By Marcia Wolfe
Contributor, Valley Ag Voice
I was out in the backyard pulling weeds around the bird bath one day last week. I bent over to extract a large prickly lettuce plant and realized that the entire air around me was alive with a loud resonating tenor sound! It was so loud it seemed to be vibrating in my ears! I was beneath the edge of a large bushy willow-leaf eucalyptus. It was in full bloom. Now, one would think that would be obvious, but their flowers are only about an 1/8th inch in diameter, yellow, but surrounded by a lot of green and reddish twigs, branchlets and leaves. If one isn’t paying close attention, they could walk right by and not even notice it was blooming, except for the loud vibrating roar of the bees. Looking up to the top of this twenty-foot tree, I could see bees hovering on and around the ends of every branch with flowers sticking out of the tree silhouette. I have no idea how many bees there were. There had to be thousands to be making that much noise and to be seen hovering around the entire tree. As the blooms matured, they appeared to fade, but the yellow tint remained. Following maturation, they drop to the ground covering the soil like little sprinkles on a cake.
The horde of bees on the willow leafed eucalyptus were last week. Today, only a few could be observed cruising around the perimeter of the tree looking for the remaining fresh flowers.
Today, the roar of bees is in the front yard all around the large flowering pear. Its flowers are much larger with the large white flowers. It’s blooming is obvious, and they are beautiful trees as long as a tree pruner hasn’t hacked it to death, removing most of the branches. When a bee landed on a flower, the flower and its stalk would bounce up and down. So, the whole tree appeared to be quivering.
The mourning doves that live in my yard and neighborhood also like to roost in the flowering pear tree. They soak up the sun in the winter and fall. In the summer, the leaves and branches provide good cover and help to keep them cool. If they remain still, that cover is also protective from spying predators—and that includes the neighbor’s cat. The juncos also use it for perching cover while perusing the ground below for seeds, along with the pair of house finches I saw yesterday—the male drenched with his red marked feathers on his head and shoulders and she with her soft, black striped, tan feathers all over. They weren’t far apart and came together so I was sure they were mates, foraging before building their nest. Then a scrub jay was sitting in the very top of the pine tree in the back yard, a couple mockingbirds were singing their cacophony of imitation songs to each other.
As I was walking around the back yard this morning with the dog, I discovered a sharp shinned hawk sitting in the top of the tallest honey locust tree. It still has no flowers or leaves, but he was sitting as still as a branch stub watching the goings-on in the neighborhood and likely spying out breakfast. He had a great view in every direction. I have seen dove feathers in the yard a couple times, and because the cat won’t come in the backyard where the dogs are, I figured it had to be a hawk getting the doves. It looks like I was right.
You’ve all heard in the news that since 1970 we’ve lost 30 billion birds worldwide. There are a few exceptions for specific rare species of concern for which landowners, biologists, and agencies have been working on to restore and enhance reduced habitats so they can thrive again. However, for the most part we are losing birds. Another positive exception here is that since I gave the class to growers and water districts about the positive benefits of installing owl nest boxes, you can now drive down I-5 and other roads adjacent to agricultural lands and observe that owl nest boxes have been installed across a broad scope of agricultural habitats and alongside canals. But there is room for more! A pair of owls uses only about 100 acres +/-. But not only do they eat rodents and other troublesome wildlife species that are often inadvertently increased by agricultural practices, there are multiple benefits to having owls. With owls, use of rodenticides becomes unnecessary. I still have to laugh about the vintner who attended my environmental practices training class and installed a bunch of owl nest boxes. I ran into him a couple years later. When he told me about his success with the nest boxes, I was so excited I asked if he would co-author a paper about it with me. He declined, and I felt devastated. He explained, “I’m not stupid; I don’t want everyone to know about my competitive advantage!”
Revegetating roadsides and field edges with native shrubs also helps agriculture. It not only reduces rodents, especially ground squirrels, as they don’t like undisturbed habitats, but many of the shrubs, like California buckwheat attract and support bees, both native bees and our “rented” bees. Reduced use of pesticides also can help improve water quality, as can the improvement of groundwater recharge from the roots of the perennial native shrubs which create and maintain pathways for water to the groundwater strata. The shrubs—by the way—do not require irrigation, not even for establishment. Simple planting with a straw or native hay mulch prior to the rainy season can get them established. It only takes once! The other neat and helpful thing from having native species nearby is that it helps introduce and maintain beneficial insects in adjacent agricultural crops. One-year lacewings were identified by the UC Davis Agricultural Extension Entomologist adjacent to some small test plots of native species I did. He surprisingly and excitedly called me one day he found lace wings in the middle of a mile square vineyard adjacent to my plots. He couldn’t believe it. He said ordinarily it would never occur. It was amazing and wonderful. Lacewings are beneficial insects which eat agricultural pests.
So there are many things we can do to work with the environment to get what we need, but at the same time protect and enhance the environment and its species, including the birds and bees which we all depend upon… for everything!