"I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." ~Wendell Berry

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Feed the Bees: Let Sleeping Logs Lie

Along with posting about Purple Martins and our native prairie restoration efforts, I'm starting a new series here on my blog, called, "Feed the Bees". With the recent reports of the decline in the insect populations, it's becoming more & more imperative that we start taking a look at what we can do in our own micro-environments to help maintain or restore the insect populations. All life depends on our pollinators and if they die, we die.
I used to think the Virburnum, dandelions and wild plums were the first bloomers in spring. But this year, I was delighted to find this wee little flower growing all over my yard. It's called, Houstonia Pusilla - or more commonly:

Tiny Bluet, Small Bluet, or Least Bluet

As I've driven around Missouri in search of other purple martin sites and talked with people about their resident birds, I've seen a lot of man-made lawns and hay fields that really don't support the insect populations we need to sustain pollination.  But, I'm only one person.  I understand to some people, it can be daunting to try to figure out how to change a lawn into an eco-friendly garden that will support so many types of wildlife. With this blog, I'm hoping to encourage others to take baby steps towards supporting our insect populations, including ALL our pollinators, as well as reduce the back-breaking work that people do to maintain these sterile lawns.
Our "extended" Savanna - we were going to burn it this year (it's 4 years old), but life happens and we didn't make the window. So instead, we mowed down the dead stuff and mulched all the leaves. It's ready to be a bee-haven again this year.
We currently own 23 acres here in Licking, Missouri. For a long time, I was focused on picking up the dead branches that had fallen from some of the trees. It was back-breaking work. It was hard. And during the summer, it was hot and, even after spraying myself with Deet, I would still end up with a tick or chigger bite as my reward for my hard work. We would wait for it to rain, and then when there was little chance of a fire spreading to the neighbor's hay fields, we would burn all the old, dead and decaying wood.
We planted 50 of these wild plums as mere twigs(purchased from George White Nursery) in 2008 / 2009. I still remember crawling through the ragweed that got taller than the twigs and cutting it back to let the small trees get some sunlight. Today, 32 of them survived and on average they stand at approx. 14-15 feet and have a plethora of blossoms in the spring, providing a lot of early pollen & food for the bees.
 The plants in the southern fields have started to turn green.
The western half of the southern field - mowed and raked - will possibly be burned again next year. It has been planted for 7 years.
The eastern half of the southern field. mowed & raked to remove the duff. Also planted 7 years ago.
After reading more about bees however, I have learned that some of them actually NEED this dead, decaying wood in order to survive.  They also need undisturbed soil, covered with dead leaves, etc.
When Bob mowed the fields, he accidentally killed this black snake. It makes me sad when a snake dies, but we left it in the field for any scavengers to partake. Poor guy...wondering why he didn't hear the thundering of the tractor and get out of the way.
So, no more bonfires here on Gobbler's Knob to burn limbs or dead trees. From now on, we'll be piling up the dead wood and letting it decay. The larger limbs from these piles will be used to create new brush piles and cover for the resident quail (and other incidental wildlife that takes advantage of the refuge.
A dead tree. It was struck by lightning and then the insects and woodpeckers finished it off. We'll push it over and it will be at the base of the rest of the pile, providing food & cover for the bees & insects to make use of it.
We trimmed some of the lower limbs on our trees for two reasons: 1) Bob can mow under the trees now without getting slapped in he head by a low limb and; 2) the hawks that come after my martins won't be able to use them as cover. They will be piled on top of the dead tree log above and given over to nature's use.
Small limbs & rubbish will be piled up for the insects to make use of.
This will take a little bit of muscle, so Bob will use the tractor to push it all up together. Then, we'll make a nice brush pile for quail cover next to it. I can't wait to see what kinds of insects move in!

More limbs to add to the pile.

Supporting the Ground Nesters

How can we support ground-nesting bees and other ground-nesting insects?
  1. Protect existing nesting sites (insects can be observed entering ground tunnels, small piles of soil often surround the entrances)
    • Do not disturb the soil (avoid tilling, digging, vehicular traffic)
    • Do not cover soil with mulch
    • Maintain existing vegetation, which is usually sparse, by removing strong-growing plants (shrubs, invasive weeds)
    • Nesting sites can be protected from predators like skunks and raccoons by covering the area with chicken wire
  2. Create man-made nesting sites for ground-nesting bees
    • In gardens, areas can be dedicated for nesting sites. Rock gardens are ideal as they usually have well-draining soil and low vegetation. Some areas need to be kept free of vegetation. Rocks and clumps of perennials are helpful as orientation for bees to find their nest entrances. Bees choose sunny locations for their nesting sites and prefer slopes exposed to the southeast, which warm up quickly in the morning.

Supporting Tunnel-nesting Bees

How can we support bees nesting in wood tunnels and hollow stems?
  • Leave dead trees standing as long as they are not a safety hazard.
  • Do not remove dead wood and fallen trees from forests
  • Pile up logs from cut trees (especially those containing burrows) to allow larvae of beetles, wood wasps and horntails to complete their life cycles, and to provide abandoned tunnels for nesting bees.
  • Do not remove plant stems of dormant perennials and grasses from garden beds until early spring, and leave removed stems in a loose piles for as long as possible to allow young bees to hatch from their nesting material.
  • Do not mow wild meadows more than once a year, ideally in early spring.

Shelter for Overwintering

It’s important to provide shelter for overwintering insects:
  • As much as possible, keep leaf litter in woodlands and garden beds where it falls.
  • Create stone, brush and wood piles as shelters for overwintering insects.
  • Wait to cut down old stems and clumps of perennials until late winter or early spring.

Table 1. Nesting locations of common bee and wasp genera

Bare patches of well-drained soil, most often sandy or silty loam that does not collapse when dry and is soft enough for digging, but some species nest in pure sand, others in river banks that are periodically inundated Mining Bees Andrena
Minute Mining Bees Perdita
Cellophane Bees Colletes inaequalis
Slender Sweat Bees Lasioglossum
Dark Sweat Bees Halictus
Green sweat Bees Agapostemon, Augochlora, Augochlorella
Digger Wasps Sphex
Horse Guard Stictia
Spider Wasps Entypus
Sand Wasps Bembix
 Wood and Stem-Nesters:
Tunnels in trees, logs, rotting wood, and also hollow stems of herbaceous plants and grasses, as well as wooden structures and old masonry Mason Bees Osmia
Yellow-faced Bees Hylaeus
Carder Bees Anthidium
Leafcutter Bees Megachile
Large Carpenter Bees Xylocopa
Small Carpenter Bees Ceratina
Resin Bees Anthidiellum, Dianthidium
Mason Wasps Euodynerus
Abandoned mouse nests, cavities in the soil, in trees and buildings, Bumble Bees Bombus
Paper Wasps Polistes
Yellow Jackets Vespula

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Purple Martin Season 2019 Has Begun

Two ASY male purple martins arrived on March 10, 2019 this year. This year's arrival is more back in line with my first 10 year average arrivals.

In all the years past, my martins had also arrived with the tree swallows, however, this year, a male tree swallow had actually arrived a week earlier. During the last few days the tree swallows have been swarming the nest boxes in the fields and my blue birds are not really thrilled with their arrivals.
They are such happy, cheerful little birds and love to fly up high with their bigger cousins. I was going to remove this perching pole this year, but since they seem to like it so much, I may have to leave it...I don't want to upset my fabulous sentries!
This year, I'm making more changes. A landlord decided he wanted to retire his colony, so I bought some of his equipment from him - namely another Super System. It is so much easier to do nest checks with the extended cages on these systems than it is with the round Deluxe gourd rack systems, so this year, I'm removing one of the Deluxe systems and by adding 4 more gourds to each Super system, I'll still be able to offer 84 gourds and my nest checks won't be so painful (literally - it was death by a thousand scratches in the round racks).

So, with this system, I'm designing the cages in the same way - since they work so well on the other racks. I'm extending the 4' gourd arms by adding an 18" aluminum angle arm. I drilled 2 holes to mount the extensions to the main arms, with another 2 holes on the very end, where I can mount the cage wire.
Then, I have laid a 6' piece of aluminum angle arms from corner-to-corner. We drilled holes in each end, so I can anchor them down with tie-wraps. This helps support the top cage wire, so it doesn't sag, and these arms are super-light.
Since I've removed one of the Deluxe round racks and I wanted to keep the same number of gourds, I added 1 gourd per arm on each rack, so I'm still at 84 gourds. For the end gourd, I replaced the straight arm with a 45 deg. arm, which effectively points the end gourd back inside the cage.
For this Super system above, I just replaced all the arms with the extra long arms I had purchased from Hilltop and have made it a perching rack / feeding tray / oyster -egg shell feeder. Bob was tired of seeing me stand on my 4-wheeler to try to fill the other tray on my old post, so we converted this one.
For now, I only have 10 martins here, so I'm taking my time and making sure I have everything the way I want it. Lesson-learned: it is super annoying to get into the heat of the summer with jumpers and not be able to easily put them back into their nests. This Great Horned Owl has made my life more difficult but as she has learned and adapted, so have I.
I'm also keeping the Deluxe gourd rack that I took down - you never know, I may change my mind when I retire and put it back up and expand my colony, but for now, I'm pretty happy with offering 84 gourds that are 100% protected from the owl, yet still being able to perform nest checks.
Lookout 2019 - here we come!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

MDC-Sponsored Purple Martin Event - March 9, 2019

John Miller, St. Louis - Forest Park Purple martin landlord & mentor, worked very hard and long to convince the MDC to host a purple martin event at their Conservation Center in Springfield for this past Saturday. He even coordinated with the Springfield News Leader to do a story about the event in advance to generate more interest. So, when he emailed me to let me know he had suffered a back injury and asked me to take his place, I thought he was surely kidding me. He had worked so hard for this...but he wasn't kidding and on Saturday, myself and Jeff Robinson, purple martin landlord and mentor from Rogersville, MO, took the stage in Springfield and, along with the MDC, we led 68 purple martin enthusiasts down the path to learning more about how to be a purple martin landlord.
We learned from a showing of hands that only about 20% of the folks there were already purple martin landlords. That means approximately 54 new landlords are now spreading out across western Missouri on their way to putting up new houses for purple martins!
Two and a half hours later, my voice was nearly gone, and Jeff and I were still fielding questions.
It was a great turnout!  Thank you to John Miller for providing Jeff and I with this opportunity and to the MDC for hosting this event! 
Following are all the pictures from the event: