The Butterfly Garden: A Haven for Wild Bees

A bumble bee (bombus sp) foraging

A bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

In major urban landscape such as Washington, D.C., a place like the Smithsonian Institution’s Butterfly Habitat Garden serves a valuable purpose as a rich and rewarding refuge, not only for butterflies, but also for bees. With so many flowers in bloom at the end of July, it’s easy to see that bees are very important for pollination. A bee moves from flower to flower searching for nutrient-rich nectar, which it laps up with its hairy tongue. In this process, pollen will collect on the bee’s body and be transferred from one flower to another, providing for the production of the seeds that sustain many gardens and wild-flower populations. On the hind legs of some bees, there are corbiculae, or pollen baskets.  These serve a function similar to suitcases, allowing the bees to pack lots of pollen into the baskets for the flight back home to their colony where they share their newfound resource with many others.  Solitary bees do not have pollen baskets, but species like leaf-cutter bees have very hairy abdomens, which collect a large amount of pollen.  Recently the Butterfly Habitat Garden was abuzz with a large number of bee species, including bumble-, leaf-cutter, honey, and sweat bees, all collecting resources and pollinating flowers.

-Lisa Horth is a Smithsonian Gardens Enid A. Haupt Fellow and an Associate Professor of Biology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where she studies plant-pollinator interactions.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa)

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa) with full pollen baskets.

Bumble bee (bombus pennsylvanicus)

Bumble bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) foraging.

Bumble bee (Bombus sp)

Bumble bee (Bombus sp) foraging.

Bumble bee foraging

Bumble bee foraging.

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa)

A sweat bee (Augochlorellaa).

Honeybee (Apis mellifera)

Honeybee (Apis mellifera).

 

July 30, 2014 at 3:00 pm 1 comment

Museum Pests

As a Structural Entomologist, I primarily deal with pests found in any typical urban environment, including cockroaches, ants, flies and rodents; however, working in a museum, I also encounter a completely different classification of pests that provide their own unique challenges.

Wood infesting insects, stored product pests and fabric and paper pests can destroy museum objects in a relatively short amount of time. A carpet beetle or clothes moth that might put a few holes in a $40 sweater could completely decimate an artifact like a wool cap from the Civil War. It’s important to identify pests correctly and to know the early signs of an infestation before an object is irreversibly damaged.

Fur hat destroyed by webbing clothes moths

Fur hat destroyed by webbing clothes moths at the “Museum Pests 2014: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historic Sites” conference at Colonial Williamsburg.

Museum pests are not a topic that is typically covered at pest management conferences or in industry journals or websites. This is why I was so excited to have the opportunity to attend “Museum Pests 2014: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historic Sites” in Colonial Williamsburg, thanks to the Smithsonian Gardens travel grant program earlier this year.

There was an overwhelming number of presentations, workshops and tours to choose from during the two day conference including topics such as pest identification, treatment options, record keeping, Integrated Pest Management policy, and health and safety. Workshops that I attended included tours of the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area and the Collection and Preservation Facilities.

Revolutionary War red wool coat damaged by carpet beetles

A Revolutionary War red wool coat damaged by carpet beetles at “Museum Pests 2014.”

It was reassuring to meet with museum professionals from all over the world and to learn that all of us experience the same basic challenges regardless of whether we work in large complexes or small, historic homes. The information that I gathered in two short days has been indispensable in my encounters with museum pests.

-Allison Dineen, Smithsonian Gardens Entomologist

July 17, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Explore Smithsonian Gardens’ Orchids Online!

At the end of April, after ten months of planning, coordinating, and troubleshooting, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) went live. No, we didn’t kill off all of the plants over the winter and revive them for this announcement . . . I mean live as in on-air, online, and freely accessible! SGOC is now available for the world to explore on the Smithsonian Collections Search Center and is the only living collection to join the multitudes of objects, specimens, and archival records that are contained within the site. Below is a snapshot of what an individual catalog record looks like:

Collection, Orchid record sample

Example of a Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection record in the Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center.

Records are updated twice a month and contain basic information about each accession, such as scientific name, flower color, range (if a species), and taxonomy. One of the best parts of having the collection online is being able to peruse the beautiful images taken by our talented volunteers Gene Cross, Bryan Ramsay, and James Osen.  So far, about a third of the records have images associated with them. We only photograph the orchids when they are in bloom, but many of our orchids (especially the species) are either too small to bloom, or haven’t yet bloomed during their time at the greenhouses.

SGOC’s presence on the Collections Search Center is serving as motivation to improve Smithsonian Gardens’ collection records in BG-BASE and correct plant identification errors.  Our hope is that these records can be a valuable resource for educators, students, researchers, and curious individuals, and a source of orchid inspiration year-round.

-Julie Rotramel, Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections Contractor

July 9, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Auto Vases: an Accessory Born from Necessity

Tiffin glass auto vase

Auto vase, probably manufactured by the Tiffin Glass Company, Tiffin, Ohio. Collection of Smithsonian Gardens.

Imagine yourself after a long day outside; you are driving down the road on a hot summer day with temperatures in the upper 90s. Now imagine there is no air-conditioning in the car; immediately a pungent odor of battery acid hits you and mingles with the stench of the other passengers’ sweat. This experience is not common today thanks to temperature controls that are standard in most cars, but it would have been the case whenever you rode in a car until air conditioners were installed in automobiles in 1939.

There were no pine-scented cardboard trees to dangle from the mirror during this time, and many car owners desperately wanted a reprieve from the foul smell. The auto vase, a term coined by auto magnate Henry Ford, was the solution to the problem. As early as 1895, small vases, which held one or two flowers that emitted a sweet fragrance, became the first automobile air-fresheners.

The auto vase is comprised of a small bud vase with a bracket that allowed it to be mounted inside the car either on the dashboard or by a passenger side window. Vases came in many designs and colors, in a variety of price ranges. They not only improved the smell but also added a touch of elegance to the car interior.  Pressed glass, cut crystal, metal, porcelain, ceramic, and even wood were used for the vases, which were often paired with brackets that were fancier than the vases themselves. The fixtures could be made of silver and some were even gold plated. Smithsonian Gardens preserves three examples of these auto vases in its Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection. One of the three is made from Depression glass with a sky blue satin finish, and is encircled by a nickel-plated bracket.

Auto vases were sold in jewelry stores, auto parts stores, and catalogs from companies such as Sears. Henry Ford was so pleased with these simple solutions that he offered them in his parts department and added them to his system of mass production. The service these vases provided made them a desirable feature to add to any car. With improvements in car batteries and air-conditioning becoming standard in vehicles, the auto vase was no longer necessary. In recent years, however, there has been resurgence in these novelties. Cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle revived these little vases for a fresh twist on their interiors, and drivers of other cars have caught on to the trend.

 

For more information about auto vases:

Steele, Evie. “For your Limousine.” Classic Car, vols. 23-25. Michigan: Classic Car Club of America, 1975. p. 22-23.
Stout, Sandra. Depression Glass Price Guide. Wayne, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1980.
____. “Origin of automobile bouquet holders.” Popular Mechanics, May 1913. Hearst Magazines, 1913. p. 678-679.
Lounsbery, Elizabeth. “Some Automobile Accessories.” American Homes and Gardens, Vol. 10.  Munn and Company, 1913.
____. “Flower-Decorated Motor Cars the Vogue.” Automobile Topics, Vol. 18. E.E. Schwarzkopf, 1909. p. 386.

-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

June 24, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Protecting Pollinators

Did you know that this week is National Pollinator Week? Every year organizations devoted to conservation celebrate pollinators and address the urgent issue of declining pollinator and plant populations. Pollination is the process of moving pollen within flowers or from flower to flower, allowing the plants to fertilize and reproduce. This movement can be done by wind, water, or a variety of animals, known as pollinators. Animal pollinators assist about 90% of all flowering plants in their pollination needs.

The Pollinator Cycle (pollinator.org)

This year’s focus is on native orchids, which depend on a variety of animals for pollination. What is particularly interesting about the relationships between orchids and their pollinators is that while many insects and animals may visit orchid flowers, each orchid species often has a “preferred” pollinator. Unfortunately, if pollinator populations continue to decline, many species of orchids could be at risk.

This is true too for many of our own food sources, including coffee, bananas, and a variety of tree nuts. These plants are truly dependent on their pollinators and in turn, so are we. According to pollinator.org, “worldwide, approximately 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend. In the United States, pollination by honeybees and other insects produces $40 billion worth of products annually.” However, the loss of habitat, chemical misuse, invasive plant and animal species, and various diseases have severely affected pollinator species around the world. Unfortunately, the true scope of damage and the status of pollinators is still unknown, which is why it is so important to work to conserve pollinator species, even the seemingly non-desirable insects, such as flies.

DSC_0216

Bee on a Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) in the Butterfly Habitat Garden

When we think of pollinators, we typically think of the glamorous ones: bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. However, many plants are pollinated by other animals and insects such as bats, beetles, moths, and even flies; each one has its own distinct attraction to flowers. For example, bees, birds, and butterflies prefer brightly colored flowers, while flies and moths prefer pale or dark colored plants. A diverse selection of native plants in your garden can help to support pollinator populations in your area and maintain botanical biodiversity. Pollinator.org has handy regional guides on what plants are native to your area and attractive to the different pollinators in your eco-system.

So what can we do to protect and encourage pollinator communities? In the Butterfly Habitat Garden, Smithsonian Gardens has committed to planting pollinator-attracting plants free of chemical-based pesticides. In all of our gardens too, an Integrated Pest Management approach is used, meaning that we monitor insect behavior and can then attempt to control insect populations rather than eradicate them. This method can better allow for pollinators to do their jobs, as they are not exterminated by chemical-based pesticides.

DSC_0538

Smithsonian Gardens’ Butterfly Habitat Garden outside the National Museum of Natural History

Even if you cannot devote a whole habitat to pollinating critters, you can provide a refuge or food source with even one plant. James Gagliardi, horticulturist in the Butterfly Habitat Garden provided a list of some of his favorite plants in the garden that are frequently visited by pollinators:

Hummingbird Mint (Agastache spp)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Bee Balm (Monarda spp)
Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)
Salvia (Salvia spp)
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa spp)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp)
Verbena (Verbena spp, especially Verbena bonariensis)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

-Elizabeth Chenevey, Smithsonian Gardens Education & Outreach Intern

June 17, 2014 at 8:31 am Leave a comment

The Heath Hen

The Enid A. Haupt Garden is a symmetrical, manicured Victorian parterre gracing the Smithsonian Quad. While the design of the garden changes with the seasons, it usually has topiaries or tall urns in each of its four corners. This year, however, the plants have been replaced by four large bronze birds, each one representing an extinct species native to North America.

The birds, the work of artist Todd McGrain, are part of the Lost Bird Project. The project seeks to create awareness of the vulnerability of living things when they are hunted or their habitats are destroyed. The sculpture closest to the southeast corner of the garden  is the heath hen, whose history is closely entwined with that of the areas where it once thrived, from Maine to Virginia.

Heath Hen by Todd McGrain

Heath Hen by Todd McGrain

A subspecies of the prairie chicken, the heath hen was considered a culinary treat. Indeed, some have suggested that it was the heath hen rather than the turkey that the Pilgrims consumed during the first Thanksgiving. Because they were a cheap food source, heath hens were hunted and eaten, and their numbers dropped sharply. By 1870, there were none in the US mainland; their dwindling population was confined to the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. By the turn of the 20th century, only 100 heath hens were left and the island placed a ban on hunting. This measure, together with the creation of a sanctuary, increased their population to 800 by 1916. But a fire destroyed much of their breeding ground that year, and that, together with a harsh winter, disease, and the rise of predatory birds, once again imperiled the heath hen. By 1927, there were only 13 birds left. The last heath hen, known as Booming Ben for his distinctive and haunting hoot, died in 1932.

Heath Hens

This illustration shows a male and a female heath hen. From Illustrations of the American ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucien Bonaparte Prince of Musignano With the addition of numerous recently discovered species and representations of the whole sylvae of North America (1835) by Thomas Brown and illustration by James Turvey. Wikicommons.

McGrain has depicted the hen with an open beak, as if Ben were trying to tell us something. The sculpture was made using the lost-wax method. The bird was first carved in wax, then covered with a ceramic material and baked in an oven. This burned away the wax, leaving a mold in the shape of the bird. The molten bronze was then poured into the mold, after which it hardened and assumed the desired form. The artist has therefore created a memorial to the extinct bird, both honoring the heath hen and reminding us of its extinction, an event that could have been averted with greater environmental knowledge and awareness.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

June 4, 2014 at 7:00 am 1 comment

The Magic of Rain Lilies

The common name rain lily comes from this plant’s tendency to bloom after a good soaking from Mother Nature.  They are native to tropical and semi-tropical regions of the Americas.   There are 3 genera commonly known as rain lilies – Zephyranthes, Habranthus, and Cooperia.  Rain lilies are a perennial bulb with a hardiness of USDA Zones 7 to 11 for most species.  They come in various colors, mostly ranging from pinks, yellows, and whites and new colors are popping up through hybridizing and breeding all the time.  Although the common name would suggest that they are in the Liliaceae (lily) family, they actually fall under Amaryllidaceae.

Zephyranthes candida

Zephyranthes candida (Kai Yan, Joseph Wong, photographers. Image via eol.)

Rain lilies are often grown in containers where they can be placed on a front porch or around a deck and will reward all season long.  I have found that if grown in containers, they seem to prefer being slightly crowded and even somewhat pot-bound.  They also look great along a pathway or in the front of a sunny border and are often used in rock gardens.  To get the finest show, Rain lilies look best planted in masses.  Most Rain lilies will bloom several times a season, usually after a good downpour.

If you live in a zone where Rain lilies are not hardy they are easy to overwinter.  When it starts getting cooler, simply bring them indoors (either the container or, if planted, the dug up plants – if possible give them a quick potting) and keep them dry all winter, then set them outside again in the spring.  You can pull off the foliage as it dies to keep them clean.  You may want to either add soil or rough the edges of the pot prior to setting them outside if the soil has shrunk over the winter.

Habranthus tubispathus

Habranthus tubispathus, also referred to as Habranthus texanus (Stan Shebs, photographer. Image via eol.)

Rain lilies grow best in full sun to partial shade.  They prefer to be kept evenly moist but can tolerate periodic dry spells without problem.  During summer months use a well-balanced fertilizer (either liquid or slow release).  The bulbs produce offsets which can be divided and planted in spring or you can sow seeds if you wish.  If you are collecting seeds, sow right away before they dry as they tend to lose the ability to germinate and may take extra time to do so.  Rain lilies are very gardener-friendly as they have no serious pest or disease issues.  I have had problems with mealy bugs, however, but that is because I start watering them earlier in the season than normal and I keep them in the greenhouse for a fuller plant come spring.  Be aware that all parts of the plant can be toxic if ingested.

After reading this, you may be eager to see some Rain lilies for yourself, so please stop by the Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian Institution this summer and enjoy their beauty.  Some of the ones we display are Zephyranthes flavissima, Habranthus robustus ‘Russell Manning’, Habranthus texanus, and Zephyranthes candida.

 

-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

May 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

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