The Great Sunflower Project – The Backyard Bee Count

Lemon Queen Sunflowers in my backyard

The Great Bee Count

Within the past couple of years, you might have heard that bees are in trouble, growing scarcer, and suffering from a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. A variety of culprits have been fingered in causing this syndrome, including pesticide use, parasites, loss of habitat, and diseases. To study bees, both native and the non-native honeybee, scientists decided that they needed a method to determine the numbers and spread of different pollinators. To accomplish this, in 2008 a survey was launched enlisting and empowering local citizens in reporting observations about bees in their own backyard or deck called The Great Bee Count.

Citizen Science

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The Great Bee Count, recruits citizens across the United States and Canada to plant sunflowers and observe all types of bees visiting the flower in a 15 minute time period daily for a week and record their findings on-line.  The first Great Bee Count took place about 7 years ago and countless volunteers recorded their findings to help scientists to check on the prevalence of our tiny pollinators in North America.

Sunflowers are bee magnets
Sunflowers are bee magnets

By creating a map of bee visits, scientists will be able to direct conservation efforts exactly where they are needed.

bee (2)

The data is called ‘trend data’ and showed that in some parts of the country the bees are doing very well, but in other parts like Florida where pesticide use is widespread, the bees are not nearly as numerous. I participated last year and counted at least a dozen bees on my sunflowers in a 15 minute period daily in my backyard in Maryland which shows that this part of the country is above average ‘bee friendly’!

Aug 2010 047
Each of the many seeds of a sunflower has been pollinated

 

For an interactive map of the country go to https://www.greatsunflower.org/Map

Now is the time to order those seeds and get your garden ready to plant your sunflowers. Lemon Queen is the preferred variety of sunflower seeds. It is important to check to make sure that the seeds did not receive a neonicotinoid seed treatment or even better, are organic.  The Great Sunflower Project recommends that people look for Renee’s Garden Seeds because they have partnered with Renee for a number of years and she has offered to pass along 25% of her proceeds from seeds bought at her website to the Great Sunflower Project.

Lemon Queen are the best ones for this project because they have visible pollen
Lemon Queen are the best ones for this project because they have visible pollen

The typical observer saw 2.6 bees every 15 minutes on their sunflowers. Up to 20% of the volunteers observed no bees at all which is very disheartening. Sunflowers were chosen as the standardized plant because they are ‘bee magnets’ and are easy to grow in every state. ‘Lemon Queen’ is the preferred variety because some sunflowers have been developed that have no pollen, but ‘Lemon Queen’ has visible pollen. Even if the grower did not observe bees during the 15 minute interval, that information is valuable also in informing scientists. Keeping tabs on our bees has become an important tool in studying this essential aid to our food supply. Up to one-third of our food supply relies exclusively on bee pollination.

Sunflowers attract many pollinators besides bees
Sunflowers attract many pollinators besides bees

Anyone in North America can participate in The Great Bee Count even if you just have a single container planted outside on a balcony or deck. To find out how to sign up, go to http://www.greatsunflower.org/, register, and plant your sunflower seeds so you can start counting this summer! This is a great project for an ordinary person to have help out the scientific community to study our local bee populations.

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I would love to hear from people who are not in North America to see if there are any similar projects in their country.  Please let me know if you have heard of any or participated.

Go to https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheGardenDiaries
Go to https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheGardenDiaries

Don’t forget that there are many plants that you can plant to encourage bee visits. Go to Plant For the Bees post to see more suggestions.

 

Killer Compost

bewareComposters Beware !

I thought I knew composting pretty well, see my post ‘Here’s the Dirt on Composting’ at http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/heres-the-dirt-on-composting/. But I just read a post by Joe Lamp’l, who is the host and Executive Producer of the award-winning PBS television series Growing A Greener World, of about the dangers of using manures or hay from chemically sprayed fields. Who knew?!! But every gardener who grows edibles should be aware of this important wrinkle. It makes total sense, but it just goes to show you that we are poisoning ourselves slowly but surely. Go to Joe’s blog http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/killer-compost-it-happened-to-us/ to read the results of doing all the right things – composting manures, amending the soil, mulching, etc., and see what happened to Joe’s vegetables when unknowingly he used tainted compost.  This is scary, as I live surrounded by farm fields and I know that the local farmers all use these herbicides.

Spray Residues

Used container of herbicide in farmer field ca...
Used container of herbicide in farmer field causes harzard (Photo credit: IITA Image Library)

Amazingly, spray residues from broad-leaved weeds can persist for a long time, from a couple of months, to longer than 3 years! The pathway goes like this; absorption of the herbicide  by the roots, the fodder or hay is fed to the animals, then is excreted as manure full of herbicide traces that is resistant to biological degradation when added to the compost pile.  The “cooking” of the manure in the decomposition process does not break the herbicides down, persisting into the compost that is carefully added as a soil amendment to nourish the soil. According to the US Composting Council http://compostingcouncil.org/, the molecular bonds joining these herbicide compounds can be resistant to the normal decomposition methods in composting.

Effects on Plants

Herbicide damage in wheat
Herbicide damage in wheat (Photo credit: CIMMYT)

Joe’s tomatoes were visibly affected with twisted and distorted leaves. Other effects – reduced fruit set, cupping of the leaves, and generally diseased looking plants.

Diseased tomato plant
Diseased tomato plant

The herbicide container should note in the directions that manures and fodder should not be used for composting, but who reads all the directions?? And does the farmer pass that information on to the hay buyer, or consumer?

What Can You Do?

So, how can you as a homeowner and compost maker and user, avoid these residues?

The traces can be present in hay, manures, leaf, and lawn debris. If an herbicide was used on your lawn to kill broad leaved weeds, then I would not be using any of the lawn clippings in my compost. In the future, I will be asking questions of the farmer that I buy my straw from, and will be checking out any leaf or manures that I put in my compost. A test to see if the herbicide residue is still present is very expensive to do, over $300 a sample, and the debris is not homogenous, so it is hard to test.

Composting Council

Weeds sprayed by a herbicide. Taken in Victori...
Weeds sprayed by a herbicide. Taken in Victoria, Australia in March 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wondered if these findings were new and again the composting council could answer my questions.

This is not new, scientists have been aware of this for a long time, and it is just percolating throughout the gardening world. Go to http://compostingcouncil.org/persistent-herbicide-faq/ for a fascinating read on this topic. Multiple composting facilities have been affected and even had to close down because of tainted compost. A class action suit was filed against Dow, one of the big producers of these herbicides.

Well built composting unit
Well built composting unit

Chemicals are Everywhere

Nothing is simple anymore, even compost which I thought was pretty straight forward. We need to be more aware of the chemicals that are used around us, asking more questions, and contacting our local politicians about our concerns. Being a beekeeper has really brought this home to me with the increasing use of Neonicotinoids and the link to Colony Collapse Disorder. See my post on Colony Collapse Disorder http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/colony-collapse-disorder-answers-are-coming-in/

Swarm of bees in my apple tree
Swarm of bees in my apple tree

Bee Packages are Here!

Stacks and stacks of packages of bees, over 400 in all!
Stacks and stacks of packages of bees, over 400 in all!

Catching Up

My two Italian bee packages arrived in MD this weekend and I am very excited. First promised in April, a cold and wet spring in Georgia held up the delivery for an unprecedented two long months. By this time of year, the packages should have been installed, the bees settled in and raising brood, plus storing honey for the winter. There is a lot of catching up to do!

Two packages sitting in the back of my car on the dog blanket
Two packages sitting in the back of my car on the dog blanket

The Pick Up

I picked them up early in the morning from a local supplier who drives them up from Georgia. The two boxes vibrated in my hands with the humming of thousands of bees and I placed them carefully in the back of my car.  A package of bees is simply a wooden frame box covered in screening, with a can of sugar water inserted inside that is dripping sugar water to feed the bees. There are about 12,000 bees in a 3 pound package.

Queen

A can with punctures drips sugar water to the bees on their journey from Georgia
A can with punctures drips sugar water to the bees on their journey from Georgia

Also, most importantly a queen in a queen cage with several attendant bees who feed her, is included in the package. The queen is raised separately from the worker bees so they must get used to her pheromones before she is released to join them, thus the queen cage. The queen had only been with the other bees for a day and a half which is not enough time for them to get used to her. To be safe, she needs to be separated for at least 4 days before they will accept her. So, I need to continue to keep her separate from the hive with the queen cage inserted into the hive, acting as a temporary barrier.

Antique queen cages
Antique queen cages
Queen in queen cage
Queen in queen cage

The Shake Down

I had prepared my hive bodies days ago with cleaned up frames of drawn comb from my old hives. To shake the package into the hive bodies, I made room by removing 4 frames that would go back in when the bees dropped in. I also sprayed them several times with sugar water to calm them and wet their wings, to make it a little harder for them to fly away.

Spraying the bees with sugar water
Spraying the bees with sugar water

Knocking the bees with a hard slam onto the hive body is very exciting. Masses of bees fell in clumps into the hive body and start crawling around in their new home. They seem a little stunned at first but moving quickly, I shook down as many as will come out, and then placed the package in front of the hive hoping that the stragglers will find their way in.

The shake down into the hives of thousands of bees
The shake down into the hives of thousands of bees

The Star of the Show

There is a little cork with a candy plug holding the queen in her cage. I removed the cork and press the queen cage into the soft wax of one of the frames. It will take a couple of days for the bees to eat the candy and release her. By that time, they should treat her like the star that she is, ready to take care of her in return for her laying thousands of eggs over her lifetime. A good strong queen will keep the colony going for at least 2 years before she slows down and needs to be replaced.

The queen cage pressed into a frame
The queen cage pressed into a frame

Closing Up

Inserting the four frames that were removed, I set the inner and outer cover on top.  It takes all of 5 minutes to complete the installation. I stuffed some burlap into the entrance along with a feeder to prevent the bees from flying out and will remove the burlap when things settle down a bit.

A feeder with sugar water and burlap stuffed into the entrance
A feeder with sugar water and burlap stuffed into the entrance

Feeding

Feeding  sugar water to the bees is critical for the hive to build up quickly before cold weather hits. I will do it for at least several weeks, or until I see that they are bringing in nectar and pollen and then will gradually wean them off. The first day they slurped up sugar water made with 5 pounds of sugar!  I am buying 25 pounds of sugar at the local Sams club to keep them fed.

Check Up

Sweet rewards, capped honeycomb ready to be harvested
Sweet rewards, capped honeycomb ready to be harvested

I have a head start over new beekeepers because I already have drawn comb from old hives for them to start depositing pollen and nectar into.  Also, the queen has s spot to lay her eggs all ready and can get a jump start on raising new bees to bring in nectar.

I gave the hives a couple of days and opened them both up to check to see if the queen has been released.  This type of release is called the slow release method and has a better chance of success with queen acceptance. The quick release method of removing the cork and placing the queen directly into the hive can be disastrous with the bees stinging the queen to death, and I have seen that happen. The queen is out and I see the gleam of nectar being deposited into the cells so I am hopeful. I will check in a week to see if I can find any brood and that is my sign that the queen is healthy and working.

Queen Bee
Marked Queen Bee (Photo credit: Kairon Gnothi (Opportunity Knocks))

The Reward

Since it is so late in the season, I know that I won’t get honey this year but am hopeful for next year.  I compare it to a gardener planting a bulb or seed – Good things come to those who wait!

My bottled honey
My bottled honey

The Great Sunflower Project – The Backyard Bee Count

Lemon Queen Sunflowers in my backyard

The Great Bee Count

Within the past couple of years, you might have heard that bees are in trouble, growing scarcer, and suffering from a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. A variety of culprits have been fingered in causing this syndrome, including pesticide use, parasites, and diseases. To study bees, scientists decided that they needed a method to determine the numbers and spread of different pollinators. To accomplish this, a new survey was launched enlisting and empowering local citizens in reporting observations about bees in their own backyard or deck called The Great Bee Count.

Low temperature scanning electron micrograph (...
Low temperature scanning electron micrograph (LTSEM) of Varroa destructor on a honey bee host (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Citizen Science

The Great Bee Count, recruits citizens across the United States and Canada to plant sunflowers and observe bees visiting the flower in a 15 minute time period daily and record their findings on-line.  The first Great Bee Count took place about 4 years ago and countless volunteers recorded their findings to help scientists to check on the prevalence of our tiny pollinators in North America.

By creating a map of bee visits, scientists will be able to direct conservation efforts exactly where they are needed.

The data is called ‘trend data’ and showed that in some parts of the country the bees are doing very well, but in other parts like Florida where pesticide use is widespread, the bees are not nearly as numerous. I participated last year and counted at least a dozen bees on my sunflowers daily in my backyard in MD which shows that this part of the country is above average ‘bee friendly’!

Sonnenblume mit Bienen, Sunflower with bees
Sunflower with bees from Wikipedia

The typical observer saw 2.6 bees every 15 minutes on their sunflowers. Up to 20% of the volunteers observed no bees at all which is very disheartening. Sunflowers were chosen as the standardized plant because they are ‘bee magnets’ and are easy to grow in every state. ‘Lemon Queen’ is the preferred variety because some sunflowers have been developed that have no pollen, but ‘Lemon Queen’ has visible pollen. Even if the grower did not observe bees during the 15 minute interval, that information is valuable also in informing scientists. Keeping tabs on our bees has become an important tool in studying this essential aid to our food supply. Up to one-third of our food supply relies exclusively on bee pollination.

Abelha no girassol / Bee at sunflower
Bee at sunflower (Photo credit: Marcio Cabral de Moura)
Queen bee 1
Queen bee 1 (Photo credit: quisnovus)

Anyone in North America can participate in The Great Bee Count even if you just have a single container planted outside on a balcony or deck. To find out how to sign up, go to http://www.greatsunflower.org/, register, and plant your sunflower seeds so you can start counting this summer! This is a great project for an ordinary person to have help out the scientific community to study our local bee populations.

I would love to hear from people who are not in North America to see if there are any similar projects in their country.  Please let me know if you have heard of any.

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