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Monday, July 13, 2009

Lovin' the Ladybugs

Gardeners all along the front range are talking about this summer's friendly invasion of ladybugs. I started noticing them on my "volunteer" crop of sunflowers about a month ago. Their numbers have been climbing eversince, and I love to see it!

Whitney Cranshaw, one of the top bug gurus at Colorado State University, says we have our wet spring to thank. All the rain triggered a lot of lush, green growth on our plants. There's nothing aphids love more than tender, succulent leaves and buds. And there's nothing ladybugs love more than aphids. It's all part of the balance that Mother Nature tries to provide when we humans don't get in the way with lots of chemicals, that take out both good bugs and bad.

Quite rightly, children are taught to love and protect ladybugs, also known as "lady beetles." They delight in finding the bright round ladybugs on plants, and recite short poems urging them to "fly away home" to their own children. Maybe it has something to do with the polka dots. Many of the more than seventy varieties of lady beetles in Colorado come with two or more distinct black polka dots on their shiney red body. Polka dots just seem a friendly sort of decoration.

But while we jump to the defense of adult lady beetles, a lot of gardeners would take one look at a ladybug pupa or larva and reach for the insecticide. The early stages of ladybugs look nothing like the charming adults.

Ladybug larva, especially, often look like the voracious predators that they are: very tiny lizard-like creatures with bowed legs and little spiney projections up and down their back. Think of the larva of any insect as its "teenaged" stage. You just can't fill 'em up, which in this case is good. In addition to chowing down on aphids, the different types of lady beetles in Colorado (both larva and adults) thrive on eating mealey bugs, insect eggs, spider mites and scale.

It's well worth getting to know a gardening ally like this in all of its stages and "outfits." Link to the CSU fact sheet on lady beetles and get to know the appearance and habits of these wonderful little insects. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05594.html Get the kids involved, too. They're never too young to learn the notion of balance in the natural world.

As long as the aphid population along the Front Range stays high, the number of ladybugs dining on them is likely to do the same. But when the food source starts to decline, the ladybugs will fly off in search of a new banquet. In the meantime, we should take delight and satisfaction in knowing that there's an army of aphid-eating insects right in our own back yard, and do everything we can to make them feel welcome. Hopefully, they'll take the hint, and come back next year.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Planting for "The Girls"

You should know from the start that I'm not the least bit objective about honey bees. I think they're simply amazing little creatures. A lot of us who are beekeepers refer to honey bees as "the girls," since all of the bees we see visiting flowers and buzzing about are females.

You may have heard that "the girls" are having a tough time of it these days. A puzzling and deadly syndrome called "colony collapse" has been taking a huge toll on honey bee colonies in Colorado and just about everywhere that bees are kept. Entire hives that seem to be healthy and thriving one day disappear the next. The bees just vanish. Scientists are working hard to find out what prompts the bees to leave home. While the researchers work to solve the mystery, there is something we can do as gardeners to help. We can plant with "the girls" in mind.

Tagawa's is ready to help throughout the gardening season with just the right plants that will give the honey bees the pollen and nectar sources they need. Bee-friendly plants make up a long list. There are choices that should suit any gardener's preferences, not to mention "the girls" tastes, too!

If you want to think big, make a long-term investment in your landscape, and treat "the girls" to some first-rate sources of pollen and nectar, think "fruit." Apple trees, crabapples, plums, cherries, grapes, strawberries and berry bushes of all kinds are high on the honey bees' hit parade. The staff in Tagawa's Nursery Department can help you make just the right choice.

Flowering vines and shrubs that contribute to a buzzing bee garden include honeysuckle, trumpet vines, Virginia creeper, lilacs, rabbit brush and Apache plume and silverlace vine. I've promised "the girls" I'll be planting some pussy willows just for them. Pussy willows bloom early in the spring and are an absolute magnet for the honey bees as they welcome the return of warmer weather.

I already have more than a dozen Russian sage bushes getting ready to bloom. Their mid-summer display of soft purple-blue spikes is worth waiting for, and the honey bees just can't seem to get enough of the plants' nectar. I can actually taste a hint of sage in the honey produced from the millions of flights the bees make to the Russian sage each summer.

"The girls" are enthusiastic about many other plants in the sage and Various forms of thyme are a special favorite. During a visit to a friend's garden recently, her thyme was in full bloom with its minute pink flowers. The little plants had so many bees crawling about, they looked like they were moving. Great stuff!

Several kinds of lavender, and just about everything in the mint family, will keep the honey bees happy, too. Just remember that mint is routinely an aggressive plant, and will take over if you let it. The staff at Tagawa's can offer suggestions on how to keep the mints in check.

Agastache and penstemons should be a part of every Colorado garden, and will definitely be a treat for "the girls" in your neighborhood.

The list of bee-friendly plants goes on and on: bee balm (no surprise there), daisies, foxglove, goldenrod, daffodils, tulips, cosmos, sunflowers, asters, gallardia, and poppies. The old-fashioned strains, with pollen and nectar the way Mother Nature made them, seem to be the biggest draw. I do occasionally see the bees visiting my big, flashy (but heavily hybridized) petunias, but the flowers don't seem to be on their "A" list.

Having a bee-friendly yard also includes minimal or no use of potent insecticides. Tagawa's takes pride in being the only certified sustainable garden center in the country. Our staff will gladly advise you on how to keep your landscape healthy.... and be good to "the girls" at the same time.