Garden Notes

Where are the bees?

sunflowers
A shower of pollen has fallen on the table beneath these beautiful
sunflowers. Photo by Susan Safford

By Abigail Higgins - August 16, 2007

Friday's half inch of rain was a welcome drink for a thirsty Island. Dry but suffocating in humidity, we have lain just beyond the magic boundary line this summer, while the mainland has received regular and plentiful rainfall. Now the season has turned, and as if overnight, it is late summer. Screech owl calls and katydid and cricket song enliven the August nights, telling us it is time to go to the Agricultural Fair and that summer's end is not far off.

Pollen and pollinators

We are sure to see wonderfully thematic sunflowers among the displays at the Fair. Our vegetable garden has a dozen multiflora sunflowers, 'Infrared' and 'Red Velvet.' When I pick a bunch for the house, they shower pollen in short order wherever they are placed. A friend suggested growing pollen-less varieties, a "sensible," convenient solution for the cut flower market. I responded politely, but in my mind they are not "sensible" but almost abominations.

There is considerable concern about the disappearance of pollinators whose existence is crucial to our food supply. With apologies to friends who do a beautiful job of growing great cut flowers for market, pollen is not something to be eliminated because it inconveniences immaculate housekeeping. Stop to think about it: form follows function.

By definition, part of the work of pollinators is to carry pollen about, as a by-product of the gathering of pollen for rearing of young. Hand-wringing about the disappearance of pollinators and then growing pollen-less flowers is one of those decadent contradictions, like dummy chimneys. "I would rather have the pollen [mess] and the pollinators," says the Island naturalist Matt Pelikan, whom I consulted on the way to tell honeybees from flower flies.

The June edition of the Avant Gardener, the Unique Horticultural News Service (Horticultural Data Processors, Box 489, New York, NY 10028) a publication I subscribe to and recommend, contained a section entitled "Support Your Local Bees." It mentioned the disaster facing agriculture as a result of the disappearance of honeybees and crop pollinators due to Colony-collapse Disorder and other problems.

Researchers are turning to the study of pollen bees: i.e., wild bees that make no honey. Some are far more efficient than honeybees as pollinators of certain plants. An article, "Stung," by Elizabeth Kolbert in the August 6 New Yorker gives additional information about these lines of inquiry, Colony-collapse Disorder, and the researchers struggling to understand what is going on. The conclusions seem to be that not only honeybees but also these alternatives too are in decline. What to do?

Suggestions from several sources include: avoiding the use of pesticides, [especially neonicotinoids like imidacloprid] and provision of food and housing. The former means growing the widest possible variety of flowering plants for bloom all through the season, "with emphasis on old-time and heirloom plants which are often richer in pollen and nectar than modern hybrids." The latter can be as simple as "leaving some dead branches, avoiding tilling, and keeping a few small areas free of plants and mulch." The Avant Gardener article cites links for information to promote wild bees and create housing for them, and stresses that they are gentle and not inclined to sting. Go to the National Wildlife Federation's web site for more information.

I have only to visit the sunflowers in the vegetable garden at any time of day to find dozens of bees and bee-like insects scrambling amid the pollen; and at dusk each flower is bedroom and bedding to three or four drowsy, pollen-covered bumblebees. (And once pollinated, the flower heads are studded with the plump, energy-rich seeds that small birds gorge themselves on before migration or over-wintering.)

When one takes a more careful look, according to Mr. Pelikan, it is clear that honeybees are much scarcer on Martha's Vineyard than they used to be; but we still have a wide variety of pollinating insect life here, luckily. One has only to study the flowerheads of a single garden to be treated to an amazing array of Diptera (flies), Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and ants), and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).

By the way, the "honeybees" to be seen on many flowers are actually syrphid or flower flies, and sometimes, robber and hover flies. They mimic honeybees and are also pollinator insects. One tells the difference between them by looking at the wings. The wings of the Hymenoptera (honey and other bees) fold together over the abdomen as they forage while the wings of the Diptera (flower flies) are held out at an angle, forming a delta.

Genus Cyrtomium

Last week I saw a display of healthy looking holly ferns (genus Cyrtomium) at a local nursery and asked about their hardiness. In a nice coincidence, just after that, I came across a piece on them in the same issue of the Avant Gardener with the above-mentioned bee/pollinator article, where I got more information. There are more than 60 species of Cyrtomiums but only about five are under wide cultivation, all hardy to at least zone 6.

The Cyrtomiums really do look quite holly-like, although their stature is only fern-sized. The fronds of different species vary in length from 18" to 30." One, C. falcatum from Japan, is hardy to zone 6 but is best known as a long-lived houseplant that tolerates low humidity. A cultivar of it is a dwarf with very glossy fronds, 'Eco Korean Jade.' A northern New Jersey gardener is growing a collection of Cyrtomiums on a rocky wooded hillside in conditions they like: "humusy soil among rocks, good drainage, open airy sites in dappled sun/shade." The holly ferns apparently do not stand transplanting well but they tolerate wind and are not bothered by chewing pests. Be on the lookout for these eye-catching, holly-mimicking ferns.

Internationally known British plantsman Roy Lancaster will speak at Polly Hill Arboretum on Wednesday, August 22, at 7:30 pm at the Far Barn. The evening, titled "Travels of a Plantsman: An Evening with Roy Lancaster" is $8; $5 members.