I am severely allergic to bee venom, so I’ve always been careful when gardening to stay out of the flower beds during the times of day when bees are most active. Sadly, that’s been easy to do this year because there are no bees in my garden, save for some tiny, tiny bees that my grandma used to call “sweat bees.” There are no honeybees or bumblebees, just a lot of large scary-looking brown wasps that, like cockroaches, look as though they could survive an apocalypse.
Perhaps we are on the brink of one now. As gardeners, we see changes in nature up close in ways that others don’t. I can tell you (and I’m sure you have plenty of stories, too) that seven years ago our gardens were filled with bees and butterflies. In that short time, both have all but disappeared. Many of the gardeners I know are saying the same thing and, without exception, our talks reflect a growing mix of sadness and worry about the future. It’s one thing to read an article about how vital pollinators are to food production and quite another to walk out the back door to find normally bountiful tomato, cucumber and squash plants nearly devoid of fruit. Leaves for dinner again, anyone?
If you have ever thought about getting into beekeeping, now is the time to start. Ordinances vary by city and state, but in Minneapolis, beekeeping has been legal since 2009 and it really took off this year in May when the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance making it easier for urban beekeepers to get permits. Ever since then, more and more bee boxes have been buzzing on rooftops across the city, including some at high-profile locales such as Minneapolis City Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Weisman Art Museum.
Under the new ordinance, would-be beekeepers still need to get permission from the city to keep bees. But hives can now be installed on rooftops taller than one story without approval from neighboring property owners. This is a significant change from the previous ordinance that required beekeepers to get permission from 80 percent of the neighbors within 250 feet. (To put that in perspective, in densely packed downtown, that could mean having to collect over 100 signatures.)
Honeybees are not aggressive, and backyard hives can be managed safely by trained homeowners. But rooftops are an attractive option for urban bees and their keepers because bees tend to fly up and out when exiting their boxes, lessening interaction with people down below, says Becky Masterman, who co-coordinates the Bee Squad with fellow beekeeper Jody Gerdts. Started by University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak in 2010, the Bee Squad (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/) aims to help foster healthy bee communities in the Twin Cities through education, training and data collection on the health of urban colonies.
Citizen beekeepers to the rescue
The Bee Squad’s most high-profile program is called Hive to Bottle, which allows homeowners and organizations to keep bees without having to install and manage the hives themselves if they would prefer not to. Hives at City Hall, the Weisman and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are all taken care of by the Bee Squad. Those who want to manage their own hives can receive at-home training from a Bee Squad mentor through the Home Apiary Help program. Or, for a lesser fee, homeowners can attend training sessions at the Mentoring Apiary on the University’s St. Paul campus. (Additional information on both programs can be found here: (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/beekeepers/index.htm.)
If you’re asking yourself whether you really need training to keep bees, the answer is yes. Masterman explains: “Keeping bees is really hard. It is both an art and a science, and there is no way to learn to do it right from a book or a weekend class. It really helps to have somebody next to you watching and guiding you as you learn.” So, for the sake of the bees, and yourself and your neighbors, please take the time to understand what you’re doing before rushing into beekeeping.
We ripped out our lawn over the last few years, and we don’t miss it one bit. Sparse and full of creeping Charlie and other weeds, it was ugly even before our dog Lily peed all over it and killed off spots one by one. I do realize, though, that a lot of people like turf grass and, even if they don’t, they’re not keen on ripping all of it up to put in gardens that they have to care for.
But what to do about all of those weeds? The truth is, if grass gets enough sun and is kept well-watered (about an inch each week); mowed to a slightly higher height of about 3 inches, which helps shade out weeds; and fertilized even once each year, it will grow fairly well and suffer few weed and disease problems. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the difference these simple things can make, so they hire lawn care services to come and keep their yards looking good.
Having observed these services in action all over my neighborhood, I have to say, the results aren’t so hot. Trucks show up, guys jump out, and they promptly mow the grass right down to the nub. Then, they douse the scalped grass with all kinds of chemicals, including herbicides that usually contain 2,4-D. Popular because it’s cheap and easy to use, 2,4-D was concocted by scientists during World War II. It was one of the components of Agent Orange. And it is effective when it comes to killing things like clover, thistle and creeping Charlie, but it has remained controversial since it was released for public use in 1946.
Though the EPA says there is not enough data to conclude that the herbicide may pose some cancer risk, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified 2,4-D as being a substance that may cause cancer in humans. Studies are divided on both sides with many scientists being of the opinion that 2,4-D may be carcinogenic, particularly in the case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even when these chemicals have dried, there is debate about when it is safe to come in contact with grass that has been treated with the herbicide. (You know how often you see those signs warning people and pets to stay off the grass until dry.)Read More»
In the summer, there’s always some amount of critter chirping going on in the yard after dark. But this year those chirps and trills are so boisterous and loud, you’d think we were in the woods rather than the city.
Others have noticed the change, too. And though we don’t understand what’s responsible for turning up the volume on the beautiful nighttime chorus this year, some master gardeners I know did figure out what’s probably doing the bulk of the chirping—tree crickets. In particular, snowy tree crickets (Oecanthus fultoni), which live in trees but like to roam the garden in search of things like aphids to eat. Thanks, little guys!
Not surprisingly, there are some great videos out there showing these critters doing their thing. Is it just me, or do you agree that it’s simultaneously enchanting and weird to see one of summer’s mysteries so nakedly exposed? Oh, and here’s my disclaimer: I am not an entomologist, so if these crickets are not correctly identified by the video’s poster, I apologize in advance.
Go here to see a male snowy tree cricket showing off for the ladies.
Click here to see a four-spotted tree cricket (Ocecanthus quadripunctatus) in action.
And here’s another four-spotted tree cricket singing.
One last interesting tidbit; snowy tree crickets are often referred to as “nature’s thermometer” because the rate of their chirping is related to the temperature. Opinions on the best formula to use to translate their chirping into the correct temperature vary, but the most commonly suggested method is to count the number of chirps in 13 seconds, and then add 40 to that number to get the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.
No one will ever make a reality show about gardeners. We tend to be sweaty, disheveled and a bit dirty for starters. Our shoes are functional. We wear big, floppy hats. We’re pretty keen on shorts, pants and sometimes vests with lots of handy pockets. And we love, love to gather together and talk about plants, plant problems and bugs.
“Does milk really help stop powdery mildew?” “Is aster yellows caused by a virus or a phytoplasma?” “Why that is the largest scale bug I’ve ever seen! And you removed it using a power washer, amazing!”
Yeah, we couldn’t even sell the Gardeners Gone Wild topless version of this stuff.
But we could use your help with a current topic that’s come up this year. Some gardeners around Minnesota have reported seeing Japanese beetles feeding on geraniums and then acting, well, drunk or stoned or something. Jeff Hahn, an entomologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service says it’s really unusual for Japanese beetles to feed on geraniums because geraniums contain a toxin that “intoxicates” the beetles to the point where they can be paralyzed for hours. (Read more of Jeff’s interesting updates on garden pests here.)
Apparently, this experience isn’t half bad because once they recover the Japanese beetles go right back for more. So, if you have Japanese beetles getting blackout drunk on your geraniums, Jeff and others with Extension would love to see some photos. Please email your photos to me, or send me a link to Flickr or wherever you post photos, and I’ll forward them on. Let me know what state you live in, and how long you’ve been seeing Japanese beetles on your geraniums, too.
Oh, and one more thing. Several master gardeners have been wondering whether it would be a good idea to interplant geraniums with roses, grapes and other plants Japanese beetles love in hopes that they would flock to the geraniums and leave other plants alone. Unfortunately, Jeff Hahn says that research has shown that the strategy doesn’t work. In fact, even more beetles show up than before. The upshot? You may not want to plant a geranium beetle bar in your garden unless you want them to party at your house.
I’m long overdue with a post. Sorry about that. In between work and the heat and the rain and more rain, it’s been hard to get everything done in the garden and post to my blog too. I’ll make this one short so as not to wear out my welcome with worm talk.
But I just have to say that the worms really love the new condo they moved into a few weeks ago. As I explained in my May 7 post, I wasn’t that keen on my one-bin system so I moved everyone into a new bin with four stackable trays.
The other bin was working just fine. But its design made it hard to actually see the worms eating or just wriggling around doing worm stuff. I figured the trays would make it easier to interact with the worms at feeding time, or if I just want to take a peek to see how they’re doing. And it is easier, and much more enjoyable.Read More»
I’ve read that you can always tell something is wrong with your worm bin if your worms try to escape. Too much acidity, heat from decomposing food and other organic matter, excessive dryness or moisture——there are a lot of things that make worms want to flee. I don’t know what happened in my bin, but last Wednesday morning I went down to the basement to check on the worms and was horrified to find most of them plastered to the underside of the bin’s plastic lid.
Not wanting to squish anyone, I carried the worm-covered lid upstairs to the kitchen along with the rest of the bin. Deadlines were pressing, but I couldn’t just let the worms suffer. So I made myself a cup of coffee, put on an old Smith’s CD (because nobody puts an upbeat spin on misery quite like Morrissey) and sat down on the kitchen floor to sort worms into a separate, clean container.Read More»
With honeybee populations declining in recent years, gardeners have been searching for ways to encourage other pollinators to stop by and help out. One pollinator I hear mentioned more and more often is mason bees, and seed catalogs are increasingly offering all kinds of mason bee nesting boxes. They’re cute, these little bee condo things with all those little round holes. So I got to thinking I should buy one.
But then I stopped myself, wondering if it was okay to just introduce mason bees to my garden, my neighborhood, Minnesota? I emailed Jeff Hahn, a helpful entomologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, and he said he didn’t know a lot about mason bees. But he recommended I talk with Joel Gardner, a grad student who is studying them.Read More»
Last weekend I saw my first brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys). It was dead and tacked down to a white cushion inside of a small glass and wood box, but it was real. And it was ugly.
The bug was part of a Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) display on invasive insects at DaVinci Fest, a science and art fair for 4th – 12th graders my husband, Mike, and I went to last weekend to promote my new gardening book. Ordinarily, we’d steer clear of kid-centric events, but our friend Paula invited us and with boxes of books taking up space in our basement, we figured we’d buck up and go.
“There will be lots of adults there who are interested in gardening,” Paula told us, sweetening the pot by saying she would set us up with a table next to an avid bee keeper. It’s always interesting to talk to people who keep bees and A.J. Moses of Oakdale, Minnesota, was no exception. Check out this recent interview with him in the OakdalePatch.
As it turned out, Mark, the nice MDA entomologist with the stink bug, was on our other side. “These aren’t a big problem yet, but they’re here now and they may be,” he explained, holding up the bug display box so he could point out the differences between Minnesota’s native stink bugs and this new invader.
If you think all those brown, kind of flat, triangular-shaped stink bugs look the same, think again. Brown marmorated stink bugs have white markings on their abdomens and light-colored bands on their otherwise dark antennae.
Like Japanese beetles, emerald ash borer and other invasive pests that have found their way into the U.S. and, eventually, Minnesota in recent years, the brown marmorated stink bug is likely to cause problems for a wide variety of plants once they become widespread. They particularly enjoy feeding on fruit trees, some vegetables and soybeans. Oh, and true to their name, they sink to high heaven if you disturb them enough to release their stench.
Having just spent last summer battling our first all-out infestation by Japanese beetles, I’m less than thrilled to learn that these stink bugs (which are native to Asia) were spotted in our county in November for the first time. I guess we’re gonna need a whole lot more buckets of soapy water and some nose plugs (Japanese beetles don’t smell so hot either).
For five years now I’ve fussed over bare-root sprigs and cuttings of Virginia creeper, nursing them into the lush vines that now cover three arbors and a couple of fences at my house. This week, I started ripping all those vines out because, sadly, Japanese beetles just love Virginia creeper. For a while, my husband and I thought we could live with the damage the beetles do —all those green leaves reduced to lacy brown ghosts of their former selves. But when scads of beetles and showers of the dust-like poo they leave behind started raining down from the arbor into our hair every time we shut the back gate, well, goodbye vines.
For those who aren’t familiar with Japanese beetles, they are actually quite fetching little bugs. Dime-sized with shiny purple-green bodies, they almost look like something a wacked-out artificial intelligence researcher would create in a sci-fi film. First spotted in 1968 in Minnesota, as well as on the East Coast, Japanese beetles have since plagued eastern states, primarily, while slowly making their way westward. Larvae, or grubs as they’re usually called, feed on the roots of turf grass and adult beetles feed on a wide variety of ornamental plants.Read More»
As I type this I can almost hear the four-lined plant bugs out in my garden chomping away on many of my perennials — even my wee basil plants that are just trying to get a start for the summer. My basil! I have no qualms about squishing these yellow bugs with the fat, black stripes on their backs or flicking them into a pail of water to drown. But I don’t spray them with chemicals anymore. Sevin, insecticidal soup, homemade soap sprays, I’ve tried all kinds of concoctions to try to get rid of four-lined plant bugs and other pests over the years. None of them worked very well.
I don’t use chemicals on bugs anymore. It’s not that I think all chemicals are bad; I don’t. Though I do think chemicals should be used judiciously. Don’t worry. I’m not going to be all preachy in this column about what you should do when trying to deal with pests in your own garden. I’d just like to share what I’ve learned about pesticides over the last few years so you can make your own, informed choices about pest control whether that be through chemical or natural means.Read More»