Tag Archives: pollination

Sunflower Season

A bee loaded with bright yellow pollen works the huge head of a sunflower in a vast sunflower field near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

A bee loaded with bright yellow pollen works the huge head of a sunflower in a vast sunflower field near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

Kansas is the sunflower state, but we had to go to Oklahoma to find these vast sunflower crop fields (pictured above and at the bottom) near Quapaw in mid-September. 

The sunflower crowns the seal on the Kansas state flag.

The sunflower crowns the seal on the Kansas state flag.

Heading south on Highway 69 in Kansas, we passed mile after mile of green soybean rows and the brown stalks of ready-to-harvest feed corn.   Cattle and horse grazed in lush pastures.  It was the kind of perfect late summer day you want to bottle so you can release it in January.

The small yellow heads of wild sunflowers cheered us along the roadside and in fields that had escaped mowing and grazing, but it wasn’t until we crossed into Oklahoma that we really saw SUNFLOWERS –brilliant yellow that stretched as far as I could see.  Thankfully, I was wearing sunglasses, or I’d be blind today!

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly nectars on a wild sunflower in a vacant lot.

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly nectars on a wild sunflower in a vacant lot.

The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, so I’m sure it was the first flower I ever learned about. Helianthus annuus, the annual sunflower, comes in 60 species.  Some species can grow as tall as fifteen feet.  The flower heads can be small as buttons or be as large as dinner plates.   I don’t think I’m biased, but the sunflower has got my vote as the most useful flower in the world.  If you can think of a more useful one, let me know.  (I’m making my case below.)

Native Americans discovered and domesticated the sunflower as early as 2,300 B.C. The earliest example of a fully domesticated sunflower was found in Tennessee.  The Incas used the sunflower as an image of their sun god, and the sunflower is regarded as the floral emblem of Peru.  Native Americans grew and used the sunflower for both food and oil.  They made a yellow dye from the flower heads and fiber from the stalks.  

The oil can be used for cooking, soap-making and even in the manufacture of paint.  I’ve used oil paints with sunflower oil, rather than linseed, in art. Domesticated sunflowers are grown ornamentally and for crops — seeds, oil and high-protein cattle feed. You can eat the seeds or make butter out of them.  The leaves can be used for cattle fodder.  Sunflowers even produce latex.  No part is wasted. 

Many birds love sunflower seeds, and some crop varieties have been developed with drooping heads to make it more difficult for the birds to get at the seeds.

Sunflowers in Fenway Victory Garden in Boston.

Sunflowers in a plot in Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston.

There are the weedy types that thrive along roadsides and in uncultivated areas that provide essential habitat for wildlife and insects.  Sunflowers are also good nectar and pollen sources. Some wild types creep into crop fields, where they’re popular with bees and butterflies, but not farmers.

Many composite flowers — the actual flowers are crammed together in the head — are called sunflowers, including some perennial species. The petals — or rays — can be yellow, maroon, orange or even other colors.

The Spanish introduced the sunflower into Europe in 1510, and sunflowers are now grown throughout the world.  Russia is the leading grower, followed by Argentina, the United States and Canada.  During the 18th century in Europe, members of the Russian Orthodox Church helped to make sunflower oil popular because it was one of the few oils not prohibited during Lent.  This could explain why Russia leads in its cultivation.

The seeds are used as chicken feed — and perhaps not coincidentally, two famous chicken restaurants in Pittsburg, Kansas, are not far from Quapaw– Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s.

Sunflowers grow in the demonstration garden at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

Sunflowers grow in the demonstration garden at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

The tuberous roots of the Helianthus tuberosus, the Jerusalem artichoke, can be eaten.  Now called a sunchoke, the old Jerusalem name of this perennial sunflower came from the Italian word for sunflower, girasole.  I’ve never tried a sunchoke, but it sounds interesting, if not delicious.

To learn more about sunflowers, click here.

Endless fields of sunflowers near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

Endless fields of sunflowers near Quapaw, Oklahoma.

12 Comments

Filed under Biology, Conservation, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, History, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Travel

Cloudless Sulphur Butterflies and Caterpillars

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly visits a sunflower in a vacant lot near a big box store.

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly visits a sunflower in a vacant lot near a big box store.

Who doesn’t love a pretty quartet of wings?  The flashy appearance of the Monarch butterfly’s brilliant orange and black wings is so perfect for Autumn.  And those white polka dots on black?  Very stylish and classic.  (The design also signals to birds — don’t eat me, I’m toxic!)

Monarch butterfly.

Monarch butterfly.

Black Swallowtail butterflies are gorgeous, too.  Black, yellow, iridescent blue.  The perfect color combination.  And those fabulous swallowtails! Definitely au courant.  I’m like a fashion photographer coaxing these beauties to show their best side as I chase them all over the neighborhood with my camera. (Click on the photos for a larger view.)

Black Swallowtail.

Black Swallowtail.

I’ve almost overlooked the less spectacular Cloudless Sulphur butterflies.  They’re understated, even plain.  They don’t have fancy swallowtails.  These small to medium-sized yellow and white sulphur butterflies can look like flower petals or leaves fluttering from a tree, which gives them an advantage in eluding birds that might want to eat them as they hunt for nectar, mates or a place to lay eggs.

A ten-year-old boy pointed to this Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar, saying it was in the "J" phase. It was one of the caterpillars hanging out at the Monarch Watch open house on Sept. 6, 2008, at the University of Kansas.

I saw this Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar hanging out at the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. A ten-year-old boy told me it was in the "J" phase as it prepares to pupate.

The males are a clear yellow above and yellow or mottled with reddish brown below.  The female is lemon-yellow to golden or white on both surfaces.  Both have mottling, which makes them look more like “moth-eaten” leaves.

Last summer was the first time I really noticed a Cloudless Sulfur butterfly. Certainly, I’ve seen them, but they aren’t showy.  The little yellow butterfly flitted in almost under my radar.  I saw one moving from blossom to blossom in my impatiens bed.  It unfurled its long proboscis into the narrow throat of each impatiens bloom. 

Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar starting to pupate in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar starting to pupate in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

As the seed pods formed, I realized, hey, I was there at their conception.  I’m sort of their Godmother Nature. I’d plant these seeds instead of buying impatiens, thereby saving money and also bringing the cycle full circle.

When the pods seemed mature, I carefully gathered them.  The pod explodes when it’s touched.  That’s why they’re called impatiens — they’re impatient to get moving and germinating. 

But more about my impatiens project later — this is the Clouded Sulphur’s story.  Yet, you can’t separate pollination from butterflies and other pollinators. According to the Pollinator Partnership, almost 80 percent of the food we eat requires a pollinator.  A large number of these are insects such as bees and butterflies.

As more land is paved and more acreage tilled for crops, there are fewer places for pollinators to live.  About 30 percent of the Monarch butterfly’s summer breeding area is in croplands, where milkweeds — essential for Monarchs to eat — used to thrive, according to Monarch Watch.  Herbicides in crop fields have killed off a lot of the milkweed. Monarch Watch helps people plant milkweed in their gardens for the caterpillars to eat.  They also suggest nectar and host plants that many butterflies and their caterpillars will like.

Herbicides and frequent mowing along roadsides also have reduced habitat for wildlife. The Kansas Department of Transportation has reduced mowing along several of its highways to restore the prairie and move away from brome grass, which is poor habitat.   I enjoyed some of this restored roadside prairie on recent trips in the Flint Hills of Kansas.  What would the neighbors say if we restored our yard to prairie?  It’s a thought.  Wild blue indigo, the orange flowers of the butterfly weed and scores of other flowers among the grass are a beautiful sight.
Dennis Toll writes beautifully about the Flint Hills, including its many flowers, on his blog Flint Hills, Tall Grass.
Cloudless Sulfur Butterfly and an insect rival compete for space on a sunflower. A for sale sign on the lot means all of the insects may soon be out of a home.

Cloudless Sulfur Butterfly and an insect rival compete for space on a sunflower. A "for sale" sign on the lot means all of the insects may soon be out of a home.

The restored roadside habitat also fosters a higher diversity of native bees that are essential for pollination, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch.  “There are dozens and dozens of species of bees, most of them small and not obvious to people,” Taylor says.
“Create a culture of appreciation for diversity,” Taylor suggests. “Change the vegetation in your garden to plants that foster pollinators.” 
Several butterfly enthusiasts have suggested useful butterfly websites.  Deb D. recommended the forums at gardenweb.com.   Mike of Clover Cove Farm, an herb farm near Nashville, suggested Butterfly Gardening and Conservation, which focuses on several types of butterflies.  His solution when caterpillars eat your herbs?  Plant more herbs!
 
Kristy G. of South Carolina inspired me to find out more about butterfly metamorphosis when she wrote about a swarm of Black Swallowtail butterflies that had devoured her parsley.  She wanted to know how she could follow their progress from caterpillar to adult.  More about that in a later post.
The Pollinator Partnership provides a wide range of information, including what plants will attract pollinators in different parts of the country.  Another good information source is Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.  You can sign up for an emailing list and also participate in activities.  Check out my post on Monarch Watch.  Also check out the video on the Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly Metamorphosis.
A Cloudless Sulfur butterfly chrysalis looks like a leaf in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch on the campus at the University of Kansas.

A Cloudless Sulfur butterfly chrysalis looks like a leaf in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch on the campus at the University of Kansas.

8 Comments

Filed under Animals, Biology, Conservation, Environment, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Internet, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, Uncategorized, University of Kansas

Monarch Watch

Gimme Shelter!  A monarch butterfly escapes the rain in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch.

Gimme Shelter! A monarch butterfly escapes the rain in the greenhouse at the annual Monarch Watch fall open house on the University of Kansas campus.

You can’t keep butterfly lovers away, even when it’s raining.  More than a thousand people, a lot of them children, showed up for the annual Monarch Watch fall open house on Sept. 6 at Foley Hall at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  That’s almost twice the usual number of visitors, according to entomologist Orley “Chip” Taylor, director of Monarch Watch.

Newly hatched Monarch butterflies cling to Chip Taylor's hat and beard as they harden their wings.  Taylor is the founder of Monarch Watch.

Newly hatched Monarch butterflies cling to Chip Taylor’s face and hat as they harden their wings.

The butterflies weren’t very active because of the damp weather, but the caterpillars still munched away on their favorite plants.  Caterpillars can be picky eaters, something children can identify with.  For example, the Monarch butterfly caterpillar will only eat milkweed plants, which contain poisons that make the Monarch toxic to animals that might eat it.  Fortunately, there are more than 140 species of milkweed. Unfortunately, there are fewer milkweed plants every year because of habitat destruction.

Taylor created Monarch Watch in 1992 to educate people about and to foster the conservation of Monarchs in North America. What Monarchs need most is a place to live and plants to eat in both their larval and adult phases.

“We’re losing 6,000 acres of viable habitat every day to development,” Taylor says.

Monarch Watch educates thousands of students and adults every year about Monarch migration, tagging, milkweed favorites, the life cycle of the Monarch and more.

The program encourages people to create pollinator habitats in their gardens.

“If you create the right environment, pollinators will come,” Taylor says.

Visitors stroll through the Certified Pollinator Garden during the annual open house at the Monarch Watch Headquarters.

Visitors stroll through the Certified Pollinator Garden during the annual open house at the Monarch Watch Headquarters.

Why should we care about pollinators?  According to the organization Pollinator Partnership, almost 80 percent of the world’s food crop plants depend on pollination.  Birds, bats and insects, such as bees, butterflies, beetles and mosquitoes, transfer pollen from flower to flower.  Without them, there wouldn’t be much for people to eat.

Last year, I had to hand pollinate my acorn squash with a paint brush because there weren’t enough pollinators to do the job. I learned a lot about the sex life of squash.  Since then, I’ve planted a lot of plants to attract bees and butterflies.  These plants produce beautiful blooms, so we can enjoy them, too.  Birds can also eat the seeds.

In addition to providing nectar plants, gardeners (that means everyone with a yard) should provide food plants for caterpillars.  They need to eat, too.  The caterpillar eating your parsley or dill will transform into a gorgeous black swallowtail butterfly, so don’t kill it.

More than 450 monarch butterfly chrysalides were given to children so they could watch a butterfly emerge. Here, Chip Taylor tells parents that 100 more will be available soon.

More than 450 monarch butterfly chrysalides were given to children so they could watch a butterfly emerge. Here, Chip Taylor tells parents that 100 more will be available soon.

Years ago I did kill some black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars that were chewing through my parsley.  I didn’t know what these caterpillars were, but ignorance is no excuse. Still, humans seem to have a natural revulsion to creepy crawly creatures, particularly those on their food plants. We need to resist that and learn more about these useful creatures. The sad thing is that I rarely use much parsley, anyway.  Now, I plant parsley and fennel just for caterpillars as seen in my post on Black Swallowtail butterflies and caterpillars.

I don’t kill caterpillars anymore, although I might make an exception for the tomato hornworm, which can devastate a tomato plant.  I saw a tomato hornworm on a tomato plant in the greenhouse at the open house.  I thought: They’re even raising hornworms!  The tomato hornworm, which can grow up to four inches long, turns into a hawkmoth, which almost looks like a hummingbird from a distance.

A Certified Pollination Garden at Monarch Watch's headquarters at KU shows visitors what kinds of plants attract pollinators.

A Certified Pollination Garden at Monarch Watch at KU shows visitors what kinds of plants attract pollinators.

This month, Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains begin their long migration to mountain forests in Mexico, where they spend the winter.  Unlike most other insects in temperate climates, Monarch butterflies can’t survive a long, cold winter.  Monarch butterflies travel up to three thousand miles, much farther than all other tropical butterflies.  Amazingly, they fly in masses to the same winter roosts, often to the same trees, according to Monarch Watch.

Somehow, the Monarchs know their way, even though the butterflies returning to Mexico (or California for west coast Monarchs) each fall are the great-great-great grandchildren of the butterflies that left the previous spring, according to Taylor.  No one knows exactly how this homing system works. Taylor talks about the Monarch migration and tagging Monarchs is this 2006 story.  New York Times story about Monarch Watch and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. Monarch Watch volunteers will be tagging Monarch butterflies east of Lawrence this month.  Taylor expects numbers to be lower than previous years, possibly because of a cooler spring.

Chip Taylor demonstrates how to hold a Monarch butterfly for tagging.

Chip Taylor demonstrates how to hold a Monarch butterfly for tagging.

The last Monarch hatch of the season is biologically and behaviorally different from earlier generations in the summer. It won’t mate or lay eggs until the following spring.  It must fatten on nectar to make the long journey.   That’s why providing nectar flowers is so important.

Monarch Watch helps people to create certified pollination gardens and waystations that provide the right mix of nectar and food plants.  So far, more than 2,000 waystations have been certified, but many more are needed to provide resources throughout the year for monarchs as they move across the continent, Taylor says.  The waystations are also home to many other insect species, as well as birds.

Taylor and the members of Monarch Watch are advocates for all wildlife.  I first interviewed Taylor thirty years ago for a story about killer bees, so he knows about insects with a bad reputation, too.  As we move around and alter the landscape, we alter the mix of insects and animals that can live there.  Human activity sometimes makes it harder for the beneficial insects to survive.

“We use the charisma of Monarch butterflies to get people interested in other pollinators,” he says. What’s good for pollinators is also good for other animals.

This honeybee finds nectar on a tropical milkweed in the pollination garden at Monarch Watch on the KU campus.

This honeybee finds nectar on a tropical milkweed in the pollination garden at Monarch Watch on the KU campus.

Leave some wild areas in your yard, he suggests.

“Some people get into trouble with their neighbors for creating a more diverse, abundant landscape,” Taylor says. “But a wild and wooly garden provides a lot of food and protection for wildlife.”

City and suburban dwellers are often afraid of wildlife, but Taylor assures people that most pollinators aren’t dangerous.

“You practically have to pick up a bee in your hands to get stung,” he says.

Some public and private institutions are taking the lead.  The Kansas Department of Transportation has greatly reduced mowing along the right of way of some of its highways to restore the native grasses and wildflowers there.

The Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, has restored sixty acres of its campus to natural prairie.

Among good sources of nectar:

  • impatiens
  • marigolds
  • lilacs
  • azaleas
  • sunflowers
  • ageratum

    Scary and beautiful is this Pipevine Butterfly caterpillar in the Monarch Watch greenhouse.

    Scary and beautiful is this Pipevine Butterfly caterpillar in the Monarch Watch greenhouse.

  • asters
  • butterfly bushes
  • purple coneflowers
  • zinnias

Caterpillar food plants include:

  • milkweeds
  • hackberry trees
  • snapdragons
  • willows
  • hollyhocks
  • members of the carrot family
  • thistles

To learn more go to www.pollinator.org or www.monarchwatch.org

6 Comments

Filed under Animals, Biology, Education, Environment, Family, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Random, University of Kansas

Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly Metamorphosis

Time Lapse – Phoebis sennae Butterfly Pupates-Emerges

In this video, a Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar pupates and emerges as a butterfly.

Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas held its annual open house Sept. 6, 2008, in its home at Foley Hall. Hundreds of visitors toured the building, greenhouse and Pollination Garden where hundreds of thousands of flowers were in bloom. Visitors could see the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly and its caterpillars in all stages of metamorphosis. It was a little rainy, which didn’t bother the caterpillars, but made the butterflies find cover.

Children threw around words like metamorphosis and proboscis, and hundreds of them took home monarch butterflies in chrysalis form. I’ll be posting photographs of the open house, including many of its star caterpillars and a few of the brave butterflies that came out in the rain.

Entomologist Chip Taylor is the founder of Monarch Watch, which is dedicated to the education about and conservation of monarch butterflies. Hundreds of other kinds of pollinators benefit, too.

Almost 80 percent of the food we eat depends on the work of pollinating insects and animals. Monarch Watch and Pollinator Partnership are on my blogroll, so visit them!

2 Comments

Filed under Biology, Education, Environment, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Random, Science, Uncategorized, University of Kansas

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Blackswallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel.

A black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar chews on the bronze fennel in my garden.

I’ve been chasing butterflies with my camera — actually, there was just one black swallowtail butterfly.  I saw the first one of the season today, and it’s September 5.  What happened to the rest?  I’ve seen one monarch, a handful of yellows and possible even a zebra butterfly.  I spotted dozens more last year in the neighborhood by this time. 

Why does this matter?  Butterflies are among that essential group of animals called pollinators, necessary to transfer pollen to fertilize nearly 80 percent of our food crops.  Some, like bees, are disappearing at a rapid rate.  Without pollinators, there wouldn’t be much to eat.

I’ve planted enough flowers for a 24-course butterfly banquet. I’ve got butterfly bush, butterfly weed, stonecrop, coneflowers of all kinds, asters, zinnias, phlox…….yum, yum.  When I finally spotted a black swallowtail today, he or she flitted about the weed-whacked vegetation on the golf course — no nectar flowers there.  While just on my side of the fence, I had the Country Buffet awaiting….What’s the deal?

Black swallowtail butterfly.

This is the first black swallowtail butterfly I've seen this year. I couldn't get it to pose on a flower.

I did follow the progress of about two dozen black swallowtail caterpillars on my bronze fennel (a member of the parsley family) throughout the summer  — evidence that butterflies did flutter in and lay eggs, probably while I was sitting at my computer complaining online to fellow “butterfly nerd” friends that there weren’t any butterflies.

I’m heading soon to the Pollination Garden open house at the University of Kansas.  I’ll find out what’s going on with butterflies this year and let you know. To learn more, go to the links to Pollinator Partnership and Monarch Watch on my blogroll.

If you were a butterfly, could you pass this up? Delicious!

If you were a butterfly, could you pass this up these flowers? Delicious!

6 Comments

Filed under Biology, Environment, Gardening, Humor, Insects, Kansas, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Random, Science, University of Kansas

Welcome, Bees

A male carpenter bee visits a basil blossom in my 2007 garden. Photo by Cathy Sherman.

Humming Praises for the Wild Bee  (Link to New York Times article.)

 I was excited to see carpenter bees buzzing around my yard yesterday.  It was like seeing old friends, although some of these bees hadn’t lived through the winter but were the offspring of last year’s bees.  They live in holes they’ve drilled in the support beam of my deck. I’ve been assured that this won’t damage the deck.  Hmmmm.

They swoop, chase and divebomb each other.  Sometimes they pause, hovering back and forth, up and down, spoiling for another round with each other. Most of the sparring partners seem to be males.  Figures, huh. You can tell the males by the white bulls-eye on their faces.

I was sorry I didn’t have much for them to eat yet this season.  Last year, a trio of carpenter bees regularly visited my basil flowers. I’m glad something got a use out of my basil.  I didn’t do much cooking with it.  I did make some pesto, which is still in the freezer.

We’re busily digging up more lawn to enlarge our garden.  Last year, I realized I didn’t have enough bees when my squash plants didn’t produce any fruit. I had to hand pollinate — I learned a lot about the sex life of acorn squash.  This year, I’m choosing plants that bloom throughout the whole growing season to feed the bees and other pollinators.  Hopefully, we might even harvest a few crops for ourselves.  

 

1 Comment

Filed under Gardening