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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Toronto Pollinator Projects-Get Involved

Pollinator Arts and Culture:

1) The Pollinators Festival. Saturday June 25th at Evergreen Brick Works. During and after farmers market. Contact:

2) Resonating Bodies: a series of art, community and web-based projects which illuminates aspects of Canada's biodiversity through focusing on pollination ecology, with special attention paid to the intersection of native bees, habitat and coevolution of plants and pollinators of the Greater Toronto Area. Artist: Sarah Peebles.

Pollinator Gardens and Habitat:

1) The PACT Urban Peace Program’s “Grow to Learn” Urban

Agriculture Initiative has recently received funding from The Metcalf Foundation to scale up their pollinator gardens at high school gardens in Toronto’s west end. Contact:

2) Scott MacIvor is a PhD student at York University where he is investigating the effect of landscape and urban complexity on the diversity and foraging ranges of cavity-nesting bees and pest controlling wasps in cities. Contact:

3) Clement Kent, author of "How to Make a Pollinator Garden", heads the Pollinator Gardens project in Toronto. Contact:

Pollinator Monitoring:

1) Dave Barr is a biologist and urban beekeeper leading citizen scientist volunteers in a pollinator monitoring program .He is author of "Pollinator Monitoring for Citizen Scientists," just published in eBook format." Contact at:

2) Sheila Colla is our local bumble bee expert. She is working on a book called "The Bumble Bees of North America" and it will be published in 2012 by Princeton U. Press. Sheila needs photographs of bumble bees for the books so please keep you eyes out for these critters over the next three months and send Sheila your photos. Contact:

Thanks to Sabrina Malach for assembling this list.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Couple of Pollinator Surprises

Did you know that common garden Chives, with the green leaves that make such a savory addition to salads, soups and other dishes, is also a native North American plant?  I didn't.

Did you know that the common Greenbottle Fly, normally thought of as a pest species, can also be a great pollinator? I didn't.

Hey, live and learn right? Even if sometimes it takes decades.

The flowers of Chives are very attractive to pollinators, and I have seen numerous bees visiting them. Today's photo, however, is of a Greenbottle Fly.

Some flies are known as good pollinators, especially the hover flies. But in the last couple of years I have noticed lots of higher flies (muscids, tachinids, calliphorids) visiting blossoms as well.

The Greenbottle lays its eggs on carrion, and it is a very common species in cities. The adults also seem to visit flowers frequently, probably foraging on nectar as an energy source. These flies are often thought of as pests in cities, because their presence suggests poor food handling and because the adults may spread bacteria.

One recent study, however, found that higher flies (apart from Hover Flies) were among the most important pollinators of some plants, based on the total number of flower visits observed.

Now it doesn't look like Greenbottles are going to disappear from our cities any time soon. So let's just be glad that they also enjoy pollinating our garden plants.

[Photo by D. Barr]

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pollinator Monitoring Handbook now Available for Apple iPad/iPhone

This ebook, which assists volunteers to become citizen scientists, is now available in the Apple iBook Store for $2.99.

 To buy it, first download the iBooks app from the iTunes app store. Then use iBooks to search the iBooks Store for 'pollinator monitoring'

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A White-tailed Bumblebee in Canada

White-tailed Bumblebee from Europe

In Europe, the White-tailed Bumblebee is a common and well-known species. It nests underground, usually in old mammal burrows. Its range also extends across much of northern Asia.

But Canada has a white-tailed bumblebee too, and it is not the European/Asian species.

The new-world bumblebee with a white tail is found in British Columbia and southern Alberta (as well as NWT, Nunavut, the Yukon and Alaska), and it has apparently not been given a common name. So we could call it the Canadian White-tailed Bumblebee. But because that might make the story too confusing, let's refer to it as the Moderate Bumblebee. Its Latin name, after all, is Bombus moderatus.

Robin Owen, a bumblebee biologist, has recently written about the discovery and ultimate identification of this white tail (HERE).

The Moderate Bumblebee was first described as a new species in 1863. But in subsequent years some entomologists noticed how similar it was to the European White-tailed. In 1991, a bumblebee specialist decided that the Moderate was really no more than a local variant of the White-tailed Bumblebee. So the Canadian populations no longer had a distinct name. They were just more White-taileds.

Owen describes how through his own work and that of others, this situation has now been reversed. Biochemical genetic studies have shown sufficient differences between the white-tailed bumblebees in western Canada and those in Europe, that each deserves to be recognized as a distinct species.

Not only is the Moderate Bumblebee once again seen to be worthy of its own name, it has also in recent years expanded its range in southern Alberta. This is a welcome trend, especially at a time when other bumblebees are disappearing.

[Latin Names: Bombus lucorum, the White-tailed Bumblebee; Bombus moderatus, the Moderate (or Canadian White-tailed) Bumblebee]

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Pollinator Monitoring - Citizen Science Project

Spring Beauty - Claytonia virginica

Two labs are co-operating on a project to learn more about the relationship between Spring Beauties, Claytonia virginica and Claytonia caroliniana, and their pollinators.

Biologists in the James Thompson lab at the University of Toronto and the Neal Williams lab at the University of California at Davis are hoping to learn how pollinator communities change depending on the year, the location, and the season.

The two Spring Beauty species are both native woodland wildflowers, characteristic of rich forests and moist wooded slopes in eastern North America. They are Spring ephemeral species, for they bloom for only a few weeks before the forest canopy leafs out.

Pollinators for Claytonia include a variety of bees and flies. Of special interest is the native bee,Andrena erigeniae, for it is a pollen specialist, a bee that forages only on Claytonia. A species like this is especially vulnerable, for its fate is tied to the success of a single host plan.

In addition to their own work, the biologists are calling upon an army of citizen scientist volunteers to supplement the study with observations made across a wide geographic range during a very short period in time.

You can learn more and even volunteer to help with the project by visiting the project website: Spring Beauty and the Bees.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Incidental Pollinator - The Great Golden Digger Wasp

This large, brightly-colored wasp is a frequent flower visitor and so is a potential pollinator. It is shown here gathering nectar on Virginia Mountain-mint, a native wildflower in eastern North America.

Solitary females dig burrows to lay their eggs and provision them with katydids, grasshoppers and crickets as food for their larvae. The adult wasps look ferocious but never seem to sting.

This species was unknown in southern Ontario 50 years ago, but has spread here from its range in nearby northern Illinois and Michigan.

[Photo (c) D. Barr]

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pollinator Monitoring for Citizen Scientists: A Handbook

Pollinating insects, like bumblebees, are in crisis. Honey bees are dying in unprecedented numbers and native pollinator species are disappearing. Pollinators are a critical element in the reproduction and fruiting of most flowering plants.

This threat to pollinators means that a substantial portion of the world's food supply is also in danger. Scientific knowledge will have to be applied to solving these problems. But we don't have enough biologists to deal with an issue of global proportions.

The efforts of citizen scientists will be required to complement the work of professional biologists if we are to find timely solutions. This handbook provides an illustrated guide that citizen scientists can use to monitor the activities of pollinating insects and gather data of use to pollination biologists. In addition to providing a protocol for making observations, the book also assists with the identification of both pollinators and the flowers they visit.

"This could be a very good piece of the puzzle encouraging more people to learn about pollinators." ~Bob Wildfong, Executive Director of Pollination Canada

Buy the handbook in eBook format for most eBook readers, including Kindle, HERE. Only $2.99.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Virginia Mountain-mint

Virgina Mountain-mint is said to occur throughout much of eastern and central North America.

It is not a plant I remember seeing anywhere, however, except at the Evergreen Brick Works. There it has probably been planted as part of their re-naturalization program.

Pollinating insects love it. Here is a quote from the Illinois wildflower website: "Many insects are strongly attracted to the flowers, including various bees, wasps, flies, small butterflies, and beetles. Typical visitors from these groups include honeybees, Cuckoo bees, Halictid bees, Sphecid wasps, Eumenine wasps, bee flies, Tachinid flies, Wedge-shaped beetles, and Pearl Cresecent butterflies."

To this, as today's photo shows, we can definitely add bumblebees.

[Photo by D. Barr]

Friday, February 25, 2011

Wild Bergamot

I first encountered Bergamot as a kid. They were planted in our gardens at home and I loved to watch when they attracted pollinators. Hummingbirds came to them in the daytime. And at dusk the big sphinx moths could be seen hovering beside the flower heads and tanking up on nectar.

Little did I realize that there is a native form of this attractive flower as well - the Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

The native plant has lavender flowers instead of the bright red of the cultivated variety. Lavender is more attractive to bees, of course, who can't see red at all.

Wild Bergamot occurs throughout most of North America, and it drives insect pollinators wild. Another name for it (and for a closely related species) is Bee Balm.

This is a hardy plant that flowers from June to September - ideal to plant in pollinator habitats.

[Photo by D. Barr]

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Common Wild Rose - A Pollinator Favorite

Native bee pollinator on Common Wild Rose

This rose is the type of ancestor from which all our cultivated roses came. This is Rosa virginica, which occurs naturally throughout eastern North America, from Alabama up to Newfoundland and Ontario. In the Canadian maritime provinces, it is said, this rose "grows with an almost invasive rhythm."

But note the differences with highly-selected, horticultural types like the American Beauty Rose. The native species has only five petals that spread widely around a shallow, cup-shaped blossom.

And most important of all, it still has loads of stamens, each loaded with pollen. So bees of all kinds, including bumblebees seek it out for a generous supply of the basic foods they need.

Plant any of these simple roses in the garden and they will thrive. In a sunny location they can flower all summer long. And your garden will be a quiet reserve for the preservation of natural pollinator populations.

[Photo by D. Barr]

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Native Pollinators and Urban Agriculture

There's an exciting new project in the planning stages. It involves bumblebees and other native pollinators and it's called "Sustainable Pollination for Urban Agriculture in Southern Ontario."

Bumblebee on Borage
The project aims to examine the diversity and assess the patterns and trends of pollinator effectiveness in urban agricultural systems. Our project will engage citizens and organized groups to participate in data collection and exchange while simultaneously becoming pollinator stewards and developing the skills and knowledge to create bee habitat in their gardens. We will disseminate information and results from our project to the public on an ongoing basis and will feature our findings during International Pollinator Week events in Toronto, an annual event that raises awareness about the importance of pollinators through celebratory, engaging and interactive programs. These activities will enlighten urban citizens on conservation and bee-friendly activities, ensuring the ecological health and integrity of Toronto and other cities in Southern Ontario.

The goals of the project are to:

1. To create a culture of conservation within Toronto citizens using urban pollinator stewardship and food production as focal points for connecting to the natural world.

2. To impact education of people who previously knew little or nothing about the connection between pollination, food security, and ecosystem health.

3. To assess the impact of bee diversity and abundance on yield of commonly grown urban food crops throughout the city of Toronto.

4. To map the distribution of bee diversity in Toronto and identify areas in which the urban agricultural productivity may be limited by pollinator abundance and diversity.

5. To correct pollinator limitation through management and augmentation using applied means.

Problem is, research costs money. And so far, not enough funds have been found to support this project.

If you have any resources or suggestions that might help to make this important project happen, the project participants would like to know about it.

Principal project participants are York University bee biologist, Dr. Laurence Packer, PhD student, J. Scott MacIvor, and recent M.A. graduate and winner of a 2010 pollinator award, Sabrina Malach. Also involved will be staff at the Toronto Region Conservation Authority and the York Foundation.

You can contact Sabrina Malach at

[Thanks to Sabrina Malach for the text of today's post. Photo by Tauno Erik: CC License]


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