Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lorquin's Admiral Butterfly in the Pollinator Garden

     In our last blog, I wrote about butterflies.  I remarked that our warm sunny spring was going to provide great opportunities for butterfly sightings.  This week we had more evidence of this.

     Nancy was in her pollinator garden early one morning, watering the plants.  The sun had just come out:  lo and behold what should appear but a Lorquin’s Admiral butterfly.  This is one of our common June butterflies;  it can be found in city backyards, often around apple trees, where the males defend the trees and allow females to lay eggs on the leaves.

     This butterfly perched briefly on Nancy’s hose and then moved over to a compacted mole hill, now wet from Nancy’s watering.  You can see it as it flies in and starts to do a series of complex butterfly behaviors.

•  First, it pumps its wings open and closed.  When I saw that I knew it must have just gotten up:  this is a butterfly behavior in early morning, akin to how we humans stretch as we get out of bed.  They stretch their wings, pumping hemolymph (an insect’s version of blood) from their bodies into their wings, getting ready for flight.  
•  Secondly, it carefully positions its body to receive the strongest rays of the sun.  Butterflies are solar powered and rely on the sun’s light and heat to warm them up enough to get ready for action.  It has placed itself in such a way as to collect heat right on its body and the flight muscles just underneath.  This  helps prepare the animal for a day of flying, feeding and mating.
•  Finally it chose to do all these things on a pile of wet soil.  Butterflies are known to do something called “mud-puddling”;  the males in particular gather in clubs around muddy puddles, stick their drinking straw (aka proboscis) into the slurry and drink in mineral rich water.  It seems as if they especially need sodium, which is otherwise in short supply in their 100% nectar diet.  Here is a link that talks about this behavior:

     Nancy had never seen this butterfly behave in this way in her garden.  This is yet another example of how nature can show us amazing things, even when we are in the middle of ordinary tasks.  


All photos & videos by Nancy Partlow
The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Pyle

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cause and Effect: Nelson's Hairstreak Butterflies

    In this late winter to spring, we have had a long series of sunny, dry days.  A few weeks ago I remarked to my fellow blog naturalists that with these conditions, this was going to be a going to be a good year for butterflies.  And so it has proved to be…

    Nancy was in our backyard on one sunny afternoon, goggling over all the pollinators that were clustered on our Ceanothus shrub.  She was focused on all the bees, but suddenly noticed a small brown butterfly, its proboscis extended, drinking deeply of the nectar provided by the tiny blue flowers.  She got some great photographs and came back in the house to share her discovery with me.  It was a Nelson’s or Cedar Hairstreak butterfly Callophrys nelsoni.

     This is a life butterfly for me, meaning I’d never seen it before.  I was very surprised to find it in our small city backyard.  The thing about butterflies is that they tend to flit into a garden, grab some nectar and move on.  But if you provide a key host plant for that butterfly, they might actually stick around your yard.  That is what happen with this Hairstreak.  .

     It turns out this hairstreak butterfly lays its eggs only on cedar trees.  The males will perch all day on cedar branches, waiting for females to come by.  When she arrives, they will mate, and then the female will lay single eggs on the tips of cedar branches.  This hairstreak uses both our native cedars Western Red and Incense Cedars, but will also use Cedar of Lebanon, native to the middle East.

     In our front yard is a old, very tall Cedar of Lebanon.  It is facing south and gets full sun, conditions which butterflies love.  We have lived at our place for eight years now;  it is my guess that in all these years, the Hairstreaks have been using our cedar as a host plant, then diving down into our pollinator garden to feed.   And we had never known about this butterfly.

     We are nature watchers and we are excellent observers.  Yet until this year, we missed the Hairstreak butterflies.  It just goes to show that there are always new things in nature and in our own backyard, to provide a rich source of amazement and learning...


•  All photos by Nancy Partlow
•  A great blog on Washington Butterflies:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Rhododendrons and Bumble Bees

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©

For most of my life, I was afraid of bees.  This made my childhood in our suburban backyard a fraught affair.   You see, my Mom loved rhododendrons, and planted them in different corners of our yard.  I dreaded bloom time, because the rhody bushes would come alive with clouds of visiting bumble bees.  I devised mental maps in my head of relative zones of safety throughout the yard to navigate me as far from these shrubs as possible.
Nancy with Brinker the dog, and her mother's Jean Marie Montague

So I find it amusing that when I now hear the buzzing of bumble bees in a rhododendron bush, I make a beeline toward it instead of in the opposite direction.

Janet’s 2008 study of local bumble bees was a turning point for me.  I was at first highly dubious of her work with stinging insects, but the more she shared her newfound knowledge with me, the more I became fascinated by these little creatures.

When I eventually started to take pictures of bumble bees inside rhododendron and azalea flowers, I made a surprise discovery that finally cracked the code of why bumble bees are so attracted to these plants.

First off, the flowers of many rhododendron and azalea plants are chock full of nectar.   When in bloom, these shrubs are like neighborhood fueling stations for bumble bees.  The bees’ abdomens pulsate like little basting bulbs as they suction the precious sugar solution from the nectar repositories deep in the base of the flowers. 

But the other thing these blossoms offer is pollen; which I accidently discovered while taking bumble bee photos at the magenta-colored azaleas in my neighbor’s yard.
I kept hearing the bees making funny noises as they landed on flower after flower.  I was perplexed by what they were doing.  On closer inspection, I noticed that azalea (and rhododendron) anthers are little “pollen pots”  jammed full of bumble bee larvae food. 
The openings to these pots are really tiny, so to expediently “get at” the pollen, the bumble bees were using a technique at which they excel: buzz pollination.  Grabbing hold of a pollen pot, a bumble bee purposefully vibrates its flight muscles (but not its wings) at a frequency that makes the anther eject its contents. 
Bombus mixtus bumble bee buzz-pollinating
an azalea anther
Similar to pulling the ripcord on a tightly-packed parachute, the pollen, connected to viscous “threads”, emits from the pot like a baby spitting up milk.

The bumble bee quickly gathers up these threads, but sometimes filaments of pollen festoon the bee’s body. 
Other bee species glean pollen from rhododendrons, as well.  I’ve watched solitary ground-nesting bees extract the pollen directly from the anthers using their mandibles.  They too are gathering food for their larval young.


Bumble bees utilize rhododendrons in one additional way that is still a mystery to me.  When the plants are near the end of their bloom periods, the bees seem irresistibly drawn to the bases of the flowers (calyxes), even if the blossoms are falling off, or are gone completely.  Are the bees simply going after the last dregs of nectar, or (and this is sheer speculation on my part), could they possibly be collecting some sort of substance on the calyxes? Honey bees collect tree resin for its antimicrobial properties, to help line their nests.  Maybe bumble bees do something similar, especially since all parts of a rhododendron are poisonous, even, apparently, the nectar:  

Whatever the bees are doing, this activity is not without its risks.  Anyone who has ever dead-headed rhododendron flowers (something we had to do quite often as kids), knows that certain rhody varieties have very sticky calyxes.  One day, while visiting a friend’s house, he pointed out several bumble bees that were completely stuck to calyxes on one of his rhododendron bushes.   

The poor things were struggling mightily to no avail, and we were reluctant to try to help them for fear of being stung.

Taking photos of bumble bees on rhodies and azaleas has been a transformative experience for me. Besides learning about how the bees interact with the flowers, I have gained a much greater appreciation for these previously-avoided plants, and for the beautiful world that pollinators inhabit. 



Thursday, May 14, 2015

The West Olympia Pollinator Pub Crawl

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©

Many eco-conscious people are starting to plant gardens for native pollinators around their homes, businesses and neighborhoods. This is a good thing. Native pollinators of all stripes are being greatly impacted by loss of habitat, pesticide/herbicide use, and climate change. Yet with a bit of forethought, even the most urban of landscapes can be made more pollinator friendly.

For example, there are some really great roadside pollinator attractions in west Olympia along the Olympic Way/Harrison Avenue corridor. These two streets are extremely busy with cars, yet at certain times of the year, especially in May and June, they’re very busy with bees as well.

A few years ago, my clever sister Janet coined the phrase “pollinator pubs” to describe specific types or groupings of plants which, when in bloom, are highly attractive to nectar- and pollen-seeking insects. At the time, she was scouting out sites for her 2008 research project on native bumble bees. Her basic criterion was for places close to home, accessible, and with easily viewable bees. She was surprised to realize that some locales on Harrison and Olympic Way fit the bill.

Her first discovery was the beautiful rhododendron stands at Woodruff Park. Spring bumble bees love rhododendrons because they have deep, rich nectaries and cunning little pollen-filled anthers. When in bloom, the huge Woodruff Park bushes are alive with spring-emergent bumble bees, predominated by the species Bombus melanopygus. When standing next to these shrubs in full flower, it is made abundantly clear that for this brief moment in time, bumble bees own this place and human beings are but barely-tolerated intruders in their ephemeral kingdom.

Earlier in the spring, this same site welcomes newly-emerged queen bumble bees to the lovely crocus plantings scattered around the park, as profiled in Janet's blog called The Crocus Pantry from March of 2009.

Another good pollinator site is the lower roundabout on Olympic Way. Years ago, a resident living next to the road planted a hedge of several different varieties of rhododendrons. Every spring, these rhodies create a beautiful wall of color for anyone driving or walking up the 4th Avenue Bridge. While it is difficult to observe bees on these plants, below them a row of ceanothus bushes nestles against a cement wall.


Flowering in an unearthly shade of blue, pollinators flock to these shrubs for the copious nectar and white pollen the flowers produce. Bumble bees scramble over zillions of tiny blossoms utilizing buzz pollination to more quickly collect the precious food granules for hungry larvae back at the nest.  These ceanothus bushes were heavily frost-damaged by last year's winter cold snaps, but they appear to be coming back nicely.

Bombus melanopygus on ceanothus

Seven Oars Park is surprisingly, not a great place to see pollinators, except perhaps in March when the large red-flowering currant shrubs are in bloom. Frenetic nearby vehicle traffic probably scares off any hummingbirds that might otherwise fight over this great nectar source, but the occasional queen bumble bee can be observed stoking up on the racemes of this early spring bloomer.

Olympia Coffee Roaster II has a nice stand of orange poppies and white daisies that add a lovely color accent to a rather barren stretch of Harrison Avenue. Although poppies are less attractive to pollinators than many other plants, I’ve seen Bombus vosnesenskii bumble bees busily floating between poppy blossoms to collect pollen at this location. I really appreciate businesses like this that plant flowering pollinator gardens along their street frontages. It adds so much visual interest and attractiveness to a neighborhood, and extends a warm welcome to other species that share our community.  

West Central Park on the corner of Harrison and Black Lake Blvd. has just recently installed a pollinator garden. I look forward to seeing the different types of pollinating insects that will frequent this site as the plantings become established over the next few years.

My sister Janet turned me on to another great pollinator pub at her place of business, Westside Wellness, on Kenyon Street just off Harrison Avenue. She called me one day and said, “Nance, you’ve got to check out the cotoneaster next to the parking lot. It’s just crazy with all kinds of bees.” She was right. Cotoneaster has a multitude of teensy pink flowers that are shallow open cups, which makes them easily accessible to bees of all tongues lengths. This has the effect of drawing in nearly every known species of local bumble bee, in addition to many other types of pollinating bees and flies. One year at this site I experienced the highest number, and most varied species of bumble bees I’ve ever seen anywhere. I literally didn’t know where to look there were so many of them.
As if that isn’t enough, there is also stand of white-flowering cotoneaster planted along the Westside Wellness property line right next to the drive-through lane of the Anchor Bank next door. These shrubs are also very busy with bees, and for some reason, pollinators pause a few seconds longer at each flower than with the pink variety, making it easier to observe their behavior. An added benefit is that the insects are much more readily seen against the paler inflorescences.

Ground-nesting bee on cotoneaster

Ceanothus and a deep-blue flowering rosemary round out the insect-friendly nature of this site, making it a pollinator pub extraordinaire. I think the fact that this is the only place I’ve ever seen a Brown Elfin butterfly in town confirms that view. I watched a Brown Elfin laying eggs on cotoneaster leaves there recently.

Brown Elfin butterfly on cotoneaster

I doubt that pollinator appeal was even considered when these plantings were installed. These are all tough, drought-tolerant species planted on a non-irrigated south-facing slope. That they are major pollinator attractors is probably incidental. However, it just goes to show what is possible for even the most inhospitable of environments.

Speaking of which, another great spring pollinator site on Harrison is the “hell strip” between the parking lot and sidewalk at Mud Bay pet supply store. One day in May a few years ago, a swathe of purple caught my eye as I drove by. I just had to stop, knowing that lavender is primo pollinator territory. I wasn’t disappointed.

When in flower, this particular array of Spanish lavender is busy, busy, busy with newly-minted bumble bees just out of the nest. As their pelts glow vividly in bright hues of red, yellow, orange and black, the bees hum with vitality and purpose amongst the dark-violet plumes. Bombus melanopygus males in their brilliant regalia, (they are consorts to queens, after all!), are especially gorgeous.

Male Bombus melanopygus on Spanish lavender.
Bombus vosnesenskii worker on Spanish lavender.
One final pollinator pub along the Harrison/Olympic Way corridor is Bark and Garden Plant Nursery. Because of its large concentration of flowering plants over several months, B. & G is a place to see bumble bees when you can’t see them anywhere else.

It is therefore ironic that this nursery continues to sell neonicotinoid pesticides, which mounting evidence indicates are contributing to the precipitous decline of pollinators in this country and worldwide. Bark and Garden, Olympia’s largest remaining locally-owned nursery, is a place to go when you want to figure out which non-native perennials and annuals bumble bees favor. If you visit, you might ask the owner to “go organic” as a favor to bees, the earth and you.

This brings our tour of specific west side watering holes to a close. If you decide to check out to any of these locales, please be mindful that a couple of them are businesses with small parking lots. I’m thinking particularly of Mud Bay and Westside Wellness. When either of these lots are near full, please return later so that patrons have a place to park. Thanks.
The result of bumble bee pollination

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bed and Breakfast for Bumble Bees

©Words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow
Phrases in red text are links to videos.
I used to turn my nose up at crocuses.  I thought they were just another species of over-bred nursery flower that sits there doing nothing. Turns out I was wrong.  Five years ago Janet wrote a blog about her experience with a queen bumble bee using a crocus blossom in her yard as an overnight hotel:
I was totally charmed by this story and wanted to have the same experience for myself. To this end, I bought and planted some crocus corms in a sunny location in my garden.  For the past several winters I’ve eagerly awaited the emergence of the flowers and for a queen bumble bee to choose one of them as a sleeping bag.  This week it finally happened.  It was the coolest thing!

Around four o’clock one afternoon, I went outside to check the crocus patch and was excited to see a queen Bombus vosnesenskii bumble bee lying inert inside the slowly-closing petals of a striped purple crocus blossom.

The day had been unseasonably warm, but the queen had sensed the approaching  darkness of a cold winter night, and had chosen a clever hiding place to protect herself from the elements and predators. She wasn’t asleep, but had entered into a semi-torpid state to conserve energy.  She had picked this particular blossom as a bed and breakfast, knowing that crocus flowers shut up at night and are a rich source of nectar and pollen.

The queen lay there until morning, when dappled sunlight gently shone upon the dew-covered flower, gradually warming its petals and the insect swaddled within.   

It took a few hours for the petals to sufficiently open to reveal the still-torpid queen, her slightly-twitching legs indicating that life was returning to her body.  

During the night, she had changed position inside the blossom, and now her legs were wrapped around the flower’s stamen.   Nourishing orange pollen grains coated the hairs of her body. 

Sunlight had not yet penetrated deeply inside the flower’s cup, so eventually the groggy bee laboriously dragged herself to the edge of a petal where she lay soaking up the life-giving solar warmth. 

It wasn’t until nearly noon that the bee finally started to move in earnest, crawling to the next flower to eagerly drink nectar and rub stamen pollen onto her belly hairs.

Janet (who was visiting me that day) and I speculated on what the belly pollen behavior was all about.  I thought the queen might be gathering food to eat later, to help her rebuild the stores of body fat she had depleted during a long underground hibernation. But Janet suggested a different theory, that since pollen is full of antimicrobial ingredients, perhaps the bee was using it as a type of medicine protectant for her body, especially since she had so recently emerged from the soil.  Or, maybe the queen had already found a place to build her nest and was gathering pollen to lay her first brood of eggs upon.

It was about this time that I caught sight of another insect crawling out of a nearby crocus, and was amazed to realize that a second queen bumble bee, this one a red, yellow and black Bombus melanopygus, had also used one of my crocus flowers as a B & B.

The previous evening, I had placed a 4-inch potted heath plant near the crocuses, knowing that with its masses of tiny nectar-filled flowers, heath is an important food source for early-season bumble bees.

The melanopygus queen, her body caked with yellow crocus pollen, flew straight to the heath and started drinking. 

Success!  This gardening for wildlife stuff is really great.

Pollinator gardening provides many such experiences of discovery.  It is also a way to welcome back into our lives the myriad wonderful creatures who previously inhabited  the spaces we now occupy on earth.

I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
Additional video:

After fully warming up, the Bombus vosnesenskii queen nectars on crocus blossoms:
Other resources:
About bee torpor:

Long before crocuses and heath became popular landscape plants in human settlements, bumble bee species had evolved over millennia to survive in native plant ecosystems. This article from England gives an idea of how queen bumble bees might survive in those situations: 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Salamanders and Frogs on the Move

Our favorite amphibian pond in daylight hours
     Last night Glen and I went on a herp walk. “Herp" refers to herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians:  in this case, salamanders and frogs.  We wrote in our blog at Thanksgiving about our driving ambition to see a big night: one of those special times when herds of salamanders and/or frogs migrate into the breeding ponds for the spring.  We haven’t had a big night yet, but we are definitely seeing signs of movement.  

     In pursuit of this obsession, we’ve been going out about once a week, whenever the weather looks promising.  Last night’s weather was primo:  temperature 51 degrees, half an inch of rain in the last 20 hours and when we left the house, coming down in sheets.  This is amphibian migration weather.

      We drove out to one of our favorite sites not far from our house:  on the east side of this country road are some healthy freshwater ponds, while on the west side of the road is a dense patch of evergreen trees.  Many of our local amphibians live a two part life;  in fall and winter they hide out in sword ferns, under rocks or rotten wood  or in rodent burrows deep in these evergreen forests.  But come mid-late winter, with warming temps, increasing daylight and  a Pineapple Express rain storm right out of tropical Hawaii, the amphibians are lured out of their winter homes and head across the road to the breeding ponds. These seasonal migrations lured us too, out of our warm house on a nasty winter night.

     Bundled up in rain gear, layers of fleece, reflective vests and juggling flashlights, we walked the road between the woods and the breeding ponds.  Right away we saw our first amphibian; a Northwestern Salamander Ambystoma gracile leaving the woods and heading across to the pond.  

Northwestern Salamander Ambystoma gracile
     You can identify this salamander by several key field marks:  it is a uniform dun brown on top and white-gray underneath.  It has fat parotoid glands at the base of the jaw on either side:  these glands have a concentration of pores capable of excreting a milky mixture of poisons and irritants as a defense against predators.  Northwestern Salamanders are also quite stout and have strongly marked grooves along their ribs.
      We turned it over to check its gender:  it squirmed and did not make the job easy but we saw that it was a male by the swollen genitalia at the base of the tail.  

Northern Red-legged Frog Rana aurora
     Further on Glen was surprised to see our first frog of the season.  This was a Northern Red-legged Frog Rana aurora . It played possum as we walked up, but was docile and cooperative as we moved it off the road and over the pond.  Up until a couple of years ago, I thought our only local species was the Pacific Chorus frog.  When we saw our first Northern Red-legged frog a couple of years ago, it was a real thrill.  This frog reminded us of that first sighting.

   We continued to walk down the road.  This road is well-traveled and on this night,  we had to move aside for more than 20 cars ( I was very happy for our reflective vests). It’s obvious that cars are heavy users of this road:  we counted 25 or more carcasses of amphibians that failed to make a safe crossing.  We saw one squashed Northwestern salamander female; we knew she was a female because as she was hit she extruded a jellylike mass full of unfertilized eggs.  

     Northwestern salamanders may live five years.  They show site fidelity, which means they like salmon always return to the same waters to breed and produce young.  Twice a year they must make these migrations:  from woods to ponds and back again.  This means as many as ten crossings in their lifespan.  For “our” salamanders at this pond, this is an incredibly risky lifestyle.  As we walked this road and kept a watchful eye, Glen remarked on the depressing nature of this field work and I concurred.

Amherst MA, Henry Street Salamander Tunnels
     But there is a different perspective.  At least on that night, we were there.  We helped some amphibians cross and we are bearing witness to their lives and their struggles.  Our local Stream Team is starting to develop a database of high risk road crossings for these amphibians; the information we collect will be added to this database.  I have a vision:  maybe we can develop teams of volunteer amphibian stewards, posting them on high risk roads throughout the winter.  Maybe people driving these roads at night will become more alert and aware.  Maybe city and county planners can learn to build roads around wetlands, or to make bridges over wetlands, which would allow amphibians to safely cross underneath.  

     The night got darker and wetter.  We returned to our warm house, where I sat by the furnace and watched steam rise from my sodden clothes.  I thought of the amphibians we had seen, who heed the ancient call of their kind, leaving the safety of the woods for the breeding ponds and for future generations.  On these dark nights, I pray for their safe passage.   

•  Northwestern salamander photo by D. Hagin from Washington Herp Atlas, (The Washington Heptofaunal Atlas Project).
•  Northern Red-Legged Frog photo by Nancy Partlow
•  California Herps - Salamander Life History,  Amphibians and Reptiles of California
•  Searching for Salamanders and Frogs, by Rob Schanz, Chehalis River Council,  Rob surveys for amphibians for Stream Team.