pattern. Looks like they've been pooped on. Predation of eggs and nestlings is quite common. Nest predators include snakes, mink, raccoons, and other birds, even as small as marsh wrens. The Red-winged Blackbird is occasionally a victim of brood parasites, particularly Brown-headed Cowbirds. Since nest predation is common, several adaptations have evolved in this species. Group nesting is one such trait which reduces the risk of individual predation by increasing the number of alert parents. Nesting over water reduces the likelihood of predation, as do alarm calls. Nests, in particular, offer a strategic advantage over predators in that they are often well concealed in thick, waterside reeds and positioned at a height of one to two meters. Males often act as sentinels, employing a variety of calls to denote the kind and severity of danger. Mobbing, especially by males, is also used to scare off unwanted predators, although mobbing often targets large animals and man-made devices by mistake.