Where Have all the Bees Gone?

honey_bee_hoveringI received an email from a reader not too long ago who lives on a ridge top outside Scotts Valley. She wrote that her “flowering plums have no ‘buzz’ about them when she walks by. Even (her) rosemary is not a buzz. A Few yes, but not nearly the normal. Why is this year different?” Where have the honey bees gone?

Bees have been in the news a lot especially since 2006 when beekeepers started to report higher than usual colony losses. We depend on honey bees to pollinate everything from fruit to vegetables to nuts. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult or dead bee bodes but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. According to the US Dept of Agriculture no scientific cause for CCD has been proven. But I read about recent research that has discovered a link between a family of systemic insecticides and colony collapse. This got my attention.

Honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of problems from zinnia_with_honey_bee2deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources and now we are finding out more about the sublethal effects of pesticides.

Insecticide labels warn the user not to spray when bees are present or allow the spray to reach a water source. But what area the effects of systemic insecticides used to control aphids, mealy bugs, lawn insects, grubs, thrips, termites, scale, or leaf beetles on your roses, trees, shrubs and lawn? The makers of these products that contain imidacloprid, a common systemic, say their studies show that even if a product is highly toxic for insects, it is almost impossible that the insect will ever get in touch with this product and are not at risk.

But that’s not really the whole story. Unlike other pesticides which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, a systemic pesticide is taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues- the leaves, flowers, roots, stems as well as pollen and nectar.

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of systemic insecticides that are especially effective against sap feeding insects like aphids. They are also being used to treat genetically engineered corn seeds. Applied to seeds, the pesticide spreads through the plant as they grow attacking the nervous systems of a wide range of corn crop pests.

This is whoney_bee_pollen_sacshere the recent studies have shown that these pesticides do affect honey bees but not by outright killing them. After exposure to pollen from one of these systemics the bees navigational systems seemed to go haywire. and they were several more times more likely to die before they could make their way back to the hive. Another study has shown that these neonicontinoids can wreak havoc with the bee’s neural circuitry causing them to forget associations between the scents of flowers and food rewards.

A Florida beekeeper sums it up by saying “The thing is, you don’t have to physically kill the bee. You just have to impair him so he can’t find his way back to the nest. “

Bottom line, protect our pollinators and improve honey bee survival. Plant more plants that provide nectar and pollen for honey bees such as bee balm, agastache, clover, catmint, lavender, yarrow, hyssop, aster, coreopsis, verbena and black eyed Susan. Natives plants that are good sources include California poppy, salvia, buckwheat, ceanothus and toyon. Use only organic insecticides and avoid applying during mid-day hours when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants and only then if you can’t control a pest with any other methods including Integrated Pest Management techniques.

Help save the bees.

The Continuing Saga of my Raffle-Winning Bonsai

Jan_bonsaiIt all started several years ago at the annual bonsai show presented by the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai Club. I was sitting in the front row watching the sensei (meaning teacher) finish styling an overgrown 5 gallon juniper into a breathtaking specimen. It was truly impressive with the branches suggesting a tree growing on a windswept hill. The raffle started which is one of the main fund raisers for the club. Of the many prizes offered the large specimen created by the sensei is the the most coveted. I sat and sat and sat as dozens of numbers other than mine were called and eager winners walked away with smaller finished bonsai, starter plants, pots and tools. But then the last number was drawn with much fanfare as this was for the giant creation. I heard my number. I was beside overjoyed not only because I never win anything but because this prize was so exquisite.

Fast forward to the present. With the 27th Annual Bonsai Show coming Ed_instructs_Janup I knew I would be asked how my specimen was doing. I hate to admit but I hadn’t repotted it as I should have and how do I prune the darn thing? So I sought out an expert in the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club to help me. Although it’s not difficult repotting a bonsai is quite different than repotting an ornamental shrub on your patio. I didn’t want to mess up.

Fellow Bonny Dooner and longtime member of the club, Ed Lambing was more than happy to show me his collection and help me with the repotting of my juniper. He even shared with me his recipe for the mix he uses which is usually a highly guarded secret by bonsai enthusiasts-on the same scale with “if I told you I’d have to kill you”.

Ed and Nancy Lambing have created a beautifully landscaped garden Ed_bonsai-collectionthat just keeps getting better with time. From the koi pond to the naturalistic rock swimming pool to the wisteria pergola everything looks like it has always been just so. At every turn Ed has displayed his larger bonsai on tree trunks and flat rocks. He also has a greenhouse for repotting and nurturing cuttings, a bonsai nursery where specimens are in training and a bonsai display area for his prized specimens that gets the best morning sun and afternoon shade.

The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most bonsai_collection-Edbasic definition of the living art form. “Bon” means tray or pot while “sai” means to plant. Ed’s interest in this art form first started 30 years ago. He now has more bonsai than I could count. He has a California juniper bonsai that is estimated to be 400 years old based on It’s trunk diameter. It takes 100 years for this plant to grow 3/4” trunk thickness. Other trees in his collection include several very old and gnarled olive trees, citrus, shefflera, maples and elms to name just a few.

Back in the greenhouse we started to repot my juniper. Ed wired some small branches to create a more wind-blown look, eased my root-bound dwarf Japanese garden juniper from it’s pot and proceeded to tease the roots. Other steps ranged from wiring screen over the holes in the bottom of the pot to root pruning 2/3 of the root hairs- yikes- and then placing the trunk over gravel at the side of the new pot to mimic the effects of wind on the tree. Ed advised me that my tree was a good prospect for a root over rock or “Sekijoju” specimen in the future. I’ll need to find just the right rock for the upper roots to grip and look like they were exposed by erosion over a period of time.

After wiring the top heavy juniper into the pot. Ed added his special bonsai IMG_0967potting mix and then used a chopstick to wiggle the mix down into the root ball to eliminate air pockets and compact the mix over the entire pot. Bonsai in America has thankfully evolved into it’s own style. I love the look oJan_bonsai2f the glazed pot I used when repotting my tree but traditional Japanese style would have used a plain unglazed one.

All the members of the Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club are busy getting ready for their annual show. Each decides which of their specimens will be entered in the show, offered for sale or contributed to the raffle. Moss needs to be collected, the correct base chosen to complement each specimen, training wires removed, pots cleaned and polished.

Ed has a 20 year old Japanese Maple that he plans to show. It started life before he got it as a 5 gallon plant and has been in training ever since. Unfortunately, a beautiful wisteria which was just starting to bloom at the time of my visit will be mostly finished by the time of the annual bonsai show so won’t be there.

One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how old they look. While some are actually hundreds of years old and handed down in families others just look very old and some techniques help further this allusion. Ed plans to show another California Juniper, this one 200 yrs old and originally styled by famed bonsai sensei “Mr California Juniper”, Harry Hirao. Using the “Jin” technique it has the illusion of even more age due to the weathered dieback of some branches.

Every plant sold or raffled at the show comes with an invitation to the monthly Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club meetings where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured. You can find out more by attending the 27th Annual Bonsai Show which takes place from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm on both Saturday, March 28th and Sunday, March 29th at the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front Street in Santa Cruz. Entry fee is $5 per person for the Bonsai Show and Museum.

Besides taking in the beautiful bonsai on display you can purchase breathtaking finished bonsai and starter plants as well as get experienced help with trees purchased. There will be door prizes and refreshments. You might even win the raffle for the demonstration specimen created each day at 2:00 pm by Bonsai Artist, Mike Pistello.

The Garden of Our Dreams vs The Real World

polygala_Petite_ButterflyWith our gardens coming to life at this time of year we are hopeful that each plant will achieve its full during this growing season. But that doesn’t always turn out to be the case and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem. Growing plants isn’t an exact science. What works over at the neighbor’s yard doesn’t always apply to ours. What are the different factors that can make a plant thrives or just mope along? And how can you plan when one “reliable” plant source says the plant will get 6 ft tall an another shows that same plant as reaching 8-12 ft tall and just as wide?

When designing a garden whether it’s a client’s or my own I need to take lavender_West_Zayanteinto account the growing conditions such as soil type, nutrients, water requirements, high and low temperature, space and light. Most all plants use water to carry moisture and nutrients back and forth between the roots and leaves. Some need more water than others to do this but all have their own levels of tolerance. Too little or too much water or nutrients can be harmful to your plant’s progress.

Healthy soil provides an anchor for plant roots and helps support the plant in addition to providing nutrients. Healthy soil contains micro organisms and adding organic matter to your soil when you plant and in the form of mulch will increase your soil’s fertility.

Choosing the right plant for the right spot is another important factor but how can you determine if your garden has the right amount of sun or shade or moisture? In our area a good rule of thumb in deciding if your plant is getting enough or too much sun is to look up during the growing season and see how many hours of sun, part sun, bright shade or partial shade your area is receiving. To simplify, it’s not as important what is going on during the winter but knowing the summer conditions is crucial. Too little light can make plants weak and leggy looking with few flowers or fruit.

Allow enough space for your plant to grow. Plants can become stunted without enough room to grow and overcrowded plants often get diseased when air doesn’t freely flow between them. There’s a difference in a plant that just needs a little time to kick in and really start growing and one that is not thriving. Be patient.

Plant your new addition correctly. When digging the hole be sure that you loosen surrounding soil 2-3 times the width of the root ball. There is no rule that you can’t loosen the soil even wider around your planting hole. Use the shovel to loosen the edges of the hole so that it’s not hard and smooth. Roots have an easier time of growing out from the initial hole is sides aren’t hard as a rock. You can loosen the soil below the depth of the root ball if it’s really hard and amend it also. Be sure to firm the soil underneath the plant so the crown of your plant doesn’t sink below grade and drown during winter rains or watering. Planting a bit higher than the surrounding soil also allows for a 2” thick layer of mulch.

If you have a steep hillside, a super sunny or deep shade location or problem soil all the above tips are important for your planting success.

An Adventure in Wildflower Country

Hwy25_wildflowers.1920Being that it’s nearly spring I decided to check on the progress of this year’s wildflowers. I figured the back of a motorcycle was a good way to get up close and personal with the backroads of our rolling hills. Outfitted in my riding suit I looked more like a storm trooper out of Star Wars than a gentle gardener but safety comes first. So off I rode heading down Hwy I recently on a beautiful sunny day.

Outside Watsonville I rode past strawberries so ripe and red you could see them from the road, then over towards San Juan Bautista where the apricot and walnut trees are getting ready to blossom. After lunch on the plant-filled iris_bearded-blue.1920patio at Jardines de San Juan I rode out of town. The real treat came while riding Hwy 25 which is the gateway to The Pinnacles National Monument. Although the rains have not been nearly enough for the year they have been generous enough to carpet the hillsides with wildflowers. Vast fields of rich blue annual lupine bloomed below patches of golden poppies covering the hills. Large expanses of acid yellow wild mustard swayed in the breeze. Coreopsis, fiddlenecks and thousands of small, ground hugging wildflowers completed the scene. The weather was warm and perfect for a wildflower outing and two female elk crossing the road could not have agreed more.

Strohn_Ranch.1600But there was more adventure to come. On I rode down to Priest Valley on Hwy 198. Arriving at sunset at Strohn Rocking 7 Ranch I first observed a flowering cherry besieged with small moths. Interesting in itself, it was the bats that came out to swoop up the moths for dinner that fascinated me. This historic 160 acre property is nestled in the Diablo Mountain Range of Southeast Monterey County and was one of the original homesteads that operated as a pump station when the oil fields of Coalinga were first established and the pipeline extended to the coast along this route.

The animals were penned up to protect them from bobcats, coyote, alpacas.1600mountain lions and other predators at night but come morning they are fed and most get to free range for the day. All except the peacock and guinea fowl who won’t come in for their own good. The rest of the menagerie including 2 alpacas, several wild turkey, chickens, a herd of African Pygmy goats, a dozen Indian Runner Pygmy_goats.1600ducks and two French geese enjoy the grasses growing around the ranch. A wild pheasant comes and goes as he pleases but roosts at sunset in the tall trees. Cottontail rabbits scurried everywhere along with some baby bunnies looking longingly at the garden and ornamental plants that were protected by chicken wire.French_geese.1600

I was sorry to leave the ranch and all it’s inhabitants but had heard that Jolon Road west of King City had good wildflower potential. Bisecting Fort Hunter Liggett the area has been mostly protected from ranch and farming activity and still boasts oak tree forests. Either it was too early for a good wildflower display or winter rains have not been adequate so I headed on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road up and over the Santa Lucia Hwy1_from_Nacimiento-Ferguson_Rd.1600range to the coast. This is one of the most gorgeous drives on the Central Coast as the roller coaster road passes Nacimiento River and ends with breathtaking views of the Pacific. Lots of California poppies decorated the roadside.

I’m looking forward to more wildflower adventures next month. We live in such an awesome and gentle place.