Another double header – two gardens in one day

by Sandy Garland

Tuesday must be a good gardening day. Actually, it was the weather that dictated planting the new garden beds at the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne on Tuesday morning – cloudy with showers expected in the evening.

Lynn Armstrong, who is designing a series of raised beds there, asked if the FWG would like to contribute plants to a bed devoted to butterflies. Yes, of course, was the answer, so I delivered Joe-Pye Weed, Flat-topped Aster, Butterfly Weed, Pussytoes, Nodding Onion, Gray Goldenrod, and Virgin’s Bower (clematis) to the area early Tuesday morning.

Of course, I couldn’t just walk away, so I helped Carol McLeod plant, put up shade cloth, and fetch poles, scissors, etc. The other beds contain a variety of annual flowers and vegetables, garden perennials, etc., so “our” bed will be a showcase for native species.

Lynn Armstrong of the Ottawa Horticultural Society and colleague planting annuals.

Lynn Armstrong of the Ottawa Horticultural Society and colleague planting annuals.

Carol MacLeod watering the future “butterfly bed” next to the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park

After lunch, it was time to meet the Tuesday Old Woodlot group at the FWG. Jesse and Melanie were the only volunteers, but they did the work of a full crew and we had a great time chatting and learning new things about the wildlife at the garden.

We had decided in advance not to try to do anything strenuous, as the day was hot and humid. Instead, we looked at a lot of recently planted trees and shrubs to give them some space and always-needed water.

We started by watering and mulching the maple trees planted by Ottawa U students last Tuesday (see Double header – two volunteer groups in one day). Young trees really need water and rain just doesn’t provide enough to get their roots growing. Then, to hold the water in, we added a thick ring of wood chips around each tree.

Jesse and Melanie mulching newly planted Sugar Maple trees in the Old Woodlot.

Jesse and Melanie mulching newly planted Sugar Maple trees in the Old Woodlot.

Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

Next we had a look at the south edge of the woods where we’ve planted a variety of fruit trees last year and this spring. The trees are all doing well, but the “weeds” are doing better. We removed some Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense; deceptively named, as it’s not native), a bit of Motherwort, all the Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) we could find, and the ubiquitous dog-strangling vine. We’re keeping the latter at bay in this area, but we’re always on the lookout for masses of seedlings, where we missed a DSV plant last year.

At this time of year, many native plants and “naturalized aliens” are growing faster than DSV. Some of those naturalized aliens are Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), and Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris). All of these are great wildlife plants, well used by pollinators. Queen Anne’s Lace is even a larval host plant for Black Swallowtail butterflies.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

Queen Anne's Lace (Dauca carota)

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota)

More watering. Young trees cannot get too much water.

What we saw
Melanie is very interested in helping bumblebees and we were delighted to see bumblebees on thistles, Catmint, and Queen Anne’s Lace. We’re hoping to contribute these sightings to the new citizen science initiative, Bumblebee Watch, if we can only get photos!

A pair of Summer Azures swirled together, we saw a Banded Hairstreak on a thistle, and a large orange Eastern Comma (or perhaps a Question Mark) perched on some wood chips, but not long enough for a photo.

We saw a beefly, but again the minute I raised my camera, it disappeared. The clematis is in full bloom and covered in bees and flies of all kinds. I also saw the first Black Swallowtail of the year (for me).

Jesse also saw a Common Gartersnake in the Butterfly Meadow and a now common Cepeae snail on DSV.

Huge Gypsy Moth caterpillar. The finger is there to show the scale (the caterpillar measures 5 cm).

Huge Gypsy Moth caterpillar. The finger is there to show the scale (the caterpillar measures 5 cm).

But Jesse won the find-of-the-day prize when he noticed a huge caterpillar on the trunk of an oak tree. I took a few photos and later used the Discover Life guide to ID the creature, which was 5 cm long!

I was horrified to discover that our beautiful caterpillar was the larva of the Gypsy Moth, which is known to destroy forests in North America. I quickly emailed our nature expert to ask if this was cause for panic. She replied, no, we DO have this species at the FWG (and other parts of Ottawa) but not in sufficient numbers to do any damage.

She said, “Sometimes I find large egg masses of the species, but only a small percentage survive to reach adulthood. I think I have found all stages every year for about the last 20 years at the CEF. This is not to say that they are not a big problem in some areas in some years. They seem to exist in quite low densities for a long time and then suddenly there is a big population explosion. However, we have a good and healthy Peromyscus population at FWG and they like eating gypsy moths, and many birds eat the larvae including jays, catbirds, robins, etc. – all species we see at FWG and the CEF.”

The moral for the day: not all alien species are bad. In fact, those like Queen Anne’s Lace can be beneficial to local wildlife. And even species with a bad rep, like Gypsy Moths, can live in balance with the other wildlife in our area.

Questions: Are the filamentous fungi in our piles of wood chips “good” or “bad”? If we’re not supposed to pile mulch close to the trunks of trees (because they might develop fungi), why is it okay to mulch with chips that are full of mycorrhizae?
Note to self: We’re pretty certain Black Walnut trees inhibit the growth of DSV, but they sometimes need help. Remember to cover the mass of DSV under the walnut at the southeast corner of the woods. If we can kill the plants that are there now, the walnut tree might keep others from growing back. This has worked in the past; is it a reliable method?

Bee boxes, houses, condos and hotels…Part 2: The photos

by Christine Hanrahan

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words and, bearing that in mind, I am posting some photos of a couple of bee nesting structures.

The large nest box made by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientists has holes of varying sizes and contains rolled up tubes of paper that can be removed. At the end of summer, these paper tubes would be placed in a container in a refrigerator or unheated building for the winter and brought out in spring in a place where the bees can emerge safely. The nest box itself would be disinfected before being re-used.

The old bee box from 2009 was made for us by Bruce Burns and used as part of a display on pollinators. Later, in mid-summer, we placed it in a south-facing site, protected from intrusion and, within days, leafcutter bees (Megachile) were using it.

Bee bundles are another method of providing homes for tunnel-nesting bees and, in this photo, you can see how the bamboo bundles were placed inside a plastic plant pot for protection from the elements.

The next two photos are of two different bees using the bee boxes. The Megachile is checking out the old box in 2009, while the mason bee is investigating the newer box in 2012.

There is a close up of the rolled paper tubes in this next photo.

The last photo shows a tree swallow nest at the FWG, removed when the box was cleaned in early November. Inside were many dead bumble bees and, beneath the straw of the swallow nest, were many “honey pots” made by the bees.

Bee boxes, houses, condos and hotels…

by Christine Hanrahan

This is a simple overview of various types of accommodations for bees. I won’t be providing instructions for building bee boxes, but I do provide a reference below for the best all-round source for creating different types of bee houses.

Much media attention has been given to declining honeybees (Apis mellifera), but less well-known is the decline in many native bee species, such as bumble bees (Bombus) and others. Our native bees are facing habitat loss, pesticide contamination, disease, and who knows how many other problems. Studies are ongoing with more research devoted to this issue.

The good news is that people are becoming more aware of bees as beneficial. I spoke with a pest control official recently who said that although he still gets calls from people worried about bees, such calls are fewer than in the past. The ongoing media attention about disappearing honeybees and subsequent attention paid to bees in general, and their importance to pollination, has moved this group of insects into a more benign category.

One indication of the changing attitude is the recent interest in placing bee boxes (bee nest sites) in gardens. Although I am happy about this trend, there is also a downside. Buyers are not usually told that if they want to help bees, nectar rich plants must be available or bees won’t be interested. The importance of hygiene in bee boxes is rarely discussed either. Unfortunately, some commercially produced bee boxes are more concerned with making cute ornamental art for the garden than with the requirements of bees.

Many of our native bees are ground nesters and won’t use bee boxes. This brings up a whole different issue, which I’ll leave for another time, as this article is looking only at tunnel-nesting bees, the ones most likely to use bee boxes.

The natural nesting sites of these bees is the hollow stems of plants, such as wild raspberries, or holes in standing dead trees (snags). When we build bee boxes for them, we are emulating their natural nest sites, much as we do for cavity nesting birds when we install nest boxes.

The most common tunnel-nesting bees we see around the Ottawa are leaf-cutter bees and mason bees (both in the Megachilidae family). These are the ones that will be most attracted to bee boxes. Bumble bees may also be attracted to man-made nest sites. At the Fletcher Wildlife Garden (FWG), a newly installed bee box in summer 2009, attracted leafcutter bees (Megachile) within days. In 2012, scientists from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) placed a number of bee boxes as well as bee bundles, around the garden in a variety of sites, and these too were very well-used, particularly the nest boxes.

There are innumerable ways to provide nesting sites for these bees, the simplest being to leave snags standing, and to grow plants that bees would use in the wild for nesting. Creating artificial nesting sites is the other option, and ways and means are varied and many.

First and always, when making any bee structure, think of hygiene, as parasites and disease are a serious problem for bees. With simple bee blocks, essentially a wooden cube with holes in it, there are two options: you can replace them every year or you can use removable cylinders in each hole. These can be straws or rolled tubes of paper, which can be discarded when the bees have finished nesting. The bee block can then be disinfected, instructions for which are given in the native pollinator book listed in references below.

Bee blocks work best if they have holes of varying diameters (to accommodate different bee species) and of sufficient depth to allow bees a long tunnel to work in. Some people suggest drilling the holes slightly upward to prevent rain from getting in. Logs with drilled holes can also be used for this same purpose. Old, weathered logs are best as they emulate the snags that bees would naturally use. At the FWG, I’ve noticed bees making nests in some of our old well-worn wooden posts (used for habitat signs) and the split-rail fences.

Other types of simple nest accommodations include bee bundles, which can be made from lengths of hollow stems, such as bamboo, phragmites (abundant in the region, although very invasive so make sure you don’t distribute the seedheads elsewhere), cup-plants. These are best if situated within some sort of cover (large black soft plastic plant pots were used by scientists who set up bee bundles at the FWG in 2012) to protect them from rain and located in a sheltered site. At the FWG, I’ve noticed mason bees checking out plants for nest sites, and they also used the AAFC bee boxes.

Bumble bees frequently nest in the ground, but they will also nest in piles of stones, brushpiles, under decks, and even in bird nest boxes (which I’ve seen several times at the FWG). I’ve also seen them nesting in the foundation of my house and in sheds. In other words, while their sites are varied, what they are seeking is a warm, dry, sheltered cavity.

Finally, some very creative ideas for creating “condos” or “hotels” for bees (and other insects too) come via the Pollinator listserv. These examples show how bee and insect condos can be constructed fairly simply, using found objects, such as plant stems, bricks, logs, etc. Ingenious designs from across Europe are shown, ranging from small and simple to quite large and more elaborate, all of which can be used and adapted for our area. General information about cleaning out bee blocks, and maintaining sites is given, as well as tidbits of other interesting information. Some of the photos show carefully constructed structures that will hold about 8 or 9 separate bee boxes. Others are created with boards or pallets, separated by bricks, and stuffed with a variety of material that will attract not only bees but other insects such as ladybeetles. The site is fun to peruse and is sure to generate a desire to emulate at least one of the structures. At the FWG we are already planning to create several and will be keeping an eye on them throughout the summer to see who uses them.

***Attracting Native Pollinators. Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies. 2011. By the Xerces Society. Storey Publishing. I can’t say enough good things about this marvellous book. It provides excellent information, complete with photos, of different types of bee structures, good instructions for how and when to install, how to keep nest boxes and bundles clean, and much more. Buy it!!! It is the best source around; you need no others!

Bee and insect condos and hotels:

NAPPC Pollinator listserv: Provides a variety of topical and worthwhile information with much current information about bees and their conservation and efforts to protect them.

North American Pollinator Protection Campaign: The premier site for all things to do with conservation of pollinators.

Pollinator Partnership (NAPPC): Provides information about all pollinators, with an emphasis on bees.

Xerces Society: One of the best all-round websites dedicated to bees and all pollinators, with a wealth of good, trustworthy information. Check under: for information on bee boxes.

More references for building bee boxes will be added when I find ones that are suitable.