Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Review of Sweet Things at the Revue

photo by gak, rights reserved

The Revue Cinema has been in its west-end Toronto community for 100 years now. Today Bee Biologist Brock (known as BBB to friends) Harpur and I attended the Epicure's Revue, a monthly event featuring a film on food plus tastings provided by a number of local chefs and eateries.

Today's feature film was Colony, a documentary by Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell about American beekeepers and their trials with colony collapse disorder. This is the mysterious problem which has caused honeybee colonies to simply pull up stakes and fly away into the sunset, to their beekeepers' distress.

The film does a good job of introducing some interesting characters in the beekeeping community and showing how the colony collapse combined with the 2008 economic collapse has been ruining their businesses. However, it takes a limited point of view heavily influenced by these large commercial "pollinators", as beekeepers whose main business is renting out their bees for crop pollination call themselves. The idea that being on a flatbed truck several months of the year, fed sugar water, and moved from Florida to California to Maine to Florida might be stressing the bees never came up. Beautiful visual filmwork and lots of human interest, but a partial failure through not exposing us to more sides of the problem.

No such caveats apply to the tastings before the show! BBB, who has a sensitive palate, thought highly of them while I positively wallowed in the lavender and honey ice cream from the Chocolateria and the chevre balls coated with nuts and honey from Lardon, just next to the cinema. For chocolate lovers, I should note that the Chocolateria has run some other wonderful events at the Revue.

Fred Davis, who keeps bees in several Toronto locations including atop the Canadian Opera Company's building, provided tastings of COC summer and fall honey, as well as Casa Loma honey and comb. He described beekeeping in Toronto at landmark sites and showed beekeepers gear. You can here more from Fred here.

Maria Kasstan and Seeds of Diversity. Courtesy of Toronto Beekeepers Coop
Fred is just one of over 60 members of the Toronto Beekeepers Co-op. There were other members at the Revue, including musician Maria Kasstan who was staffing a Seeds of Diversity booth, just as in the picture from last year. There's a great interview with Maria here. Maria is a member of the Raging Grannies, and I believe may have provided a song or two about pollinators at a recent event (but, I can't find a link. Help!).

All in all, a very sweet event!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pollinators and Fruit, or Pears and Question Marks

I just posted on the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale & Toronto's general blog an article on pears and the fungus disease that's whacked them in Toronto this year . But I saved this picture of the pears under our cottage trees for this blog.

Question Mark butterfly on pear - Clement Kent

click to see silver ? on the hindwing. Clement Kent

Some pears had fallen and were rotting. The Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationiswas feeding on the yeasty fluids; at other times of the year this butterfly and its closely related cousin, the Comma (Polygonia comma) can be found drinking from sap flows on tree trunks.

The two species are quite similar and are distinguished by small silver markings on the back of the hindwing. So, I wasn't sure whether I to put a Comma or a Question Mark here, until I closely examined the second picture. This brought to mind that wonderful reference for all of us confused about punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.

The title brings me to a question all pollinator gardeners should ask when they see a butterfly they like: does the caterpillar eat shoots and leaves? If so, what kinds?

Comma and Question Mark caterpillars eat leaves of hops, elms,  stinging nettles, and the plant Canadians call wood-nettle and Americans call Canadian wood-nettle (Laportea canadensis).

Nettles are food plants for the beautiful Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral butterflies too. That's why I'm probably the only flower gardener I know crazy enough to deliberately plant stinging nettles in his garden. However, boiled nettle leaves do not sting and make a healthy tea or addition to stew, so perhaps there are some veggie/herb gardeners out their with nettle patches.

photo abibrooks, rights reserved

photo KM&G Morris, rights reserved
In the tropics you can see a wide variety of vivid butterflies on freshly cut or rotting fruit. I remember seeing dozens on a feeder in the Arenal Volcano Preserve in Costa Rica.

Butterflies are not the only fruit juice drinkers that are pollinators. Of course we have all seen wasps on rotting fruit, but I am not suggesting you encourage that in your pollinator garden!

orioles and oranges. photo: thefixer
The final fruit-fiend pollinator Ontario gardeners should know about is the oriole. Our Baltimore Orioles migrate south to Central America in winter and will damage fruit in orange groves to get their favorite drink. The northern gardener can take advantage of this by putting cut orange slices on a platform feeder (that raccoons and squirrels can't reach!) in May and June to entice orioles to nest nearby.

So, if you want to attract pollinators with more than just flowers, add some fruit trees or bushes to your garden!

All images in this blog have Creative Commons rights reserved by the photographers. Non-commercial re-use is allowed so long as the author is acknowledged and this reuse restriction is mentioned.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A video press release from York University, where I study honeybee genetics, and an audio interview with Lara DiBattista on CBC Radio's Here and Now program discuss the Pollinator Advocate Award. So, if you are tired of reading and want sound and/or live action, check one of the links above.

Migrating monarch on Aster
I was sitting in the field near York's pond, surrounded by wildflowers, bees, wasps, and a few butterflies, when my cell rang. I answered and it was the CBC inviting me to come downtown for an interview. Frankly, I couldn't imagine a more perfect setting to get a call like that! It was sunny and mild. I couldn't spend much time in the field since I had to race downtown, but I looked at the pollinators for a while. Bumblebees were in evidence - at this season we see both workers and the long-antenna'd males (drones). I didn't see any honeybees at all, unusual since they continue foraging on any mild day in fall or spring. There are still a few monarchs migrating south, but their numbers are declining as colder weather approaches. They like the fall asters.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Award to Pollinator Gardens

Clement Kent as MC at Dufferin Grove Pollinator Party
I'm very pleased to announce that the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) will be awarding its 2011 Canadian Pollinator Advocate Award to Clement Kent (yours truly) at their 2011 conference in late October. Although the award is given to individuals, in my mind it is really an award to all of us who have volunteered so much time in the last several years to build pollinator gardens and inform the public through talks and literature. Well done! to all of us...

building a pollinator nest box

One of those collaborative activities happened on May 29th at Dufferin Grove Park, where I collaborated with sound artist Sarah Peebles, poet Stephen Humphrey, artificer extraordinaire Rob Cruickshank, bee researchers Sheila Colla and Scott MacIvor and Laurence Packer, landscaper and Park staffer Rachel Weston, and many members of the public to stage a Pollinator Party.

This multi-media, arts and science and gardening event had displays about pollinators, workshops on building artistic pollinator nest sites, poetry readings, and the inaugural planting of a Children's Pollinator Garden in the Dufferin Grove Park.
one of the youngest workshop participants with her mom
Nest box (Sarah Peebles) and poetry(Stephen Humphrey)

The Party was a joy to be in - lot's of folks from many walks of life in the spring sun to celebrate pollinators!

stereo poetry reading

The Stereo Poetry reading was a fantastic sound collage - sorry, I've misplaced the two readers' names, send me a comment and we'll update the blog.

Stephen Humphrey reading to musical accompaniment

Stephen is far too modest about his poetry - he's writer-in-residence with the CanPolin Canadian Pollinator Initiative. Check out his comments and photography at his cleverly named (but of course, he's a poet!) blog.

some very creative bees nest were made!
a satisfied nest designer - we aim to please bees!

Rachel Weston and children plant pollinator garden
The Children's Pollinator Garden was an initiative of Rachel Weston and the Dufferin Grove Park staff. Rachel had a lot of help from budding pollinator fans, as you can see. Our Pollinator Garden Project was happy to provide a variety of native plants and to assist Rachel in growing seedlings from other native species. We'd like to give special thanks to all of the Dufferin Grove Park staff and the City of Toronto for supporting this event!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

...while the spring rain falls

Last post still had that wintry feel, this Easter weekend it was much milder. There was even a bit of sun, but now its raining again - and supposed to continue for 5 days!

Catalpa from Mohlenbrock 1995
However I'm thrilled about the rain, because I got some time-critical planting done just before the rain started. First I put a Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa). This is a tree that occurs in Ohio and New York states but was introduced to Ontario many years ago. It's all over the York Univ. campus and is on the City of Toronto's list of recommended "native" trees for street planting. Ours didn't go by the street - it went at the back of our yard to replace a Manitoba Maple (Box elder, Acer negundo) which was dying. Curiously some Ontario sources list the Manitoba Maple as "invasive introduced species" although its native range includes SW Ontario.

But back to the Catalpa. This tree has wonderful flowers in late May or June which are attractive to bumblebees and hummingbirds, and is a host plant for caterpillars of the Catalpa Sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) . It also is relatively fast growing as casts  a lot of shade, which we hope will compensate soon for the loss of the huge old maple. I had bought this tree to be the specimen tree in the Canada Blooms feature garden, but it was too large to move into a greenhouse and out again in March.

the pit and the liner
I warmed up my digging skills making the hole for the Catalpa, as I found one of those city lost rubble layers a foot down and spent hours with a pickaxe taking out old broken bricks and concrete chunks. That was Friday. It was good practice for Saturday, when I dug out 100 square feet of lawn and garden to a foot deep to make a bog garden. I took the pond liner used in the Canada Blooms feature garden, reshaped it with scissors and contact cement, and put it at the bottom of the gaping pit. Then I put three bales of peat moss, a container of garden sulphur, and most of the soil back in the pit, watered it, and...instant bog!

the dog helps choose plants for the bog
The planting happened on Sunday, a fine mild day punctuated by a pleasant garden visit from pollinator artists Sarah Peebles and Robert Cruickshank. Quite a few plants from the Canada Blooms pond found final homes in the bog, after being kept alive in the on-deck temporary green house for the intervening frosty month. The bog-bean and the greenhouse are shown in the previous post.

planted bog
I had no sooner finished  when I realized the plant list was the perfect answer to an inquiry from Pollinator Festival organizer Sabrina Malach, who has received awards for her work on pollinators.

Sabrina sent this question:

"I am planting a large pollinator garden with the PACT urban peace program. Our site is quite saturated with poor drainage. What native plants, other than monarda, would grow well in soggy soil?"

My answer was:
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sabrina, I've just planted a 100 sq foot bog in my backyard. I used everything except monarda! Some of the ones I planted:

Bogbean (Menyanthes)
swamp milkweed
Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)
Louisiana Iris (Iris garden hybrid **)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Lizard's Tail (Saururus cernuus)
Lupine (Lupinus ** - western NA hybrids)
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus)
Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

(** marks native North American plants not native to Ontario)

These give a long period of bloom from the April flowers of bogbean and Marsh Marigold to late summer/fall flowers of cardinal flower and turtlehead. Winterberry is a native holly shrub with bright red berries for winter interest and birds. If there's enough room I'd also suggest putting pussy willow and red-osier dogwood shrubs in at the back (they get bigger).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Note that all of these plants had either medicinal or food uses among Native North Americans. I won't list them all here but one of the interests of gardening with native plants is the deep well of prior experience that resides in Native traditions.

Most bogs contain an acid soil, due to the accumulation of acids such as tannins from partly decomposed leaves. Toronto water is hard (full of calcium) and basic, so I added peat and sulphur to the bog soil to increase the acidity.I'll return to the bog in a month when the plants are up and growing.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

...while the spring snow falls

A few weeks have passed since I last posted, so there is a leftover set of updates from Canada Blooms to be covered - but in haste because spring is here (in a very Canadian way, with snow showers and bloodroot blooms) so I'll also show you a few of the pollinator-related activities that are starting up along with the season.

Wednesday morning lineup for the garden
Our garden at Canada Blooms was a great success. We gave up counting the visitors after the first morning, when we had close to 1,700. Afternoons and evenings were slightly less busy but it's a safe bet we had more than 10,000 visitors, perhaps as many as 15,000. The video at this link (shot by Arthur Levitin of Flash Video Production) gives you a sense of it.

Marsh Marigold
 As I mentioned in some previous posts getting native plants to bloom in mid-March was an experiment for me. Some cooperated, like the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) in the pond.

 I had bloom during the show in 1 out of the 3 pots of marsh marigolds. The first was so quick to show buds I waited a bit too late to put the other 2 in our warm greenhouse, so they had good leaves but no flowers.
Marsh Marigold with Winterberry

Although the "marigold" show was a bit less than I'd hoped, it still pleased visitors, most of whom recognized it as one of our iconic spring flowers. Many fewer visitors recognized the beautiful red berries of our native swamp holly Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). The leaves on this plant were just beginning to come out; it doesn't hold them through the winter the way English hollies do.

temporary greenhouse
When the show was over came the gruelling work of taking down the garden and hauling the plants home. I used some of the lumber from the show to build a temporary greenhouse on our back deck to hold the plants, since it had turned nasty and cold outside (during the show it was unseasonably warm).  For the last 3 weeks show plants have been shuttling in and out of the temporary greenhouse depending on the weather. A few days ago we looked out our kitchen window on a day when the plants were out and saw a Mockingbird eating the fruit of the Winterberry. This was a nice illustration of how these plants do double duty, providing flowers for pollinators in summer and berries to light up the winter for us and feed the birds in the spring.

Bog-bean Menyanthes trifoliata
Bog-bean (Menyanthes trifoliata) frustrated me by starting buds but not blooming until after the show. Darn! When it finally did bloom at home in the greenhouse and later in my backyard pond, it showed why I was sad not to have it in bloom at the show.

This is a holarctic species, meaning it is found in cool parts of the northern hemisphere on both  continents. It's not a bean at all, but when the leaves come out they look a bit like bean leaves. It likes a boggy spot with perhaps some acidity in the soil (people differ about this point) and normally bloom quite early, like the Marsh Marigolds. This is why I waited a bit too long to force it, guaranteeing that only you the blog visitors and I enjoy its amazing fringed flowers.

Oops! This blog has gone on too long and I'm late for a party at a pollinator researcher's house - the best kind of party - so I'll have to continue another time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

UN report on Pollinators and a Toronto perspective

On this blog I try to point out the fun and positive things we can each do to preserve pollinators in our garden and our environment. The flip side of this is that there are problems, sometimes severe problems, pollinators are facing.

A new United Nations report outlines the magnitude of the problem. The summary of the report points to a variety of causes, and focuses on honeybees. However as we heard at Canada Blooms, the problem is acute for most bee species, not just honeybees. Professor Laurence Packer told us last Saturday that is his view the biggest problems are pesticides, disease,and the worst of all words combination of these: many pesticides that don't kill bees outright weaken their immune systems. So while the immediate cause of death of a colony may be a disease, the original cause was sublethal doses of pesticides the colony was exposed to. A group of French scientists have demonstrated this for one disease-pesticide combination. There have been persistent rumors of US government scientists whose research on this issue was suppressed by higher-ups. For a farmer-oriented summary of this, look at Farmer Fred's Rant.

This is a fairly down, unhappy report, so I'm going to leave it at that for now. I'll be back soon with some interesting pollinator plants for the spring pond and wetland garden.

Gosh, no pretty pictures? Must be that I find this side of the equation too sad to sweeten it with photo icing.