Build a DIY Native Bee Home

Pollinators are crucial to the health of the planet, helping with everything from the food we eat to the cycle of life. At the free Unearth Science festival this weekend, the Chicago Botanic Garden will celebrate pollinators with activities including a workshop on making native bee homes. We’ve got a sneak peek for you below.

Did you know that native bees are better and more efficient pollinators than honeybees when it comes to fruit trees? Honeybees carry pollen in sacks on their hind legs, which doesn’t always make it to the stigma of the flowers they visit (anthers are where the pollen grains are picked up; stigma is where they are deposited for successful pollination). Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) carry pollen all over their bodies, which means that the pollen has a greater chance of reaching the stigma for proper pollination. One mason bee can pollinate as many flowers as 100 honeybees. 

PHOTO: Mason bee (Osmia lignaria)
Mason bee (Osmia lignaria)

Mason bees pollinate a wide variety of flowers, in addition to fruit trees, with a particular emphasis on the rose family. They are generalists though, so they pollinate many types of vegetables too. If you are interested in growing fruit trees and vegetables in your yard, you may want to attract and support more mason bees.

Are you avoiding bees because they sting? Another reason to invite mason bees into your yard is that they are nonaggressive. Honeybees and bumblebees may defend their nests if disturbed, so bee skeps—or domed hives—are usually located on larger plots of land, not in typical backyards. Male mason bees do not have stingers, and the females only sting if they are trapped, so there is little reason to fear them.

We asked horticulture program specialist Nancy Clifton for a preview of her workshop at the Unearth Science festival with Northwestern University graduate student Marie Faust. The workshop, Native Bee Homes, is a free event that requires registration. You’ll find instructions for how to make a mason bee home below. Bring your questions about pollinators and other science-related topics to the festival, where dozens of scientists and horticulturists will be happy to answer them.

How to Make a Mason Bee Home

DIY native bee house
DIY native bee house

Supplies you’ll need:

  • Clean, 15-ounce metal can
  • Phragmite reed tubes
    (6 inches long)
  • 2¼-inch-wide bark ribbon
  • Cling floral adhesive (or similar putty tape)
  • Duct tape
    (camouflage blends in well)
  • Scissors
  • Rubber bands

Instructions:

Step 1: placing the reeds. They will stick out of the can quite a bit, so you can extend the lip of the can with duct tape around the reed bundle.
Step 1

Fill the metal can with as many reeds as you can tightly pack inside. Ensure the open ends of the reeds are facing out. Use duct tape to encircle the parts of the reeds that are sticking out of the can.

Wrap 3 strips of bark ribbon around the can and extension.
Step 2

Cut three strips of bark ribbon to wrap around the can and the duct-taped extension. Use bits of Cling adhesive to adhere the bark ribbon to the can in three sections, so it is completely covered.

Make a roof with bark ribbon and duct tape.
Step 3

Cut two 8-inch-long pieces of bark ribbon and duct tape them together along the long edge. Place this over the top of your can as a roof. You want to create a small gable that overlaps ½ inch over the end of the tube to keep the reeds dry when it rains.

Place the bee house against a flat surface in a protected area, with a southwest exposure.
Step 4

Use bits of Cling to adhere the roof to the house. If needed, further secure the roof with two rubber bands. Place the completed bee house fairly in a protected area, against a flat surface with a southwest exposure. Placing the house fairly high up ensures that bees will not mingle with people when entering and exiting their new home.

Leave your house out all summer and you should find mason bees filling the tubes with larvae. For information about storing and incubating mason bees for next year, visit seedsavers.org.

Sign up for the free workshop on making native bee homes with horticultural specialist Nancy Clifton and Northwestern University graduate student Marie Faust at the Unearth Science festival, April 20–22, 2018. You’ll make your own native bee home just as described above.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Trillium: Conserving a Native Wildflower

When spring unfurls, the trillium are among the stars of the native wildflowers—and in coming years, the show at the Chicago Botanic Garden will be even more spectacular.

A ground-level view of forest trilliums in spring bloom
A ground-level view of forest trilliums in spring bloom
White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)
Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)
Yellow wakerobin (Trillium luteum)
Yellow wakerobin (Trillium luteum)

The Chicago Botanic Garden is collaborating with the Huntsville Botanical Garden in Alabama on a Trillium conservation program for the beloved woodland flower. The Huntsville Botanical Garden has one of the most complete collections of Trillium in the United States. In April, Andrew Bunting, assistant director of the Chicago Botanic Garden and director of plant collections, will pick up carefully selected rhizomes, or underground horizontal stems, from Huntsville’s collection.

Biota of North America Program (BONAP) map of Trillium in the United States
Biota of North America Program (BONAP) map of Trillium in the United States

When he returns, the rhizomes will be grown out in the nursery, and in two to three years, the Trillium plants will be replanted in areas to be determined throughout the Garden. 

Currently, the Chicago Botanic Garden has eight species of Trillium growing in the McDonald Woods, the Sensory Garden, the Native Plant Garden, and Lakeside Garden. If all goes well, the Huntsville transplants will bring dozens of more taxa, or individual types of plants, to the Garden. 

When we began our collaboration with Huntsville, we catalogued each of its Trillium species to evaluate which ones from its collection might grow in our limestone-based soils and USDA Zone 5 growing conditions. Typically, the species likes the rich, acid soils and deep shade of the ancient eastern forests. But there are several species that thrive in the more alkaline soils across the Midwest. Our goal is to expand the range of growing areas for some species and increase the overall diversity.   

Trillium plant parts illustration.
Trillium plant parts illustration from Trillium, by Fredrick W. Case and Roberta Case, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 1997.

Urban growth and development over the years has cleared the forests in many of the natural habitats of the species. Some species, like Trillium persistens, are extremely rare and considered endangered. Trillium are so beloved that they have appeared on two U.S. Postal Service stamps.

Come for an early spring walk to look for trillium and other wildflowers in the McDonald Woods. Or join a free guided McDonald Woods wildflower walk at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, as part of the Garden’s new Unearth Science festival.


Marcia Glenn

Marcia Glenn volunteers with Andrew Bunting and the Plant Collections team, and Lisa Hilgenberg in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. She has more than 30 years of experience in agriculture, international trade, government policy, and management, and has served on several boards. She has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in agricultural economics and is a master gardener.


Photos by Huntsville Botanical Garden
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Scrambling to save the aspens

Just below the summit, we scrambled past enormous boulders to an unhappy sight—a small group of beautiful aspens in big trouble.

As curator of woody plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I’m interested in what’s happening to quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) because the trees have become increasingly threatened by geologic disturbance and climate change. The Garden is part of a research group that’s working to collect root pieces and other genetic material from the aspens in the Chisos Mountains of west Texas; the material will allow us to raise the trees in cultivation and then plant new ones in the wild. The quaking aspens project is just one part of a broader Garden goal to protect species and promote biodiversity.

As part of the initiative, I met with Adam Black, director of horticulture at the famed Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead, Texas. Adam is a plant geek at heart and knows the Chisos Mountains intimately from 20-plus years of exploring there. He put together the collaboration between the Chicago Botanic Garden, Peckerwood Garden, the National Park Service, and the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

Quaking aspen growing out of the boulder field below Emory Peak, Big Bend National Park (white trunks visible in foreground)
Quaking aspen growing out of the boulder field below Emory Peak, Big Bend National Park (white trunks visible in foreground)

In mid-February, Adam and I began the long, steep trek toward Emory Peak, in Big Bend National Park, gaining about 1,800 feet of elevation in 4 miles. Passing through Laguna Meadows, I first glimpsed the stunning white bark of the aspens growing out of enormous boulders above us. Adam and I dropped our packs and scrambled across the boulder field, photographing the terrain and aspens as went.

The chalk-white bark of these quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) contrasts with the Mexican pinon pine (Pinus cembroides) growing amongst the boulder field.
The chalk-white bark of these quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) contrasts with the Mexican pinyon pines (Pinus cembroides) growing in the boulder field.

When we reached the trees, it quickly became clear that this grove of aspens was unlike any other I had seen before. Aspens usually grow in enormous clonal groves, which means that the trees are essentially a single plant, connected by one elaborate root system. The grove below Emory Peak includes only 40 trees or so, in poor health. Jason Smith, Ph.D., forest pathologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, believes that the trees are under stress from the radiant heat of the rocks in which they are growing. When the trees grow to about 25 feet high, they get a canker disease—a fungal infection—and quickly die. 

Adam and I collected root pieces and shoots from six separate trees in the grove, all good genetic material that will allow us to cultivate the plants. Reaching the roots was no easy task. The aspens are growing in the remains of what appears to be a major rock collapse from an igneous intrusion, or rock formed from intense heat that has crystalized into molten magna. While most aspen colonies spread upward from roots in less than 18 inches of soil, these trees grow through several feet of stacked boulders. As we moved from tree to tree, I struggled to keep my footing on the shaky boulders and tried not to cause a rock slide down the mountain.

With GPS data and root sections in hand, Adam and I climbed up to the mountain’s East Rim, where we were rewarded with stunning views of the Chisos Mountains, canyons carved out by the Rio Grande River and Maderas Del Carmen Reserve in northern Mexico. The next morning, camping on the mountain rim, watching the sunrise cascading across the United States-Mexico border, I forgot about the 8-mile descent ahead of me until it was time to pack up and go. During the hike down, Adam and I stopped by the second group of quaking aspens that we’re studying; a month earlier, Adam and Dr. Smith had collected root pieces from the trees for propagation.

Sunlight fading over Sierra Del Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico
Sunlight fading over Sierra Del Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico

After the team cultivates new plants from the genetic material we collected, the trees will be distributed to botanic gardens and arboreta across the country and added to the institutions’ conservation collections. The team is also doing genetic testing on the Chisos Mountains trees to determine how they relate to other aspen populations.

 

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The SciFi Rant

I have been a fan of science fiction since the early days of Star Trek on TV (Yep, I am that old). I think it is one of my strengths, as a scientist, that I have the ability to visualize “out of bounds” solutions. I like to think this open-mindedness has contributed to my successes.

I discovered a love of growing plants and archaeology as a young child on a ranch in West Texas, surrounded by miles of vegetation and peppered with intriguing traces of the people that had lived on the land before I got there.

Coming from a family of modest means, I realized that I did not have the luxury of “discovering myself” at college, and so at 16, I made a short list of possible careers with their pros and cons: growing plants and studying ancient civilizations. Neither career path was going to result in wealth, but that was not a major goal in my life’s plan. (Yes, I have on several occasions wished for time travel to reevaluate the advantages of wealth.) A strong contender was archaeology, but one of the cons was that if I were out of a job, I would not have the skills to grow food to feed my family. Don’t you just love spreadsheets? So growing plants was to be my career—and if I were unemployed, at least I would have the skills needed to grow food for my family.

I soon learned that within the whole plant science field were a number of specializations, not just “growing things”: horticulture, botany, plant taxonomy, plant physiology, plant genetics, agronomy, and plant pathology. Yikes, another decision!  Like any good budding scientist, I knew research was in order:

  • Horticulture is the art and science of growing plants.
  • Botany is the scientific study of plants, including their physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance.
  • Plant Taxonomy is the science that finds, identifies, describes, classifies, and names plants.
  • Plant Physiology is a sub-discipline of botany concerned with the functioning—or physiology—of plants.
  • Plant Genetics deals with heredity in plants, specifically mechanisms of hereditary transmission and variation of inherited characteristics.
  • Agronomy is a branch of agriculture dealing with field-crop production and soil management.
  • Plant Pathology is defined as the study of the organisms and environmental conditions that cause disease in plants, the mechanisms by which this occurs, the interactions between these causal agents and the plant (effects on plant growth, yield and quality), and the methods of managing or controlling plant disease.

Horticulture was the name of the discipline I wanted to specialize in, and that, as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “was the rest of the story.”

So where does the rant about SciFi fit in?

Siting on the couch with my son and watching E.T. the Extra-terrestrial for the umpteenth time, I was dismayed to learn in the director’s cut that the original title had been The Botanist. Now everyone in plant sciences knows that botanists are great folks to share a beer with, but they are lousy at growing plants. If they could grow plants ,they would be horticulturists, not botanists. But I let this one slide, Steven Spielberg is a great guy, and everyone deserves a break sometimes. Besides, in an alien culture, perhaps the two are more closely aligned. (Another example of out-of-the-box thinking!) 

Fast forward to The Martian, a real thriller that pushed all of the right buttons in my SciFi loving psyche…except that they described the survivor as a botanist. No self-respecting botanist would know enough about growing plants and their requirements to pull off that feat. Nope, another missed opportunity. Obviously a horticulturist; a botanist would have studied the tubers as they dried up and died. The horticulture field just lost another opportunity to attract the first generation to grow plants on another planet!

ET: A tiny botanist, or maybe something a little more cross-disciplinary? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal
ET: A tiny botanist, or maybe something a little more cross-disciplinary? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal
Mark Watney may be a biologist, but here he's a horticulturist. Photo via wallpaperscraft.com.
Mark Watney may be a botanist, but here he’s a horticulturist. Photo via wallpaperscraft.com.

The stomach flu earlier this year was a really unpleasant experience, but while channel surfing Netflix last weekend, I came across a SciFi series called The Expanse. Yep, that was me for four days straight—watching a total of 26 episodes—knowing that I was out of it enough to be able to come back in a time of health and catch some details my fevered brain didn’t absorb. (Yes, Netflix was concerned and periodically offered me alternatives, but I was hooked.)

About halfway through the second season, the action shifts to a food production facility featuring solar collectors, greenhouses, and plants grown in hydroponic solution. Vital to survival of our species in space, plants cleanse the air and provide nutrition for space-based operations—NASA has been working on it for at least 40 years. Great scenes, great actor, actually got the technical terminology right…and then they referred to him as a botanist!

My wife, son, and our new puppy came rushing to my bedside—such a cry of anguish they had never heard. They reassured neighbors at the door that everything really was “all right.” Ugh!

A FluorPen is used to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants.
John “JC” Carver, a payload integration engineer with NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Test and Operations Support Contract, uses a FluorPen to measure the chlorophyll fluorescence of Arabidopsis thaliana plants inside the growth chamber of the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) Flight Unit No. 1. Half the plants were then harvested.

Dear SciFi movie writers, directors, etc.: In space, plant scientists probably wear many hats, but please note: horticulturists grow plants; botanists study them.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Celebrating George Washington Carver during Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, I would like to call attention to a botanist who would have fit in very well at the Chicago Botanic Garden: George Washington Carver. He was a gardener, a soil scientist, an inventor, a genius, and a good guy.

George Washington Carver (1864–1943)
George Washington Carver (1864–1943)

You probably know Carver as the famous black scientist who invented dozens of products for peanuts. What’s most important about his story is why he devoted so much time and ingenuity to peanuts and how he did so much more than make a high protein sandwich spread and cooking oil.

I’m not a historian or biographer, so this story will omit details about Carver’s life—being born into slavery,  studying agriculture in an era of racial discrimination, and becoming a botany professor at Tuskegee University. While these details are interesting and definitely worth learning, you can read about all that in other places. Instead, this snapshot is devoted to celebrating how one humble scientist used his botanical superpowers to solve a real-world problem. It is a story about successfully tackling agricultural sustainability and economic stability at the same time.

Carver grew up in the south and he knew the agricultural conditions very well. Soil in the southern states is fine and dry. Summers are long and hot. These are suitable conditions for growing cotton, a profitable cash crop. The problem is that cotton needs a lot of nitrogen. Several years of growing cotton on the same patch depletes the soil, making the crop yield less and less over time. In the late nineteenth century, commercial fertilizer was not available—and even if it had been, the poor people who worked the land couldn’t have afforded it. To make things worse, in 1892 a little pest called the boll weevil moved northward from Mexico and began invading and destroying cotton crops. The boll weevil population spread and plagued the south through the 1920s and ’30s, making the life of a cotton farmer even harder and less rewarding.

Peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea)
Peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea)
Photo by Biswarup Ganguly [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A cotton boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis)
A cotton boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis)
Freshly harvested peanuts, still attached to the roots of the plant.
Freshly harvested peanuts
Photo by Pollinator [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Carver knew this life because he had lived it, and he wanted to make it better. He worked to teach farmers about crop rotation. Legumes (like peanuts and soybeans) and sweet potatoes have the ability to convert nitrogen from the air to a form that plants can absorb from the soil. Planting what is called a “cover crop” of peanuts instead of cotton for a year restores the nitrogen in the soil so the cotton grows better the next year. As an added benefit, diversifying crops by growing peanuts and other plants that the weevils do not eat helps reduce their population so there are fewer to harm the cotton crops. Sounds like the answer to all of their problems, right? So of course, farmers changed their practices right away, and lived happily and sustainably ever after.

Not quite.

You see, at that time peanuts were only used as cheap feed for livestock, and nobody was buying a lot of them. A farmer could not earn as much money growing peanuts as he could from his dwindling crop of cotton, so changing crops was financially risky, even as the cotton was failing. Carver realized he had to solve the market problem or farmers were never going to plant cover crops. THAT is why he set out to invent more than 100 uses for peanuts from 1915 to 1923. 

Products that were developed by George Washington Carver and made available commercially.
Products that were developed by George Washington Carver and made available commercially. Photo via the National Park Service Legends of Tuskegee exhibition.

He didn’t stop there, He also worked to promote his inventions to businessmen and investors in order to create a demand for peanuts, because, as we all learned in high school economics, when the demand goes up so does the price. Then—and only then—did the sustainable practice of crop rotation take hold.

But wait, there’s more.

The increased demand for peanut products also led to an increase in peanuts imported from other countries. In 1921, Carver spoke to Congress to advocate for a tariff on foreign peanuts so American farmers would be protected from the competition. Though it was highly unusual for a black man to speak to Congress in those days, his appeal won over the legislators and tariffs were imposed.

Peanut flower (Arachis species)
Peanut flower (Arachis sp.)

George Washington Carver did not seek wealth or fame for his work. He found personal satisfaction in scientific discovery and using his talents to make the world a better place for farmers and everyone. I believe if he were alive today, he would have embraced the challenge of researching and teaching people about sustainable urban agriculture to improve the health, nutrition, and livelihood of low-income city dwellers just as he did for rural farmers 100 years ago, and I believe programs like our Windy City Harvest grow out of that same spirit and desire to help people make a better living for themselves.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org