The Great Bee Count of 2011

Honeybee on lavender flower

Honeybee on lavender flower

The day has arrived – so go out to your yards and gardens and begin …. counting bees!  The Great Sunflower Project  was launched in 2008 to get information about urban, suburban and rural bee populations.  The Project also wanted to educate people about what was happening with the bees in their back yards, and to remind us of how important bees are — their motto is: “Bees: Responsible for Every Third Bite of Food.”   So they got people all over the world to observe their bees on Lemon Queen sunflowers, because sunflowers are relatively easy to grow and a great resource for bees. They expanded the list of plants, including bee balm, cosmos, rosemary, tickseed, goldenrod and purple coneflower.  But even if you don’t have any of those plants in your garden (yet — lots of time to prepare for next year!) you can still count.  The bees that come to our garden love the lavender, and I had a blast earlier this week taking photos of them.

Bumble bee on soap plant flower

Bumble bee on soap plant flower

The bumble bees also love the soap plant flowers (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), tiny, spiky flowers that bloom only in the evening. The flowers are only about an inch around, so watching the relatively large bumble bees (compared to honeybees) grab onto the delicate flowers, making them bounce and wave, is very entertaining.


The steps to participate in the Project are listed on their site, with links.  All you have to do:  sign up and plant your sunflower (or other plant); describe your garden; watch the plant for 15 minutes and enter the data online. With colony collapse disorder, pesticides, and other threats to the hardest-working pollinators, every little bit helps —

Even if you don’t have any of the listed plants yet, why not go outside and do the count anyway? It would be a good baseline to compare with the number you get next year, when you’ve filled your garden with plants to help the bees.  And let me know what you find!

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Vanilla orchids by George

Did you know that vanilla (the real kind, not imitation) comes from an orchid flower?

Vanilla orchid flower

Vanilla orchid flower

My amazing husband George grows vanilla orchids, cultivates vanilla beans from the flowers, and makes extract from the beans! I’m going to track the steps, beginning with the orchid flowering, through pollination and cultivation of the beans.  I’ll add photos along the way, since the entire process takes more than a year (and you wondered why real vanilla costs so much) …

The vanilla orchid grows on a vine.  It helps to have a lot of space, but George set up a trellis, so the vine winds up and down and around.  Here’s a photo of George’s helper, Lars, watching the vanilla grow..

The first step of the process: the flower.

This is one of the flower buds, as yet unopened. You can see a drop of nectar – so sweet! I’m not sure what the purpose of the nectar is, some think it may be there to attract ants, which would protect the flower.

This is one of the flower spikes on the vanilla plant. There are five separate flower buds, unopened, on this one spike. There are at least four other flower spikes on the plant.  Finally, one of the flowers opened!

Unlike many other orchids which have flowers that can last for a month or more, each vanilla flower only blooms for one day.  If you want to cultivate the vanilla, you have to pollinate the flower before it fades.  The natural pollinator isn’t present in most places, so it’s usually necessary to hand-pollinate vanilla.  It’s not easy to do, but George has a really good success rate.  He takes a wooden stick and transfers pollen from one part of the flower to another (the anther to the stigma).

Hand pollinating the vanilla flower

Hand pollinating the vanilla flower

This is the flower, immediately after pollination.  You can see the other unopened flower buds on the spike.

After a short time, the flower collapses.

Stay tuned for more … next, the flowers that were successfully pollinated will develop into beans ..  If you want to learn more, there’s a great wikipedia entry on vanilla.