Our maturing hedgerow is becoming ideal bird habitat. As it fills in, it provides cover and nesting locations. It also has lots of fruit and insects to offer, which are important foods for our feathered guests. This year, the hedgerow even attracted a new bird species to our yard.
In August, I began spotting a shy bird about the size of a Cardinal or Robin. It was always lurking in the shadows of shrub and tree foliage, so it was difficult to see its colour or any distinctive markings. Finally, it donned on me that it was a Gray Catbird — a very plain, shadowy bird indeed! If you look carefully (below), you can see it does have a darker cap, and a brownish patch under its tail. Our identification was certain once we heard its croaky, mewing call that it is named after.
We eventually realized we had 3 Gray Catbirds in the yard. I’m not sure if they were early migrants or were taking up residence to feed hungry juveniles. They were here for at least three weeks.
According to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds, and the Audubon Society, Gray Catbirds live in dense tangles of shrubs, vines and small trees — just like our backyard hedgerow. I’m trilled to have successfully created a home for them in urban Ottawa. Like I always say, “plant it and they will come.”
Gray Catbirds eat insects and berries, which is why they enjoyed the hedgerow. The native shrubs are host plants for hundreds of kinds of moths and butterflies; their caterpillars are an important bird food, especially for baby birds. Many of the shrubs also produce berries. We watched the Catbirds eating berries from a Serviceberry tree, Gray and Red Osier Dogwoods, and American Elderberry shrubs.
Hunting for insects
Many native perennials are host plants for moths and butterflies. My Wild Lupine seedlings, that were still sitting in pots, must have been very tasty because we found several kinds of caterpillars eating the leaves. The Catbirds were probably checking out my little potted plants because they housed soft, protein-packed snacks.
The Catbirds also looked for insects in the vegetable garden I created in front of the hedgerow.
I hope these entertaining Catbird guests return to our backyard bed and breakfast again next year.
The native shrubs in our yard not only feature beautiful autumn leaves, they also produce colourful berries. Birds leave some kinds of berries alone until late winter, or even the following spring, because they aren’t very tasty. These natural ornaments are a welcome pop of colour in our dreary brown or white snowy yard.
I am baffled why Winterberry holly shrubs aren’t planted more often. Their berries turn a stunning scarlet in late summer, and are contrasted by yellow leaves in fall. Since the snow in Ottawa eventually flattens most perennials and grasses, I think shrubs are the only reliable way to add winter interest in the garden. Conifers, and shrubs with colourful berries and stems, will stick up above the snow when the rest of the garden has disappeared. I love these bright berries so much that I planted more Winterberry shrubs this year.
Winterberries need some space because you must have at least two of them — a male, and a female that will produce the berries. If you have room, you can group up to five female shrubs with one male. I bought my Winterberries from Green Thumb Garden Centre in Ottawa, where they label which ones are male and female, in case you’re shopping before the berries have formed.
Although Winterberry shrubs are naturally found in wet areas, mine grow and fruit just fine in average conditions. However, if it gets too dry in the summer, the unripe berries will drop off. They fruit best in full sun, but I still get lots of berries in part shade.
For most of the growing season, Winterberry hollies are inconspicuous. Their flowers are tiny, but attracts lots of equally tiny pollinators.
Highbush Cranberry viburnum
Highbush Cranberries produce plentiful clusters of true red berries. I planted five of them in a row as a mini-hedge in the front pollinator garden. In the spring, they have large, white, saucer-like flower heads.
Despite their attractive flowers and berries, I’m not sure I would plant Highbush Cranberry shrubs again. They’re a favourite food of the introduced Viburnum Leaf Beetle, which is a problem pest here in Ottawa. I had read that this viburnum species was particularly vulnerable to attack, but I didn’t take the warnings seriously enough. The larvae and beetles eat many tiny holes, making the leaves look lacey, and eventually skeletonizing them.
So far, my Highbush Cranberry viburnums are only partially damaged each year, and continue to thrive. I did see Ladybugs mating and laying eggs on the leaves, so they may have controlled some of the larvae. I also saw wasps around the shrubs (before they flowered), so perhaps they were also killing larvae.
My non-native crabapple trees also hold their fruit for a long time. I chose varieties, ‘Rosthern’ and ‘Prairie Fire’, that produce small fruits that birds can eat. The birds and chipmunks preferred the orange-yellow ‘Rosthern’ crabapples, which soften early, and ate them all by November.
Of course, crabapple trees also have pretty, fragrant flowers in the spring that are loved by all kinds of pollinators and people.
Emergency bird food
We’re most familiar with the seed-eating birds that frequent our feeders. When natural seed sources, like conifers and flower seed heads, are gone — and if our feeders are empty — these birds will eat berries. The berries that remain in winter are birds’ least favourite ones. As the berries freeze and thaw throughout winter, they become sweeter, or at least palatable to birds. They are a critical food source in late winter and early spring when other foods are gone.
Also, not all birds are able to eat seeds because their bills aren’t suitable for cracking them or pecking at them. Instead, they eat insects — and berries when there are no insects. These birds migrate south to spend the winter where there are plenty of insects to eat.
When migrating birds return north in spring, they’re gambling that the weather will have warmed enough for their insect food to be available. This past spring (2019) was unusually cool, so few insects were active when early migrating birds arrived. They had to rely on remaining berries, as well as spring flower and leaf buds, to sustain them until the temperature rose and insects appeared.
The loss of natural habitat, and the native, berry-producing shrubs that grow there, means that birds are left with less emergency food at the end of winter and early spring. I hope that I am helping a few birds at this critical time by planting native shrubs in my yard.
In 2016, I began planting native shrubs around the perimeter of our yard to provide food and shelter for birds. Although most of the shrubs are small, they still put on a spectacular show each autumn. Their bright colours are a beacon to birds signalling where they’ll find ripe berries, seeds, and nuts to eat.
For most of my gardening life, I never planted native shrubs. I don’t even remember seeing them in nurseries. While I eventually planted them for birds, I was pleasantly surprised by their stunning berries and autumn leaves. Why aren’t they more widely available in nurseries, and used more in our yards? I wish I had discovered them earlier.
Two of the most common shrubs that are planted for fall colour are Burning Bush and Japanese Barberry — both of which are invasive in Ontario. For more information, visit the Ontario Invading Species Awareness Program pages for Winged Euonymus (Burning Bush) and Japanese Barberry. Native Highbush Blueberries and Chokeberry shrubs, both pictured above, are frequently recommended as alternatives.
Visit my page Buying Native Plants in Ottawa for a list of nurseries where you purchase native shrubs for your yard. You can also try other local nurseries, but their selection is hit-or-miss.
Sadly, the kaleidoscope of autumn leaf colours doesn’t last long. I even missed my chance to take photos of some of them. So, I decided to permanently capture these lovely colours by knitting a shawl. I gathered an assortment of leaves from around the yard, and chose matching yarns for my project.
I also saw lots of dragonflies in the garden this summer. They darted around displaying their aerial grace and agility as they hunted. I did manage to take a few photos of them while they briefly perched to watch for prey.
In all their life stages, dragonflies are voracious predators. Their larvae grow in water where they eat mosquito larvae and other aquatic creatures, such as tadpoles and small fish. Loss of wetlands, and pesticide spraying to control mosquitoes, threatens dragonfly populations.
At first, I thought the dragonflies were visiting out yard to lay eggs in the pond. Since the water circulates from the pond to the stream, it actually moves too much for either mosquitoes or dragonflies to lay eggs there. Instead, there were here to hunt. Now that we’re providing habitat for so many insects, there’s more food for dining dragonflies.
Adult dragonflies live for only a few weeks. They’re easy to recognize with their long-thin bodies and unique flight patterns. They have huge eyes that give them almost-360 degree vision. They can also detect the slightest movements of their prey or predators.
Their wings are their most amazing feature. They have two sets of transparent wings, and each one can move independently up or down, or can rotate like propellers. As a result, they can hover, turn, and dart in any direction to catch prey in mid-air. These strong fliers can reach 30 miles per hour.
Typically, they eat insects much smaller than they are, such as flies, leafhoppers, and beetles. They do sometimes catch larger meals, like other dragonflies and butterflies. Once they catch a meal, they rip it apart with their strong, toothed jaws.
Dragonflies are colourful, beautiful creatures. Once I examined my close-up photos, I realized that the dragonflies were all different; the colours and patterns on their bodies varied, and one even had patterned wings.
While dragonflies have been observed and tracked at their aquatic breeding sites, less is known about their movement and dispersal beyond their first home. Common Green Darners are well-known as long-distance migrants, like birds and Monarch butterflies. For them, one generation flies south in the fall where they breed, and then their offspring fly north in spring to breed again. (Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, by Dennis Paulson, p. 13) So many dragonflies are migrating right now that they’re showing up on weather radar. (CTV news article)
Throughout July and August, we saw Monarchs daily. They visited the flowers to drink nectar and females laid eggs underneath milkweed leaves. Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed.
Common milkweed roots run vigorously, popping up near and far. Since the roots aren’t dense, and don’t choke out surrounding plants, I just let it be. I simply pull out stems where I don’t want it. If running roots will bother you, plant with another variety of milkweed instead.
As summer progressed, the Common milkweed leaves became tough with age, and wilted and dried with the intense heat and scant rain. Recent research shows that cutting down parts of Common milkweed stands in mid-July helps Monarchs by encouraging those plants to sprout new, tender leaves for the caterpillars (Strategic Mowing of Milkweed Can Help Monarch Butterflies, Say U of G Researchers). This strategy may also help control aphids temporarily.
The more Swamp milkweed the better
As the Common milkweed waned, Swamp milkweed became the centre of Monarch attention. Despite its’ name, Swamp milkweed doesn’t require soggy soil; it actually seems fairly drought-tolerant once it has established. Its’ roots don’t run, either, so it stays in tidy clumps. The leaves are narrow, thin, and easy for caterpillars to eat. For a small urban garden, Swamp milkweed is a good choice.
Two years ago, I grew a white-flowering cultivar of Swamp milkweed from seed, and bought some regular pink-flowering plants as well. Both have self-seeded, so I have many small plants around the yard. I’m leaving them all because is such a great plant, attracting many insects that feed on the leaves, seeds, and flowers.
While watching female Monarchs flying around the garden, they seem to have trouble finding the milkweed. Next year, I am going to group some plants, and let others remain scattered, to see which arrangement is easier for them to find. I felt frustrated watching females circling around, searching unsuccessfully.
I do also have orange-flowering Butterfly milkweed. I grow it because it is short in stature and has such vibrant flowers. I don’t find that many Monarchs, or any other insects, visit these plants though. I am also experimenting with Poke milkweed, which grows in forest clearings and edges, so it tolerates more shade.
Nectar plants too
For a decade, there was little activity at the Common milkweed patch in the corner of our front yard. Once I added nectar plants nearby, we began to see butterflies. The Xerces Society has useful table, Monarch Nectar Plant Guide: Great Lakes, that I used to help with plant choices. Most often, I see Monarchs feeding on Anise Hyssop, Liatris, Echinacea, Ironweed, and Cup Plant. I want to grow more Liatris, and different kinds, especially after reading that it is a Monarch magnet (Liatris Ligulistylis: Meadow Blazingstar for Monarch Butterflies). I also grow non-native, annual nectar plants that are popular with butterflies, such as Mexican Tithonia, Brazilian Verbena, and Zinnias.
For the first time, since we had so many Monarchs around, we observed them mating. They don’t have elaborate courtship behaviours. A male Monarch would hang around the milkweed, perched on top of a tall plant waiting for females. Once a female caught his eye, he would pursue. After a lot of chasing every-which-way, if he was lucky, he would attach to the female in mid-air. Then she carried him around, seemingly unconcerned, and eventually landed on a tree branch or leaf, tired of carrying the extra weight. Apparently, they remain together for hours.
We also witnessed a dramatic love triangle with one successful suitor, and another hopeful male hanging on too.
Raising a few Monarchs
Despite all the Monarch egg-laying, we didn’t find any caterpillars — at all. Less than 12% of Monarch caterpillars make it to the 5th instar. Our dismal 0% survival rate, was very discouraging. Monarch eggs and caterpillars suffer from a variety of predators and parasites, such as ants, lacewing larvae, parasitoid flies and wasps, spiders, and so on. (Michelle D. Prysby, “Natural Enemies and Survival of Monarch Eggs and Larvae” in Monarch Butterfly: Biology and Conservation at Ottawa Public Library)
My youngest son and I decided to collect a few leaves with eggs on them to raise inside. (It is better to collect eggs, rather than caterpillars, because caterpillars harbour fewer diseases or parasitoid insects that can spread.) We cut the leaves off and wrapped the ends in wet paper towel. I placed each one in its own plastic container with a lid. Each day, I checked them. Once they hatched, I gave the caterpillars a new leaf daily, and shook their frass (poop) out of the containers. This was a lot of work. I can’t imagine raising dozens of caterpillars as some other people do.
After reading about a controversial study, Monarch butterflies raised in captivity don’t migrate, I ordered a mesh butterfly enclosure and put the caterpillars outside. For one last egg, I dug out the whole Swamp milkweed plant it was on, and put it in the enclosure. This was much easier than replacing leaves every day. If I ever raise caterpillars again, I am only using whole plants in pots, or I’ll cover plants that remain in the ground.
It was fascinating to watch each Monarch caterpillar grow so quickly, transform into a chrysalis, and then emerge as a butterfly. I had never witnessed this month-long process before. I’m glad we were able to help a few Monarchs survive to the adult stage. For more information, visit the Montreal Insectarium’s Mission Monarch Life cycle page.
Monarch migration underway
As early as mid-August, the first Monarchs began heading south. When our last delicate butterfly breaks out of its chrysalis, it will join them on this phenomenal journey. It is the great-great-great-great grandchild of Monarchs that spent last winter in Mexico.
In Ottawa, I see many Monarchs flying South-west along their migration route (red arrows on this Xerces Society map). I’ve also been following their movement throughout Ontario via Facebook groups: Pelee Paradise Sanctuary Monarch Waystation #10275, and Monarchs Migrating Through Ontario. Participants share spectacular photos of Monarchs congregating, feeding in gardens, and roosting in trees. They gather waiting for the wind to carry them southward across Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Over the past few weeks, the numbers of Monarchs have increasing from tens, to hundred, to thousands. To follow Monarch migration beyond Ontario, you can visit Journey North.
(Interestingly, large numbers of dragonflies are also being seen migrating through Point Pelee National Park as well. I only recently learned that dragonflies migrate.)
On July 31st, armed with my camera, I patrolled the front and back yards. As I always say: “You never know what you’ll see in the garden!” In the backyard mini-meadow, I spotted an unusual-looking bumblebee. I took photos of it and headed inside to identify this new bee.
It appeared to be a Yellow-banded Bumblebee — a rare and declining species. Eager for an expert opinion, I fired off a few emails and submitted photos to Bumble Bee Watch and iNaturalist. Others confirmed that it was a Yellow-banded Bumblebee. If it had a yellow patch at the tip of its abdomen, the ID would be conclusive; however, Yellow-banded Bumblebees don’t always have this distinctive patch. I was very excited about our special bumblebee guest.
A celebrity bee
This Yellow-banded Bumblebee has continued to visit our back garden. I feel like a paparazzi because I’ve taken so many photos and videos of it.
Yellow-banded Bumblebees are medium-sized with alternating yellow and black bands. They look particularly round and fuzzy because of their short, even body hair and short heads. In one of my phone videos, I can see the bumblebee’s yellow moustache, indicating that it’s a male. Also, I’ve never seen this bee collecting pollen, as female workers do.
Yellow-banded Bumblebees used to be one of our most common bumblebees, but their numbers have declined drastically since the 1990’s. Here in Southern Ontario, it is still observed, but it has declined to about 10% of its former numbers (York University study). In 2016, Ontario designated the Yellow-banded Bumblebee a species of ‘special concern’ that should be monitored closely. Why has it declined so dramatically? It’s complicated.
Yellow-banded Bumblebees are habitat generalists. They live wherever the flowers and nest sites are — woodlands, wetlands, meadows, farmlands, and urban areas. Since they aren’t fussy, why is our changing landscape a problem?
Natural habitats have been cut, plowed, bull-dozed, and paved. Unfortunately, the province is now allowing this to continue unfettered by government controls, and without regard for threatened wildlife. The suitable habitat that remains is fragmented.
For bumblebees, that spells trouble because isolated populations become inbred. According to a York University study, Inbreeding and disease are factors in decline of Yellow-banded Bumblebee: “As bees become more inbred, they encounter difficulties maintaining their populations, but as their populations gets smaller, they have difficulties avoiding inbreeding. So that is one risk factor that could accelerate their decline.”
These study findings are supported by research into declining bumblebee species in Britain. Dave Goulson, founder of the British Bumblebee Conservation Trust, shares similar research conclusions in his easy-to-understand books A Sting in the Tale (available at Ottawa Public Library) and A Buzz in the Meadow (at OPL). When I recently re-read these books, I was startled by the similarities.
Parasites and diseases from managed bees
Early in May, on a birding bus trip to Point Pelee Provincial Park, I saw fields full of greenhouses, after greenhouses, after greenhouses… In the town where we stayed, the many surrounding greenhouses cast an eerie, orange glow on the clouds at night that looked like fire.
Many of these greenhouses grow tomatoes so we can have fresh ones in February, and Canadian-made ketchup. Greenhouse-grown tomatoes are pollinated by managed colonies of Common Eastern Bumblebees, and they tend to have more diseases than wild bees. When these managed bees escape and forage outside in the landscape, they spread disease when they visit the same flowers as wild bees. Again according to the York University study, Yellow-banded Bumblebee inbreeding has reduced their genetic diversity and made them particularly susceptible to diseases spread from managed bees.
Pathogens and parasites also spill over from managed honeybee hives. Ontario has the highest number of registered beekeepers in Canada, and they help farmers pollinate crops. Increasingly, amateurs are taking up backyard beekeeping in a well-intended effort to help bee populations. (Ontario Species at Risk Evaluation Report for Yellow-banded Bumble Bee (Bombus Terricola)) Unfortunately, if honeybee problems aren’t identified and addressed quickly, they will also spread to, and harm, wild bee populations.
Still, why are Yellow-banded Bumblebee populations affected more than other types of bumblebees? Some other bumblebee species’ numbers are stable, or even increasing. It turns out that flower preferences, and thus food availability, has also contributed Yellow-banded Bumblebees’ decline. They will visit a wide variety of plants for pollen to feed queen bumblebees and bumblebee larvae. However, they are fussier about the flowers they visit for nectar, their fuel.
A bumblebee’s tongue length determines which flowers it can reach into for nectar. Bumblebee species with long tongues are declining more quickly than others. Wait a minute…Yellow-banded Bumblebees have short tongues. In the podcast A Way to Garden, Beecology: how you can help native bumblebees, Robert Gegear explains that all of the species in decline are in the same functional group — they all visit flowers with longer, tubular flowers for nectar. The short-tongued bees, like Yellow-banded Bumblebees and Rusty-patch Bumblebees, have an innate behaviour called nectar robbing; they bite holes in the base of long flowers to reach the nectar. For more on nectar-robbing, read the Sting in the Tale.
Even though Yellow-banded Bumblebees are habitat generalists, much of Southern Ontario’s landscape is now poor quality habitat, devoid of the flowers these bumblebees need to survive.
Now that we know some reasons why Yellow-banded bumblebees have declined, what can we do to help them?
Plant the right flowers
The easiest thing we can do is plant lots of flowers for them. Since they don’t mind living in urban areas, we can provide new, quality habitat for them in our gardens. We need to include a variety of native plants, eliminate invasive plants and pesticides, and maintain our yards in pollinator-friendly ways.
Beecology is an American citizen science project similar to Bumble Bee Watch. Its website provides specific nectar plant recommendations for declining bumblebee species — the long-tongued bees, and short-tongued nectar robbers that also visit longer flowers. I will be using these recommendations to guide my next plant and seed choices.
Beecology also provides excellent suggestions for pollen-rich flowers used by all kinds of bees. Earlier in the summer, for several weeks, I had no bumblebees in my garden. One reason for their absence was that my garden was missing critical pollen sources. St. John’s wort, meadowsweet, and roses were blooming elsewhere and were covered in bees.
Support conservation organizations
What else can we do? To help maintain and restore habitats on a larger scale, for bumblebees and other wildlife, support conservation organizations. They are at the forefront of research and education, and they are pressuring governments on behalf of wildlife.
You can also help with citizen scientist projects. Bumble Bee Watch, a Wildlife Preservation Canada website, encourages you to submit bumblebee sightings. The data is used to help monitor bumblebee species range and populations, to better understand plant-pollinator interactions, and for other important research. Friends of the Earth also holds the Great Canadian Bumble Bee Count to gather data over a two-month period each summer. Now that I recognize the importance of these projects, I plan to contribute to them.
Hold governments accountable
It will take more than individuals and their urban gardens to restore bumblebee populations, and to protect other wildlife. Everyone needs to do their part, including governments, developers, farmers, and greenhouse operators. Sadly, Ontario’s current government is more interested in financial gain than conservation. Are developers considering wildlife and wilderness during construction? Are greenhouse operators following optional ‘biosecurity’ guidelines? Are farmers reducing harmful pesticides that kill insects and the birds that eat them. We must hold them all accountable. I now sign petitions, buy more organic produce, donate to conservation organizations, and I will vote accordingly.
It is now August 21st. When I last saw our Yellow-banded Bumblebee, he was tucked under a Joe Pye weed flower — his favourite spot to spend the night. This morning, I’ll check on him to see if he’s still around. I know that adult bumblebees don’t live very long, so I cherish every sighting.
For me, he will live on as a symbol. A symbol of the beauty and fragility of nature, and of what we risk losing if we don’t get our act together and take care of the environment. But he’s also a symbol of hope. There is obviously a thriving Yellow-banded Bumblebee nest somewhere nearby that grew large enough to produce queens and males. That’s a good sign. If I can provide habitat for a lone bumblebee, together we can create habitat for many more.
In mid-July, all of a sudden, bumblebees reappeared in my garden again. Hurray!
Males and workers
Numbers continue to increase as we now have males and workers in the mix. In late July, nesting queens switch from laying eggs that will become workers, to laying eggs that will become males and queens. Depending on the bumblebee species, workers live from 2 to 6 weeks (according to Buzzaboutbees.net), so there’s an overlap of ageing, foraging workers and new males. So far, I have only seen one young, mammoth queen.
How can you tell whether a bee is a male or a worker? When I find bumblebees sleeping in, or under, flowers and leaves, I know they’re males. Males don’t live in bumblebee nests; they spend their days drinking nectar and looking to mate, and their nights camping out in the garden. They go to sleep very early, as early as 6:00 pm. They also seem prone to napping, and will stick up a middle leg (not finger) to tell others to buzz off.
Of course, to the trained eye, there are more scientific ways to tell if a bumblebee is a male or a worker: females have pollen baskets (shiny segments with long hairs) on their back legs; males have longer antennae (13 segments, while females have only 12); males have 7 bands across their abdomen instead of just 6; and males have no stingers. Visit the Xerces Society Bumblebee identification for more information.
Size isn’t an indicator of whether a bumblebee is male or a worker because bumblebee workers vary dramatically in size. The smallest bumblebee workers live and work in their dark nest for their whole lives tending to their mother and siblings. Some small workers join their larger sisters in foraging duties outside the nest. Perhaps their differing tongue lengths and body sizes allow them to visit a greater diversity of flowers. A Sting in the Tale, by Dave Goulson of the British Bumblebee Conservation Trust, has been my favourite book for learning about the bumblebees and their life cycle (at Ottawa Public Library).
Common Eastern bumblebees
I used to think that all the bumblebees in our yard were Common Eastern bumblebees. Now that I am learning to identify them, I am noticing look-a-likes, and some distinctly different bumblebees as well. Wildlife Preservation Canada and the Xerces Society provide a handy, single-page PDF ID guide for Bumble Bees of South Central Ontario. The sleeping male above is a Common Eastern bumblebee.
After reading the Wild Pollinator Partnership blog posts about their pollinator surveys in downtown Ottawa, I decided to take a closer look at the bumblebees in my garden. If a variety of bumblebee species live downtown, they might be in the ‘burbs as well. I discovered that some of my Common Eastern bumblebee visitors are actually Brown-belted bumblebees.
Other so-called Common Eastern bumblebees turned out to be Two-spotted bumblebees.
I see many Red-belted bumblebees in the front pollinator garden. They love the mountain mint patch, perhaps because their can easily reach its nectar with their short tongues. These workers and males vary in appearance and can easily be mistaken for other kinds of bumblebees.
I find it very difficult to identify bumblebees, or any insect for that matter, without a picture for reference. I then use the following resources: