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A Bit More About Bees September 12, 2013

I peered inside the emergence box.  They were still there, four fuzzy white cocoons about 1/4 inch around and 1/3 inch long… still waiting for the severe warm weather which would awaken the tiny insects resting inside.  It was late summer and I had to think back to the previous year to determine whether my bees were late in emerging.

When I first spotted the cottony substance at the end of the bee tubes last summer, I thought my precious pollinators had been afflicted by a fungus.  I was distressed that it didn’t look like any of the threats listed in the books I’d read on the subject and no amount of research seemed capable of revealing what it was.  Since it wasn’t spreading, I decided not to worry.  I still had plenty of tubes filled with healthy bees waiting for the coming spring and it seemed best to just let nature take its course.

It wasn’t until after the first freeze when I went to remove the cocoons that I realized the fuzzy wool wasn’t a fungus after all! I had attracted something else.  Swathed in a substance not unlike quilt batting, I found five, paper-thin cocoons in each 6 inch tube.  Since they didn’t fit the description of any of the native bees I was trying to attract, I was at a loss.  I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and, laying aside the Nikon 3100 I had been using to document the cocoon harvest, picked up my iPod touch.  A few snapshots later, I was ready to send off an inquiry to Dave Hunter of www.crownbees.com.

I first became acquainted with Dave while working as a buyer for a local garden store.  I hadn’t yet convinced our owner that selling native bee habitats was a profitable business when, due to a reorganization of the company, my job abruptly came to an end.  Still, I continued to follow Dave and his bees on Twitter and Facebook and looked forward to his regular “bee-mail” messages.  I had been treated to a wealth of information on pollinator conservation and was certain that if anyone could identify my unusual guests, it would be Dave.

I was right.  Within a few hours, we were chatting on the phone, as I described my find.  “It sounds like you have wool carder bees,” he said, sounding a touch surprised.  Anthidium manicatum or the European Wool Carder is, as it name suggests, a foreign import used to somewhat warmer climates than we usually experience in my part of the world.  Unlike the the Megachilidae which had filled in most of the nesting tubes in my artificial habitat, these bees forgo waxy foliage in favor of the fuzzy “wool” produced by plants like the Dandylion. While a touch territorial (more so with other bees than with anything of the mammalian persuasion), they are excellent pollinators and Dave suggested that I harvest the cocoons and store them in my vegetable crisper until spring.

Acting on his advice, I sorted through the 15 cocoons (only those in one of the three tubes had been unaffected by an unidentified ailment which resulted in thin, squishy, slime-covered cocoons) and placed the good ones inside the ventilated petrie dish which would serve as their winter home.

Spring came and I removed my fuzzy soon-to-be friends to the emergence house, pinned them to the trellis beneath my bee-house, and began to keep watch.  As of today, the cocoons are resting nicely, awaiting the end of the leaf-cutter bees’ season when (if things progress as they did last year), I expect them to emerge, mate, and set about making a home for next year’s pollinators.  I intend to carefully the document the entire process, if only for my personal enjoyment.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t considered “managing” some of the wonderful pollinators in your own area, why not take a moment to stop by Dave’s site at www.crownbee.com.  You’ll find a wealth of useful information and a hand to help in time of need!


Emergency Grafting: An Introduction September 5, 2013

Filed under: Gardening,Grafting — acgheen @ 12:00 am

“It’s an eight foot branch!” Panic filled my mother’s voice.  I could empathize with her devastation.

The maple had been in the yard for nearly a decade and, as if in defiance of the natural laws of the community, had grown to a healthy, sprawling, twenty feet – enough to shade the bedroom window and cast an enveloping shadow across the yard.  Unfortunately, the Fall day’s heavy snows had threatened to change all of that.  Despite regular trips into the yard to knock the deposits from the branches, the weight had grown too much for the mature limbs to bear and one of the chief branches had snapped, tearing a sizeable gash through to the heartwood.

“Don’t panic yet,” I replied.  “I may be able to save it with a bridge graft.  I’m on my way home right now.”

Due to the near blizzard conditions, the drive home was a slow one and, as I gazed through the thick curtain of white, I was forced to wonder just what I had gotten myself into.  While a bridge graft could (in theory) save the top third of the tree, I was acquainted with the practice only in theory.  I had never actually performed the procedure and this seemed a rather dramatic way to begin.

Upon arriving at home, I grabbed my pruners and grafting knife, quickly reviewed the process as aptly illustrated in both my Master Gardener’s Handbook and a local nursery flier, and headed into the yard.  A quick look at the wound was sufficient to let me know that the tree probably wouldn’t recover if something was not done quickly.  The collapsing eight foot limb had torn through an inch of healthy cambium tissue, leaving a wound that was a good eight inches long and another four inches wide.  Despite the frigid conditions and the snow that was soaking my clothes, I set to work.

My initial job was to trim away the bits of bark which had once covered the healthy tissue of the missing limb and dry the wounded area.  With the heavy, wet snow falling like a late summer downpour, this was a challenge.  It was important, however, to remove the moisture from the injured tissue in order to prevent rot or the introduction of infectious disease to the limb.  After soaking through several hand towels, I finally managed to get the area dry enough to begin my surgery. I proceeded with the towel clamped firmly in place by one of my over-sized gloved hands. (Because the process of bridge grafting involves making fresh cuts just outside the perimeter of the wound, were I to do this again, I would take a moment to coat the dried tissue in a layer of pruning paint or wax to keep the tree’s natural moisture in and additional moisture out.)

The downed branch had not yet outlived its usefulness and I carefully selected an handful of fresh, supple, pencil-width branches which would serve as scions.  Trimming them several inches longer than the gap which they would bridge (two to four inches is standard depending upon the size of the wound), I then made an angular slice in both ends of each twig.

It is important that these cuts expose a sizeable portion of the scion’s cambium layer (the white tissue which lies beneath the bark), generally an inch or more.  This is the layer through which sap flows and it must be in firm contact with the tree’s cambium layer in order for the graft to take, so take care to ensure that the cut is smooth and level.  It is also important that the cuts be made on the same side of the scion if they are to bridge the wound.  You will know if you have done the process correctly if you can bend the scion into a bridge shape with both of the cuts forming the “base”.  It is important that these cuts not be allowed to dry out before or during the grafting process.  In warm, dry weather, the scions may be temporarily wrapped in a damp paper towel.

According to the directions I had read, the next step was to make fresh cuts in the trunk just beyond the top and bottom edges of the wound, allowing the scion to restore the flow of sap to the top of the tree.  These cuts need to be deep enough to separate the bark from the tree’s cambium layer, but no deeper.  (A deeper cut will not harm the tree or reduce the chances that the graft will take, but it does require extra labor to make such a cut and, with no advantage to doing so, it is not advised.)  The bark, itself, should be left attached to the tree, since it will help to hold the scions in place.

The first scion was then inserted with the bridge’s “base” facing inward towards the tree and fastened in place at either end with a brad.  I chose to use a brad gun, though a staple gun might do just as well.  (Though some literature suggests hammering the brads in by hand, I found this to be a tedious process which was made even lengthier by the tendency of the scion to slip out of place with each blow.)

I repeated this process several times until the entire wound area had been bridged, then dried the wound once more and sealed the work with grafting paint.  (Grafting wax is a better choice, if you happen to have some on hand.  If not, the wax from a toilet ring makes an excellent substitute and is available quite cheaply at most hardware stores.)  I then wrapped the entire project in a light, cotton tree wrap, further securing the scions in place.

To my delight, spring finally arrived and, glancing out the window one morning, I noted that the maple was in full bud.  Throughout the season, the limbs saved by the graft continued to flourish, putting on new growth and looking (to my great delight) as though they had never suffered a moment of trauma in their lives.

Bridge grafting is a labor-intensive process, but may be easily performed by most backyard gardeners.  I recommend that you keep the tools for this simple “emergency surgery” (pruners, grafting knife, pruning paint or wax, and brads) on hand at all times.  It can be a genuine “life-saver” for a tree which has been damaged by weather or wildlife, preserving the beauty of your yard for years to come!

(The University of Minnesota has a wonderful webpage on budding and grafting.  You’ll find detailed instructions on performing a bridge graft, along with illustrations at the bottom of the page!   http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/components/dg0532c.html)


A Bit About Bees August 29, 2013

“MY BEES ARE HATCHING!  MY BEES ARE HATCHING!”  My cries echoed across the yard as I enthusiastically informed my family of the good news.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure that my bees (Megachile rotunda) were still alive until that muggy summer afternoon.  Spring and early summer had been an environmental rollercoaster with temperatures sometimes ranging as much as forty degrees between night and day.  While I was reasonably certain that my bees had made it through our winter (which was unusually mild), I wasn’t as confident that their development hadn’t been arrested by these wild fluctuations.  Had the multiple thaws and freezes killed my overwintering friends?  And how would I react if it had?

To be honest, these weren’t the bees that I’d wanted to keep.  It had been honeybees which had originally attracted my attention and not so much because I was interested in keeping bees, myself, but because I was in the process of writing a novel which featured a rather eccentric main character… and what’s more eccentric than keeping bees?  I’d picked up a copy of “Beekeeping For Dummies” for background material, but before I had finished I’d begun to feel a strange compulsion to try my own hand at developing and maintaining an apiary.

Unfortunately, at the time, our city ordinances forbid the keeping of beehives within city limits (though this didn’t prevent a few fastidious and secretive residents from doing so) and I turned my attention to another fascinating species: Osmia lignaria otherwise known as the “Mason Bee”.  Unlike Apis mellifera, Mason bees are solitary in nature, hatching and mating in early spring, then laying their eggs in the hollowed shells of old reeds or any other cozy hole of the appropriate size.

The process is a simple one that begins with mud which the bee carries from a nearby puddle to the back of its new home.  After building a rather thick exterior plug which will help to keep predators like parasitic wasps away from the nest, she collects a pile of pollen which will serve to feed her young offspring after it hatches in the fall.  Laying a single egg atop the pile, she then constructs yet another mud wall to separate this nesting cell from the next.  And the process begins again.  If all goes well, each hatched and fully fed grub will then spin itself a cocoon where it will undergo metamorphosis into an adult bee and wait for spring.

Again, I purchased several volumes including Brian L. Griffin’s “The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee”, Sherian A. Wright’s “Mason Bees for the Backyard Gardener”, and a copy of the “Pollinator Conservation Handbook: A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, and Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects”.  I’ll admit to having been surprised to discover that native pollinators do a far more efficient job of spreading pollen than their much acclaimed counterpart, the honeybee.  Tidy little creatures, focused upon producing the sweet food which will bring the queen’s offspring through the winter, A. melifera hoard their pollen.  Placing the lovely golden treasure into baskets on their legs, they effectively prevent the precious substance from landing upon the very plants which need it in order to survive.  While they do miss a bit here and there (permitting them to still maintain a reputation as effective pollinators), they do far less good for the garden and the environment in general than do their “dirty” native neighbors.

Taking a trip to www.beediverse.com, I selected their economical (and well-constructed) Chalet for my garden.  Hanging it on a trellis facing the morning sun, I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Despite the fact the O. lignaria was supposed to be native to my area, she never arrived.  And it was with great disappointment that I wandered out to the garden one afternoon, intent upon removing the house and setting it aside until the following season when I would be able to pre-stock it with bees ordered from a supply company.

Much to my surprise, the little Chalet was buzzing with activity!  A group of tiny bees had taken up residence and was quickly stuffing the tubes not with plugs of mud, but with the clippings of green leaves from the nearby shrubbery.  I’ll admit that for a moment, I questioned whether if might be appropriate to continue with my plan to remove the house, since leafcutters are considered a bit of a local nuisance, but reason won out.  Within a few days, each of the tubes was stuffed, sealed, and ready for winter.  Thanks much to the advice of Dave Hunter at www.crownbees.com, I elected to leave the bees inside of their tubes rather than placing the cocoons in my refrigerator over winter.

Not just once this spring did I wonder whether I’d regret that decision.  The insects did not emerge as planned and I was left with tubes packed with what I imagined were dead bees.  I admit that I had been silently mourning them until a few days ago when, stepping out to check the house one last time, they were there.  Each sealed tube in the bee house had been opened as the young males, followed by the females, had chewed through the leafy barrier.

Today, nearly half of the tubes are filled once more, surrounded by a buzz of activity as these gentle bees move in and out, preparing their nests for another winter.  My experiment was a success and I find myself pleased to offer my yard (and a few of my leaves) to my newfound friends!


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