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Frost in August

Here in Mississippi we’re in the midst of the oppressive heat of August.

I’m not complaining.  It’s just a fact of life.

But still – it’s August… in Mississippi…

Unless I stay indoors with the ac cranked, there is not much relief.

I can take a soak in the cold tub and dream of Paradise Falls for a while.  But… you can’t stay in the tub all day.

So I do all my gardening early while it’s still a little cool.  Then I opt for a cruise in the golf cart from one patch of shade to the next.

I pause at the Bee Meadow and watch the honeybees fan themselves on the “front porches” of their hives.  Then I linger to study the flowers.

This is the season of yellow daisies.  Sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), orange black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida) and starry rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus) offer their golden blossoms to the sun.  The grasses (switch, big blue, Indian and Eastern gamma) are their stalwart companions.  The heat does not discourage these robust beauties.

But looking at all those warm orange and yellow blooms seems to make more sweat trickle down the back of my neck.  And looking at the grasses makes me itch.

 

Whiteleaf mountain mint and switch grass grace the Bee Meadow in August.

I am refreshed a bit though when I set my eyes on  the frosty bracts of the mountain mint that is blooming now.

Whiteleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum albescens) is among the last native mints to bloom here.  In July tiny purple spotted flowers make their appearance surrounded at first by white edged leafy bracts.  By August the first frost comes and the entire bract turns hoary white.

 

Here's my best attempt to capture mountain mint's frosty white bracts.

I am not the only one who is drawn to the mountain mint.  A steady stream of pollinators visits the flowers.  At every viewing, I usually see at least four or five kinds of native bees and flies.    When I lean in close to study an unknown pollinator the mountain mint releases a heady mint scent into the air. Ahhh!

Last weekend I managed to identify an unknown pollinator that has intrigued me for over a decade.  The first time I saw this bee relative, I described it as an iridescent purple dirt dauber.   I’ve seen it regularly over the years but only when the mountain mint is in bloom.

So… I set out to solve the mystery and after a wasted hour (in the ac) on the computer, I determined that the mystery pollinator was a giant black wasp.  This is a gentle ground nesting wasp.  Usually the males visit the flowers and they cannot sting me because they have no ovipositor.

 

The giant black wasp is busy foraging on refreshing mountain mint nectar.

The females are far too busy to sting because they are hunting, stinging and carrying paralyzed katydids back to the nest to feed the youngsters.

The giant black wasp has a slender thread-like waist.  It is commonly close to 2 inches long.  In certain light it appears to be black but soon the sun illuminates metallic purple pigments.  It is quite striking.

So for a few moments I forget that the heat is hanging heavily around me and that the humid air is almost too liquid to breathe.  I am transfixed – I watch the giant black wasps forage.  I make note of the tiny sweat bees, the flower fly and a mysterious pollinating fly.  All of them are headed for the frosty bracts and minty nectar of the whiteleaf mountain mint.

I look past them all – hoping to see a giant black wasp mama flying toward her nest burdened by a stupified katydid.

I have not seen her yet.

But… there is still tomorrow!

Bee Meadow Update

We have had a rainy summer and the Bee Meadow has prospered.

During late June and July, wild bergamot or beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) and purple coneflower (Ecninacea purpurea) dominated the space.  Since beebalm is a member of the mint family, it is very aromatic.  On hot days, it wafted like incense and we could smell it as we approached the meadow.  The place was buzzing with all sorts of insect pollinators as well.

My friend Denice Kopf enjoyed the beebalm, purple coneflower and native grasses during her visit in late June.

The beebalm and coneflowers seemed to bloom forever.  Through most of July they were still going strong.

During July the orange butterfly weed bloomed for a second time and the purple liatris 'Kobold' chimed in.

A first sighting of a plant is always exciting.  This year I had the first blooms on the shiny coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida).  I planted it 3 years ago and had seen foliage but no blooms.

Rudbeckia nitida glows in the bee meadow with native switch grass and a mass of beebalm.

The finger false dragonhead (Physostegia digitalis) had bloomed before but this year with all the rain it was spectacular.  This species is native to Louisiana and Texas but not to Mississippi.  The plant was given to me by Jessie Johnson.  She dug a small start for me from the meadow at Briarwood.  So, of course, the plant is very special from an aesthetic point of view as well as an emotional one.

 

The physostegia is one of those rare plants that is as beautiful in bud as it is in flower.

I will say that the buds are very intriguing – like beautiful rows of niblet corn.  But … the flowers are not too shabby.

Physostegia flowers are strking!

And this brings us up to date.  It is now August.  The grasses are robust and the yellow daisies are in full bloom.  The whiteleaf mountain mint is frosty in spite of the heat.

I don’t think I have ever gotten so much enjoyment from a gardening effort with so little work!

An August update will be forthcoming.

Bee Balm, Bumblebees and Burns

Bee balm is the most exciting flower in the Bee Meadow right now.

Despite the heat and drought, the wild bergamot or native bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) is blooming now in my Bee Meadow and in the wild.

This weekend I visited a prairie in Scott County that was full of bee balm blooming in harmony with butterfly milkweed, black eyed Susan, prairie clover and narrowleaf mountain mint.  It looked like a wonderful flower garden but the presence of charred wood indicated that the prairie was probably burned in March.

I enjoyed the prairie outing but am also glad to have bee balm close to home.  The flower heads are a beautiful frothy cluster of many individual florets.  In late evening as we approach the Bee Meadow, the fragrance of bee balm is delightful and reminiscent of the bergamot orange peel used to flavor Early Grey tea.

The bee balm blooms seem to glow in the late afternoon sun.

The scent attracts foraging bumble bees and other long-tongued bees, many other solitary bees like carpenter bees, butterflies, hummingbird moths and even ruby throated hummingbirds.

The foliage is aromatic as well.  A few moth caterpillars feed on the leaves but it is unpalatable to the ever encroaching deer.

On our late afternoon nature jaunts, we have particularly enjoyed watching the bumblebees and carpenter bees forage on the bee balm.

Bumblebees are very hairy and usually black with some sort of yellow striping.  They are closely related to honeybees but live in much smaller colonies.  They nest in holes in the ground or in cavities in rotting wood.

This carpenter bee is foraging on narrowleaf mountain mint. Note the smooth rear of the abdomen. A bumblebee would be uniformly hairy.

Bumblebees are especially efficient at pollinating flowers that are tubular shaped with pollen held on anthers deep inside.

They release the pollen by grasping the flower and vibrating their flight muscles.  This technique is called “buzz pollination” or sonication.

In addition to wildflowers, bumblebees are important pollinators of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, blueberries and cranberries.

Bumblebees are even released into greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes and strawberries .  Honeybees are very inefficient at pollinating all these crops so buzz pollination results in more and larger fruit.

Carpenter bees are solitary. They have the annoying habit of tunneling into wood to make their nests.  They are working on my front porch railings this summer.  Male carpenter bees are unable to sting but the females can inflict a painful stab.

In this Scott County Mississippi prairie, wild bergamot and butterfly milkweed are enticing the pollinators all day long.

Like bumblebees, carpenter bees practice buzz pollination.  Sometimes, however, they steal nectar without pollinating.  They bypass the pollen and go directly to the nectar by making a slit in the side of the flower.

At first I was calling all the large bees in the bee meadow bumble bees.  I finally learned that a bumblebee’s entire abdomen is hairy while a carpenter bee is smooth on the rear.

Just as I expected, the bee balms, mountain mints and other wildflowers in the Bee Meadow are attracting some interesting critters and bringing them in close so I can learn.

Bee balm and the other wildflowers mentioned here have a delicate appearance when in bloom.  But they are tough. They will grow in full Mississippi sun without irrigation in 100 degree plus temperatures.

And… they even thrive in areas that are regularly burned.


 

 



 

Further Adventures in the Bee Meadow

The Bee Meadow is surrounded by flagging tape to confuse the deer and keep my over zealous neighbor's mower at bay.

Last November with the help of my friend Tim Kiphart I gleaned a medley of wildflower plants from my nursery and installed them near my bee hives.

I called the planting a “Bee Meadow”.  It was planted in part to sustain the honeybees.  I also intended to learn to appreciate and identify the native pollinators that would surely visit.

The Bee Meadow was planted on an old vegetable garden site that is full of white clover.

So far, the meadow has been quite entertaining. Earlier this spring, prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) mingled with the clover while yellow false indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) bloomed in the background.

Much to my surprise, about a dozen larkspur plants (Consolida ambigua) volunteered. They were remnants of the old vegetable garden where I often planted flowers amongst the veggies.

This volunteer larkspur was a pleasant surprise.

I have really been enjoying the larkspur blooms.

I have noticed that a few honeybees and bumblebees visit the blossoms when they tire of the clover.

Last week, however, on a late afternoon golf cart cruise, I spied a flash of red.  I soon realized that a young male ruby throated hummingbird was visiting the larkspur.

I have seen him two or three times now.

Of course I didn’t have my camera.

But still he was beautiful in all his olive and ruby plumage sipping nectar from a deep indigo larkspur flower.

A couple of weeks ago, I pilfered the nursery once more and with the help of my friend Steve Strong added more plants to the Bee Meadow.  The new additions include New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) and various asters, rosin weeds, obedient plants, ironweeds and grasses.

I’m seeing all sorts of butterflies and interesting solitary bees as well as the usual bumblebees and honeybees.

Now that the planting is done I hope to start identifying these strange visitors.


 

 

The Bee Meadow

The Bee Meadow plants are all arranged and Tim is ready to start putting them in the ground.

For some time now, I’ve been planning to plant a bee meadow.

I have been growing and accumulating prairie type wildflowers for this project.

I decided to plant the wildflowers in an area adjacent to my bee hives.

I know that these diverse native plants will attract all sorts of indigenous pollinators as well.

I figure that if an assortment of native bees, wasps and butterflies come to my backyard it will be easier to learn to identify them.

It’s all good.

The plan came together when my friend, Tim Kiphart, came to visit.

We spent a glorious week working on gardening projects.

The dogs were quite interested in the project.

Late Wednesday afternoon we started planting the bee meadow. We took a break to enjoy one of Richard’s delicious meals and get some sleep before finishing up around noon on Thursday.

It is an exciting project.

The plant medley included several species of asters and of false indigo (Baptisia spp.),  purple coneflower from local prairie stands (Echinacea purpurea), button snakeroot (Eryngium yuccafolium), coral bean (Erythrina herbacea), whirling butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri), false aloe (Manfreda virginica), lots and lots of bee balm (Monarda spp.), beard tongue (Penstemon spp.), prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.), several species of black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), wild blue sage (Salvia azurea), rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) and several types of grasses including switch grass, big bluestem and little bluestem.

The dogs were so interested that we were inspired to define the area with flagging tape. This seems to make them think twice before running amok... so far anyway.

Most of the pots were well rooted.    Some were even busting out of the pots and look as if they are already growing.  There is rain in the forecast so our timing was perfect.

Maybe my imagination is running amok but it looks like this rosin weed rosette was already growing on Day 3.

Fall is the ideal season to plant perennial wildflower seed or plants in the south.  By the time that spring rolls around, the meadow should be full of robust rosettes ready to make a tremendous growth surge.

After the first year, the maintenance plan is to either mow or burn the Bee Meadow in late winter.

Other than that we’ll just sit back and watch it explode with color, fragrance and bugs! I’m certain that it will continue to be quite entertaining.


 

Where the Bee Sucks…

A bumblebee sips nectar from blue prairie sage

In The Tempest, Shakespeare said “Where the bee sucks, there suck I, in a cowslip’s bell I lie…”.

He was referring, of course, to the spring blooming English cowslip (Primula veris).  In a different time and place, he might have alluded to our native azure blue sage or prairie sage (Salvia azurea).

Our wild sage is a native perennial prairie dweller.  It begins producing clear blue flowers in late summer and continues into autumn.

Prairie sage is a magnet for native pollinators.  It is very attractive to bumblebees and many of their relatives as well as skipper butterflies.

In autumn, its startling color stops me in my tracks.  The shade of blue perfectly matches the autumn sky on a clear breezy day.

Goldenrod is an excellent backdrop.

All sorts of bugs are latched on to the flowers – hanging on for dear life.

I took this picture in the display garden at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson.

When I return there tomorrow for our annual Mississippi Native Plant Society Meeting, I will certainly visit this salvia stand again to see who’s hanging around.


 

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