The Birds and the Bees

Spring is in her prom dress now, and all the birds and bugs are zooming around, finding mates, showing off, and building nests. If your garden is planted to attract hummingbirds, you may be puzzled by some unusual behavior. Occasionally you may see a hummingbird ignoring all the beautiful red tubular blossoms you have provided and instead zooming around under an old porch or dead tree. What the heck is it doing?

Hummingbirds build their compact, tiny nests out of spiderwebs! So you may see them now in neglected parts of the garden, harvesting old webs for their building projects. Hummingbirds also rely on small insects and spiders for part of their diet, and to feed their babies. So you can see why a perfectly tidy garden wouldn’t hold the same appeal for a hummingbird family as one which was a little disheveled occasionally.

A hummingbird nest in a  Ceanothus  tree at GFE.

A hummingbird nest in a Ceanothus tree at GFE.

One of my favorite parts of spring is the explosion of bright blue Ceanothus flowers, our native California lilac. Dripping with pollen and fragrance, when the Ceanothus blooms it attracts not just European honeybees, our commercial hive bees, but also several different native bees and bumblebees. Many of the California native bumblebees don’t live in hives. They live alone in tunnels in wood or soil. They need old wood, and bare soil free of mulch, in order to pursue their lives and their reproduction. Again, you can easily see why a completely tidy garden would not be able to provide a home for them.

Along with the hum of the foraging bees, you can also see other strange and beneficial insects nectaring in the flowers. Many of these are predatory insects. They prey on destructive aphids, whiteflies, and scale insects which would otherwise run rampant on our ornamentals and veggie plants. These beneficials help keep the balance of insect populations in a healthy garden, and stop infestations before they start. The little striped hover flies, hanging over the Ceanothus like helicopters, the tiny almost invisible predatory wasps, and many others are our allies in the garden, and the flowers and sunshine of spring bring them out in numbers.

In addition to the predatory insects, we rely on flocks of little birds to clean the damaging insects off our plants. The little grey Bushtits move in agile, active flocks, making a constant, sharp little peep to each other so that they can stay together. They will hang upside down, acrobatically picking tiny insects off the underside of leaves, hopping back and forth hunting, until they suddenly flock and move to the next shrub or tree. They, too, build a nest in spring, a long hanging basket of a nest inside a thicket of dead twigs and branches, or a tangle of vines, to protect their eggs and babies from big, mean birds that would love to eat them. They need cover and nesting material to have a successful new generation.

Along with the birds and predatory insects, gardens also offer a home for spiders and their webs. A fun project (it’s even more fun with a child) is to get a spray bottle filled with plain water and walk around the garden spraying plants and shrubs. Spider webs appear as if by magic! The glistening drops of water make the webs visible, and you suddenly can see how alive and populated the garden really is. Almost always, there are more spiderwebs to find in the parts of the garden that are “neglected,” a little less manicured, a little less travelled, a little less groomed. These corners are the reservoir of biological diversity which are a fountain of health and fertility for the rest of the garden.

At Garden for the Environment, we are privileged to have enough space to leave the steeper parts of our hillside, planted in a riot of native plants, quite wild. This provides cover, food, and nesting spots for the beneficial birds and bugs which call the garden home. We try to trespass rarely, only once or twice a year to weed truly invasive weeds. Otherwise we try not to bother this little wilderness, so as not to disturb the domestic arrangements of our wildlife big and small.

Looking down over the wild hillside at GFE, which provides habitat and forage for insects and birds.

Looking down over the wild hillside at GFE, which provides habitat and forage for insects and birds.

In our demonstration garden, and in our urban backyards, we can show our commitment to protecting the biological web of diversity. We can leave some parts of the garden a little bit untamed. By leaving a back corner of the garden for fallen branches, dry seed heads, tangles of dead grass, twigs or vines, you too can provide the little bit of wildness which allows nature to balance herself.