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Diggin’ In: Maple trees and Mason bees are signs of spring’s arrival

February 22, 2016

You know spring is just around the corner when you see a red haze spread across woodland areas, suburban yards and city streets.

"One of the first signs of spring is the red haze over the bare limbs of our local maple trees," says Helen Hamilton, past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society, and retired biology teacher living in Williamsburg, Va. She co-wrote "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain" — http://wildflowersofvirginia.com. Learn more about the native plant society at www.vnps.org.

"What you see are the male and female flowers of red maple."

Native red maple, or Acer rubrum, features male flowers that first appear as yellowish-pink, followed closely by the darker pink blossoms of female trees, according to Hamilton. Once fertilization happens between the sexes, thousands of "miniature helicopters" float to the ground.

Red maple is one of the first trees to produce flowers and its pollen is important food for emerging insects. Bees are among spring’s earliest insects, making them important helpers in the red maple’s pollination process.

Red maple benefit wildlife in many ways, continues Hamilton. Buds, flowers, seeds, and even the bark are food for moth caterpillars, aphids, leafhoppers and beetle larvae. Woodpeckers and other birds feed on these insects, which furnish protein and fat for adult reproduction and young nestlings. Songbirds eat the seeds and buds; the cavities of older red maples are nesting habitats for some birds and bats.

The native tree, which is the state tree of Rhode Island, is one of the most common deciduous trees of North America, seen everywhere from Minnesota to Florida to Texas, and even east to Newfoundland, according to Hamilton. It grows usually in low, wet sites, but adapts to many growing conditions, including swamps and poor, dry soil.

As a youngster, the medium-sized tree has smooth gray bark that darkens with age. The tree’s name suits its personality because its flowers, petioles, twigs and seeds are all red in varying degrees.

"However, this tree is best known for its brilliant deep scarlet foliage in autumn," says Hamilton.

"Many cultivars are available in garden centers with varying shades of red and leaf shapes."

MEET MASON BEE

If you watch any flowers open in early spring, you are likely to see a wonderful drama in action — tiny black bees gathering nectar and pollen.

You are watching the work of the mason bees, scientifically known as Osmia lignaria.

"A little smaller than a honeybee, these native mason bees are much more efficient as fruit tree pollinators," says Hamilton.

Honeybees have hairy bodies, but most pollen is carried in packets on their legs, after being wetted with nectar, she adds. The mason bee’s body is covered with hairs, all of which gather pollen, which is redistributed as the insect moves among flowers.

Mason bees overwinter as adults in small holes, emerging as soon as the air temperature reaches 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The males come out first, vigorously feeding after winter dormancy without food. Females appear a little later, initially unable to fly; mating occurs with several males, after which her wings will be dry. Then, she flies away to feed and prepare homes for her offspring.

Beginning in spring, mason bees lay a series of eggs in hollow tubes, creating individual cells with moist soil, often clay, according to Hamilton. Females select eggs to become male or female larva, and position the females in the back of the tube — males in front because they emerge earlier. Over the summer, each cell is carefully provisioned with the right amount of nectar and pollen to nourish the developing larva until it forms a cocoon. Usually by September, metamorphosis has occurred inside the tough, waterproof covering, and the new adult waits out winter in a low-energy stupor. When spring temperatures are warm enough, the bee emerges to feed on early spring blossoms, often those of shrubs and trees.

Mason bees, also called orchard bees, like holly trees, dogwoods and redbuds, as well as pear and apple trees. Mason bees are not social, do not make honey and will not sting unless actively provoked. They are solitary, and have nothing to defend, according to Hamilton.

Homeowners can attract beneficial mason bees by constructing nesting boxes, often as simple as a group of hollow stems tied in a bundle and placed near flowering plants. Joe-pye weeds, goldenrods, and ornamental grasses have hollow stems, which mason bees use for nests. They do not drill into wood, but use tunnels created by other insects, or crevices.

"Many garden centers sell mason nesting boxes, which are easy to construct using fresh wood and a hand drill, or a bundle of small bamboo stems will do," says Hamilton.

 

 


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