What is a rusty-patched bumble bee?

The rusty-patched bumble bee recently became the first kind of bee to be added to the endangered species list.

Image result for rusty-patched bumble bee range

This bee used to range widely, from Minnesota to Maine, and as far south as Georgia. Now, it’s only found in isolated pockets.

One of those pockets is in Madison, Wisconsin. The Arboretum reports that they still have rusty-patched bumble bees, though many fewer than in the past.

The fact that there are still some left, though, means that residents of Madison can help the bees, allowing them to increase their numbers and begin to spread back into areas where they used to be found.

Unlike some bees, which rely on specific kinds of flowers, bumble bees can gather food from many different plants. Adding plants to your yard that flower throughout the season, and avoiding the use of pesticides, can help bumble bees. Rusty-patched bumble bees also need a little bit of bare soil in which to build their underground nests and lay their eggs.

Bumble bees are different from honey bees, which are a non-native, domestic species. Many well-intentioned people who are worried about pollinators try to help by taking up beekeeping. As some have put it, being concerned about pollinator decline and putting a beehive in your yard is like trying to address declining bird populations by getting some chickens. Adding more hives of honey bees to an area can actually decrease the quality of the local habitat for native bumble bees, because it increases competition for the resources that bees need.

“A Ghost in the Making” is a short documentary about the rusty-patched bumble bee. A segment in the middle of the film focuses on Madison’s Arboretum.

What is a rusty-patched bumble bee?

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

Fall has arrived in the northern hemisphere, and leaves will soon be changing colors. We’ve all heard why they do this: the green color is created by chlorophyll, a substance key to photosynthesis, and when the chlorophyll is lost at the end of the summer, leaves reveal their true colors.

Now, some scientists think this story is wrong. They believe that, instead, trees actively work to create their brilliant fall colors.

Why would trees do this? One challenge plants face in life is being attacked by insects. To combat this, plants produce a variety of chemicals that deter insects from eating their leaves or burrowing in their bark.

Just as chlorophyll creates a green color in leaves, some of these insect-deterring chemicals create bright yellows, oranges, and reds. The more chemical a tree stores up, the more vibrant the colors.

In the same way that a male bird puts on showy colors in spring to prove that he is a healthy mate, trees display dramatic autumn hues to tell insects, “I’ve invested in defenses against you; don’t bother trying to attack me.”

Colorful fall leaves may therefore be not only a defensive strategy, but a method of communication – providing further evidence that plants are intelligent.

Why do leaves change color in the fall?

What is habitat?

Habitat is an area where a plant or animal can live.

Whether or not a particular area is habitat depends on which species’ perspective you’re looking at it from. For example, the ocean is habitat for a whale, but is not habitat for a squirrel.

To count as habitat, an area must provide for a plant or animal’s needs. For example, habitat for a bird must include water sources, appropriate food, safe shelter, and a place to nest. Habitat for dandelions must include plenty of sun.

Lawns count as habitat, since by definition grass lives in them. However, few other species can meet their needs in or around a lawn. Overall, lawns are not very good habitat.

Natural yards provide better habitat by inviting in many plant species. These plants, in turn, provide much of what an insect or bird needs to call a place habitat.

Habitat loss is a major factor in species extinctions. Hundreds of North American bird species, as well as popular insects like bumblebees and monarch butterflies, are in decline. If we exchange poor habitat in our yards for better habitat, we can increase these species’ chances of survival.

What is habitat?

What’s new in natural yards? – January 2016

Wisconsin has just released a State Pollinator Protection Plan. The full document can be found here.

The goals of the plan are to increase public understanding of issues facing pollinators, and encourage voluntary actions to help pollinators. The plan will not create any new regulations.

“Urban flower gardens often harbor diverse pollinator communities, but in areas dominated by skyscrapers or grass lawns pollinator diversity tends to be low,” the plan explains, in its opening section. The second section of the plan is divided into four parts, each describing what a specific group of people can do to help pollinators.

One of these sections, “Best Management Practices For Improving Pollinator Habitat in Gardens & Lawns” is directed towards homeowners. It is just a few pages long and can be read on its own. It begins on page 14 of the PDF linked above. The section suggests landscaping with a diversity of native plants that are suited to the site conditions. It also encourages homeowners to “leave things a little messy” – bare soil, leaf litter, and brush piles are all important habitat elements for pollinators.

The plan is currently in a public comment period. Its official website lists the following instructions for submitting comments:

Email comments by Friday, Feb. 19, to DATCPAgriculture@wisconsin.gov. Written comments may be mailed to: DATCP, ATTN Pollinator Protection Plan, PO Box 8911, Madison, WI 53708-8911. They must be received by Feb. 19.


What’s new in natural yards? – January 2016

What is a guild?

A guild is a group of plants that work well together. In other words, they have complementary functions.

(When such a grouping of plants assembles itself naturally, it is called a community. A guild is a group of plants brought together by a gardener.)

To explore this concept, let’s look at an example of a guild. This guild centers around a linden tree, a common species in Madison, and its primary purpose is to provide habitat for pollinators – a recently-adopted goal of the city.

Plants in a guild work together in multiple ways. To start, they generally differ in size and requirements. For example, a linden tree is large and needs sun, while the other plants in this guild are small and tolerate shade. Thus, the other plants can be placed under the tree, conserving space while giving every member of the guild what it needs.

Plants in a guild normally also differ in their functions. In this guild, all the plants perform the function of providing habitat to pollinators. But, each plant also provides other functions. In this way, the guild collectively fulfills many purposes. Let’s look at the additional functions performed by this guild.

  • The leaves of linden trees can be eaten by people.
  • Early-blooming flowers – like crocus, hyacinth, and daffodil – and late-blooming plants, such as sage and 4 o’clock, provide cheerful color in spring and fall.
  • Rose apple (or the smaller rugosa rose) and turtlehead are medicinal.
  • Cup plant and compass plant form a screening hedge and attract birds.
  • Lovage and coneflower draw up nutrients from deep in the soil, making those nutrients available to plants with shallower roots.
  • Comfrey can be cut back and turned into compost almost endlessly.
  • Mint, dill, caraway, parsley, and fennel serve as groundcovers and are, of course, very tasty!

Advanced permaculture practitioners, who are familiar with the properties of many plants, can create their own guilds. For new practitioners, examples to borrow can be found by googling “permaculture guilds”.

Thanks to Bryce Ruddock of Midwest Permaculture for this guild example.

What is a guild?

What are functions?

A function is something useful that a plant or animal does. For example, a tomato plant provides food for the gardener.

Plants and animals can perform more than one function. For example, a tree can cast shade to keep a house cool in summer, offer a place for birds to nest, and produce fruit for people to eat. This concept is called ‘stacking functions’. Permaculture practitioners strive to use space efficiently by incorporating plants that can perform many functions.

Permaculture practitioners also emulate nature by having a ‘back-up’ for each function. That is, they aim to have each function performed by multiple elements, so that if one element fails, another is ready to take over the function. For example, a gardener might add several types of plants that attract beneficial insects.

A yard that performs many functions makes less work for the gardener. By casting shade, trees minimize evaporation, so less watering is needed. Plants that make nutrients available to other plants reduce the need for fertilizer, while a few backyard chickens will gobble down insects and weeds, making pesticides unnecessary. By arranging elements so that nature does the work, we can have a more vibrant yard and more time to spend enjoying it.

What are functions?

What are some lesser-known effects of climate change?

Lawns contribute to climate change. When most people think of climate change, they think of higher temperatures, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. Global warming also causes other problems that are not talked about as much.

In addition to driving temperatures up, global warming changes precipitation patterns. Because warming causes air and moisture to circulate around the globe differently, more rain is brought to some areas, while other areas are left drier than normal. Wisconsin’s annual precipitation is expected to remain about the same over the coming decades. However, instead of arriving in the form of frequent rainy days, it is likely to be concentrated into occasional downpours. This means that Wisconsin will experience long dry periods punctuated by flooding.

Higher temperatures bring higher crime rates. While cold weather lowers crime by keeping people indoors, hot weather increases opportunities for crime. Studies suggest that heat also contributes to aggression, making people more likely to commit a crime. This holds true even for people who are used to hot weather.

Changing climate allows insects like mosquitoes to move from traditionally-hot places to newly-warm areas, bringing tropical diseases with them. West Nile virus has already spread all the way to Canada. Other tropical diseases, like malaria and dengue fever, are beginning to arrive in the United States.

Anything we can do to slow climate change will help prevent these negative changes in our community.

What are some lesser-known effects of climate change?