Winter bumble bees and wildflowers

This video and photos in this blog post show numerous bumble bee species foraging on non-native heather (Erica spp.) plants in our garden on February 24, 2016.

It’s still winter in the Klamath-Siskiyou, but the warm, spring-like days this February have brought out the bumble bees! Bumble bees are some of the first bees seen in the spring because they are specially adapted to be active in colder weather than most other bees.

Early emerging bumble bees are hard pressed to find flowers in February, but there are some native plants flowering already that they can utilize. I have seen snow queen or spring queen (Synthyris reniformis) and Nuttall’s toothwort or spring beauty (Cardamine nuttallii) blooming in the canyon I live in, along with several different species of willow (Salix spp.). The first Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora), gold stars (Crocidium multicaule) and native violets (Viola spp.) are all blooming in the Klamath-Siskiyou at low elevations, and the grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) will be blooming soon on sunny slopes and rock outcrops. For the bumble bees, spring will soon begin in earnest.

Bumble bees provide excellent pollination services for the diverse native plant species in our region, and this relationship and interdependence is crucial for the survival of imperiled native plants and pollinators alike. If you want to manage your land or garden for pollinator conservation the best thing you can do is plant flowering native plants that provide pollen and nectar throughout the growing season: early season, mid season, and late season flowers.

Bumble bees are classified in the genus Bombus. The Pacific Northwest is home to many native species of bumble bees, broken down into the following groups: the red-tailed group, the striped group, the black-tailed group, the whites, the yellow-faced bumble bees, and the cuckoo bees.

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Bumble bees of the Pacific Northwest identification chart created by The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

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Bumble bees of the Pacific Northwest identification chart created by The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

The Bees In Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees gives the following information about bumble bees:

  • The name Bombus comes from the Greek word bombos, which means “a buzzing sound,” referring to the low hum these bees make as they fly gracefully around flowers. The common name “bumble bee” can be traced back to the word bombelen in Middle English (AD 1200-1500), which means “to hum.” In fact, prior to the 1920s, bumble bees were more often called “humble bees,” also a reference to the soft droning inherent in their foraging activities. The term “humble bees” was used by both William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Nights Dream and by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species. A few popular articles in the 1920s about Bombus referred to them as “bumble bees” and the new name took.Scan 20
  • Bumble bees are among the few bees native to North America that are truly social, with a queen and workers.
  • Like European honey bees, bumble bee workers collect copious amounts of nectar, which they bring back to the hive for storage. Unlike honey bees, however, the bumble bee workers do not dehydrate the stored nectar, turning it into honey. Instead this nectar is used by bumble bees, along with pollen, to feed the developing young. Because bumble bee hives begin anew each year, there is no need to store large amounts of nectar as honey to sustain the workers through the winter the way that honey bee colonies must.
  • Studies have shown that for many crops, pollination by bumble bees produces bigger fruit, faster fruit set and larger yields than other pollination methods, most specifically honey bee pollination. First, bumble bees have a distinct advantage over European honey bees when it comes to retrieving pollen from some plants: they can buzz pollinate. They are therefore much more effective pollinators of some important crops, specifically with flowers requiring buzz pollination. These plants include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and even some berries like blueberries. Second, bumble bees have been shown to be faster workers than honey bees, often visiting twice as many flowers per minute. Finally, researchers have estimated that bumble bees will do at least eight times more work than a honey bee because bumble bees can remain active in cold temperatures, and they can carry more pollen.P1250344
  • Bumble bees have special adaptations that allow them to be active in colder weather and colder climates than most other bees. In addition to their thick and insulating coat of hair, bumble bees often bask in the sun to warm themselves before they head out to forage. When sun and fuzz aren’t enough, bumble bees can actually generate heat internally by shivering their flight muscles. These bees can uncouple their wings from their flight muscle, allowing them to contract the muscles without flapping their wings. Those muscle contractions can raise the internal temperature of the bee, making them significantly warmer than their surrounding environment. In fact, bumble bees can’t take off and fly until their flight muscles are above 80 degrees; by shivering their flight muscles to warm up, they can actively forage in temperatures much too cold for other bees.
  • Unlike honey bee queens, a bumble bee queen lives for only a single year. This annual cycle generally keeps bumble bee hives much smaller than the hives of honey bees. Most mature bumble bee colonies consist of fewer than 200 bees, although some can have as many as 1000 individuals. For comparison, European honey bees may have around 60,000 bees in a single colony.
  • Most bumble bee species make their nests in the ground, often in preexisting cavities like abandoned rodent burrows, in piles of wood, or in leaf litter.

The following is an excerpt from The Xerces Society’s publication: Conserving Bumble Bees: Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for America’s Declining Pollinators

 

Competition with Honey Bees

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to North America by European settlers in the early seventeenth century. The honey bee is extremely important to our agricultural system, yet its populations have declined steadily since the mid twentieth century. Many efforts to support honey bee populations are in line with bumble bee conservation. However, recent research has shown that competition with honey bees reduces bumble bee foraging efficiency, worker size, and reproductive success. As such, bumble bees in close proximity to honey bee hives may be experiencing additional pressures in an already difficult landscape. A single honey bee hive can contain over 50,000 bees, who collectively remove hundreds of pounds of nectar and tens of pounds of pollen from an area in a single year. Whether this is testing the limits of the available flowering resources is unverified. However, there is no doubt that such a significant removal of resources must represent a substantial proportion of the available pollen and nectar, especially during a period of limited flower abundance.

Klemens and Volkmar showed that the presence of honey bees force bumble bees off flowers, and change their foraging times. While reproductive success was not measured in this study, any event that causes decreased efficiency of foraging trips is likely to be detrimental for bumble bees.

In addition, it has been shown that pollen is a vector for disease transmission between honey bees and bumble bees. Thus, where bumble bees are visiting the same flowers as honey bees, they face an increased risk of infection. Diseases from some pathogens can lead to fewer new queens produced by the colony. Since honey bees are present virtually everywhere there are flowers in North America, it is nearly impossible to avoid interactions between honey bees and bumble bees. However, if land managers have the option to limit these interactions by restricting honey bee hives from natural areas managed for biodiversity, it is strongly recommended.

Western aralia (Aralia californica)

 

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California spikenard, Western aralia, or Elk clover (Aralia californica) in bloom.

One of the largest herbaceous plants in North America — known by the botanical name, Aralia californica — can be referred to by any of its many common names: Western aralia, Western spikenard, California ginseng, or elk clover. Western aralia’s large, green leaves grow on thick, non-woody stems. This lush plant gracefully arches to a mature height of 3’-9’, but sometimes it can reach up to an impressive 10‘. That is very tall for an herbaceous perennial plant that dies back fully to the ground each fall, only to return the next spring from its thick, fleshy, snakelike roots, which are often embedded in rocks or streamside woody debris.

The broad and compound leaves have a tropical look, but Western aralia naturally ranges from southern California to as far north as Linn County in Oregon’s western Cascades. Aralia has an affinity for moist gulches, seasonal or perennial streambanks, canyons, and other cool, shady locations at elevations generally below 5,000 feet. Considering its relative tenderness, aralia is a very big and robust plant.

In early to midsummer Western aralia produces ball-like clusters of greenish white, sticky flowers that mature into ornamental, dark purple berries in the fall. The juicy berries are about the size of peppercorns and have a pungent, ginseng-like flavor. The berries are reportedly loved by birds, but I only observe occasional use in my neck of the woods.

Aralia berries

Aralia berries

One of the common names, elk clover, is a bit of a misnomer since aralia is not really a clover at all; in fact, it is a member of the plant genus Araliaceae, or the ginseng family. It is one of only two native plants in Oregon in the ginseng family; the other being devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus). Western aralia is, however, the only member of the ginseng family that grows wild in the Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion. It is related to American spikenard (Aralia racemosa) and wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), known, as Western aralia is, for their many medicinal uses.

According to Wendell Wood, Western aralia was “historically used by the Karok Indians as an antirheumatic, were a decoction of roots [was] used as a soak for arthritis.  The Mendocino Indians used a decoction of the dried roots for colds and fevers and also to treat stomach and lung diseases.  The Pomo saw it as “panacea plant” to treat many ailments including using the roots for sores and itching sores.”

Michael Moore, in his book Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West states that Western Aralia “is an excellent tonic and soothing expectorant for people with chronic moist-lung problems.” The root, aromatic and full of sticky while oleoresin, is particularly potent, but the leaf and berry of the plant also contain many different medicinal uses. Moore also says that “the cough syrup, tincture in hot water (toddylike), or the leaf tea is a good way to recuperate from some bronchitis or the winter lung-grunge.”

According to Arthur R. Kruckeberg in his book Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest, Western Aralia “has been a most effective and decorative plant for similar wettish habitats in Northwest gardens.”

In your garden Western Aralia will thrive in heavy shade as long as there is some moisture and the soil does not dry out completely. Aralia is robust and ornamental and can be grown in regular garden conditions. It is hardy to USDA zones 3-8.

California spikenard (Aralia californica) berries

Aralia berries

I am lucky enough to live near a seasonal gulch where Western aralia grows naturally, but nonetheless I have still planted it in my garden to enjoy its beauty and to more easily harvest plant material for herbal medicine.

Before going dormant for the winter, Western Aralia produces a rich and creamy yellow autumn foliage that allows for a beautiful contrast to other fall colors in the garden or wild setting.

Enjoy Western aralia in your garden!

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Aralia californica in bloom on the forest edge.

 

 

 

Monarch butterflies tagged last year in Southern Oregon found in California

A2045 tagged monarch butterfly

By Mark Freeman

Medford Mail Tribune

February 11. 2016

Monarch butterflies tagged last year in Southern Oregon found in California

A monarch butterfly tagged last year in Medford, known as monarch A2045, is shown Feb. 3 in Bolinas, California. Courtesy photo

Robert Coffan stood next to a patch of milkweed at Coyote Trails Nature Center in Medford last September feeling a little choked up about all that had transpired to bring him and monarch butterfly No. A2045 to this point.

The milkweed where Coffan found two caterpillars three weeks earlier had just been planted earlier that year, and it lured a female monarch that produced those caterpillars, which Coffan and his wife, Simone, raised at home until they became butterflies.

Now, this royal monarch sporting a little white tag with its official number on it — A2045 — was about to go to work, flying away toward a winter colony in who-knows-where.

“It was kind of touchy-feely,” Coffan says. “All of these things came together, and it was me that had it for release.”

For monarch A2045, who-knows-where turned out to be Bolinas, Calif., in Marin County just north of San Francisco.

That’s where he and his distinctive tag were spotted not once but twice this winter, providing an important cog in a new citizen-science experiment that is trying to shed light on when and where Pacific Northwest monarchs migrate during their fascinating life cycle.

“When I heard it was discovered, instead of feeling all emotional, I was proud,” says Coffan, a member of Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates. “When you think he made it 312 miles, and that sticker I put on him was still on.”

Coffan’s monarch was one of eight released last fall in Southern Oregon that turned up this winter in California roost trees, providing the lion’s share of raw data collected this year on monarch migration by Washington State University professor David James.

The Southern Oregon monarchs were among 20 tagged butterflies that were identified in winter roosts this year, and were among 40 tagged monarchs identified after release since James began the study in 2012.

“Having eight recaptures is extremely high,” James says. “It’s remarkable. This year’s been an extremely productive year for citizen-scientists in Southern Oregon.”

While eastern monarchs are famous for their long migrations, much less is known about Pacific Northwest monarchs, whose populations, locations and life cycles are tied to milkweed.

Adult females lay their eggs in milkweed, and the ensuing caterpillars dine solely on milkweed before forming a chrysalis, from which they emerge as the royal-looking orange- and black-winged butterfly.

Monarchs produce four generations annually, each one making a portion of the migration between Washington and Idaho through Oregon and down to California and even Mexico.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom, James says.

“Up until now, it’s all been theory and assumptions,” James says. “It’s all anecdotal.”

James launched his unfunded study in 2012, relying on monarch fans and Washington State Penitentiary inmates in Walla Walla, Wash., to tend milkweed plots and rear the monarchs to adulthood.

James supplies the small, white, adhesive stickers that sport a specific number and a website address that volunteers put on a wing before release.

“Butterflies are not as fragile as people think,” he says. “You just hold the butterfly and stick it on.”

Buoyed largely by the inmate butterflies, James’ group tagged and released 2,000 monarchs in 2012, 1,000 in 2013 and 2,000 in 2014.

Wintering monarchs are viewed regularly throughout California. Those who spy them, catch them or look at them through a camera lens can see the bright stickers, record the data and report when and where they are “recaptured.”

Since 2001, Linda Kappen has been growing milkweed for monarchs at the Applegate School, where she is an education assistant. She long wanted to get into monarch tagging and hooked up with James in 2014.

She now leads a cadre of monarch-taggers who sent 966 of almost 3,000 tagged monarchs that flew into the skies of the Pacific Northwest in 2015.

Of the eight recaptures, one included a monarch tagged at Applegate School that ended up at a middle school in Boonville, Calif., 227 miles away, records show.

Coffan’s A2045 was seen in Bolinas on New Year’s Day and again last week.

“Without Linda Kappen and those volunteers down there, all this recovery wouldn’t have happened,” James says.

James is starting to get enough data to draw some patterns, and the research likely will prove most of what scientists have assumed about monarch migration into and out of the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s great to get the definitive evidence,” he says.

Coffan and the rest of the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates are more than willing to help, one patch of milkweed and one monarch sticker at a time.

“We’re just completely amazed that what we’re doing here is making a stir and making a difference,” Coffan says. “We’re affecting things. It’s amazing.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Where are they now?Out of 966 monarch butterflies tagged and released last fall in Southern Oregon, eight have been identified on their wintering grounds in California. Following is a list of the butterflies, where they were released, where they were located and the distance they traveled. The data was compiled by David James, a Washington State University entomology professor, who is conducting a monarch migration study.1. Released Sept. 9 in Medford. Found Oct. 28 in Cayucos, Calif. (498 miles)2. Released Aug. 19 in Talent. Found Nov. 28 in Bolinas, Calif. (302 miles)3. Released Sept. 26 in Medford. Found Jan. 1 in Bolinas, Calif. (312 miles)4. Released Oct. 4 in Talent. Jan. 1 in Bolinas, Calif. (302 miles)5. Released Oct. 5 in Applegate. Found Oct. 23 in Boonville, Calif. (227 miles)*6. Released Aug. 19 in Applegate. Found in Santa Cruz, Calif. (375 miles)*7. Released Aug. 19 in Applegate. Found in Santa Cruz, Calif. (375 miles)*8. Released Sept. 17 in Applegate. Found in Pismo Beach, Calif. (535 miles)*Discovery date unavailable

 

Pollinator-Friendly Best Managment Practices for Federal Land

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In 2014 the White House released the Presidential Memorandum-Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, which directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Interior — who, in turn, direct the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Managment (BLM) — to issue a much-needed document, Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices for Federal Lands. According to the Forest Service, “This document will guide federal land managers to effectively and efficiently use available resources and engage public and private partnerships in taking action for the conservation and management of pollinators and pollinator habitat on federal lands.” In other words, pollinator health and conservation are now considered a high priority for federal land managers.

The meadows pictured above are examples of healthy meadow ecosystems full of flowering native plants that are excellent habitat for native pollinators.

This is good news for pollinators in the Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion, where public land surrounds our valleys, canyons, communities, and homes. Those of us who are intimately tied to this landscape and appreciate the “pollination services” that our native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles, moths, and other insects provide, could see some critical improvements in land management to improve pollinator health.

With the recent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, public lands grazing has been more widely discussed, and for good reason. Public lands grazing can have damaging impacts to native plant communities, in turn, negatively impacting pollinator populations as well. When wildflowers are eaten down by grazing livestock, or mountain meadows are trampled by stationary cows, pollinator food and habitat is diminished.

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Documentation of a livestock- trampled meadow and wetland during the 2015 grazing allotment surveys on the Siskiyou Crest.

Public lands grazing is highly subsidized, and the current fees for 2016 have only increased slightly. The price is calculated through a formula based on per animal unit month (AUM). The BLM gives the definition of an AUM as “the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. In 2012 the price was $1.35 per month; in 2015 the price was $1.69, and in 2016 the price will now be $2.11 per month. The grazing fees charged on public land are substantially lower than those charged on private land, but the real price of public lands grazing should also include the associated impacts to native plants and pollinators.

 

Many nature lovers, ecologists, scientists, and environmentalists have worked for years to reform the public lands grazing system. The Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion is lucky to have Felice Pace, a longtime public lands advocate, directing the Project to Reform Public Lands Grazing in Northern California. This on-the-ground monitoring of 14 different grazing allotments in the Klamath-Siskiyou has pushed for reform to protect high mountain meadows, the willow flycatcher, clean water, elk habitat, intact streams and springs, and now pollinators! With the Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices (BMPs) public lands grazing should now undergo a more thorough analysis to protect pollinator habitat.

The Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices for Federal Land now give the following specific recommendations for livestock grazing:

Livestock Grazing
 
Objective: To reduce the impact to pollinators from livestock grazing.
 
Explanation:
 
Livestock grazing alters the structure, diversity, and growth pattern of vegetation, which affects the associated insect community.
Grazing during a time when flowers are already scarce may result in insufficient forage for pollinators.
Grazing when butterfly larvae are active on host plants can result in larval mortality and high intensity grazing can cause local loss of forb abundance and diversity.
 
Implementation: The following actions should be considered in rangelands when livestock grazing is present:
 
• Determine which types of pollinators and which pollinator habitat elements are affected by grazing livestock.
• Assess if grazing is compatible with the specific needs of target pollinator species on site, including targeted butterfly species.
• Prevent trampling ground-nesting sites by implementing practices to minimize hoof action of grazing animals, which causes soil compaction or erosion in pollinator nesting and shelter patches.
• Minimize livestock concentrations in one area by rotating livestock grazing timing and location to help maintain open, herbaceous plant communities that are capable of supporting a wide diversity of butterflies and other pollinators.
• Protect the current season’s growth in grazed areas by striving to retain at least 50% of the annual vegetative growth on all plants.
•Enhance the growth of forbs to ensure their ability to reproduce and to provide nectar and pollen throughout the growing season by setting grazing levels to allow forbs to flower and set seed.
•Leave nearby ungrazed areas to provide reserves for pollinator populations.
• Prevent grazing during periods when flowers are already scarce (e.g., midsummer) to maintain forage for pollinators, especially for bumble bee species.
•In important butterfly areas, avoid grazing when butterfly eggs, larvae, and in some cases pupae are on host plants.
•Consider the needs of pollinators when placing range improvements and structures on the
landscape.
•Ensure that fencing is adequate and well maintained.
•Include protection of pollinator species in grazing management plans.