Friday, April 12, 2013

The Other Bees

Ahhhh, Spring! This is the time of year that I always notice the busy activity of some ground-dwelling bees that live near our house. They never bother you as you walk by, even though they are quite numerous. A few years back when I was installing some steps in that area, I noticed their small holes in the ground. That’s when I was reminded of the solitary bees I had learned about in beekeeping class many years ago. Most people are aware of honey bees, and more are becoming aware of their economic importance in pollinating commercial crops. But most people have never heard about the native bees that just don’t have the rock-star status of the non-native honey bees.


It so happens that there are over 4,000 species of native bees in north America – and, bees are the most important pollinator in most ecosystems in the world. Seventy-five per cent of the flowering plant species in the world are pollinated by bees. Even commercial crops that rely on honeybees for pollination are also visited by wild native bees and other pollinators. Without pollination, flowers cannot develop into seeds and fruits, which feed many birds and mammals large and small. As a matter of fact, fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of approximately 25 percent of all birds, and of mammals ranging from red-backed voles to grizzly bears.


Most native bees live solitary lives rather than in colonies, such as honeybees do. And many live in the ground. So they go mostly un-noticed by people most of the time. Unfortunately, wild bees and other pollinators are experiencing declining populations, and possible extinction. According to the Xerces Society, “Many of our native bee pollinators are at risk, and the status of many more is unknown. Three bee species: the rusty-patched, the yellow-banded and western bumblebee, have dropped in number over the past decade. A fourth species, Franklins’ bumblebee has only been seen once in the past several years. Habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, pesticide use, climate change, and introduced diseases all contribute to declines of bees.


To attract native bees and other pollinators to your yard, add some food plants that provide pollen and nectar. Grow a diversity of plant species to attract a diversity of pollinators. And try to have something in bloom over a long period of time to provide a continual supply of food. If you want to help the wild bees gain in social status, you can go online and vote for them. Yes! You can vote for the rusty-patched bumblebee to be featured on an Endangered Species Chocolate bar wrapper. But, hurry, you only have until Sunday, April 21. (Got to for details). After voting, go back to the Xerces Society website and take the “Pollinator Pledge”. There, you can also learn more about the wild native bees, some of whom may inhabit un-noticed areas in your own backyard.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Horticulture: There's an App for That

Using smart phone or tablet, you can surf the web, read a review about a restaurant in the town you’re visiting, send an email, find out how your friends halfway across the globe are doing, and post a blog. Some of that technology is old-school now (a lot of people are so busy texting they don’t have time to check their email). However, if you have already updated your status on Facebook and caught up with your Facebook friends today, and still have some time on your hands, you might want to check out some of these new horticultural apps.

According to a person who considers himself and “App Hunter” who specifically looks for free Ag and Hort apps, there are at least 120 that fit into that category. If you do a Google search for Horticulture Apps, you will pull up a list of sites that claim to list the “top ten” apps.

The New York Times posted an article earlier this year with their top ten picks. They include the app that helps you design a garden (Garden Tracker for IPad and IPhone), and a landscaper’s companion app that can be used by either apple or android products.  I haven’t used this one yet, but I expect I will be checking it out, since it includes images of and information about approximately 20,000 trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, vegetables, and herbs.

You can also go to your app store to see what they offer. A recent search in the Google Play Store for Apps turned up at least 50 gardening related apps. Form gardening secret tips, to horticulture news, to gardening games. Prices range from free to $24.99. There’s an app for warning you when there’s danger of frost, and another to tell you what’s in bloom at the world-class Kew Gardens in London.

Not so very long ago, organizations poured resources into website development. There are continuing costs for upkeep and maintenance. For apps, this includes a need to upgrade to ensure the apps work on new platforms that come along.

According to the lead developer of the apps “IPMLite” and “IPMPro”, costs for developing a basic, simple APP, (such as calculators to perform specific formulas, etc.) are around $1,000 to $4,000. A database-driven APP, such as the one she helped develop can run anywhere from $8,000 to $50,000. For reference, Angry Birds cost somewhere around $125,000 to $180,000. Is it a lucrative revenue stream? That remains to be seen for many agricultural and horticultural apps. Angry Birds has reportedly made $50 million in revenue.

I wonder if apps will replace books, and even websites for certain kinds of information in the future?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Mighty Oak

If a tree could BE a poem, as indicated by Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree”, then I submit that the swamp white oak makes a beautiful poem. With strong, almost muscular limbs reaching out at ninety-degree angles from the broad trunk, there is something quintessential in its architecture that lends it an air of majesty.
Native oaks in North America have long served useful purposes of many different sorts. For example, the acorns feed over one hundred animal species, and are even edible by humans when treated appropriately to remove the bitter tannins. Those bitter tannins, also found in the bark of oak trees, have their own application in tanning leather.
Oaks belong to the genus Quercus, and include the tree that gives us cork, Quercus suber. Most of the cork produced in the world comes from trees grown in the Mediterranean region in the countries of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, and Morocco. Yamaha uses oak wood in making drums, and drumsticks may also be made of oak, although they do not absorb vibration as well as those made from hickory or maple.
There are more than 50 species of oaks that are native to North America, but some are native to other places, including Europe.  William Cowper, English poet of the 1700s, wrote of the oak: “I might with rev’rence kneel and worship thee, It seems idolatry with some excuse  - When our forefather Druids in their oaks, Imagin’d sanctity…”, indicating a spiritual connection to the great and powerful-seeming tree.
According to Diana Wells, author of “Lives of the Trees”, Druids used oak leaves to make crowns for their sacrificial victims. She goes on to suggest that the name Druid may have originated from the Gaelic word for the oak tree, darach. Wells states that oaks were sacred to many gods. She lists among them, Thor, Jupiter, and El, the Hebrew god.
The white oak, state tree of Illinois, has proved very useful throughout history. Barrels for wine and whiskey are made from white oak, due to the closed cellular structure that makes it water- and rot-resistant. Maturing or fermenting wine in oak adds flavors to the wines such as caramel, vanilla, and toffee, and sometimes gives wine a silky texture.
Oaks are famously associated with their fruit, the acorn. A lot of oak species have lobed leaves, but there is a great deal of variability in leaf shape. Oaks are generally divided into the red oaks and the white oaks, with leaves of the white oak-types having rounded lobes and those of the red oak types having pointed lobes. I think the bur oak has the most interesting acorn, with a burly, fringed cap on a fairly large acorn.
The oak receives a lot of respect for both its usefulness and symbolically. In 2004, the United States Congress passed legislation naming the oak as the National Tree. Oak leaves are used in military insignia, including the awarded oak leaf cluster worn by members of the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Department of Defense for subsequent awards of a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and other awards of merit.
Oaks have a long, varied, and interesting history. But poems are often short and to the point. If a picture paints a thousand words, then may the image of one magnificent oak pay tribute to them all.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A-maize-ing Corn's Astonishing History

Here in Illinois, surrounded by the vast acreage of agricultural corn and beans, we have a special vantage point from which to appreciate our ancient heritage of agriculture. Seeing the corn emerge from the ground, well past danger of frost, renews that annual feeling of optimism that this will be a good harvest year.
It is easy to forget that, with all our modern technology of machinery and global positioning systems to aid our efforts, we have the ancient Olmec people to thank for the basic technology on which all of this is founded. After all, they have not only been cultivating maize (an alternative term for corn, based on its botanical name Zea mays) for several thousand years, they purposely selected seeds year after year for traits such as larger kernels, increased number of rows of kernels, and the ability of an ear to hold onto its seeds long enough for it to be harvested.
 They developed agricultural systems, too. The milpas of Guatemala and Mexico are maize fields in which a dozen or so crops are grown together. Melons, tomatoes, amaranth, squash and beans are often included. According to archeologists and others, the crops grown are nutritionally complementary. They say that the amino acid composition –the building blocks of protein - of the different plants complement each other. In that way, complete proteins can be had, and nutritional deficiencies can be avoided.
Apparently, the milpa system of growing corn was imported and dispersed throughout what is now the United States along with the corn itself. In the northeastern U.S., for example, the Iroquois teach the growing of corn, beans and squash together in a system called “Three Sisters” gardening. The Legend of the Three Sisters indicates the strong cultural, and even spiritual, connection that existed between people and the food they cultivated.
Nutritionally, corn and beans combine to provide complete protein. Agriculturally, beans fix nitrogen in a symbiotic relationship with soil microbes. That is, the microbes take gaseous nitrogen from the air and transform it into a form plants can take up and use. The nutrients become available to the high-nitrogen-using corn the following year.  Modern farmers in Illinois use a system of rotation to accomplish a similar benefit from growing soybeans. Other beans, or legumes, as they are also known, can provide this benefit. Thus, clovers and vetches are often used as cover crops for that purpose.
The development of maize as a food source is an intriguing and astonishing story, the roots of which are as yet not entirely clear. It almost certainly began with a grass-like plant called Teosinte (from the Nahuatl “grain of the Gods”), and is thought to have been aggressively bred by people in or near southern Mexico over six thousand years ago. Maize researchers speak of landraces, or locally-adapted genetic types of maize. At least fifty genetically distinguishable types have been identified in Mexico alone. Estimates of as many as five thousand landraces may exist in the southern Mexico-Central American region.
American farmers of today still rely on the development of genetic types – or cultivars, as we now call them (for cultivated variety). Thousands of corn cultivars have been developed and hybridizing is an ongoing process, allowing farmers to select the ones best suited to their growing conditions.
So, the cycle continues, and most certainly will continue indefinitely. As we watch and wait for yet another harvest, it is good to take a step back and appreciate the heritage we have received from those who have gone before and made life as we know it possible. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hummingbirds: Feathered Jewels of Summer

I had one of those jewels of the bird world visit my geranium last week – yes, a hummingbird. As I do every summer, I started out early with a brightly colored feeder filled with the sweetest of sugar water. And, as they do almost every summer: they ignored it. But they do something else every summer, at least in my yard: they visit the nectar-bearing flowers. They are most noticeable when the hostas are blooming in August. But I have also seen them on my zinnias, which I knew attracted butterflies, but I had never noticed a hummingbird on them before.

One thing that struck me about the hummingbird’s attraction to the hosta flowers, is that those flowers are white, not red, like most of the hummingbird feeder and feed mixes available. It turns out that hummingbirds are more interested in the sweetness of the nectar than they are in the color of the flower.

I think everyone who attracts hummingbirds counts themselves lucky. If you want to attract them with flowers keep these guidelines in mind: the sweeter the flower the better; tubular shaped flowers are best for hummingbirds; and you should provide flowers that bloom over a long period of time. You can accomplish this by providing a succession of blooms from spring through fall. For a list of flowers that should do the trick, has some useful information including pictures of the flowers they recommend.

Besides nectar, hummingbirds also eat insects, favoring those that are minute enough to be swallowed whole. They have been observed hovering at the bark of a tree, hunting for those tiny spiders and insects. Researchers in Michigan counted ruby-throated hummingbirds as the primary visitors to the small pits that yellow-bellied sapsuckers had drilled into trees to capture sap. The hummers ate the sap as well as the insects they found that were also attracted to the sap.

It is generally accepted that hummingbirds originated in the equatorial belt region across South America. That is where the greatest number of species has been found. Of the 320 species of hummingbirds known, more than half live in that region, with diminishing numbers of species found as you move north and south of the equator. Costa Rica supports 54 species, Mexico has 51 species, western North America has 12, and eastern North America has only one: the ruby-throated.

The ruby-throated hummingbird breeds as far north as southern Canada, and may winter as far south as Panama. When they migrate across the Gulf of Mexico, it requires them to make a continuous flight of more than 500 miles. How long would that take, you wonder? Thanks to studies conducted by Crawford Greenewalt we know that the top speed of a female ruby-throat is 27 miles per hour. So, at top speeds, this leg of the journey would take over eighteen hours!

How lovely for us to have this one unique, feathered jewel of summer, to bring their special beauty to our gardens.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Are Small-Scale Farmers the Answer?

I was intrigued recently when I read that the US government has determined that there is not enough domestic production of fruits and vegetable to meet the minimum RDA (Recommended daily allowance) provided by their own dietary guidelines.

The recent emergence of local food production as a concern that is held by increasing numbers of the population got me to wondering just how much land would be required to meet the nutritional needs of the population. Or, in the words of the recent PBS program “America Revealed”: How many local farmers would it take to feed 300 million Americans every day? Unfortunately, no answer was given.

So I decided to sit down and do some math. I considered a very basic, plant-based diet – something that anyone with a small plot of land – whether urban or rural – could cultivate. I compared yields per acre with amounts required to meet daily nutritional needs. I did not consider such variables as crop losses due to pests, spoilage, or other factors. I used average dietary guidelines for calories (2200 calories per day), protein (51 grams per day), and the major vitamins and minerals.

My diet included apples, beans, broccoli, corn (fresh and dry), grapes for raisins, oats, onions, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and soybeans for milk. I chose foods that could be easily stored or processed and therefore available throughout the year.

Using this plan, I found that one would require a bit more than a third of an acre per person to meet their daily nutritional needs. This amounts to 1.5 acres for a family of four.
In my scenario all nutritional requirements were met or exceeded except vitamins B6 (it came very close!) and B12.

So, can local, small-scale farmers meet these nutritional needs? To do so, a city of 10,000 inhabitants would require 3,700 acres of local production. Such acreage is not out of the realm of possibility in the American Midwest. Illinois farms alone cover more than 28 million acres. With a total population of around 13 million, only 4.8 million acres would be required to meet these nutritional demands in the state of Illinois.

Another way to look at it is to consider today’s small-scale farmer. The average acreage managed by the small-scale farmer has been estimated to range from less than 1 acre to 22 acres. With numbers like these, a town of 10,000 inhabitants would require 170 farms of 22 acres each.

On the national level, there are over 400 million acres in crop production in the United States. With a population of 311 million, only 115 million acres would be required to meet most of our nutritional demands.
In this analysis, numerous questions are raised. Among them: Are small-scale farms up to the task of providing significant food value to the population? Is quality farm land accessible to urban centers? If America can meet its nutritional needs and isn’t, why not? How economically feasible is to produce food crops on a small scale as compared to the large scale production model currently in place?

Regardless of the answers, it is satisfying to know that a person could meet their own nutritional needs on a small parcel of land – assuming no crop losses due to pests, agreeable weather throughout the growing season, and the time and energy to grow, harvest, and preserve this bountiful harvest.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

To Bee or Not To Bee?

Dr. Mari Loehrlein, Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping, School of Agriculture, Western Illinois University, Macomb, IL.

The flight of the bumblebee is a solitary one, as is the flight and life of many other types of wild bees. However, most people are familiar with the colony lifestyle of the honeybee, a domesticated species. Even so, the writers of “The Bee Movie” got it wrong when they made the nectar gatherers male (the only job for the male bees in a honey bee colony is to fertilize the queen, other than that, they don’t contribute to the efforts of feeding young, gathering nectar, nor in gathering pollen – in Star Trek terminology, their designation is drone).

In their book “Beekeeping”, Eckert and Shaw claim that keeping bees preceded other agricultural advances. Indeed, they suggest that human-honey bee interactions probably date to the dawn of human existence. Rock paintings attributed to Neolithic humans depict the removal of honey combs from a nest of bees. Inscriptions on Egyptian tombs from 4000 years ago include depictions of bees as symbols of royalty.

Modern-day beekeeping is not much different than it was 2000 years ago! Roman beekeeper and writer Columella laid out the basics of beekeeping, much of which is still relevant today. He included the observation that “swarming is greatest from May 10 to June 30 and the first crop of honey is harvested from June 30 to July 31”.

Many advances have been made in beekeeping over the years, including developments in the hive boxes themselves, and other devises such as wax sheets with cell indentations, honey extracting devices, methods of extracting honey without killing the bee inhabitants, and improvements in rearing queens.

Honey bees annually pollinate more than $15 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States. Some crops are almost solely dependent on the honey bee for pollination. These include apples, plums, almonds, watermelon, onions, broccoli, carrots, sunflower, cantaloupe and honeydew.

In “Silence of the Bees” a Nova (PBS) program, the unexplained disappearance of colonies of bees was explored. The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been used to describe this phenomenon. Recently, an explanation was offered: pesticides used to coat corn seeds is released during planting. Researchers suspect that mass die-offs of honeybees may be caused by the particles of insecticide that are released into the air when neonicotinoid insecticides are sprayed onto seeds before they are planted in the ground. Both Yahoo News and NPR have covered this topic recently.

Unfortunately, in addition to the loss of honeybees, other pollinators are experiencing declining populations, and possible extinction. According to the Xerces Society, “Many of our native bee pollinators are at risk, and the status of many more is unknown. Habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, pesticide use, and introduced diseases all contribute to declines of bees.” Fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of approximately 25 percent of all birds, and of mammals ranging from red-backed voles to grizzly bears.

With evidence like this, it seems close attention must be paid to the repercussions of pesticide usage and the method of applications, since pollinators are an important lynch pin in the interconnected web of life on earth.