Coastal Plain Honeycombhead and the Gulf Coast Solitary Bee

Coastal Plain Honeycombhead and the Gulf Coast Solitary Bee

Coastal plain honeycombhead blooms through the summer and early fall on local beaches. Photo credit, Bob Pitts, National Park Service

Over my years of leading people on interpretive trail hikes, I have learned it is particularly important to know the names of the plants that are in bloom. These flowers are eye-catching, and inevitably someone will ask what they are. In fact, one of my favorite wildflower identification books is categorized not by taxonomy, but by bloom color—with a rainbow of tabs down the edge of the book for easy identification.

Wildflower identification can be tough, but color-coded guidebooks are really helpful! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In our coastal dunes right now, several plants are showing off vibrant yellow blooms. Seaside goldenrod, coreopsis, and other asters are common. Rarer, and the subject of today’s post, is the Coastal Plain Honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). It has bright yellow flowers, but often gets more notice due to its unusual appearance when not in bloom. The basal leaves are bright green and similar in shape and arrangement to a pine cone or bottlebrush (albeit a tiny one), sticking straight up in the sand. The plants are typically found on the more protected back side of primary dunes or further into secondary dunes, a little more inland from the Gulf.

When not in bloom, the plant resembles a green pinecone planted in the sand. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The plant plays a special role in beach ecology, as a host plant for Gulf fritillary butterflies and the Gulf Coast solitary bee (Hesperapis oraria). The bee is a ground-dwelling pollinator insect that forages only in the barrier islands of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The species is currently the subject of a University of Florida study, as the endemic bee’s sole source of nectar and pollen is the honeycombhead flower. As of publication date, no bee nests have been discovered. Researchers are interested in learning more about the insect’s life cycle and nesting behaviors to better understand and protect its use of local habitats. Based on closely related species, it is believed the Gulf Coast solitary bee builds a multi-chambered nest under the soft sands of the dunes.

Adult female Hesperapis oraria foraging on coastal plain honeycombhead (Balduina angustifolia). Photograph by John Bente, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Park Service.

While the honeycombhead plant is found in peninsular Florida and coastal Georgia, the bee has been identified only in a 100 km² area between Horn Island, MS, and St. Andrews Bay, FL. Luckily for the bee, large swaths of this land are preserved as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and several state parks. Nonetheless, these coastal dune habitats are threatened by hurricanes, sea level rise, and development (outside the park boundaries).  Due to its rarity and limited habitat, a petition has been submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Ground-Dwelling Bees

Ground-Dwelling Bees

While most people are familiar with the European honey bee, the domesticated insect that pollinates our crops and provides us with honey, there are plenty of other species of bees and their relatives out there. Most of them are harmless, spending their time quietly pollinating plants, including our crops. Their presence in the landscape, however, may cause some alarm, as it can be difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish between aggressive species and those that are innocuous.

The entrance to a miner bee burrow.

Homeowners may occasionally note small mounds of soil in sandy areas of their lawns. Sometimes sporting a small hole in the center, these are the nesting sites of solitary, ground-nesting bees or hornets. Miner bees or digger bees build underground chambers, usually in well-drained, otherwise bare areas of sandy soil. Multiple bees may choose to dig their nests in the same location, though each bee makes its own tunnel and they do not live communally. Each bee lays her eggs in the nest she has excavated. She gathers pollen to feed the young when they hatch, stocks the larder, and leaves. When the young emerge from the nest, they fly away and do not remain; they will dig their own nests when they are ready to reproduce. While there is no need to control these insects (they serve as fantastic pollinators), the mounds of soil they make may be aesthetically displeasing to some people. Keeping a healthy lawn with no bare patches can deter miner bees from nesting in an area. Irrigation sprinklers can also help to keep the ground moist; these bees prefer dry soil, so it may keep them away. Care must be taken not to over-water a lawn, however!

A cicada killer wasp. Photo credit: Division of Plant Industry

Another species of note is the cicada killer hornet. Also known as the giant ground hornet, these insects grow to a size of about an inch and a half in length. Instead of pollen, they capture cicadas to feed their young. Like the miner bee, though, they are not harmful. Females do possess a stinger which they use to hunt their prey. Males may try to warn people or animals away from their burrows by acting aggressive, but they have no stingers. Some may see the large size of the cicada killer and wonder if the so-called “murder hornet” has made its way from Washington state to Florida, but as of this writing it has not. Unless you are a cicada, you have nothing to fear.

One ground-dwelling hornet that does warrant some concern is the yellowjacket. These are communal hornets, living in hives that are often build underground. Yellowjackets are known for their bad attitudes, attacking anyone who disturbs the entrance to their nest. They can be beneficial, being predators of many other insects including plant pests. A colony located too close to human dwellings or areas of activity is most often a nuisance, however. Any attempts to control yellowjacket nests should be done at night when they are less active. Protective clothing is recommended even then. Large or difficult to reach nests may require the attention of a certified pest control company.

For more information on these topics, see our EDIS publications:

Miner Bees: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/in912

Cicada Killers: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/in573

Yellowjackets: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN238

False Foxglove:  A Unique Fall Wildflower

False Foxglove: A Unique Fall Wildflower

False Foxglove in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Fall is the absolute best season for wildflower watching in the Panhandle!  When mid-September rolls around and the long days of summer finally shorten, giving way to drier air and cooler nights, northwest Florida experiences a wildflower color explosion.  From the brilliant yellow of Swamp Sunflower and Goldenrod, to the soothing blue of Mistflower, and the white-on-gold of Spanish Needles, there is no shortage of sights to see from now until frost.  But, in my opinion, the star of the fall show is the currently flowering False Foxglove (Agalinus spp.).

Named for the appearance of their brilliant pink flowers, which bear a resemblance to the northern favorite Foxglove (Digitalis spp.), “False Foxglove” is actually the common name of several closely related species of parasitic plants in the genus Agalinus that are difficult to distinguish by all but the keenest of botanists.  Regardless of which species you may see, False Foxglove is an unusual and important Florida native plant.  Emerging from seed each spring in the Panhandle, plants grow quickly through the summer to a mature height of 3-5’.  During this time, False Foxglove is about as inconspicuous a plant as grows.  Consisting of a wispy thin woody stem with very small, narrow leaves, plants remain hidden in the flatwoods and sand hill landscapes that they inhabit.  However, when those aforementioned shorter September days arrive, False Foxglove explodes into flower sporting sprays of dozens of light purple to pink tubular-shaped flowers that remain until frost ends the season.

False Foxglove flowering in a Calhoun County natural area. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

In addition to being unmatched in flower, False Foxglove also plays several important ecological roles in Florida’s natural areas.  First, False Foxglove’s relatively large, tubular-shaped flowers are the preferred nectar sources for the larger-sized native solitary and bumble bees present in the Panhandle, though all manner of generalist bees and butterflies will also visit for a quick sip.  Second, False Foxglove is the primary host plant for the unique Common Buckeye butterfly.  One of the most easily recognizable butterflies due to the large “eye” spots on their wings, Common Buckeye larvae (caterpillars), feed on False Foxglove foliage during the summer before emerging as adults and adding to the fall spectacle.  Finally, False Foxglove is an important indicator of a healthy native ecosystem.  As a parasitic plant, False Foxglove obtains nutrients and energy by photosynthesis AND by using specialized roots to tap into the roots of nearby suitable hosts (native grasses and other plants).  As both False Foxglove and its parasitic host plants prefer to grow in the sunny, fire-exposed pine flatwoods and sand ridges that characterized pre-settlement Florida, you can be fairly confident that if you see a natural area with an abundance of False Foxglove in flower, that spot is in good ecological shape!

The Florida Panhandle is nearly unmatched in its fall wildflower diversity and False Foxglove plays a critical part in the show.  From its stunning flowers to its important ecological roles, one would be hard-pressed to find a more unique native wildflower!  For more information about False Foxglove and other Florida native wildflowers, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.

 

Beginning Beekeeping Publications from GIP Live

Beginning Beekeeping Publications from GIP Live

We hope that you enjoyed the live Q&A with the University of Florida Extension Agent Evan Anderson and Research Coordinator Chris Oster of the UF Honey bee Research and Extension Lab. Below are the questions with the publication links that were provided during the discussion.

What is the best way to get started with a 0.25 acre, residential yard?
How to keep the bee colony in the winter?

How much room should I have for a couple small hives? How many hives should I start with…3?

How much time is involved in the care of the bees and their hive?

Is there a small hive available for a tiny back yard?

What equipment is needed to get started?

Does placing bee hives a certain minimum distance apart help to reduce honey bee colony mortality?

Does Dr. Leo Sharashkin’s Russian concept of horizontal hives fit the environment of the Florida Panhandle?

What is the best treatment for varroa mites?

Identifying behaviors displayed, in order to split the hive. Best time to add supers?

What are good plants for honey bees?

I live near farm fields that use commercial pesticides, can I still bee keep? What are the concerns and how do I mitigate them?

As a first year beekeeper, does all of the rain we’ve experienced this year create any problems that I should be looking for?

Should we be worried about the Asian Giant Hornets in the Florida Panhandle?

We have identified honey bees, cutter bees and carpenter bees in our garden. Should we provide a bee house?

Any killer bees in the area?