Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Bumbles Nest

The blog is a way for me to share Georgia’s beautiful native plants, the insects, and the critters that depend on them, as well as my weekly discoveries and adventures in the natural world. Of all the things I write about, the stories that originate in my own garden are the most special. This week’s blog is about bumble bees in the garden.

Female bees pack pollen on their hind legs (on Monarda fistulosa)

Males bees are just looking for nectar for themselves (on Monarda fistulosa)
Bumble bees have always been a part of my garden. I see them visit many, many flowers. Right now they are squeezing into the beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) flowers and slurping up the last bit of nectar from the nearly spent wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Surely they must live nearby? 

Bumble bees are one of the few native bees that form a social nest, which is a collection of wax balls with eggs and a nectar pot. 

A bumble bee approaches Penstemon digitalis

Bees are excellent pollinators of milkweed (on Asclepias exaltata)
According to Heather Holm’s book, bumble bees nest in a variety of places: rodent holes, under plant debris, in old bird nests, and other insulated places. This spring I actually found one. In mid-April, I noticed that wrens were building a nest in the garage. Last year they had built one in an old straw hat on a shelf outside the garage. I decided to clear out that nest to encourage them to use it again. As I dumped the old nest onto the ground, an angry buzz came from it!

Puzzled – and more than a little alarmed – I poked it again and watched for any activity. Another angry buzz sounded but nothing came out. I left it for a day and pondered what to do. I reached out to Heather and she said that it could be bumble bees. She suggested trying to carefully put it back into the hat and return it to the general area. Armed with gloves and cardboard for sliding, I reassembled it that evening (also her suggestion). 

Bumble bee entering the nest
At that point, I could only wait to see if the nest would remain viable. This week, I was finally able to be around and see bumble bees entering the nest. It was still good! I’m sure there are other bumble bee nests somewhere in the garden, but I’m glad to have a confirmed discovery of one. (Maybe I can dissect it when they’re done with it.) Bumble bees are not aggressive around their nest like yellow jackets so I don't mind having it on the shelf.

Next week when I clean out the bluebird box, I’ll be sure to stash that old nest somewhere the bees might find it next spring.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Snag Down

The snag in 2016
Snags are dead trees that are still standing. I had a dead pine tree next to the driveway for 6 years. Over the years it provided food for several birds in the form of bugs that lived under the bark. I have photographed brown-headed nuthatches and pileated woodpeckers using this tree.  When it fell down this winter, I was sad to think its usefulness was done.

Brown-headed nuthatch in 2014

I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that it has one more service to render. It broke about 2 feet above the ground. The stump had several carved areas courtesy of the pileated woodpeckers. I heard the soft calls of the brown-headed nuthatch and watched as one checked out the stump. It returned day after day, and I decided that it was actively working the area, perhaps searching for bugs.

One day there were two of them and it finally occurred to me that they were enlarging the hole to make a nest! Now the pair of birds was working in earnest. It was adorable to watch them spit out mouthfuls of wood chips as they worked. As each day progressed, they went further into the hole until there was no sign of them; I could only hear the tapping inside. Sometimes the mouthfuls were big and the chips went in all directions. See my video here.

In between hollowing out their nest hole, I could see them foraging for bugs in the needles of living pine trees nearby. I also put out a few dried mealworms for them to snack on. It’s always amazing to see how hard working birds are when it comes to the business of making a family.

Nuthatch works on the second tree
Later they abandoned that nest and moved several feet over to a taller (and skinnier) snag. Once again the sounds of their gentle tapping and their squeaky conversations filled the air.

We look forward to hosting a new family of baby nuthatches. Research shows that brown-headed nuthatches have one clutch per year and that the number of eggs could be 4-7. Brown-headed nuthatches are not rare but they are not common either. They rely on southeastern pine forests so loss of habitat affects their population. 

Male pileated woodpecker excavating for grubs

Leave those trees when you can, but even if you have to drop them for safety reasons, on the ground they continue to feed other things. A tree that has been on the ground for several years was "grub city" for a pileated woodpecker pair this spring.

I don't often cheer for dead trees, but you can see that there's reason to celebrate them too.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Coreopsis in the Garden

I often describe purple coneflower as the native plant perennial poster child because it is well-liked and fairly available. When talking to people about native perennials that they might use in their garden, you can mention purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.) and heads start nodding. After purple coneflower, a close second is black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.); people are usually familiar with that dependable garden staple. I think that Coreopsis should be the next big garden thing.

Coreopsis gladiata on a south Georgia field trip
This genus of flowering plants has both annual and perennial members, 18 of which are found in Georgia. They range in habitat from sunny and dry to sunny and swampy, and can be found throughout Georgia.

One species is considered more shade tolerant (Coreopsis latifolia) but they really like sun. Most of them are yellow, but several species have pink flowers. Several are noted as host plants for the moths Tornos scolopacinarius (Dimorphic Gray) and Enychlora acida (Wavy-Lined Emerald).

I have had experience with a few of them in my garden. I couldn’t live without the dependable blooms of mouse-eared coreopsis (C. auriculata) in the spring. Its spreading ways ensure that it winds its way through the garden, pairing with all sorts of spring perennials. It and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata), which I’m also growing, are usually available at most spring sales. Whorled coreopsis (C. major) is a long-blooming summer standout for the dry area of the garden. Like others, it is usually covered in small bees.

Coreopsis auriculata can make a nice groundcover
More and more I appreciate some of our native annuals, and I am thrilled that Chattahoochee Nature Center continues to grow the Plains coreopsis (C. tinctoria) for their spring sales. I first fell in love with this yellow and red flower at a workday on a TNC property in Floyd County. I’ve also seen it growing on the side of the road a couple miles from my house. It’s sometimes included in wildflower seed packets.

Coreopsis tinctoria, an annual
Coreopsis tinctoria

And I recently got some of the thread-leaf coreopsis (C. verticillata) from a friend. It’s a nice texture to add to the garden and I hope it does well here; so far all I know is that it survived the winter.

This species, as well as several others, have cultivars developed by the nursery industry. While there is some concern over using only cultivars (it reduces genetic diversity to only use one), it generally means that you have a better chance of finding it for sale when showier forms are being propagated.

Whorled coreopsis (C. major) with pollinator
Coreopsis rosea

As always, do your own research and weigh the pros and cons. Here’s a list of the 18 species in Georgia:

Coreopsis auriculata – Piedmont/upper Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow, spreading, spring bloomer

Coreopsis basalis – Coastal Plain, annual, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis delphiniifolia – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis falcata  - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis gladiata - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, fall bloomer

Coreopsis grandiflora – middle Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis integrifolia - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, late summer bloomer

Coreopsis lanceolata – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, spring bloomer

Coreopsis latifolia – one northern county, perennial, yellow, shade tolerant, summer bloomer

Coreopsis linifolia – Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, late summer bloomer

Coreopsis major – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis nudata – Coastal Plain, perennial, pink, spring bloomer

Coreopsis palustris – one southern county, perennial, yellow with dark center, fall bloomer

Coreopsis pubescens – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis rosea – northern Georgia, perennial, pink, summer bloomer

Coreopsis tinctoria – scattered distribution in Georgia, annual, yellow with red, summer bloomer

Coreopsis tripteris – scattered distribution in Georgia, perennial, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis verticillata – no specific county records but likely, perennial , yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis grandiflora
I like to check out small nurseries from time to time and about a month ago I picked up some 1 gallon-sized Coreopsis lanceolata at Plant Life Nursery in Rome.

The plants were healthy and large; I think they were 3 for $11. Visit that nursery for natives if you’re in the area; it’s a nice, local business.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hidden Pond Trail

This trip was another field trip in the Georgia Botanical Society weekend for their annual spring pilgrimage. For the Sunday trip, I decided to sign up for the Hidden Pond Trail at Carter’s Lake in Murray County, GA after reading about it in the Nourses’ Favorite Wildflower Walks in Georgia. Also, Richard Ware was the trip leader for #23 and I can’t pass up the opportunity to learn from Richard and Teresa Ware!

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Our entry into the trail was a short walk from the parking lot and then across a small bridge on the right. I immediately saw one of the reddest red buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) that I’d ever seen, surrounded by a grove of blooming bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). Around us were yellow trillium (Trillium luteum, smell it to be sure ….), dissected toothwort (Cardamine dissecta), and red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Woody plants included winged elm (Ulmus alata) as well as both blackhaw viburnums: southern blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) and rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum).  

Frasera caroliniensis
Dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne)

Next we came to an area full of American columbo (Frasera caroliniensis), a tall member of the Gentianaceae family. Only a few of them were putting up bloom stalks this year. I might have to come back in a couple months to see the blooms. We also saw black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), fire pink (Silene virginica), dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne), and bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana).  

Prunus americana
Shooting stars

After passing across the observation deck (where I spotted a blooming American plum (Prunus americana) and hacked my way over to it to confirm it and see a tiger swallowtail butterfly on it), we came to shady area with loads of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom under a grove of buckeye hybrids (Aesculus spp.). From there we looped back towards the parking lot, passing some of the largest clumps of yellow trillium on the whole trail.

After the hike, I took a short trip up the road (less than a mile) to see a dry slope with a marvelous population of bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata). I had seen it two days earlier on my trip to Coosawattee Bluffs and knew that I wanted to get a picture of it. Of course, the picture pales in comparison to the real thing.

Bird's foot violets (Viola pedata)

Hidden Pond Trail is available to anyone, any time that the recreation area is open. The entrance to the Carter’s Lake Reregulation Dam Recreation Area is on Old 411. The sign for the trail is visible from the parking area.