The Pollinators of Stony Kill Farm

Suzanne, Elizabeth and Wilhelmina burst out of the manor house into the wide open spaces of Stony Kill Farm. The three sisters ran down the farm lane with intentions to play hide and seek in the barn but suddenly they spot an yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly fluttering in the hayfields. They look at each other and in silent accord jump with leap and bounds through the tall grasses and wild flowers following the butterfly until it lands to rest on a lavender bergamot. The girls stop to watch the butterfly and sense the buzz of life all around them. Barn swallows dart just above the green meadow grass, a bluebird sings from a fencepost in the distance, and cows graze under a summer blue sky where white clouds softly drift by. The girls notice the butterfly is not alone, but in the company of bees in all shapes and sizes. Bumble bees take flight with baskets laden with pollen to hurry home to unload while others arrive to garnish the riches the flowers bestow. They hear their Uncle John Verplanck call out and they awake as if from a dream and carry on towards the barn where they see a horse and carriage trotting up the farm lane. This moment of summer is forever enshrined in their memories.

Barn at Stony Kill Farm Built in 1860

Verplanck Memorial Perennial Garden

Over a hundred years later the thousand acre farm is public land under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Conservation managed by the Stony Kill Foundation. The Verplanck Memorial Perennial Garden, strategically located on the front lawn of the Manor House is filled with a variety of flowering plants that attract pollinators throughout the summer. The garden was created in 1997 with funds provided by Elizabeth, Suzanne and Wilhelmina Andrews. Today countless families and children enjoy the lawn and garden, picnic on the benches and perhaps like the three sisters become distracted by a brightly colored butterfly that leads them on an unforgettable summer adventure.

Spicebush Swallowtail in the Verplanck Memorial Perrenial Garden

Pollinators are an essential component of agriculture, responsible for one in every three bites of food that we eat.  The direct impact of native bees in New York is not fully understood but in 2016 New York State created a Pollinator Protection Plan to begin to address issues facing both managed and native bees.  It is known that insect pollinated crops in the United States  were valued at an estimated $20 billion in the year 2000.  Stony Kill Farm as both an education center and working farm, owned by New York State, is an ideal classroom to learn about and study both native pollen bees and managed honey bees.  Bees are powerhouse pollinators designed for pollination and highly efficient at their task. It is a common misconception that the European honey bee is solely responsible for all the pollination services provided by bees. In reality, there are over 450 native bee species in New York State and many of these are seen pollinating alongside the honey bee at Stony Kill Farm. The astute observer taking a stroll through the Verplanck Memorial Perennial Garden will start to see many of these industrious insects.

Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) on Meadow Rue.

The large bees, easily seen, are the first to attract attention such as bumble bees (Bombus spp.) and large carpenter bees (Xlocopa spp.). The bumble bee is one of the few true examples of a native social bee, meaning that the queen is the only egg laying female. In comparison the large carpenter bee is a solitary bee, meaning that every female is an egg layer.

Newly hatched Large Carpenter Bee (Xlocopa spp.)  will over winter as an adult

The majority of native bees live solitary lives and one species can easily be confused for another. Some bees stand out from the rest like the metallic green sweat bee (Augochlora spp.)  that is an iridescent green similar to the green sweat bee (Agapostemon spp.)  that has an iridescent green body but has a black and white striped abdomen. These little bees are fast flying efficient pollinators and drawn to a variety of flowers that grow in the garden such as coneflower, mint and false sunflower.

Metallic Green Sweat Bee (Augochlora spp.)  on Culver’s Root and a Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon spp.) on Coneflower both found at Stony Kill Farm

The Leaf cutter bees (Megachile spp.) are mostly dark colored and distinctive for their wings held outwards, similar to wasps. These solitary bees are members of a family of bees that gather pollen on scopae hairs on the underside of their abdomen. They get their name from cutting pieces of leaves with powerful jaws that they carry back to their nesting chamber to fashion partitions for their brood chambers. They represent 30% of solitary bees that nest in hollow stems and holes in trees created by beetles. These stem nesting bees are attracted to artificial “bee houses”.

Leaf Cutter Bee (Megachile spp.) on False Sunflower

Butterfly Festival

Butterflies are big and beautiful and easily steal the pollinator show as they drift carefree among the garden flowers in their search for nectar. Each July, the Stony Kill Foundation hosts its annual Butterfly Festival to celebrate these “flying flowers”. Like the tiger swallowtail that led the three sisters on their journey into a farm meadow, the lure of butterflies draws thousands of people out annually to wait in long lines to stand in tents filled with a variety of species.

Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush

Children love caterpillars as much as they love the butterflies. Each species of butterfly requires a specific host plant for its caterpillar to complete it life cycle. The monarch butterfly lays its eggs on milkweed plants that not only provide sustenance to the caterpillar but also produces beautiful flowers that attract countless species of bees and butterflies.

Monarch Caterpillar on Milkweed and Butterfly on Asters.

The silver spotted skipper is another common garden visitor whose caterpillars will eat the nearby locust trees and other legumes around the farm. Tiger swallowtail’s and black swallowtail’s are some of the largest and most beautiful butterflies. The black swallowtails caterpillars feast on plants in the parsley family including Queen Anne’s lace, aka wild carrot while the similar looking spicebush swallowtail caterpillars eat the spicebush that commonly grow in the forest understory at Stony Kill.   Greater fritillaries are brown and orange with black checkered markings whose caterpillars eat violets. In nature there are exceptions to every rule, while most butterflies die before winter a few do the impossible. Monarchs migrate to Mexico. Mourning cloaks and anglewings will hibernate under bark of trees as adults during the winter explaining why they are some of the first butterflies to be seen in the spring.

Fritillary on Cone Flower

While in the garden don’t miss the clearwing hummingbird moth, a daytime flyer whose wings are a blur as it hovers in front of nectar filled flowers such as bergamot or butterfly bush. At first you may indeed think it is a hummingbird.

Clearwing Hummingbird Moth are commonly seen in the Verplanck Memorial Perrenial Garden.

Community Garden Plots

The bees and butterflies attracted to the flowers of the Memorial Garden are also attracted to plants that produce fruits and vegetables. Down the farm lane the Community Garden Plots are rented to the public and each garden demonstrates unique combinations of plants selected by its owner. The tomato plant may be one of the most common plants found in plot after plot, this North American native, relies on bumble bees for their ability to buzz pollinate. The bee hangs upside down and vigorously shakes the pollen from the flower by vibrating its wing muscles. Like shaking pepper out of a shaker this is a pollination technique that honey bees are unable to master making the relationship between native bee and native flowers paramount to successful pollination.

Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) Buzz Pollinating a Tomato Plant

Squash is another commonly grown plant pollinated by the squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa), a specialist that only pollinates flowers in the squash family. Almost all bees will visit squash flowers but wherever squash grows you are assured to see the squash bee. They can easily be confused with honey bees as they are approximately the same size and have a similar coloration. One advantage of squash bees over honey bees is that they emerge in the predawn hours to get a head start. Since they only visit squash flowers they are guaranteed to successfully cross pollinate the flowers. Squash bees, like 70% of solitary bees, nest underground creating long tunnels with chambers where they lay their eggs.

Squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa)  showing its long tongue

Long horn bees (Melissodes spp.) are so named for the males that have long antennae. Look for them on compound flowers such as sunflowers. The males often can be found congregating together on flowers seeking shelter among the petals during summer evenings. The females with shorter antennae are more active gathering pollen they collect on long shaggy hairs on their hind legs.

A Male and Female Long Horned Bee (Melissodes spp.) on Sunflower.

New York state is a major agricultural state with 35,500 farms and over 7 million acres (more land than the entire state of Vermont) of land in agricultural production.  Over 90 commercially produced crops rely on insect pollinators with 15 to 30% of these dependent on bee pollination.  Many of our our native bees are fast and efficient pollinators.  Take for example an apple orchard, 250 native blue orchard bees are able to pollinate an acre of apple trees as effectively as two hives of honey bees represented by 80,000 bees.   Some of our food doesn’t rely specifically on bees for pollination but are better off because of them.    The strawberry is a good example of a fruit that benefits from bees.  The plant has the ability to self pollinate though a self pollinated strawberry is often deformed.  A bee pollinated strawberry is large, perfect and plump.  The bees ensure the flower is evenly pollinated.  More and more research is discovering that native bees and other pollinators may play a bigger role than is currently understood.  We do know that the more diversity there is in a ecosystem the healthier it is.

Stony Kill Trails

Across this agricultural landscape a diverse population of pollinators frequent the flowers that grow in the farm meadows, along the forest edges and even in the swamps and woods. In the spring the half mile wheelchair accessible Woodland Trail near the Manor House has a variety of spring ephemerals that emerge before the leaf canopy unfolds to shade the forest floor. This small section of forest is reminiscent of how the Hudson Valley forest may have looked before the overpopulation of deer, forest fragmentation and invasive species began changing the understory.

A lush understory of spring ephemerals along the Woodland Trail

In early spring Dutchman’s breeches attract queen bumble bees that have newly emerged from their winter hibernation. Larger than their offspring, the queen with her long tongue makes the perfect partner for this flower that stores its nectar deep within the spurs of its pantaloons, named for the under garb worn by Dutch settlers to the valley.

A Queen Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) reaching for Nectar in Dutchman’s Breeches along the Woodland Trail.

The white petaled bloodroot produces no nectar instead relying on bees such as large mining bees (Andrena spp.) that collect its pollen it uses to provision its eggs in their underground nesting chambers. The bloodroot itself is not a true ephemeral since its large leaf can be seen throughout the summer months.

A Large Mining Bee Gathering Pollen in a Bloodroot along the Woodland Trial.

Trout lily is another common woodland flower that blooms early in the year attracting bees, flies and beetles.  The trout lily is so named for the speckled leaves reminiscent of a trout’s skin.

Beetles are Common Pollinators Seeking Pollen.

In the swamps along the Sierra Trail grow marsh marigolds that attract the occasional pollinator.  These beautiful flowers can often be confused with lesser celandine, a non native ephemeral.   The trees quickly unfurl their leaves depriving the understory of light causing the pollinators to seek the flowers in the light of the meadows and gardens of Stony Kill Farm.

A Nomada Cuckoo Bee on a Marsh Marigold found in the swamps of Stony Kill.

Woodland forest to wide open meadows, pollinators are busy visiting the flowers that seasonally bloom across the Stony Kill landscape.  Despite the native bees superior ability for pollination they do not produce honey, an achievement reserved (at least in our part of the world) to honey bees.  Honey bees are a super organism that survive the winter with thousands of individuals that must eat to maintain the hive’s integrity.  During the cold winter months, it is a great pleasure of the beekeeper to put an ear up to the side of the hive and hear a healthy humming of bees from within.  The beekeeper leaves enough honey within the hive for the bees to survive the winter and only takes the excess to bottle.  Most years when there is good nectar flow a well managed hive will have honey to spare or rather honey to share.  It is this gift alone that makes the honey bee as much a part of the agricultural landscape as cows, pigs, sheep and chickens that all reside at this historic farm.