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The Birds and the Bees

It’s November on the Gulf Coast. The weather has finally cooled off and windows and doors are open to let in the fresh air. Hurricane cleanup continues. Life has settled down into a routine once again.

Here on the homestead, we’ve hatched out our annual batch of chicks, so the house is filled with peeps. It’s a month late, but that’s okay. We have 15 babies, five of which are roosters. We’ve begun socializing them, so every evening is play time. Hurricane or not, life on the homestead carries on.

One of the things we do every fall is make sure that pollinators are happy for the winter. When you mention pollinators, everyone generally thinks bees, but bees are only one of many. At our house, we have bees, yes, but we also have hummingbirds, butterflies, wasps, moths, and even bats. We try to accommodate for all of them.

Not necessarily the best pollinator, but she tries.
Photo by Sherry Smith

A fail-proof method of attracting butterflies to your garden is to plant milkweed. Milkweed is a host plant for the beautiful monarch butterfly, but it is an attractive garden flower, as well. Here on the coast, it is a hardy perennial, evergreen when we have particularly mild winters. We have milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) growing in our front yard and in our back yard. As a consequence, we always seem to have monarchs fluttering around, along with a myriad of other butterflies. I have one caution, though, with growing milkweed: it can be very invasive. It produces seedpods full of seeds that are reminiscent of dandelions with their fuzzy little parachutes carrying them far and wide. If you don’t want an entire yard full of milkweed, I would recommend snipping off the seedpods before they open.

A beautiful monarch visiting the milkweed.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Every fall, we plant flowers for the bees. We also allow the patches of Dutch white clover that spring up all over our lawn to remain for them. The bees love the flowers; plus the plant itself is one that fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere so it can help feed the soil. What many don’t realize is that the flowers are edible. They make a sweet jelly that is a fresh treat during the winter. Along with the white clover, we can also plant unused garden beds with crimson clover as a cover crop. Again, the bees love it and it feeds the soil, and it also crowds out any weeds that may want to spring up. There are many garden flowers and herbs that are good sources of nectar for bees that bloom in our mild winters. Bachelor’s buttons, calendula, borage, yarrow, rosemary, and primrose are just a few.

One of our honeybees visiting the red powder puff tree.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to our yard. We hang feeders around for them, but they do love our flowers. We don’t see quite as many of them in deep winter, i.e. January and February, but here it is November and we still have them flitting about. Many of the same flowers that attract butterflies also appeal to the little hummingbirds. They love our milkweed as much as the butterflies, but they also love our pride of Barbados and morning glories. We often see them flitting about our back yard visiting one flower after another. They also like to sit on the pride of Barbados branches and rest. During the hurricane, we had a couple of hummingbirds take shelter in the dense growth. In fall, we check to make sure all of our feeders are clean and filled. In planting flowers for butterflies, we are also planting flowers suitable for the hummingbirds.

When I mention wasps as pollinators, many people look at me strangely and back away slowly. It’s true, though. We would never have figs if not for the wasps that pollinate them. While we don’t encourage them to hang out on the back porch with us while we enjoy a drink and a sunset, we do encourage them to build nests in the fig tree. Consequently, our tree is loaded with sweet fruit (I’m not-so-patiently waiting for them to ripen so I can make jam!), and my husband has to mow around the fruit trees carefully. Wasps also pollinate the native goldenrod that turns our southern fields to gold in the fall.

Bats are important pollinators down here. Bananas, guavas and mangoes are all pollinated by bats, as are agave. Not only that, but the bats also eat insects that can damage the plants. Little wooden bat houses are a great way to make these helpful creatures feel welcome. We love our bats down here. They happily eat the mosquitoes that try so hard to make our lives miserable here in the south. We try to encourage them to stay every way we can!

Moths are another nocturnal pollinator. They pollinate members of the Dianthus genus, such as sweet William and pinks. They also pollinate honeysuckle and evening primrose. Moths are also responsible for pollinating our night-blooming jasmine. What would the South be without the fragrance of jasmine in the moonlit garden? Dianthus are typically fall and winter flowers here on the coast, so we make sure to plant plenty of them for the moths.

Native wildflowers are probably the best choice for attracting a variety of pollinators. These are plants that have evolved side-by-side with the local pollinators, and often they contain an abundance of nectar while hybrids can be sterile and contain none. Open-pollinated heirlooms are another good choice for attracting these garden friends. These are plants that still require pollination to propagate, thus the reason they are so popular with gardeners who like to save seeds from season to season.

The monarch caterpillars are just as striking as the butterflies.
Photo by Sherry Smith

Providing shelter is also an easy way to encourage pollinators to stay awhile. As I mentioned, simple wooden bat houses attached to trees or poles will encourage these nocturnal pollinators. Keeping birdbaths or small dishes filled with clean water will encourage bees and butterflies to linger. The mason bee houses available in so many garden centers are easy enough to either buy or build. Obviously, not everyone can raise bees in their back yard, but if it is possible, why not? Our bees have quickly become indispensable since we’ve had them. Our summer harvest was abundant with all of the bees buzzing around the flowers, in spite of the hurricane and flooding. As an added benefit, next year, we’ll be able to harvest our own fresh honey and beeswax. I’m all for producing as much of the food I feed my family as possible.

Our porches are usually covered with these.
Photo by Sherry Smith

One of the things about living in a mild-winter area is that the pollinators who typically migrate south to escape the cold end up here for at least part of the winter. The ones who hide away for the winter in northern regions are still out and about down here. There is seldom a freeze to encourage them to hibernate or move on. We like to do as much as we can to help these creatures survive the winter months when nectar can be scarce, and we like to provide them with shelter when they need it. To this end, we make it a point to plant as many pollinator-friendly plants as possible. They repay us by pollinating our winter garden. We consider it a win-win!


Here is my recipe for jam made with fresh figs. It makes four 1/2-pint jars. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

• Approximately 3 pounds of figs (washed with stems removed)
• 2 cups sugar
• Juice of 1 lemon

Directions:

1. In a large saucepan, combine the figs, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the cover and continue simmering, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens. Once the jam has thickened considerably, begin to stir constantly to keep it from scorching.

2. Fill sterilized jars with the hot fig jam, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Put lids and bands on jars and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

Published on Nov 21, 2017

Mother Earth Gardener

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