Sunday, June 30, 2019

Entomologist Rachael Winfree Offers Advice on Catering to Bees

Some time back, Rachael Winfree, an entomologist at Rutgers, generously agreed to meet with us at the pollinator garden we're creating at Herrontown Woods, to discuss ways it might better fill the needs of bees. For an hour, she poured out information while I scrambled to take notes. More can be found at her website, at the bottom of this post.

DEAD WOOD: Her first thought was that she liked all the wood strewn about, in the form of trees felled by wind and ice storms over the past ten years. The bodies of trees live a long life after death, providing a home for all sorts of insect life. Fallen trees are one of the places bumble bees make their nests underneath.

SOIL: She liked less the soil--mostly heavy clay. The many kinds of bees that build their nests underground prefer looser, more sandy soil. Perhaps we could bring some sand in to lighten up some areas, she suggested, or dig up the soil here and there to make the bee's job of digging easier.

SLOPING GROUND: Slopes would be good, too. Water runs off a slope better, so there's less chance that the bee's underground home will be flooded. Our pollinator garden has no hills, but it does have the hillocks made when a tree is uprooted. The rootball angles up into the air, leaving behind a hole in the ground with slopes on all sides. America, it is said, was very lumpy back before western settlement, as each tree over the millenia would eventually fall, its raised rootball leaving a depression.

XERCIS SOCIETY: She mentioned the Xercis Society and its website on multiple occasions. She's on its board, and thinks it's one of the best sources of ideas for creating habitat for insects.

WASPS VS BEES: Wasps visit flowers not to collect pollen but to sip enough nectar to get through the day. They are therefore poor pollinators, since they don't collect pollen and therefore are less likely to spread pollen from one flower to another. To reproduce, they prey on other insects, which they collect and use to nourish their young.

BEES ARE VEGETARIANS: Bees are essentially vegetarian wasps. They use the protein in pollen to feed their young, collecting a bunch of pollen and then laying an egg in it. Different bees carry pollen on different parts of their bodies. The classic honey bee, the cow of the bee world, not native but widespread in the service of agriculture, carries pollen on the back legs, as do bumblebees. One bee carries pollen on its belly, which is very cute to see when one turns the bee over.

SOCIAL VS SOLITARY BEES: Social bees, such as honey bees and bumble bees, are in the minority. Most types of bees are solitary. These types are very unlikely to sting, because stinging is a very dangerous activity for a bee, and a solitary bee is on its own. Bumble bees and other social bees are "on the wing" longer than solitary bees, meaning that they are around all summer rather than for just a couple weeks.

BEES IN DECLINE?: Though the news media has been reporting that bees are in decline, Rachael contends that there isn't all that much evidence to back that up. There are no long-standing studies of bee numbers to reference. Complicating any effort to tally bee numbers, there are only three taxonomists who can identify all 160 or so species of native bees in New Jersey. (I didn't catch the names, but two of them may be John Ascher and Jason Gibbs. When googling John Ascher, I came across this very useful looking manual: How to catch and identify bees and manage a collection) Bees, unlike plants, must be killed in order to be identified, and though some of that is necessary for research, it's not necessarily an activity entomologists want to promote. Bees may actually benefit from the habitat fragmentation that comes with suburban sprawl.

SPECIALIZED BEES: I had wondered if there are specialized bees that depend on a particular plant species that we could then plant to help that bee species. She mentioned two to get me started: a bee called Andrena erigeneae that feeds exclusively on spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), and the Rose-mallow Bee (Ptilothrix bombiformis), which has a black velvet appearance and feeds on Hibiscus. (I found this informative article that lists many others:

SMALL CARPENTER BEE (Ceratina sp.): a common bee around here.

NESTING: Bumble bees nest under logs, or at the base of bunch grasses.

MOBILITY: Small bees fly only a couple hundred feet.

PLANTS TO ATTRACT BEES: sweet bergamot, lavender, mountain mint--especially Pycnanthemum tenuifolium

MORE INFO: Her website has useful pdfs, including a primer on New Jersey bees.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Repopulating the Community With Native Wildflowers

My younger daughter Anna recently returned from a year in Bolivia, and since she loves to walk, we headed out across town towards Mountain Lakes. It gave me a chance to check out, or check in on, some of the plantings I've been involved in creating over the years. It was surprising how many we encountered along the way. There are the rain gardens adopted at the Westminster parking lot, plantings on both sides of the high school, a couple gardens around Mountain Lakes House, and then on the way back we stopped by the courtyard behind the Community Park Elementary, where I recently helped a bit with a garden planted by students under the leadership of Georgette Stern. Those are projects west of my house. Extending eastward are plantings at the Whole Earth Center, Smoyer Park and a botanical garden being established at Herrontown Woods.

Since many of the plants now in public places come from my backyard, or in many cases "through" my backyard from wildflower seeds collected from native populations along the canal, there are recurrent themes.

A pollinator flying around town will encounter these bottlebrush buckeyes in my yard, at Mountain Lakes House, and now at the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

These backyard clouds of tall meadow rue were first found along the canal, then traveled to my yard and from there to the various gardens around town. The new populations are particularly important because the original patch along the canal is being grown over by invasive porcelainberry vine.

Virginia sweetspire came from a nursery, but creates suckers that can be easily dug and transplanted to public places.

Divisions from these backyard oakleafed hydrangias have also become ambassadors of native beauty in the community.

The richweed in the front left of this photo is a rare native that first arrived in the backyard via a plant rescue from a stream restoration site on the university campus. Though it doesn't have showy flowers, the hydrangia-like foliage makes an attractive massing in a flower bed. Again, the backyard was a conduit, as the richweed's seedlings are now growing at Herrontown Woods.

Some beebalm given to me by a friend mixes with the tall meadow rue from the canal.

Division from that beebalm now thrive at the Herrontown Woods botanical garden, protected from the deer by some fencing.

Sundrops, here mixed with deer tongue grass--a common native grass in local floodplains--also made the journey from backyard to botanical garden,

as did cupplant, a giant wildflower here catching rain in its "cup." This is probably the tenth or twentieth generation from the original plant rescued in 1994 from next to a dumpster behind Mark Twain's house in Hartford, CT.

Fox sedge is a common local sedge that has an attractive shape that works for informal gardens.

A more recent find is purple milkweed (distinct from common, swamp, green, butterflyweed, etc.), a few specimens of which are now traveling from their original location at the Veblen House grounds to begin growing elsewhere in town.

Others have yet to travel, like black-eyed Susan,

and Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra), a native I've never seen growing in the wild, given to us by a friend our first full summer in Princeton, when the 17 year cicadas were having a look all around.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage people to dig up plants from their gardens and spread them indiscriminately throughout town. Given how weeds can travel in dirt, I'm careful to introduce to new areas only seeds or bareroot plants, with a strong preference for local genotypes rather than bred varieties. The goal that began this process was to make isolated remnant populations of this or that native species less isolated and more resilient by starting new populations in auspicious conditions elsewhere in town.

There's a long-standing irony that the wildflowers native to an area are often the least encountered by people living in suburban landscapes dominated by non-native plants. This process of seed collection, division and transplanting, natural to a gardener, can help bring back some native diversity in the community, for people as well as pollinators to enjoy.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Sunday, June 23: Veblen Birthday BBQ

This Sunday, June 23 from 2-5pm, the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) will be hosting a birthday BBQ on the grounds of Veblen House at Herrontown Woods. Food, drink, games, and socializing, to celebrate the 139th birthday of mathematician and visionary Oswald Veblen. He and his wife Elizabeth donated Herrontown Woods as Princeton's first nature preserve in 1957.

We will provide a grill, hotdogs, hamburgers, and refreshments. Potluck offerings of food/drink are encouraged.

In honor of Veblen's mathematical work on trajectories, we'll have places to play volleyball, badminton, and we'll set a pingpong table up in the Veblen driveway. Playing pingpong in a natural setting could put a new spin on things.

We have some demonstration raingardens to show off, with some plant labels added. There will be some painting activities for kids.

Or park in the main Herrontown Woods parking lot off of Snowden Lane, and walk up to the house (scroll down at this link for map). Facilities if needed are a short drive away at Smoyer Park.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Botanist's Revisiting of Central Park

Enter New York's Central Park across from the Natural History Museum, and you're likely to come upon one of the giant rocks where kids climb. For a parent whose kids have grown, it's a chance to gaze at the changing skyline in the distance (taller, skinnier), and remember back some distance to that parental mixture of worry and delight as a young daughter explored the sometimes precipitous contours of this massive boulder.

For many people, this spot may not offer much beyond rock, water, and skyline softened by an undifferentiated sea of green foliage.

But for a botanist and wild gardener, this place evokes so much more. That tree on the left in the first photo is a serviceberry (Amelanchier) that in early June is loaded with ripe berries. I gorged while the incurious streamed by on their way to rocks and water.

A massing of cup-plants under a sycamore tree brought back memories of where I first encountered this towering native wildflower, growing untended next to a dumpster in the parking lot of Mark Twain's historic house in Hartford, CT.

The sight of royal fern (Osmunda regalis) brings back memories of all the other places I've seen it, whether planted in my yard or growing wild, back in the depths of Herrontown Woods.

This Virginia sweetspire looks very much like the one in my front yard, but with a grander backdrop, and brings back memories of the one time I saw it growing in the wild, along the banks of the Eno River in North Carolina.

These rosemallow hibiscus are offering little in mid-June to catch the untrained eye, but recognizing them without flowers links Central Park to my backyard, the edges of the Millstone River headwaters, and everywhere else I've seen this native hibiscus growing. Familiarity with the plant in all stages also makes it possible to "see" the big, broad flowers that will come in July. For a seasoned wild gardener, that is, a gardener who has been through all the seasons with this or that plant, the present is enriched by the past and future it holds within it.

The community of plants near the climbing rock--native shrubs and wildflowers that thrive with wet ground below and sun above--is what we've propagated into many areas of Princeton, but Central Park adds the framing of the skyline, rock outcroppings and water. To see it there, or in the parks of Chicago during a recent visit, is to bear witness to a recurring community gathering, each member with its quirks. Buttonbush, with its buttons of forming seeds, is in this particular photo. Many others are not shown, like Joe Pye Weed, lizard's tail, cutleaf coneflower, Helenium, New England aster, cardinal flower--their coevolution in the wild here emulated in a park.

So many steps it takes, to raise kids or raise an enriching awareness of plants, which in turn brings meaning and memory to every new step taken.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

A Few Spring Surprises

Watch spring unfold for enough years and it can start to get predictable in a Groundhog Day kind of way. One group of bloomers segues into the next, year after year. There's a theater piece I wrote called Spring Training, that imagines how Spring's trainer, charged with getting Spring in shape for the annual run-through, would react if Spring decided to go rogue and change the order of flowers on a whim. That hasn't happened, far as I know, despite all the changes underfoot and overhead due to our chemical tampering with the atmosphere. Still, this spring has offered a collection of surprises.

A big surprise came a couple mornings ago, when I dared to walk out into the garden and search for strawberries. Disappointment had been a predictable result up to now, as catbirds, slugs, and who knows what else would claim our berry harvests before we could. True, our past care of the garden had not been marked by a consistent diligence and vigilance, and maybe that was the difference this year. We've paid the garden more attention, and in return it provided a yield of incredibly unblemished berries.

Daffodils in late May? That's what you get, it turns out, when you plant them in March, rather than the previous fall. These were planted by volunteers who came to a daffodil planting party at Veblen House.

Also at Veblen House, the pawpaws are leapin'. There's a saying about transplanted shrubs and trees. "The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and on the third year they leap!" It's been four years since we planted these. Close enough. Periodic attention has had to be paid to protect them until they are beyond the reach of the deer.

That's Friends of Herrontown Woods board member Victoria Floor providing scale.

My friend Steven who has pawpaws in the backyard had to hand pollinate them to get fruit. This wasn't incredibly surprising, though it's always a surprise when something that's supposed to work actually works.

Steven reminded me that years ago I had given him a "live stake" of silky dogwood. It probably looked a lot like this one--a two foot long late-winter cutting that, in this case, was left to sit in a bucket of water until it sprouted leaves on top and roots on the bottom.

He had planted it in his "lower 40", a wet area that receives runoff from the yard and some sun from an opening in the canopy. Since then, it has quietly grown into a shrub more than ten feet high.

A live stake of elderberry performed similarly.

Another surprise came when Architect Kirsten Thoft reminded me recently that I'd given her some plants for her "stormwater planter", which utilizes and filters runoff from the roof before releasing the rest into the yard. This is a good option for downspouts that empty onto pavement. Plants I noticed: Virginia sweetspire, tall meadowrue, and royal fern.

If there's a theme here, it's that plants and nature in general demonstrate an impressive growth force when given a chance, and a little dose of tending through the years. That's a realization that never loses its sense of pleasant surprise.