B that rhymes with P–that stands for pollinator.
This entry is about the three pollinator B’s that visit our garden and who can never outstay their welcome. Bees, butterflies, and birds. People get annoyed with visitors who just seem to take over the house and just go about their business as if the hosts didn’t live there, too. Sort of like the hummingbirds who occasionally whir up into my face and stare at me as if I’m in the way. And the bumble bees who’ve taken over the lupine next to the pergola and always buzz me to let me know who’s in charge. And certainly the rock jays who set up a racket at dawn in their incessant fights with the mockingbirds, warblers, and cooing doves–oh those sweet doves–over who has rights to the cherry plum trees.
But, like I say, I can’t get annoyed with any of them. Without them, there wouldn’t be much purpose for our garden, it wouldn’t be as productive, and it wouldn’t come close to being as beautiful and fun. Besides, if they weren’t there, I’d just worry about why they weren’t.
When I was much younger, I thought of bees as a nuisance in my urban, suburban life. They’d always show up to land on my sticky sno-cone at the ball park or fly up around me when I was mowing the grass at my childhood home. Sure, I liked the honey that I knew they were responsible for, but of course I never thought about why they made the honey (wasn’t it for me?). When I became a Dad, my annoyance with bees became fear of their stinging my children, which happened rarely over the years, but just enough to reconfirm the fear.
It wasn’t until my love of plants became deep enough that my fear of bees turned gradually into appreciation, then reverence, and finally deep concern. With scientists’ and farmers’ realization of the stark decline in honeybee populations, and their naming of the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), my own emergent devotion to plants became joined with a commitment to gardening as a way to stave off that collapse at least a bit in my own environment. With our move to California and our becoming Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum I gained practical ways to put that desire into action, specifically with planting of native varieties and other bee-attractive plants, as well as avoidance of insecticides. More great ideas came from periodic visits to UC Davis’s Haagen-Dazs Bee Haven , where hundreds of bee-attractive plants grow across all the seasons.
Gradually, I’ve added plants from these collections, nurtured some–like the lupine–that just spring up by themselves, and just generally become more attentive to the bees of all shapes and sizes that make our garden home at some time during the year. Because our growing season is year-round, there is always something growing that attracts bees. Since all plants flower, the plants I deliberately grow for their edible fruits are just as likely to attract bees as those that are advertised primarily for their flowering. The tiny yellow flowers that sparkle all over the tomatoes through the spring and summer may not be as large or vari-colored as the roses, but they have their own apis devotees.
At this stage in my education, there is nothing to match the springtime bee celebrations when the ceanothus and the wisteria are in bloom, closely followed by the orange blossoms, the cherry plums, and the meyer lemon. On some days the hum of the bees as they festoon the lavender, pink, and white blooms is almost a roar, and I’m drawn to stand amid the busy swarm as they go about their vital work. At these times, I am truly the visitor to what is most assuredly their home, and I try as much as I can to be a grateful guest.
My favorite butterfly visitors are a pair of white cabbage leafs that flit about the garden from spring through summer, occasionally landing on leaves and flowers of different plants, where their whiteness in some lights takes on the color of the leaf where they sit. But often they just appear from over the grey fence, then dart and flutter across the garden before zipping back over the fence on the other side. Then there are the occasional what-look-like yellow monarchs that come into the garden and poke around before going on their way. One afternoon, I was returning from our mailbox down the street when one of them passed me like a yellow blur, turned 90 degrees into my front yard, and flew into the garden. I didn’t know from how far away he or she was coming nor how far he or she was heading, but the turn into our garden seemed purposeful, and I felt good that our garden may be a sort of destination, a regular stop along a route perhaps.
Then there are the little orange guys that stop by from time to time, as they did this August morning–oh yes, and the funeral duskywing (what a name!) that occasionally appears and that, just by chance, I was able two weeks ago to get a picture of on the ever-popular lupine.
A few butterflies come and go every day, but they never come in the numbers and with the humming show that the bees do at some times of the year. I can’t help feeling that one of these years they will stop coming altogether, because there will be no more of them, and these silent, flitting, flashing beauties will have gone the way of all those thousands of species that we humans will have systematically, even if sometimes stupidly unwittingly, destroyed. The numbers are startling. Numerous sources agree that monarchs, the showiest and most-storied of North American species, have declined by 90 percent, as habitats have been lost and necessary foods, such as the milkweed, have been lost with the habitats and through herbicides.
While the peaches were in profusion in July, our heartiest competitors for the fruit on the tree were the house finches (see one above). They’d pick apart some of the best ones, and sometimes we’d be left with part of a peach. Other times we’d beat them to the peach. Overall, there were plenty for us all. When just one peach remained on the tree, we figured it belonged to the finches. Beauty before age, I guess.
If I could come back after my human death as another creature, I would want to be a bird. Granted, it’s no doubt a pretty fearful and hectic existence–the birds who visit our garden move fast, hide in the foliage, and rarely go out on a limb for more than a few seconds. As soon as they become aware of my presence as an observer, they scoot away, or at least find an interior spot among the leaves to spy back at me. But, wow, they get to do it from way above me, and they can almost in an eye blink swoop to another perch from which to scan the world around them. Meanwhile, I just plod along on the ground and hope to keep from tripping over a tomato vine, a jasmine root, or the shovel I left upturned this morning by the Japanese eggplant.
Chief among the swooping scooters are the hummingbirds, who helicopter around the garden and zip (and sip) from plant to plant during most of the year. I’ll be watering or pruning or weeding, with my eyes toward the ground, when all of a sudden I’ll hear a whir near my ear. The little bird is either just zipping past or sometimes hovering near me, sometimes waiting to look me right in the eye. I always blink first. A few times I’ve been lucky enough (as above) to catch one still enough for a photo. Other times I’ll hear their classic “tick tick” and get my camera ready, only to have my friend tantalize me by stopping for a second, then flitting to another short stop, then another and another, but never long enough for me to get off a good snap. Many’s the time I’ll look at a series of hummer pics I’ve taken, but I’ll have beautiful leaves in nice sharp focus and a ghostly blur where the bird has been.
Last week, I saw one through a side window sipping from an orange fuchsia bloom, but by the time I got my camera, my friend was gone to another place in the garden. I went outside and heard the tick tick, and I caught a glimpse in the wisteria, and then gone. Imagine the hummingbird in the fuchsia, below.
Of all the glorious songs of the birds who live in or near our garden, the one that most moves me is the plaintive “woo woo hoo” of the Eurasian collared doves. Our local pair calls all day long and spends part of the time in the cherry plum tree that overhangs our garden from our neighbor’s yard. Many years ago, a pair of doves lived in my neighborhood in Virginia, which bordered a small park. Often I’d be up early to walk in the park, full of tall old oaks and maples, and I’d stop to listen to the calling birds and try out my own plaintive dove call. I got pretty good at it, good enough that I imagined we were calling back and forth. Here’s a photo of one of our local residents, perched on the corner of our neighbor’s roof, a favorite spot for different species of our neighborhood avians to scan the territory and await the answering call.