Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large hairy pods. Growing in my veggie garden, because of the amount of space the plants take, my Gymnocarpus physocarpa, or “Hairy Balls” are a conversation starter. A Milkweed family member, another common name is Balloon Plant. Native to South Africa, this plant is an invasive in tropical climates, but in my zone 6-7 area, winter cold keep it in check.
Here are some facts about this amazing plant:
Fast growing annual Milkweed, hardy in zones 8-10
Can sustain lots of munching monarch caterpillars late season
Nectar source for monarch butterflies
Long stems with pods make beautiful table centerpiece
Last viable Milkweed species before fall frost
Start seeds at least 6-8 weeks inside; easy to germinate in about a week
Flowers aren’t super showy, but still attractive
Fewer pollinators use this than native Milkweed
Pinch back the plant to make it bushier and with a stronger stem
Place in the rear of a border as it can top off at 6 feet and may require staking
The pods become ripe when they turn a tan color and burst open with the fuzzy seeds
I save some seeds for planting in early spring in my greenhouse
Though some people have told me that monarch caterpillars have ignored their Hairy Balls, I found at least a dozen of them on my plants at once.
When all of my common Milkweeds are done, Hairy Balls Milkweed is going gangbusters into October and ending with our first hard frost. I have had these plants look good up to Halloween with active caterpillars.
Starting these seeds in my greenhouse in early March is essential to Hairy Balls producing the balloon shaped pods by the end of the summer. For most of the summer, these plants grow up and branch out and then August/September hits and the pods start to appear after a flush of small dangling flowers.
For my monarch populations, this Milkweed is important as it still is standing with plenty of foliage late into the summer/early fall. My other common Milkweeds are totally denuded and finished when Hairy Balls hits its stride. For my post on other milkweeds, go to Got Milk….Weed? and Plant Milkweed for Monarchs.
Starting From Seed
I start my Hairy Balls from seed inside around mid-March to get a head start. The plants take a long time to form their wonderful seed capsules and I usually harvest from August on as they form.
Plant the seeds in good potting medium and cover about 1/4″ deep and the plants emerge in about 10 days. I keep them in the greenhouse until they reach about 4-5 inches high and the weather is warm enough- about the same time as tomatoes.
Once they are growing well in the garden, I usually pinch them to make them a little bit fuller and bushier. But if you don’t do this step, they still will grow fine.
Sunny yellow blooms fringed with a green ruff green poking through snow is my first sign that spring has sprung. Eranthis hyamalis, in the buttercup family, is a spring ephemeral, which means that it is a short-lived plant above ground with a burst of blooms, then disappears, remaining under ground until next winter.
Beaming a golden light in the cloudy winter days, I welcome the appearance of this charming little bulbs that appear in the slightest bit of warmth in winter. Popping up when it is warm(above 40 degrees) with a little bit of sunshine, they retract back in the ground, if cold wintry weather returns, and wait. When everything else surrounding the bulbs looks dead and lifeless, these cheerful little splashes of sunshine appear.
Easily Grown in Shade or Sun
The plant takes advantage of the deciduous woodland canopy, flowering at the time of maximum sunlight reaching the forest floor, then completely dying back to its underground tuber after flowering. So, for about eight weeks starting in late February, I see the plant above ground, celebrate its arrival and the bees devour it! Flowering when little else is in bloom, the blossom is a very important nectar and pollen source for my honeybees. On a nice sunny day above 45 degrees in late winter, the bees are darting in and out of the blossoms, quickly taking advantage of the brief show of color.
I started my Winter Aconites with tubers which resemble a dried pea by planting them one to two inches deep and waiting to see how many emerged. Only about 25% of the corms sprouted but that was enough to start my stock going for years to come as they will seed in. I have read that the little flowers can become invasive by reseeding in odd places, but I welcome all comers! I also transplant the clumps when in flower or “in green” and separate them and scatter them in my planting beds to make future blankets of yellow.
Such a cheerful little flower that is attractive to all pollinators is welcome in my garden anytime. A good companion to Snowdrops, Winter Aconites will live for years without any disturbance. The flowers push up through a stand of Germander and other thick ground covers and stick around for weeks, opening when the sun comes out, and closing when nightfall comes. Even successful under large shade trees, like Sycamores, these little bulbs are tough and resilient once they get going.
If you want to grow the ultimate flower buffet for butterflies and bees, try Joe Pye Weed. When there isn’t much else blooming, Joe Pye will surprise you with fuzzy pink umbels of flowers that flying insects clearly relish. I planted only one plant of the great late summer bloomer, Eupatorium dubium, ‘Little Joe’, which has spread to cover an area about 5 feet by 5 feet. After 5 years of growing this plant, I have found it not to be invasive but it definitely spreads. When it goes beyond its bounds, it is easy to pull it up.
In late summer, my ‘Little Joe’ patch has formed a nice clump in front of my greenhouse; it has finished blooming but I keep it up for structure. It will get taller as the summer progresses.
‘Little Joe’ tops out at 4 feet tall, as opposed to the more commonly grown ‘Gateway’ which can get up to 7 feet high and can flop. I hate to stake flowers, so picked ‘Little Joe’ to avoid that fate. Now there is another cultivar called ‘Baby Joe’ which only gets 2 to 3 feet high which I need to try next.
Joe Pye is a native wildflower which grows along streams in the wild near my house. It gets enormous! I stayed away from it for years because of the size and difficulty in siting such a large specimen. But I am in love with ‘Little Joe’ which has beautiful burgundy stems.
Once the flower starts to bloom, I am sure to see at least a half-dozen different types of bees and butterflies landing, and the other day saw 5 Monarchs resting on my one plant!
‘Little Joe’ comes in a ‘garden friendly’ package of a plant that is easy to grow in full sun to part shade and has sturdy stems that will support the flower heads and won’t bend or flop. The plant is drought tolerant and fragrant with mauve purple flower heads which can reach 12 inches across!
The flower persists for weeks and the seed heads will last through the winter and will provide food for the birds when food is scarce. What is not to like? A tough beautiful, easy to grow plant which provides entertainment. I visit it every day to see what insects and butterflies have made a visit. For more information on planting pollinator plants, go to my posts Creating Monarch Waystation and Plant These For the Bees. Also, my Garden Plan for Pollinators is a good resource.
Bringing bugs into the garden is the new norm, not spraying with insecticides every insect that alights on a leaf. A sea change in how gardeners operate is in motion and most gardeners are embracing it with gusto. Seeing the Monarch numbers plummet recently has brought home the importance of home gardeners taking charge and embracing this change for the better.
Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.
I will be profiling a series of plants in the next year that are really important to pollinators- be it honeybee, native bee, hummingbird, beetles, butterflies, or flies. Top of the list is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.
According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.
Mountain Mintis both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.
An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.
Mountain Mintpositively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.
How To Grow
Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.
Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mintwill also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.
Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.
Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.
One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.
Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch, people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.
Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods
Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Other Varieties of Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.
Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.
Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.
Monarch on Joe Pye Weed
Monarch Waystation Sign available at http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The pods of Hairy Balls are a conversation piece
Tropical Milkweed is brightly colored
Milky sap exudes down the stem
Milkweed pods are positioned vertically
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
Colony of Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond
Tropical Milkweed has pretty yellow and orange flowers
Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easier than ever with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.
More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?
Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, the greatest number of butterflies are active, and I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space. For a great source of Black Beauty Lilies, go to Old House Gardens. A great source of Heirloom bulbs, this is one of my all time favorite plant sources.
Host Plants for Larval Food
Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly? You will benefit by getting many times the number of butterflies than you had before. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants or these excellent regional guides by the Xerces Society.
Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.
Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and instead visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.
Moist Soil or Gravel
Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.
Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.
Butterfly enclosures at zoos and other attractions are a sure way to view some exotic ones.
Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.
Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera! My hand held camera is a Lumix Panasonic DMC-FZ300 which I love using. But my Iphone 7 takes excellent pictures also. I go back and forth between the two.
Butterfly Camera Tips
Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight breeze. Don’t rule out cloudy days though, the light is better for photography.
Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.
Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements
Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless
Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon
When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.
Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.
Male butterflies are found “puddling”, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.
Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this. I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.
Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton, thousands of tiny scales cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.
Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food. A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.
Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.
Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.
Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching. If you can only plant one type of plant, go with Zinnias-they love them!
Many pollinator species have suffered serious declines in recent years. Unfortunately, most of our landscapes offer little in the way of appropriate habitat, forage, and housing. Even the most beautiful gardens are not always healthy ecosystems. Design choices, plant selections, and maintenance practices can make a huge difference in creating your own healthy ecosystem, filled with life. As a garden designer, I use variations of this landscape plan for many gardens to attract the greatest varieties of pollinators.
Native Bee Habitats
Mason bee habitats attract pollinators to your garden also. Simple strategies, such as providing bee habitats and gardening with an ecological community approach, contributes to species diversity, attracting and supporting more birds, butterflies, pollinators, and beneficial insects.
Paper tubes or straws provide nesting areas for mason bees which are pollinator powerhouses, much more efficient than honeybees. Tubes of any kind can be used, like bamboo or hollow stems of sunflowers or other thick stemmed plants.
A pollinator garden can be beautiful as well as useful. Strategies such as planting in groups of at least 3 to 5 plants is very important. A single plant won’t attract pollinators, but groups of same plants stand out and pollinators use less energy flying to a compact group of flowers.
My planting plan for pollinators includes an array of plants that span the early spring-time starting with Aconites, Snowdrops, Willows, Crocus, and Scillas, ending with the late bloomers of Aster, Tithonia, and Agastache. Mid-summer is not an issue to have blooming flowers in your garden; it is the shoulder season of early spring and late summer/fall that keeps pollinators going.
Mixing shrubs and trees with perennials, annuals, and bulbs creates an all-season show of blooms for foraging bees for both pollen and nectar. Many of the plants are also host plants for caterpillars that produce butterflies. And caterpillars are the protein rich food that keeps our songbirds going as it is the primary food that many birds feed their young. For example in my plan, willows are known to shelter tiny overwintering Viceroy Butterfly larvae rolled up in a leaf. You could also plant an Oak nearby as according to Doug Tallamy of ‘Bringing Nature Home’, oak trees are top of the list for providing a host to hundreds of caterpillar species, critical for providing essential food source for birds and their young.
It is important to include both herbaceous and woody plants in your pollinator garden. Trees and shrubs not only provide pollinators with food but also offer protected areas from the wind and predators. Also, remember to plan for a sequence of blooms, staggering the flowering time of nectar sources so that butterflies will frequent your garden throughout the season. Water is an essential for attracting pollinators, and something as simple as a birdbath will work. Mud is the other ingredient that pollinators are seeking when they lay their eggs into the paper tubes that you put out for their use. So, don’t mulch every garden bed.
Meadow creation is an option if you have a large wide open area in full sun. Using a newspaper layer on top of the grass to smother it, you add compost on top and scatter wildflower seed.
You need a sunny spot in your yard for a pollinator garden to be at its best. If your garden is shady but you have a sunny patio, plant containers full of annuals and perennials instead.
Practicing beekeeping for over 20 years, I have seen the precipitous decline in bee populations. I just lost all three of my beehives this past year, more than at any time in my beekeeping career. Yes, I can replace them, but it is costly at about $180 for each mini beehive nuc. At that point, it becomes an expensive hobby! Last year, according to the USDA, my state of Maryland lost 61% of their honeybee populations, which is two times higher than the national average.
Segue into what is making it problematic in keeping bees and that is the continued use of neonics (neonicotonoids), a systemic pesticide that persists in all the plant parts, plus habitat loss. So, are you seeing products containing neonics in stores? You shouldn’t be in Maryland, where I live. As of May 31, 2017, there is a state ban on consumer use of neonicotinoid pesticides slated to take effect Jan. 1, 2018, after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he will allow S.B. 198/H.B. 211 to become law without his signature. Maryland is actually set to be the first state in the U.S. to ban neonicotinoids for consumer usage. However, it’s important to note that other pesticides affect bees too, and we will have to do much more than simply banning this class of pesticides. As of Jan 1, 2018, all such products containing neonics should have been removed in the state of Maryland.
Check your store and the label of common products (such as Bayer Rose & Flower Care) for neonic chemicals with ingredient names like: acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, nitenpyram, and nithiazine. If you see a product containing any of these chemicals, please take a picture with your phone and send in the store name, location and date to Maryland Dept. of Agriculture Pesticide Regulation Program, Dennis Howard, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unfortunately, the legislation does include exceptions for farmers and veterinarians, though it still marks a step in the right direction. Another exception involves pet care products, particularly those related to fleas, mites, ticks, and heartworms. Anyone who violates this rule will be forced to pay a $250 fine. Homeowners are known for applying extremely high levels of neonics by not following directions and thinking that the more insecticide they apply the better.
Neonicotinoid pesticides contribute to mortality of all pollinators such as bees, birds and butterflies. Non-pesticide-related threats — loss of forage or parasites — are made worse by neonicotinoid exposure.
Pollinator extinction poses a huge threat to food security, because about 75 percent of all foods crops require a pollinator to grow.
Spurred by the high level of bee losses, several cities have enacted outright bans on neonicotinoids. Several states, like California, Alaska, New York, and Massachusetts, are currently considering legislation that would ban neonicotinoids, though none of the proposals have made it through the state’s legislature.
Attracting bees with the right plants is important, but what about inviting them to make a home nearby with attractive ready-to-move-in housing? A custom condo became my project in the winter for solitary native bees of all kinds who come knocking on my door for a place to lay their eggs.
Native bees start looking for homes in early spring so I wanted to have it in “move in condition” with lots of curb appeal in early March to late May when they were likely to be house hunting. Mud is a necessary component to make partitions and seal the entrance to the nesting tubes. The eggs hatch into larvae and these feed on the ball of pollen left behind for the rest of the year until they emerge as adults. Sources of water and exposed soil to make mud was number one item on my building list for the bees.
When I did my research on solitary native mason bees and other bees, I discovered to my surprise that they are a much more efficient pollinator than the social honey bees which were originally imported from Europe with the colonists. Mason bees are one of the few managed native pollinators in agriculture because of this terrific pollinating ability.
DifferencesBetween Mason & Honey Bees
Mason bees are about the same size or slightly larger than a honeybee and color is your best way to tell them apart. A mason bee is a dark metallic blue, not striped brown and orange like the honeybee. Being solitary, the mason bee tends to its own brood, instead of having a queen and worker bees like the social honey bee. They seem to appreciate the company of others of their kind and happily build their nests next to each other. They also readily accept the hollow tubes provided by the orchard grower for this purpose. Mason bees don’t produce honey like the honey bee, but collect pollen and nectar just like the honey bee for feeding their young.
Home gardeners can attract mason bees in their own gardens by placing home-made bee houses and blocks in their own yards. Scroll down to see my version of a DIY house for mason bees.
Unlike the honey bee, the mason bee flying season is early spring because they can tolerate lower temperatures. The honey bee will only fly when it reaches the 50’s, but the mason bee flies in the 40’s. Once a mason bee emerges from their over wintering tube, they mate, search for empty holes that are the right size and shape, and start to work. They collect food for their brood, which is tree pollen plus nectar. Females collect this food, bring it to their nests, and knead it into a ball, mixing it with nectar and their own saliva. Once they have a food store that is big enough, they lay an egg on top of this mass and seal-off the chamber or cell with mud. The video below was taken in mid-March and I am not sure of the bee variety.
Then, they start the process all over again until there are five to eight eggs with food, each separated by a thin wall of dried mud. They seal the entrance to the hole with a thicker mud wall. The larvae grow and, by the end of summer, metamorphose into pupae and later into adults, and remain safe and sound inside the nest in a cocoon until the next spring. The new generation emerges in early spring, usually in perfect timing with the blooming peach or apple trees.
Nesting House Basics
Since many wild bees are sedentary, residing where they originated, they will stay nearby, provided there are suitable nesting sites. The greater the variety of species and population density in the area, the faster the colonization.
Location, Location, Location
For locating your house, look for a south or westerly facing aspect to make full use of the morning sun. Protected from wind and rain by locating the house under a roof overhang, will increase your chances of bees and other insects moving in. A ready source of uncovered soil for the mason bee to use as mud in sealing the eggs, is also important as well as proximity to floral sources. For help in planting the right plants, go to Plant These For Bees.
Easy DIY Mason Bee House
For an easy mason bee habitat out of wood, I created this simple box with a roof out of cedar wood. The house measures 18″ x 22″ high with a peaked roof, 6″ high. The depth of the house is about 4″. I took an untreated (no chemicals) 4 x 4 timber and cut it into chunks the depth of the house, and drilled holes into the blocks of different diameters. The various sized holes give pollinators a choice in picking out the most suitable hole for their species. This house would be appropriate for different varieties of native bees. The back was just a piece of plywood to give the house stability.
Chas and Mark Simmons collaborated on making 3 artistically beautiful houses using all recycled materials. Taking about 4 hours to make the frames- pallets, screens from the safety guards of greenhouse fans, and other repurposed materials were all put to good use. But the time consuming part, 4 days, was collecting all the materials to go inside and paint them. Everything used in the construction was used from the property of Cavanos’ Perennial Nursery, where they both work. Once the weather warms up a little, they will be hung up where the bees have a entire nursery to pick from for their floral sources.
Craft paint and sealer was used on the edges to make these houses pop!
Move In Day
Filling in all the spaces with lotus pods, pine cones, and hollow stems of sunflowers that I cut down from my garden last year took some time. Topping it off with plastic covered hardware cloth, the bee condo was ready to hang and open for business.
Tubular is the main feature that mason bees are interested in. Finding something round is critical for their egg-laying success. I keep looking for tubular shaped objects, like bamboo, sunflower stems, or any large stem with a cavity in the center. Even paper straws would work.
Go to www.crownbees.com to browse ready-made houses and tubes, if you don’t have time to build from the ground up. You can also get an attractant pheromone that will be sure to entice the mason bees to nest in their new home. The site is also a wealth of information about many native bees.
Crown Bees recommends that once summer is over, that you harvest the mason bee cocoons and place them in a humidity tray with a moist cloth in your refrigerator to keep conditions right for surviving until next spring. They would still hatch outside, but predators and disease are more likely to kill them.
When warmer weather rolls around, bring the humidity tray outside in the warmer air and wait for the cocoons to hatch and release the bees. I ordered some cocoons from them and a few hatched in transit which I released outside when they came.
There are many other strategies that you as a homeowner can do to help out with our pollination crisis. See my action plan outlined at Sex in the Garden.
Eight years ago, the U.S. Senate in a rare unanimous approval vote, designated one week in June as “National Pollinator Week” which addressed the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Last week was the official kick off of Pollinator Week, and the event has now grown to be an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles. A proclamation signed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture every year designates a week in June to raise pollinator awareness. Pollinator Week was initiated and continues to be managed by the Pollinator Partnership, the largest non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.
Attending the festival in D.C. on a hot and humid day last Friday, I was impressed with the enthusiasm on display by volunteers and employees of the federal agencies to get the word out. Mason bee houses, giving out free pollinator plants and posters, and a giveaway of Haagen-Dazs ice cream were all on the agenda for the day. Haagen-Dazs is at the forefront of putting their money where there mouth is.
Honey bees pollinate one-third of the foods we eat, including many of the ingredients they use to make their delicious ice cream and they are concerned with the decline of bees. Quickly scooping out the ice cream in 95 degree heat before it melted, I appreciated the volunteers who braved the brutal heat.
On their website Haagen-Dazs loves honeybees, I read that they have donated more than $1,000,000 to honey bee research. Also teaming up with Xerces Society, Haagen-Dazs has installed the largest, privately funded pollinator habitat on the farmland of an almond supplier in California’s Central Valley. The newly-planted habitat consists of six and a half miles of hedgerow and 11,000 native drought-tolerant shrubs and flowering plants, impacting 840 acres of farmland.
The creation of beautiful posters commemorates Pollinator Week and this years poster illustrates the annual migration of the monarch butterfly. It is available by going to Pollinator Partnership. The 2016 poster puts the spotlight on trees that are important food sources for pollinators. Go to Honeybee NectarFlow-Black Locust Trees to see my recent post on the importance of this local tree for my hives. Most people don’t think of trees as a valuable pollinator source, like they would with annuals and perennials, so I was happy to see the subject of the poster. Because trees hold their blooms up high where you can’t see them, you don’t see the pollinator activity that you would down below with smaller plants. According to Doug Tallamy, who wrote Bringing Nature Home, Oak trees rank number one as supporting at least 557 species of caterpillars as a host plant, and Cherry trees as number two attracting and supporting 456 species of caterpillars. And to have butterflies and other pollinators like birds who feed their young ones butterfly larvae, you need caterpillars.
To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.
BEE The Change Giveaway
Anyone who has or wants to teach kids (K-12) about pollinators through gardening, either a teacher, parent, community, or other organization is eligible to win pollinator plants and seeds to be awarded to 31 lucky winners. According to the KidsGardening website, “KidsGardening, American Meadows, and High Country Gardens want to thank educators and parents teaching children about Pollinators with the BEE the Change Summer Pollinator Garden Giveaway. The Grand Prize is a pollinator garden—up to 80 plants to cover an area of 1,000 sq. ft—designed by High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturist Dave Salman or American Meadows pollinator plant expert Mike Lizotte”. Sounds like a great contest and you just have to be teaching kids in the school or at home about these essential helpers. You can enter now until August 31, 2017 at KidsGardening.