Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Price of Ignorance

When I go for a walk around my neighborhood, I always expect to find both good things and not so good things in the natural world. Good things are thriving native plants, birds, and butterflies. Not so good things are increased populations of invasive plants and humans doing harmful things.

Sassafras tree killed by human
The humans doing harmful things aspect is frustrating because I know of a lot of it comes from ignorance. To most people, the plants they kill are just plants. Cutting down the bush on the left is no different than cutting down the one on the right. How were they to know that the one on the left was a native shrub that is a host to butterfly eggs while the one they left on the right is a non-native plant that doesn’t host anything? Or worst, it’s a non-native shrub that has berries with the potential to kill native birds!

When I talk to my neighbors while they’re working in their yard, I try to point out the native plants and say positive things about them. “Oh, look you have several sourwood trees. I love how they bloom in the summer and have such great fall color. Have you had sourwood honey?” I want them to realize that they have good things there - things that are worth their attention. I offer to help identify plants if they are planning any removals or are just curious.

With the Internet today, it’s not hard to find out what a plant might be. Many times I’ve heard someone say “We’re just going to pay someone to clean out the back.” That means chopping and spraying what they don’t recognize so it is “tidy.” The hubris of humans when it comes how that bit of wild woods behind the house needs to look is harmful to the other species we live with … cover the place in dyed mulch while you’re at it, ok?

My recent walk discovered a mature Sassafras tree that was hacked to death. It was the remaining of two original ones. The first was killed two years ago by utility contractors installing a new pole. I’m not sure why someone decided two years later that this one should go now. It was healthy all through last fall. Just twenty feet away, invasive plants are moving in. This picture shows monkey grass (Liriope), Nandina, Mahonia, and Elaeagnus.  Bird poop planted the last three. The Nandina has fruit so there will be more. Across the road, tree of heaven (Ailanthus) is trying to muscle out a thicket of privet (Ligustrum) and a few pieces of Nandina. In ten years, this deciduous woodland will be full of these non-native plants.

A group of invasive plants near the Sassafras that is no more

Let’s be a bit more curious about what’s around us. Figure out what that plant is and then decide if you should keep it or not. Insects and critters depend on our willingness to share this space with them. That includes supporting the plants that they need, and they need us to know better.

In the natural world, the price of ignorance is paid by the many species affected, not necessarily the one who was ignorant.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bee Welcome

On your path to nature, what did you fall in love with first? It probably wasn’t bees, was it? We grow up from childhood with a healthy respect for creatures that can pack a powerful sting. The one I remember first was during 3rd grade recess – a honeybee in a patch of blooming clover. Today I look for bees in my garden because they are a sign of a working ecosystem, and they are always welcome here.

Southeastern blueberry bee
In my current appreciation for bees, I am naturally curious about what kinds are visiting and what I can do to make them feel even more welcome. I was excited to get a new book recently, “Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide.” It is written by Heather Holm, author of “Pollinators of Native Plants.” Her first book was great and so my expectations were high for this new book.

How did she do? The book is amazingly detailed and so full of information that my expectations have been exceeded. Chapter 1 sets the stage for detail with 30 pages of background on bees: life cycle, anatomy, nesting, their relationship with flowers, and the latest issues that impact bees. All of it is beautifully illustrated with close-up photos. This section closes with a 4-page spread that illustrates key characteristics “at a glance.” I love the pictorial illustrations that highlight the sizes; they really help me envision one bee relative to others. 

Chapters 2 through 6 get up close and personal with bee families: Colletidae, Andrenidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae, and Apidae. Each family is divided into several genera. I didn’t know that the Apidae family included the European honeybee as well as the native bumblebees (plus several others). Profiles vary in size but each includes basic information: size, months of activity, presence in the Eastern US, how they collect pollen (if applicable), nest details, life cycle, and common forage plants. Each profile has numerous photos of the bee, often both male and female.

Example of a bee profile, we have these bees in Georgia

Monarda punctata stems
I feel fortunate that I read this book so early in the season. My understanding of “leaving stems in place” for bees to nest in was obviously wrong. First, bees that nest in stems need cut or broken stems so that they have a way to get into them. Second, it is in the springtime that they use them and they need them for a whole year. I used to think they needed them over the winter and I could cut them to the ground in the spring.

Here’s an example of what they need: in spring of 2017, cut the old stems of 2016 to 15 inches. Bees will lay eggs in them during the spring. Leave those stems in place all during 2017; the new foliage will grow up around them. In spring 2018, new bees will emerge from them and then the stems will start to naturally break down. You don’t need to remove them. Repeat this every year. You could also cut some stems and stick them in other areas or in pots so that they are available to bees elsewhere. I did that with some super long stems from tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens).

Chapters 7-10 cover native plants that are good for bee forage:  Large Trees, Small Trees & Large Shrubs, Small Shrubs, and Annuals/Biennials/Perennials. Heather’s love of native plants really shines in these chapters.  Plant profiles include flowering time, distribution, habitat, what bees use them as well as helpful symbols to indicate if they support other insects, birds, or are larval host plants. Just like the bee profiles, each one is packed with information.

Example of a plant profile, Geranium maculatum is native to Georgia

A Colletes bee from 2014
I plan to use this book all through the spring and summer to watch certain plants for bee activity as well as to identify bees. Even though the book indicates its plant profiles are for the Northeast and Midwest regions, many of the plants featured are also native to the Southeast.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Revenge of the Seeds

'Bradford' pear flowers with old fruit
Pears that have seeded into the wild from cultivated stock are blooming now. These are the trees that were sold as ‘Bradford’ pears (Pyrus calleryana) and a few other names. You can spot these offspring in vacant lots and sunny roadsides – they are generally upright and have flowers in clusters of white/cream. If you were to examine them up close, they might have a musky smell and sport occasional thorns (a trait that was bred out of ‘Bradford’ but remained in its genes).

As many people know, these pears were originally promoted as sterile plants. They would not cross pollinate with each other and therefore would not produce any fruits (or seeds). However, their weak branch structure led to excessive limb damage and nurserymen worked to produce stronger, better versions, later sold as ‘Aristocrat,’ ‘Chanticleer’ and others. Unfortunately, the introduction of these other cultivars meant that cross-pollination with the older ‘Bradford’ pears would result in small but viable fruits.

'Bradford' pear fruit
This ability to bear fruit was painfully obvious in my neighborhood when a neighbor with two pears decided to plant 3 more and he selected a different cultivar. The two older trees had only occasionally set small amounts of fruit (another neighbor, further away, has some wild ones and the occasional bee was able to fly far enough to pollinate a few flowers). When the 3 new trees were planted in close proximity to his existing ones, the fruit production exploded. He now had 5 trees producing heavy amounts of fruit.

It wasn’t long before seedlings started popping up in the yard across the street from his trees – dozens of them and no doubt many more elsewhere that were not as visible.

When he first planted the trees, I mentioned that they were not a good choice. After a couple years, I mentioned that they were setting a lot of fruit and spreading into the neighborhood. It wasn’t until they affected his ability to grow lush grass (they cast shade) that he decided that maybe they should go. This winter, after they set fruit, he had that set of 3 cut down (original 2 still in place).

Pyrus calleryana seedlings
The cut branches sat in piles on the edge of his property for about a week until he got them cleaned up. Last week, as I walked past, I noticed lush growth there. Always eager to identify things, I bent down to see the source of the growth. It was thousands and thousands of baby pears!

I saw him working in the yard this week and talked to him about the seedlings. He said that he’s planning to tear up the area and lay sod. He also mentioned that he’d like to get rid of the remaining two and asked for suggestions. I told him to check out redbud (Cercis canadensis), and he said he would look it up.  It would be pretty sweet to see those last two go as well! Now to work on the other neighbor.