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The Cat in the Flock Farm Goes Platinum!

Lisa and Anthony BCH Platinum
Here we are, proudly showing off our new 'platinum level' yard sign. Photo courtesy Dan Pearson, of the St. Louis Audubon Society.

By Lisa Brunette

Back in the fall of 2018, we signed up for the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home (BCH) program. A couple of "habitat advisors" came out to survey our garden, and they provided us with a list of recommendations for making it more wildlife- and pollinator-friendly. It was a long list, too: Our one-quarter acre was comprised of mainly invasive plant species run amok, a huge expanse of turf grass, and a smattering of exotic ornamentals that did little to feed native insects and critters. Everyone agreed there was much work to be done.

The BCH program certifies participant gardens in three tiers - silver, gold, and platinum. Most people slowly make their way through the levels, many staying at silver or gold for some time. Less than 2 percent of gardens in the program have achieved platinum status. But ours got there this spring!

That's right; we leapfrogged right over silver and gold and landed on platinum with our very first certification.

Admittedly, due to COVID-19, the BCH advisors could not come out to survey the garden through all of 2020. So we had 2 1/2 years to get to platinum. But our friends at the Audubon Society say it's "amazing" that we've reached the highest level in less than 3 years, a rarity. From their final assessment report:

Your backyard has undergone an astonishing transformation to a wonderland that invites people in to explore its treasures. Congratulations on platinum certification.

BCH Platinum Sign

How did we do it? By following the Audubon Society's recommendations very closely, and supplementing them with a crash-course in permaculture techniques.

BCH's criteria begins with an account of the invasive species present in your garden. When we bought the property, much of the greenery onsite made the Audubon Society's list of "thug" plants:

  • Winter creeper 
  • Japanese honeysuckle, both vining and bush (don't call this one 'honey')
  • Sweet Autumn clematis (not very sweet, as it turns out)
  • Tree of heaven (better to think of it as tree of hell)

Here's a photo to show just how thick and well-established the honeysuckle was. Honeysuckle grew over nearly the entire garden perimeter; this is just one side.

Honeysuckle 2018

It was a painstaking process, but we removed all of the invasive plants. Here's the same spot as above, in mid-removal.

Honeysuckle-be-gone2018

We continue to control invasive species by pulling out any seedlings that try to gain a toehold. All 4 thugs listed above are on our regular weeding rotation. As we removed all of those, another invasive showed up to test us: star of Bethlehem. We didn't know what it was at first, but when we finally ID'd it, out it went as well.

The second set of criteria for achieving conservation status with BCH is to plant native species, and to do so along all four canopy layers in order to get to the platinum level. This dovetailed well with my independent study of permaculture, which also draws on the power of canopy layers to create healthy ecosystems.

Our native layers begin down at your feet, with a lovely ground cover mix of wild violets and geraniums. These rushed in once we suppressed the turf lawn through sheet-mulching. Here's how they looked this past April, now well-established, thriving, and providing a key food source for fritillary butterflies. So much better than grass!

Violets in spring 2021
Our native ground cover mix of violets and geraniums.

The next two layers are in the middle, and that means tall grasses and wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees. We capitalized on the $1-per seedling offerings of our own Missouri Department of Conservation as well as native plant and seed sales, not to mention outright giveaways, sponsored by Wild Ones St. Louis, the Audubon Society, the World Bird Sanctuary, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Forest ReLeaf.

One of my favorites is the nitrogen-fixing shrub Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo. I learned from a Gateway Greening lecture back in 2018 that if you add these to your orchard, the nitrogen-fixing ability boosts the health of your fruit trees. We have several distributed amongst our pear, apple, and plum trees. They also attract pollinators in droves, and the purple spikes are lovely.

Amorpha fruticosa 2021
Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo, is a beneficial native plant for the home orchard.
Bee on false indigo
A brown-belted bumblebee on false indigo.

Of course, the wildflowers are everyone's favorite, whether pollinator or person. Our purple coneflowers, yarrow, milkweed, bee balm, evening primrose, and others are as crucial to our conservation garden as they are beautiful. This 'Balvinrose' yarrow was a rescue from a big-box gardening center. I wasn't sure it would make it, but set down in the right place, and it's thriving.

Balvinrose yarrow

Not only does it thrill with its delicate, lacy leaves and eye-popping fuchsia flowers, but the tiny bees like this metallic sweat bee love it for the pollen and nectar.

Small bee on yarrow

The fourth canopy is tall trees. Ours is comprised of a forest grove of sycamore, oak, tulip poplar, black gum, red cedar, and persimmon, which once mature will range in height from 35 to 125 feet. We planted these in our northeast corner, where they won't shade the sun-loving plants but will provide a natural screen from the neighboring apartment building. Lucky for us, that site is entirely free from power lines.

Tulip poplar in tulips
A tulip poplar, springing up amid tulips.

We also received high marks on the next three criteria in the BCH program:

  1. Wildlife stewardship - We offer bird baths and houses, a bat house, a rock snake habitat, and a brush pile that rabbits have made into their warren. We've planted flowers to specifically feed hummingbirds and pollinators, and we provide habitat for songbirds. Chaco, as you know, is indoor-only, and the birds are all the better for it.

  1. Stormwater management - We installed a French drain, double rain barrels, and a rain garden. Our whole enterprise is organic, with no pesticide use (outside of one application in 2018 to kill invasives) and no outside inputs for fertilizer (we use compost).
  2. Education and volunteerism - Besides my volunteer work as a citizen scientist in the Shutterbee program, we also support all of the organizations you see in the sidebar, and we think of all the gabbing we do about our garden on this blog as education, too.
Rain barrels
My brother Chris scored these rain barrels for us when his neighbor moved last spring and didn't want to take them with him.

Here's a 'before' picture out the back stoop in 2017, when we bought the place.

Back stoop 2018
Nothing but lawn... and more lawn... and maybe some ornamentals, planted in big, fat circles.

And here's a recent photo, from July 2021.

Back stoop 2021
Canopy layers, an orchard, an herb mound, and 77 percent of the property is "naturescaped."

We love our garden, which not only provides food for wildlife and pollinators but feeds us, too - both our bellies and our souls.

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How You Can Help the Bees This Spring: Shutterbee, Pollinator Planting

 


How You Can Help the Bees This Spring: Shutterbee, Pollinator Planting

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By Lisa Brunette

As the bees come out this spring, your thoughts might return again to how to help these crucial pollinators. And when I say help them, I really mean help ourselves, since we utterly depend on them to pollinate our food plants. Well, here are two ways you can do this right now: 1) by participating in a backyard bee survey called Shutterbee and/or 2) simply planting more pollinator-supporting plants this spring.

Shutterbee

The citizen-science program to study backyard bee populations - AKA 'Shutterbee' - is now open for registration! Participants like me who are returning from last year have already taken our refresher courses, and we're getting ready to begin bee surveys again in May. But if you live in the St. Louis area and would like to sign up for the first time, now's your chance. 

A reporter for the Webster Journal conducted a video interview with me about Shutterbee this spring.

I've also written about Shutterbee previously:

10,000 and Counting: How the Bees 'Almost' Redeemed 2020

Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

To sign up, all you have to do is register. To learn more about Shutterbee, visit the program website. Shutterbee researchers also publish a Bee Brigade Bulletin full of gardening advice and fascinating bee research tidbits. 

If you're worried about getting stung, I suggest putting those fears aside, as Shutterbee focuses on rather harmless native bee populations. Honeybees may send some running for the hills for fear of being stung, but most native bees are harmless, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “Most don’t have stingers long enough to penetrate human skin,” said MDC Community and Private Land Conservation Branch Chief Bill White. 

Mining_bee
Mining bee on Hansen's bush cherry blossom.

Bee-Friend Native Pollinators

One easy thing you can do to support native bee populations is plant more pollinator-friendly plants. Native bees are doing their agricultural duty by pollinating flowering plants that provide food, fiber, and even medicines, and the more we can do to support them, the better.

MDC Urban Wildlife Biologist Erin Shank explained that native bees, such as the bumblebee, are effective pollinators because of a technique called buzz pollination.

“It’s a vibrating movement involving their wing muscles that allows the bumblebee to free pollen from the anther, the flower’s pollen-producing structure,” Shank said. “This strategy causes the flower to explosively release pollen. There are some flowering plants that will release pollen only through buzz pollination. One favorite, the tomato plant, requires either buzz pollination or visitation by a larger bodied bee, such as the bumblebee.”

Eastern carpenter bee on passionflower
Eastern carpenter bee on native passionflower vine, which produces edible fruit.

Bee a Friend

There are several ways the public can support native bees. Shank said the best way is to get floral.

“It’s all about the flowers,” Shank stressed. “Provide native companion plants, and especially those with colorful blossoms, because color attracts bees.”

Companion planting, in which one plant helps the growth of another, can help facilitate the pollination of fruits and vegetables. For example, planting bee balm can help pollinate tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Other examples of flowering companion plants include sunflowers, wild hyacinth, blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover, and common milkweed.

There are several options of flowering trees and shrubs, too.

“Redbud, American plum, and golden currant are great for pollinators,” said White.

It's a good idea to plan for blooms throughout the year. The first native plant to bloom in Missouri is the American witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, which produces ribbony orange-and-yellow blooms as early as February. They give off the strong scent of cloves. What could possibly pollinate these flowers so early has been a bit of a puzzle for botanists, but research shows native bees carried the highest percentage of witch hazel pollen of all possible pollinators, once again showcasing the importance of native bees.

American witch hazel
American witch hazel, an important plant in the Midwestern native landscape.

Shank noted that providing more flowers can also mean not mowing the lawn as much.

“Clover, violets, and dandelions are some common lawn plants that provide vital food for bees – especially in the spring before most flowers appear,” Shank explained. “Delaying mowing or mowing higher can help bees by letting the plants grow. Even allowing access to the ground by not mulching every inch can help. Some bees need access to the soil to excavate their nests.”

No Yard? No Problem!

Shank said residents who live in urban areas without access to a yard can still be a big help to native bees.

Surprisingly, St. Louis, for example, has one of the most diverse bee populations in the Midwest, with more than 200 species found in the city limits alone.

 “You can offer bees native flowers in a planting box or pot,” Shank explained. “Getting involved in a community garden or helping plant at a nearby park is great, too.”

For those without a green thumb, it may be tempting to buy the bee houses or hotels being offered in stores. However, the real need is not nesting sites, but native flowering plants. Many of the commercially available bee hotels contain the wrong length of tubes or wrong diameter for many native bees. Find out how to build your own by following the guidelines offered by the Xerxes Society.

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Our Garden, Featured in a Story on Shutterbee

Our garden was featured recently in a story about Shutterbee, the citizen science program to study bees and determine the effects of native plant conservation efforts on local populations. Lisa volunteered as a bee surveyor last summer, making eight observations rounds for a total of 73 bee sightings across 22 different species. One of those sightings was of a threatened species, Bombus pensylvanicus, or American bumblebee, whose numbers have declined 98 percent since the 1990s.

You can read the full story on the Webster Journal website, including video footage of not just our bee-friendly garden but several other bee survey sites and the Shutterbee lab. The interview gave Lisa an opportunity to talk about the benefits of volunteering in such a study:

For me it was realizing, you know, it's not actually that hard to make a difference, to do something like this and see the results of it.

For Lisa, the interview was likewise a nice opportunity to take time out on a lovely spring day to chat with a budding young journalist about nature and the bees.

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3 Great Gifts for Gardeners from Small, Indie Shops

Copper_label

By Lisa Brunette

Springtime is a great point in the year to remember the gardener in your life - yes, even if the only gardener in your life is you! As the soil warms up enough for seeds, and bare bark begins to leaf out, we gardeners get ridiculously busy and might not have time for self care as we're busting sod and ripping open seed packets. Even if there's no gift-excuse day coming up, like a birthday or anniversary, a sweet little basket of gardening gifts is just the thing.

With that in mind, I've put together a trio of my favorite things - gardening items I've personally, thoroughly tested and love. I recommend these without reservation, and in fact all the below links are both 1) stuff I am currently using, or exactly like it and 2) items available right now in Etsy shops. I'm including affiliate links, by the way, so if you do purchase them using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission, at no extra cost to you. So you can support this blog, show small, indie shops some love, and get a great garden gift, too!

Gift Idea No. 1: Name That Plant

Copper Label
As a way to train myself to learn them, I like to write the Latin names for native plants in permanent marker on these elegant copper labels.

Last week, I gave a tour of our garden to a local journalist interviewing me about the Shutterbee project, and it was really handy to have so many of our plants labeled for quick reference. I use these copper labels only to identify native perennials, which warrant the permanent treatment. They're real copper and weather well to a lovely patina as the seasons change.

You can order the same through the Etsy shop TheCelticFarm - they come in a pack of 30. Just remember to pick up a permanent marker somewhere, too.

Copperlabeletsy
Photo courtesy TheCelticFarm.

I don't bother to label annuals, as it's just not cost-effective since they're short-lived and change location each year with our rotation gardening. For those I find it's better to keep a planting chart (digital spreadsheet) and gardening diary (spiral where I paste seed packets with notes).

Gift Idea No. 2: Quick, to the Bat House!

Bat House
Our bat house.

It sucks (and I don't mean 'suck' as in vampire!) that bats got a bad rap just because of our overactive imaginations and superstitions. Bats are safe and worthy pollinators to encourage in your garden. Here's the official word from the Missouri Department of Conservation:

Bats are an important part of the natural world. Bats that feed on fruit are the primary means of seed dispersal for some species, and nectar-feeding bats are responsible for the pollination of many species of plants. In fact, more than 400 products used by humans come from bat-pollinated plants. These products include bananas, avocados, cashews, balsa wood and tequila.

Missouri bats help control nocturnal insects, some of which are agricultural pests or, in the case of mosquitoes, annoying to people. Many forms of cave life depend on the nutrients brought in by bats and contained in their guano.

In our yard, bats pollinate and eat our native passionflower vines. (We have two.) One of my favorite things to do at dusk in summer is to sit in the garden and watch as the bats come out, flittering overhead.

You can get your own bat house from JoesWoodWorksITC - this one is made out of cedar and features a double chamber.

Bathouseetsy
Image courtesy JoesWoodWorksITC.

Once you get the bat house home, here are some handy tips for how to hang it properly.

Gift Idea No. 3: Face Plant!

Face_plant

You might remember our face plant pot from "After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, The Importance of Staying Put." Besides the awesome visual pun in 'face plant,' these just look really cool because whatever you plant in the pot becomes the hair atop the face. Think ChiaPet, only a lot less kitschy.

Unfortunately, mine was a recent casualty when I accidentally kicked it while trying to perform what my physical therapist calls "that kicky thing you do with your leg." Yeah, it's something I do to manually adjust my right hip (scoliosis issues). Too bad the plant pot bit it in the process.

Luckily, Etsy has a few replacement options, most notably these rather more whimsical versions from vintagebohemianstyle.

Vintagebohemianstyle
Image courtesy vintagebohemianstyle.

You can find more recommendations on my Etsy 'favorites' page, most notably some wonderful wearable wool in the form of a 'coatigan' and some merino wool long underwear. I like to buy a lot of things out of season when it's cheaper, and wool's a good one for that tactic. 

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10,000 and Counting: How the Bees 'Almost' Redeemed 2020

Megachile bee
A leafcutter bee drawn to a borage flower.

By Lisa Brunette

Last year was a lot of things that weren't good, but one silver lining for me was that it was also the year of the bee.

You might remember I signed up for Shutterbee, a joint citizen science program sponsored by my alma mater Saint Louis University's Billiken Bee Lab, Webster University, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Saint Louis Zoo. Through the volunteer program, participants at 165 homes tracked and photographed bees in our backyards using a set scientific protocol, uploading our findings to iNaturalist for cataloguing and further study. The goal of the program overall is to "understand how landscape features and land management decisions affect bee diversity and behavior," according to researcher Dr. Nicole Miller-Struttman. The bee scientists running the study are also trying to determine whether or not citizen photographic surveys could take the place of the tried-and-true practice of surveying bees through net collection.

Here's what one of the uploaded bee records looks like, with the following elements included: bee photo, an "Sbee" tag to identify the entry to program researchers, the length of my survey (30 minutes), and the name of the plant the bee was foraging.

Shutterbee entry

The results of this year's study? 

  • I myself completed 8 observation rounds, following the protocol to survey our garden about every two weeks over three months in the summer. I catalogued a total of 73 bees across 22 different species. 
  • The Shutterbee participants as a whole spotted 8,309 bees across 83 different species during the 2020 survey.
  • The program's all-time total is 10,878 spottings across 83 species.

While I did spot a number of non-native Western honeybees, aka Apis mellifera, especially in the beginning when I was still learning to differentiate, the vast majority of my finds were native bees. This is important because 87 percent of flowering plants depend on creatures for pollination, many of them having evolved together, like the orchid and the orchid bee. We absolutely depend on native bees for our food supply, too. One example is the squash bee, which pollinates squashes and other edible plants in the same family, such as cucumbers. These two species also evolved together. Some common bee names give you a hint about the interrelationship between the bee and the flowers it pollinates, such as the hibiscus turret bee and the morning glory turret bee. I spotted both in our garden, and we grow both flowers that are their namesakes.

Hibiscus turret bee
HIbiscus turret bee, or Ptilothrix bombiformis, on our native hibiscus.
Morninggloryturretbee
Though this is Melitoma taurea, or Morning glory turret bee, here it's also enjoying the hibiscus flower.

My most exciting find? The American bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus, a threatened species that was once numerous but is now in serious decline: by 98 percent since the 1990s, according to a presentation given by Shutterbee researcher Emily Buehrle. The decline is due to a host of factors, from the overuse of pesticides to habitat loss and the effects of climate change. We have a lot of sunflowers, which is this bee's favorite food, but I photographed it on a native plant called Lobelia siphilitica, or blue lobelia. For me, this is heartening, as I don't know that we'd have had this rare bee sighting back when our yard consisted of nothing but turf grass and non-native, invasive plants.

Bombus pensylvanicus1
American bumblebee, which is listed under threatened status.

Another singular bumblebee spotting for me was the native Bombus griseocollis, or Brown-belted bumblebee, which showed up one day in June to gather nectar from the native hydrangea then in full bloom.

Brown-belted bumblebee
Bombus griseocollis, or Brown-belted bumblee, on native hydrangea.

I also had just one chance to capture the Bicolored striped sweat bee. The glimpse of its metallic green thorax gave me quite a thrill when I spotted it on a sunflower in early August.

Bicolored striped sweat bee
Bicolored striped sweat bee, or Agapostemon virescens, on a sunflower.

The most commonly spotted bee in our garden last year was the Eastern carpenter bee, or Xylocopa viriginica, a native bee that is a good pollinator for blueberries as well as a wide range of native plants. It's a large, easy bee to spot, resembling a bumble bee in its sound and sight, with a signature black dot on the thorax surrounded by yellow fuzz.  

Eastern carpenter bee
Eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, on native swamp milkweed.

Of note is the frequency with which I spotted the Modest masked bee. This tiny bee visited a native plant that is a bit of a conversation piece itself, Rattlesnake master, or Erygnium yuccifolium, which blooms with spectacular white pom-pon flowerheads.

Modest masked bee
Modest masked bee, Hylaeus modestus, on native Rattlesnake master.

My favorite bee, though? That would be the Eucerini, or long-horned bee. I was treated to their sight pretty much all summer, as they love the same plucky flowers I do, the sunflowers, of course, and the brown-eyed Susans. They brightened my day with those crazy long antennae, moving with a sense of frenetic urgency as they become doused in pollen. They make me smile.

Long-horned bee
Rudbekia hirta, a North American native, is a popular foraging plant for this long-horned bee in the tribe Eucerini.

The preliminary study results from this past year were a bit surprising, as they suggest that the non-native Western honeybees are taking advantage of more diverse flower gardens by broadening their foraging; whereas, four large native bees pulled out for comparative analysis are not changing their behavior. However, there was some boost for areas with fewer impervious surfaces, earth instead of asphalt. Shutterbee is a multi-year program, and more data is needed to assess both the impacts of conservation efforts on bee population and foraging behavior and the ultimate efficacy of citizen science data collection. I look forward to participating again this year.

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