Saturday, August 6, 2011

Visit from The Great Black Wasps

Many wasps are flower visitors, and thus pollinators. Although most of these flower-visiting species are predators, capturing arthropod prey to feed their larvae, the adults seem to require a regular diet of nectar to satisfy their energy requirements.

Wasps in general don't have the multitude of branched hairs that make bees pollen magnets. But the frequency with which they visit flowers means they inevitably transfer some pollen as they go.

At the Evergreen Brick Works many wasps can be seen on a variety of wildflowers. Earlier I wrote about the Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) visiting Virginia Mountain Mint. That spectacular species was seen frequently two years ago, but last year it was rare. This year the Great Golden Digger Wasps are back, and they have been joined by a close relative, the Great Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus).

Both of these are large, an inch or more in length. In the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, Eric Eaton refers to them as 'regal.' The Great Black is probably the larger of the two. And as a dozen or more of them come and go among the flower heads, they are definitely the most noticeable.

Great pollinator watching!

[Photo (c) D. Barr]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pollinator Drama on A Floral Stage

This is an interesting photo that I took of a four-way biological drama taking place on the flat stage of a Queen Anne's Lace flower head.

The most obvious player is the curved, black-and-yellow body of a potter wasp, one of the Eumeninae (Vespidae) and possibly Ancistrocerus albophaleratus. So obvious in fact that this insect is the thing that attracted my attention in the first place. These wasps are enthusiastic flower visitors, a habit that was the undoing of this particular individual.

But this one was strangely still. Usually they flit away once you get the camera lens too close. Actually the wasp you see here is now only a corpse. She was killed in the course of her visit to the flower in search of nectar.

It turns out that the killer is in the photo too. Just to the left of the wasp you should be able to make out the vertically oriented body of a Jagged Ambush Bug (Hemiptera, Phymata sp.). These consummate hunters spend most of their time on flowers too, their mottled black and greenish-white coloration serving as effective camouflage. When an unsuspecting pollinator ventures too close, the bug lashes out with powerful, raptorial forelegs and quickly dispatches its prey.

So the flower provides the stage for the story of life-and-death involving the bug and the wasp. But what of the fourth player in our little drama?

Perched on the thorax of the wasp you should just be able to make out a small fly. What role does this new character play in the drama? Hard to say. Could it she be a parasitic female that has come to lay her eggs on the wasp, hopeful she has found a good meal for her offspring? I don't know.

But I do know that an awful lot of biology goes on in the wildflowers that surround us each summer. Yet another excellent reason for preserving habitat for all of these species.

[Photo (c) D. Barr]

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

News Item: New Site for Citizen Scientists

Mother Earth News has just announced a new feature on their website - a meeting place for gardeners and an information hub for those interested in practicing citizen science.

This section of the site is powered by something called 'your garden show'. The gardening stuff is great, as there will be resources there for wildflower gardeners. But the access to citizen science projects is fantastic. It allows you to to participate in national and international science projects right in your own backyard.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Calling all artists who love the birds and bees!

The Pollinators Festival is coming to Evergreen Brick Works on Saturday June 25th, 2011. The Festival is in honor of International Pollinator Week and seeks to raise awareness and appreciation for the birds, bees, flies and butterflies that pollinate our fruits, veggies and flowers.

We want to integrate the arts into the festival and will do so by hosting a community art exhibit.  We are looking for any pollinator-inspired artwork (poetry, paintings, photographs, etc) to share with the public.  If you have any existing work of anything pollinator related, send it to us. If you don’t have anything yet, go outside and make something!  Please email a jpeg of your work to by June 15th, 2011.   We will print a copy of your masterpiece and hang it up at Evergreen Brick Works during the Festival. With your permission, we will sell the work and donate all of the proceeds to Pollination Canada.

Help us spread the word and pass this on to your artist friends. The exhibit is open to all!

Here are the details about the festival:

Saturday June 25, 2011
9 am-2 pm
Evergreen Brick Works, Toronto (MAP).
Join us on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April with the Bees

Our honey bees are waiting for Spring with even more eager anticipation than I am. It's been a long winter for them. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do but try to stay warm.

No, those bees haven't been sleeping during the winter. They've been keeping the queen warm and slowly using up the food they stored last Fall. Will it last long enough, or won't it? If the food runs out before the early flowers bloom, they die.

April will bring those first few warm days when honey bee workers at last venture out again. Foragers will begin to explore the area around the hive, up to a kilometre or two away. They're desperate to find those early flowers - and they'll soon succeed. Pussy willow catkins are among the first, and then the maples. By the time dandelions appear and fruit trees start blooming, near the end of the month, the bees' food supply is assured.

The queen will start laying again in April and the hive will rapidly need loads of pollen for the hungry mouths of developing brood. No-one will be making much honey yet, but the hive will come alive and begin to thrive.

We beekeepers have to keep a close watch on events. We'll start by removing the winter wraps that protected the overwintering hive from chilling north winds. We'll clean out detritus from the bottom board, dry up any accumulated moisture and scrape out any mould that may have appeared.

We may have to supply some food in the early days, before the natural sources kick in. We'll also have to make sure the queen is laying well and that there is plenty of room for expansion of the colony. And we have to be vigilant for any sign that the parasitic Varroa mite may be increasing in numbers.

This beekeeper is especially interested in pollination, and will also be keeping an eye on native pollinators. The honey bees will be joined on April flowers by early species of solitary bees. Carpenter bees will be patrolling and cellophane bees will fly in feverish activity around their clusters of burrows in sandy ground.

No need to look after native bees. They can take very good care of themselves, thank you. But we do have to ensure there is lots of the natural habitat pollinators need to survive - flowering trees, shrubs and garden plants. Leave the old stalks and canes to overwinter in the garden. And do walk on the grass - those bare spots make great sites for burrows.

April is the month when a beekeeper's faith is restored. The bees resume their keystone role in our environment. And if we look after their needs, they will once again offer us a season of plenty.

[This article appeared first in the Carrot Green Roof April Newsletter]

Thursday, April 21, 2011

All Kinds of Flowers Suit Native Pollinators

Bumblebee male on Queen Anne's Lace,
an introduced species in North America.
Many wildflower enthusiasts suggest that native wildflowers are preferable forage for native pollinators. A recent study, however, fails to support this hypothesis, at least where species richness (diversity) is concerned.

The paper in question is:

Small scale additions of native plants fail to increase beneficial insect richness in urban gardens. by KEVIN C. MATTESON and GAIL A. LANGELLOTTO. Insect Conservation and Diversity (2011) 4, 89–98.

Here are their conclusions:

1. Despite increasing interest in gardening for wildlife, experiments testing the conservation value of garden alterations are scarce, particularly in heavily urbanised landscapes.

2. In this paper, we assess the ability of discrete additions of native wildflowers (70 plants of seven plant species added and subsequently monitored for 2 years) to augment species richness of beneficial insects including bees, butterflies and predatory wasps in New York City community gardens. We also evaluate the overall use of native and introduced flowers by these insect groups in the urban garden study sites.

3. Bayesian analyses failed to find a strong influence of the native plant additions on beneficial insect richness, after correcting for prior floral abundance.

4. In addition, butterflies and megachilid (leaf-cutter) bees were found to heavily utilise introduced ornamental and crop flowers in these gardens, even when native flowers were present.

5. Our results suggest that exotic garden plants are utilised by, and important in maintaining richness of, beneficial insects in urbanised landscapes. Furthermore, garden manipulations need to be more substantial than often recommended, if they are to significantly influence the richness of beneficial insects in urban gardens.

There is no question but that fostering the growth of native wildflowers provides for a more diverse habitat. And the study cited above does not demonstrate that there are no long term negative effects of foraging on introduced plants for beneficial insect diversity.

But in the short term, as most pollinator observers have noted, introduced and invasive flowering plants seem to be just as good for pollinators as the native species.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A New Anthem for Pollinators

Last June I posted the new lyrics to a song entitled 'We Need The Bumblebee.'

If you wonder how it sounds, now you can listen to the performance given by Maria Kasstan and 'The Raging Grannies,' on June 24th, 2010, in Toronto. This was the premiere performance, and the 'Grannies' had the audience at a 'Pollinator Cabaret' held at the Gladstone Hotel clapping time and singing along - they brought the house down. The event was held in celebration of International Pollinator Week.

 The melody is well known and the lyrics are posted HERE. We hope everyone will sing this one in public for Pollinator Week 2011.


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