The BioGeek Memoirs: Snapdragon

I just love snapdragons! I mean, they have those cute little faces; they do look a little like dragon faces if you use some imagination.

Snapdragon plant in my front yard.

Snapdragons are great plants for me in my gardening efforts. They are really hardy, tolerate dry conditions, and there are new varieties that are small and easy to grow in containers and along the edge of your driveway or garden. The picture above is one that is growing in the margin between my rocked-in area and the driveway; I didn’t plant this guy; it is a volunteer that sprang up from a previous year’s plantings. The original plant was something like this one… a mixture of orange, yellow and pink that changes in the flowers as they age. Pretty cool, huh. I look at the plant and wonder how/why the pigment in the flower is changing over time. BioGeek, right?! It gets even better…

All of these plants are also volunteers from the original parent plant from a couple of years ago.

Do you see all of those colors? They are the result of genetic recombination that happened in the original plant’s flowers when the plant reproduced and created the seeds that rose up to produce this array of colors. Some of the offspring have clear-colored flowers (the yellow and the red), while other have the mixed hues and color-changing characteristics of the parent plant.

Notice, I said parent plant. The funky thing about snapdragons is that they self-pollinate and reproduce on their own with the pollen getting to the stamens within the closed flower without any intervention by outside helpers like wind or insects. In fact, they are so hard to open that only a really heavy insect like a bumblebee can open the flower to get to the nectar inside. As the (big old fat) bumblebee climbs into the flower the little hairs on its body pick up pollen. When the bumblebee flies on to another snapdragon and then climbs into that flower it can carry the pollen in with it to cross-pollinate the new plant with the previous one’s pollen.

Bumblebees started showing up in my garden last week, and I would like to believe that they have been busy with the snapdragons too. If you snap open one of the flowers like I did in the picture above, you can see the pollen-carrying anthers above the opening and then waaaay down at the bottom of the flower is the nectar with the ovary. An industrious bumblebee can push open the flower and then muscle its way in to the bottom. Yay! More flower colors are on the way when there is crossbreeding among my plants. Here’s a great blog posting (Ray Cannon’s Nature Notes) showing a bumblebee taking on a snapdragon.

All this brings me to Mendel and classic genetics. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was a monk who had a deep interest in the science. He lived in a time when genetics was very poorly understood, and the basic question was “how are traits transmitted to new generations?” Mendel chose a plant that self-pollinated like a snapdragon (pea plants) and controlled the cross-pollination between parent plants with distinctive characteristics like the color of the flower, the height of the plant, or the color of the pea. He cut away the pollen producing structures in the flowers, used little brushes to carry pollen from one plant to another (taking on the role of the bumblebee in snapdragons), and then put little fabric hats over the flowers to prevent any other pollination from occurring. Tedious, right? Anyway, this work led to the essential understanding in basic genetics that we all now know. Some genes are dominant, and others are recessive. You have two copies of each gene (one from your mom, one from your dad), and the inheritance of which copy you got from each parent is random. Here’s an online tutorial of classic genetics maintained by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Good thing that Mendel didn’t choose snapdragons. Snapdragons are a problem for classic genetics because their genes don’t always follow the dominant/recessive inheritance pattern. Instead, some of the colors in snapdragons are both expressed at the same time, and we call that codominant. So…. a red snapdragon crossed with a white snapdragon will produce plants with pink flowers. We now understand how and why that happens, and there are lots of other examples of non-Mendelian genetics like blood type inheritance and tortoiseshell cats. If Mendel had chosen snapdragons to study, he would have floundered around forever, but thanks to him (and pea plants) the first understandings were worked out. Think of how hard that was… no one knew what the genetic material was or had glimpsed a chromosome, but he figured out the process using his pea plant data and some truly exhausting math. Way to go, Mendel!!

Seed pods on my snapdragon plants. Those seeds carry the next generation of snapdragons waiting to grow up next year.

So, when I see my snapdragons, I am transported once again to my biology classroom and those early genetics lessons with students. I am connected to the world of science and the legacy given to me by Mendel and others. Why are my flowers a mixture of pink, yellow, and orange? Hmmm…. maybe there is more than one pigment gene at work at the same time, and the amount of pigment being produced is changed as the plant ages? Is this some funky combination of red and yellow genes? I kind of think so, since I now have plants with clear red and yellow flowers: they must have two copies of either the red or yellow gene. Is there another gene kicking in to modulate the amount of pigment produced as the flower ages? What about the pigments that I can’t see, but are there for the bees to see? This is so cool, and I just love snapdragons!!!!

This isn’t just a garden, but a genetics experiment that I’ve been running for a few years now.

Yay, science!

The BioGeek Memoirs: Bees

The last few days have been warm and sunny, and the perennial shrubs are starting to green up out in the garden. My patch of catmint is already coming back to life and the return of bees to the garden is right around the corner.

Honeybee in my catmint last year.

I just love bees! I used to be afraid of them as a child (I mean, who wouldn’t be? They are kind of scary and they sting!) until I learned the difference between bees and wasps. Now I get a little thrill seeing the bees buzzing around plants in the garden and set boundaries with the paper wasps whenever they build a hive in my yard. (Here’s the boundary… if the wasps leave me alone, they are safe. If I get harassed or stung that nest is history!)

Of course, I am planting things that the bees like in my yard! They just love my sedum and viburnum along with the catmint, but they also spend some time with the dandelions. They absolutely love the neighborhood flowering trees. Just as I have established some boundaries with the wasps in my yard, I have negotiated some boundaries with the (male) neighbors over dandelions. They tend to get a little worked up if I don’t eradicate every single dandelion in the front yard, so I do stay on top of them out front… (sigh)… but in the back I have some carefully maintained dandelion plants that are now the size of romaine lettuces. Bees love dandelions!! Since dandelions bloom really early in the spring they are an important source of pollen for bees so I let them bloom and then cut off the seed globes before the seeds fly. Later in the year the leaves on those dandelion plants are food for my wild bunny. Shhhh… the dandelions are a secret that my favorite neighbor, Alton, doesn’t know about. He mows the front lawn for me every week in the summer, and wonders why I won’t let him do the back yard… ūüôā

Bunnies eat dandelions!

Long ago I had a bumblebee nest in my back yard. These bees (they are kind of fuzzy instead of smooth, are larger than honeybees, and mine had a red band at the top of their abdomen) live in things like woodpiles or holes in the ground. In my yard the bees were living in a hive in the ground, so I built a little shelter over the nest with flagstones. The hive survived year after year, and we came to love these gentle little bees.

Bumblebee at my catmint. See the fuzz?

The bees flew exact flight paths every afternoon coming home with pollen, and if you accidently walked into the flight path, they would bounce off you (repeatedly) and hover in the air waiting for the path to reopen. It was so cute! These bees were so gentle that no one in our family was ever stung except for a cat who took a nap on top of the opening to the hive… sad boy, we found the bee clinging to his belly once we calmed him down.

Morgan: that bee was a nightmare!!!

Every year as a biology teacher my students and I learned about bees as we watched a NOVA program together called Tales from the Hive. The students loved, loved, loved this show. I attended a workshop on bees at the University of Colorado and put my name in to win a beehive for my classroom and sadly lost to another teacher who absolutely, positively did not deserve that hive as much as I did (!!!) but I’m over it now. Sniff. The students and I were all crushed at the news that I had lost…

Why learn about bees? Well, bees are especially important in our ecology as pollinators. Basically, flowers are all about reproduction, and if the pollen on the flower (the male part) isn’t carried to the female part of the flower there won’t be any seeds or baby plants in the future. Plants get pollinated by lots of different means, but many plants rely on bees. The flowers are specifically designed to attract bees, and bees rely on the flowers to survive. We benefit from this relationship between bees and plants as the resulting process produces a lot of our food. Some crops are 90% dependent on bees for reproduction, and altogether about one third of our food is dependent on bees. Believe it or not, as the blooming season moves north up the planet there are mobile beehives that travel north as well, traveling to orchards and fields, bringing the bees as pollinators for those crops. As a teacher I could use bees to teach about ecology, evolution, invertebrates, sociobiology, and bioethics. Bees were really important to me as a teacher!

So, how much do I love bees? Well, I spent a summer reading a whole series of books about bees and blogged about it here. I spent a week one June on horseback in the Colorado wilderness riding a horse named Industrious Bee.

Bee and me. What a great week that was!!

I spent another summer teaching an advanced biology program with the best student teacher ever and learned even more about bees here in Colorado because his mother was a beekeeper. When the program ended in July, I received a little gift package of honey from him. See. If bees are involved, all things are good!

How much do I love bees? Well, I knitted myself my own little bee to keep me company over the winter.

The pattern for this bee is by Claire Garland and is called Bees are Beautiful.

Yes, they are!

Gardening for Cats and Bees

I just finished reading my first “Bee” book, A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson.¬†This book was a quick friendly read about bumblebee biology, ecology, and the efforts to build habitat in the United Kingdom that will support and grow wild bumblebee populations. One of the techniques that the researchers in the book utilized to detect bumblebees was to have observers sit in their garden (or some other location) for 20 minutes to tally the number of bees they saw.

I’ve been a little sad over the absence of a strawberry crop this year, and I thought that it was due to a lack of bees. As I read the book, however, I realized that many of the bees that I have seen in the past were actually bumblebees. I plant a lot of ¬†flowers that should be attracting bees, too. Late yesterday afternoon I headed out to the garden for 20 minutes with my camera to see what was actually going on out there.

Bee
Well look at that! There is steady bee traffic to some of the plants in the garden. All those hairs on the abdomen of the bee is the tip off that this is a bumblebee. Aren’t those red bands on the bee cute?

A little search of the internet led me to believe that this is a Bobmus huntii bee.¬†The bees were really targeting purple flowers yesterday afternoon. I saw them on the lavender, this catmint plant, and on the pincushion¬†flowers. I don’t know why my strawberry plants were a flop this year, but maybe is was due to a very wet and cold spring that made it hard for bees to get to them. I learned that bumblebees struggle in those conditions as they need to maintain enough heat to work their flight muscles. Who knew?!

As I was sitting out with the bees and the flowers I realized that while I have a lot of plantings that attract wildlife, I have actually¬†made my yard and garden into a habitat for cats. Check out what I’ve done for them.

Cat in catmint plant.
As you can imagine, the catmint is a big favorite with the cats. The plant is really hardy, doesn’t need a lot of water and tolerates cats building nests inside of them. Yellow Boy sleeps inside this nest with the bumblebees buzzing over his head.

Uncut grass under the tree.
I leave a little circle of grass and plants around the base of one of my trees as the cats like to sleep in the tall grass. Easy solution to cats needing shade in the summer sun. One year a visiting cousin cut all the grass thinking that she was doing me a big favor. Sigh…

Cat in grass.
The grass nest is a big hit with MacKenzie.

Cat water dish.
I bought a nice saucer for large pots at the nursery and now it is a source of water for summer kitties. I hose it out and put in fresh water each morning. 

Lavender and invisible fence wire.
This lavender draws a lot of bees. Behind the plant attached to the fence you can see a wire. The wire¬†is part of the invisible fence system that I put up to train the cats to not jump out of the yard. They trained really quickly and I haven’t activated the fence for the last 3 years. The bricks at the bottom of the fence are plugging small gaps.

Squirrels use the yard constantly and provide the cats with some quality exercise as they chase them, but I no longer put out food for squirrels. They have been raiding a neighbor’s trash and burying stuff in my planters, so they get little else from me. I used to have a bird feeder and nesting boxes in the yard,¬†and I really liked the birdsong and the activity was hours of entertainment for the cats¬†(who really never managed to catch anything, but they loved to try!). I discovered that the birds also attracted other cats (AKA enemy cats!!) so I had to stop putting out food. Even an invisible fence will not keep a cat in the yard who chasing out an invader!

Now my cats think they are dogs. They make me get up in the morning to let them out, mill around the door carrying on as soon as I come home, and are happy to go in and out all day through a cat door.  They come running in from the yard when I shake the kitty treat bag, and stay in all night (asleep!) like good boys.  I can do cat-free crafting activities during the day (like warping my loom) while they happily doze outside dreaming of bugs and garter snakes. By making the yard an appealing habitat for my kitties they stay put and are safe outside.

Crazy cat-gardening lady, huh! Some of my friends think it is strange to let my animals tunnel thought plantings, but they are just a part of my overall¬†scheme. After reading Dave Goulson’s book I also realized that this isn’t just a backyard; it is also important habitat for wildlife in the city. I will be putting in more plants with an eye to supporting bumblebees (who evidently are critical to the pollination of strawberries and tomato plants!). Later this summer my¬†butterfly plants should get going and there will be hummingbirds and butterflies for kitty entertainment. Everyone wins!

I wonder what other people are planting for cats?