Monday, January 24, 2011

Upcoming talks and events on Pollinator Gardens

Just a quick informational update - here are a few events/talks about pollinators or pollinator gardens that may interest you this winter.

name this Ontario orchid! Is it a "rare woodland plant"?
Tuesday February 1, 2011. "How to make a Pollinator Garden" by Clement Kent. TBG, for the Toronto Master Gardeners. Unfortunately, I think attendance at this event is restricted to Master Gardeners. However, I plan to drop in beforehand at the NANPS (North American Native Plant Society) meeting, also at TBG, 6:30 onward. Sean Fox is speaking on "Rare Native Woodland Plants of Ontario". Unfortunately this overlaps my Master Gardeners talk so I'll miss most of the NANPS meeting, but hope to touch base and meet those of you who are NANPS regulars there.

Also, I will be distributing a few pre-publication copies of my new booklet, "How to make a Pollinator Garden" by Clement Kent (what a coincidence - same name....wonder how that happened?) to those willing to be constructive critics, at NANPS and at the Master Gardeners. See below, Canada Blooms, for the publication launch of this booklet.

Thursday February 10, 2011. "How to make a Pollinator Garden" by Clement Kent for the Huronia Beekeepers Association, in Orillia at the Highwayman Inn, 7:30-9. Gosh, same title again? Well as it happens I shift the content of the talk depending on the audience. The HBA folk don't need a ton of details about bees (although I will be going into some detail on native bees that differ from honeybees), just as the Master Gardeners don't need detailed advice about how to care for plants. At the HBA, I'll be focusing on what kind of pollinator gardens are (a) suited to a cooler, less urban climate than southern Ontario, (b) provide maximum benefit to a suite of native bees and other pollinators, and (c) what some of steps are to use public spaces for these gardens. I hope potential pollinator gardeners in the Orillia/Barrie/Muskoka area will drop in, even if you're not beekeepers - the HBA folk say the meetings are open to all and they seem like very nice people to meet. Bee careful though - after you've sampled good Canadian honey (not the Asian imports you get in most grocery stores) you might feel a new hobby coming on...

Saturday February 26, 2011. "Pollination Symposium" of Pollination Guelph, at the Harcourt Memorial United Church, located at 87 Dean Ave in Guelph from 9am - 3:30pm ($30 in advance - email  Talks will cover such topics as the current plight of bumble bees, the importance of flies as pollinators, collecting and sourcing seeds for planting projects, creating sustainable and pollinator-friendly landscaping and school gardens, the value of native vs non-native plants for pollinators, ways to get involved as pollinator stewards in your community, and updates from Pollination Guelph.

 Liriodendron tulipifera. "wildflowerbob", Wikimedia
Monday February 28 2011. "Trees in the Urban Setting" by Linda Hawkins, for the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto, in Toronto at the Bonar-Parkdale Presbyterian Church (250 Dunn Ave., just south of Queen St. West). This might seem a bit off-topic until you realize that spring and early summer flowering trees are crucial resources for pollinators during seasons when there aren't as many flowers blooming as later in the summer. Think buckeye, honey locust, tulip tree, catalpa, redbud - these are some of our most beautiful street trees. Come and hear more about them! Also, if you want to help at the Pollinator Gardens/Project Chirp booth and Feature Garden at Canada Blooms (see next item), this meeting is your last chance to volunteer.

 Tuesday March 15 - Sunday March 20, 2011. "Pollinator Gardens/Project Chirp" at Canada Blooms.We (the Pollinator Gardens project of the Parkdale and Toronto Horticultural Society) and Project Chirp are collaborating to have a booth and a Feature Garden at this well known gardening event in the CNE grounds of Toronto. These will be on display each day of the show - come and visit us. We definitely need volunteers to help with these - if you want to help, send email with "Pollinator Gardens volunteer" in the subject line to 

Design for Feature Garden - Clement Kent

Our Feature Garden will have native wildflowers in bloom, including trees, shrubs, and perennials. They will be colorful, fragrant, and all are beneficial to pollinators. There will be water plants, berry-bearing shrubs for hungry birds, butterfly flowers that also are food plants for caterpillars, and more. Drop by our booth after viewing the garden to ask questions or browse our literature.

In addition we have three seminars, all in Garden Solutions Rm 105, Hall A in the Direct Energy Centre:
  1. Wed. Mar 16, 11:00 a.m. "Wild Things in the City: How to Make a Pollinator's Garden" , by Dr. Clement Kent. This is a short, to the point version of my talk that should be accessible everyone, gardener, pollinator enthusiast, or not. Plus, we'll have copies (first edition, get yer collectable copy at Canada Blooms, signed by the world infamous author!) of my new booklet, "How to make a Pollinator Garden" by Clement Kent. This booklet gives the who, what, when, why, where, and how of pollinator gardening in a step-by-step manner. It's a non-profit publication being sold at a cost-recovery price (probably $5, TBD). It's a good way to spread the word about pollinator gardening to your club, school, or friends and relations.
  2. Wed. Mar 16, 2:00 p.m. "Gardening for Songbird & Pollinator Conservation" , by Christina Sharma of Project Chirp. Christina is passionate about making gardens a friendlier place for birds - so if you are a bird watcher, catch this talk.
  3. Sat. Mar 19, 11:00 a.m. "How You Can Help Preserve Canada's Pollinators" , by Prof. Laurence Packer of York University. Laurence is an internationally known expert on bees of the world, plus he's a great and entertaining speaker. He works hard to preserve threatened pollinators by speaking, serving on COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada), and through his book, "Keeping the Bees".  David Suzuki says "Laurence Packer's wonderful book about the world of bees offers the sheer delight of learning about these diverse animals, their basic biology and the role they play in ecosystems. Keeping the Bees revels in the lives of bees but clearly shows how much more we have yet to learn and therefore makes a powerful case for being far more cautious in the way we exploit the Earth. A world without bees would be a world without people."You can also read the Globe and Mail's review. This should be a great talk!

 p.s. I'm sure I've missed some good events. If so, let me know about them and I'll add them to the blog....

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Many Monarchs – Too Much of a Good Thing?

No, this article is not about royal weddings, but it is about monarchs – Danaus plexippa, the monarch butterfly, to be precise.

migrating monarchs in my pollinator garden
A year ago I spoke to the Toronto Horticultural Society about “Wild Things in your Garden”. I mentioned monarchs in that talk. Did you know that monarch studies have a special link to Toronto? Fred A. Urquhart, a University of Toronto scientist, studied monarchs since 1940 tracing their migration routes, but he couldn’t find their winter roost in the rough mountains of Mexico. So, he placed ads in Mexican newspapers. An US engineer living in Mexico, Kenneth C. Brugger, saw the ad and in 1975 told a delighted Prof. Urquhart that he’d found the roost. 35 years of work had paid off! Spectacular pictures ensued in places like National Geographic, and eventually the Mexican government created a Monarch Preserve to protect the trees in which the monarchs roost. More details about this quest are at the site of the Urquhart Memorial Garden, and you can read a detailed history of Urquhart's story in this 1999 Vanity Fair article by Alex Shoumatoff.

In my 2010 talk I highlighted declines in monarch butterfly numbers during the winter of 2010, when one quarter the number overwintered in Mexico compared to 2009.  All this gloom had one good effect: it mobilized many people, including me, to think and act to preserve Canadian habitat for pollinators, including monarchs. With the support of the Hort and many of our members, this has grown into our Pollinator Gardens (PG) project. As part of the project, I planted a number of milkweed plants (the only food for monarch caterpillars) in my cottage garden with an eye to finding out which species were most attractive to the butterflies and which grew easily. I can now report preliminary results from one year’s observations.

monarchs on swamp milkweed, my PG
My veggie garden is surrounded by a wild garden with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). In previous years the wild garden had raised respectable numbers of monarchs, and I thought perhaps the presence of lots of common milkweed might make the butterflies ignore the swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and Scarlet milkweed (A. curassavica) I planted among the veggies. Nothing could have been farther from the truth! The new species were covered with caterpillars by August, so much so that some of the plants would have been eaten down to nubbins if I hadn’t moved caterpillars to less crowded quarters. Most popular was the Scarlet milkweed (with both caterpillars, adult butterflies, hummingbirds, and people, all of whom liked its bright red and gold flower – to eat, in the case of the caterpillars!). However, by the end of August the stand of swamp milkweed had caught up more than a dozen caterpillars visible on any sunny noontime, among the big pink, fragrant flower clusters.
caterpillars eat scarlet milkweed

I did some research, and found that monarch moms prefer to lay their eggs on milkweeds with (a) soft leaves, and (b) high levels of the noxious compounds which make birds throw up when they eat monarchs. Sure enough, scarlet and swamp milkweeds both have softer leaves than the common species and higher levels of icky goo. So far, so good.

Because I had many, many monarchs in one area I had much more luck in locating the critical stage between caterpillar and butterfly: the beautiful sea-green, gold-speckled pupa. These can be very hard to find in wild sites, as the caterpillars wander far from their milkweed restaurants before pupating. But I had enough to actually learn to recognize their habits. I found that caterpiggles typically wiggled about 2 to 5 meters away from their plant before pupating. I found many pupae under horizontal surfaces about 30 cm to one meter above ground level. They liked the bottom of  the board fence that rings the garden, and especially the underside of wild grape leaves in the wild garden. My first research conclusion for the PG is that in settings like a school garden, planting milkweeds a few meters from benches or horizontal boards on posts may allow children to see the stunning pupae when they return to school in September.

monarch pupa, about 1 day since pupation
Although monarch adults have few natural enemies, caterpillars and pupae are eaten – not by birds, but by tiny fly or wasp parasitoids whose eggs eat the larval stages from the inside out. Ugh! I was worried that concentrating good food plants in a small area might increase losses to these parasitoids, but encouraged by reports that they are not nearly as destructive in Canada as in the US (where up to 90% of monarchs are killed in larval stages by them).

parasitoid wasps on caterpillar ready to pupate
There are programs to monitor the number of caterpillars attacked by fly parasitoids, but because pupae are so hard to find, not much study has been done on the tiny wasps that attack them. So, with my newfound search pattern for pupae, I did some preliminary research. I’ll need a second season to make the results scientific, but I can tell you today that monarch pupae are indeed attacked by wasps in Ontario, that the damage is minor in July but rises in August, to the point where almost half the pupae in my garden in September were parasitised. Was this because I had created an ideal breeding site by planting very attractive milkweeds densely? That’s a question I hope to follow up this year, by moving some of the milkweeds to another location in lower densities and monitoring pupae there, compared to the main cluster. Then I’ll be able to tell you whether many, many monarchs are too much of a good thing.

The goals of the PG project include education and scientific research in how best to make a pollinator garden. As the example I’ve just told you shows, you can contribute to both these goals in your own garden with nothing more complicated than some milkweed plants and a pair of sharp eyes. Nothing I did required a microscope or test tube! Plus, I got to do all my research out of doors in my garden in some of the finest weather of the year…unlike, for example, studying the effect of vanishing Arctic ice on polar bears.

p.s. all photos in this blog post were taken by me, Clement Kent, in my country Pollinator Garden during summer/fall 2010.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tea at the Pollinator Garden - Thursday October 7

We'll be meeting at the High Park Pollinator Garden for afternoon tea and planting this Thursday, October 7, 3:30-5:30 p.m. NOTE that this is the rain date - we were going to meet Wednesday, but rain is predicted while Thursday is supposed to be very pleasant.

If you haven't been there, there's a map that can guide you. From the restaurant in the park, go south (towards Lake Ontario) on Colborne Lodge Drive. A small drive called Hillside Road leads you to the buildings where the park gardeners work, and a paved walking path goes down past the rock gardens to our garden.

There will be tea and goodies! Those of you who can come, consider bringing any of these items:
 - a thermos of hot water, or
 - a few tea cups, or
 - some tea-time snacks, or
 - garden gloves and a trowel, or
 - a pencil!
You can help us out if you bring any of the above...we'll be having tea, viewing
the garden, planting some new plants and labelling some established ones. There
will be a few plant giveaways...

Traditionally one plants spring and early summer blooming plants in the fall. That's why I'll have flowers like bloodroots, violets, and columbines to plant. There will be some bloodroot tubers to take away for volunteers who help plant!

Oenothera missouriensis, Missouri Primrose
I'll also have some plants specifically for dry, sandy spots. Evening primroses work well there and have a very specialized bee that pollinates them. There will be a few other less known flowers to see and help plant.

And, there are still plants blooming - such as the sky blue aster, the willow-leaved sunflower, and the Meadow liatris.

Willow-leaf sunflower, Helianthus salicifolius
Liatris ligulistylis

Sky blue aster, Aster ooletangiensis

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Subterranean Pollinators: of chipmunks, bumblebees, tomatoes and coal furnaces

 Why does it take a chipmunk to get a nest of bumblebees going? At our September 15 tea party in the High Park Pollinator Garden I had a chance to show Pollinator Gardens project members Joanne Jenkins and Judy Whalen why.

Actually, a mouse will do just as well as a chipmunk. Many species of bumblebees nest in old rodent tunnels. Typically the mouse or chipmunk mother has left behind nesting materials (grass, bits of fur) in a deep, protected part of the tunnel. Her babies were kept warm in these cozy nests. That's what bumblebee queens are looking for: a safe, protected spot where bumblebee babies (say that 3 times quickly!) can be kept warm - around 32 degrees Centigrade or or 88 F.

bumblebee nest in a compost pile

Some species of bumblebees will nest in tufts of grass like the one shown above. The main thing seems to be good insulation. Some will nest aboveground in holes in wood or similar spots. Bumblebees can't cool their nests down as easily as honeybees. Honeybee colonies will have large numbers of bees fanning at the nest entrance on hot days; there just aren't as many bumblebees in a colony so being underground may be good protection against overheating.

You can make an artificial bumblebee nest early next spring. Just remember to get it out early enough - queens fly about when the first flowers come out, looking for a good site. Don't put it where it may get soggy, and avoid nearby ant nests. There are also designs for above-ground nests.

Why should we make artificial bumblebee nests? Many people tidy their yards up very thoroughly, rake garden beds, and generally remove sites where bees might nest. If this describes you, consider putting out a nest or three.

The bumblebee on the right came to early blooms in Amro Zayed's pollinator garden - thanks for the great picture, Amro! Like many bees, bumblebee populations have declined in the last few decades, and some species have gone extinct.

This ought to be a particular concern to all of us who love to grow and eat tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, blueberries, and cranberries. These and about 8% of the flowering plants in the world need "buzz pollination" to set seed and grow fruit properly. These plants hold their pollen tightly and only release it when a pollinator buzzes, and bumblebees buzz much more than honeybees. That's why bumblebees are used to pollinate greenhouse tomato crops. This was a considerable improvement on the "electric buzzers" previously used to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.

Unfortunately, as often seems to happen, good intentions have led to problems. Bumblebees are now grown commercially and distributed to greenhouse growers. Unfortunately, commercial bees are often infected with various diseases, and can easily escape from greenhouses. York University researcher Sheila Colla has shown that wild bees near greenhouses are victims of "pathogen spillover".

All of which helps explain why I was so pleased on September 15 to see bumblebees apparently appearing from nowhere in the High Park lawn just 2 meters (six feet) from our pollinator garden. I strolled over and saw many workers flying into a chipmunk burrow with the pollen baskets on their legs full of yellow grains of pollen and emerging pollen-less for another foraging trip. I might not have noticed them if I hadn't been there a bit early setting up the tea table. I sat down with my dog to enjoy the view. Just where the garden bed bends, I saw many bumblebees flying.

This is the ex-chipmunk hole I found, with a pollen-laden worker flying in. A week later I visited the same spot. There were still some workers collecting pollen, but many more very large bees - new queens and drones - coming and going.

The new queens will mate with drones from other colonies and then find themselves a safe place to spend the winter - not in their parental colony but often buried in soft earth or gravel.

Our previous house was semidetached. One late fall day I was planting some daffodil bulbs next to our house. I had some left over so decided to give our neighbors a surprise spring gift. I started digging next to their house wall and to my amazement began to uncover one huge bumblebee after another! I found over a dozen before I stopped. The reason was simple: they used to have a coal furnace, and over perhaps 50 years had thrown the clinkers out their basement window (they were fine folks but definitely not neat-freaks!). Under the window the soil was almost all loose clinker, very free-draining and soft, and here it seems many of the next year's queen bumblebees had decided to spend the winter.

You too can create an overwintering spot for queens. Just find a spot, ideally under the eaves of your house or garage, dig a small pit, and fill it with the lightest, loosest gravel you can come by. No need to clean out a coal furnace for half a century - if you can find "lava rock" of the kind sold for barbecues, that will do very well.

Since queens choose their new nest site in early spring, before we had planted the pollinator garden, this year's colony simply got lucky. There are lots of chipmunks in the park though so I hope next spring the new queens will house-hunt based on location - good holes in the grounds and a good supply of flowers nearby.

We had a fine time in the park on September 15, and a fine late flower display. The tea wasn't bad either, and the cookies were good (thanks, Joanne & Judy!). We'll repeat the tea party on October 6 - please drop in. There will be tea (bring your own cups) and flowers to plant for next spring. See you there!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tea in High Park - meet the pollinators!

Please drop in and see the garden, meet some gardeners and pollinators....

- Wednesday Sept. 15, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
- Wednesday Oct. 6, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
  in case of deluge: Thurs Sept 16 or Thurs Oct 7

- High Park Pollinator Garden (Google map)
 Just down the hill from the park headquarters and just above Grenadier Pond. South of the restaurant and north of Colborne Lodge.
- Ask any butterfly, bird or bee if you get lost.

- see the garden and which plants did best
- meet other Pollinator Gardeners
- tea and goodies (volunteer help needed!)
- [maybe] meet some of the park staff
- Oct. 6:
  - plant shade-tolerant & spring blooming natives
  - free bloodroots to the 1st 3 volunteer planters
- if you have a camera, bring it and take pictures for the contest (contest? what contest? See the September Hort. Soc. Newsletter and a followup post to this blog for details)
- suggest changes/additions to the blog
  - free bloodroots to the 1st 3 people posting comments

Friday, August 27, 2010

A weird pollinator on an unusual plant

I was visiting our Pollinator Garden in High Park recently when Tanya, one of the Parks gardeners, commented on a large wasp she saw visiting one of our more unusual native plants. The wasp is Sphex pensylvanicus, the Great Black Wasp. Although it's big, it's not aggressive the way some hornets and yellowjackets are. So don't be scared of it! The female captures katydids to feed to her young, but for herself she drinks nectar.

The ones I saw really loved the flowers of Spotted horsemint, Monarda punctata. This is a lovely and rather odd monarda which tolerates dry sandy spots like our High Park garden better than the more common red bee-balm. It's blooming abundantly now in the garden, and the Great Black Wasps prefer it above any other flower there.

This lovely 1815 picture of horsemint comes from the Botanical Register vol. 1 tabl. 87 from The artist was the Welsh botanical illustrator Sydenham Teak Edwards (1768-1819). Click his name to find out more details of his immense contributions to botany, and the use of his designs in things like Spode china.

To see many more images of horsemint, try "monarda punctata" in Google Images. You'll see there is a wide variety of color forms.

As far as I know horsemint does not runner about the way bee balm does.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

PG at DG

That's Pollinator Gardens at Dufferin Grove to the uninitiated. We had a pleasant afternoon meeting people at the organic market at the park, thanks to help from Anne Freeman - thanks Anne! Ten people joined our mailing list - and it's especially nice to note that several of them are teachers, since we are looking forward to doing in-school pollinator gardens.

Since I last posted to the blog, about 60% of a large garden bed at High Park has been planted with pollinator-friendly plants. This was done with the assistance of several PG project members and a great squad of High Park staff - many thanks to Cheryl, Tanya, and several others whose names I forgot to write down! I'll be getting our final spring order of plants this weekend and finishing High Park planting soon. Meanwhile, here are shots of the beginning of the High Park PG:

 Brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia triloba (donated by Valerie Knapp - thanks!) waiting to go to the park...

Laying out the garden - note how long it is! It runs down from the redbud trees at the top towards Grenadier Pond at the bottom. The soil is sandy and light, so all the plants were chosen to survive dry conditions.

 Getting ready to dig the plants in...

A goatsbeard, Aruncus dioicus, under the redbuds. This shade tolerant native came from my garden, and will be the first of our plants to bloom with long white spires in June.

So, now that we've got our first PPG (Park Pollinator Garden) planted, we're delighted that this Sunday (May 30, 2010) we'll be helping staff at Dufferin Grove Park refresh a native planting at the southwest end of the park.

That's all for now - next post will have a native plant list.