Monday, November 30, 2009


Where do pollinators go in winter? When all the flowers that pollinators feed on are gone and when the cold grips the land, what do the pollinators do? They have to find refuges and hanker down until the next season. There are many different strategies at their disposal, many sheltered places, many options as to spend the winter months as eggs, larvae, pupae or adult. But they all make themselves invisible for several months of the year, hoping that no predator or parasite gets to them and hoping that the next season be bountiful and take care of their needs.
Here is just one example of a wintering pollinator, a pretty butterfly that you may see flitting around the garden during summer months: a fritillary butterfly Speyeria cybele.

Adult fritillaries are colorful butterflies of orange and black patterns, often mistaken for monarchs. Their long tongues enable them to reach for nectar hidden in long throated flowers such as horse mints, however they are not about to pass out a good opportunity to drink nectar from more accessible blossoms. You may start seeing them as early as May; by October they will be mostly gone or will look rather worn out, missing wing scales or even a piece of wing where a hungry bird took a stab and missed the body.
In late summer and early fall the females start looking for places to lay their eggs. Their babies feed exclusively on violets, so they need to find these plants and lay their eggs nearby. But by this time of the year violets are drying up or they are all but gone; only the roots remain under ground in many cases. This does not deter the egg laying females; either they have a formidable sense of smell that enables them to detect the roots of violets, or, in some cases, they just take a chance scattering their eggs on the leaf litter in shady places that are most likely to grow violets. In this case, some eggs will be lost, but there will be plenty left which will find their target.

The eggs are no bigger than a period at the end of this sentence; the caterpillar that emerges from it shortly afterward is about the size of a comma. Packaged inside this tiny body is all the genetic information needed to make all the colors and the beauty that will visit your garden fluttering from flower to flower during the warm months. There is no food for this baby during the winter months. So what is there to do? It promptly buries itself in the leaf litter seeking safety from the many small predators and parasites that hunt it in that dark and mysterious world that is the soil of your garden. There, it has nothing to do for several long, cold months; so it goes to sleep.

Probably many, perhaps most won’t make it through the winter; but the mother had laid so many eggs that there will still be plenty to keep the species going. By the end of winter it will be aroused, by some unknown cues. By then, violet plants are beginning to grow. Long before they start blooming, this caterpillar goes to work, feeding and growing for a couple of months. It will eventually emerge as a fully grown butterfly.

More on fritillaries life cycle in:
Pollinators welcome blog
Pollinator of the month
List of articles © Beatriz Moisset. 2012

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Only friends welcome here

The wildflower Beardtongue or Penstemon gets its name from the hairy area that runs along the floor of its "mouth" looking like a bearded tongue. It is one of those flowers designed just for bumblebees. The size fits them like a glove; the length of its throat, where nectar is stored, is just right for the length of a bumblebee's tongue and the sexual parts of the flower are arranged so they rub the pollen against the back of the visiting bees so they carry it to the next flower.

But when it comes to other insect visitors they are not so welcoming. The outside of the flower is coated by glandular hairs, with shiny droplets of a gooey fluid at their tips. They feel sticky to the touch and, to a small insect, they are a death trap from which they can't disentangle themselves. I assume that they do it for protection although I can't imagine what protection they need from midges and the like.

Here you have one performing both functions at the same time, a welcoming host and a killer all at once.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


When October comes along we stock up on bird seed for the winter and try to make the right choices; some cheap brands are no good. A visit to the Cornell University Ornithology lab website would help us know what is best. Here we learn that some of the most common seeds are: sunflower, safflower, millet, cracked corn, peanut hearts, flax, sorghum and rape seed.

A house finch eating sunflower seed
Sunflower tops the list of preferred bird food because it is nutritious and rich in oils, badly needed by winter birds to generate the energy that keeps them warm. Some types of millets and flax are regarded as fillers and the Cornell lab doesn’t recommend them.

Woodpecker feasting on peanuts
The visitors to your bird feeder are wild animals that can survive on their own without your handouts. They are resourceful and can find wild foods through the winter; in fact many of them simply have no access to birdfeeders. They eat wild seeds similar to the ones you provide and berries of many sorts. If you are a birdwatcher you know that a good way to spot finches and other small birds in winter is to look at shrubs, preferably the ones laden with berries.

Let us examine these foods from a different angle. It is said that thirty percent of all the food that humans eat comes to them courtesy of pollinators primarily bees, what about bird food?

Long-horned bee pollinating a sunflower
Millet, corn and sorghum are cereals; the plants that produce them are wind pollinated. All the other bird seeds are from flowering plants that require the services of pollinators to produce seed. We are familiar with the flashy sunflowers and may have seen bees visiting them. Safflower is a type of thistle, also a blooming plant. Peanuts are members of the pea family with complicated flowers that require skilled pollinators to trip them and get to the pollen; these plants sometimes dispense with pollinators and simply fertilize themselves, but they produce more seed when pollinators are present. Rape is mustard, also dependent on pollinators. Finally, berries are dependent on pollinators.
So this is the true story of the birds and the bees.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bees in the Garden

A bee house for mason bees. These bees are solitary, meaning that each one tends to her own brood, about six to eight babies, and all each one needs is a hole the size of a pencil in a block of wood. They do not live in large hives with thousands of workers like honey bees. You can get fancy and create a handsome bee house like the one my son in law did for me.

Watching the comings and goings of your little tenants can be almost as much fun as watching birds at your bird house, and there is no reason to fear their stings. Unlike honey bees they are very gentle; I have let them climb on my hand without problems. They emerge in early spring and are busy through April and May and, perhaps early June. You won't see more activity until next year. You can see the video.

This one emerged from its long winter sleep shortly before Easter, so I call it my Easter bunny bee.

Let us provide a habitat for some of the numerous helpers to our gardens, pollinators, a few tips provided by:
Urban Bee Gardens
Selecting Plants for Pollinators

You may also want to build nest boxes for those bees that make their homes in cavities.
There are instructions in several websites:
National Wildlife Federation
Audubon. Bring on the Bees.

Or you may choose to buy a bee house from one of the several companies that make them, such as:
Northwest Nature Shop
Mason Bee Homes
Knox Cellars
(I am not endorsing any one, just saving you some leg work or mouse work).

List of articles