Monday, December 22, 2008

Have You Seen Me?

Ladies and Gentlemen this is the Honey Bee, Apis mellifera. I find it very annoying how I can go to a website such as and find people who have posted pictures in their ID request section of the Honey Bee. Going back to their home page a second (assuming they haven't edited their page as of this posting,) there is a full color picture of Honey Bees!

Now it is understandable that some people out there just aren't sure of their ability to identify insects. And for those people it's perfectly fine to seek a second opinion. Still though, I find it hard to believe people don't know what they are. Is there honestly anyone in America who hasn't seen the Honey Bee?

Now something that might be confusing is all this killer bee nonsense. Africanized Killer Bees are the exact same species, the difference is their variety grew up in Africa and only the strongest hives survived. Before modern day beekeeping practices were perfected the only way to get honey from the hive was to destroy it or leave it incredibly vulnerable to attack. So the strongest hives in this case were the ones that drop everything and launch a full attack on whatever was looking at the hive funny. Compare this to some European varieties where stinging just isn't done. I'm a member of a beekeeping club and it's astounding. We'll have a meeting every few months and almost always we'll open a bee hive up. We smoke the thing properly, open the hive and start passing around the frames which make up the hive. Not only is no one wearing a bee suit but no one has been stung at any of our meetings for the past year. (Why aren't my hives like this!?)

Yet another possibility is that some other bees look similar to honey bees. But even in this picture I would think the difference is obvious. The other bee here has way more hair all over it's body.

So that leaves me with one other possibility. Maybe it's just that people rely on color to much. Apis mellifera has maybe 3 or 4 main color patterns. And all can be present or mixed within the same hive. Because the queen bee mates with multiple males it's common to see more than one color pattern represented. Here you can see a few individuals in a hive that have more pronounced darker stripes, while next to them are ones who barely have any visible. And around them are something in between this. It's actually possible to find honey bees with full black abdomens and others who have full orange/brown.

I see people starting to turn over a new leaf with all this Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) going around. They're listening to the ads out there and planting plants for the environment. It's great to see people helping out but I'm left to only conclude that no one cared enough before to really learn why bees are important... let alone what they looked like.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shopping Frustration

So last night I decided to shop for the plants I want to order in the spring and see how much it would cost. Here is the list as it stands.

Lupinus perennium for flowers and butterflies.
Prunus serotina (cherry tree) for flowers, butterflies, fruit, and birds.
Lindera benzoin (spicebush) for flowers and butterflies.
Fennal and parsley for butterflies and herbs.
Birds foot violet for butterflies and flowers.
Salix humilis (willow) for butterflies, flowers, and nesting for birds.
Dutchman's pipe (vine) passable a carnivorous plant, but for butterflies.
Native Honeysuckle (vine) for butterflies, flowers, and hummingbirds.
New Jersey Tea (eastern lilac) for butterflies and flowers.

So it's a hefty list and I'd love to plant them all. But I went shopping online last night for them all and couldn't find one place that sold them all. If I ever come through with the native plant club I'm going to start my own garden nursery to make sure there is a source for all these.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Helping a Friend

While working a few weeks ago I found my manager's project for her college level Biology class. It was a bunch of leaves glued to sheets of paper. I recognized a few of them and said their names aloud. My manager suddenly turned to me, "You know what they are!?"

Apparently the project was to identify 50 plants native to New Jersey. This made up something like 25% to 30% of their final grade. Initially the teacher had taken the class out into the woods and pointed out the necessary leaves and small plants they'd need that would be the standard 50 plants to identify. As a rule they could add as many plants as they like and if correctly identified as native to NJ they'd be added to the 50 plants needed to achieve a 100 for the project. The trouble is NOTHING in their education upbringings had prepared them for this project. I don't even think anything in the Biology class itself was geared towards helping with this project. The only resource they had was the teacher himself who would at least tell them if they were correct or not.

To my manager's benefit she'd already ID'd maybe half of the plants but was having trouble with all the others. There I couldn't help her because most of them were trees and I'm not good with those just yet. I know a Birch tree has white bark but couldn't tell you what the leaves looked like. But thankfully she's able to add any number of native plants to her assignment and I happen to have a garden filled with native plants. So I basically showed up to work one day with a trash bag of yard waste. Granted they were all properly labled.

Now you might be wondering why doesn't everyone just go to the garden center and take clippings from all the plants there? Well that would only work if they'd gone to a native plant nursury. Most garden centers get their plants fromt he ornimental indusry which has been importing plants from eveyrwhere but our native forests since America was founded. Almost all of the plants in my garden I had to buy thorugh special order.

Back to my manager's project I was able to obtain for her 22 properly labled and identified species native to NJ. And I could have gotten her more if she'd told me this earlier in the year. Three weeks ago everything in the garden wasn't in the best shape, right now it's all down to a dormant state. I still have to do some yard work too.

So the end result, sofar, is she got an 86 and we're both thrilled about that. Most of the plants I handed in were corretly ID'd but a few I had to just lable as the genus. (e.g. Hyssop sp.). I don't know if he accepted all of these but it makes me feel good for some reason. It's not fair for a teacher to say 1/4 to 1/3 of your grade will be determined with something you've no experence with. At the same time it's not fair that stundents should be so unprepared, the use of species and genus names should have been included in classes all throughout their edgucation. It's as if some sort of propaganda campain of ignorance were trying to erease them form history. Imagen if no one was taught about World War II.

So maybe I shouldn't have helped my manager out but of course I had to ask how well did the rest of the class do. Well it turns out the majority of the class didn't do it. They got a zero! A small minority got 40's and one girl got a perfect 100. That one girl is the hope for all humanity in my mind. Now everyone has the option of rehand in their project to get a few more right. I have every faith in my manager getting a 100 herself. I imagen a great deal of the class will be betting that one girl who got a perfect score for help.

Why so many Fails though? Why did so many of her class mates, (in a BIOLOGY CLASS!) not bother to prove they know what a Genus and a Species are? I recall when I was in Biology class we at least learned what a species was. We learned how they're classafied too. What we never really learned though was taxonomy, we never really had any examples of keying out a species. I believe if more classes had emphases on doing this task students would have a better knowlage of this sort of thing. It would be great if every chapter either started or ended with a key to identifying somesort of organism. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Environmental Sustainable Native Something

It feels like I haven't posted anything for a little bit, and for good reason. Before Thanksgiving I had a small electrical fire. No damage done, basically the extension cord powering my computer started bellowing out smoke, so I've had to move my operation down to the living room where I'm comfortably typing now.

I'm still going ahead with my plans to start a Native Plant Club and still toying with ideas for names. So far Native Yard of New Jersey or Environmental Gardens sound like the best one. There is a Native Plant club already in the state but they're widely based up north. Also sadly ALL of the links on their site that offer information on endangered or extinct species (and even completely lists of native plants) are broken! Go see for yourself.

It's not that I don't have faith in them at all. I don't know them, I'm not in contact with them. I just hope they're one of those organizations with big dreams but don't have the money to pay for and update a proper website. This actually happens a lot and a website with a good design can be very expensive. A simple 5 button (meaning 6 pages) can cost $1500 with the cost for yearly hosting and domain name renewal negotiable. You may be thinking well I'll just create my own website and I say "Good Fucking Luck!" Of course the 15 year old living next door might have a better offer but think about how responsible and experienced they'll be.

So my other choice for a name was Environmental Gardening and I was shocked to find one website actually had this as a catagory for a form of gardening. Actually a few website do this but it's strange that they also include "Native Plant Gardens" and "Sustainable Gardening" as separate categories. These should all be the same thing. Sustainable and Environmental gardens should be almost nothing but Native Plants! A few exceptions would be plants that are used in place of natives that also aren't invasive.

Here is an example: America only has 3 or 4 native species/varieties of Apple tree (Malus) but the 300 to 400 or so other species/varieties are all alien species brought with us from Europe or specifically bread here in the US. The native apples still exist in the wild but aren't regularly farmed... I believe because they don't taste as apple-like. But here's the thing. The thing is all apples (as far as I know) are still usable by our native moths and butterflies as host plants. My non-native Snowdrift Crabapple tree can still be used as a host plant. Also it's tiny crabapple (berries?) can be eaten by birds. It's also a nice looking landscape plant because the small red berries stay on the plant. A number of shrubs do this too where the fruit stays on the foliage well into the winter. They remain there becuase the berries don't taste good but birds will eventually eat them as all the better tasting berries get eaten first.

You could argue they aren't native and displacing the native apples but at least these aren't bad for the environment. This turns into a simple matter of protecting a 3 to 4 species instead of removing a keystone that causes irreperable damage to the echosystem.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Have a Dream

I've decided to start my very own club/organization. Though I'm not sure how formal it's going to be yet. I'm gearing this towards environmentalists, scientists, and avid hobbyists of all things nature. Basically I want to take what Doug Tallamy has written in his book "Bringing Nature Home" and use it as the underlining philosophy for a gardening club. I don't want to target life long gardeners because these are stereotypical grandmother-ish people who really buy into the ornamental industry. Because I know it's hard for people to change old habbits I think traditional gardeners might not appreciate certain undertones I've been known to emphasise.

Here's an example. The ornamintial industry has been promoting a landscape that is starving nature to death. Plants that are sold as Pest Free are the most useless plants in the world. It doesn't matter if bees are pollinating the flowers, or birds are eating the barries or even nesting in the branches; If it isn't native to US soil it's part of the problem. The fact that bees love the flowers to some of these plants and birds are spreading the seeds around are exactly why. This is a nonnative plant that our native insects can't eat or control, occasionally they'll be brought in with a disease our native varieties don't have an immunity to. We don't need these plants in America because we already have natives that do this alread. Far to often do we see a forest destroyed to make way for development, and when they find erosion to be the problem instead of planting native varieties that were doing the job towns turn to the ornimental industry and plant nonnative weeds.

Somewhere along the way Native plants were seen as ugly. I have no idea where this notion came from. The beauty of plants will vary no matter what part of the world you're in. It's our native plants that are targeted by butterflies and used as host plants. The damage these caterpillars do can be extensive but I've never seen this kill a tree. Our native trees are well adept to regrowing all their leaves. When people see a gypse moth tent they tend to spray them on sight. But I say let them be. Think about how much money is wasted putting birdseed into birdfeeders every year. In a healthy environment we have perfectly good controles for most pests. People look at the epidemics happening to farms (a very fradgile and unhealthy environment due to it's monocrop) and think it could happen to their backyard too.

The club I intend to found will be one to promote hearloom trading of native plants. I plan to grow them in my yard, collect the seeds, and grow them over the winter. Club members should attempt to do the same and we can trade and share what we grow. Maybe even sell them as a fund raiser, though I don't know what we'll be using the money for. I don't believe charging money will be nessessary either. This brings me to my second gripe.

Charaty organizations! I don't want to say they're bad, no no no. By all means a lot of them do good. But I don't believe what any of them are doing is enough. I'm sure the money going to plant a tree is doing some good somewhere but it's kind of faceless when you think about it. You're giving money to a website and in good faith this is doing some good ... somewhere. I think it would be a better method if people were to take this into their own hands. Instead of paying someone else to plant a tree, Why not plant one yourself? A native one of course. This way you can enjoy it! You can make a home for a bird, you can save an endangered species of butterfly, you can beautify your landscape is so many ways if you'd just do some research. If you went well out of your way to plant Milkweed in your landscape you could easily produce a Monarch Butterfly. I planted 4 plants myself two years ago and both years I've had a Monarch hatch out.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Berries slow the Development of Cancer

Strawberries, Raspberries Halt Cancer in Rats

This is from 2002 but I found it to be a good read. Makes me happy I have a few Raspberry plants out in the yard. The thing is though that of 8 plants and only 4 of them producing readily I'd say I only get a hand full from them a week. That's not a whole lot and many I toss away because of slugs and a certain type of fly that feeds on them. They're not real pests and don't really harm much but I still with I got more.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Winter Caterpillars

Woolly Bear caterpillars are on the move. Pyrrharctia isabella is one of the more commonly seen over wintering caterpillars. They're one of the few caterpillars that can eat virtually anything, but oddly enough only take short nibbles here and there. Much of their time is spent wondering aimlessly.

Once winter occurs they will hibernate usually under logs, in leaf litter, or under the bark of trees. Come spring time they can be seen wondering again but are less common than in the fall time. The resulting moth is just brown and doesn't really seem very special.

Hypercompe scribonia, or the Giant Leopard Moth as it's called, is probably the second most common one crawling around now. They're also mistaken for Woolly Bears because they almost look the same. The difference is that Leopard Caterillars are a little bit bigger and don't have the red/brown stripes we see on Woolly Bears.

Giant Leopard Moths are actually very pretty. You've probably seen them if you're living in the easter US and Canada. They're an all white moth, somewhat furry or feathery, and have black spots all over. They're worth googling.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Last Chance to Plant

Some of the plants I ordered arrived this week and are now planted in the ground. Mostly the ones that were best shipped as bare roots or bulbs. They were 3 varieties of Trillium (probably the only three in production), Turks Cap, and Bloodroot.

Thanks to deforestation most of the remaining forest land in America isn't in good shape. Fragmented forests only have so many species in them and the weaker species are only a short disaster away from going locally extinct. Because of this most people have probably never seen a Trillium in person. I am among those people. Trillium grandiflorum is probably the most widely sold Trillium in the US and I look forward to it's wonderful white flower next year. The other two are T. luteum which is yellow, and T. erectum which is red.

Blood Root is a short little early blooming wildflower. It's always fun to find a native wildflower that isn't widely considered to be a weed. The only downfall I've read about this one is it's flower is short lived. This is a shame because pictures I see online look nice.

The last one was Turks Cap Lily. Garden stores always have so many lilies for sale. I believe most of them are native to Asia. Our US natives tend to have the flowers pointed down. The peddels are also spotted and blend from orange to pink.

After planting all of these I added some decomposing leaves from the compost bin and watered the ground. This isn't nessessary for their survival but it's highly recommended. Squirrles are notorious bulb eaters and will happily rip up your prize winning garden for a meal. However, they don't dig in wet soil. The water will also hide your work.

I've had squirles digging up my bulbs before. I usually don't care though because most of the time they just replant it elsewhere in the yard.

I haven't decided yet if I'll be growing bulbs inside yet. Some of them are very fragrant and it's always good to freshen up a room now and then. They usually don't require much care at all either. What I don't like though is how expensive they are. Some of them are $20 or more for one plant. It's kind of worth it if you really love the scent and keep triggering it to bloom. The only reason most of them bloom over the winter is becasue they've already been wintered. It's not uncommon to find ones that haven't sold in late winter that are bursting out of their packaging.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Plant List

Why is there Snow in my October!

Being cooped up in the house is no good for a gardener. Though I do have a few indoor plants and am combating the mold gnats, I still can't help but think about how my garden's doing. I walk outside and see most everything is dying away, with the exception of our Garlic which is green and growing in cold temperatures. I walk through the garden now and see all the leaves are falling, the tomatoes have rotted, and the goldenrod has fallen over. Soon I will cut everything back to the ground, compost the old growth and think of next year.

As it so happens today I compiled a list of plants to boost the various things I love to look for out in the garden. You may think it funny that I actually promote insects in my yard but that's the best way to get birds in my opinion. It's one thing to have a bird feeder feeding them seeds but quite another to provide caterpillars which are vital to a young bird's growth.

Prunus (Black Cherry Tree)
One of the best trees for the job, so I have read, is the Black Cherry Tree. This is targeted 448 species of Moth and Butterfly as a host plant, including a number of tent caterpillars. Of all the plants in this genus I've narrowed it down to either Prunus virginiana (Choke cherry) or Prunus pensylvanica (Pin cherry) and it's probably going to come down to whichever one I can find sold. Certain native plants are often hard to find anywhere. The berries to both can be mashed up into homemade jam or left for the birds to eat. These trees are often called June Berry because they're one of the first to ripen in the year, if not, the first. Both only grow 15' or so. Despite being skeletainized on a bimonthly basis I'm told trees are hearty enough expect this and quickly rebound.

Fennel, Parsley, and Dutchman's Pipe
I'm growing these specifically as butterfly host plants. The larger yellow and black swallowtail butterflies use these and other plants as hosts. Fennel and Parsley can also be used as herbs and I look forward to tasting them (maybe I'll become a butterfly too, LOL). Dutchman's Pipe, Aristolochia durior, is a native vine for where I'm at. Normally I hate vines for their efforts to choke trees to death. It's also somewhat carniverous I think which is another negative, but if it can swallow some of the moiscitos I'll be happy.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
This is another host plant that produces berries as well. It's host to the Spicebush Butterfly, which is another large black swallowtale. I need to do more research on this one though becasue this plant has genders and berries only occur on females.

Ceanothus, specifically New Jersey Tea
I forget exactly why this one's on my list. It's a native Lilac, and if I recall right has a butterfly or two that go with it.

For Ants I'm looking into planting a few native wildflowers. Ants are where my hobbies in nature all began and in my opinion are one of the most overlooked signs of a healthy echosystem. Some 12,000 species are known and the more types you have in an area the better it is. I'll talk more on this at a later date perhaps.

These are a wonderful flower, but somewhat rare today. They're a simple 1' to 2' tall plant usually with a single flower per plant. After blooming in the spring it produces a berry that is filled with seeds. The seeds are coated with a "brown sugar" like substance that ants go nuts for. They actually take the seeds home and eat the good stuff, while planting the seed in the process.

Birds Foot Violet, Viola pedata
This is another one that ants will happily plant for you.

I think part of the reason why more Trilliums and native Violets aren't around today is becuase of the overuse of pestacide. With both of these plants you find isolated populations with very limited genetic diversity. The only time this changes up is when an ant from another group of these plants happens to find a seed from another group of these plants. In a way these are natural ant garden and I look forward to watching them spread here in the yard.

Concord Grapes
I actually already have a vine of these going, as do my neighbors. But mine has yet to flower and produce any fruit. It's something I look forward to. In a recent news artical I read one of the foods people who live to be 100 eat is Purple foods. Blueberries, Red Wine, and Concord Grapes all gain their color thanks to specific chemical which has been found to have antiaging properties.

That's the list so far and I'll probably add more to it later on. Now the trick is fitting it all in the yard.

Purple Loosestrife

For the past year or so I've been trying to break the habit of buying plants at garden centers without doing any research. Sure most of the plants are clearly labeled and all the facts you need to know about their care are right there. But one has to remember these people are trying to sell you something. One day while walking through the isles of one of my favorite garden places I saw they had a new plant. It looked like Fire Weed, a native wildflower, but when I read the label my jaw dropped.
Purple Loosestrife
This is a dangerous weed in the US. It's something of a raggy looking plant that does great near the waterways. So good infact that most other plants can't compete with it. Each one is loved by pollinators and has no trouble dropping a few thousand seeds each year. Worst of all, simply destrubing the soil is enough to trigger them to germinate. This makes them hard to control and simply trying to pick the plants will cause the seed bank below to all sprout into action, while the river takes them farther down stream.

So I asked the one of the top gardeners there "Why the Hell are you selling this!?"

He explained "It's not banned in our State." and then he did something amazing. Without taking another thought on his part he actually went on to name All the states that it was banned in including all the serounding states and many of America's heartland states where farming is often done.

I was just staring at him a while and he did the same to me. I didn't need to make my point, he had alread done it for me. After a moment I just walked off nodding my head. I'm not sure if I got through to him on that day but I was happy to see, upon returning a month later, that someone had cut all of the flowers off the Purple Loosestrife.

If I find they're still selling it next year I'll contact whoever I must to get it banned. I don't care if it's not an invasive in our state at all, the fact that we're allowing it to be sold undermindes the work of conservationiests and the Millions spent each year on it.

This plants hogs all the space so our natives like Milkweed, Joe Pye Weed, Goldenrod, Fireweed, and ButtonBush are all tossed to the side. Don't let their common names fool you. Milkweed is the host plant to the Monarch Butterfly as well 11 others; Joe Pye is our native version of the also invasive Butterfly Bush (in my opinion); Goldenrod, Fireweed and ButtonBush are all importan food sources for our native bugs, which inturn feed our native birds and so on.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Honey Bees vs Native Bees

America has 4,500 to 5,000 species of native bees. I don't think anyone has a definitive count, and then issues like DNA or over looked species confuse everyone. Darn you science! Anyhow, it's safe to say we at least have 4,500 species of excellent pollinators out there. So why then do farmers mostly use Honey Bees, Apis mellifera, as our primary pollinator?

There are a number of reasons for this and it's ripe full of controversy. The main reason Honey Bees are here in America is to pollinate foreign crops. The Xerces Society's view on honey bees seems to be we're better off without them. The pollination needs of farmers can easily be handled by our natives bees.They're argument is naive bees have evolved with certain flowers and are ideal at pollinating specific crops. The trouble is with 4,500+ species who can say the right pollinator for the job is even in the neighborhood?

Native Bees probably aren't used more in agriculture because they can't be controlled as easily as Honey Bees. Unlike our native bees, Apis mellifera maintains hives of 20,000 to 80,000 bees all year. Social native bees die off almost entirely, only the young queens produced in the fall survive the winter and start new hives in the spring. Wasp and Bumblebee hives have to start over every year. The Native Solitary bees though have an advantage here.

Solitary bees actually make up about 90% of the native bee population. The bees are only active for 6 to 4 weeks of the year, and depending on the species this can be any time of year. During the time the species is active females spend the entire time pollinating flowers near their nest. They'are somewhat social in that they love to nest next to other bees of their species. Despite being solitary it's possable to have an entire field, hill, or forest filled with these bees. Because so many of them nest next to one another it's just as good as having a hive of Honey Bees. The trouble here is land.

Farms are typically just a monocrop and perhaps some forest land acting as a border to help prevent erosion and other land issues. Monocrops are AWFUL! Even a forest full of native maple trees is bad. The reason is because it's a fradgile echosystem. There just isn't enough diversity around to keep things under control and farmrs have to resort to insectacides at some point or another. There are a few exceptions to this but they're not the norm. A single crop of anything is only blooming at one time of year. Honey Bees are ideal pollinators here because their hives can be carted around the country and propped up at a specific crop that blooms as a specific time, and repeat. Only a few Native Bees could really work under such limited foraging conditions.

What's worse is that it could be said the Honey Bees are stealing food from the natives. When you're a solitary bees that's only active when apple trees are in bloom in early spring, foraging can be extremely limited when you have to compete with a hive of 80,000 honey bees. Honey Bees happily fly up to 6 miles away from their home for food where as the Native bees usually don't go more than half a mile.

Don't get me wrong Honey Bees are still needed. A number of US crops actually aren't native and in many cases the Honey Bee is ideal for pollinating them. It's likely that this was the main reason why Honey Bees were used in the first place. Package that with the face that we can control the genetics of their hives and maintain them all year and it makes them all the more appealing to Beekeepers. To an extent this has also been done with Bumblebees but it's nothing compared to Honey Bees. You can find dozens of books completely devoted to the single species of Apis mellifera. And despite not being native they're the leading sources of pollination in the US.

The alternatives for farmers are to follow some of The Xerces Societies's plans. Some sound more outrageous than others but they've found farmers who sware by them.

1) Devote as much as 30% of the land to native forests.
This is a huge one to consider. But if it will provide 100% pollination year after year as well a more balanced echosystem it could be well worth it.

2) Limit the use of insectacides.
They say 90% of the insectacides sprayed are only to get the last 10% of quality. Most insects are not out to get you in any way. Solitary Bees are timid compared to everything else out there anyway.

3) Plant a cover crop to provide year round blooming.
This one fixes all the foraging needs your native bees might need and it will help their populations grow year after year. If there are any fears of the cover crop competing with the main crop then simply mow it over until the main crop is done.

4) Provide Nesting Where Able.
This is a big one. The forest itself adds to this but they're only foraging a half mile from their nest. Considering the natural home of tube nesting mason bees is the resulting hole of a particular sized grub in a dead tree branch, it might be useful to just drill some holes in a nesting block to speed things along. Bumblebees actually nest in former rodent burrows, and thatch nests. So stop mowing the grass and let the mice run wild.

More details can be found on their site.