Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Some links to while away your winter time with...

Wow - I have such a backlog of stuff to post here it's not funny at all! Just a few more days until I get the backlog of other stuff done and then I will post like mad...

In the meantime, here are three interesting links from around the world.

Colletes hederae - CC (1)
The first talks about a group of underground-nesting bees that line their tunnels with a mixture of silk and a previously unknown plastic. Better known as "plasterer bees", the genus Colletes has many members with varying lifestyles - but the bees this story is about have also been called "cellophane bees" and now "polyester bees". Makes you glad for the scientific name amidst all the confusion.

The second gives you a tour around the wildflower garden property of Christina Kobland in Pennsylvania. We don't all have 4 acres to play with but it's wonderful to see what can be done.

Birds killed by buildings. Copyright Kenneth Hardy
And the third is like the first - part of the growing trend to using bio-mimicry to make better, greener materials part of our lives. The researchers at Arnold Glas have figured out how to make a picture window that is transparent to you and me but looks like a spiderweb to a bird. Birds know to avoid flying through sticky webs and this helps prevent life-threatening collisions with windows.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sentinels on the Wing: the Status and Conservation of Butterflies in Canada.

That's the title of a talk by Peter Hall, Research Associate at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Ottawa, and co-author of The Butterflies of Canada. It will be presented on Saturday, November 19, 1:15 p.m. Room 110, Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories ( St. George Campus, University of Toronto, 25 Harbord Street, Toronto) with a reception to follow. Following the recent publication of Butterflies of Toronto, this is a great opportunity for Muddy York fans of some of our most beautiful pollinators to hear up to date information. Open to the Public.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

You need an artist to bring the science back to the way we live, to a human scale.

That's a quote from artist David Buckland, founder of Cape Farewell, a group promoting a cultural response to climate change. Long based in England, Cape Farewell is opening its North American office in Toronto with a benefit concert on Thursday November 10.

Mormon Fritillary & Showy Fleabane - David Inouye 2009
hummingbird and alpine delphinium - D. Inouye
flies pollinate alpine flax - David Inouye 2009
Why am I noting Cape Farewell's efforts in a blog on pollinator gardens? Well, pollinators depend on flowers and flowering dates are changing because of climate change. At the recent North American Pollinator Protection Campaign meeting in Washington DC, I heard a short presentation on this issue by scientist David Inouye. He has been tracking wildflowers and their pollinators for 40 years in the Colorado Rockies. There are many different stories of individual pollinator-plant interactions, but one example given by Inouye in a 2009 talk deals with the flower Erigeron speciosus and the Mormon Fritillary butterfly Speyeria mormonia. The butterfly is an alpine species and depends on alpine wildflowers. Inouye  and Carol Boggs of Stanford University have shown that earlier snowmelt in the Rockies is reducing butterflies, because flower buds are emerging earlier when frosts are still a high risk. As a result there are fewer flowers. Inouye has shown this trend for several early-blooming alpine flowers whose populations are declining. The pictures shown here (all from the 2009 talk) illustrate some of the flowers and pollinators.

Simon Potts et al. 2009

These unexpected interactions aren't confined to the mountains.This chart from a research report by Simon Potts and colleagues shows how blooming time of blackcurrants in England (green circles) used to coincide with emergence dates of a key pollinator (red triangles) in the 1970's. Now the flowers bloom almost a month earlier than the bees emerge, reducing fruit set.

So, going back to Cape Farewell - climate change and pollinators turn out to have interesting and non-obvious overlaps. Explaining these to the public takes time, patience, and a gift for presentation that artists and media people have more than most scientists. That's why we as people interested in pollinators and their plants should be learning from Cape Farewell's example.

In another blog to be posted soon, I'll be asking you the readers about celebrities and pollinators.

- Clement Kent

p.s. find out more about Cape Farewell and the Horticultural Society Vegetable Garden tour in this post

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Protecting Pollinators by Improving Water Quality? Read on..

Prof. M. Isabel Ramirez, 2011 Pollinator Advocate
Prof. Isabel Ramirez is the Mexico Pollinator Advocate for 2011. She is doing an ambitious project in the Morelia district of Mexico to help local people reforest their land. She's providing them with cheap tools to measure water quality and calibrating the tools with her own measurements. Why? Water quality is a "first victim" of deforestation and leads to increased illness in village children. If local people see that reforestation is making their children healthier, they have extra reasons to preserve the trees. Why is she a Pollinator Advocate? Guess who overwinters in forests in the Morelia district? If you guessed 3/4 of North America's monarch butterflies, you are golden! [Caveat: post based on my conversations with Prof. Ramirez; any mistakes my own]
Although I enjoyed meeting many people at the 2011 NAPPC (North American Pollinator Protection Campaign) meeting in Washington last week, it was a particular pleasure to meet the Mexican participants. Although the NAPPC is a 3 nation effort, the resources available to US participants typically dwarf those in the "also ran" nations of Mexico and Canada. So, it is very interesting to meet people from the "fringe" and understand how they are making progress on these critical issues.
I found Prof. Ramirez's approach, which takes into account many issues of everyday life for people living in Morelia, a very interesting model. In addition to the water quality issue, she is trying to build ownership of the forest resources by the local people. This makes them less likely to participate in clear-cuts (most of them illegal) perpetrated by outsiders who offer the local people a pittance to cut down their natural inheritance. There are many echos of land management issues in Native Canadian areas for the thoughtful to consider here.
Clement Kent (Canada) and Isabel Ramirez (Mexico)
 That's why I felt particularly honoured to be a NAPPC Pollinator Advocate: because of the company in which I found myself.
- Clement Kent, Pollinator Gardens Project of the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale and Toronto


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.