Where the Wild Things Grow

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The ‘Blue Marble’ image of Earth captured in 2012.

“We are lucky enough to share our little rock with perhaps ten million different species, and many of them have not yet been given a name,” Dave Goulson put so eloquently in his book, A Buzz in the Meadow. Our planet is a world of opportunities for discovery.  He chose the word share, which isn’t something we Homo sapiens are very good at, at least when it comes to wildlife.  Wildlife is a ‘them versus us’ framework in our human minds.  We remove ourselves from the inclusion of being part of the animal kingdom, disconnecting ourselves, thus removing the possibility of considering the millions of other lives and their value to our planet.

We have yet to identify all the life our planet is host to, which also means we haven’t yet discovered the millions or even billions of purposes all these living organisms fulfill just by living.  Without knowledge of the complexity of our planet’s countless co-evolved relationships, how can we expect to care?  With this lack of understanding we continue to “fix” the landscape using manmade chemicals, forcing our ignorant understanding of how things should be upon nature.  Acting out of ignorance has never been a wise pursuit, so why do we choose this mode when it comes to the natural world?  Humans began as a wild species living off the land, knowledgeable about all the resources one could find beneath their feet.  Somewhere along the way we decided as a species that we could better manage that which hasn’t needed our foolish hands manipulating it for millions of years.  After only hundreds of years, we have managed to really mess things up, but this isn’t a fixed path.  I propose we shift our priorities and embrace the wild around us as well as within.

Currently, our government spends billions (last proposed budget was a whopping $19.1 billion) of tax dollars on space exploration! With visions of establishing the first colony on Mars, which looks extremely uninhabitable and undesirable when compared to Earth, at least to me.

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Imagine if our government put even half the space budget toward conservation for our beloved Earth to be our forever home.  The thing is, at least for now, billions of dollars won’t go toward conservation, but we have the power as individual home and landowners to make a major impact.

 “…in the United States we’ve covered with turf grass more than forty million acres-an area about eight times the size of New Jersey,”  Nancy Lawson in The Humane Gardener.

Much of this turf covered acreage is found in our yards, you know the ones we have control over?  Our yards could be host to a surprising amount of life if transformed into wildscapes.  Wild sounds scary, but for many reasons going wild is just what we all need to make a difference for our planet and ourselves.

Benefits to Wildlife

“Our increasingly urban population has dwindling opportunity to encounter wildlife, and some brownfield sites proved just such green spaces right on our doorstep,” Dave Goulson writes in his latest book, Bee Quest.

Brownfield spaces are man-made waste piles, which, when left alone provide a sanctuary for wildlife looking for a new home due to human activity that has rendered “home” uninhabitable.  When the wild moves in a brownfield, over time it is teeming with life.  In fact these naturally rehabilitated plots have been found to be hosts to struggling species.  Endangered species could be found anywhere if we are keen on observing, and wildlife is forced to use whatever space is available, even if it is an old heap of soot.  Natural habitats are disappearing daily, and displaced lives are forced to make do with whatever quiet plots of land remain.

When plots of land are developed into parking lots, homes, or other human designated areas, wildlife is pushed out, and forced to find all new resources.  This isn’t a gradual change, but sudden, and sudden changes are steep adaptation curves that not all species can survive. The more this happens, the fewer habitat choices remain, and wildlife could either cease to exist, or we could take this opportunity to help by putting habitat back where it has been lost.  This action, even in the smallest plots, can help stitch the landscape back together, as Audubon Rockies Habiat Heroes program calls it, and it can look something like this!  Congratulations to the readers (Baker-Brenningstalls) who received the Habitat Hero Gold Award for this wild-scape in Denver, CO.  It’s absolutely stunning, and I have no urge to find it and “weed” it, do you?

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Plant and they will come.  This is absolutely true, and has been documented in many instances, including my own yard. Some wonderful examples in North America can be found in a fantastically quick read, The Humane Gardener by Nancy Lawson.  Wildlife is looking for resources, and the land we live on could provide the perfect oasis in the middle of human development, no matter the size.

This return to the wild won’t be exactly as it once was, but as Professor Marc Bekoff states in his book Rewilding Our Hearts, “Strictly speaking, then, these ecological efforts don’t rewind to achieve what was. But what they do is to make room for much more diverse, healthy, and sustainable ecosystems that are as natural as they can be, given our omnipresence.”

The story of Knepp Castle is an excellent example of this and is described in Dave Goulson’s book, Bee Quest.  Knepp Castle located in West Sussex is one example of allowing the wild to take over.  It sits on land that was once farmland full of monocultures that have gradually been allowed to transform into a sanctuary for countless wild species.  Sir Charles Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree own this property, and they have allowed the property to rewild.  This has meant no pruning, no tilling, no pulling, no mowing, or chopping dead trees down.  Such radical behavior! For the land at Knepp Castle this process is working quite nicely, with nature’s checks and balances in place to allow for a gradual turnover of the land, returning it to its naturally beautiful state.  Get a better sense of Knepp Castle.

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This is termed rewilding, and something I am proposing we do in our otherwise useless turf laden parts of our yards.  Who doesn’t enjoy watching the happenings of wildlife? And what better place to enjoy such things than our own yards.  Rewilding is not only good for wildlife, but for us domesticated homo sapiens who have lost touch with our own wild roots.  Rewilding requires us to sit back and enjoy the transformative view, as nature takes control.  Rewilding requires us to readjust our own perspective of what beauty is in a yard, as well as what the purpose of our land is. It affords us opportunities to learn that wildlife isn’t as scary once we understand the behavior and motivation of each wild critter.

 

Benefits to Us

forest-asbyrgi-iceland (Photo: kawhia/Shutterstock)

How often do you venture out to saunter through a forest along a trail such as the one above, and say to yourself, “someone should really trim these hedges, and pull these weeds, it all looks so disheveled and disorganized?”

I never think this, but I do take in all the scenic beauty, and anticipate the odds of crossing paths with wildlife.  Taking these adventures into nature fills my bucket, makes me feel whole and at peace, unlike anything else can, and this feeling has been proven to be a true beneficial need to our livelihood.  Living in the moment is not something we are great at in the modern developed world, and nature facilitates our return to the present; it helps us to have better focus in a relaxed state.  Studies have shown decreases in blood pressure, stress hormones, and lower heart rates with just minutes spent walking through forests.  National Geographic article with more detail on nature’s health benefits.

“It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect,” Frederick Law Olmsted wrote to urged California to protect Yosemite.

The calming effect of more trees, more vegetation, and more wild sounds and smells is undeniable, and can easily be brought back to the footprint of our home.

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Nature doesn’t have to be a thick forest to have beneficial effects on us; it could be in our yards and still impose life extending changes.  So, why not bring these benefits to our yards? Less travel to get to a natural space, more “green” in practice, and beautiful in its entirety.

Money is another resource we will recover in the process of going wild.  Choosing native vegetation requires little to no manual watering, which translates to a little extra cash in your pocket.  It is a self-sustaining system of life support, as native life has co-evolved to do just that.  It’s not just about plants providing resources to living organisms, but also about living organisms supporting plants.

This monetary incentive coupled with the prospects of having our own little oasis should be plenty of “selfish” reasons to drive us to the wild side of gardening.  Every plant becomes a stage for wild performances to be observed and enjoyed by anyone willing to sit and watch, and it’s free of charge!

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Pollinators, birds, mammals, vegetation can surprise us when we let them. I liken perfect green turf to plain white walls with no character, no artistic points of interest, boring and kind of depressing.  Nature’s wild is living artwork that decorates our lives in ever dynamic ways if we let it. 

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“Worldwide populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish have declined by 52%, and more than 40% of invertebrate pollinators are in danger of vanishing from our planet,”  Nancy Lawson in The Humane Gardener.

Imagine what help all those millions of acres of transformed turf could mean to wildlife! We have the power to bring the wild back, which in turn reduces our water bill, energy spent keeping the perfect lawn, and overall stress.  What’s not to like about this proposition?  This requires we stop and take notice; spend more time outside observing with no particular agenda, but to watch.  Keeping things clean and tidy in our yards creates more work, and never rivals the beauty we find out in nature.

Let’s get wild and create yards where the wild things grow!  What’s good for the wild is good for bees! Bzzzz

 

 

 

 

Pollen: Tales Beyond the Sneeze

Many of us can relate to that moment when you accept spring’s invitation to step out and saunter in the warm sun to hear all the vibrant sounds as nature awakes from the slumber of winter, to smell all the fragrances floating on the breeze, and then it hits you, a series of powerful, uncontrollable sneezing fits! Upon recovery, your eyes are filled with tears, and your nose is running in an effort to clear that tiny nuisance, pollen.  Profits are made in efforts to assist our terrible reactions to pollen, and many of us would rather it not exist, so what is it; why does it exist; and who really needs it?

Pollen is a tiny package formed to carry plant DNA, which is only half of the ingredients needed for plant reproduction.  Pollen is formed by the male part of plants (stamen), and is transported to the female part (pistil) with the intent of forming seeds, which produce more of the same plants.  The challenge pollen has is getting from one place to the next.

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Wind, water, and pollinators are modes of transport for pollen.  If it is transported by wind and water, the surface of pollen will be smooth, more aerodynamic, and sometimes may include little air sacs to capture the wind as a parachute does.  If it is transported by pollinators, it will be rough and spiky, which is more conducive to sticking to things as Velcro does.

As seen below, pollen viewed under an electron microscope, is very unique, and the plant it came from can be identified by the shape, texture, and color of the pollen granule.  Pollen is not always yellow; there is green, red, orange, brown, purple, blue, white, and many other colors.  Plants are not all the same, so why would pollen all be the same?  In fact, natural areas have pollen signatures, the composition of which is unique, and very useful to us.

pollen grains photoThis is a photo taken with an electron microscope; pollen is in the micron range of size, so not visible to the naked eye.

FUN FACT:  Pollen signatures are very useful to detectives when finding a body, or location of a crime, as pollen sticks to fabric, and suspects aren’t going around committing crimes in the nude.  The clothing will contain samples of the pollen signature of the place the crime occurred, making it easier to narrow a search, and often leading to justice.  Who knew pollen could be a part of an investigative team? Watch a brief talk about it here:  Pollen’s Story

img_3374.jpgThe bottom row in this photo contains individual pollen provisions for individual mason bee eggs, which are divided with mud walls.  This pollen is mixed with nectar, and will be consumed by the bee larva. Pollen is a high protein food.

Pollen is not only important to for plant reproduction, but also to bees for feeding their young.  Bees are motivated and designed to carry pollen; some are better at pollinating than others, but all bees, with the exception of cuckoo bees, seek pollen.

IMG_7285Ceratina is a tiny black bee with a cute little face. This one thought she was hidden, but I caught her on camera!

Ceratina bees eat pollen and carry it in their transport tummies, not to be digested, but rather carried back to their nest.  So, Ceratina bees have hair, but not as much as the bees who carry pollen on their bodies.  Pollen is most often carried on the outside of a bee’s body.

IMG_4477The belly of this Leafcutter bee is orange with Lupine pollen.

One modality is scopa, which is thick curved hairs that could be located on the bottom of the abdomen, as is the case with Leafcutter bees, or on the hind legs, as is the case with Digger bees. Pollen is stuffed into these hairs by the bee as she collects it from flowers, but is not mixed and bundled with nectar.

img_4749Look at all that yellow pollen all over this digger bees hind leg scopa, and body!

Bees such as bumble and honey, carry pollen in baskets on their hind legs termed corbicula.  The back of the leg is concave and smooth with  basket like hairs curved around the front of it.  Honeybees and bumblebees will mix the pollen with nectar and glob it onto the corbicula as seen below.

IMG_0023That orange ball on this bumble’s leg is pollen mixed with a little nectar to make it sticky.

The hairs of bees are hooked, and sometimes frayed at the tips to pick up the Velcro like pollen, and in addition to this, there is a charged relationship!

close up of pollen on honeybee's hairsThis is a closeup of pollen stuck to the hairs of a honeybee.  Notice the branching on the hair shafts.  This characteristic of bee hair is one strong reason pollen is so readily carried by bees.  Photo was taken by the Centre for Electron Optical Studies at The University of Bath UK.

As if the structural relationship weren’t fascinating enough, when bees fly they generate positive electrostatic charge all over the hairs on their bodies.  Flowers have an electric field across their surface area, and pollen carries a negative charge.  This explains why the bumblebee below has pollen clinging to all parts of her face; more hair means more positive charge.

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When the flower hasn’t been visited in a while, that surface charge is very strong, and pulls on the positively charged hairs on the bee.  This signals to the bee that the nectar and pollen stores are full, and this flower is worth landing on.  Before the bee even lands to get a sip of nectar, the pollen begins to jump from the flower to the bee’s hairs.  This pollen is then carried from flower to flower, and eventually some brushes off onto the center of the flower, the stigma, and if it’s the correct stigma, the pollen will dig a tunnel down to the egg, and a seed will form, and more of the same flowers will bloom as a result of this perfect partnership.

READ MORE ABOUT THIS REMARKABLE STORY HERE

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Right down to the tiniest interactions, such as pollen to the hair of a bee, our world is made up of marvelous collaborations with magical results!  One could never cease to be amazed when studying and learning of the natural world’s secrets.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places,” Roald Dahl. 

2017 Was Buzzing

The cold winter months make me bee-sick, meaning I miss all the buzz in my yard.  It gives me time to reflect on what this year brought, and what I hope the next year will bring.  So, with that said, let’s journey through 2017 for The Bees Waggle, and tie it in a bow of 2018 buzz-worthy goals.

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2017 was the second year I was given the honor of teaching elementary students about wild bees.  In 2016 I taught at one school, and 2017 brought 7 schools! That was an incredible increase, and all organic.  I watched children transform their views of bees from, “I don’t like bees, and I’ll never like bees, because they sting” to “I love bees because they help me get food.”  This transformation came through education, and I feel so much gratification for what I do when I am privileged with witnessing that change.

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We revamped our solitary bee house design in 2017, and boy did it do well! Every time we stock more on Amazon, they sell out!  So, thank you all for supporting our business, and supporting the solitary bees in your own yards.  You are not only feeding your own desire to watch these cute little insects, but in hosting a house in your yard, you are spreading awareness, because I am sure people ask what your little house is.

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An initiative I am very proud to have finally done, is to partner with OneTreePlanted.  Every house we sell plants a tree, because we donate $1 to OneTreePlanted for every bee house sold.  I felt compelled to increase our green footprint, and this is one way we are currently doing just that.  At the end of every month we will donate more to our reforestation fund, and this feels so GOOD!

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Locally, we continued to be involved with the Colorado Pollinator Network,

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and was part of the team that made the first annual Colorado Pollinator Month come to life!  We had events for pollinators happening all over the Front Range of Colorado, and it is my hope that we will increase that reach to include more of the state.  I am so very proud of Colorado, because people are joining forces to make positive impacts on our environment, and the pollinator front is very strong.

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We also played a key role in supporting and organizing the 2nd Annual Colorado Pollinator Summit in November.  This year’s summit afforded another collaboration with a LIMB, a Monarch conservation initiative in Loveland, Colorado. I am helping them to develop curriculum for middle schools to include in their classrooms, that will encourage development of more Milkweed gardens across Colorado.

Another very exciting project, we have been working on with Phil Cuka, is developing Solitary Bee Hotels in various locations in Denver, the first of which was in Waterton Canyon.  We have the opportunity to develop one at Chatfield Botanic Gardens, and another in Evergreen.  This is fantastic because it makes a statement, and offers an educational opportunity to the general public.  I’ve included some pictures of the Waterton Canyon project below.  Since its placement in July, many holes have been filled by a wide variety of solitary nesters, including leaf cutter bees, resin bees, and grass carrying solitary wasps.

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I could go on and on about all the good stuff we have been up to, but I think we should move into 2018.

The Bees Waggle is developing a new solitary bee house, which should be launched late spring.  I will share the launch date when it is ready.

We are thinking our way through developing some citizen science projects using our solitary bee houses, and the details of this will be available late spring as well.  We are hoping to partner with some local organizations and scientists to showcase the efforts that are benefiting these tunnel nesting bees.  This will be a huge undertaking, but well worth it, as it will generate even more education and awareness for wild bees.

Of course, we will continue to be involved with the Colorado Pollinator Network, and will be working diligently on the 2nd Annual Colorado Pollinator Month, which will take place in June, so keep your eyes peeled for upcoming events!

Finally, we hope to see our audience grow in 2018, and you can help with this by inviting your friends and family to visit our blog, facebook page, twitter feed, and instagram to learn more about wild bees.

We are so very grateful for all of you!  Thank you for your continued support; we couldn’t do it without you!  We wish you the happiest of holidays, and a prosperous New Year.

Buzzing regards,

Jessica