Tag Archives: beneficial insects

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.

Beneficial Gardens in a Small Space

waterfall_2He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.

It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.

While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.

The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of santivalia2nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens  that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia.  They have flat  flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.

This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.

blue_thunbergia2Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.

As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.

Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.

She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.

Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.

Kids & Gardening

Flame_Skimmer_dragonflyIn the summertime, kids have lots of time to enjoy the great outdoors. What better way to teach them how our planet works than to let them grow something in their own garden. Share your enthusiasm for gardening by getting your kids or the neighbor kids interested, too. You'll find sharing your knowledge with a child particularly rewarding and you will have helped create a fellow gardener for the rest of their life.

It may be July but it's not too late to start. Make it enjoyable for everyone by giving kids their own section of the garden or yard to do as they please. I planted pansies as a child in my special area. I also had a couple of big pots filled with potting soil to start my own seeds. Size doesn't matter as long as you let the child choose what they'd like to grow.

Teach children about beneficial insects like butterflies and lady bugs. Good bugs help plants by pollinating flowers or preying on insect pests. Make your garden a more inviting place for these helpful insects by planting lots of flowers and herbs to attract them. Flowers with umbrella shaped clusters of small flowers such as cosmos, zinnia, black-eyed susan and yarrow are favorites of butterflies.  Lady bugs like a pest free garden and will patrol your plants looking for any tiny insects and their eggs.

I remember when I was little and had my own garden patch how excited I was to see a dragonfly. My father was happy, too, as they are a great way to control mosquitoes and other pests. They're the top predators of the insect world. I was fascinated by their bright colors- some reddish orange, some blue, some purple. By  planting a variety of plants and flowers to attract them they would visit my little garden often. They seemed to find a water source to lay their eggs on their own.  I was amazed at how fast they could fly. I've read they can reach speeds of 30 mph.  They are an important part of my early gardening experience.

Edible flowers are also fun for kids to grow. Some common ones to try are tuberous begonia petals that taste like lemon.  Calendulas are spicy as are carnations and marigolds.  Dianthus are clove-flavored, nasturtiums give a hint of horseradish and violas, pansies, hollyhock, squash blossoms and johnny-jump-ups taste like mild lettuce.   You can also freeze flowers in ice cubes like violas, fuchsias, geranium, stock and thyme. The blossoms of beans and peas can be added to a salad or sandwich or use them to decorate the tops of cupcakes and cookies.

Plant a pizza garden.  Use a hose to form a round garden shape and border it with stones or another type of edging of your choice.  Divide the "pizza" into slices using stakes or one of your plant varieties such as basil.  Add stepping stones for the pepperoni slices and plant each section with one tomato plant and one green bell pepper and fill in with garlic, oregano, chives and basil.  By summers end you'll be harvesting the makings for a delicious home made pizza.
 
Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow one in the garden.  You can plant tall growing sunflowers in a circle, leaving a space for a "door" that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown.  Or build a simple teepee out of fallen branches or long gardening stakes and plant bean seeds around the outside.  Scarlet runner beans are also good and have tender, young pods like green beans in addition to bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds.  Beans grow fast and soon make a great secret hiding place.
 
Another fun project is growing birdhouse gourds.  This fast growing vine can beautify fences and trellises during the growing season.  In the fall, dry and hollow them out to make birdhouses or gorgeous crafts.  You can burn patterns into the surface and stain the gourds with shoe polish making beautiful objects of art that make great gifts.  
    
Flowers that kids can cut
will be interesting for them, too, especially when planted in their own garden.  Cosmos, planted from six packs, provide instant color as well as attracting butterflies.  Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and are a favorite of swallow-tail butterflies.  Other easy to grow flowers for cutting are snapdragons and who hasn't pinched these to make faces ?

Besides flowers, fragrant plants like lemon basil, lime thyme, orange mint, chives, sage and other herbs engage the senses and can be included in a kid's garden. Lamb's ears are soft and furry.  Get a kid interested in gardening and they'll be happy for a lifetime.