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  • Protecting Pollinators

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    Tags: pollinator, pollinators, bees, butterflies

    Created: 7/12/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    Bee on flower

    If you love pollinators as much as we do, you’re probably aware of the recent population decline of many pollinator species. The fact that 75% of our food is made possible because of pollination from butterflies, bees and other species has made this problem an international priority. Groups like the International Pollinator Initiative are working to highlight the need for public participation and awareness.

    Deb Lahey with Fidel Marquez

    It’s become a local priority as well. On Earth Day of this year, we were happy to host ComEd as the company announced its plan to improve Monarch butterfly breeding areas around its transmission lines. Fidel Marquez, Senior Vice President of Governmental and External Affairs for ComEd, joined us to announce ComEd's plan to increase the mixture of milkweed plants used in its prairie restoration program by more than 30%. Meanwhile, at the Nature Museum, we are continually working to protect and reestablish populations of locally imperiled butterflies. Our efforts are to coordinate the restoration of their native habitat, to propagate imperiled butterflies in our Conservation Lab for the purpose of reintroduction, and to monitor butterfly populations throughout the state with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network citizen science program.

    Regal Fritillary butterfly on flower Swamp Metalmark butterfly on flower

    Two native species we continually work within our Butterfly Restoration Project are the Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), and the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum). The swamp metalmark, endangered in Illinois, is a rare butterfly that can only be found in wetlands. Its populations are small and intensely local in nature. In contrast, the Regal Fritillary was once common in tallgrass prairies across the country but now is rarely seen east of the Mississippi River. In fact, it is now threatened in Illinois. The Regal Fritillary was recently designated a priority species by the Chicago Wilderness Council with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum as the lead partner to coordinate regional efforts to conserve this species. We are also lead partners on two other species, the Monarch Butterfly and the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, and are currently working with Chicago Wilderness developing strategies to protect these species throughout the region.

    We are also doing what we can to help out one of our most effective pollinators, the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) by hosting a number of beehives on our green roof. You will see our bees' hard at work when you visit our outdoor exhibits Nature Trails and the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden.

    Wondering how you can work to help pollinators? Here are a few easy ways to start:

    • Plant more native species and pollinator-friendly plants in your yard and garden. Check out this brochure to help you get started.
    • Avoid using pesticides whenever possible. Remove pests by hand and use non-systemic pesticides such as insecticidal soap if necessary.
    • Support the upkeep of our own Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden as it continues to serve as a way-station and food source for Monarchs and other species.
    • Don’t use insecticides on bee swarms. If you notice a swarm on your property, contact a local honey co-op (like the Chicago Honey Co-Op) and a beekeeper will come and remove it from your property.

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

    Rose Pest Solutions logo

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  • Bees, Wasps and Flies: Telling the Difference Between the Pollinators in Your Garden

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    Tags: bee, bees, pollinators, plants for pollinators, wasps

    Created: 7/12/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    The plants in our prairie and Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden are in full bloom. If you have a garden of your own, you’ve probably noticed it, too. You’ve probably also noticed lots insect buzzing around, including bees. Although the fear of bees is one of the most common fears, you shouldn’t be startled or scared to see bees buzzing around your garden.

    Bees are vital pollinators. They are responsible for as much as $5.2 billion of agriculture production in the US alone, and 75% of all the food we eat benefits from pollination. Seeing them in your garden means that they recognize your plants as a food source, and it means that you’re doing your part to help pollinators. That said, there are some other flying insects that are easily mistaken for bees. While most are pollinators, some are more effective than others. Here’s a quick guide to help you identify who has been buzzing around your flowers.

    Bee on flower

    Honey bees (Apis mellifera)

    • Honey bees are wonderful pollinators of a wide variety of flowers in the garden.
    • They are usually not aggressive. Bees that are out foraging among flowers for nectar and pollen usually sting only if stepped on or swatted. They are more aggressive if you approach their nest as stinging is primarily a defense to protect their brood. If they’re in your garden, you should be okay as they are happy minding their own business. If a swarm gathers, contact the Chicago Honey Co-Op for removal.
    • Workers can only sting once, and they are reluctant to do so.

    Bumble Bee on flower

    Bumble bees (Bombus spp.)

    • Some flowers, such as snapdragons, are much better pollinated by bumble bees because they can do buzz pollination where they forcefully vibrate and shake the pollen off of the anthers.
    • They are usually not aggressive. They nest underground, and may sting in defense if directly handled or if nest is threatened.
    • They can sting more than once so be mindful of nests. Try to accommodate them as much as possible, if they've chosen your garden or yard as their nesting point.

    A subspecies of paper wasp   A subspecies of paper wasp
    Photos: Bruce Marlin (CC BY-SA 2.5) / Bombman356 (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

    Paper wasps (HYMENOPTERA: Vespidae)

    • While they will visit flowers to drink nectar and can be responsible for some pollination, paper wasps are primarily carnivores. They can help take care of garden pests and do eat other insects, such as caterpillars.
    • Paper wasps such as yellow jackets can be aggressive if threatened or if you approach their nest. They can be aggravated by swatting.
    • Can sting multiple times and more painful than that of a honey bee.

    A sweat bee

    Sweat bees (HYMENOPTERA: Halictidae)

    • There are many native species that fall under the name "sweat bee". All species are important pollen feeders and pollinators of native, wild plants.
    • They can be attracted to perspiration, hence their name.
    • They are a smaller species and are mostly solitary.
    • Likely only sting if disturbed, not very painful feels like a slight prick.

    A hover flySputniktilt (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Hover flies (DIPTERA: Syrphidae)

    • While not a bee or wasp at all these mimics can be important pollinators of plants that benefit most from fly pollination. The maggots are also voracious predators known as aphid lions and are excellent at controlling garden pests like aphids.
    • Can be seen hovering around flowers and sometimes will land on your skin.
    • Cannot sting as they do not possess stingers.

    A leaf-cutter beegailhampshire (CC-BY-2.0)

    Leaf-cutter bees (HYMENOPTERA: Megachilidae)

    • Leaf-cutter bees are another important native pollinator. Larger than sweat bees, but smaller than honey bees, these bees collect pollen on their bellies and will cut circular sections from leaves to build their nests from.
    • A solitary species.
    • Can sting more than once but are not aggressive and unlikely to sting.

    A cicada killer

    Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus)

    • While these incredibly large wasps will visit flowers and feed on nectar they are not very active pollinators. Adult cicada killers will hunt down and paralyze cicadas, then bring them back to their underground nest and feed their young.
    • Although they can be intimidating, cicada killers are not aggressive and will very rarely sting only when handled or stepped on.
    • Even if stung, it’s been described to feel no worse than a pinprick.

    A mud dauberAleksey Gnilenkov (CC BY 2.0)

    Mud daubers (HYMENOPTERA: Sphecidae or Crabronidae)

    • Like paper wasps, are primarily carnivorous but adults also drink nectar and engage in some pollination.
    • Create nests out of mud, can often be found on the sides of buildings. Mud daubers will fill their nests with spiders to feed their young.
    • Non aggressive and will rarely sting if aggravated.

    Although they all contribute to the ecology of a garden, some species of pollinators can occasionally cause a problem when they choose to nest in a poor location. If you spot a nest or hive that you feel may directly impact your safety, please contact a professional pest removal service.

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

    Rose Pest Solutions logo

    Interested in learning more about honeybees? Join us on Saturday, July 23 as Dr. Lucy King, Elephants and Bees Project Leader, joins us to talk about the multiple uses of beehive fences as a natural deterrent to reduce damaging crop-raiding by elephants. Click here for more information.

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  • Top 5 Favorite Pollinator Plants

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    Tags: plants, pollinators, top five list, top 5 plants, chicagoland plants, horticulture, botany

    Created: 4/25/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    The world-famous PNNMPFPGS (Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale) is in full swing! Plants are selling like hotcakes in the magical world of cyberspace at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale. You’re understandably excited, and probably opening a new browser tab as we speak. But don’t get distressed if you notice some ‘sold out’ messages. There’ll still be plenty of plants available for purchase IRL on May 8th here at the museum.

    To help you keep that excitement percolating until sale day, let me drop some details about five of the pollinator favorites we will be offering.

    Lesser Calamint

    Lesser Calamint (Calamintha nepeta)

    Not to be confused with catmint (Nepeta spp.) Or catnip (Nepeta cataria.) Or Catwoman (Julie Newmar.) Calamint is more well-behaved than any of those, though it may spread a bit by seed.  Growing only a foot or two tall, it produces a seemingly endless supply of small, white flowers on neat panicles from June to September. The foliage stays tidy and offers a pleasant, minty aroma. Spent flower heads look pretty cool in the winter, so you won’t want to cut them back until spring. Best of all, though, bees of many kinds go absolutely bugnuts (get it?) over calamint. A calamint without bees would be like…indoors, I guess? I don’t know how else that would be possible. 

    Sweet Alyssum

    Sweet Alyssum

    Alyssum is a delicate, precious plant – so sweet and dainty, with wiry little leaves and tiny, honey-scented flowers. Why, just look at it! One can hardly believe such a thing exists on the same planet as botflies, Ebola, and trial lawyers. But then, alyssum doesn’t just exist. It thrives. And frankly, it doesn’t appreciate your twee condescension. It blooms continuously throughout the spring (into summer if it’s not too hot) and again in fall if you chop it back a bit during the dog days. And those pleasant little flowers are potent pollinator attractors, bringing in all sorts of small bees and nectar-loving flies.

    October Skies

    October Skies ‘ Aromatic Aster

    Three things I love about this plant:

    • Rabbits hate it.
    • Butterflies love it.
    • It stays low, neat, and dense, and unlike some other asters, never needs staking.

    One thing I hate – that some botanist in search of something to do decided to change the genus name from the simple, evocative, and universally understood “aster” to the pedantic and thoroughly unspellable “symphyotrichum.”

    Cardinal

    Cardinal Flower

    This plant has a reputation, and not in a good way. People say it’s picky. Short-lived. Wants to be coddled with extra watering. Bupkis! With a little afternoon shade, it needs no more watering than your average perennial. Short-lived? No more so than coreopsis or columbine, and nobody complains about them. Seriously, give it a try – that striking, pure red color is a rare treat in the perennial garden.  And hummingbirds love it!   

    Impatiens

    Impatiens

    I know what you’re thinking: either I’ve gone off my rocker or I have no idea what I’m talking about.  Because everybody knows impatiens don’t attract pollinators. Before you write an angry, embarrassingly misguided letter to your congressman, hear me out. Let’s face it: butterflies like sunshine. They don’t spend much time in the shade, and few shade plants have formed mutually beneficial relationships with them. But people do like shade. And in a big city with lots of big, spiky buildings like Chicago, shade is all many of you have in your yards and on your patios. So I chose impatiens for the garden sale, as they will bloom quite reliably in shade. Are you likely to see a bunch of butterflies busily nectaring on impatiens? No. But they are the ONLY full-shade annual I am aware of that can and does feed the occasional wandering butterfly. So step aside, and let sunlight-impaired butterfly gardeners take a shot. (A long shot, admittedly.)

    Seth Harper photo and signature

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

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  • Support Pollinators During Our Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale!

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    Tags: pollinators, plants, horticulture, botany

    Created: 4/12/2016      Updated: 7/7/2016

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    Guys.

    GUYS.

    Do you realize what is happening RIGHT NOW at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale? Well, if you were gifted with even the vaguest ability to make discernments from contextual clues, I don’t need to tell you. But for the rest of you (bless your hearts), let me spell it out. We are having a Garden Sale!  The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale (or PNNMPFPGS, for the simplicity’s sake) has begun, with pre-sale online ordering (at a discount!) Why should you be excited about the PNNMPFPGS? Because of the PFP part, naturally!

    PFP (Plants for Pollinators) is a thing people are into these days, and for good reason. Planting a garden that can attract and feed pollinating species of insects and birds is like putting ice cream on a brownie. Sure, brownies are great, but when you add ice cream, you get a treat truly worthy of the inevitable, ensuing weight gain. Growing a garden is also great. But a garden that’s alive with bugs and birds – now that’s a real, brownie-and-ice-cream level experience!

    Besides, pollinators do so much for us (over thirty percent of our food crop production relies on them) and we don’t always treat them well in return. Habitat loss and improper pesticide use have negatively impacted many populations of pollinators. Providing them with extra food in the form of beautiful garden flowers can really make a difference!

    So check out the pre-sale, but if you’re the type that prefers to buy in person, come down to the museum on May 8th from 10am-4pm to pick out your plants. We’ll have everything you need: annuals, perennials, and knowledgeable horticulturists (who are handsome but in an approachable kind of way) to answer your questions. As if all this wasn’t enough, watch this space for more info on pollinator gardening as the season progresses.

    Here’s just a small sampling of the plants we are offering:

    Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ – Dwarf Joe Pye Weed

    Not much is better at drawing in butterflies than Joe Pye Weed. But your typical version of this plant gets really tall and can require staking. Not this “dwarfish” variety. It still tops out at a rather impressive 3’-4’, but it stays manageable and doesn’t flop as much as other varieties.

    Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ – Claire Grace Wild Bergamot

    Bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds find this long-blooming native irresistible. This variety is less prone to foliar diseases than your standard, run-of-the-mill Wild Bergamot.

    Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’ – ‘October Skies Aromatic Aster

    Asters provide nectar late into the fall, which is crucial for bees as they store up honey for the winter.   Monarchs also appreciate snacking on Asters as they migrate southward.

    Good stuff, right? And that was just a taste!  But maybe you’re new to gardening, and feeling a little intimidated. Take a deep breath. If you need some basic know-how, look no further than your taxpayer-funded, University of Illinois’ Cooperative Extension Service. They’ve got knowledge galore, like so:

    http://extension.illinois.edu/annuals/

    http://extension.illinois.edu/perennials/

    See? Couldn’t be easier. So are you stoked about pollinator gardening now? Good, cause we’re super-stoked about helping you make it happen! 

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

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  • To Bee or Not to Bee

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    Tags: bees, honeybees, winter, spring, honey, pollinator, pollinators, beekeepers

    Created: 3/6/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    We had a mini moment of truth up on the roof this past week -- we took a look into our honey bee hives to see if by chance, some had survived the winter so far. Honestly, there was not much hope. With beekeepers around the country reporting major losses it seemed too much to hope that any of our hives had made it through one of the harshest Chicago winters on record. 

    Honey from the Hive

    Last fall we made the decision to leave all the honey in the hive for our bees, taking none for our traditional honey sale in the museum gift shop. You can buy a little taste of the previous seasons labors in a jar from our gift store. The jars are small, just enough to taste how special our roof top bees are, and not so much that we did not leave them what they need to get through that year, or so we thought. 

    Truthfully, even in the best of years it seems a bit rude and even a little crazy to take honey. Open up a box of bees and take some of their most precious resource, without getting stung…too may times.  We spend the whole summer watching and waiting for this other moment of truth.  How strong is the hive? How much were they able to produce and store? Can they spare some for their caretakers and fans?

    It’s not a new story. People in cultures around the world have been after honey for centuries. There is evidence of humans harvesting honey in cave paintings. Only bees can make it, with their remarkable nectar gathering skills, specialized honey stomach, and a work force to rival whole cities. 

    The manner in which bees are kept, and the ease with which we are able to take a little of the extra honey, has made some real strides over the years. It used to be that you had to completely kill a colony in order to harvest that honey. Now with the use of moveable frames we simply take a few out, process them for honey and return them with much of the comb still in tact.

    Harvesting honey
    Harvesting excess honey in a banner year.

    The previous year it was a hard winter for many of the honey bees in the area and the ones on the roof of the museum were no exception. Like many of the local beekeepers we were sad to see that despite our efforts, few of our bees made it through the winter in 2012/2013.

    We started fresh this past spring with new colonies. With the help of our local beekeeper Anne, we installed them in June and were happy to see them get as busy as, well, bees. They could be seen around the grounds buzzing around flowers and collecting nectar in the various habit recreations featuring native plantings throughout the growing season. 

    Supplementing hives with sugar water
    Supplementing the hives with sugar water.

    So without taking any of the fruits of their labor, we tucked our bees in for the winter of 2013/14.  We added a little extra nutrition to tide them over and some insulation so it would be less drafty. We hoped for a strong start in the spring.

    Hope Springs

    Rooftop hives with snowmelt
    A good sign of live bee activity. Snow melt around the hive.

    The good news so far is that when we looked into our hives we found 10 out of 12 with activity. Some look stronger than others and there is still a long way to go until we can say they’re going to make it into the full growing season, but this is far more then we dared hope for.  

    Working with bees
    Working quick to minimize cold exposure

    We keep hoping for better years for the honey bees and their relatives the native bees. These species are important in helping to provide the pollination that gives us many of our favorite summer flowers and fruits. It’s hard to over estimate the importance of these services in both the natural world and in the cultivated crops we rely on for much of our diet. For now we’ll take this small victory.

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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