The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On Bumble Bees

Bombus terricola (left), Bombus pensylvanicus (center) and Bombus auricomus (right), courtesy of the Xerces Society
The wild bee identification class I took at the Organic Growers School earlier this month got me all fired up about bumble bees. I've always loved their presence in the garden, but I've just been a casual observer. I had no idea that there were hundreds of species of bumble bees in the perfectly named genus Bombus.  It turns out that the bumbling Bombus is hairy, clumsy, loud, and extremely efficient as a pollinator. Bumble bees' size, fuzzy texture, and loud buzz all add to their pollinating prowess - the buzzing actually helps shake loose pollen, which then attaches to their big hairy bodies as they bumble and lurch all over the bloom.

Sadly, as I've delved deeper into bumble bees, I've learned that a number of formerly common Bombus species are in rapid decline due to habitat destruction, pesticides, invasive species, and climate change.

I was astonished to learn that bumble bees are used commercially like honeybees as pollinators for large-scale agribusiness operations. According to one study I found (Plight of the bumble bee: Pathogen spillover from commercial to wild populationsSheila R. Colla, Michael C. Otterstatter *, Robert J. Gegear, James D. Thomson, Department of Zoology, University of Toronto, available at "Since the early 1990’s, private companies have mass-produced and distributed colonies of native bumble bees (Bombus impatiens Cresson in the east and B. occidentalis Greene in the west, although more recently B. impatiens has also been shipped to the west) to large-scale commercial greenhouses for year-round pollination of tomato and sweet pepper. A pollinating force of commercial Bombus can reach 23,000 bees per greenhouse."  These large scale commercial bumblebee colonies are apparently one of several factors contributing to native bumblebee decline.  

Bombus pensylvanicus female courtesy of
The Xerces Society has a ton of great information about how to protect and conserve bumblebees including this useful publication: Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for America’s Declining Pollinators.

Besides the obvious (stop using pesticides and herbicides) there is some really interesting information about how to create habitat. For instance: most bumblebees nest underground, often in abandoned homes of other animals, including rodents and birds. So by killing mice and other rodents, land owners are indirectly decreasing bumblebee habitat.  They also like to overwinter in brushy and unmowed areas, woodpiles, grass clumps, hollow logs, dead trees, and debris piles - which means a little bit of mess is great for the bumblebees, yay!

Bombus pensylvanicus courtesy of

Xerces Society is conducting a Citizen Science Project to track the status of five declining Bombus species - of course I will be participating, since the idea of a "Citizen Science Project" gets me all fired up and ready to get out my field guides and magnifying glass and Neil deGrasse Tyson T-shirt.  One of this summer's goals will be learning to identify different Bombus species. Nerding out with the Bombus in the garden!  Because they're big and slow and harmless, I'm hoping they'll be easier to identify than some of the other beneficial insects I've hunted in years past.

More bumblebee information can be found at Bumblebee Watch and you can see some gorgeous bumblebee photos on the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab's flickr page. 

Here are a few Bombus greatest hits photos from my garden over the past few years.

Some Bombus getting busy on a sunflower

Bombus on Bee Balm 

Echinacea in last year's garden with a bodacious Bombus visitor
Rock on, Bombus. Long may you thrive and pollinate.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Medicine Made From Flowers

Echinacea purpurea harvested from last summer's garden
This time of year, it's nice to have some herbal potions around to help fend off germs and stay healthy.  I was inspired in August to make a quick batch of Echinacea tincture from flowers and leaves for future use during cold season.

For years I stayed away from tincture-making because I thought I needed to have a tincture press, precisely measure everything, and probably possess some special knowledge that I did not have.  Fortunately in recent years knowing lots of herbalists in the "wise woman" folk tradition has given me confidence to try making simple concoctions like Echinacea tincture on my own.

Because this herb is tinctured in vodka rather than grain alcohol, it is going to be less potent.  Also, I only used leaf, stem, and flower, rather than root, which will make for a milder medicine.  The medicinal properties of Echinacea root are stronger than those of the above-ground parts of the plant.

My plan was to dig up some Echinacea roots after the plants died back in the fall and tincture those too and mix the two tinctures together for a whole-plant medicine, but I haven't gotten around to it, and I've just been using the milder leaf, flower, and stem tincture.

Here's the (very simple) process I used to tincture my Echinacea:

Harvest flowers, leaves, and stems in the summer when flowers are in full bloom

Rinse off bugs and debris

Fill a quart jar with chopped leaves and flowers

Pack everything tightly down into the jar

Cover the chopped up flowers, leaves, and stems with organic vodka
It was quick and easy to make a quart.  Six weeks later, I strained the contents of the jar through cheesecloth and bottled it up in empty tincture bottles.

Rosemary Gladstar has a great little video on tincturing Echinacea - she's using dried root, but the process is pretty much exactly what I did:

Here's how my tincture turned out:

I love thinking about Echinacea in full bloom in the summertime when I dose myself up with a shot of tincture.

Echinacea purpurea blooming in my garden last summer
Sifting through summer photos, I also came across this accidental little 3-second video, which I love because it includes an audio snapshot of the sounds of summer.  I love thinking of Echinacea tincture as the essence of summer, captured in a bottle, perfect for fending off winter ailments.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Bees, Beauty, and Science

Osmia lignaria (Blue Orchard Bee), a native megachilid  bee that nests in holes and reeds
Growing up, I experienced science classes as irrelevant tedium, something to just try to get through with as little pain as possible. I remember being bored with science classes in elementary school, doing a lot of rote memorization in my high school chemistry, biology, and physics classes, and never having any interest in learning any more than I had to about science.

Something strange happened in college. To meet my minimum science requirements, sure that I would be suffering through more tedious memorization of numbers, rules, and formulas, I looked for the least boring, most "liberal artsy" of the science classes in the course catalog.  I signed up for Evolutionary Ecology and Cosmology and fell in love with both. 

Suddenly, science was fascinating, relevant, and useful.  It was tinged with mysticism and magic, and full of beauty and wonder. My two science professors, passionate about their fields of expertise, brought to life for me the science of life and of the cosmos. Evolution and ecology and the mysteries of the origins of the universe fascinated me.

But it was too late - I was already deep into my major and committed to thinking of science as something arcane, confusing, and dry -- something that belonged to science and math people, not to English majors like me. Those classes, I thought, were just odd diversions, strange aberrations, lucky breaks in my quest to knock out the core courses required for a liberal arts major to graduate.

Rachel Carson paying attention
Many years later, as a gardener and lover of the natural world, I came to feel ripped off.  Science is amazing. The universe and the planet are amazing, and science is one of the ways we witness and comprehend all of the wonder of the universe and the Earth. I wish that science classes in elementary school and high school had consisted of bird watching, making compost and studying worm bins, walks in the woods, animal tracking, night field trips with telescopes, and wading in the stream with a magnifying glass.

I especially regret not studying botany earlier in life, along with all of the life sciences - the studies of the amazing community of life on the planet--entymology, ornithology, zoology‎, microbiology, and so on.

So in small ways I've been trying to remedy my ignorance of science for years, and I've made more headway with plants than with other living things, but still feel woefully un-learned.  Carl Sagan and Rachel Carson have helped, and field guides, and smart friends, and just spending a lot of time outside in the natural world paying attention.

So when I get to look at a sweat bee under a microscope and see her back glittering iridescent green, a tiny, magical, shimmering, bejeweled surface invisible to the naked eye, it's an exciting day for me.

At the Organic Growers School last weekend I had a chance to do just that - at a class called "Meet the Bees," taught by Dr. Jill Sidebottom.  I sat next to my new blogger friend Rachel in Dr. Sidebottom's bee class, and we totally nerded out.  

Inspecting bees under the microscope

Agapostemon sericeus (Sweat Bee), courtesy of Bee Tribes of the World (bugsrus, York University)
-- similar to the emerald green sweat bee I studied under the microscope in "Meet the Bees."

Dr. Jill has been studying bees and insects sometimes mistaken for bees in Christmas tree fields, thanks to NC Extension (yay, my tax dollars at work!). She showed us a lot of specimens and put us through the paces with bee, wasp, and fly identification (I have a lot to learn, suffice to say).

The class deepened my love of the bumbling Bombus genus (Bumblebees!).  Bombus species, I learned from Dr. Jill, are excellent pollinators because they are big, hairy, clumsy, and loud.  The volume of their buzzing as they perch on the edge or hang out inside of a flower actually helps shake loose pollen, which then collects on their hairy bodies.

 Bombus terrestris (a Bumblebee species) courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
And I have a new appreciation for Sweat Bees. I love that they are shockingly, excessively beautiful in a way that is invisible to the naked eye. Certain Sweat Bees are downright "blingy" in the words of our instructor - iridescent, sparkly, exquisite, and glamorous up close. Seeing some of the members of the genus Agapostemon (Metallic Green Bees) under the microscope, you would think you must be looking at some rare and exotic insect. But it's just a pesky, common, tiny Sweat Bee.  Having seen their beauty up close, I know I'll think twice about swatting them this summer.

Rachel inspecting bees with a hand lens
Dr. Jill also shared some great sources of gorgeous photos of birds, bugs, and other natural wonders -- here are a few that live in Facebook world:

Thanks to Dr. Jill Sidebottom for a great introduction to all of the different kinds of bees in this part of the world, and thanks to the Organic Growers School for the chance to play at science!

PS/update 3/13: Thanks to Christina for sending me another amazing wild bee photo collection: the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab's Flickr stream which includes hundreds of beautiful photos of bees. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Amazing Bird Facts

Golden Crowned Kinglet
I spent yesterday at the Organic Growers School getting inspired, learning things, reconnecting with old friends, and meeting fabulous new people.    My two favorite classes were about birds and bees (cue dorky "the birds and the bees" jokes here).  

"Meet the Bees" was a wonderful introduction to identifying pollinators--more on that later.

In "Introduction to Bird Language" I learned all kinds of amazing facts about birds and how they communicate with each other - both within families and species and among species.  Here are 10 of my favorites:

Migration Paths

  1. Some birds use the stars to navigate, others use magnetic fields, others navigate by memorizing landmarks along their migration path while taking the journey with their family.  Some species combine more than one of these methods in navigating migration. Birds that navigate solely by memory and sight will sometimes become non-migratory if separated from their family group - if they haven't made the trip enough times to memorize the route.
  2. The golden crowned kinglet, barely bigger than a hummingbird, can survive temperatures down to -40 degrees. This tiny, yellow-mohawked bird is rarely seen because they are so small, quick, and tend to spend most of their time very high up in the tops of trees.
  3. 80% of a Cooper's Hawk's diet is songbirds. Almost always caught in midair.  Hawks can fly 60 miles per hour, and kill over 200 songbirds per nesting season.  It takes 53 songbirds to raise one Cooper's Hawk chick to 6 weeks old.
  4. Tufted Titmice and Chickadees are dramatic gossips who observe what is going on with other birds and talk loudly about everything they observe, sharing information about predators and other happenings with other species. You can count the "dees" in the chickadee's song to gauge the level of alarm - generally more than five "dees" indicates a higher level of alarm. Also, Titmice and Chickadees will often socialize and even share nests!
  5. Albatrosses sometimes spend six months at a time in the air - eating, breeding, and even sleeping on the wing.
  6. The dawn chorus of songbirds is always happening somewhere on the planet, and has been for millions of years.
  7. Bird language falls into five main categories: adolescent begging calls, territorial aggression, companion calls (to mates or family members), song, and alarm calls.  
  8. Cardinals pair bond for life and are constantly checking in with each other through companion calls.
  9. Alarm calls, sounded by many different species of songbird, will follow a predator through the forest, alerting all birds and other small animals to the presence of a threat as the predator moves from place to place.
  10. Some bird language is body language - in addition to vocalizations, birds use non-vocal communication to convey information within and among species.
Cooper's Hawk

Death by Cooper's Hawk
Chickadees and Titmice