Sunday, August 25, 2019

We Counted - Great Georgia Pollinator Census 2019

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on native thistle
Last week I talked about the upcoming Great Georgia Pollinator Census. Yesterday we wrapped up the 2-day event after counting on Friday (a lot of schools participated) and Saturday. While lots of people counted in their own gardens, many organizations held counting events so that people who were unsure of their identification skills could have some help. On behalf of the Georgia Native Plant Society, I helped at a counting event in partnership with Blue Heron Nature Preserve in North Atlanta.

We counted over a 2-hour time span, enlisting some of their regular volunteers, people who came specifically for the event, and even a few folks who wandered by and were persuaded to give it a 15-minute shot. Although it was partly cloudy, temperatures reached 89 degrees while we were there. The insects didn’t mind the heat, but we took breaks under the tent and drank cool water and tea and nibbled on snacks that were labeled with information about whose pollination services made those goodies possible.

The Blue Heron team did these great labels

We used the Preserve’s community garden which had ornamental and edible plants (basil, chives, zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers) and which was adjacent to a nice wild area that had a lot of native plants like ironweed (Vernonia), late thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum), goldenrod (Solidago), and blue-flowering wild lettuce (Lactuca floridana).

Watching the zinnias
That incredible ironweed

I enjoyed seeing people learn from one count to the next how different plants support different pollinators. During the first count, one man was surprised at how many pollinators were on the native ironweed. Another man was equally surprised (and disappointed) by how few pollinators visited the New Guinea impatiens (a non-native ornamental plant). During the first break between counts, we talked about how some plants attracted mostly butterflies (the zinnias) while others attracted mostly bumble bees (the orange cosmos). People could see the real benefit of planting a diverse mix of plants to support a wide range of pollinators.

Between listening to people at the count and reading comments on the Facebook page associated with the count, it has been encouraging to see how much people have learned and noticed about our pollinators. What a wonderful educational opportunity it has been.

Bumble bee goes to the next flower;
annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
Great golden digger wasp on mountain mint
(Pycnanthemum pycnanthemoides)

Included here are some pictures from my own counting on Friday as well as some of the counting we did as a group on Saturday. I look forward to next year’s count and, as an IT person, I also look forward to learning what the data collected might do to improve our understanding of how pollinators are faring in Georgia. In the meantime, keep planting pesticide-free flowering plants and go with native plants as much as possible.

Excited bumble bee on cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Get Ready to Count!

The collection of data by large amounts of individual people can have a big impact on the subject being studied. The Christmas Bird Count is one of the oldest such data collection projects. I could not put it better myself as to how this effort matters: “The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

Examples of the categories - Top row: Syrphid fly and small green bee;
Middle row: butterfly (skipper), beetles (category 'other'), honey bee;
Bottom row: carpenter bee (smooth butt) and bumble bee (fuzzy butt).
Missing: wasp is the last category.

This year is the beginning of a new count in Georgia: a count of pollinators, primarily insects, during a time of year when they are at their most abundant (the hot, sticky, month of August!). Georgia leads the way in this new effort and we can all help to make it meaningful.

Your charge, should you choose to accept it, is to spend 15 minutes observing one flowering plant and counting how many insects land on it. Record your counts using defined categories of insects: bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, small bees, butterflies/moths, wasps, flies, and ‘other.’  The days to count are Friday, August 23 (when we hope that lots of schools will be participating) and Saturday, August 24.

Just like the bird count, you are allowed to have more than one 15-minute report if you like. I plan to count several times during those two days, using a variety of flowering native plants. Upload all your counts to the official website: . Share photos of your activities, your flowers, or your insects on social media with the hashtag #GAPollinators.

If you’re unsure of your identification ability, you are welcome to join one of dozens of community scheduled counting events all over Georgia. I’ll be helping out at several that GNPS is sponsoring. You can find them on the count’s official website (scroll down to the census counting events section):

It only takes 15 minutes to make history – let’s submit as many count reports as we can. Get your family, get your friends, and get your neighbors to count. A 15-minute count is all it takes to help bring awareness to Georgia’s pollinators and insects. 

Ok, here's a wasp in case you need a refresher on what
they look like!
I hope to see lots of butterflies.
This is a Gulf Fritillary.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Pollination Takes Two (or More)

When it comes to pollination, plants consist of those that don’t require pollination (like ferns), plants that use the wind for pollination (like oaks, pines, and grasses), and plants that need insects to do the job. It is the case of insect pollination that I want to highlight here.

Over many years, plants and insects have evolved together for the mutually beneficial act of pollination. We all know what plants get out of it: they make more fertile seed with pollination and the cross-pollination between plants means that they are genetically more diverse (which is good for species survival). Insects benefit too: some of them go for the protein-rich pollen as a food source while others want the nectar. Some do both.

Flowers evolved to have bright petals to attract insects. In some cases, certain insects became specialists on certain flowers. For those that collect pollen, visits from flower to flower take a bit of pollen from one flower and, in the process of collecting more, transfer it to the next when the insect goes to the other flowers of the same type. For insects that collect nectar, the flower has evolved to ensure that the collection of nectar doesn’t shortchange the plant’s need for pollination, sometimes depositing pollen on the insect so that is has to carry it to the next one. I call these situations ‘accidental pollination.’

Bumble bee and Centrosema virginianum, stamens exposed
as the bee goes for the nectar

Bee exits with pollen on its back to exchange with next flower

Regardless of how it happens, cross-pollination is more effective when large numbers of flowers are present. I was reminded of this increased effectiveness this week as my spurred butterfly peas (Centrosema virginianum) started flowering. Although I had two plants growing together, few flowers appeared the first week (and perhaps only on one of the plants, it was hard to tell) and none of them produced seed pods.

The next week, flowers were everywhere – easily 10 of them at once! Bumble bees were visiting them constantly. I was excited to capture how they went after the nectar, pushing up the spur to get to the nectar and, in the process, exposing the stamens and stigma to an exchange of pollen on the back of the bee itself. As a result, many of the flowers have resulted in seed pods.

Seed pod forming on Centrosema virginianum

So for better pollination as well as improved genetic diversity, keep in mind that it might take two to get the best result. Plant accordingly.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Remove Invasive Plants Early for Best Results

I drove up to North Carolina last week, driving on US-23 N/US-441 N to get to the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference. After the turnoff from Franklin, the road rises high, with potentially scenic views but the roadside has been plagued with princess tree infestations in the past. Those trees were no longer visible because they’d been swallowed up by a humongous expanse of kudzu. What an awful sight it was to see the beautiful mountains in the distance while the entire roadside had been transformed into a shapeless blob of kudzu.

Kudzu in Cherokee, NC (Credit: Tammy Mercure)

I didn’t stop to take a picture (the roadside looked a bit dangerous for stopping on), but this picture by Tammy Mercure in Cherokee, NC gives a pretty good representation of what I saw. I hadn't been up there for a couple of years and this certainly didn’t happen overnight, but it clearly could have been controlled by property management when the invasion first started. Unfortunately, infestations that appear (distribution thanks to wind, wildlife, or water spread of seed) on large and unmanaged properties contribute significantly to the increasing acreage of invasive plants.

A friend recently moved to a new property and the backyard included a rather wild and weedy area. Of course, we both realized the potential in the area for growing sun-loving native pollinator plants and immediately spotted a few worthy plants already growing there. I ventured into the space to check out something with yellow flowers and found a watermelon-sized clump of kudzu sitting in the middle! Using her shovel, I carefully removed it. If I hadn’t, it would have grown and grown over the next few years until it dominated the space, spreading into the trees in the natural area behind her property. That’s how it gets started: one plant, ignored or unnoticed and allowed to spread.

All of us should be careful to spot and deal with plants that can spread; the sooner we remove them, the less work it is. Other highly invasive plants to watch for include:

  • Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), often found in part-shade areas; it is an annual that drops thousands of seeds and goes quickly from early appearance to infestation.
  • Mulberry weed (Fatoua villosa), often found in mostly sunny garden beds; it is also an annual with lots of seeds.
  • Privet (Ligustrum spp.), mahonia (Mahonia bealei), and Ugly Agnes (Elaeagnus spp.) are shrubs that pop up initially as single seedlings spread by birds; they grow quickly. All of these are evergreen.
  • Heaven bamboo (Nandina domestica), burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii, and others) are also shrubs that pop up initially as single seedlings spread by birds; these shrubs are showing up more than they used to and thriving with the change in temperatures.
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), English ivy (Helix hedera), and vinca (Vinca spp.) are evergreen vines and ground covers. Non-native wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is another vine.
  • Bamboo (I am not even sure which ones are taking over some roadsides) is very hard to control once it gets going.
  • Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), ornamental pear (Pyrus calleryana), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), and chinaberry (Melia azedarach) are invasive trees.
  • Emerging invasive plants in Georgia also include Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) (I've seen this growing in Cherokee County and points north); garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) (in the North Georgia mountains); and Japanese chaff flower (Achyranthes japonica) (this is already present in Atlanta); Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica) (in the North Georgia mountains); and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) (in the metro Atlanta area).
  • See the whole list here.

A small appearance of Microstegium vimineum

An infestation of Microstegium vimineum just across the street;
the mow and blow crew just mows around it!

When you see these plants, even if it is just a few of them, get rid of them quickly to reduce work for yourself as well as reduce the future spread. It only takes a season or two of neglect to have a real problem on your hands.