Rescuing Bees

Over the summer we discovered that we had unexpected residents in our second owl box, the one occasionally used by owls but more often by squirrels and then suddenly by honeybees.   beerescuec09-07-14While I prefer the bees to the squirrels, we knew it was best to rescue them. For one, it was supposed to be an owl box, even if it was the “extra” one the owls didn’t typically choose. Two, the chances of the bee colony making it through the winter in that box were slim. Three, my husband is allergic to bees and worried that he’d be at risk anytime he worked in the vicinity of the hive.



Here you can see the bees are staying cool by collecting on the
outside of the box. This effect is called “bearding.”

It’s important to do everything you can to protect pollinators, whose decline is becoming more critical every day. We do our part by keeping an organic wildlife garden that has a diversity of colorful native flowers of all shapes and sizes, as well as water sources that allow insects to safely drink. We also have several bee boxes and even an insect hotel that welcomes nesting native bees. So while we knew we needed to let these precious pollinators go, we wanted to do so in a way that would protect the queen and colony. Time to bring in a bee rescue team!


We decided to call Bee Friendly Austin. Tanya and Chuck rescue bees, and they also have a working apiary and teach beekeeping classes. They arranged to arrive just before dusk, when the majority of bees would be back at the hive (and hopefully sleepy).20140907-IMG_1496beerescueb

Chuck and Tanya donned their bee gear and planned to use only a drill to unscrew the owl box from the tree and a sheet to cover the bees. Chuck did not smoke the bees first, as some might expect. He prefers to avoid that method.beerescuecb09-07-14

The act of removing the first screw with the drill was enough to disturb a handful of bees. Better to be safe than sorry — Chuck opted to get the sheet to cover the hive.



Definitely the way to go.


Three screws undone, and the hive was ready to come down. Chuck made it look so easy.

Meanwhile, our neighbors Jan and Gerry had their own bee colony in one of their owl boxes. How convenient for Chuck and Tanya to pick up two colonies during the same trip. And so they did.beerescued09-07-14 beerescueda09-07-14

It must get fairly warm inside those boxes, even in the shade. Here the bees are bearding again.

beerescuedb09-07-14Chuck used the same technique with the sheet, as it had worked so smoothly at our house. It worked just as smoothly the second time.


You can see that a few bees were agitated by the process, but only a few. The sheet did a great job keeping the majority of the hive calm and together.


There they go, off to their new location. Tanya and Chuck will transfer them to new hives, taking care to locate and protect the queens.

FYI, Bee Friendly Austin coordinates Austin’s annual Tour De Hives. This year’s tour is coming up soon — September 20, 2014. If you are interested in beekeeping, or if you just enjoy seeing one of the events that make Austin special, check it out!


Wildlife Project: Bee Boxes

Many of our flowering plants and crops depend on pollinators, especially native bees, in order to produce fruit and seed. An excellent project for helping native bees is to create places for them to nest. In the case of solitary mason bees, this might be a bee box made of wood, cardboard tubes, or even bamboo. For digging bees, a patch of open dirt is all it takes. As is often the case, these projects can be done with simple methods, but if you have access to power tools, you can take them to another level.beeboxe2013

One idea is to place either cardboard nesting tubes (available for purchase online) or bamboo tubes inside a can. beeboxa2013

I recommend that you use cans with BPA-free lining if possible (Eden Organic, for example).


If you like, decorate the outside of the can. Spanish moss is one possibility. Be sure to use outdoor-appropriate non-toxic glue.


If using bamboo, cut it to lengths of about 6 inches. If possible, select tube portions that are approximately 5/16″ in diameter, or a little larger if you’d like to add a paper liner. This is mainly to provide tubes that are an ideal size for mason bees. A paper liner (see first picture above) can be made with parchment paper cut to about 3″ x 6″ and rolled tightly with a pencil — insert into the tube and draw the pencil carefully back out to let the liner expand to fit the tube.

In order to keep the tubes snugly together, I wrapped around them with masking tape. You can drizzle a little non-toxic glue between them if you like. I also used tape to create a sticky base inside the can. This keeps the tubes in place while letting them be easily removed and replaced as needed later.


If you’d like to hang up your bee can, tie twine or rope around it. Or simply place it in a sunny spot in your garden where it won’t roll or be disturbed by pets or other animals.


Another popular bee box project is to use a power drill to create holes in natural wood. Ideally, these holes would be about 6″ deep, but aim for at least 4″ if possible. The diameter should be 5/16″ — or use 3/8″ with paper liners as described above. The paper liners keep the wood from absorbing too much moisture, and because they are replaceable, they also help keep the holes clean long-term.


When you’ve drilled all the necessary holes, place the bee box in a warm, sunny spot. I’ve also found that particularly here in Texas some partial shade is helpful to keep the Death Star from baking the bees.

MEOinsecthotel06-04-13withtextOf course, to really go all out, your bee boxes can become part of an entire insect hotel!

miningbee6-11Be sure to include patches of open dirt elsewhere in your garden to let mining bees, or digger bees, lay their nests, too! Perhaps create a sign for your special “Bee Patch.”

Of course, it’s also important to provide in your garden native plants and shallow water sources for your bees and other pollinators. Keep your garden and yard pesticide-free, and encourage your neighbors to garden organically as well. Thanks for helping our hardworking pollinators!

To see other nature/wildlife projects for kids, click here.


Wildlife Project: Building an Insect Hotel

One of our spring projects was to give a gift to pollinators and a boost to the ecosystem by building an insect hotel. This type of project is becoming increasingly popular, and it was our turn to make one, by gosh.MEOinsecthotel06-04-13

An insect hotel is a structure that offers native bees a place to build nests, a place for fireflies to lay their eggs, a place for lady beetles and butterflies and lacewings to seek shelter, and so on.


Part of the fun is building it with natural and re-used (untreated) materials, so making one can be super cheap. Ours cost us the price of one 2′ x 4′ piece of plywood, just a few bucks (we could have brought that price down to zero if we had called friends for a spare scrap, but rain was coming and we had to speed up a couple of steps).

Insect hotels can be done very simply, just by stacking materials such as old boards, pallets, or bricks. This makes it possible for even young kids to help create a hotel (check out this link for a huge variety of other people’s insect hotels). An adult should make sure the structure is safe and secure, but kids can help fill the open spaces.


But older kids and adults can really go to town to build the insect hotel of their dreams, so to speak. It can become a real-life math problem, a science project, and an engineering or art or architecture project all in one. Ours is somewhere in between simple and fancy. It LOOKS fancy, but it was remarkably simple — best of both worlds! So while there are lots of ways to build insect hotels, I’m just going to show you how we did ours.


You start with what you have at home or can get for free — this makes every insect hotel unique (what a wonderful concept!). We had five things at home that made this project straightforward and easy to do. The first is that we had 12 vintage screen blocks our neighbor passed along to us a few years ago — we kept them until we could figure out a perfect project for them. We also had an assortment of bricks, decaying wood from one of our raised vegetable beds that was in need of repair, scrap pieces of 2×4 in the garage (for the roof), and lots of natural materials from our garden and yard (sticks, leaves, etc.).

The vintage blocks set the stage for the design, as they also set the height of the shelves. We spaced them just far enough to allow for potential partitions (we would use more decaying wood and some bricks to create these). To add just a bit of additional height, we used two layers of bricks as the base, then cut the veggie-bed wood to size to create the shelves. The reason for the height from the bricks was to be able to add leaf litter underneath the insect hotel to give toads a place to find shelter, caterpillars a place to overwinter, and lizards a place to lay eggs. I should probably mention that we also removed grass and laid down cardboard as a barrier to weeds (the cardboard will break down quickly but will block out light nicely for a while to keep weeds at bay).

insecthotelB05-14-13The roof was the only part where we used new wood, that 2×4 plywood I mentioned, plus some scrap wood lengths we had in the garage.


You can see the basic roof design my kids and husband created to fit the hotel. This is the only piece that involved nails of any sort — everything else is stacked only.insecthotelE05-14-13


The plywood was used to make shingles of a sort. A bit of caulk at the top filled the seam.


Already at this point, a harvestman and a tiny orbweaver spider had moved in. Clearly they were eager for bug feasts to come.

insecthotelJ05-14-13I painted the top section using leftover paint from our house’s exterior — this makes the insect hotel fit the setting nicely, as it matches our house and the color scheme of our garden’s decorations. Of course, it rained that very night, so in the picture it looks dirty. Rain came again for a few days after that — I was so glad the roof was done.


For filling the spaces, our priority was to create places for native bees to build their nests. We collected logs from the yard for this, using a chainsaw to cut them to an appropriate length. Following mason bee nest box instructions, we drilled holes 6″ deep into the wood (the deeper holes allow for female bee eggs — shallower ones produce male bees). So that we could add homemade paper liners to better protect the bees (again, following the advice of experienced mason bee keepers), we used a 3/8″ drill bit rather than the traditional 5/16.”insecthotelN06-04-13


To make liners for the tubes, we cut parchment paper to about 3″ x 6″. These we rolled tightly with a pencil, then inserted them into the holes (they unrolled nicely inside to make a good liner). The liners bring the hole diameter to about the 5/16″ preferred by mason bees.


The screen block was a perfect place to add additional places for nesting bees and other critters. A neighbor on our street is always happy for us to cut down the running bamboo that is invading her yard from her nearby neighbor’s property, so we gathered bamboo, trimmed off the branches, and sliced the bamboo into 6″ lengths of all diameters to fill the holes.

Here we were casual about it — there are lots of different sizes for many species of insects interested in using the bamboo. Some were cut with the bamboo joint at one end, so they are open only from the opposite end (nice for shelter or nesting), while others are open at both ends, allowing an insect to pass into the main hotel structure if it desires.insecthotelH05-14-13

On the middle shelf of the insect hotel, we created partitions with bricks, then inserted rolled corrugated cardboard as lacewing shelters. insecthotelO06-04-13
Additional bricks, with the holes open from the front, protect the cardboard and insects while allowing easy passage for the critters to enter and exit. We also made “A”-shaped partitions simply by cutting more veggie-bed wood to size and sliding it in — no nails required.

Other materials used were decaying wood slices for firefly larvae, loosely placed coir fiber as a general shelter place for small insects, and twigs and pine cones and other wood bits for additional shelter. We filled the roof section with pine straw needles. Though we intended it for insects, it wouldn’t surprise me if Carolina Wrens or other birds will nest in the roof’s pine straw one day. They might think an insect hotel is a perfect place to build their home — convenient food on the spot!


Of course, there was one more finishing touch needed. A grand-opening sign! We made use of some more rotting wood from the old veggie bed and some more outdoor paint, including outdoor acrylic, that we had on hand. We attached a supporting piece of wood to the back, then stuck the sign into a plant pot with some rocks (see top photos above).


View from the back

The back of the insect hotel duplicates the front half, mainly because we liked the front so much.

We’re already seeing evidence of bees building nests, and other critters (including more little spiders) have moved in. What a simple but rewarding project! Though we could have finished this in just a day or two, we spread it out over time due to occasional rainstorms. The most time-consuming part, honestly, was drilling the holes in the logs. You have to take a lot of breaks to let the drill and drill bit cool down — they get hot!

To see a couple of other nifty Austin insect hotels, visit Sheryl’s tall, well-planned structure at Yard Fanatic and Vicki’s clever use of an antique bottle rack to make her uniquely awesome Bee B&B at Playin’ Outside. Another gorgeous insect hotel is Gail’s pollinator condo at Clay and Limestone in Tennessee. Remember to also check out the link at the top to get even more ideas!

Goldenrod Bliss

This fall, the Tall Goldenrod in my backyard reminds me once again why it deserves substantial recognition among native plants. Admittedly, it was planted by a bird in a less than convenient spot in my garden, but the rewards it offers pollinators make it a very valuable plant, and I most happily welcome it — even if it would look better against the fence rather than rising out of my shorter perennial butterfly garden like a giant, absurdly-placed monument. Well, I regularly talk about the importance of layers in nature — I shall simply embrace the layers nature brought to my butterfly garden. When I say Goldenrod, by the way, I mean that in a plural sense — I might have started with one, but I now have more, as is the nature of the plant.

Sphaenothecus bivittata, Double-banded Bycid

Double-banded Bycid pair mating (Longhorn beetles, Sphaenothecus bivittata)
(with an interested 3rd party above)

The vibrantly-colored Goldenrod is currently a source of high drama in my garden. Nectar and pollen banquets have brought pollinators by the hundreds, and along with lurking predators, insect mating, and numerous larvae moving about, there is a constant flurry of activity going on in and around the bright yellow blooms and tall stems. In terms of habitat, the Goldenrod seems to be representative of an entire ecosystem — nature is hard at work, with all its wonderful interactions between different animal species and with the Goldenrod plants themselves. The role of Goldenrod is vital, providing a nutritious food source for late-season insects and other animals.

Tall Goldenrod, Solidago altissima

Goldenrods, or Solidago species, are members of the Aster family. Often similar in leaf and flower appearance, with natural variations in individual species to boot, the plants can be difficult to distinguish from each other. This causes great confusion for those trying to properly identify the species of the particular Goldenrods they encounter. For example, my Tall Goldenrod appears to be Solidago altissima, which some sources say is a subunit of Solidago canadensis, while others consider it to be a separate species. Yet another similar species is Solidago gigantea, or Giant Goldenrod. But for the plant in my garden, its narrow tri-veined leaves, pyramidal collections of tiny composite flowers, fine or absent serration on leaf edges, fine hairs on stems and leaves, and enormous height indicate that it is most likely altissima, but it all depends on the sources you agree with, because canadensis might be sufficient enough an ID. In any case, I appear to be growing what could be called Tall Goldenrod, Late Goldenrod, or Canada Goldenrod. What I do know is this: it’s a Goldenrod. Done.

Augochloropsis metallica, Metallic Green Sweat Bee

Metallic Green Sweat Bee, Augochloropsis metallica

Goldenrods’ normal habitats are fields and prairies, open woodlands, roadsides, ditches, rocky outcrops, disturbed areas, and waste areas. They often spread by rhizomes, creating colonies of clones, and this somewhat aggressive behavior is one reason some people consider Goldenrods weeds. There are species less prone to spreading, and those are perhaps better choices for smaller gardens. In my garden, my single plant has become a colony of about 12 clones, but what that means is that now I have 12 large, gorgeous bloom clusters to support wildlife. Goldenrods also can spread by seed, of course, which is how I ended up with a Goldenrod in my garden in the first place.

Goldenrods on occasion get another bad rap, unreasonably so. People suffering from hay fever sometimes wrongfully blame Goldenrods, which bloom about the same times as the wind-pollinated Ragweed, the true allergy-causing culprit. Goldenrod is mainly insect-pollinated, its pollen too heavy to be blown very far. Think of all those poor Goldenrods, mistakenly cut down when Ragweed was really to blame!

Goldenrods have high wildlife value. They are extremely important to pollinators, offering copious nectar and large, sticky pollen grains. At any point in the warmth of the day, I have hundreds of pollinators visiting the blooms. Standing up close to the flowers, I enjoy the movement of flying insects all around me, bees and wasps completely ignoring me as I turn blooms here and there for a picture or to study a particular insect. They just go about their business, eagerly moving from bloom to bloom to bloom. One cool morning, I even found three honeybees effectively frozen on the Goldenrod flowers, waiting to be warmed by the sun so they could begin to collect pollen again.

Syrphid fly

I can say confidently that the fragrant and bright Goldenrods have attracted the largest variety of insects of any plant in my wildlife garden. Multiple bee and wasp species, as well as a variety of flies, beetles, butterflies, and true bugs are attracted to the tantalizing blooms. In terms of numbers, the honeybees are the most plentiful, followed closely by numerous sweat bees, all gathering pollen and nectar. There are also many bee mimics, typically flies; their black and yellow coloration potentially help protect them from danger.

White Crab Spider

But where there are such numerous insects, beneficial predators are certain to follow, including spiders, dragonflies, birds, lady beetles and their larvae, and other natural population controllers. Many birds and mammals benefit directly from Goldenrods, as well. For example, Goldfinches and some sparrows eat Goldenrod seeds. Sometimes mammals, small and large, will eat the foliage, though it’s typically not a preferred food source for them.

Aside from the fun I’ve been having watching all the wildlife visiting my Goldenrods, there’s no denying that the bright yellow blooms provide a tremendously attractive pop of color to my garden. They love full sun and can tolerate part shade, and they like it neither too wet nor too dry. Blooms occur from late summer to fall, depending on the species. Often Goldenrods are paired with Fall Aster for a beautiful contrast of color. If there is a concern about potential spreading, transplant regularly and remove spent flowers before they go to seed. Otherwise, let your Goldenrod plants expand naturally if you have the space to allow them to do so — the pollinators will thank you for it!

Allow me to show off some more of the creatures that have been visiting my Goldenrods. Get ready for some yellow!

Scaly Bee Fly (Lepidophora lepidocera), with a Honeybee

Scaly Bee Fly

Close-up of the Scaly Bee Fly (Lepidophora lepidocera), with Honeybee.
Note the humped shape of the bee fly.

American Snout Butterfly on Goldenrod

American Snout Butterfly

Thread-waisted solitary wasp

Thread-waisted solitary wasp

Augochloropsis metallica, Metallic Green Sweat Bee

Metallic Green Sweat Bee, Augochloropsis metallica

Odontomyia cincta, soldier fly

Soldier Fly, Odontomyia cincta

Lady beetles, matingLady beetles, mating

Ladybug larva

Ladybug larva

Syrphid fly

Just a sample of many!

Flower Power — Welcome, Pollinators!

It’s National Pollinator Week! Pollinators work so hard — they deserve a week of honor! So let’s celebrate our hard-working garden buddies that visit our flowers and help them reproduce. Below you’ll find some tips for supporting pollinators, and over at Beautiful Wildlife Garden you’ll see some pollinator fun facts I collected. Hurray for bees, bats, birds, moths, flies, butterflies, and beetles!


Megachilid (Leaf-Cutter Bee) on sunflower

About 90 percent of our flowering plants, in addition to so many of our food crops, need animal pollinators to help them produce fruits and seeds. Because of habitat loss and chemicals being used in the environment, many of our pollinators are in serious trouble.

Here’s how you can help:

  • Plant a diversity of plants native to your region.
  • Avoid pesticides and herbicides.
  • Limit lawn areas and instead provided a connected habitat of trees, shrubs, and perennials.
  • Have a water source that allows small pollinators to drink safely.
  •  If you plant non-natives, make sure they are not invasive in your area. Remember that cultivars are not always used by pollinators. For example, flowers that have many more petals than normal might not be accessible by the pollinators that would have visited the original native species. Likewise, nectar and pollen in cultivars might be altered enough to be no longer attractive to pollinators.
  •  Plan for blooms throughout the seasons. Redbuds are early bloomers, while Goldenrod, Gayfeather, Gaura, Sages, Frostweed, and others bloom right up into November. Of course many wildflowers and perennials bloom right through spring and summer!
  • Plant caterpillar host plants, leave some bare patches of earth for digger bees, and set out bee boxes — help keep the cycle of pollinators going!
  • If you can, provide moist dirt areas to invite butterfly puddling.
  •  Keep a little untidiness — this provides shelter for pollinators!


Snowberry Clearwing Visiting Peach Blossoms

giantswallowf05-30-11.jpgGiant Swallowtail on Purple Coneflower

Pollinators are all different — some have long tongues and visit tubular flowers, while others have short tongues and visit flat or small flowers. But that’s not all….

Bees love white, yellow, or blue flowers. That’s why sunflowers and many crop flowers are so popular with bees.

Hummingbirds are frequent visitors of red, orange, and white flowers. Did you know that white-winged doves are also pollinators? They pollinate saguaro plants in the Sonoran Desert.

Butterflies are attracted to bright flowers, often red or purple, and they will visit flat flowers and flowers with narrow tubes.

Moths love white, pink, and pale flowers with sweet scents, particularly those that emit scent at night. Some moths, like Snowberry Clearwings, are diurnal.

Beetles visit white or green bowl-shaped flowers. They aren’t the most efficient pollinators, but they still count!

Bats like white, green, and purple flowers that have strong odors at night. Our bats in Central Texas eat insects, but in other areas, different bat species are key pollinators for agave, cactus, and other plants.

Flies are generalist pollinators — they visit lots of different plants. Consider them friends!


Hummingbird visiting Flame Acanthus

A diversity of native plants is absolutely the key to helping pollinators. There are fantastic planting guides available to help you choose great plants to attract specific types of pollinators, and you can also see suggestions for ongoing blooms throughout the seasons.


Honeybee visiting a sunflower


Join us in celebrating our pollinating friends, and do what you can in your own garden to help protect and support them!

New Garden Bed Does Well Despite Drought

The drought is hitting Texas hard — fires in West Texas, shriveled-up lakes, suffering wildlife, and many a plant succumbing to the lack of water. But my drought-hardy natives are doing relatively fine, all things considered. The garden has toughened up for the hot summer — it has had to, because I’m just not a person to water much. Sure, the plants would look more lush if we had rain, but lush doesn’t matter in a drought. Surviving does.



The butterflies have been relatively few this year so far, thanks to the drought, but the bees have been plentiful. We’ve seen more native bees than ever, and even our bee boxes are getting used — yippee. In particular, the wood ones in the shade are popular. The bamboo box is in the sun and to my knowledge has not been visited by any creature, bee or otherwise.

pondbermf06-09-11.jpgWe’ve been adding plants around the raised hot-tub pond, bringing the dirt up in a sort of berm. I know it doesn’t look like much at the moment, but it will transform over time. As the plants grow, the pond will have a backdrop of taller evergreens, and the berm itself will be covered in wildlife-friendly plants of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The leaves you see are used as mulch — they are doing an excellent job of keeping any weeds under control and keeping the soil moist, and they are freeeeeeeee.

pondberme06-09-11.jpgTo build the berm, we used the dirt that had been dug out to form our still fantastic sun garden pathway. Amazingly, we still have at least half of the dirt left even after creating the berm — this will become additional contour somewhere else in the yard, most likely. Actually, I should back up in this story — first we dug out ugly Bermuda grass from around the pond, covered the area with cardboard and newspaper, and THEN built the berm. We also mixed in some well-needed compost.


Leftover flagstone from the patio project became a pathway across the berm.


Leftover flagstone was also used to create steps to the built-in pond bench. I plan to refine the steps, but they’re a start. You can see that we don’t water grass. Bit by bit the Bermuda grass is dying out, and the Buffalo Grass is naturally taking over, particularly in the back half of the yard. This patch is still mostly Bermuda, though — die, die, die.

<Momentary pause as I observe all the mockingbirds visiting the birdbath in the front. Usually I see all the other songbirds visiting but not mockingbirds. Today they seem to be staking claim, those naughty birds. I wonder if the backyard birdbaths are dry. Or perhaps (and more likely) the shaded birdbath has cooler water. Hmmmm, I’ll revisit the water source locations, I guess.>

I’ve been transplanting plants to the berm from around the garden, and amazingly they’ve done well despite the transplant (organic seaweed during planting helps). The Texas Lantana is happier than ever before, not doing well in its first location near the pond pre-berm. We’ve got Lindheimer’s Senna, Mealy Blue Sage, Gregg’s MIstflower, Chocolate Daisy, Blackfoot Daisy, Milkweed, Missouri Primrose, Basket Grass, Engelmann’s Crag Lily, Flame Acanthus, Rock Rose, the world’s tiniest Evergreen Sumac, and non-native Almond Verbena and Dutchman’s Pipevine, with lots more to come once fall rolls around.


pondbermd06-09-11.jpgAbove is a young Soapbush, Guaiacum angustifolium. It was a treasured find at the last fall Wildflower Center sale, but I didn’t get it in the ground right away and I’d almost given it up for dead by the time we made it to spring. However, just look at it now. It seems quite happy in the berm. Someday it will have the most adorable purple flowers.

The wildlife moved in immediately — always a sign that we are doing something right. The sparrows flew in to see what seeds they could find in the freshly placed soil. Doves walked up the berm, and then they walked down the berm, almost like ducklings in a row. Skippers and hairstreaks and swallowtails and bees arrived to visit new blooms.The dogs love it, too. They’ve got a new obstacle to run laps around, and they’re actually using the flagstone path to cross the berm… most of the time.

miningbee06-09-11.jpgAnd look, a little mining bee began to work on a nest in a patch of bare earth.

The drought is terrible, but there is hope for the garden. Given that the birdbaths and ponds have constant avian traffic, I know the drought is really rough on the wildlife right now. We even had a doe visit the front yard birdbath for the first time yesterday — I’ve never seen one venture this close to the house before, so she must have been really desperate.

deer06-08-11.jpgYou can see her ribs, poor little skinny thing. I don’t mind the deer, but I make sure to not directly feed them (I plant unpalatable plants in the front). Without natural predators, there also isn’t a natural balance to the ecosystem as would be found in the wild — no population check. But that doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t go out to them during times like these. She can drink water from the birdbath if she likes.

I do have to post a picture of my friend and neighbor Jan’s screech owl babies. I imagine they’ve fledged by now, but as soon as I heard about them, I zipped down for a picture. A-dor-a-ble!

That makes two successful nests in the neighborhood this year! My husband made the boxes for Jan and for our own backyard owls following the Audubon building plans. We’ll tweak the design a little next time for easier access for cleaning, but otherwise, they are obviously good nest box designs.

I leave you with a parting image of a House Finch watching a sunflower seed fall.

housefinch06-11.jpgOh, well, little finch, rest assured it won’t go to waste. There will be plenty of birds happy to collect it from below.

Wildlife Spotted… and Spotted Wildlife

Say what?!!

screech05-11.jpgThat owl up there is driving us crazy, though I’m sure it would say the same about us. All day long it sticks its head out of the nesting-box hole and does NOTHING. Nothing except occasionally stick its head out farther to see what we’re up to in the yard (which usually is us sticking our heads around trees to see what the owl is doing). Just go ahead and show us some baby owlets or bring in a rat or make an eerie screech owl noise or something, would you? We’re so happy our screech owl is here, but it’s just weird that it hangs out of the hole all day long.

GSfrog05-02-11.jpgThat being said, I have a feeling I’ve been unnecessarily blaming our frogs for causing the odd shortage of our once-abundant toads. Most likely I should be blaming the screech owl. After all, we’ve apparently set up a rather nice buffet table for the owl, which watches over the pond from its vantage point up in the nesting box. The male toads come out at night, innocently croaking loudly to attract a potential mate, and it’s just possible that their call instead acts like a beacon to bring the silent predator from above right to them.

Check out who this green frog is watching — someone better be careful!

Of course, it’s entirely possible the pond frogs really are to blame — they are certainly not above cannibalizing (toads are actually frogs, you know, and frogs will eat frogs). It appears we have created the ultimate frog haven in our hot-tub pond. The frogs spread themselves out across the water (so as to not get too close to their hungry neighbor, I assume), and then they wait for whatever moving morsel dares to venture close. I’m still trying to determine the species we have — at the very least, we have both American Bullfrogs and Southern Leopard frogs, but the markings are odd on a couple of them.

And they are all getting big. The largest bullfrog is getting downright scary (cue “Jaws” music).


bullfrogd05-02-11.jpgI still have to get in the pond to get acorns and such out of it — my spring cleaning is way overdue — don’t I look forward to it with Gigantic Freaka-Frogazoid there joining me! I’m just kidding — I love frogs.

checkeredgarter04-30-11.jpgOf course, also on the toad hunt might be this Checkered Garter Snake — it has a perfect waiting spot among the pond rocks. Our garden habitat is an ecosystem at work, that’s for sure. All the same, I suggest all toads immediately head to our front-yard pond. It’s smaller, but a little toad-safer for the time being. 

Here’s one toad we found alive and well — hop and hide, little one! Hop and hide!



Nearby, a cardinal flew in for a seed and a close-up. Blue Jays splash in the birdbaths, hummingbirds dance in sync together, doves play follow-the-leader… and still our screech owl sits in its nesting-box hole.

All around town, the wildlife and native plants are doing their best to handle drought conditions. Check out this beauty seen at McKinney Roughs — it’s a Great Purple Hairstreak.

greatpurple05-02-11.jpgDon’t see any purple on it? That’s because there isn’t any. By the way, this little beauty’s host plant is Mistletoe — consider it a plus side to the parasitic plant.

This next image is of a beautiful little Southern Emerald Moth — however, its wings were up instead of laying flat, and it didn’t seem able to fly, poor thing. This is the second time I’ve seen this moth in the same condition at the same locale, Hornsby Bend.

southernemeraldb04-30-11.jpgThe Retamas (also called Jerusalem Thorn) lining the ponds at Hornsby Bend are in full bloom right now. These airy-yet-thorny native Texas plants tend to spread when they get plenty of water, but the bees and birds sure love them. It’s understandable. Beautiful yellow blooms and thorns for protection — sounds great to me.

retama04-30-11.jpgBees, generally speaking, do love the color yellow. Bees visiting Prickly Pear blossoms go a little crazy with it — they act almost drunk.

pricklypearb04-23-11.jpgBut the winner of the bee-attracting flowers right now is the blooming century plant down at Natural Gardener.

centurya04-30-11.jpgI think several hives of honeybees came to visit.


Too bad I couldn’t climb up there to get a closer look. To put the height in perspective, take a look at this:


Time to get back out in the garden while the temperatures are still pleasant with our temporary cold front — hopefully more wildlife will join me!

TX Mountain Laurel Brings Out the Pollinators

GSmtnlaurela03-17-11.jpgBeautiful mountain laurels in full bloom caught my eye during a recent visit to the Canyon Lake area, and I had to venture over to get a whiff of the grape-scented fragrance emitted by the flowers. Intoxicated by the scent, I paused to look around and realized that I wasn’t the only one enjoying the blooms.

GSbeeonmtnlaurela03-17-11.jpgAt first the honeybees caught my eye, especially as my ears sensed them, as well. They really had to push their way in to get at the nectar. If I were a bee, I would have worked hard to get in there, too — it smelled divine.

GSbeeonmtnlaurelb03-17-11.jpgA hoverfly rested briefly on a seedpod.

GShoverfly03-17-11.jpgIt was difficult to catch a picture of a hoverfly in the air — they didn’t hover much that day. Too busy trying to get energy refuels, I guess. But I’m fond of this motion shot, blurry that it is:


But the showstoppers of the day were the native bees, in this case metallic blue leaf-cutting bees. Dr. Jack Neff, a native bee specialist, tells me that they are likely female Osmia ribifloris, the bluest of our early season Osmia.

In the photo above, the bee has darker hairs on its upper thorax, while the bee below sports white pollen on her upper thorax and head hairs, with bonus yellow pollen “socks” (or at least “legwarmers”).”


But as you can see in the next photo, the real pollen-gathering spot for this bee and other members of the Megachilidae family is on the ventral side of her abdomen, where little hairs hold the pollen she collects. This specialized area for pollen transport is called the scopa.

GSbluebeec03-17-11.jpgAccording to Dr. Neff, these lovely blue leafcutters apparently like to utilize old organ pipe mud dauber nests for their own nests, and they’ll chew leaves to make a green paste that they’ll then use to plug the nest holes. Clever little natives. 

Beauties, these little bees. I feel lucky that I got to observe them for a time.

GSbluebeee03-17-11.jpgGetting back to the Mountain Laurel, inside those seed pods are the Mescal beans, as the seeds are often called, and they’re bright red and highly toxic. Some people like to take the seeds, rub them on a sidewalk to build up heat from friction, then burn the person next to them. Ouch.

GSmtnlaurelseed03-17-11.jpgThe Texas Mountain Laurel is a slow-growing, small, evergreen Texas native tree. It thrives in our Texas weather and soil and on “not being messed with” — as in plant it and then leave it alone. Since this method of gardening works for me, I have three now and counting.

Trekking Through the Roughs

roughse09-05-10.jpgYesterday morning our hiking crew of friends and family visited McKinney Roughs Nature Center, an LCRA park near Bastrop in Central Texas. Not to be confused with McKinney Falls State Park, the Roughs is home to 18 miles of pleasant hiking trails that take one through peaceful woodlands, past wildflower meadows, and along the scenic Colorado River.

The park is located where four distinct ecological regions converge: East Texas Pineywoods, Riparian, Blackland Prairies, and Post Oak Savannah, and these regions can seem to suddenly switch on you as you walk along the trails. I think of three words when I picture my time at McKinney Roughs — “beauty,” “solitude,” and “wildlife.” Birds, butterflies, bees, lizards, spiders, turtles, mammals — everywhere you turn, you either see wildlife, or you see evidence of it. Wildflowers line the paths, vines climb the trees, and sunlight filters through the trees to highlight shrubs or snags or other interesting elements of nature.

A little anole welcomed us at the front gate, though he did hang out among some thorns. Good for him.


Up at the visitor’s center, spectacular flowers and berrying-plants provide a colorful scene, alive with zooming hummingbirds, busy bees, and fluttering butterflies. The building in the photo is the Natural Science Center, closed except for educational purposes, but all about the grounds, demonstration gardens teach visitors about native plants, wildscaping, and water conservation through rain collection. There’s even a tepee to sit in. And the visitor’s center itself holds large aquariums and terrariums, with all sorts of live creatures inside. So much to do, and so much to learn.


If all that wasn’t enough, McKinney Roughs offers even more– nature programs for youths, dorms for groups, stargazing and kayaking programs, and vertical challenge courses, including a climbing tower.

roughsr09-05-10.jpgBut the park trails are truly the “diamonds in the Roughs.” They are well made and easy to traverse. Dogs on leashes are allowed, as are horses. It says something good about a park when people bring their horses from across the state to take them on the trails.

roughszd09-05-10.jpgWe chose about a 5-mile route, traveling on several connecting trails. The paths took us through all four ecological regions, letting us see quite a variety of plant species and terrain. Pine needles in portions reminded us when we were in the pocket of isolated hardwoods known as “Lost Pines.”


The paths took us to overlooks and valleys, dry creek beds and the river, and through woods and meadows, but always the trail was well defined and constructed, particularly whenever a slope was present.

roughszm09-05-10.jpgAnt lions left little pits in the sand along the paths.

roughszc09-05-10.jpgAll around were plants I’d never seen before, and I realized that while I can identify many native species, it was clear I had a lot more to learn. But many of my favorites were around.

Like American Beautyberry…


Texas Persimmon, with its beautiful peeling bark…


Inland Sea Oats, with seeds in transition from green to brown, and so many others.


While I could identify this next plant as a bird-friendly Pokeweed due to its very dark red berries, I didn’t know much about it, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s very dangerous to mammals, sometimes even lethal — so don’t eat it. This is a time where the saying “You eat like a bird” best NOT apply.


Another new one for me — this appears to be Tall Gayfeather, also known as Tall Blazing Star, Liatris aspera. The stalk was indeed so tall that it needed the support of a younger plant.


And this is Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea. Thank goodness it didn’t have different colored seeds — I might not have ever identified it otherwise. Not surprisingly, those beans are toxic.


It was hard to resist taking pictures of all the wildlife we saw. And ohhhh, we saw a lot. What a joy to experience nature at its best.

Near the visitor’s center, this Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly worked really hard to make it as difficult as possible for me to take a picture of it, but I finally got one. It’s on Pride of Barbados — not a true native, but a sun-loving wildlife-friendly neighbor from the south. 


Well, actually I did get two photos. I believe this is another Pipevine Swallowtail, though its markings are less vibrant. It’s on Tropical Milkweed.

roughsv09-05-10.jpgIt was pretty neat to see so many different species of Swallowtails all in the same vicinity. Here’s an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.


And a good old-fashioned Black Swallowtail on Texas Lantana.

roughsz09-05-10.jpgNearby, a Gulf Fritillary drank from a Turk’s Cap.

roughsq09-05-10.jpgOff in the woods, a pollinator favorite was Shrubby Boneset, or White Mistflower. Bees and butterflies all flocked to it.


Here’s an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Female, a dark morph.


And, of course, the Mistflower-loving Queen.

roughsu09-05-10.jpgBut Mistflower wasn’t the only plant the pollinators loved.

roughsf09-05-10.jpgSolitary wasps collected nectar and pollen, as well. This digger wasp is a wonderful predator of grasshoppers and katydids. I wish it lived at my house.

This black-and-white wasp is a Mason Wasp, Monobia quadridens.

roughsh09-05-10.jpgDown at the river, we soaked our feet in the cool flowing waters.

roughsza09-05-10.jpgWe weren’t alone — fishing birds fished, bumblebees bumbled. And damselflies joined us at the water’s edge, often resting on our feet and toes. This American Ruby Spot stood out among the more common blue-bodied damsels.

That’s just the perfect shade of green on its body to go with the red on its wings.

roughszb09-05-10.jpgA water bug army showed off surface tension physics at its finest.

roughsb09-05-10.jpgWe lingered awhile at the river, taking the time to rest and eat a few snacks. Then it was back on the trail.

Occasionally we had to dodge and duck under cobwebs that stretched across paths. But with them we sometimes found beautiful spiders, many of them orange Spiny-Backed Orb Weavers. But the larger garden spiders stole the show, I’m afraid. Big, beautiful, and very, very still. This lovely lady is an Argiope aurantia. She posed for many views. Interestingly, her web also held a male spider (missing one leg) and several baby Argiope spiders. It really surprised me that she would be so tolerant of other spiders on her web. Well, perhaps not so tolerant of the male, obviously…


The view of her underside looks enough like the parasitic Alien facehugger to give even me the creeps. But she’s utterly fascinating — look at the way she positions herself on her own web strands. Do you see the tension she holds on select threads? Poised and ready to nab any creature who foolishly gets too close to her web…


Argiope aurantia has another name than just Garden Spider. It’s also known as the Writing Spider, named for the zig-zags it makes in its webs, seen in this view of a different female.

roughsl09-05-10.jpgNot to be outdone, other spiders at the Roughs created spectacular tunnel webs and dense webs that seemed almost like blankets.


At last we made it back to the visitor’s center, finishing our trip with a tour of the aquariums and terrariums. And after our hike, we enjoyed a late lunch at the Roadhouse in Bastrop. Great food. I had to skip dinner, I was so full. 

McKinney Roughs has become one of my favorite parks in Texas. I’m so glad it’s close to Austin, as I know we’ll enjoy going back. Next time we’ll be sure to take our dogs with us. If you are in the vicinity, it’s a trip worthwhile.


Good Morning, Pavonia

A Rock Rose by any other name would be just as pretty…

Here in Texas, our native Rose Pavonia, Pavonia lasiopetala, just loves the hot summers. When other plants curl up for protection from the baking sun, the Rose Pavonia opens up its flowers and puts on a beautiful display.


A gorgeous metallic turquoise female sweat bee (Halictidae) covered herself in extensive pollen grains by visiting the flowers. This behavior not only identifies her as female in the sweat bee world but also distinguishes her from a Cuckoo Wasp, which is remarkably similar in appearance.

pavoniac08-28-10.jpgThe Pavonia flower closes at night and reopens in the warm sunlight. I just love its closed state, like a little flower puppy or kitten all curled up and sleeping. Here is the Brazilian Rock Rose, Pavonia braziliensis, looking like a tiny peppermint-candy rose bud.

When it opens, it is a striking white version of its Texas cousin.


That’s Firebush just behind it, another heat-loving plant. I’m glad these plants enjoy the Texas sun — they remind us of the good side of our hot summers (but thank goodness fall is approaching).