Early May and a Garden Grows

A mason bee gathering pollen from the cherry blossoms.
A mason bee gathering pollen from the cherry blossoms.

The older I get the more sensitive to cold I become.  That means our chilly spring has kept me out of the garden.  And, though the sun has been shining a bit today, it’s still cool, especially when the wind kicks up.  The old cherry tree is beginning to fade.

Unoccupied bee abode waiting for tenants.
Unoccupied bee abode waiting for tenants.still humming with bumble bees and mason bees.
Notice the pollen sacs on the hind legs of this mason bee. It is mason and other solitary bees that pollinate fruit trees. The next time you bite into an apple or pop a blueberry in your mouth, you can thank native bees. Honey bees are still snuggled in their hives. And, native bees are far better pollinators.
Notice the pollen sacs on the hind legs of this mason bee. It is mason and other solitary bees that pollinate fruit trees. The next time you bite into an apple or pop a blueberry in your mouth, you can thank native bees. Honey bees are still snuggled in their hives. But native bees are busy pollinating early bloomers, and, they are far more efficient.

The cherry tree is beginning to lose its blooms and there are small green cherries taking their places.  But there are enough pollen-filled flowers to attract native beens like the mason bee above. I bought a solitary bee house last June when I got back from the Garden Bloggers’ Fling in Toronto, and noticed this afternoon that one of the chambers is full.  To learn more about native bees click here.

We’ve had a lot of rain this spring and our latest deluge knocked most of magnolia blossoms to the ground. I did manage to get a shot before the day turned gloomy again.

A bit tattered, but still lovely.
A bit tattered, but still lovely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But when the sun was still shining, it caught June Fever with some lovely backlighting.

June Fever, one of my favorite hostas.
June Fever, one of my favorite hostas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wish I had planted more of these. In fact, I can't imagine why I didn't.
I wish I had planted more of these. In fact, I can’t imagine why I didn’t.

Native Pollinators

It used to be that I hated all insects.  And, I confess, I dislike the majority of them even today.  I usually wear gloves when I garden so that I don’t have to accidentally touch a worm, slug, or bug.  But over the past few years I have come under the spell of bees, especially bumblebees and carpenter bees.  I didn’t know much about them, nor was I particularly compelled to learn more.  If I kept my distance, both I and the bees could maintain a manageable level of comfortableness.

A carpenter bee drinking nectar from a purple coneflower.
A carpenter bee drinking nectar from a purple coneflower.

I knew about bumblebees and carpenter bees.  I got stung by a wasp once.  And,  I remember my mother telling me that “sweat bees” were harmless.  And, I knew that moths and butterflies also pollinated flowers, but that was the extent of my knowledge.  It was during the  Garden Bloggers’ Fling in Toronto in June that I learned more about native pollinators. When I found out that a “Buzztini” was on our Fling agenda and that there would be a short presentation, sponsored by Burt’s Bees and the Fairmont Hotel, I was prepared to ask why we were spending so much effort saving honey bees when they are not indigenous to North America.  But, I didn’t have to ask that question.  The short presentation respected the role that honey bees play, but it also focused on mason bees and other native bees and how wonderfully efficient they are at pollinating.  In fact, they are often more efficient than honey bees. And, at a number of the gardens we visited during the Fling, I spotted native bee “hotels.”  You can learn more about the Fairmont’s worldwide efforts to support native and honey bees here.

Two native bee "hotels" at one of the private gardens we toured in Toronto.
Two native bee “hotels” at one of the private gardens we toured in Toronto.

When I first heard Flingers talk about mason bees, I thought they were using another name for carpenter bees. Silly me. Mason bees are a different species and are solitary, meaning they do not nest in hives, but, instead, in single little tubular compartments in trees and buildings.  One of the first things I did when I got home from Toronto was order a solitary bee abode.

The solitary bee abode I purchased when I returned from Toronto.
The solitary bee abode I purchased when I returned from Toronto.

It arrived within a few days and when I was hanging it in the cherry tree, I looked for other places in the tree that might house mason bees and other wild native bees.  Sure enough, I saw one going into a round hole in a scar where a large limb had fallen the summer before.  Cherry trees limbs sometimes snap under the weight of fruit.  No one has set up housekeeping in my solitary bee house, but it went in late, probably after prime egg-laying season. My hope is that next year a few females will find it attractive enough to lay eggs. I have noticed some sweat bees flitting in and out, but I think that is more about curiosity than house hunting.

Native bees have taken up residence in the old cherry tree. They dig circular holes in the soft wood and create chambers that each house a single egg.
Native bees have taken up residence in the old cherry tree. They dig circular holes in the soft wood and create chambers that contain a single egg. You can see at least two holes to the top right and one at the lower right of the knot hole.

There are 130 different varieties of mason bees in North America!

Female mason bees find holes created by other insects, including carpenter bees, or in cavaties hollowed out by woodpeckers. They also use hollow reeds.  Once a bee has found a suitable nesting place, she gathers pollen and nectar that form a pillow from which a solitary larvae feeds as it grows.  The mother bee partitions that chamber with a plug made of plant material (hence the name “mason” bee).  The plug becomes that back wall for another nest.  Bees destined to be female are in the back chambers.  Those destined to be males are in the chambers closer to the outdoors.

This mason bee was dining on catmint near the cherry tree.
This mason bee was dining on catmint near the cherry tree.

 

Mason bees and carpenter bees are usually better pollinators than honey bees.

Honey bees were introduced in North America by colonists in the 17th century.  In fact, English colonists took bees to New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia, making the honey bee a world-wide species.

But, honey bees are not always the most efficient pollinators.  They don’t  forage during cool, wet, or windy conditions. Native bees, however, do not seem to mind that kind of weather.  Though honey bees can transfer pollen via the hairs on their bodies, because they wet pollen and and store it in “bags” on their legs, less pollen falls off of them when they are moving from flower to flower.  Large commercial bee companies transport hives from one growing region to another, which puts stress on those honey bees and further impedes their abilities to pollinate.  Solitary bees cannot be transported, which makes them unattractive to commercial bee outfits.

Honey bees get a lot of glory, but native bees should not be ignored.  Their presence means less stress for over-taxed honeybees.  And, mason bees are far better orchard pollinators, for example, because they emerge from their nests in early spring, just in time to pollinate fruit tree blossoms.  They also flat out do a better job.  In fact, one mason bee can pollinate as much as 70 honey bees.  Blue orchard mason bees look a bit like a fly with their iridescent blue/green bodies , but they are bees.  For more images of mason bees, click here.

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Leaf cutter bees often visit rose bushes. If you see round holes on leaves, they were probably made by leaf cutter bees that use the pieces to separate egg chambers. The little bit of leaf that they cut do not harm the plant.

Leaf cutter bees are darker than honey bees and have off white stripes on their abdomen.

Leafcutter bees often have white stripes on their abdomen. In my garden, they seem to like catmint and hydrangea pollen.
Leaf cutter bees have white stripes on their abdomen. In my garden, they seem to like catmint and hydrangea pollen.  Here they are feeding on the Tardiva hydrangea in the Secret Garden.

They get their name because they chew off sections of leaves and use them to partition off spaces, much like mason bees do with the mud they create.  They, too, carry dry pollen on the hairs of their bellies. Pollination occurs when the pollen from one flower is dropped on another. They are also not aggressive.

Bumblebees seem to love catmint flowers, at least in my garden. They collect pollen in sacks on their hind legs, but pollen also attaches to the hairs on their body and is transferred to other blooms when they land.
Bumblebees seem to love catmint flowers, at least in my garden. They collect pollen in sacks on their hind legs, but pollen also attaches to the hairs on their body and is transferred to other blooms when they land.

 

Carpenter bees look very similar to bumblebees, but are generally larger and do not have much hair on the top of their abdomen.  They also do not collect pollen on their legs, but carry it on the hairs underneath their bodies.

Notice the pollen that has collected on the hairs underneath this carpenter bee's body. This allows for easy transfer of pollen from one bloom to another and makes carpenter bees wonderful pollinators. These particular bee is nuzzling the white phlox in the Secret Garden.
Notice the pollen that has collected on the hairs on this carpenter bee’s body. This allows for easy transfer of pollen from one bloom to another and makes carpenter bees wonderful pollinators. This particular bee is nuzzling the white phlox in the Secret Garden.

Paul Zammit, the Nancy Eaton Director of Horticulture at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, talked to Flingers briefly about the importance of native and honey bees. He asked us what color bees are drawn to the most.  I thought it would be red. Others thought it might be yellow.  It turns out bees are drawn first to white flowers.  I should have known.  When I want to try and photography bees in my garden, I go first to the Tardiva hydrangea.  Because it blooms later (hence the name Tradiva), it provides pollen and nectar to all sorts of pollinators including wasps and butterflies.

Other Pollinators

Below are pictures of other pollinators that visit my gardens.

This cicada killer wasp landed on my Tardiva hydrangea a few days ago. It is a very large wasp that stings cicadas and lays its eggs in the body. The wasp larvae feed on the cicada.
This cicada killer wasp landed on my Tardiva hydrangea a few days ago. It is a very large wasp that stings cicadas and lays its eggs in the body. The wasp larvae feed on the cicada.

 

This beautiful wasp may strike fear in some because of its size, but the Great Black Wasp is quite mellow. Because they drink nectar, they are pollinators and visit gardens in mid to late summer.
This beautiful wasp may strike fear in some because of its size, but the Great Black Wasp is quite mellow. Because they drink nectar, they are pollinators and visit gardens in mid to late summer.
Butterflies, too, transport pollen
Butterflies, too, transport pollen.  This female Tiger Swallowtail loves the purple coneflowers in the Secret Garden.
Though they are often called bald-faced hornets, these insects are actually wasps. They get their name from the white on their faces. They are beneficial pollinators.
Though they are often called bald-faced hornets, these insects are actually wasps. They get their name from the white on their faces. They are beneficial pollinators.

2015 Garden Bloggers’ Fling: Toronto

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This amazing “backyard garden” was a visual feast. There was such lovely attention paid to height, texture, and color. The owner said she had been tending this garden for 40 years. Amazing.
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This deco fountain is part of Parkwood, the former home of a General Motors Canada president that was built in the early 1900’s. The estate features magnificent deco gardens and is the venue for weddings and other gatherings. There were two weddings happening on the day we toured. Parkwood staff served us a lovely luncheon in and around the tea house.
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The owner of this private garden has a number of native bee houses. A log drilled with holes can attract mason bees, and there are a number of companies that sell bee houses. Scroll down to learn more about native bees.

When my friend Stef asked me if I was interested in attending the Garden Bloggers’ Fling in Toronto, I immediately said yes.  It was absolutely the right answer.  What more could a gardener ask for–great people, beautiful gardens, and terrific swag. I’m a social kind of girl, so being surrounded by so many friendly and knowledgable people was the biggest plus.  But I am still marveling at the wonderful gifts I received from Lee Valley Tools.  The long bladed trowel is fabulous and the hand rake is going to be so helpful now that the mulch has been spread in all the gardens.  Yes, I still have planting to do.  Later we were blessed with Corona garden tools.  I’m going to need a bigger tool box and maybe a garden tool belt!

We began our fling at High Park, a 400 acre recreational and conservation space.  There is a continuing effort to save native plants and raise public awareness of the fragile nature and tremendous value of those plants.  We saw introduced species that have invaded other parts of the park and learned about the efforts to restore places in the park to native plants and animals that depend on those plants.  Because non-native invasive species are crowding out natives, there is a dangerous decline in native pollinators.  More about that below.

That evening we learned more about the Fairmont Hotel’s efforts to provide habitats for native bees. There is a rooftop chef’s garden and a number of honeybee hives.  But more importantly there are solitary bee houses. I’ve had my suspicions that our efforts to save our declining honey bee population have been a bit misguided and prompted by corporate interests rather than conservation.  The little presentation we saw that night affirmed my suspicions.  I recognize the value of honey bees, but the truth is that they are not indigenous to North America and have crowded out native bees.  As we diminish native bee habitats, we diminish our knowledge that the bulk of the pollination work in our natural world is carried out by native solitary bees.

I love the bumble bees that visit my gardens, though these are not solitary bees. The carpenter bees are solitary and there are lots of them nuzzling anything that blooms.  I didn’t know about mason bees who are also indigenous and excellent pollinators.

Carpenter Bee on Tardiva in my Secret Garden
Carpenter Bee on Tardiva in my Secret Garden

There are hundreds of native bee species and I’m starting to learn about the role they play in our own survival.  We will disappear when the bees do.  And if we do not pay closer attention to the needs of native bees, we will pay a tragic price for our ignorance and our carelessness.  You can learn more about the Fairmont’s efforts here.  And you can read more about the role native bees play in our own survival here and here.  Native bees do a better job of pollinating than honey bees.  Who knew!?

This amazing private garden is so much more than a back yard!
This amazing private garden is so much more than a back yard!

We also toured a private garden that has been in the making for 40 years. The owner has paid such careful attention to height, texture, color, and the needs of the plants.  There was a lovely water feature full of tadpoles.  I tried to find parents, but they must have been nestled into a moist safe place waiting for dusk.

We feasted in several ways at the former estate of General Motors Canada’s first president–Parkwood, now a national historic site.  It is a wonderful example of art deco garden design and is the venue for weddings and other events.  There were two wedding parties on the estate the day we toured.  We were treated to a lovely luncheon in the tea house next to a long reflecting pool.  The swan pictured above was one of two fountains at the top of the pool.

We toured more private gardens that afternoon, so many that they have begun to merge in my memory.  Cabbagetown, though, was a stand out.  Initially a neighborhood settled by Irish imigrants, the neighborhood is now in the midst of restoration and home to some lovely gardens.  Narrow lots have become eclectic gardens that maximize space. And we toured Evergreen Brickworks, the site of a large brick making company that has been repurposed into a farmers’ market, wetlands, and window into Toronto’s past.

A map of Toronto!
A map of Toronto at Evergreen Brickworks
Aga Kahn Museum reflecting pools arranged around a center pool.
Aga Kahn Museum reflecting pools arranged around a center pool.

We also looked at a garden the nestles into a slope that goes to one of Toronto’s ravines carved by a stream system that feeds into rivers that in turn empty into Lake Ontario.  And we visited the Aga Kahn Museum that has the most amazing reflecting pools.

It’s been a rough winter for me.  My rheumatoid arthritis flared up big time and there were days when it was a struggle just to get out of bed.  I made arrangements to get a wheel chair just in case things flared up.  But, I didn’t need it.  Those with fitness monitors reported that we were walking upwards to 14,000 steps in a day and I trudged along.  I didn’t break any speed records and I was pretty slow getting on and off the bus that took us to all those wonderful gardens, but, damn, I did it.

Part of the machinery for making bricks.
Part of the machinery for making bricks.
Allium!  I need allium in my garden!
Allium! I need allium in my garden!
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I love those hostas!
One of the private gardens we saw.  What a serene place.
One of the private gardens we saw. What a serene place.
Here is Helen, one of our organizers, doing a blue thing.  The tree in the background was discovered at a curb.  The owners of this private garden rescued it, painted it blue, and called it garden art.  Talk about re-purposing!
Here is Helen, one of our organizers, doing a blue thing. The tree in the background was discovered at a curb. The owners of this private garden rescued it, painted it blue, and called it garden art. Talk about re-purposing!A special thank you has to go to the Helen and and Sarah Battersby for all the planning.  The pre-conference reception at Lee Valley Tools, the Buzztini where I learned more about native bees, the buses, the gardens, the dinner, the lunches, the snacks all took such careful planning. Never underestimate the power of smart women!!We began our “fling” at a private garden that was amazing.  In what could have been an ordinary urban back yard, the owners created amazing beds punctuated by swaths of grass.
Information about bees at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, the smallest botanical garden in North America at just 5 acres.
Information about bees at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, the smallest botanical garden in North America at just 5 acres.