Tuesday, July 27, 2010

You Can Grow Cicada Killers at Your Home! (Managing Native Bees and Wasps)

Ah, Cicada Killer, how I missed you when there was 50" of snow on the ground!
Okay, first off, how completely insane does this blog post title sound! Maybe one day I'll be an extension agent for the state, and they will allow me to write an extension bulletin with this title. Ha ha ha! I bet that tons of people will download that one! I had to up the ante from the catchy title of last year's Cicada Killer Post. And a year ago, I did promise all you lurkers that I would post again about how to actually encourage native bees and wasps to use your yards and gardens.
You are probably figuring out that I am all about the bees. At a time when our dependable Euro Honey Bee is really having a rough go of things, particularly parasites and pesticides, gardeners and farmers would be wise to actively manage for native bees and wasps to pollinate your crops. Studies have consistently shown that native bees are fare more efficient, anyway. So what do you do?
It's pretty simple! Native bees and wasps prefer not to travel far from their nests, so where do we put the nest habitat? First, we're going to break down the native bees & wasps very unscientifically into those species that build their own nests and species that use pre-existing nests. For species that build their own nests (excluding carpenter bees - discussed below, mud daubers, yellow jackets, and bald-faced hornets - none of which you reeeeallly need to encourage), I've basically figured out that what you need is an area of coarse sand that is partially vegetated and is sloped 30-60 degrees. A semi-open sandy slope, that is. I have found several sites meeting this criteria that are densely covered in native bee & wasp burrows. Here's a picture of a cicada killer nest on such a site:


Dare you to stick your finger in there!
The primary species drawn to this habitat will be a variety of predatory wasps, many of which are minor pollinators, but their main value to the garden or farm is their brutal rate of killing other insects, particularly unwanted caterpillars (see the last two photos in this post) to feed themselves and their young. One unwanted guest you will have to look out for are yellowjackets, which create much larger social hives underground than most of our native wasps. Yellowjackets aggressively defend their nests in large numbers, unlike most other native bees and wasps. So be mindful!
What about the more highly valuable native pollinators like the mason bee, leafcutter bee, and the carpenter bee? These bees prefer to "manage" existing burrows, but will supplement them with new material, and if they believe the basic site is ideal, many of them will actually build their own nest from scratch. The traditional approach has been to place bee blocks on south facing sites, in areas where you know you will be doing significant planting of insect-pollinated crops. Based on what bees you believe will be active during the bloom, you can find out what diameter burrow they prefer, and fill the block with cleanly drilled holes of that size. Here's what a traditional bee block looks like, as offered by a great vendor, Andrew's Reclaimed Home & Garden:

Leaf Cutter Bee Block, Hand Crafted, On Etsy

I would be proud to have a bee block this attractive in my home or garden!
However, for my particular gardening application, I have plants in bloom from Mid-May until October, spanning the active seasons of several species of bees. I've been frustrated over the years to watch bees come to my bee blocks for 4 years now, not find a burrow they like, and fly off somewhere else. To deal with this, I've built several blocks with numerous, random size holes drilled all over that look like this and this (Heidi runs a neat blog, by the way!). Unfortunately, Mrs. Swampy does not really appreciate that aesthetic covering our entire yard, and I have to say I agree with her. So imagine my excitement today when I found this awesome and attractive bee block on the internet:

murphy audobon CA bee block

I never considered this design, and will be installing at least 3 of these blocks at home and at the garden for Spring 2011!!!

The above photo is by Brian Murphy of Mt. Diablo Audubon, and was given to Bay Nature, a nature magazine about the San Fransisco Bay. Their article that features this photo, "Back Yard Boarding House - How a Power Drill Can Attract Pollinators" is right up my alley - and should be up your alley too! Of course, there are dozens or hundreds of potential designs for bee houses, including those with liners. Check out these plans from USDA, Washington State University, National Wildlife Federation, the dependable folks at eHow, and a very useful post at the Phig Blog. For those of us with less free time but just as much enthusiasm, bee blocks, liners, and even dormant bees can be purchased all over the internet, from Mason Bee Homes to Andrew's Reclaimed to Territorial Seed and Pollinator Paradise.

Let me know how your bees do - I promise you'll hear about mine.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Baltimore Community Garden Plot - No Longer Experimental


The Garden after 6 weeks of temperatures between 94 and 112. Not too shabby!
So we're only halfway through the summer and I'm ready to call the Community Gardening Experiment a success based on the measure of "was it worth it?" Simply in monetary terms,
my haul of greens, herbs, and veggies has now exceeded my $30 annual rent on the plot. And if you consider that I would have "probably" grown elsewhere (my yard), and spent the same money on seed and plants, plus another $25-50 on compost and manure, then, once again, I've made my money back. You can see my progress by clicking here, or by clicking on the tabs for "community garden" or "gardening" at the end of this post.


Above: Last monday's haul - a good mix!


Last thursday's haul - that's a hefty 3 days' worth of veggies!


I grew horsemint (Monarda citriodora) (above) from seed and was not disappointed. The bees and butterflies love this funky relative of Bee Balm. I planted several plants in our yard, which all died in the poor soil. These plants had the benefit of being planted in nearly pure compost and manure.


I'm having a similar experience with my Bee Balms this year. The varieties planted in my yard - Jakob Kline, Raspberry Wine, and Fireball, are all suffering or dead. The variety (Pink Supreme-photo above) that was planted in high quality soil in my garden is growing like crazy - I look forward to splitting the plant this fall!

Thanks for stopping by & checking out the garden!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tale of Three Valleys Part III - Yadkin & Catawba


Checking out the abandoned hang glider launch on Hibriten Mountain - looking northwest into the Yadkin Valley and the Blue Ridge Escarpment up to Blowing Rock, NC
After our jaunt up the mountain, we returned to the foothills for a few more days of R&R (all of this brought on by day care closure!). The Yadkin and Catawba Valleys of western North Carolina are hard to tell apart by anyone who hasn't looked at a topographic map or spent a significant amount of time there. The very large Catawba Valley surrounds the Catawba River, a river at least 1000' feet wide in the piedmont. Just a few miles to the northeast, the western end of the Yadkin Valley (and its River) sits a little higher, and is topographically separated from Catawba by the diminuitive Brushy Mountains, including Hibriten Mountain and Cajah's Mountain. Interestingly, the rivers run parallel to each other all the way to the ocean - the Yadkin joining up with the Pee Dee River, and the Catawba emptying into the Santee River watershed.
The foothills area has a fascinating history, from Native American migrations (voluntary and forced), to colonial exploration, to some vicious pain suffered through the Civil War, to the area's current return to economic depression after the collapse of American furniture manufacturing in the last 10 years, followed by a collapse in real estate values and a steep drop in government employment.
Expectedly, historians of the area are highly focused on the two valleys' contribution to the Civil War, which this educational site still refers to as The War Between The States. Interestingly, little Union vs. Confederacy action took place here, but the cost of the war - in blood - was still high. The foothills region of North Carolina sent tens of thousands of young men - or many more - to support Lee's and Jackson's Virginia campaigns during the war. Many never returned home. This area also was home to the notorious "Confederate Home Guard" - who did some dastardly things under the auspices of maintaining law and order during war time. The Home Guard was depicted quite powerfully in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (which was set, and is located, about 35 miles south of the Swannanoa Valley described in my last post).
But back to the outdoors! With temperatures continually in the 98-104 range, we avoided most outdoor activity. Most. However, the Swampinator here did manage to wrangle up a dozen guns, 500 rounds, two 4-wheelers, a section of private forest, and a few friends for an afternoon.


It was only 99 in the shade (where we set up).....103 in the sun!
For whatever reason, I had not brought any of my guns, which was a real bummer. I did get to try several other guns, though! I did fairly well with a Mossberg 500 turkey 20ga and my buddy Rob's 870 Express in 12ga (nearly identical to my Old Faithful Goose Gun...which was also my clays gun until 2007!). I produced less exciting results while behind a 26" 12ga Stoeger Condor, 28" Stoeger Condor, and a 1943 Ithaca side-by-side. And if that shooting wasn't marginal enough, I went 0 for 5 with a .410. 0 for 5!
It was really great to get out for an afternoon, in the woods, and focus on shooting mechanics. I can only imagine how much my shooting would improve if I shot 10 rounds of clays at one time, maybe once a month. And in the end, it was a great way to wrap up our "day care closure mandated vacation." I definitely look forward to future trips when ol' Hank can join me - or even join me in some other outdoor activity he'd rather be doing. Hell, I'm game.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tale of Three Valleys Part II - Swannanoa

Dawn in the Swannanoa Valley, looking south toward the Swannanoa River (treeline) and Flat Top Mountain, elev. 4340'
So after making it down into the North Carolina Foothills - Catawba and Yadkin Valleys (see Part III) - we packed back up and headed up the Blue Ridge Escarpment that divides the piedmont region (east) from the Ridge and Valley region (west). Our destination was Asheville, aka Ash Vegas, but we "cabin camped" just east and downslope of town in the Swannanoa Valley (this is a great map). I was hoping to get in some much needed fishing and beer drinking, but I knew that the latter might end up being the dominant activity due to the harsh temperatures I've been describing lately. But it never hurts to try, or something like that.
Being in town was fun, even with a 20lb 10-month old in tow. We hit most of the landmarks we wanted to - Jack of The Wood / Green Man Brewery, 12 Bones Smokehouse, Malaprop's Bookstore, and - unplanned - a frankly amazing Indian cafe, Chai Pani, where I had lime and salt okra fries that were so good, they nearly melted my brain. We did not get to visit the Wedge Brewery....major bummer! We've been to Asheville several times over the years, so the major landmarks (i.e. the Vanderbilts' Biltmore Estate and Chimney Rock) have already been covered. It's all music, books, beer, and BBQ from here on out!
But back to the fishing! There are numerous abandoned/reclaimed (depending on your definition) gravel pits (now ponds) in the floodplain of the Swannanoa. Some are very much on private property, others are clearly on public property, and the official access status of many is sketchy at best. I fished a little bit in the river - a heavily stocked and heavily fished put-and-take trout stream, but it was pretty clear that no trout were in the 70-degree plus, low-water channels still running in mid-July. I also did not spot any smallmouth bass in the river. I did see numerous suckers or chubs, but tried my best not to catch them. Instead, I ended up focusing most of my fishing time on the various ponds and lakes in the floodplain. To my knowledge, I did not trespass! But that didn't make the fishing any easier.

I had to work too hard to catch this green sunfish
On Days 1 and 2, the large fish would only eat the live beetles that fell into the ponds, and the small fish would only take lures as hefty as this mosquito fly on a #10 hook. I saw some largemouth in the 5-8lb category, but the fish were unbelievably fat and lazy. They would casually follow lures through the water with no intention of striking. I burnt up a few really promising fishing spots just trying to get some type - any type - of significant fish to take a lure. Didn't happen. On Day 3, after another unproductive morning of fishing (3 bluegills caught and $20 of tackle lost in 2.5 hours), I was walking back to the cabin, and decided to try one of those "promising fishing spots" again......

If you're only going to catch 1 bass in 3 days, it may as well be this bass!
I already devoted an entire post to this warrior of a fish, so suffice to say it was an exciting, drag-running fight and I released him alive & healthy soon after this photo. I caught two more sunfish - both good size- in the same spot after releasing this beasty, but I was still so excited, I didn't even pay attention to what species they were, let alone take a photograph of them.

Dawn breaks over the Four Brothers Knobs, elevs 3200' - 3800'
This photo shows the log I had to stand on to cast my lure to my big smallmouth. Good luck finding it!
Isn't it amazing how one fish, one sunrise, one wave, or one stupid bird can instantly justify a trip that may have cost us hundreds or thousands of dollars to take and months (or longer) to plan?
I guess that's my reflection on this experience.


There's only so much mountain trekkin' a baby can handle.

A few hours after catching "my smallmouth," we packed the truck and headed back down the Escarpment into the North Carolina foothills. I look forward to telling you about it. See ya then.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tale of Three Valleys, Part I-Shenandoah


An Unnamed Trout Unlimited biologist hauls in (then released) a healthy brown trout in a trophy management-designated tributary of the Shenandoah River. I got a few trout to rise with a borrowed fly rod and a grasshopper fly, but got no bites that morning.


Being a coastal boy, I called this our "mountain trip" while it was underway. But the more I thought about it, we spent a lot more time in the valleys of the southern Appalachians - Shenandoah, Swannanoa, and Catawba. While I enjoy spending time in the streams and forests of the mountains and valleys, I do not love the mountains the way that famous writers, explorers, and even everyday modern people seem to love the mountains. I tolerated 5 years at 2300' above sea level, and I enjoyed spending 1.5 years at 3600' above sea level. But I always knew I'd return to the coastal plain.....I am sometimes disappointed that we live 120 miles from the ocean and 175' above sea level. That's high ground - keep in mind that prior to my 18th birthday, I never lived more than 20' above sea level. But, for a variety of reasons, we keep returning to the hills.

Our first stop was in the area around Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. The Shenandoah Valley is a limestone valley full of clear springs, sinkholes, and cold streams that continue to be threatened by human development (past and present) and 20th century farming practices. I am currently working with Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) WHIP Program to restore a 2,000 linear foot section of spring-fed stream. What's wrong with the stream?


This stream still has a hatchery-supported trout population - many Shenandoah tributaries do not. Livestock wade into the stream, mixing old pond sediment into the water.

The French first "discovered" the Shenandoah Valley in the 1630s. They also discovered the native American north-south route through the valley, which is now (roughly) Interstate 81. Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, significant white settlement came from the north (Pennsylvania Germans) and the east (coastal Virginia). Typical of the Mid-Atlantic region, clean water was readily available throughout the winter and spring, but not dependable during summer months. To ensure a steady supply, settlers built hundreds of dams across the Valley's prehistoric streams. These dams powered mills and provided drinking water for livestock and people. They also forever changed the paths, floodplains, and soils of the native streams. Now mostly abandoned, those mill ponds have left behind a "legacy" of sediments all through the valley. The result is a landscape of fast-moving streams with constantly-eroding banks.....not great habitat for native brook trout....or even smallmouth bass.

Enter groups like Trout Unlimited, the FishAmerica Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Nature Conservancy, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. All of these groups have been working in and around coldwater streams to revegetate the banks, stabilize the stream channel, and exclude livestock from the areas around the streams. This work has been moving at high speed for the last 10 years, and in another 10 years, we might even be able to call it a success!

After visiting our restoration site, the TU biologist and I tossed a few lines in a local trophy management stream. He caught 5 trout, most of them small browns, and I caught nothing. Our fishing was slightly thwarted by runoff from rainstorms, a healthy otter population, and the heat (90 degrees by 10am). My flycasting was horribly rusty but it reminded me of why I used to enjoy it. We eventually packed it in, went back to the hotel, and I continued on to my next valley - the Swannanoa Valley of southwestern North Carolina.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Fish of The Year

Spotted Bass -19" -Released Alive
Some more detailed writeups about our "not really planned" trip to western North Carolina are in preparation, but I couldn't hold off any longer to throw out a post about this confirmed citation spotted bass!!!
When I rolled out of bed about 10 minutes before dawn on the sixth day of our trip (and third day of our side trip to Asheville, NC), I was anticipating another challenging day of fishing - which I received. Temperatures, even in the mountains, were topping out around 95 degrees, with humidity in the 70-80% range. Water levels in rivers, lakes, and ponds were not critically low, but low enough to cause problems for fish and anglers alike. Insects - especially wood beetles and Japanese beetles - were plentiful and constantly falling into the water, providing ample "free food" for fish in an overfished and undermanaged area. A better angler- who I strive to be one day - would have come prepared with a fly rod and terrestrial flies - especially beetles.
I'll tell you about the rest of the morning's events in a later post, but suffice to say, I was returning to our cabin around 830am after having caught 1 fish - a "schoolie" bluegill about 5 inches long, and having lost about $12 in tackle in the lily pads. I thought - maybe I'll try the spot I fished yesterday? Why not?
I focused on an area with high overhanging trees, and numerous bass and sunfish poised below, waiting for free food to hit the surface. On the previous day, these fish wouldn't hit any standard lure, and it was an impossible spot to cast the previous day's only successful lure - an unweighted mosquito (fly). These were smart, fat, and lazy fish.
A few of the bass "in queue" were big - I couldn't tell how big - and I climbed out on a fallen willow tree and side-casted right under the branches. I caught this fish on my first cast - my only bass of the entire 8 day trip. It was about a 30 yard cast, and I popped the lure very lightly because the water was clear and the fish were already staring at it. A bass - this bass - cruised by slowly into deeper water......but turned after 5 yards. It then slowly closed on the lure and after a few more pops, took the lure and raaaaaaaaaaaaan out the drag. It took about 3 minutes to get him ashore. I photographed him and released him - he was exhausted and needed several gill flushes to get moving again. My heart raced for two hours.
I caught it on a $3.99 2" BPS Z-Pop Hardbait, a BPS Micro-Lite rod, and an Okuma Avenger (15a) reel strung with 6lb Sufix Siege.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What is this flower?

Found this 6 foot tall plant in a campus garden in southern Maryland. Anybody know what it is? The blooms look crossed between a bee balm and a hyssop (both Lamiaceae) and the stem is square (or hexagonal) but winged, almost like wingstem.

Clues please?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Some Reflections on Work Travel

No disrespect meant...but...seriously?
So the Swampinator here is preparing for a 3 week, maybe 4 state, Odyssey that, despite having baby in tow, remains a pretty standard part of my life since I left graduate school to enter the enviro-work force.
Work travel.
Oh, it has its perks. Time alone. Independence. Quiet. Solitude. Those are all great things. And wild men have made a living just by writing about their work travels - from Jack Kerouac to Woody Guthrie to John Steinbeck (try on "Once there Was a War" - his newspaper articles from the battlefield) to Henry Rollins (whose "Smile, You're Traveling" is a good selection also). But work travel, even in our pretty civilized society, has a whole lot of negatives, too (as any one of those gentlemen would tell you). The lack of control over your schedule and travels ("Hi, this is the home office....we need you to stay out there for another week.") is a big one that causes a lot of Americans to live a pretty frenzied existence. So, for those of you who loathe your 40-hour office job, here are some random thoughts:
  • "Sir, is this a business or pleasure trip?" Travel business folks ask this frequently, although only occasionally does it result in a different rate. The question is too often a little knife in your pride. Because honestly, why would you be be vacationing in Phoenix in July, or Connecticut in February?
  • If you think you dread your boss's whims on "donut fridays" and office supplies, imagine if he or she had the power to send you across the country on a "fact finding mission" with no notice whatsoever. That's fun.
  • I'm sorry, 10am is not a "late checkout." 4pm is a "late checkout."
  • Every personal trip becomes a possible work trip when your boss sees your request for vacation..."Well, since you'll be down there already, do you think you can get some face time with........ and find out the status of ...........? Yeah, that'd be great."
  • I'll leave you with this one from circa 1999: I had been working (post-grad school) for about a year when the boss frantically called me in (on December 18th) and said, "We just received an lucrative emergency contract for environmental work at Fort Myers Airport (southwest Florida..I worked in Baltimore). I need you to book travel for meetings on December 22nd, 23rd, and 24th." When my jaw dropped and I said, "Maybe the 26th," the Boss Man looked at me and said, "You know, when I hired you, I thought you'd be a team player. Obviously I was wrong.....send in Courtney - I can depend on her!" The Boss Man sent me away on a 5-day trip on January 3rd. I finally got to come home on March 15th....and requested a transfer. Courtney quit a year later. The Boss Man is still there.
Time alone. Solitude. Be careful what you wish for!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Happy Independence Day!


Hank would be happy to spend the holiday with you, but first you will have to push him in the swing for 7 straight hours. And find his other shoe.

It's been a crazy few weeks, and we're gearing up for another crazy few, including two trips prompted by our day care provider's scheduled vacations. But we have this long weekend home and "Uncle Whitey" decided to pop in for a few days, so we are enjoying a few deep breaths at least! We got to enjoy some time with my lovely wife and Little Hank at our neighborhood "Tot Lot" (yup, it's the suburbs).


Our guns (Remington 58 Sportsman and Browning Gold Hunter) racked alone at the trap range!

Whitey and I shot a few rounds of clays over at the Loch Raven Skeet & Trap Club near my home. We have both been lazy about shooting since the end of waterfowl season, so I was impressed that we shot "decently" (bear in mind that I've never shot better than 22/25) and I can honestly say we hit more than we missed. Hey - it's early July. We both need to hit the archery range - badly - but can't quite make the time right now. We spent our time, as usual, laughing about past run-ins with the law, ridiculous ex-girlfriends, watching sports - this time the amazing soccer game between Germany and Argentina, and watching movies (Fargo, Step Brothers, and for laughs, The Tool Box Murders....God, that was horrible).


Empty trap range at 3pm on Saturday, July 3rd? Apparently so!


Whitey is enjoying some time off from his thesis and his students


Hank was more interested in checking out the ornamental millet than posing for this picture in the garden

The garden is hummin' and we are picking lettuce and holding our breath for the late summer veggies to start producing. My okra is getting ready to bloom, which is relieving. Peppers and tomatoes are doing their thing. Squash, cukes, and watermelons? Jury's out.

I hope you all have a wonderful, long, relaxing weekend outdoors! Happy 4th & enjoy being an American!

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...