Saturday, October 31, 2009

CanBugs, CANPOLIN, Can Bulbs Survive

For those of you who answered the above pictured question with ‘where are the pollinators?’, well, that is a timely question as honeybees seem to be on the ropes and native pollinators in decline.

Or are they? Well, the truth be told, we don’t really know because with few exceptions we have pretty much put all of our bees in one basket. However, the time may be coming when the other 99% of pollinators – e.g. the for-get-me-not frequenting flower fly below– receive their due attention.

Flower flies (aka hoverflies, Syrphidae) were one of the pollinator groups that were well represented in presentations last week at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Usually I would consider attending such a meeting additional work, but this time it was vacation – perhaps the reason I had an unusually good time for a bug meeting. Not that sitting on one’s butt from 8 am until 5 pm listening to bug talks, not even with the aid of fly papers, is all that easy, but the friends, fine food, and Forks all made for a pleasant time. ‘Winterpeg’ was anything but wintry, the simple monument at Louis Riel’s grave among the Dutch doomed elms in the Saint Boniface churchyard strangely moving, and the bug science less debased by climate change hyperbole than has become usual. However, it was the plethora of papers on pollinators that made the meeting for me.

Anyone who answered the question in the picture above with the Laphria on the left (a robberfly, Asilidae) must have missed the doubly unfortunate damselfly and mites.

But if I were to ask harder questions, such as ‘what species is the bumblebee?’ or ‘how is it doing?’, I’d have no idea how to answer them.

Such ignorance, however, may be short-lived, thanks to the newly initiated CANPOLIN (Canadian Pollination Initiative). At long last the government seems to be getting serious about protecting this critical agricultural and natural ecosystem function. Let’s hope CANPOLIN can develop the basic tools and information Canadians need to answer basic questions about and to understand, utilize and conserve their pollinator heritage.

I hope to enlist the Home Bug Garden in this effort, and do what I can, but I don’t suppose I can do much this year. Winter is upon us in Edmonton. The trees are mostly bare, the ground cold and soggy, the days short, and what sun there is too weak to generate vitamin D. What a perfect time to plant Spring bulbs! Ha, well my bloody Dutch bulb growers seem to think so – the missing bulbs arrived yesterday in a box soggy with melting snow a month after the optimal time to put them in the ground.

Two hours after I got home, the bulbs were all planted in the long ago prepared beds or in pots as Adrian suggested (see Comments in previous post). I suppose I can look at this as an experiment. Hybrid tulips should have enough stored reserves to bloom next Spring, but probably won’t have enough of a root system to generate healthy new bulbs. As for the species tulips, grape hyacinth, and spring glories that made up most of the shipment, I don’t know, but I put in enough of these from local shops at the end of September to make a fair comparison. I'm just glad the ground thawed while I was in Winnipeg and I didn't have to break out the pickaxe.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Of Bulbs, Bugs, & Below Zero: Frozen in an Alien Landscape

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving and we are into our fifth day of subzero (Celsius) temperatures and snow in this Zone 3 Home Bug Garden. I’ve only been keeping good temperature records since 2005, but weather this cold (it hasn’t been above -2 C since last Wednesday) is unprecedented in my Garden Journal. It’s not the earliest for snow (that was 9 September 2004), but I'm afraid that 5 consecutive days below zero means that is it for the bugs and flowers this year and all I’ll have in store for this blog is dreams of bug gardens past. I left out the last of the Rainbow Swiss Chard, because it is supposed to be cold hardy. We will see.

The chard had a hard time this summer, with lots of beet leaf miners, probably Pegomya hyoscyami (Panzer). We may have pictures of the adults, but they are indistinguishable from the numerous other small grey flies in the Home Bug Garden fauna. The small white eggs are laid on the underside of leaves and the maggots penetrate the leaf, feed between the two surfaces of the leaf, and cause large brown blotches. At first I thought they were interesting, but several generations later, I hate them. There’s no chemical control for home owners, but crushing their eggs can feel rewarding, in an impotent, chemical-free way. Picking and destroying the older, outside leaves preferred by the flies is also recommended, but seems to have no effect– the neighbourhood seems to have a large endemic population of the flies, probably from many years of people growing beets and ignoring the blotches.

Well, so much for the flies, back to this cold, nasty weather – is it unprecedented? As a conservative check on just how unusual a long freeze in early October is, I went to the Environment Canada website and the Edmonton City Centre Airport and their Climate Data Online button. It is a bit complicated and unintuitive, but eventually I was able to find the monthly reports that included maximum and minimum temperatures for downtown Edmonton going back to 1937 (Edmonton City Centre AWOS [2009-2005], A (2005-1937]). You have to go back 50 years, to 1959, to find another stretch of 5 days with below zero maximum temperatures in the first half of October (and then again in 1957) – so very unusual, but not unprecedented. Below freezing daily highs are more common in the second half of October (e.g. in 2004 – the year of the 5 cm snowfall on September 9), but above freezing and even relatively warm temperatures are more the norm.

The City Centre Airport shows a distinct Urban Heat Island Effect (UHI) compared to my backyard records and is usually another several degrees warmer at night than the International Airport (records to 1961) in the countryside south of town. However, a long stretch of subzero days in the first half of October is unprecedented in the last 48 years at the International Airport (which opened in 1960 - presumably the fields where the airport would be in 1959 would have had the same cold stretch as Downtown in 1959). So, why all this harping on cold? Well, the ground is frozen and I’m still waiting for my Dutch Spring bulb order!

One could argue that a Home Bug Gardener would be better planting native, rather than exotic bulbs. After all aren’t native plants good and alien plants bad (or at least suspect)? Alas, the native-alien divide is one of those twilight zones where the science becomes gray and shadowed by politics and beliefs trump facts. My Australian instilled aversion to invaders is still trying to come to grips with Alberta’s recently deglaciated landscape awash with relatively recent invaders. But whichever side of the invasive species controversy I eventually come down on, science or xenophobia, I know that after the long nasty winters here, I need some cheerful flowers as early in the Spring as possible. So what does Alberta have to offer in the way of native bulbs?

To answer that question, of course, one has to first define ‘bulb’ (‘Alberta’ being well defined and ‘native’ seems okay when not scrutinized). Bulb does have a reasonably precise technical definition relating to food-filled underground shoots and leaves, but after the botany final exam is over, no one seems to adhere to the limited concept, but instead embraces any underground storage organ that looks bulbish to them. To avoid more confusion than is necessary, my definition of a bulb is anything listed in the bulb bible: “Bulbs” Revised Edition 2002 by John E. Bryan (Timber Press, Portland OR). So tubers, corms, rhizomes, and some fat roots qualify.

Much to my surprise, I find that I have planted 4 Albertan true bulbs (Allium cernuum, Allium schoenoprasum [chives], Lilium philadelphicum, Camassia quamash), one AB ‘bulb’ (Maianthemum canadense), and three ‘bulbs’ from nearby areas that might reasonably have been expected to eventually make it to Alberta on their own (Iris setosa, Iris versicolor, Liatris spicata). That’s the good news. The bad news is that none of these plants is so foolish as to produce flowers in the earliest spring! In fact the Liatris (aka Blazing Star or Gayfeather) is sitting frozen in mid-bloom at the moment. No, spring colour is up to the 60-odd accessions (i.e. named species, varieties, or cultivars) of exotic alien bulbs – the vast majority of which do their best to add some early spring colour to the HBG.

Yes, it is true, the Home Bug Gardener has planted almost 10 times as many species/varieties of alien bulbs as of North American natives. I’m a bad, bad, bad native gardener, or at least not much of a purist. And that’s okay with me, because after 8 months of winter, I need to see something attractive in the garden, even if it is an evil alien. Not that these plants are especially bug-friendly. It is true that the bees and flies that are around will visit many of them, but not with the same fervour that they go after later bloomers. The earliest HBG bloomer, the native coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus), really is a bee magnet. But then again, so are many of the exotics that put in an appearance later in the Spring. The bees and bugs may be particular about what they feed on, but I don’t think they have any bias about country of origin.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Borage, Butterflies, and Bimbos: Reflections in the Rain

It was a grey and dreary morning in the Home Bug Garden, three days past the first killing frost of the Fall. The Home Bug Gardener and his wife were grumpy and poorly slept. On the positive side, the drought had relaxed a bit last night into an extended drizzle, doubly appreciated for its dampening effect on the party in the revolving rental next door. Not enough rain to short circuit the blasting boom boxes or drown out the bikinied bimbos blabbering in the rented hot tub. Nor enough to wet down to the buried bulbs that should be spreading roots in preparation for next Spring’s bursting forth. Enough, however, to keep me inside and blearily reading blogs, rather than ranting at the neer-do-wells next door, and to put me into an alliterative ambience about better times with borage, butterflies, and not so noisy neighbours.

Today, I’m beholden to The Far North Garden for my stringing consonants on my blog instead of spewing curses at the neighbours. Among the many well written and balanced postings available for whiling away a Sunday morning in a non-confrontational manner was a recent one on volunteer borage (Borago officinalis), one of my favourite alien plants. As a home bug gardener, I suppose I should claim that I plant borage for the bees, but really I like its “feed me” ‘Little Shop of Horror’ looks. Besides, I only planted it once five years ago and after that it has planted itself. Every year now I can enjoy its true blue flowers and spindly and spiny spread with no additional effort.

An added bug garden advantage of borage is that when the Painted Lady Butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make one of their rare, northward migrations into Edmonton (last one was 2005), their caterpillars love it. Of course, even a home bug gardener isn’t necessarily delighted with spiny black caterpillars devouring their plants (they hammered the lupines, yarrow, and globe thistle too), but a bit of plant biomass seems a small price to pay for the silent beauty of the Painted Lady. Also, those were the days when an acoustic guitar hootenanny was the worst we could expect from the rental neighbours and getting enough sleep is a pre-requisite to rational approaches to garden problems. Our rational approach was to let them feed (except on the newly planted globe thistle) and we now have enough of all of these plants that we would welcome another migration.

Although the rare Painted Lady migrations get the local Altalepers pretty excited, another rare migrant is far better known – the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Edmonton is far enough north and deficient enough in native milkweeds, the larval food, that the Monarch is a rare visitor. In 2007, however, we had the extraordinary delight to encounter a visiting Monarch in our backyard, watch it oviposit, and enjoy its larvae later chowing down on our ‘butterfly weed’.

Actually, although the seed packet from the Devonian claimed our milkweed was the Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa, a beautiful and not very aggressive plant with flat heads of orange flowers that would be marginally hardy here (usually rated to Zone 4), what actually emerged from the ground was a much more vigorous monster. I believe this is Swamp or Rose Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which has ball-like umbels of pinkish lavender flowers and wandering roots that quickly took over our primary potager bed. Once its roots were contained in a smaller bed, however, it became a welcome addition to our garden.

By an extraordinary stroke of luck, my wife and I also had the delight to watch a new Monarch Butterfly emerge from our milkweed and fly away, presumably to eventually head for Mexico. That is about as good as it gets in the Home Bug Garden – the rare opportunity to contribute to an insect phenomenon that actually has a lot of popular appeal. Alas, no monarchs or painted ladies have graced our garden since then, and with the climate seemingly in for a long cold spell, I wonder if we will ever see them again? On the other hand, as I recall the renters that summer were even worse than the current batch and we were treated to flashing red lights and a police helicopter with search light scanning the neighbourhood at 3:30 in the morning after one particularly violent party. No sense in dwelling on the negative though. Perhaps the sun will wake up and shed some extra warmth, another monarch will grace our milkweed, and the next batch of renters will be a nice, quiet family.