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