Sunday, January 29, 2017

Flowers and Pollinators near the Monarch Sanctuaries

Last post I talked about some of the help Alternare is giving to enable local people to reforest their lands. The monarch butterfly overwinters in these forests, way way up in the mountains.

Today I'll show you a little bit of the afternoon of a pollinator in January in those mountains.

But first, where are we talking about?

The state of Michoacan in Mexico is shown in the map. A line drawn due west of Mexico City hits the border of Michoacan in rugged mountains. It's here that the butterfly nestles in branchs of the "Oyamel" fir tree at 3,000 meters above sea level elevations, in the "Reserva de la Biosfera Santuario Mariposa" - the Biosphere Reserve of the Butterfly Sanctuary.

The places where I saw monarchs are to the west of the state line (red in the map), where afternoon sunlight is stronger than morning.

Frost is common at these heights but mostly on the ground in places with a view of the sky.

The monarchs are up in the trees, not at the top where they would be exposed, and not at the bottom where the cold air sinks, but in the middle.

By morning, the butterflies are chilled - far too sluggish to fly, but not harmed either.

Much of the Oyamel forest is about as closed-in as a typical Canadian spurce-fir forest, with sparse undergrowth.

But in places where strong winds have blown down a patch of trees, the January wildflowers are very abundant.

The splashes of blue and red are some of the many native Mexican sages - Salvia species.

It was in these clearings that we saw some pollinators even in the cool mornings.

This bumblebee flew even in early mornings. She's been busy collecting pollen (see the gold speckles on her head?) which means even in cold January she's raising young. I think she's Bombus ephippiatus, a reasonably common bee in the highlands but one that's being over-collected for use in greenhouse tomato pollination.

We saw a few honeybees, but they were more abundant lower down where it wasn't soo cool.

I caught a glimpse of a fritillary butterfly on flowers beside the road but it disappeared before I could take a picture.

This groundsel, Senecio callosus, was in bloom everywhere and in the afternoon the monarchs loved it. I haven't found a common name for it.

Here's another clearing with many, many sages blooming.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A real Alternative for monarchs: a visit to Alternare A.C.

Monarchs roosting in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve

Almost 6 years ago I posted about work by Dra. Isabel Ramirez of the University of Mexico in Morelia (UNAM). Since then I have been supporting the non-governmental organization Alternare (web, facebook) which works in the Michoacan area where the monarchs overwinter. Founded 20 years ago by two peasant activists and two biologists, Alternare focuses on improving the lives of local people (campesinos) in ways that also help conserve water, soil, forests, and the air.

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Dra. Ramirez and pollinator biologists Drs. Silvana Marten-Rodriguez and Mauricio Quesada and their students at UNAM. Then I went to the Alternare training center which is located just at the base of the mountains where the monarchs overwinter.

Alternare is very active in several ways of conservation; I'll post about some of these in the future. Today I want to focus on just one of the ways Alternare helps preserve the forests in this area.

Campesino family-run tree nursery
In the picture you can see members of a small community in their tree nursery. Members of several families work in the nursery on Saturday mornings. Children come too and help, learning skills they can use the rest of their lives. Seeds are collected from native trees in land owned by the families, and planted in organic soil mixes they make themselves. At any one time they have about 2,500 seedlings of pines, firs, oaks, and other trees growing. At the beginning of the rainy season, they plant them on their land. Any excess seedlings are given to other campesinos - this is not a profit making enterprise.

By growing healthy, vigorous seedlings and by taking care in when and where they are planted, the survival rate of their seedlings is over 85%. By comparison, government-funded tree planting programs may have survival rates as low as 5%.

Almost all the land in and around the Monarch Biosphere Preserve is privately owned, mostly by small farmers such as these. Sustainable forestry is important for meeting their needs for timbers and fuel, and provides some income. Small family groups like this were trained by Alternare in these organic tree growing techniques, which they then took back to their own land. They take pride in their nursery and the prospects it provides for their children and grandchildren, and the ecological services the trees provide for the area.

Alternare depends on donations. I have donated through the Paypal link on their site (red button at bottom of page). If you pay US taxes, you can get a tax receipt by donating through GlobalGiving, which I did while I was earning $$ in the U.S. I'm not aware of any Canadian registered charity to which we Canucks can donate and have the funds reach Alternare - if you are, let me know and I'll post it!

Artemio in Alternare's tree nursery

Sunday, October 23, 2016

How to Make a Pollinator Garden

After being inaccessible for some time, the printed version of this simple booklet is available for C$8.00 from Seeds of Diversity: Click to open the Publications section of the page and you'll find this and other resources on pollinators and gardening. Prive includes shipping in Canada.

Fall flowers for the last pollinators

Sternbergia lutea, blooming Oct. 23 2016
With our warming climate, bumblebees and honeybees are still out on flowers here in Toronto, Canada even at the end of October. I thought I'd post a few pictures of what's blooming in my garden in September and October.

Sternbergia lutea is bulb from Europe and Asia. It's been called fall crocus (wrong, not a crocus), lily of the field (wrong, not a lily) or fall daffodil (close; not a daffodil but in the Amaryllis family with daffs).

The beautiful flowers just appeared today. This is frankly wild optimisim on my part: the bulb is only hardy to USDA zone 7, so will probably die some harsh winter here in Toronto. But it has come through one winter here already, and I will mulch it before January hard freezes start.

Fall crocus
My fall crocuses are actually members of the crocus genus. We get saffron from Crocus sativus, but the flowers blooming here from early October are more likely hybrids with Crocus speciosus as a major parent.

The fall crocuses have an ideal planting spot: some freely draining grit that was put in around the house foundations when we renovated. This drainage helps them get through wet periods in winter. (Fall crocus is not as hardy as spring crocuses).

Salvia coccinea

I actually have three salvias blooming abundantly now - coccinea, elegans, and guaranitica. The first is native to the southern US, and I grow it from seed each year. Started indoors, it can be blooming by July in Toronto, earlier in a hotter place. It's attractive to bumblebees, hummungbirds, and some butterflies. The second is known as Pineapple Sage from the scent of its leaves. It's not hardy; I propagate it either through fall cuttings (easy) or by bringing a pot indoors and letting it go dormant in the basement. The third is dark blue and blooms from midsummer until frost. It's from Brazil so it's no surprise that it's not winter hardy in Canada; but I did bring plants through two winters in Virginia with heavy mulch.

Speaking of Virginia, this blog has been almost dormant the past three years, during which time I changed jobs twice, moved to Virginia then back to Toronto, put the house through a major renovation, and so on...I'm just really getting back into pollinator activities now. Hope to be posting more often as gardening activities draw to a close this fall!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Great Smoky Mountains butterflies

We spent a lovely weekend at Deep Creek, near Bryson City NC. The creek flings itself down from summits in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park towards the valley of the Tuckasegee River.We were about 1,500 feet above sea level, well below the 5,000-6,000 foot summits nearby. Mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) were in bloom at all altitudes.

We only saw rhododendrons at the tops of the mountains, where early bumblebee workers were foraging. I was interested to see the humble bumbles, since I've signed up to help find mountain bumblebees next month (July) as part of the Bumblebee Megatransect. This is an effort to use citizen science to help find some of our rapidly dwindling Bombus species in the Appalachian mountains.

Along the sides of Deep Creek there are numerous seeps where butterflies congregate to sip mineral-laden water. The park paths host horse as well as humans, so there are places with strong organic enrichment of the seeps. We frequently saw groups of Silver Spotted Skippers (Epargyreus clarus) and Spring Azure (Celestrina ladon) butterflies together, sometimes in large numbers.
At one favored spots the azures and skippers were joined by a Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) showing off its beautiful imitation of a poisonous pipevine swallowtail.

So, if you are making a pollinator garden, try to include a place where damp soils or sand is available to butterflies. You may be surprised at the variety of beautiful species you can get - I've seen dozens of Tiger Swallowtails drinking from the edges of  a damp spot.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Help threatened pollinators...through lawsuits?

It's sad when lawsuits are the only way to get government to obey it's own laws, but at least this option exists in the US where the Xerces Society and the National Resources Defense Council have threatened to sue the government over it's failure to respond to a petition to protect the Rusty-patched bumblebee. I wonder whether the Canadian government's steadfast refusal to acknowledge scientific recommendations regarding the endangered status of bats can be challenged in court? Does anyone know?

The rusty-patched bumblebee is now protected in Canada, thanks to vigorous efforts by many Canadian researchers and friends of pollinators. It was proposed to be protected by COSEWIC, the scientific body that advises the government about species under threat, in 2010, although it hadn't been found in Canada since 2006. It was finally protected in 2012 or 2013.

And what about monarch butterflies? They are now at less than one tenth of the levels recorded in the nineties and dropping.

Contact your congressperson or member of parliament and ask for legal protections for these threatened pollinators!

Monday, July 15, 2013

A letter about the birds and bees

A Letter about the Birds and Bees

July 13, 2013
Dear Hort,

     I'm writing this aboard a train heading to Quebec. It's a gorgeous time of the year to ride the rails in Canada. Golden drifts of Black-eyed Susans brighten the side of the track, interrupted by occasional vivid orange flashes as we whip by a naturalized clump of daylilies. Pale tan giant cylinders of hay make mown farm fields look like a Magritte painting. In one area near the Kingston limestone flats I think I saw wild white phlox blooming, and every few kilometers brings a new ecozone with different flowers to enjoy. Zipping past a swamp, I saw a brilliant mound of what looked like Canada lilies growing on a bluff above the water...

   I'm on my way to Quebec City, whence a rental car and I will take a pleasant afternoon drive along the south shore of the St. Lawrence. We'll stop at Grand-Métis where my world-traveller cousin Paul [photo next email: Paul mugging it up with one of my giant heritage tomatoes] awaits us in a cabin looking out over the great river, which here partakes largely of the sea with two meter tides and fascinating tidepools just beside the deck. Tomorrow morning we will be off to celebrate Bastille Day at Les Jardins du Métis/Reford Gardens. I've brought my "Prince des Jardiniers" gardening hat from France along to shelter my balding pate from the hot July sun as we wander through the kilometers of gardens and landscapes of what is arguably Canada's finest grand garden. We have the promise of a personal tour from Alexander Reford, the gardens' owner, to look forward too, then dining at an auberge with a view of the sunset over the great river.

  But I'm visiting Grand-Métis for more than just garden tourism. I'll be giving a talk in the gardens about the birds and the bees, and if you know me you'll guess it won't be about sex, it will be about tobacco.

  Some of you may have caught my discussion with farmer and beekeeper Dave Schuit on Canada AM last week. [apologies for the ad - be patient, please!]. Dave and I were there to talk about the catastrophic losses he and other beekeepers are experiencing, as more and more of their honeybees die off over winter or during corn planting season. Dave and I agreed that although many diseases and pests are bothering the bees, the straw that breaks the camel's back is the widespread use of nicotine-based pesticides.

  Do you grow tobacco plants in your garden?   Last year I had three different species (I'm sending Nicotiana sylvestris, while the unusual blue leaves and golden tubular bells of Brazilian tree tobacco Nicotiana glauca gave foliage interest and flowers for daytime pollinators. But all tobacco species share one botanical innovation: the acutely toxic (to insects) nerve poison nicotine.
Nicotiana sylvestris
you several possible picture by separate emails you could use here). Some were sweet smelling and attracted night-flying moths, like the beautiful white

  Yes, that's right: nerve poison. The stuff is to most insects and water bugs as the horrible chemical nerve gases are to us. That's why chemists at Bayer, Monsanto, and other companies modified the structure of nicotine to make it last longer (up to years in some soils), reside permanently in the plant it is applied to, and be as toxic to bees as nerve gases are to us. These "neonicotinoid" pesticides now coat the
Two tobaccos
seeds of most commercial field crops, including corn, canola, soybeans, and even sometimes wheat. The manufacturers sell billions of dollars of product every year.

  If "neonics" (as most farmers and beekeepers call them) only killed corn rootworms, I wouldn't be talking about them in the gorgeous surroundings of Reford Gardens. But they go where they aren't meant to. Bees gather them up in pollen and in the sweet-tasting little droplets of sap young corn seedlings release at dawn. Birds eat them as they hunt for seeds that the sowing drill didn't get all the way underground. One droplet of seedling sap kills a bee, one coated kernel of corn can kill a blue jay, one grain of wheat can make a songbird sterile. Washed into streams and ponds, neonics kill the water bugs fish thrive on. And, just in case you don't care about the natural world at all, recent studies show small quantities cause abnormal development in the brains of newborn organism often used to test for possible teratogenic effects on human fetuses and infants. Mothers who smoke have children with ADHD more often than non-smokers - and nicotine is the reason. Do we want neonics in our food?

  This spring, for the first time in history, there weren't  enough honeybees to pollinate the California almond crop when the trees bloomed. The price of almonds is expected to double this winter. This summer, a landscaper was called in by a Target store in Oregon to get rid of pesky aphids in the trees around the parking lot which were shedding sticky honeydew on shoppers' cars. Problem is, a neonic pesticide was used ("knocks 'em right down"), the trees were linden trees in full bloom, and over the next day or so perhaps 50,000 dead bumblebees were found on the asphalt of the lot. Dave Schuit lost over 40% of his honey bees when neonic-treated corn was grown near his hives, and has had to sell his farm to recoup his losses (he had to choose between buying new bees or paying the mortgage, and opted for the bees).

  Some of us are old enough to remember Rachel Carson and her game-changing book Silent Spring. Dave and his fellow beekeepers in Ontario and Quebec are asking the federal government (which regulates pesticides) to follow the lead of the European Union in banning neonicotinoids before it's too late and we have silent springs, summers, and falls. We are well along this deadly path already. Numbers of birds like swallows and purple martins that depend on flying insects are down by 70-80% and still dropping. Please, will you consider writing to your M.P. and asking her or him to push the government to ban neonicotinoid pesticides to save the birds and the bees?

I close this letter with a silent prayer that future years will bring back the buzzing of the bees and the sounds of the songbirds.
Clement Kent