Summer Solstice

The first wild rose (Rosa blanda) of early summer.

It is the season of light in the North. Earth bows its northern pole to the sun extending daylight to almost sixteen hours — eight more since winter solstice last December. Spring flowers are finished blooming, trees are fully covered in lush green leaves, and swelling buds on many perennials will open soon. Fireflies glow in the night. During the day, delicate lacewings, damselflies and dragonflies patrol the garden for pests. I spotted my first monarch of the season a couple of weeks ago when it visited our milkweed patch, which is almost ready to bloom.

Solstice was mild and clear with a high of 76℉. I enjoyed the company of good friends for lunch at an outdoor restaurant. Later, I sat in our garden to soak up the late-afternoon sun’s warmth, to listen to the robins sing and to toast the long summer ahead.

A monarch (Danaus plexippus) seeks nectar among the buds of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Lacewings (Chrysoperla carnea) eat aphids, mites and other garden pests.

An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) catches late-evening sun in the garden.

A bumble bee nectars in a wild geranium blossom (Geranium maculatum).

Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) belong to the evening primrose family.

‘Husker red’ beard tongue (Penstemon digitalis) has maroon stems and leaves.

Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ begins to open.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is a favorite of bumble bees.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) buds will soon open to provide nectar to monarchs and many other insects.

My Mother’s Peonies

In my mind’s eye, I see a cobalt blue glass vase holding three white peonies. It sits on a white linen runner that contrasts with the dark wood of an old mahogany table. The heavy scent of peonies fills the small dining room that is illuminated by a south-facing picture window. A few black ants crawl in and out of the many-layered petals, though we tried to shake them off outside.

Mom’s simple bouquet’s were perfect.  Whether peonies, or other flowers, she fashioned a simple, understated arrangement of whatever bloomed in our back yard. I wish that I had photos of them, but only the memories remain — and they are mine alone. Mom does not remember much of the past because she has dementia. So, I tell her about the white peony bushes that grew at just the right height for me to breathe in their heavy perfume and stroke their silky petals. I speak of warm afternoons when I was very young and how we lingered in our garden to watch bees in the flowering almond, and looked to see if new seedlings had popped through the soil. I speak of the giant basswood tree that shaded the back yard and scented the evening air. Most importantly, I tell Mom how much I loved being with her in the garden.

This week, the first peony opened in my own back yard — white blooms first, then royal red and finally pink. I still touch their soft petals and smell their perfume. I remember with joy the days when I taught my own young son about nature, and I think of Mom with gratitude for all that she has given to me.

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) blossom throughout May in Minnesota.

Spring’s native wildflowers are delicate and fleeting — that’s why botanists refer to them as “ephemerals.” The Virginia bluebell, Mertensia virginica, is one of my favorites. The mature flowers are spring sky blue and usually bloom throughout May in Minnesota. Native to southeastern Minnesota and portions of the eastern United States and Canada, they are a woodland flower that requires moisture and partial-to-full shade.

Virginia bluebell’s early leaves are purple-tinged and the flower buds are pink to purplish.

The leaves first appear with purple highlights and then turn light green. The flower buds also are pink to purple. As the bell or trumpet-shaped flowers enlarge, they become sky blue and fade as they age. About one month after blooming, each fertilized flower produces three or four seeds. In June, the leaves will die back and the plant becomes dormant until the next spring — a typical characteristic of spring ephemerals. I usually place markers by my plants to avoid digging them up if I plant during the summer.

Virginia bluebells grow with tiny blue-flowered Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla “Jack Frost”), variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum “Variegatum”), and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) in my small woodland garden.

Virginia bluebells provide an early source of nectar to bumble bees, honey bees and other species of bees and butterflies that are equipped with a long enough tongue to reach deep into the flower tube.  Want to learn more? Here are a couple of websites to visit for photos and information:

Friends of the Wildflower Garden and Minnesota Wildflowers

November Honey Bee

A honey bee visits a 'Henry Kelsey' rose in early November.

A honey bee visits a ‘Henry Kelsey’ rose in early November.

Under the gentle, midday sun, I walked through scads of scarlet maple, golden aspen and lemon-colored apple leaves that dot our cleaned up garden. I heard a steady buzzing and followed it to a group of buds and blossoms on the climbing rose that grows on our garage. Among the roses floated a single honey bee (Apis mellifera), as leisurely as if it had been a sultry August afternoon, instead of early November. The golden bee rolled in the pollen of each rose before heading skyward.

I miss my small garden so much during the winter. Seeing and hearing that tiny creature brought me great joy — the simple beauty of bee and blossom, the presence of life in the November garden, and a wonderful image to remember when winter inevitably arrives.

Most bees that inhabit Minnesota die in late autumn, but honey bee colonies overwinter. This year’s long, frost-free autumn gives them extra time to fortify their hives for winter. To find out more about how honey bees survive the long northern winter, visit:
What Happens to Honey Bees in the Winter?
Do Honey Bees Fly South for the Winter?

Metallic Green Bees

A metallic green bee (agapostemon) drinks nectar from a Helenium flower.

A metallic green bee (Agapostemon) drinks nectar from a Helenium flower.

A female green metallic bee searches for nectar in a woodland sunflower.

A female metallic green bee searches for nectar in a Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.).

Bees of many kinds visit our backyard garden on sunny autumn afternoons — and not all are black and yellow!  I think one of the prettiest is the metallic green bee, which is a type of tiny sweat bee in the (family Halictidae).  The female bee’s body is usually a beautiful iridescent green.  The male bee has a bright green head and thorax, but in contrast to the female, he sports a vibrantly striped abdomen — black with yellow or white stripes.

Native asters are a favorite of metallic green bees.

Native heath asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides) are a favorite of metallic green bees.

Metallic green bees, typically just a few eighths of an inch in size, are small in comparison to many backyard bees, such as bumble bees and honey bees.  They are short-tongued bees, so they prefer to drink nectar from flowers that have a more shallow, open structure. In our yard they prefer Helenium and asters.

Unlike colonial bees that live in hives, each adult female green bee creates her own underground nesting chamber in which she lays her eggs. Sometimes, several females construct individual nests near each other, but they remain solitary.

When cold weather arrives in late October, the male green bees die. Fertilized females survive because they form a layer of insulating fat and burrow into the ground to overwinter. Next spring, they will lay eggs in new underground nests and continue the life cycle. Most years, green bees should be visiting your garden by the end of April.

A green bee catches the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

A male green bee catches the warmth of the late afternoon sun on an aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii).


Garden Damsels and Dragons

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis) damsel fly.

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) damsel fly.

The early morning garden is a place of shadows and peace. Cardinals, goldfinches, mourning doves and house wrens ring out their song in neighborhood trees. Already, bumblebees work the flowers — bluebells, bee balm, hyssop and milkweed — buzzing softly.  Almost camouflaged in the deep green shadows, a tiny damselfly perches atop a milkweed leaf. An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), its slender body, less than an inch long, is mint green, blue and black. The wings are folded over its back in damselfly style.

Across the backyard, a much larger dragonfly relative hangs from the edge of a hosta leaf, wings held away from its body horizontally. It is a green darner (Anax junius), one of the largest dragonflies in the world at three inches in length and with a wingspan of more than four inches. Its spring-green head and thorax hide it among the hosta. It “wing-whirs”, or rapidly vibrates its wings to warm up its flight muscles — and that movement catches my eye and reveals its presence.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest dragonflies.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest surviving dragonflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies are members of the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones”. Unlike the peaceable bumblebees, they are fierce predators, hunting for small insects in the garden and eating many pests. Odonata are descended from some of Earth’s most ancient creatures. Fossils of ancient dragonfly ancestors (Protodonata) date back 325 million years. Scientists believe that bees evolved more recently — about 120 million years ago; the oldest bee fossil discovered so far is about 100 million years old. Both insect families contribute to a healthy garden.


Common Snowdrops

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) often bloom in the snow, but this year the snow melted weeks ago.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) often bloom in the snow, but this year the snow melted weeks ago.

Every spring I hunt for some fresh green glowing against the snow-covered or brown landscape, depending on the year. Patches of moss, which often remain green under the snow, are refreshing, but the first snowdrops that push through the soil and bloom speak of the awakening earth.  Last Saturday, a sunny, warm afternoon when cardinals sang and a pair of great-horned owls hooted softly to each other, I found a lovely patch of snowdrops blooming in my sister, Theresa’s, shade garden.

Common snowdrops have three white outer tepals and three smaller inner tepals that are white and green.

Common snowdrop blossoms have three white outer tepals and three smaller inner tepals that are white and green.

Snowdrops are small bulbs that grow and bloom right through the snow.  This year’s early warmth melted the snow, so the tiny flowers stand out in contrast to autumn’s brown leaves that still cover the soil. The Latin name, Galanthus nivalis, roughly translates as “snowy milk flower.” Sources that I read say that the name refers to the blossoms looking like drops of snow or milk.  Snowdrops are native to Europe and will grow reliably in USDA zones 3 – 7.

Late-Winter Beauty

Star-like snow crystals add beauty to common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) in early March

Star-like snow crystals add beauty to common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca).

Soft, wet snow falls in early March. White blankets the garden and lawn, outlines tree limbs in frosty ice, and meltwater gurgles in downspouts.  It’s a peaceful scene — and what’s most beautiful to my eye is the common milkweed in our garden.  All winter long, north winds shook the dead, dry stalks and tugged at the pods until the seeds ballooned into the wind on their silky parachutes. A few seeds float free each day, but most still ride the breeze tethered to their pods.  Minute feathery snow crystals etch the silken strands like starry sequins on nature’s beautiful gown.

milkweedwholeThough the stalks are tattered, rough and hollow, soon spring-green shoots will pop through the soil to grow new plants and nourish bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. But for today, I’ll enjoy the crystal-covered seeds and the snowy scene knowing it will soon give way to spring’s warmth.ballerinaseeds2

Gray-Day Gratitude, Bright Autumn Colors

One morning last week, I walked in our garden between bouts of rain. I wanted to enjoy the warm, mild air before a cold front rolled in that evening. Chipmunks had retired to their underground dens, birds were quiet, and I saw no insects. The exposed wet earth in the gardens smelled almost as fresh and pungent as in spring. Oregano and sage still scented our little herb garden. (I miss the aroma of fresh herbs so much during the winter.) A few bright patches of color accented the beige, russet and brown of mid-November, tiny remnants of a beautiful summer and autumn. I am so grateful for gentle autumn days and memories of a lovely, bountiful growing season.  What nature and garden memories bring gratitude to your mind and heart?

Fan-shaped gingko leaves fell much later than the maple leaves.

Fan-shaped gingko (Gingko biloba) leaves drop much later than many other leaves.

American woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta) fruit is a winter treat for some types of songbirds and small mammals.

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) fruit and leaves.

Moss in the north-facing garden of our backyard.

Moss in a north-facing garden of our backyard.

Common milkweed (Aesclepias syriaca) releases it silky seeds.

Common milkweed (Aesclepias syriaca) releases it silky seeds.

A tiny red maple seedling in the backyard.

A tiny red maple (Acer rubrum) seedling in the backyard.

Beads of rain adorn daylily fronds (Hemerocallis).

Beads of rain adorn daylily fronds (Hemerocallis).

Wild grape (Vitis riparia) leaves etched in maroon.

Wild grape (Vitis riparia) leaves etched in maroon.

Raindrops on crimson barberry (Berberis) fruit.

Raindrops on crimson barberry (Berberis) fruit.

The beauty of a single woodbine leaf in the empty garden.

The simple beauty of a single Boston ivy leaf in the empty garden.

An empty robin's nest and red maple leaf tucked into a dwarf blue spruce.

An empty robin’s nest and red maple leaf tucked into a dwarf blue spruce (Picea pungens).

Ornamental kale in a sunny spot.

Ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea) grows in a sunny spot.

Carrot Wasp

A slender carrot wasp nectars on agiopoda.

A slender female carrot wasp nectars in the early evening sun.

One recent evening, a thread-thin burst of movement caught my eye in our garden.  It was a wasp —  slender, agile and fast as it nectared in the early evening sun; and unlike most wasps, it held its abdomen at an unusual vertical angle.  It was too thin and small to fit into the familiar wasp categories.  After searching several resources, I identified it: a carrot wasp in the family Gasteruptiidae spp.  (There are 15 different species in North America.)  Adults feed on the nectar and pollen of plants in the carrot family, especially wild carrots and parsnips.

Carrot wasps have enlarged back legs and red-orange bands on the abdoment.

Carrot wasps have enlarged areas on the back legs and the female has a long ovipositor.

Carrot wasps are a type of parasitic wasp.  Rather than building a colony, or their own individual cells, they seek out the nests of other solitary bees and wasps, such as digger bees and mud daubers.  A female carrot wasp punctures a cell of the other bee or wasp’s nest, inserts her long ovipositor into the cell and lays her egg.  Depending on the type of carrot wasp, when its egg hatches, the larva will eat the host bee/wasp’s larva, eat the larva’s food, or do both!

Besides the abdomen being held vertically, other identifying characteristics include a visible, prominent neck, a black body with reddish-orange bands on the abdomen, and enlarged areas on the back legs.  These wasps are most common during June, July and August.