very busy bees

The number of bees in the backyard has quadrupled (or more) since New England Asters and Yellow Oxeye Daisy have begun blooming. On warm days the bumblebees and honeybees swarm over the flowers, probing quickly and moving on.

bumble bees-on-new-england-aster-

But on closer inspection, I saw a number of smaller bees that were sharing the pollen and nectar resources as well.

bees-on-new-england-aster-

The Common Eastern Bumblebee dwarfs the tiny metallic Green Sweat Bee, but there are so many flowers blooming now, there is little interference from competitors.

With the help of my trusty macro lens, I tried to zoom in on what these tiny bees were doing.

small carpenter bee Ceratina spp.-

Miniscule Small Carpenter Bees were the perfect size to get their head and tongue into the tiny crevices in the disc flowers of Rudbeckia flowers.

Small Carpenter Bees, like their larger cousins, are good at chewing their way into plant stems, constructing nesting chambers in the central pith for their larvae.

(Halictus) Dark Sweat Bee

A Dark Sweat Bee and an unidentified, slightly out of focus bee with very long antennae and a very fuzzy thorax shared one flower head.

Sweat Bees were supposedly named for their attraction to moist, salty sweat on exposed skin of humans.  Species in this very large bee family are typically small, often less than an inch in length, may be eusocial (with a queen and worker castes), and are one of the most important pollinators of commercial crops, like squash, legumes, sunflowers, watermelons, apples, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes and peppers, as well as native flora appearing in all seasons in in woodlands and fields.

Agopostemon sp.-

I followed one of the metallic Green Sweat Bees (an Agopostemon species) around the patch of New England Aster as it inserted its incredibly long tongue deep into the aster flowers.  Males have a yellow and black striped abdomen (mimicking a wasp?), while the female is a glossy green all over.

They are a challenge to photograph because their head is usually buried in the flower, and they pause only very briefly on a flower, dipping deeply into it, before moving on.

Agopostemon sp.- closeup of tongue

It looks like this sweat bee has a leg coming out of its mouth, but that is its long, flexible tongue being pulled out of one floret.  When it is not feeding, the tongue folds down on its ventral surface. Notice that this male’s body and legs are relatively pollen free, unlike the female in the next shots.

Green Sweat bee (Halictidae)-

I don’t know if this female Green Sweat Bee is the same species as the male in the previous photo, but this shows how different the two sexes are in coloration.  And unlike the case of sexual dimorphism in bird or mammal species, the female Green Sweat Bee is hardly drab or well camouflaged.

Sweat bee (Halictidae)-

Her hind legs and head are covered with pollen, unlike the male in the photo above.  She buried her head deeply into each flower as she foraged, transferring pollen as she went.

honeybees-on-new-england-aster

It’s possible someone that lives near me has some honeybee hives, because their numbers are way up this year. But there are still far fewer of them present on these early fall blooms than the Eastern Bumblebees and the small Sweat and Carpenter bees that swarm over these flowers.

losing their spots

Signs of fall are beginning to appear as a few maple trees show some red and gold color in their leaves, the squirrels are busy collecting nuts off the trees, Canada Geese fly in V-formation overhead, and a few of the wildlife start growing their winter coats.  I first noticed the latter when the fawns suddenly appeared in the backyard without their spots.

White=tailed fawns-fall molt-

Just a trace of spots linger on the flanks of one of the twin fawns that have ravaged my wildflower garden all summer long.

White-tailed fawn - winter molt

The tawny brown coat with white spots is slowly being overgrown by the longer gray brown winter fur, which provides the deer with much needed insulation to survive the cold.

White-tailed fawns - winter molt

Not all of the fawns have started growing their winter coat, though.  It’s interesting that in these twins, one is clearly well ahead of the other in development of the winter fur — which lends further proof to the observation that twin fawns are usually fraternal, not identical.

What this tells me is that there have been at least two sets of twin fawns that have been eating up the backyard garden — and I thought it was just one hungry pair that had been doing all the damage.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail.  A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.

What it takes to be a giant

On a walk around the San Jose neighborhood, I encountered a single absolutely giant sunflower in a sidewalk garden.

giant sunflower

I admired the size of the flower head, which was about 16 inches across and probably weighed 10 pounds, wondering how many seeds must be packed in so very tightly and mathematically precisely (see an earlier post on “how many seeds in a sunflower seed head?”).

giant sunflower

Seeds are precisely arranged in spiral rows to maximize packing.

But then I got to thinking about what it takes to produce that giant flower head and develop all those seeds.  Supported by enhanced woody fibers in the stalk and fed by photosynthetic machinery in huge, oversized leaves and an elongated, deep taproot reaching deep into the soil for water and nutrients, the enormous reproductive output of this plant has the potential to be record-breaking.

But alas, a quick google search confirmed that Hans-Peter Schaffer holds the Guinness record for sunflower height (30 feet, 1 inch), mine was probably just over 8 feet. The giant Mongolian sunflowers routinely grow to 16-18 feet and sport 18-24 inch flower disks, so my giant wasn’t really record breaking at all.  Still impressive for an herbaceous plant, though!

Double trouble

The deer really like my backyard:  they eat my plants, they bed down in the wildflower garden leaving big depressions in the vegetation, they rest right under the bird feeder, and believe it or not, the half-grown fawns chase the foxes right out of the yard.  But I enjoy watching them parade through, so I just keep replanting the garden.

white-tailed fawns-

Make yourself comfortable…

white-tailed fawn-

By all means, help yourself to the garden perennials. This shrub rose may not recover, but oh well…

white-tailed fawns-

Yes, please do eat the buckthorn. I didn’t want that to spread in the backyard.

And where do these two learn where the best places to forage are?

white-tailed doe

From mom and dad, of course.

white-tailed buck-

This one has developed a taste for hostas.

Midsommer in Sweden’s archipelago

More than 44,000 islands make up the archipelago off Sweden’s east coast, and they are a popular destination, especially during Midsommer festivities. A ferry trip to one of the most distant islands, Üto — site of one of Sweden’s oldest iron mines — was a great way to end our European tour.  Some of the sights included:

Sweden archipelago islands

View from the ferry to Üto island, pronounced nothing like it is spelled.

Sweden archipelago islands

The best way to get around the island from the ferry landing, on bikes.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Sailing and swimming are top priorities on a warmish weekend in midsummer.

Sweden archipelago islands

Sweden archipelago islands

We pass cute farm houses…

Poppies, Sweden archipelago islands

And flowers (red poppies)

Bell flower, Sweden archipelago islands

And bell flowers…

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

And lupines…

Sweden archipelago islands

And something I don’t recognize…

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

And finally come to the beach at the far end of the island.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Crashing waves and cold water, perfect for swimming, but not for me.

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

Good bye Sweden, I hope to return some day.

City of contrasts — old and new

Russia!! More specifically, St. Petersburg, what a gorgeous and hospitable city.  A two-day, whirlwind tour of palaces, gardens, city sights, museums, etc., but no biology, unfortunately.  What contrasts from new, modern skyscrapers and malls to old Soviet style offices and huge apartment complexes to 18th century or earlier palace constructions.  It’s definitely spring here, and we hit two of the 9 sunny days they average here each summer.

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg , what a contrast after looking at city dwellers residences.  The interior is covered with thousands of square feet of mosaics depicting the life of Christ.

Canals in St Petersburg

Canals in St Petersburg connect the dozens of islands that make up the city.

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg is one of four museums of art and antiquities that make up the Hermitage. Only 20% of the more than 3million acquisitions are displayed at any one time.

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg. Summer residence of Peter the Great, on the Gulf of Finland

Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg

Catherine’s Palace, St. Petersburg, ornate and lavish with its own set of art treasures

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

German Geese and other sights

The North American contribution to Europe — Canada Geese, the dominant species in parks world wide, and here in Kiel, Germany.

Canada Geese in Kiel, Germany park

Canada Geese in Kiel, Germany park

other sights of our daytime wandering through the botanical garden, the Old Town, and beach area.

Moorhen in the old botanical garden

Moorhen in the old botanical garden

Bullfinch

Bullfinch in old botanical garden

Ropes course, city park, Kiel, Germany

Challenging ropes course, city park, Kiel, Germany

Beachfront at Kiel, Germany

Beachfront at Kiel, Germany. Summer sunshine beckons on a warm day.

Old Town, Kiel, Germany

Old Town, Kiel, Germany. The city was 80% destroyed in WW2, so the “old buildings” were rebuilt. The streets are largely deserted and shops and cafes closed on Sunday. Everyone is at the beach — except us tourists.

bright spots in the gloom

“Raindrops keep falling on my head…” all week, as I eagerly await the next field trip outdoors to see what spring weather has brought us in Minnesota.  Meantime, trees and bushes are putting forth a variety of gorgeous blossoms.

Northern Lights Azalea-

Northern Lights Azalea will brighten up anyone’s spirits with its bright pink blossoms.

bleeding heart-

Long strings of Bleeding Heart flowers stand out against its dark green foliage.

raindrops-on-columbine-

Columbine flowers droop with all the heavy rain.

A splash of color

Needing some color to brighten up the dull winter shades of gray here, I stopped by the Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul.  Now if only this amazing collection of orchids and other blooms was attached to my house…

Como Park Conservatory sunken garden

A variety of poinsettias are planted in the sunken garden room during the holiday season.

Como Park Conservatory

A few fish nibble at the toes of the statue at one end of the long reflecting pool.

como-conservatory-orchid

A variety of orchids bloom along winding paths through the other rooms of the Conservatory.

Some orchids flower only once or twice a year, so they must make the most of the time the flowers are viable to insure that they get pollinated.  They entice their pollinators to visit with a variety of traps and lures: some plants use fragrances or nectar to attract insects; others use color and nectar to attract birds; still others mimic female insects that males seek to mate with.  Some species coat the landing pad with wax that causes insect visitors to fall into a watery pool formed by one petal; the only way out of the pool is, of course, to squeeze through an opening at one end of the pool where the pollinia (pollen sacs) are then deposited on the insect’s back.  Such clever strategies!

The end result is a huge variety of shapes, colors, and colorful designs that delight the human eye as well as the potential pollinators.

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid