The Plight of the Bumblebee

An important, albeit unfortunate, historical event was marked recently with the official recognition of the Rusty-patched Bumblebee as an endangered species in the United States. So very rare, Bombus affinis now is found only in about 1/10th of 1% of its original range. This designation is historical for a second reason in that it is the first native Bumblebee in the United States to be declared endangered. Before this, as for bee species, only seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees have been so listed.

There has been much coverage over the past several years regarding the issues being faced by Honeybees. And while we do not want to diminish their human-induced importance to the production of food crops, the Western (aka European) Honeybee (Apis mellifera) is not native to North America, having its origins across the Atlantic in Western Asia, Africa and Europe. Our continent is well represented in the bee world with approximately 4000 native species – the image here gives you an idea of the range in size. Why in New York State alone we lay claim to over 450, many of them being one of several tiny Sweat Bee species. Our native bees can be “loners” or live in small colonies. BeeSizeRangeAs for shelter, they may be ground nesting or use wood for making their homes. Keep in mind that before the arrival of Europeans to this continent, our endemic bees, along with their innumerable pollinating moth, butterfly, spider, ant, wasp and fly cousins, did a fine job ensuring the continued propagation of plants across North America.  In fact, some studies suggest that native bees do a better job at pollinating than do the alien honeybees1 and contribute approximately $3 billion to the agricultural economy each year. Additionally, because these species have evolved here for millennia, they are far hardier and less susceptible to disease, pests and weather.

Protecting our native bee populations has never been more important. The listing of the Rusty-patched is a bellwether for its protégées and, given the grave issues that abound with the alien honeybee, we may need to rely far more heavily on our indigenous friends. Among the many pressures threatening their existence are habitat loss, climate change, invasive plants species (less nutritional food), and the use of neonicotinoid-based chemicals commonly found in homes, schools, and farms. There are many simple ways you can help in this regard, some making great projects for kids, families and community groups. Below are links to suggested projects and actions to support these important pollinators. Please feel free to share your success stories through our Facebook or Twitter feeds!

  1. Danforth Labs: http://www.danforthlab.entomology.cornell.edu/pollination-biology.html

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 5

Here is our fifth and final installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #5 – Flowers and Herbs:
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Flowers

Full Sun – Dry to Moderate, Well Drained Soils

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Perennial with rhizome growth form so will spread over time. Excellent for very sunny areas that drain well. Tolerant of dry conditions but flowering can be affected in drought situations. Feathery, fern like leaves with bundles of tiny flower heads.

  • Wildlife benefits: May be used as nesting material for some birds
  • Human benefits: Several medicinal uses
Echinacea, a native composite, supports human health and feeds native pollinators

Echinacea, a native composite, supports human health and feeds native pollinators

Coneflower (Echinacea sp.): Perennial coming in many varietals. Tall plants, with daisy like petals and large rounded seed center (cone). Does best if NOT mulched. For best growth and spreading, divide every few years.

  • Wildlife benefits: Butterflies and birds
  • Human benefits: Certain varietals have immune boosting characteristics.

Full Sun to Part Shade – Moist, Well Drained Soils

Bee Balm (Monarda sp.): A member of the mint family, this tall perennial has long petaled flowers in pink, light purple and dark red. Pungent scent when leaves are crushed. Excellent companion plant for a variety of flowers and vegetables. Monarda will spread so divide every two or three years if you want to keep it neat.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Human benefits: Long used as an antiseptic, to treat headaches. and for seasoning foods

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum): Perennial with light purple flowers, this native of the Northeast United States made the transfer from wildflower to garden cultivar generations ago. Flowers from mid-summer to mid-autumn. Begin pinching the plants in early summer to help them be shorter and bushier. It’s a creeper so should be divided every two years if you want to keep it under control.

  • Wildlife benefits: Butterflies, bees and birds
  • Human benefits: Named after a New England Indian healer, it is reputed to have several medicinal benefits.
JoePyeBed

A bed of amazingly tall Sweet Joe Pye Weed dwarfing the Echinacea and Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis): This beauty will do best when do-planted with taller plants which can filter the hot sun in warmer locales. It blooms in late Summer offering a showy finale as Autumn approaches. Most importantly, it is an important nectar source for Hummingbirds as they “bulk up” for the Fall migration.

  • Wildlife benefits: Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Traditionally used by the Hodinöhšönih (Iroquois) for a number of ailments. In the modern world, it is

Herbs

Although not truly indigenous to our area, many culinary and fragrant herbs do offer benefits to wildlife along with being just plain useful to humans. And cultivating your own herbs is the ultimate in locally grown.

Most herbs require full sun for at least 6 hours a day. All prefer moist well-drained conditions, although some make do under dry conditions for a time and are noted.

Thyme: Tolerates dry soils. Perennial that will spread so is good as a ground cover. Low growing and comes in several varieties.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Oregano: Best in moist, well drained environment. Can be perennial depending on variety. Some are tender perennial and may not make it through very cold winters.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Basil: Best in moist, well drained environments. Annual. Many varieties available with varying pungency, flavor and color.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary

Lavender: Tolerates dry soils: Perennial with a number of varieties. Be sure to note the agricultural zone for variety chosen. Some varieties can get shrubby so pruning and thinning could be required.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary, cosmetic, medicinal and ornamental

Sage: Best in moist, well drained soils but will tolerate moderately dry conditions. Many varieties available with varying pungency and color. Some are perennial; those that are tender perennials should be treated as annuals in our climate.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Chamomile: Roman is the best variety for our region (Chamaemelum nobile). It can do well during dry spells but is not as happy during the heat of Summer so looks its best during the cooler times of the season. Prefers moderate, well drained soils.

Roman Chamomile - small bright flowers atop delicate fern-like leaves

Roman Chamomile – small bright flowers atop delicate fern-like leaves

Although a perennial, it is really an annual in WNY but readily re-seeds.

  • Wildlife benefits: Honeybees
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Mints: Use care in planting mints because they WILL spread so consider confining them to containers, the only sure way to keep mints under control. Consider Lemon Balm, Spearmint and Peppermint. Note: While Peppermint and Spearmint generally spread via their root systems, Lemon Balm readily “jumps ship” so expect to find it popping up all around the area it’s been planted – it is easily harvested, however, and with so many uses, you’ll be happy for the volunteers.

  • Wildlife benefits: Bees and butterflies
  • Human benefits: Culinary and medicinal

Don’t miss our previous installment in this Habitat Restoration Series:

Habitat Restoration Series: Native Plant Suggestions for Western New York/Southern Ontario – Part 4

Here is the fourth installment in our Habitat Restoration Series for Spring.
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Native Plantings for WNY/Southern Ontario – Submission #4 for wet/moist soils:
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Catail (Typha latifolia)Common Cattail (Typha latifolia): Native to North American wetlands, shores, banks and even ditches, Cattails are an important species for wildlife. Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and certain species of duck and geese will use Cattail “groves” for nesting. Fish can find safety from prey and sun in the Cattails or lay their eggs among them (as do many other aquatic animals) while Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) use them as a food source. Growing from rhizomes, Cattails are generally found in clumps or stands where each individual is often a genetic clone of its neighbor. The dense growth of Cattails has other benefits, including filtration of water and erosion prevention. Traditionally, these plants were an important protein source in Spring among native peoples who also made use of the leaves for weaving baskets and mats, the fluff for insulation and padding, and fibers for string or paper. Cattails are being challenged for habitat by the invasive Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and can really use our help in getting established in suitable locations. So if you’ve an area where it is continually wet and soggy or is characterized by seasonal flooding, Cattails might be an excellent candidate. Wildlife will appreciate it and you will be able to enjoy those “sausage heads” swaying in the Summer breeze.

Previous posts in this series:

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

More Lessons from Nature

This morning’s edition of BirdNote provides yet another example of how Nature provides balance. By taking time to study the systems on planet Earth, we can find many solutions to problematic circumstances that make use of what Nature already provides.

Tree Swallows are cavity nesters and easily encouraged through the installation of next boxes. (Photo courtesy of http://www.treeswallowprojects.com/)

Tree Swallows are cavity nesters and easily encouraged through the installation of next boxes.
(Photo credit:  http://www.treeswallowprojects.com/)

The BirdNote broadcast illustrates this concept through a horse farmer who  noted how native Swallows feed on insects. From witnessing this, he was inspired to put them to work battling the horsefly problem on his ranch. By simply providing nesting opportunities, Mark has the flies under control, brought peace to his animals and helped support Swallow reproduction.

I can attest to the excellent maneuverability of Tree Swallows having been dive-bombed untold times while monitoring an Eastern Bluebird nest box trail (no injuries resulted). So it is no surprise that Swallows of all kinds can snap up insects in flight with supreme ease.

This is how it’s done, folks. So many solutions to both practical and personal issues are already in play so get out there and discover how to live a more balanced life through the systems at work in the natural world.

Click the icon below to listen to the BirdNote broadcast, Mark Borden and the Swallows: