Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bumbling with Bombus: Chives, Bumblebees & Corrections

Three queens of the Tricoloured Bumble Bee at Chives flowers
As herbs go, Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) isn't one of my favourites. I find it rather mild and usually too tenuous for my palate. As flowering onions go, though, Chives is attractive and reliable. Even better, the bees love it. On Friday, one of my patches of Chives in the country (at Gopher Hill) had a dozen bumble bee queens nectaring.
Also known as Orange-belted Bumble Bee Bombus ternarius
The most abundant of these bees, and probably the easiest of all Edmonton area bumble bees to learn, was a half dozen Bombus ternarius the Tricoloured Bumble Bee. The only other Bombus here with a pair of orange bands between two yellow ones on the abdomen is Hunt's Bumble Bee (B. huntii) and this bee lacks the black triangle pointing back on the thorax and has yellow hairs on the head and face (usually black in ternarius, as above, but not always).  The black triangle is a 'key character' amongst the orange-banded bees.

Hunt's seems to be fairly rare here, but the Tricoloured is very common. In the foothills and mountains, e.g. around Calgary, the Forest Bumble Bee B. sylvicola can look very similar, but usually has two yellow bands behind the orange ones.
Half-black Bumble Bee Queen Bombus vagans or rufocinctus?
More easily confused are the two Half-black Bumble Bees that we have in Edmonton, the 'true' Half-black (B. vagans) and the Perplexing Half-black (B. perplexus - aka Confusing Bumble Bee). I've buggered these up before, but now can usually tell them apart. The local B. perplexus seems to arrive earlier in the spring and has only a small, circular area of black between the wing bases and the yellow on the side of the thorax is interrupted by black. Bombus vagans has more extensive black between the wing bases and uninterrupted yellow under the wings - and often some yellow hairs on the posterior abdomen (nice character when present). [Update - and just to keep us guessing, the ever variable Bombus rufocinctus also has a half-black morph.]
Perplexing Half-black Bumble Bee queen Bombus perplexus

Friday, June 14, 2013

Weather Whinging, Camouflage, Violets & Mosquitoes

Bombus rufocinctus queen climbing Jacob's Ladder in a rare ray of sunshine
Those of you who make a habit of reading this blog already know that I make a habit of whinging about Edmonton's weather. Although I have taken every opportunity to point out its failings, the Weather has yet to improve one bit. I give up! If it wants to rain every day in June, then let it. Instead here are a few interesting bugs and flowers from those rare moments between showers. Goldenrod is a great flower for insects, and so, always a joy to see in bloom (even though it means 'summer' is ending), but not especially interesting before it blooms - except this year. 
What the ...? 
Synchlora aerata (Fabricius, 1798), otherwise known as the Wavy-lined Emerald is a new visitor to the Home Bug Garden. Or at least I think it is - the first one I saw looked more like bits of leaves stuck in a spider web than a caterpillar and I wonder how many I'd missed in the past. Also known as the Camouflaged Inchworm (aka Looper), this geometer larva likes to eat a variety of composites - and adorn itself with bits of leaves and flowerheads. Many geometer caterpillars do very good imitations of twigs or are pale green with light longitudinal lines that blend into vegetation, but this was the first I've seen that dresses up the better to not be seen. Miklos Treiber studied some of these caterpillars and found the process was more or less continuous - as the fragments dried out the inchworm added new bits of plant (using a glue-like substance from its mouth).
Synchlora aerata (Fabricius, 1798) inching along
Anyway, there is lots of goldenrod, gayfeather and Joe Pye Weed in the Home Bug Garden, so the Camouflage Inchworm should feel right at home. Also popping up in a brief bit of sun is another native plant, the Prairie Violet Viola pedatifida
Prairie Violet Viola pedatifida
Also called the Crowfoot, Birdfoot or Larkspur Violet because of its dissected leaves, unlike most violets, this one likes it relatively hot and dry - gravelly hillsides and prairie grasslands being it usual habitats in Alberta. 'Hot and dry' are not appropriate terms for a garden in Edmonton, but two of the three plants I put into the southwest corner of the Home Bug Garden survived the winter and bloomed. 
AKA Crowfoot, Birdfoot and Larkspur Violet
Finally who can resist the charms of Edmonton's most famous flying insect, the mosquito. We bug paparazzi flock to them whenever we see them and try to annoy them as much as they annoy us. Here's one mugging for two cameras.
Two views of one mozzie.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Blue-eyed Grass & Wild Sarsaparilla

'Blue-eyed' Grass Sisrynchium montanum
I tend to be an impatient gardener. I usually buy plants when they are in bloom and the gratification is both immediate and guaranteed. The long winters here, though, and the pictures in the seed catalogues that start to arrive with the new year can set my mind to wandering, although usually in the direction of next summer's fresh veggies (and, this being Zone 3, those with the fewest days to maturity). Sometimes, though, as with last week's Anomalous Peony, I'll settle in for a longer wait.
Grass-like leaves and buds of Blue-eyed Grass (an iris)
Here's another example - Sisrynchium montanum, a Blue-eyed Grass, finally blooming four years after the seeds were planted. This species is a native and very attractive in bloom, although the flowers are only about 15 mm across and close when the sun is not shinning.
Closed flowers and seed pods on a gloomy Sunday
Some species of Sisrynchium do have pale blue tepals, but this Alberta native looks more like a Purple-eyed Grass to me, although the only other common name I found is Strict Blue-eyed Grass. It grows in meadows and other damp, open areas around the Province and much of North America.
Looking more like an iris, but no bluer, a German Iris ignores the gloom
Blue-eyed Grass is very modest compared to the horticultural varieties of its relatives in the genus Iris, but I'm quite happy with my little patch. On sunny days several dozen flowers have been in bloom and, although I have yet to see a pollinator, it seems to be seeding freely. When it comes to the Wild Sarsaparilla, though, the flowers are not the attraction.
Umbel of Wild Sarsaparilla Aralia nudicaulis
This is another Alberta native that can also be found throughout much of North America. My rhizomes were planted in 2007, so that makes it another 6-year wait, but this plant delivered interesting foliage from its first season.
Wild Sarsaparilla over Nodding Onion
I also admit to a bit of collectoritis - the Araliaceae otherwise being absent from the Home Bug Garden. Still, I find the leaves attractive and they seem to blend in well with my other shade-loving plants. Also, although the berries are usually described as 'insipid' or 'inedible', I thought the berries of the parent material quite tasty.
Wild Sarsaparilla, Epimedium, Hellbore, Bloodroot, Bedstraw, Vetch, Wild Lily-of-the-Valley and Sweet Cicely cohabiting in the shade

Sunday, June 2, 2013

After a long wait, a week of splendour: Paeonia anomala

In-bud 6 years after the seeds were sown - Meet the Anomalous Peony
The other half of the Home Bug Gardener team likes peonies and the half that does most of the planting is always happy to do what he can to make her happy. Hybrid peony varieties are available by the hundreds and there is even a Canadian Peony Society that promotes their use. 
Formica podzolica on colourful, sugary hybrid peony sepals
Hybrid peonies have extrafloral nectaries, as do the species from which they are derived, so they are somewhat insect-friendly if you like ants, the only insects that seem to use the nectaries. 
Paeonia anomala  - a species peony (ant on bud in left background)
Hybrid peony flowers are very showy, but don't seem to be especially attractive to bees. Still, we have two hybrid varieties based on different species, Paeonia officinalis ‘Anemoniflora Rosea’ and Paeonia lactiflora ‘Dandy Dan’, planted near the front porch and they add a week or two of colour and a summer of attractive foliage to the Home Bug Garden.
A rose by any other name may be a peony - Meet Dandy Dan
Hybrid peonies tend to be expensive and can be floppy, but seem to have no problem with the Zone 3 winter. Inattention seems to work well too and other than cutting down the dead stalks in the spring, no care seems to be required.
Sterile staminodes instead of stamens in the Paeonia officinalis hybrid
For those who become obsessed with a kind of garden flower, a yearning to collect the species from which the hybrids have been derived is often manifest. This can be driven by interest or snobbishness or both, but for those interested in urban insect conservation there are valid reasons to eschew some hybrids. Often the spectacular display of a hybrid comes at the cost of functionality, such as the conversion of stamens to sterile staminodes in some peony hybrids.
Functional, but still attractive - Paeonia anomala
Well, to make a long story longer, hybrid peonies went into the Home Bug Garden in 2005 and by 2007 the Home Bug Gardener had decided to grow a species peony from seed. The Devonian Botanical Garden has a famous collection of hybrid peonies and also a collection of hardy species peonies. Seeds of one such species were available to supporting members; and so, seven pots with seeds of Paeonia anomala went out to overwinter in the Fall of 2007. In the Spring of 2008, though, not a single seedling emerged. Alas and alack, but no sense in wasting the soil in the pots which was recycled around the garden. Then in May of 2009, Anomalous Peony seedlings began sprouting all over the Home Bug Garden! 
Worth a 6 year wait?  Paeonia anomala
Now, four more years latter they are in bloom - and entirely through serendipity (which is how I prefer to view my bungled attempt to germinate peony seeds) - the Home Bug Garden woodland was graced by four scattered clumps of blooms of attractive magenta to pink flowers above feathery foliage. Given the late and cold Spring of 2013, it is hard to say when one might expect them to bloom in a more normal year, but this year the plant in the most favourable spot started opening on 20 May and one in the most shaded spot still has one flower in bloom (2 June). The hybrid peonies are still in bud, so I suppose the Anomalous Peony extends our peony season, and more importantly for the HBG pollinators, provides another early spring source of pollen and nectar.