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 where 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. “

honey_bee_pollen_sacsBottom 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.



Gardens Change with Time


quiet_path.1280Call it a trick, call it a treat, but all gardens change with time. It’s part of nature for the fittest to survive. Now possibly you have different ideas of what you want your garden to look like but it’s hard to fool Mother Nature. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a special garden in the Gilroy area that has evolved with time. This garden of California native plants truly demonstrates how nature can decide the best plants for birds, butterflies, wildlife and people.

It was one of our classic mild autumn days when several fellow landscape designer friends and I were treated to a tour by the enthusiastic owner of the 14 acres of land called Casa Dos Rios at the base of Mt Madonna. Jean Myers loves to share her deer_grass.1280property and especially the journey that has transformed it from a formal landscape with lots of lawn to the present truly native wild garden. She loves that the landscape now supports all sorts of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.

A few of the native plantings have been more successful than she would have liked, Jean laughed as she pointed out the California Rose thicket has taken over the entry garden. She wishes she had planted the native wood rose instead which doesn’t spread as much. She plans to remove the wild rose eventually to make room for other native plants that aren’t so aggressive.

At this time of year a native garden is at rest. There’s a quietness to the landscape as the wind blows through the grasses. Large swaths of deer grass have naturalized. Originally, Jean planted many varieties of native grasses and some still remain but the deer grass have been particularly successful. Jean explained that this grass was used for making baskets by the Ohlone Indians that used to live in the area. To keep this grass fresh looking she cuts them back to 6 inches from the ground in late winter.

Calif_fuchsia.1280The California Aster was still blooming along the path as we made our way to the frog pond. This plant is well liked by the native moths and butterflies, Jean said, as it provides a late source of nectar. The lavender flowers make perfect landing pads. The two species of butterfly weed bloomed earlier in the season and had already spread their seed for next year.

The frog pond consists of basalt columns that drip water into a deep pool filled with rocks which cools the water in the heat of the summer. Jean said the area is usually alive with birds but they were keeping their distance during our visit. Lots of time for them to bathe later when we weren’t invading their space. She said Pacific Tree frogs and Western toads call the area home, too.

Another late blooming plant, the California Fuchsia, covered a slope alongside massive granite boulders. You could barely see the foliage through the hundreds of flowers of this red blooming variety. These plants spread easily and with a bit of late winter pruning look great late into the season.

Jean loves all her native plants. From the butterfly garden to the bog garden she has a story to tell about each Calif_buckwheat.1280area. In the spring, Jean said, the native iris steal the show. She rounded up 600 of these from nurseries all over California when the garden was first planted. Grouping each type together she says was half the fun to keep the colors pure in each stand. I was amazed to see them in areas of full sun as well as part shade locations.

We picked late blackberries and raspberries as we walked around this amazing 14 acre property that benefits all wildlife. She is an avid birder and she and her husband manage two creeks, the Uvas and the Little Arthur that support hundreds more bird species, including bluebirds, swallows and owls. “There’s so much for them to eat here.” says Myers. She lets nature feed and attract all the native wildlife that visits.

It was a privilege to listen to Jean share her enthusiasm for gardening with California natives to attract wildlife and to conserve water. I left with my pockets filled with seeds from native wild grape and clematis so I’ll always have a bit of Case Dos Rios in my own garden.



Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest- Part 2


deer_Japanese_mapleLast Christmas I gave my sister a Beni Kawa Japanese maple. This tree sports even brighter red bark in the winter than the more familiar Coral Bark maple. She recently sent me a picture of a deer standing right next to it and looking  longingly at it’s next meal. Her tree wasn’t nibbled that day but I was anxious to visit Fox Island where she lives in the Pacific Northwest to check on it for my self.

The morning after I arrived I heard the neighbors next door outside in their garden chatting. I have seen their vegetable garden from outside the fence as I drove by and was curious what they had growing in there. I introduced myself and was offered fresh picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “Come by after breakfast and we’ll give you a tour”, they said. I could hardly wait.

The front of Bob and Bev’s corner lot is landscaped with perennials, flowering trees and shrubs. Everything on the property is grown organically, they told me. “The weeds can really get out of hand up here with all the rain”, they hydrangea_paniculata_Limelightlamented. The back garden containing the edibles is fenced but the front is open to the local deer population. A massive Limelight hydrangea paniculata dominates the entry. Covered with hundreds of lime green blooms that will turn pink in the fall, Bob told me he sprays it weekly with Liquid Fence deer repellent.

White coneflower, dahlia, crocosmia, hosta and gladiola are just a few of the perennials in their landscape. Bob and Bev mix native plants with other plants they like. Native Oregon grape front_perennial_bedground cover and manzanita cover the sloping bank along with a small stand of vinca minor that is well behaved. Bev does wish she hadn’t planted the bugloss under the flowering plum but say’s the little blue forget-me-not flowers each spring are worth the effort it takes to keep it in check.

In the back, protected by a perimeter deer fence is where the edibles live.

On one side of the yard is a 40 foot stream Bob designed and built himself. Along the curving bank they have planted Oregon grape, salal, kninnikinnick manzanita and snowberry. Woolly thyme and black pussy willow also grow alongside. Wild birds love bathing in the stream. Bob used the leftover soil and rock from the stream project to construct a streammound for overbearing strawberries.

Another bed of strawberries is still producing. This one is built from timbers and amended soil from compost Bob and Bev make themselves.

The raspberry crop was great this year, Bev said. I had tasted a few and she wasn’t exaggerating.

They have an attached greenhouse, that Bob designed and built. “Overbuilt”, they both laughed.  Bob’s an engineer and couldn’t help but design thermal windows, fans, vents and a heating system that allows them to grow back-up tomatoes in the summer and to start seeds in the winter. The double pane windows keeps the temperature inside in the 40’s without the heat having to kick on. A meyer lemon grew lush in the corner covered with blossoms and fruit.

cornBob was advised he could never grow corn in the Pacific Northwest but being from the midwest where corn is king he had to try. Their crop was just setting ears at 4 feet and will grow to 7 feet tall by the end of summer. “They’re delicious”, he told me.

All bare soil in this organic garden is covered with bark chips. Bev told me she listens for a chipper in the neighborhood and tells them where to drop it off. They swear by this type of mulch. “Like gold”, Bev laughs.

Bob and Bev make gardening in the Pacific Northwest look easy. Their garden is the result of many hours of pleasant work and it shows.



Challenges of Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest


strawberries_grape_vinesThey live in a neighborhood of traditional landscaping. Large lawns surrounded by neat mounds of boxwood and foundation plants are the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. But Bob and Bev had a different vision for their 2/3 acre corner property, They wanted fruit trees, vegetables and berries in addition to flowering shrubs, perennials and roses and they wanted to grow it organically.

Bob and Bev live next door to my sister, Evan, on Fox Island. Located in the southern part of Puget Sound, the island’s weather and climate are tempered by the water that surrounds it on all sides. This is both a blessing and a curse. Strong winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rain in both the summer and winter are interspersed with idyllic sunshine and blue skies. You’d never know these challenges exist when you look at Bob and Bev’s garden. It’s spectacular.

Both love being outside. Bob was raised in the midwest and Bev on the east coast. Bev confesses that long ago she was more into zinnias and petunias and “didn’t get it” when it came to real gardening. They started creating the garden about 6 years ago with Bob designing the hardscaping and laying out the original beds and recirculating stream. They told me they “take one step at a time” in the garden so it seems it’s never done. Don’t we all know that feeling?

There are a lot of deer on Fox Island which has been an ongoing battle. Originally, after deer ate acorn_squasheverything including the red-twig dogwood, roses, fruit trees and berries, Bob put up a short fence thinking it was enough of a deterrent. When that was less than successful, he surrounded the lower property where the edibles live with a 6 ft see-through fence topped with 2 wires slanting outward. “Works great”, Bob says although they have both see deer on their hind legs trying to pull down the fencing with their hooves. One time a young buck and doe got under the fence and it took several neighbors to help herd them out of the gate.

Wildlife is abundant on the island. They take down the 3 bird feeders nightly as the raccoons were tearing them down and demolishing them to get to the feed. On this morning a small flock of American goldfinches were enjoying a meal, the males displaying their deep, butter yellow breasts. They often hear coyotes closeby and 3 years ago a couple of bears swam over to the island from the mainland. “Are there foxes on the island, too?, I asked. Bev laughed. “No, the island was named after a British explorer”, she told me. The most aggressive animal they have ever had was a pheasant they named Phinneus. Seems he terrorized the neighborhood last year. He would land on their fence, jump in and chase Bev around the garden pecking at her legs.

It was predicted that the island would have a warm, dry summer but Bev told me it’s turned out they have been getting some rain. The strawberries are still producing as are the blueberries. The blackberries, which don’t normally ripen until August, are almost done for the season. “Climate change?”, Bev theorized.

grape_cluster_greenBob and Bev’s grapes were still green but coming along nicely. They grow a concord-type grape and have good harvests in mid-September now that they allow the leaves to cover the clusters and hide them from the birds. The main vegetable garden is fenced to protect it from Delia, the dog, who loves to eat carrots right from the ground as well as some of the other vegetables. The acorn squash are growing nicely and new rows of beans have been planted and fertilized with worm casting juice.

With so much to see in this garden my head was spinning. The stories just kept coming about the successes and methods they have worked out to provide food for the soul as well as the table.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this wonderful garden on Fox island.

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