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GARDEN MAIDEN: Beyond bumble and honey: Powerful pollinators we barely notice

From afar, I did a double take wondering if a late-blooming cottonwood was flurrying its seeds in a whirlwind atop the prairie gardens.

As I approached the outburst of nearly fuschia purple echinacea, I realized the flurries were very much alive, flitting with structured chaos, as if telepathically casing out the scene and rarely landing at all on the flowers. So perfect to spot this on a day like today.

Unseasonably excessive workload recently has me feeling like I’m eloquently navigating a fast-paced holding pattern while seasonal help and advisers linger and land and enjoy the landscape. Literally. For a split second I felt like I may be hallucinating. I stationed my nearly six-foot beacon smack dab in the middle of the bed of steadfast coneflower with little disturbance to this formidable swarm. Well, perceived swarm, anyway.  

A dozen specs, perhaps less, darting in and around upright clumps loaded with blooms that seemed like a reverse rocket atop upright clumps of established native prairie. An unfamiliar doubting Thomas gene provoked my open-palmed left hand abruptly outward at eye level. In some sort of not-so-techno-savvy invading space aura, it involuntarily paddled to and fro as my eyes kept soft focus on an invitation of discoverable intersection.

A slight buzz of underbrush curtailed an impulse to grab at anything midair.  Alas, not a single connect. Or disconnect, from the bees’ perspective. Their phenomenal presence likely unnoticed by a dozen other workers that morning. Effortless, nearly invisible and totally on purpose. Amazed at the crashless darting behavior, I kept wondering if I was imagining it altogether.  

As if only to console a pardon of self-prescribed hallucinations, one finally landed on the hedgehog center of an Echinacea bloom at my knees. I laughed out loud at the ghostly appearance. This tiny bee appeared white. And was the only one on a bloom. One bloom of 50 or more within 3 feet of my stance. What is their purpose if not to gather pollen? It’s so easy, isn’t it? To think of all bees as buzzing and bumbly and dangerous. Yet, here is a humble, harmless solitary bee who has no concept of a hive or hierarchy, rarely stings and never makes honey. So perfect to discover this bee in our backyard during this season in my life where I’m recognizing the extraordinary vision I see possible in our community.

Fitting in has never been my forte and pithy pianissimo pleas of accommodating the masses a recently aborted solo mission. So perfect to witness these solitary bees on the eve of plotting to inspire the masses by spreading love while loving, sparking creativity while creating and witnessing transformation through embracing transformation itself. I stood for what felt like hours witnessing these small bees gather pollen on their abdomens and take off in rapid succession time and time again. They didn’t seem to be leaving but weren’t clear on where to land. Truth be told, it took more than a fleeting moment to observe long enough to see one up close. Black bodies dusted in pale yellow pollen. Slender pointed wings and long antennae. Spider-like stance prodding between spikes of coneflower centers scouring for sustenance. Focused on its sole purpose to reproduce while its careless flight and ineffective transport exponentially carves significance into human survival.

There are about 200 species in the genus Megachile spp., commonly called leaf cutter bees that belong to an even larger group of solitary bees that also include mason bees. While many species are native to North America, a few like the alfalfa leaf cutter bee, are imports to optimize certain crops. Named for the fact that a single queen is solely responsible for her own brood, solitary bees do not make honey and are often observed for their particular nesting habits. Females emerge each spring and mate with the male who dies within two weeks of servicing the queen. Talk about sole purpose!

The female leaf cutter bee lines a deserted cavity with sections of perfectly circular leaves before padding it with bee loaf; a mixture of nectar, pollen and her own saliva. Since leaf cutter bees do not have pockets on their hinds legs to carry pollen, gathering of food for her to-be young takes quite an effort and repeated trips as much of her collected pollen flakes off the underside of her hairy abdomen during flight. Her ineffective mode of transporting pollen during the diligent nesting period proves to make the leaf cutter and solitary bees some of the richest pollinators around. When she has a sufficient bee loaf layer to feed larvae for its whole life cycle, she lays an egg and seals off the cell with another cut leaf. She continues these partitions until the elongated cavity is full and then dies within six weeks of her spring emergence. Eggs hatch into larvae that feed as they form into adults, remaining dormant until chewing their way out of the nest the following spring. Unlike non-native honey bees who rely on beekeepers for a place to make honey, solitary bees easily set up shop in the wild.

Another undercredited powerful pollinator is the beetle, comprising the largest set and earliest origins of pollinator insects, whose often non-discriminant bumbling is essential for ancient species such as spicebush and magnolia.

So perfectly fitting to dance with this solitary super pollinator upon the unveiling of local community artist Susan Burton’s announcement of The Towpath Pollinator Pillars. Aligned with Ottawa’s botanical theme, Mrs. Burton will lead the creation of a series of mosaic pillars depicting species of threatened and essential bees, butterflies, host plants and the flowers they need to survive. You can bet I’ll be designing a solitary bee in the mix of public art works to garnish Ottawa’s Canal Street transformation. Please save the date(s) and join us at one of many public art work sessions to contribute to this lasting community masterpiece in Starved Rock Country.

Discover your creativity and contribute by showing up at any public play session:

A Mess of Things, July 19, noon to 4 p.m.

Farmers Market, July 28, noon to 4 p.m.

Reddick Library, Aug. 2, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Art in the Park, Aug. 3, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Jeremiah Joe Coffee, Aug. 18, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Susan Burton/Art Explorations/Art Farm Phone: 815-690-3802 or susan.burton70@gmail.com

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tammies@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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