Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Great Sunflower Project – Another Family Activity

Last summer I grew some amazing sunflowers – they must’ve reached ten or more feet in height and over a foot across the blossom! I also grew some smaller sunflowers, in all shades from a chocolaty red to a brilliant yellow. My sunflower bed became one of my favorite gardens, especially last fall when the chickadees came to steal the seeds (afterall, I planted the flowers to provide food for the birds).

Then I discovered The Great Sunflower Project (http://www.greatsunflower.org). This outfit’s goal is to sign up folks around the country to plant sunflowers and monitor them for bee activity. It’s kind of like the Lost Ladybug Project I wrote about earlier, except this time it’s bees that are in the spotlight. (The photo is from their website, by the way, taken by Ginny Stibolt.)

Most of us have heard about the crashing honeybee populations, better known as Colony Collapse. There are many theories out there as to why it’s happening, but I don’t think anyone has nailed down THE reason yet. Honeybees, however, are non-native insects, brought over to this part of the world for their honey-making skills and pollination efforts. That said, North America is home to many native bees (over 4,500 species of bees, according to the Great Sunflower Project’s website), most of which are important pollinators in their own right.

But even many our native bees are having some difficulty surviving these days. One reason, according to the website http://nature.berkely.edu/urbanbeegardens, is how we are gardening. The latest gardening fad is mulching, either with natural materials like wood chips or with synthetics like plastic or landscaping cloth. Mulching is touted for its weed-suppressing, water-conserving qualities, something every gardener appreciates. These ground covers, however, make it nearly impossible for ground nesting bees to find ground in which to nest. And in urban areas, which already have a surplus of impenetrable ground, thanks to roads, driveways, parking lots, lawns, etc., this can spell doom for some species of bees.

So, the Great Sunflower Project is recruiting gardeners, students, teachers and general nature nuts like me to survey our gardens for bees. If you sign up early enough, they send you a free packet of seeds (this year it was Lemon Queen Sunflower seeds). It’s too late now for the freebie seeds, but you can find Lemon Queens at many seed shops or catalogues. You plant your seeds, they grow and bloom, and then you watch for bees, timing how long it takes for five bees to show up at your plant(s). You send your data to them and that’s about it. But they aren’t looking for just any ol’ bee. Specifically, the sunflower folks want to know about bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees and green metallic bees. A quick buzz through their website will provide you with ID info for these species – it doesn’t get much easier than this!

Perhaps you don’t have sunflowers, or maybe you aren’t a sunflower fan. Not to worry – you can also monitor bee balm (if you need some, see me – I have a surplus of the stuff), cosmos (great companion plant for your veg garden, by the way, because it attracts these important pollinators), rosemary, tickseed and purple coneflower.

Maybe you are hesitant because you are afraid of getting stung. Did you know that bees are really quite shy and mostly are just too busy going about their own business to worry about you? About the only time most bees “attack” is if their nests are threatened (and by the by, male bees lack stingers). So if you are just puttering around your garden, taking notes on bees, they will happily ignore you and continue collecting pollen, sipping nectar, or looking for mates.

Need more reasons to participate? The Urban Bee Garden website has some great tips for bee watching, including interesting bee behaviors you can witness. For example, some male bees actually sleep overnight inside flowers; if you get up early enough you can catch them snoozing in their blossom bowers. Other males are very territorial, protecting “their” flowers from other males. In truth, they are on the lookout for females and spend most of their time driving away potential rivals.

This weekend I will probably plant my sunflower seeds and brace myself for the influx of bees. I’ve already noticed bees of many stripes about my gardens, some at the flowering shrubs, others hovering over bare ground, no doubt testing its potential for a nest site. I know that my yard is a great bee haven, thanks to the many flowering companion plants I scatter among the veg, but also thanks to my lax gardening standards: mulch is spotty at best these days. Watching the flowers for specific bees will give me just one more excuse to stay outside and learn something new about my fellow earthlings; the vacuuming and dishes will have to wait for another day.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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  1. Woodswalker says: