Catching up

Summer is a busy time for gardeners, even though it has rained so much this July that we hardly needed to water anything aside from the pots, and our plants are thriving almost on their own.

Our garden looks great

Still, this channel has been quiet for a while. A lot has happened and was not recorded. We have a bit of catching up to do.

Already in May, a group of students along with their teacher and student teacher from the CUNY Language Immersion Program visited the garden. These students came from nine different countries (Guinea, Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras, Bangladesh, Yemen, China and Haiti), and English is their second language. During their classes, the students perfect their English and learn interesting things about the world around them at the same time. A field trip to our garden gave them the opportunity to see what we are up to and to talk with us about it. As a foreigner myself, I know how difficult and a little terrifying this can be.

The students learn what is crawling in our compost bin.

Here is what they saw: red wigglers, earth worms that turn kitchen scraps into organic fertilizer.

Later, one student wrote a small paragraph about his impression of the visit:

Garden of Roses

It was a beautiful sunny day. It was also the last day as a group, so we decided to go to Washington Square Park then to Laguardia Corner Garden to see the garden and Roses. Once we got there we saw a beautiful scenery of flowers. The gardeners were very kind and helpful. They welcomed and showed us around the garden. One gardener demonstrated to us how they feed bees, and they explained why bees are important. Another gardener showed us the bacterium [actually worms] that live inside the compost. After that they inspected many different species of roses that they have. My overall experience of the garden was pleasant. I have learned many useful information about garden and flowers. I highly recommend this place for friends. (Fahim)

These students are going to college this September. We wish them best of luck and great success!

Students from the CUNY Language Immersion Program pose under the rose arbor.

Of birds…

… and bees. In early spring, we placed a number of bird houses into our garden. In a city like ours, these are generally occupied by house sparrows (I wish, we had blue birds!)

Sparrows in the bird house under the crab apple tree

By mid spring, every bird house had tenants. Right now, the birds are raising their second brood of the year. When they feed their babies, even sparrows need more nutritious food than bread crumbs or seeds. They look for insects. Our sparrows have discovered a never ending supply of insects in the garden: the bee hive. The sparrow parents hang out near the hive entrance, snatch a bee, sometimes in mid flight, and carry it off. Sparrows are not the only birds that have learned about this convenient food source: A while ago, we observed a cardinal catching bees, too. Oh well…

A few days ago, the sparrow babies from the blue bird house fledged. We saw see them hop about on the ground. Flying was clearly not yet their favorite way of getting around, although they can fly when they must (like when a photographer gets too close).

Tow young sparrows. Their beak has still the bright yellow edge and their mouth is also yellow. This feature makes the beaks irresistible to parent birds and tells them where to put these bees.

A little earlier, a family of young starlings visited the garden. They are grey-brown instead of shiny black and almost as cute as baby sparrows. Starlings also nest in cavities and could theoretically move into our larger bird houses. So far, we have not seen starling tenants, though. The parents of these starlings must have build their nest in a different hole. Maybe there is a hollow trunk in one of the trees nearby, or they found a man-made nesting place.

A young starling tried to get to some water that had collected in an empty planter.

It is amazing how well starlings, sparrows, robins, pigeons, doves and even cardinals and hawks have adapted to living in a city as big and busy as New York City. All of them seem to thrive among us humans and our buildings, roads and small parks. Good for us who enjoy watching them!

Make Music New York 2018

Last Thursday was June 21 and thus time for Make Music New York. For us, it meant to get treated to a performance by the Nevermind Orchestra. With their fun brass sound, the band attracted listeners of all ages into the garden and to the fence.

The Nevermind Orchestra plays for an audience inside and outside of the garden.

Especially children were enchanted by the music. I witnessed how a little boy would rather listen some longer instead of going out to get ice cream. And a little girl joined the band with her toy instrument.

The band was joined by an aspiring young musician

It was a perfect evening with balmy temperatures. The garden looked lush and pretty after a rainy night. By the time the band had finished its set, the first fireflies came out. Happy Summer everyone!

National Pollinator Week

This blog has been a lot about bees lately, and I will stick with this subject for just a little longer, because this week is National Pollinator Week.
You may know that without honey bees, there would be no almonds, peaches, apples, cherries, blueberries or strawberries in our super markets. Bees need to visit and pollinate the flowers of all of these plants, or there will be no fruit.

However, there are many more pollinators than just honey bees. In fact, in our garden, most flowers are visited by other insects, while the honey bees fly off to richer pastures (right now, to the linden trees across the street).

Over the last few days, I went to the garden in the morning and at night to document which pollinators I can find on our flowers.

Leaf cutter bees. Females collect pollen on their bellies, as can be seen in the top middle photo. On the bottom right is a leaf that has been “punched” by a leaf cutter bee.

I found the first signs of a different pollinator by looking at leaves, not flowers. Some leaves of of our roses had holes in them that looked as if someone had put a hole puncher to them. This is the work of leaf cutter bees (Megachile spp.). These bees do not live in colonies or hives. Every female makes her own nest inside of a hollow stem. She carefully lines it with the leaf circles that are missing from our roses, provisions this nest with pollen, lays an egg and seals the cell. It is thought that the leaf-lining prevents the growth of molds and bacteria that could spoil the food for the bee’s offspring. Our leaf cutter bees are about as large as a honey bee, but they are easily distinguished: while honey bees collect pollen on their legs, leaf cutter bees collect it on their bellies.

Long-horned bees. The upper right photo shows a female with short antennae. The bees with long antennae are males. On the bottom left, a male has just landed on a female. At night, male long-horned bee are asleep on their favorite sunflowers.

Since the first sunflower relatives opened their flowers, I always find Agile Long-horned Bees (Melissodes agilis). They seem to be really partial to flowers of the Aster family, and this is where they hang out for eating, foraging and for sex. In the morning, I could observe how males dive-bombed at females that were sitting on the flowers. A tussle ensued and both bees tumbled into the vegetation. Like the leaf cutter bees, long-horned bees are solitary. Therefore, there are as many males as females around. Males are distinguished by the very long antennae that gave these bees their name. At night, I found male long-horned bees huddled together on a sunflower. Sometimes there were one or two, once I saw as many as five. Long-horned bees build their nest in the soil.

Two tiny masked bees on a rose flower.

While long horn bees are also about the size of a honey bee, a careful look at the beautiful old garden rose “Apple Blossom” revealed that its flowers were visited by tiny black bees. These are masked bees (Hylaeus sp.), another species of bees that do not live in colonies. They build their nests hollow dead twigs. There is something to be said for a garden that is not perfectly tidy!

Bumble bees on milkweed and lavender.

Many kinds of flowers are visited by the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens). Bumble bees live in colonies, have a single queen and usually build a nest in the ground, often in an abandoned rodent burrow. I saw quite a few bumble bees and suspect that their nest is somewhere in our garden.

An Eastern carpenter bee rests on a hydrangea flower.

While the masked bees were the tiniest bees I could find, the largest one was an eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica). Carpenter bees build their nests in holes that they chew into wood. Many home-owners are not happy when they see these big insects hover near their houses. We don’t have to worry: our shed is made of metal and  carpenter bees come to our garden only to forage.

A Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) enjoys lavender nectar.

Not all pollinators are bees. On my morning walk, I also saw butterflies. Finally, there are moths, wasps, flies and beetles that visit flowers and play a role in pollination. If we are lucky, we may even see a hummingbird.

Flies are pollinators, too. This one sits on a celery flower.

It is wonderful to know that all of these diverse insects come to our small patch of green in the middle of New York City!

The bee story, a sequel

Our beekeepers had been anxious about the queen-less hive. Another inspection revealed no sign of a fertile queen. Even the previous queen cells were gone. Without eggs or young larvae, the workers could not raise a new queen either. This was not good. Without a queen, the colony cannot exist.

Bee keepers have some tricks in their hat to revive a hive and help the unemployed bees, too. One of them goes like this: take eggs from a thriving hive and put them into the queen-less hive. The bees will then build a new queen cell, carefully move an egg into this cell and feed the larva with royal jelly. Also: move unemployed worker bees to a hive that can use their labor.

Last Sunday, Ray came back to do just that. This time, there were 5 of us helping, as we had to open both hives, check for frames with eggs and keep all bees from getting too upset by keeping the smoker going. Ray first opened the old “white” hive that currently doesn’t have a queen.

Opening the white hive

A frame full of honey

We found that, not surprisingly, these bees had not been lazy. Since there was no brood to take care of, they had made a huge amount of honey. In fact, almost all frames contained only cells that were filled with honey. The box was correspondingly heavy. It needed two people to lift it. A quick search on the internet reveals that bees must visit two million flowers and fly around 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey. This box contained many pounds of honey. Isn’t this totally amazing?

We were glad that our bees were so productive. But we would have been even happier, had we found larvae or eggs instead. These were present in our new “green” hive (along with several frames filled with the sugar water that we had fed them).

Brood cells: In the middle and bottom of the left photo, white larvae are visible inside of open cells. These larvae are still being fed. The other cells contain pupae and have been capped with wax. In the right photo, some larger cells with dome-caps can be seen on the edge of the frame. These have drones inside. Drones are bigger and twice as heavy as worker bees and need more space inside of their cell. A worker bee spends 9 days as larva and another 9 days as pupa. Queens develop a bit faster and drones take a bit longer.

Ray selected a couple of frames with a lot of eggs to move from the green hive to the white hive. We would then move an entire box with honey frames and workers from the white hive to the green hive to give these ladies something else to do.

This swapping of brood and workers has one problem, though: Bees are very loyal to their queen and defend their hive against intruders. To simply mix bees from two hives could result in a massacre, even if the bees come from the same hive initially, like ours. Therefore, we had to make sure to brush off the bees from the frames with eggs before placing them into the white hive. For adding the workers to the green hive, we resorted to a trick. Because hive recognition depends on scent, bees can get used to their new environment as long as this happens slowly. A sheet of newspaper placed between boxes containing two kinds of bees keeps them apart for a while until they are adapted and chew the barrier apart.

Preparing the green hive to receive a box with bees from the white hive. Excess wax has to be scraped off. The Sunday New York Times lies ready to serve as barrier between the boxes.

So this is what Ray did for our bees. He taped a page of the Sunday newspaper over the frames with the green-hive-bees and placed a box with bees and honey from the white hive on top. Then both hives were reassembled. It took the bees a while to calm down and go inside. The new bees on the green hive had an entrance on the top of the hive, as they were, for the time being, kept from using the bottom entrance. After another hour or so, they had reoriented themselves more or less. We now had to hope that the foreign bees were accepted into the green hive. Most of all, we were hoping that the new eggs in the white hive would be raised to become queens.

The first part worked quickly. By the end of the next day, some strange grey-green fuzz covered the ground under the hive. A close inspection revealed that this was the shredded New York Times. Also, all bees seemed to use the bottom entrance to the hive. A couple of days later, we opened the hive again to remove the paper. But the bees had done a very thorough job on their own. Every bit of newspaper in their reach was gone.

Shredded newspaper between leaves and some wax under the hive. The bees did a perfect job removing the foreign barrier.

It will be a while until we know whether the second aim of this operation also worked. It takes about 3 weeks until a new queen hatches and then, again, she needs to go on her mating flight and come back to the hive. Meanwhile, the workers in the white hive are bringing in more nectar every day. By the way: we got a chance to sample the honey. It tastes very floral and mild.

One of our ladies collects rose pollen