Of Bees and Birds and Sage

Sage Flowers with a Bumble Bee

Sage Flowers with a Bumble Bee

If you look carefully, you can find a “black dot” in this picture that is a fat little black bumble bee of some sort. He’s about 1/3 in from the left and 2/5 up from the bottom. A few years ago, I planted a small sage plant, thinking I’d get a few leaves and have some seasonings. Little did I know it would grow to be 4 feet high and wide, and the center of life for at least 5 species in my garden. There is little I could have done to make things better and more interesting.

These are the dominant pollinator in my garden. ( I think it is properly some kind of ‘carpenter bee’). I also get a few regular European Honeybees and about 3 or 4 Big Fat Golden Bees. Occasionally, there is a larger black bee that comes to visit. The golden bees will argue over who gets the bush (but only with each other). The two kinds of black bees will sometimes seem to be suggesting the other size leave, but that’s a bit speculative. Nobody really notices the honeybees.

There are also hummingbirds that visit the same flowers. Those are Sage. A modestly long trumpet like flower that the Hummers just love. In late winter, early spring, it “tides them over” until I get the Scarlet Runner Beans up, with their big red flowers. The hummers and bees ignore each other as well.

The black bees will land on a flower; then, it looks like they cut an ‘access port’ to the pollen at the base of the flower petals from the outside. The golden bees make the most mad buzzy bee noise I’ve heard. Then again, given how large they are and now small their wings are, something has to be moving “way fast” to keep them in the air! They sound like a small “two stroke hummingbird”…

Usually in the morning or evening a bunny will be in the shade of the sage. They have trimmed off the lowest leaves. The “forest litter” that collects there cushions the stones and they seem to like that best. Various birds also come to “check out the litter” for bugs and the odd gizzard pebble.

Sage Shade Bird DSC_6156

Sage Shade Bird DSC_6156

This little fellow is one of a dozen or so who “worry the peas and beans” until enough other things are up that they don’t need to eat the leaves. They also tend to strip the Amaranth seeds just when they are most ripe, but not every year. They are not fond of Quinoa, so in my “disaster garden plan” I expect I’ll be planting more quinoa and less amaranth! Until doomsday, though, I like the red / green mixed colored amaranth that formed as a ‘backyard mule’ between Hopi Red and a random commercial seed from Whole Foods bin. It, and to a lesser extent the Hopi Red, have naturalized in some parts of the garden. (Those areas where the bunnies can not mow them down… bunnies love amaranth seedlings ;-) Quinoa has a ‘saponin’ on the seed that makes them taste bitter. We can wash them, birds can not. Amaranth leaves make a decent “pot herb”. Spinach and chard have nothing to fear from them, but if I was hungry, I’d eat them and not think twice.

Here is a bunny in the “too warm under the sage, head to the cool shade” spot.

Bunny T DSC_6164

Bunny T DSC_6164

Everyone needs a supervisor, and the bunnies are very good at keeping an eye on me to make sure I’m tending their garden properly. When I’m weeding, they will come over to check out what I’m pulling up. Their preference is that I pull the grasses and any stray small ‘thinnings’; especially cole family plants and bean leaves. All are to be placed neatly in a pile where they can be quality checked.

This bunny is in the “relaxed aware” posture that I think of as “bread loaf”. All the “landing gear” is tucked up underneath somewhere. Head up, eyes watching nearly a 360 view, and typically with 2 escape routes and some object at their back or on one side. The “fuzzy green things with pale small yellow flowers” are the Nicotiana Rustica that have naturalized outside the “bunny boxes”. You can see the “portable dog run” fencing behind the bird in the prior picture, and to the right side of this picture. Each encloses a 4 x 4 foot “square” of garden. Outside the squares things that grow must not taste good to a bunny! (Other than the lawn patch that they keep mowed as their pasture). The bunnies are assigned the job of keeping all ‘strays’ that wander out through the wire trimmed back for a neat and trimmed appearance. They take their job very seriously!

The bamboo along the left side is the top / end layer of a ‘pile’ that the bunnies tunnel under. Any “critter” chasing them (especially in the dark) gets to try and dodge the sharp ends of bamboo poles as a high speed bunny dives into a small pre-planned hole in the pile. It is fascinating to watch them plan, and engineer, an escape path and tunnel in such a pile of hazards. Even more amazing to see them pace it off from marker to marker and then when startled, run at it full tilt, zig at the last minute, and dive under it. Just like in countless movies from The Hunt For Red October to Independence Day; the predator has no hope of avoiding a nasty surprise when the “target” shifts directions at the last possible moment and a larger, heavier, predator can not make that sharp a turn. “SPLAT! Ow ow ow…”

So, now you know why my garden has “litter” on the stones, and “brush” around the edges. Because it is 1/2 garden, but 1/2 “habitat”, and all the various “critters” that live here like it best a bit “wild” on the edges. I’ve not found where the bees live, nor the wasps that come out a week or two into the bug season (and clean up all the aphids and any other odd pest that might have started to bother me), nor where the ‘Possum spends the day. (She cleans up any slugs or snails that are out at night… also any stray cat food ;-) Yes, Ms. ‘Possum will also eat the occasional plant parts if that’s all there is (they are omnivores) but that’s only really in winter. A small dish of cat food will prevent it. For a while, there was a litter of “little ones” under a tool shed, but they’ve “all gone off somewhere” and it’s not clear where they are staying now. The occasional “scat” behind a particular bamboo pile informs me they are still around. That, and no snail problem…

About a month from now I ought to get the Lady Bugs showing up. One year I almost made the mistake of spraying for aphids. They were on a parsnip that was “running to seed”. The parsnip didn’t seem to mind, but I didn’t want them ‘wandering off’ to other parts of the garden. Reluctantly, after about 2 weeks of watching the population grow, I bought some Massive Bug Death In A Bottle… A few days later I was going to spray, but checked one last time on “where” so I’d know “how much”. Found a few adult lady bugs and a bunch of the larval form that look like tiny dragons “working over the bush”. I put the “toxic bug death” away, had a wine cooler, and watched my army of Lady Bugs clean up the aphid problem…

Most summers I can sit, sipping, and watch one wasp or sometimes two, per square, working over all the plants, looking for stray bugs. How they work out the schedule with the Lady Bugs I’ll never know ;-)

Speaking of Supervisors… Even the bunnies need a supervisor, so the Doves have taken on that role. I have a ‘nest shelf’ under an awning for them. We’ve had the first batch of two fledge just last week. They are now hanging around the garden as Mom and Dad start Batch Two… I think this is Dad sitting on the back fence watching that the bunnies and I don’t bother the “kids” at the water bowl and seed line. (I put a few little piles of birdseed out from time to time for the Doves… they reward me with plenty of soft cooing…)

The “nest shelf” is about 2 feet to the side of where I have a nice recliner chair under the awning. Just where the doves don’t see me and don’t need to worry. The start of the season, if it’s a batch born there, returned, they are used to me within a day or two. If a newcomer has “married in”, they will “flush” the first few times I come out and sit. After about a week they don’t bother. I “coo” a bit as I exit the back door. They “look me over”, and I slowly walk to my “easy chair” and settle in. I have to pay attention to the schedule, though. There is a “shift change” in the afternoon, so I need to leave the area for a while then so Mom and Dad can shift who’s on the nest… If I look up and see a dove peering down at me impatiently, I know I’m running a bit late ;-) and head off to “freshen” the beverage…

I think this is the Dad in this picture. He’s got his neck feathers ruffled up in this picture. He’d just finished some preening and was ‘resettling’ the feathers.

Dove DSC_6162

Dove DSC_6162

Some years we’ll get 6 or even 8 baby doves fledged in a season. It’s kind of special when walking around the block to hear doves in the neighborhood and realize they are likely all “our doves” ;-)

Sometimes the bunnies and doves and all will duck for cover. On rare occasion, we’ve had a raptor sidling along the fence looking for lunch. Another reason for having a lot of “overhead clutter” with trees, bamboo, trellises, et. al. The layout is such that a raptor cannot “dive” on the garden without high risk of whacking into something. So they land on the fence or the wires and “check it out”. Realize that it smells like a lunch counter, but the service is lousy, and leave. Occasionally with me hollering, making “big cat” noises, and / or chucking dirt at them…

More often, it’s just a big crow looking for something smaller to eat. The bunnies still hide. They are very non-fond of big birds. This fellow came to look. I “caw cawed” at him that this was taken, and he decided to leave…

Crow DSC_6141

Crow DSC_6141

My spouse thinks me a bit mad, but in a cute sort of way, for “talking to the crows”… but “crow” isn’t a very hard language to learn. And the “MINE MINE MINE MINE MINE” caw caw caw caw CAHW isn’t very hard at all… They look around for where is this big bird claiming this space, and decide it’s better not to know!

The Black Bees

Here you can see one walking up the outside of the flower to get a nibble at the base.

BBee SR DSC_6127

BBee SR DSC_6127

BBee Side DSC_6125

BBee Side DSC_6125

And a very nice “top view” in mid lunch!

BBee Top DSC_6131

BBee Top DSC_6131

The Golden Bee

These are four images of The Giant Golden Bee. I don’t know what their proper name is, but they are just magnificent. I sit in my “garden lawn chair” and (with bunny supervisor to my left) look at the Sage Bush and watch these lumps of gold glitter and flit in the sun, hummming all the way. They are about the size of the first segment of my little finger, and I have big hands. Maybe 1.5 x 3 cm for the bigger ones, 1.25 x 2.5 for the smaller. If you offered me gold nuggets of their size in exchange for removing them, I’d ask you politely to leave.

Golden Bee side DSC_6184

Golden Bee side DSC_6184

Just look at how small those wings are! And they HOVER!

Golden Bee rear DSC_6196

Golden Bee rear DSC_6196

I just love this picture. In the garden they move so fast you can’t really get a good look at their face, not for very long. Just a moment when they hover, then head off somewhere else. This lets you study them a while. While all the other pictures are reduced to 50%, I’ve left this one full sized. Click on it for a very large view.

Golden Bee headon DSC_6192

Golden Bee headon DSC_6192

I may try to get some sharper pictures of these guys. But between them being small and very fast, the telephoto being slow to focus and slow of speed, and me being none too fast either, it took a while just to get this quality. It’s not easy using a 200 mm telephoto on macro with a high speed moving subject hand held! Then again, I’ll have all summer ;-)

Golden Bee head quarter  DSC_6189

Golden Bee head quarter DSC_6189

In Conclusion

So now you know why I long for spring and my garden so much. Why some days, like today, there will be a long gap of silence from me. It is because I am with “other friends”. Those who need me to plant some forage, or tell a hawk that “this place is not for you”, or just want someone to watch the “kids” while they take a bath in the sprinkler ;-)

Each year there are some newcomers who take a while to learn about this special place, and this strange person who does not chase them. And there is an ever growing group of “old friends well met” who meet to share some time in the sun, a munch of some sage (leaves for me and the Bunnies, flowers for the Hummers and Bees) or have a bit of brown rice and pigeon mix… To visit the watering hole or bathe in the sprinkler that oddly knows to turn itself down to Just Right when you land and eye it for a minute or two ;-)

One year we had a Very Special Crow. He visited us out front when my son was washing a car. A wild crow, it wanted to look us over closely. It liked my keys, and when I’d toss a coin, it would pick it up and toss it too. We gathered 4 of us around this crow. I was allowed to reach out and gently stroke it’s back feathers (when distracted by my keys…). After about 10 minutes of this, his “field research on humans” done, he flew away. For a few weeks we would see a crow that was more “adventuresome” that the others around the neighborhood. Then migration time came. I’ve never seen him again.

I have doves that, by the end of the season, don’t bother to fly from the ‘garden litter’ area where they are looking for bugs and gizzard pebbles. I can walk about 10 feet away and they look me over, thinking “Oh, yeah, the giant from the easy chair. Does he have any brown rice today?” (My ‘under the awning’ chair is a recliner that was headed for the recycle pile. I convinced the spouse that “stained” was OK for a patio chair… When “fledging time” comes, I’ll leave the “foot rest” extended under the nest “launch site”. Occasionally a “slow learner” will flop onto the cushion rather than concrete. I think they appreciate it ;-)

Often I’ll sit in the easy chair or the garden chair and ‘work over my seeds’. In spring, preparing and selecting what to plant (with a “potting table” of brickwork just out from under the awning). In the fall, winnowing and threshing. Marking envelopes and drying seeds “for next spring”. Mid summer? Sipping something cool and talking to the rabbits and doves and crows… (The ‘Possums don’t say much… and the bees never listen..)

Such is life in Smith’s Garden…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Human Interest, Plants - Seeds - Gardening and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Of Bees and Birds and Sage

  1. Level_Head says:

    The latter bees appear to be Gold Carpenter Bees, similar to the black Carpenter Bees you described. (Look for 1/2″ holes along wood, especially the eaves of the home.)

    Like this one, a nice golden closeup:

    (These are not Italian Honeybees, which are a similar color and also West Coast but not so large and furry.)

    Nice pictures, and a very attractive habitat. For the creatures, too.

    ===|==============/ Level Head

  2. E.M.Smith says:

    Ah, doing a BING! on “Golden California Carpenter Bee” got me this article:


    that indicates these might be male and female of the same species (which would explain why they don’t fight over the bush ;-)

    “Some of us refer to these males as ‘teddy bear’ bees, because of their yellowish-brownish color and fuzzy burly bodies,” said UC Davis emeritus entomology professor Robbin Thorp, who studies pollinators. “The females are all black with violaceous (violet) reflections on their dark wings.”

    I found a link with a description of the bumble bees of California, and they all were more hairy and with yellow on the abdomen as well. If you look at the pictures of the black ones with wings visible, they are dark and IIRC, have a vaguely violet glimmer. I’ll check tomorrow when the sun is out.

    You can also clearly see the green eyes in the golden guys.

    Xylocopa varipuncta

    some nice pictures in the link…

    This page: http://www.beeguild.org/bumble.htm

    gave a pointer to this link:


    that lead to a nice pdf with all the bumble bees in it. They are too hairy and with yellow abdomens (but nice pictures):

    Click to access GUIDE_TO_THE_BOMBUS_OF_SAN%20FRANCISCO___.pdf

    Well, at least now I know what these guys are.

    I’ve got some logs by the end of the house (too large for the fireplace) that I hope they are living in… If not, I’m OK with a few holes in the rafters ;-)

    And now I know their favorite wood, I can keep a few logs of it strategically placed for them ;-)

    The article also says the males can be territorial. That would explain why I usually only see a couple of them and they seem cranky with each other ;-) The reference says that the males do not have a stinger, so I guess they just bump and bite each other.

    Maybe I’ll plant another sage plant out front, so two colonies can be on opposite sides of the yard and not fighting with each other…

  3. wolfwalker says:

    For what it’s worth, the ‘Sage Shade Bird’ appears to be a female House Sparrow.

  4. Larry Geiger says:

    Nice. Just real nice.

    My back yard is a half acre of Scrub Live Oak and Palmetto scrub. This morning the Cardinals and Mockingbirds were having a singing contest. I should have stayed home all day :-)

  5. PhilJourdan says:

    We have a few bunnies, but they do not come round much, so my smallest cat usually supervises. When she is unavailable, she sends in the ornery cat (do not pet him unless you are wearing leather gloves – otherwise, he is a nice fellow).

    Problem with the lady bugs in our area is they do not last as long as the aphids. But I do encourage them. Do you know they are fierce carnivores? If they were the size of us, we would be toast! But they are pretty and of course very beneficial.

    And I do not have to worry about feeding the possum. He is actually quite useful as he does clean up the cat food. if the food gets wet – they will not eat it (they have standards you know!), but the possums clean it up! Plus I guess they get the snails, as I do not have a problem with them (but then the garden is just beginning).

    What we do have a problem with are voles. They killed half my wife’s hostas. On the good side, the cats like to catch them and play with them until death do they part! I pick up abotu 2 or 3 a week from the yard/driveway. Given what they do to the plants, I do not mourn for them, just toss them in the trash. if they get worse, I guess I will go with the MoleMax (or similar product). But like you like to let nature take its course first.

  6. E.M.Smith says:


    Nice to know. I’d figured “some kind of sparrow” but clueless as to which one. One of my “limitations” is species names. Looked at it in an overall way once and realized it would consume me to know EVERY species name (and with a compulsion to completion it’s hard to stop part way…). I’ve even got a book or two showing birds with identification keys. Decided I needed to “not go there” unless I was going to be a professional species namer ;-)

    So it’s really nice to have folks who “know a few of them” and can identifiy them… that way I don’t spend days in the “bird books” ;-)

    There’s a little finch like guy with yellow breast and head markings that I just love, but doesn’t hang around long, moves fast, and “works the morning shift” most of the time. So, as I’m not a morning person, I’ve no picture of him. Almost got one this morning. Maybe tomorrow…

    One year we had a very large insectivore of some kind. Like a Jay but grey. I had a shovel stuck in the dirt on one side of the garden (near the fence. He would sit on top of the handle, and swoop down over the garden, rising to land on an antenna wire I had hanging under the eaves. Then repeat it back to the shovel. Had to leave that darned shovel there all summer so I could watch the show. Each swoop was another bug gone. The two ends of the “swoop” being only about 4 feet difference, he could conserve energy rather well while being very fast in the middle nearer the ground.

    The little finch guys also work over the space under the eaves and around the windows for bugs. Very industrious. I suspect that between them and the wasps, the bug load dropped so much that the Big Grey Guy found buggier places for lunch.

    @Larry Geiger:

    At HP they had a “social norm” of calling in “sick” for a “Mental Health Day” ;-)

    You could have claimed “menancholy that needed some time to pass”… just sayin’…


    Our cat used to hang out in the garden, down in the pasture area. I adopted the habit of sporadically turning up the sprinkler. He decided by the end of the house was warm, sunny, and stayed dry. The bunnies and birds thanked me ;-)

    Had to look up “Hostas”. “Day Lilly” (but that term is now obsolete; as they have been moved out of the lillies). I remember in High School how my Biology teacher extolled the virtues of “Scientific Names that never change”… Then a new crop of botanists with ego problems came along and all the names keep changing. In some cases, the common name has been more stable… Beans are no longer Leguminosae, grasses no longer Gramineae, all the “crusiferous vegetables” no longer Cruciferae. Each botanist infected with the ego need to overturn Linnaeus… So I’m now “obsolite” too. Works for me. I like old things. To me they will not change.

    Don’t now how to deal with voles in a kind way. I’d expect various sorts of mouse traps to work (as they are a ‘field mouse’), but you would need to choose the bait wisely. At prior times I’ve had to deal with rats (a bit more vole like in being larger than a house mouse). Never did get it down to something simple and easy.

    The squirrles are easy to trap ( I’ve got a ‘live trap’ and relocate them to a nearby wild area). Peanut butter is their demise ;-)

    At a prior home we had a mole of some sort working the garden. I got one of the mole traps that spikes them from above. Upon inspection of the result, I wish I’d just let him have a part of the space. They have marvelously strong hands. Industrious little fellows too.

    Then again, I only had about 40 sq ft of garden space possible there, so it was “him or the garden”. I suppose I could have just planted fruit trees and berries ;-)

    You might be able to buy “lion dung” at the local zoo. Many prey animals will not cross “large cat” scent marked areas. A bit around the Hostas could save them…

    Or feed the cat a bit less ;-)

  7. PhilJourdan says:

    Voles are basically “vegetarian moles”. Think V for vegetable, and M for meat (moles eat grubs and worms and such). So moles are not always bad (nor are voles – in fact the only truly worthless creature on the planet are mosquitos). The Lion dung would not work since like moles, they are subteranian.

    I have been told that MoleMax does take care of them, but then with the cats, I have not investigated that aspect yet, so I have not done a thing. If they get real bad, I will look at what I can do, but for now, picking up dead carcasses is my only problem (my wife refuses to – hehehehe).

    Now feeding the cat less – there is a reason that Cats are like women and dogs like men – try telling your wife you are putting her on rations! ;)

  8. Jason Calley says:

    @ E.M. “I remember in High School how my Biology teacher extolled the virtues of “Scientific Names that never change”… Then a new crop of botanists with ego problems came along and all the names keep changing.”

    Those botanists are first cousins of the astronomers who demoted Pluto.

    By the way, sorry that I have been too busy to provide any input to the wonderful conversations which you and the regulars here have been carrying on. Always fascinating! E.M., your site is consistently one of the real treats for anyone with a curious and active mind. My ongoing thanks to you and the rest!

  9. Emily Heath says:

    Your photos are amazing. It must be so satisfying to have a garden like yours and watch all the local creatures going about their business. Particularly liked the bunny and the golden bee.

  10. Tony Hansen says:

    Phil Jourdan
    …in fact the only truly worthless creature on the planet are mosquitos).
    I think they might be a population control thing.
    You know, stop one (or more?) species from overpopulating an area and stuffing it up good and proper.

  11. Tynkerbee says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post and look forward to reading more about your special garden!

  12. beng says:

    EM, I’m fascinated by insects as well, but still to cold here in the central Appalachians for all but a few.

    Like you say, the big, black & yellow are Carpenter bees. Males hover like helicopters over their “territory” and intercept & fight any other male intruders. Females chew perfectly round holes in solid wood for their egg nests.

    I’ve never seen the big “golden bee” here before.

    Butterfly bushes (Buddleia) provide endless fascination from mid-summer on. Bald-faced hornets patrol the flowers & pounce on anything they can. Their favorite victims are “skippers” & I often see them struggling on the ground as the hornet goes for a killing sting. If the hornet succeeds, it chews off the wings & legs of the skipper & flies slowly away w/the heavy load.

    Like you’ve observed, ladybugs will fairly quickly find aphid outbreaks & control them. The only exception is when the aphids are heavily “tended” by ants that fight off the ladybugs & their larvae. That’s the only time I resort to chemical control (Neem).

  13. PhilJourdan says:

    beng, Yea I know about those damn carpenter bees! Had about half a dozen pest control companies tell me “no can do” to get rid of them. One finally suggested spraying the holes with Sevin dust (does not kill them, but they do not like the taste), putty the holes, and hope they do not come back. It actually worked.

    But to my point, you can tell the difference between carpenter and bumble bees as bumbles (besides bouncing – sorry could not resist) are fuzzy and carpenter bees are smooth (well I have not tested to see how smooth, but you get the idea). it is noticeable from a distance (about 10 feet for me).

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