Sunday, February 22, 2009

February tease

Remember that nice bit of weather that thawed the snow and interrupted the nasty weather?

Well, boo! Mom Nature found the remote again -- and she's switched us back to our regularly scheduled winter. *sigh*

Saturday, February 14, 2009

No Free Lunch

When I sit in the garden and enjoy the bees and other pollinators, there is always so much activity. Not necessarily their numbers, but they are in constant motion, flitting from one flower to another. Now here, now there, now back to here. Originally I used to think that the first visitor had drained the nectar, yet just a second later another pollinator would land on that same blossom and take a sip -- then leave too. I thought, “You guys could save some fly-time if you just stayed longer on one bloom.” Bumblebees seemed to understand this: I’ve seen them grab hold of a zinnia for dear life and stay for hours, sometimes spending the whole night and still be there in the morning. But, for the most part, bees, etc. favor hit-n-run vs. start-a-tab-and-keep-‘em-coming approach to nectar gathering.

I wonder why. A little research turned up some surprising information. In my last post I mentioned that flowering plants and pollinators co-evolved back in the longtime. Turns out that between the two, it is flowering plants that run the show.

Scientists analyzed nectar and found that for bee and other pollinators, blossom eaters and nectar thieves, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Nectar and scent and color are all baits for the real deal: moving pollen from one plant to another, or better, lots of others. This article (one of several I read) explains that flowering plants do not get the best dispersal of pollen if only a few barflies hog the beer so to speak. Plants need lots of pollinators, but too much of a good thing can be just as disastrous as no pollinators at all. If those sweet-smelling blooms are eaten by insects or grazing animals, or taken off the market by the aforementioned barflies, there goes the species. Seems that good bait is a two-edged sword. What’s a pretty flower to do? Simple.

When the mass of the same species are in full bloom, our little flower puts on her prettiest petals, splashes on her most alluring scent, and fills up a nice cup of sweet nectar. Then she grabs a can of Raid….

Raid?? Yep! That baby’s packin’! To discourage the flower itself being eaten, or the barfly effect, plants mix insecticide into the nectar – namely nicotine. The flower-eaters don’t eat many blossoms due to the bitter taste and the flowers are saved. The bees sip the nectar, taste the bitterness, and move on. But they need to feed so they head for another flower where the process is repeated. I would imagine it’s like the quest for coffee. Most coffee smells wonderful, full and rich and inviting. But half of the time the taste does not live up to the promise of the aroma. Do we stop drinking coffee? Nosirree! We keep looking for that perfect cup-a-joe. Pollinators keep looking for that perfect cup of nectar.

So what would happen if bees did find that perfect cup of nectar? Quick, to the lab, Igor! Scientists whipped up a batch of modified plants that wouldn’t produce any nicotine. Results? They found that those plants (placed with normal plants) produced 2 to 5 times fewer seeds as the unmodified plants. Lesson learned: Mom Nature says you gotta take the bitter with the sweet.

Apparently the nicotine does not harm the pollinators; the nectar is still nutritious and good for them. It just leaves an aftertaste – kinda like Aunt Ruth’s infamous soyloaf. A little soyloaf serves a lot of relatives – there's always room at the table as folks move away, sometimes quickly. ;-)

So, when Spring finally gets here and I go back outside to watch the bees and butterflies, I’ll know why those little guys are so busy. And I’ll probably be just as busy, hopefully sipping what might turn out to be that tantalizing, ever-illusive perfect cup of coffee. Until those warm days are here again, cheers! Happy Valentine's Day to all!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!*

Here's what it's been like around here for the past month:

But now -- the MELTDOWN is on!


Up to 48F yesterday with a warm and constant wind from the SW. Even the 10” of packed snow and ice couldn’t compete with that. And more mild weather is promised for all this week! Not only are there large patches of grass showing this morning (it stayed above freezing last night), the re-appearance of the new ring garden, but the ice dams in the gutters have melted away. YAY! A day later - all gone! :-) The blood quickens, the heart warms and the senses swim!

*Title quote: Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lost in thought

I cannot believe how quickly January went. Here it is, already February, and I have not made myself put together a timely post on native bees. Mea culpa! Yes, it’s been a busy January what with the semester starting up again and some family matters to attend to. And when I did find odd moments to pursue the subject, my curiosity always got the better of me. I would read a little, think a little, then go off on a search for more info, read some more. It's a failing with me: a tendency to get lost in the data, swim in the subject, forget I have a goal. It's why my class papers are always late. LOL I feel that there is something more I could find out, or I’d run across some odd bit and want to know more. I'd probably make a decent research assistant, although the researcher would probably tear out their hair as their deadlines loom.

Remember how I was surprised to learn the difference between
feral and wild? How ALL European honeybees in North America are non-native? That those honeybees can (and in some documented cases do) have a negative impact on native bees and other native pollinators? That alone has made me re-evaluate the nature of my sanctuary. And now my current foray into native bees (I’ll address other important pollinators in the future) has made me glad that it is winter and there is time to reconsider certain aspects of my plant selections.

Confession time: I thought I knew something about bees. I mean really. Bees? What’s to know? I thought honeybees ruled and big and little bumble bees were cute and fuzzy and carpenter bees drove me crazy chewing up my shed. CCD? I was going to rush out and save honeybees from extinction. Oh
hubris! Thankfully my meds kicked in and a cooler head prevailed. (Could be the meds, could be the *#($*@ freezing cold winter we’re having this year! LOL). Anyway the amount of info out there to read (just the online stuff alone) has really shaken up my complacency and gotten under my bonnet. This early research is buzzing like a hive of hornets in my head, still new and undirected, difficult to know where to start. So much I would like to post, but I’m afraid at this point it would read like a biology dissertation (as one dear fan ventured ;-) ). And the last thing I’d want to be is … boring. *arg* (Who was it that said “I’d rather be wrong than boring?” Might have been a politician, can’t remember. *grin* )

So I’ll organize my thoughts, cut the info into some chewable bites and post them as the winter progresses.

Here is the first bite: Apparently there are between 3500 and 4000 native bee species in North America alone (with over 16,000 identified to date worldwide), and each of them evolved along with certain native flora. These essential symbiotic relationships developed well back in the
longtime. How long? One type of bee (which has characteristics of the wasps from which bees evolved) has been found in a piece of 100- million-year-old amber. (pic from Google images)

One hundred million years? Whoa! There’s even more to read than I thought. I’m doomed…. Stay tuned. To paraphrase the governator: I’ll bee back…