Shutterbee Feed

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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Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flowers
Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flower

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I have considered carefully how much of the garden we want to allocate to native plants that aren't a direct food source for ourselves vs. traditional orchard and vegetable plants that do feed us. So far we've tried to learn as much as we can about native edibles and have designed the garden to include them.

But it was exciting to learn through the Shutterbee program (read more about that here) that native bees can make great use of traditional vegetable and herb flowers as a pollen source. That's right: As part of my training as a citizen scientist conducting bee studies in my own yard, I was instructed not to overlook the vegetable patch and herb garden. 

Resin bee on cilantro flowers
A bee on cilantro flowers

Most efforts to promote pollinator habitats focus on native flowers such as milkweed and coneflower, which are terrific additions to the garden that we've definitely incorporated. But this is the first I've heard that food plants could support native bees! That's an exciting finding because it means the annual vegetables we're growing get an added "stacked function." In permaculture, that means it has more than one use in the garden - here as both food source for us and a pollen and nectar source for bees. There's even a specialized 'squash bee' that is so-named because it prefers the flowers of squash plants.

For my first official foray into the farmyard to record bees, I was pleased to find that indeed, native bees were busy taking advantage of the flowering vegetable plants. I'd left the arugula standing when it bolted in the summer heat, and it's popular with tiny sweat bees.

Metallic sweat bee on arugula
Metallic sweat bee on arugula

So that's one more compelling reason to grow food in your yard. The list was already pretty long, but here's what we've got now. By growing your own food, you will:

  1. Save money, especially if you grow from seeds. You could also get a secondary set of money savings from a reduced need for medicinal interventions, whether that's from traditional medicine or alternatives.
  2. Eat healthier, as your food won't lose integrity via shipping and storing, and if you grow organically, you'll cut out pesticide contamination. You're also likely to eat more veggies because they're fresh and tasty.
  3. Get more in touch with the cycle of life as you take part in it as a mulcher, composter, and seed-sower.
  4. Enjoy a motivating daily workout as you put sweat equity into something that yields more than a toned physique.
  5. And now we can add: Help pollinators by providing them a much better food source than turf grass!
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber - I use it in salads and to flavor water

Of course, if you want pollinators to take advantage of the flowers, you need to leave them there. The broccoli I started from seed indoors mostly faltered, but a few took off, and then quickly bolted (next year, we try a different approach). The flowers are pretty, so why not let them go? Ditto the chervil and arugula, both of which love cool weather and are pretty much done now that it's 90+ degrees here in June. That reminds me, the arugula is about to go to seed, so I better get out there and snag the remaining leaves...

Happy yardening! I wish you mulch success!

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Leafcutter Bee on Rudbekia
A leafcutter bee on our yellow coneflower.

By Lisa Brunette

This spring I joined with 186 other participants in a research project called Shutterbee. Without needing to meet in person, we will conduct a study of the bee populations in our gardens. It basically works like this:

  • Shutterbee ecologists train us in their research techniques and protocol.
  • We learn how to identify, photograph, and record our bee populations using a phone app called iNaturalist.
  • Every two weeks, we spend at least 20 or 30 minutes taking a walking survey of our gardens, photographing bees using the protocol.
  • We then upload our findings to iNaturalist for both Shutterbee's and the general community's ID and record.

I've already gone through the two-stage training sessions, about five hours of education and practice spread over two weekends. Due to COVID-19, the trainings were held online, making this low-touch research project even less-touch. Researchers at Webster University and Saint Louis University are trying to determine whether non-invasive photo surveys can adequately take the place of traditional netting. Normally, bee researchers head out into the field, capturing bees with nets for study. This project explores whether or not photo surveys by citizen scientists can take the place of netting, or at least contribute to it. 

Bee on Wild Garlic
This bee on wild garlic is still awaiting ID.

The answer to that seems to lie with us, the program participants. Based on previous years, what researchers have seen is that while the richness and diversity of bee recordings carries across to the citizen scientist findings, we amateurs in the field often miss the rare bee sightings. So Shutterbee has asked us to keep an eye out for bees that seem to break the bee mold, so to speak. For me, being a good citizen scientist means learning as much as I can to think and act like an ecologist, getting to know the bees in my garden and the plants they prefer.

Shutterbee
The Shutterbee logo, designed by students at Webster University.

The focus of this study is native bees, not the honeybee, which is a non-native, domesticated insect considered by many to fall into the livestock category. While colony collapse disorder in the European honeybee population is of concern to agriculture, it's the decline in native bee populations that fuels this research project. Native pollinators are important because:

  1. 87% of flowering plants are animal-pollinated
  2. 1 in 3 bites of food we eat is made possible by pollinators
  3. Many of our most nutritious foods need pollinators*
Bee on Wild Hydrangea
A native bee in the family Megachilidae, on wild hydrangea.

I've already learned a lot from this study, such as how to tell bees from flies or wasps. You might think that's a simple task, but you should think again. Many flies have evolved to mimic the look of bees as a defensive mechanism.

Daisy fleabane
Looks like a bee, but it's a hoverfly called 'margined calligrapher,' here on daisy fleabane growing in our wild patch.

After a few test-walks through the garden, I've also learned that all the work to remove invasive plants and exotics and replace them with native plants is worth it. During my surveys, it was the flowering natives that drew the bees for me to photograph, as shown in all of the photos on this page.

I'm excited to take part in this program, offered jointly by Webster University and Saint Louis University. I served as visiting professor in the game design department at Webster during the 2017-18 school year, and one of my students was our first full-time hire at Brunette Games. Not only is Saint Louis University my undergrad alma mater, but we also recently hired two more students from SLU's English department to our Brunette Games staff.

Ligated furrow bee on Rudbekia
The yellow coneflower is popular. This visitor is a ligated furrow bee.

Professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann has been an awesome educator and evangelist so far in her leadership of Shutterbee, and I look forward to meeting everyone in the program in person, hopefully, in the future. If you're in the St. Louis area and interested in participating, you still can next year. While the program is at capacity for now, it's a multi-year study, and Shutterbee plans to train more people in 2021.

What's buzzing in your garden? Post your bee pics below!

* According to educational materials distributed by Shutterbee.

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