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Bees Mean Business: How Honey Bees Shape Our Food System

Here in California, an unusually warm winter delivers the illusion of Spring. Though March 21st officially marks the Spring equinox, honeysuckle flowers have already put out their sweet blossoms and the air is alive with the humming of the honey bee. Honey bees herald the coming of luscious fruit and longer days, and their gentle song announces the promise of new life. Our world revolves around the industrious schedules of these little creatures. Without the honey bee’s pollination, strawberries, peaches, and melons would virtually cease to exist!

Honeybees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Honey bees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

Bees, A Popular Pollinator

Though birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, and the wind are great examples of pollinators, bees are the world’s number one pollinator. According to Cornell University, honey bees are responsible for pollinating around 70 percent of the world’s crops— which when you think about it, translates to a HUGE amount of food.

What is pollination? When a worker bee collects nectar and pollen from the flower of a plant, some of the bright orange pollen from the male reproductive organ of the flower sticks to the hairs of her body. As she visits the next flower, some of this pollen is rubbed off onto the female reproductive organ of the flower and fertilization occurs.   There is disturbing evidence that pollinating animals worldwide have suffered from loss of habitat, chemical misuse, diseases, parasites and climate change. Currently, neonicotinoid pesticides (commonly used in US agricultural)  are one of the largest contemporary threats to bee colonies. The wide scale use of these pesticides has been reported to kill a hive’s queen and thereby decrease the reproduction rates of a colony.

A Bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons

A bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons

 

Understanding Their Role

Honey bees are social insects that live together in large, well-organized colonies. The advance communication and organizational skills  of the honey bee have been of interest to entomologists (bug experts) for decades.  Bee colonies typically consists of three kinds of adult bees: workers, drones, and a queen.

Workers: Workers are the smallest and most common bees occupying the colony.  All worker bees are females; yet unlike their queen,  worker bees are unable to produce offspring. They are responsible for cleaning the hive, collecting pollen and nectar, building beeswax combs, ventilation, and feeding the queen. The lifespan of the worker bee is anywhere from six weeks to six months.

Drones: Drones (male bees) are the largest bees in the colony and are charged with the task of fertilizing the virgin queen during her mating flight. Since drones require three times as much food as the rest of the colony, their numbers are scarce. When cold weather begins in the fall and pollen/nectar resources become threatened, drones usually are forced out into the cold and left to starve.

Queen: Each colony has only one sexually developed female, known as the queen bee. The queen is responsible for populating the entire colony and during peak production, a queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day! Queens are larger in size than other females in their colonies and have a lifespan of 2-5 years (some bees only live for 30 days). Research has found that queen bees can actually vaccinate their colony against diseases.  Though queens rarely leave the nest, their forager bees pick up environmental pathogens while gathering pollen and use this same pollen to create “royal jelly” — a food made just for the queen that contains bacteria from the outside environment. The queen ingests the bacteria, stores it in her “fat body” (similar to a human liver), and transfers it through her blood to her developing eggs, essentially “vaccinating” her babies.

A Road Trip to California—That’s Nuts! 

There’s one crop that demands more bees than any other—almonds. Eat an almond anywhere in the world and there’s a good chance that almond was grown in California. As of 2017, the Golden State produces approximately 2.2 billion pounds of almonds each season. This time of year, billions of honey bees across the US embark on road trips to assist the California farmers who need the bees to pollinate their crops. As consumers buy products like almond milk and almond butter, the demand for the already popular nut (and the bees that make that nut possible), continues to rise. Currently, it is estimated that this year alone, close to 30 billion bees will travel from out-of-state to meet the pollination needs of Central California’s almond industry.

Crates of honeybees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Crates of honey bees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Honey—How is it Made? 

Aside from being pro pollinators, honey bees manufacture a liquid that has been touted as the “elixir of the gods”—honey. Honey has an extensive history around the world, the oldest remains of which have been found in a tomb in the country of Georgia, dating from 4,700 to 5,500 years ago. It is used to sweeten food and drink, soothe sore throughs, and can serve as an antibacterial for wounds.  Though humans have enjoyed the consumption of honey for millennia, honey’s natural purpose is to feed the bees. As bees collect nectar, they use their long tongues (called proboscis) like a straw to help them suck nectar out of flowers. They store the nectar in a second stomach and transport it back to the hive where it is converted to honey and capped with beeswax for later consumption.

Honey bees are hardworking masters of communication and planning and their existence is vital to our own. So next time you’re in the path of a honey bee, think twice before you swat it away.

Wilderness Journal: Springtime in the Wetlands

rabbit

The rabbits bound away.

After the misty morning fog and clouds had worn off, all was perfectly still. The bright blue sky was the perfect invitation for a walk through the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. And with the sun out, I was not the only one in the wetlands. Springtime means baby animals and several baby bunnies bounded by with their white cotton tails bobbing behind them. Sneaking through a hole under the fence they vanished into the undergrowth.

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The Language of Flowers: A Valentine’s Day Tradition

Even though Valentine’s Day has recently passed us by, every year as Valentine’s Day approaches the stores are becoming increasingly stocked with large red and pink hearts, chocolates and. . . flowers! We hope everyone had a lovely Valentine’s Day with someone special with family members, good friends or a “sweet heart.”

Flowers communicate so many things

Flowers can communicate so much more than just beauty.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday we Americans celebrate with incredible gusto every year, with lavish gifts, chocolates. . . and flowers. But how do you know what kinds of flowers to get? Is it random? Do you pick their favorite flower? Do you know their favorite flower? Do flowers even matter? If you are asking yourself any of these questions, it is not too late. When stress is running at an all-time high for making a “perfect day” a very comforting and traditionally special gift is flowers. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Observation: Drought in California Chaparral

When I visited my grandparents for Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago, we took a family hike up in the chaparral region near Ojai and Lake Casitas. Growing up we visited that area incredibly frequently, but I had not been there in over 3 years! My grandparents had lived there for many years and I was very familiar with the trees and the wildlife that live there. If you have never visited, I highly recommend it. It is an incredibly beautiful example of our native California wildlife and of the incredible native plant species. While we were hiking we saw quails, migrating birds, pomegranate trees, mistletoe, California live oaks, western sycamore trees, coyote bush, and many other plants and animals.

 LAKE CASITAS BOAT RAMP FAR-FAR OUT OF THE PRESENT WATER LEVEL.

Lake Casitas boat ramp far from the water level

But as we walked, it became increasingly apparent that the California drought we have been experiencing has taken a toll on the native plants. While the open grasslands were beautiful and amber colored, the dry grasses only scratched the surface of the lack of water. The drought is evident in the withered plants, in the stressed leaves, and in the dry grasses. Then there were the trees that broke up the dry grasses. The tall oak and western sycamore trees and others broke up the dry yellowed stalks of grasses. But their green leaves were curled up or clustered in small bunches. Many trees had lost a good majority of their leaves prematurely—not due to fall. Those that were still with leaves upon closer inspection had marks of struggle, the leaves were browned or broken or insect eaten/diseased. These trees are fighting so hard to survive in an extended four year (at least) extreme drought period! Continue Reading →

The Sweet Ingredient in Allergy: poisonous plants & food allergies

Oak tree and poison oak

Oak tree and poison oak camouflage

I know one of my grandfather’s first rules of taking me hiking was teaching me to look out for potentially dangerous plants. We would go hiking quite regularly (even when I was a little kid) through the rugged areas of Southern California chaparral. One of the first California native “look don’t touch” plants that he pointed out to me was poison oak. He taught me, “Leaves of three let it be” and every time we would go out and walk he’d be sure to give me a pop quiz. The crazy thing about poison oak is that it is so potent that it can even cause a reaction if you touch something that has touched poison oak. How does poison oak work? This plant uses biologic warfare to protect itself from predators. The “poison” in poison oak is more to do with a human allergic reaction to a chemical that the plant possesses. Urushiol oil is what the poison oak leaves exude when it is damaged by contact. When it comes in contact with skin it causes an allergic reaction also known as “contact dermatitis”  in four-fifths of humans. Usually the allergic reaction it causes is itching and sometimes a rash which can last for 3-10 weeks. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Journal: International Journey to Braunschweig, Germany

Germany

Amazing fall trees in Germany

I just spent the past week recuperating from jet lag but I wanted to share some of my international nature observations! I spent about a week in a relatively urban/suburban German town and really was able to see so many animals and plants thriving in an urban setting. Everywhere I looked there were cobbled streets with grasses and dandelions or other green things sprouting up. And then there were the trees! Germany is so much greener and full of trees than California. There were big tough trunks and large deciduous trees that were beginning to shake off their leaves. I was in heaven, it was finally fall! Not just the time of the year for fall, but the fall weather was in full swing. It took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. The dry cold wind blowing was enough to make you gasp for breath, but added to the fall beauty. The crisp breezes caught and tugged at the clinging yellow and orange leaves, tossing them into the gray sky and onto the gray road. It was a refreshing break from the excessively hot and humid fall we have had in California this year, which has felt more like summer than fall.

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The Value of Acorns and Oak Trees

Acorns

Coast Live Oak acorns

When I was growing up in Southern California, some of my favorite hiking trails were through the oak groves of Ojai. As we would hike through the shade, my grandfather would teach me about the plants and the animals in the ecosystem around us. I remember collecting the acorns that had fallen and wondering why an oak tree wasn’t called an acorn tree.
Not only do these amazingly gnarled old oak trees provide shade for hiking trails, but these trees have an ancient past and are incredibly valuable. Oak trees play an important role in the environment, human history and economics. In California these amazing oaks have a history that goes back to the Ice Age, tens of thousands of years ago! Pieces of these trees have been preserved in the Ice Age La Brea tar pits, where these oak trees were ancient food sources and shade for animals like the saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths. Many years later, people migrated to the Americas and began to use these oak trees even more intentionally. Oaks, specifically acorns, were an important part of Chumash cultural festivities and trade. They would eat meals from crushed acorns, but the Chumash were not the only people to discover the value of oak trees.

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Golf Course Geese

Do you like golfing? Do you like nice open green spaces? Did you know that you have that in common with Canada geese? Well not the golfing part, that’s would be silly, but recently Canada geese have been making golf courses their homes and enjoying green spaces outside where they’ve lived historically. This once threatened migratory species from Canada is now becoming a common sight across the United States year round. These birds were intentionally introduced by people to places they had not lived before to help them survive and they have thrived!

Canada Geese

Canada Geese can digest green grasses

These amazing birds historically nested in northern and southern Canada grasslands. Every winter these birds would make a trip (or migrate) down to the USA, much like how we like to visit places with nice weather during super-hot or cold seasons. They avoid the colder and harsher northern winters and get lots of food and sun in the south.
But why do Canada geese love our golf courses so much? The Canada geese can live in many habitats near water or grassy fields and they can digest grass (eat grass for food). Our golf courses tend to be large grassy places with water features perfect for feasting and resting. Another reason why geese love golf courses is because of safety. When they are looking for places to nest and find food, golf courses and lawns give them a clear view of predators. Canada geese behavior also affects their migration locations. Geese return to nest where they first learned to fly, which means if they breed on the golf course they will return “home.” Not all Canada geese have stopped migrating, they do migrate but they prefer to live where life is easier. Continue Reading →

How to Conserve Water in Your Garden

Latana

Latana

Although the California drought has required our continued effort to conserve water, there’s no reason you can’t conserve water and grow a beautiful garden as well. It could also translate to savings in your water bill.

Growing the right plants can provide a water-efficient landscape that saves up to 10,000 gallons a year and reduce annual water bills by $30 to $70 dollars. Since native plants have been able to adjust to a region’s annual rainfall, they require little watering. Drought-tolerant plants like lavender and jade, also require little watering and can help to conserve water.

Mulching around plants is a good way to reduce water loss while also adding nutrients to the soil and reducing the likelihood of weeds. By placing around 2-4 inches of mulch – which could take the form of compost, bark chips or pine needles – you can slow the evaporation of moisture and reduce the need for watering.

Garden paths made of porous material can help any rainwater seep into the ground to nourish roots rather than run off to the street. Gravel, pebbles, non-mortared concrete pavers and spaced bricks are ideal.

Place thirsty plants near the house to take advantage of roof runoff, which can be as much as 600 gallons per hour from a 25-by-40 foot roof during moderate rainfall (and which can be stored in a water barrel). Native plants can be planted further out from the house. Knowing where the sun hits your garden can help determine where to place dry-soil plants, with plants that require more water planted in shady areas.

Pomegranate

Pomegranate

By watering in the morning rather than during the day, you’ll lose less water to evaporation. Watering at dusk, however, places plants at risk of mildew and fungus.

With lawns typically requiring more than 20,000 gallons of water each year, it might be worth considering getting rid of it or, at least, opting for Bermuda or buffalo grass which requires 20% less water than fescue or bluegrass. Better yet, you might consider drought-resistant grasses like Eco-lawn. Letting grass grow above three inches helps promote water retention in the soil.

Additional tips: Sweep walkways and driveways instead of watering; prevent sprinklers from watering the sidewalk and position them to water the garden; drip irrigation systems are more efficient than overhead watering systems.

Water conservation can be easy, saving time and money while also doing your part to protect our natural resources.

 

 

 

 

 

Farmers Menace to Colorful Hoverer: The Five Spotted Hawk Moth

5 spotted hawk mothThroughout our day to day business most  people will probably see at least one butterfly or moth fluttering through the sky or simply sitting under the porch light at night. Some people may choose to ignore them, some may take note of the insects beauty, but pretty much no one will think about what it was before it became that butterfly or moth. Most of the time the moth’s or butterfly’s predecessor was a simple caterpillar with no special traits or abilities, simply eating leaves until enough energy has amassed for metamorphosis. Some caterpillars though are unique in their defensive capabilities, in their movement and in their diet. The larval form of the Five Spotted Hawk Moth is called a tomato hornworm and as you can guess by the name their favorite food is tomato leaves.

The Tomato Hornworm is local to northern Mexico and throughout the United States. They also happen to be a farmer’s nightmare. This is because tomato hornworms will eat the leaves of tomato, eggplant, potato, pepper, and tobacco plants. This may not seem like a problem since they are only eating the leaves, but unfortunately the plant needs those leaves to survive. Plants survive through photosynthesis which uses the surface area of the plants leaves to collect energy from the sun in order to form sugars. Without the plants leaves, their is nothing to collect energy with and therefore they cannot create their food. Luckily there are a number of ways farmers can combat these pests besides using pesticides such as handpicking them off or using other insect predators such as praying mantises or parasitoid wasps. In addition to these, the tomato plant itself enlists it own defensive mechanism. When the tomato plant begins to get eaten by hornworms, it releases a chemical signal into the wind. If other tomato plants receive this chemical signal they will bolster their own natural pesticide production as to prepare for the incoming pest attack. If the hornworm manages to avoid predation and farmers, then it will cocoon and become a moth in about 2 weeks.

5 spotted hawk mothThis process of metamorphosis is an intense and amazing process where some organs stay intact but others melt down into their proteins and other constituent pieces. They then slowly rebuild into the form of the butterfly or moth. The tomato hornworm rebuilds itself into the Five Spotted Hawk Moth, a relatively large moth with a very unique flying ability. Besides being enjoyable to look at and actually being quite fuzzy the Five Spotted Hawk Moth also has the ability to hover like a hummingbird and even drink from flowers while hovering. Although this uses more energy than simply landing and drinking from the flower, it is extremely advantageous for avoiding would be predators. This is because the act of hovering gives the moth a much faster reaction time and allows for quick sideways movement that would otherwise be impossible. Lastly, these moths do not live for a very long time, roughly around a year. As a result a majority of the caterpillars emerge in spring and are already laying eggs for the next generation by late fall. The eggs then lay dormant during winter and the process repeats itself.

Throughout our lives we tend to take many things for granted, many of which are not given a second thought. For a vast majority, the Tomato Hornworm and the Five Spotted Hawk Moth are two unremarkable unrelated organisms but, with a little bit of context simple organisms, become remarkable ones. This may not really be something to take for granted, but with every piece of contextual knowledge gained, a sliver of the world’s beauty is unlocked.