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Dig It! Garden Blog

Category: Pollinators

Saving the Swarm

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

The Gardens has a lot of volunteers, and an important group among them are our volunteer pollinators. Honey bees are a key pollinator that we depend on. We maintain a small apiary – a fancy name for the location where beehives are kept – of about 400,000 honey bees by our horticultural building, and it is maintained by Master Beekeeper (and Gardens CFO) Erin MacGregor Forbes.


Recently, Erin received an alert from the Maine State Beekeepers Association (MSBA) about a swarm of honey bees that had been reported by an alarmed East Boothbay resident. The swarm had landed on a tree in her front yard, and she used the form on the MSBA website to alert the nearest team member to come remove it. (You can report your own swarm here. Please note that they only remove honey bee swarms – they do not handle wasps, hornets, bumble bees or other stinging insects. If possible, try to ID the insects before reporting.)

“Swarming,” as Erin says, “is the colony level reproductive behavior of honey bees. The colony intentionally raises more individual bees than the current space can accommodate, and also raises a new queen.” Just before the new queen hatches, she makes a specific sound to let the old queen know it is time to depart. The old queen and a portion of the adult bee population in the hive – typically 20-30% of the total colony – fly out of the colony together and form a swarm cluster somewhere usually not too far from the old hive.


This swarm cluster, while sometimes loud and a little intimidating, is busy and distracted looking for a new cavity to inhabit and create a new hive in. They send out scouts to find locations, while the rest remain with the queen.

Erin, prepared with an empty hive ready to go, facilitated the relocation of this particular swarm into an ideal and safe new nest. She was even able to locate the queen in the swarm, and place her directly in the hive to help ensure the swarm moves in. “As far as these bees are concerned,” she said, “finding this hive directly below them is a miracle.”

After giving the scouts some time to return and locate the colony’s new home, Erin then came back to collect the hive and add them to our team of volunteer pollinators here at the Gardens. They make hive #9 in our apiary – to the far left in the image below. This year we anticipate harvesting several hundred pounds of honey flavored by the floral diversity that is unique to the Gardens. This honey will be shared with volunteers and members.

If you want to learn more about our bees, check out our upcoming ‘Secret Lives of Beekeepers’ class this fall on October 18 – more details to come soon!

Milkweed for Monarchs

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

It is incredibly important to grow enough milkweed to support and grow monarch populations. Milkweed comes in many varieties, and is the only food source for monarch caterpillars. Not only are the leaves essential for monarch caterpillar growth, but the flowers help nourish the adult butterflies as well. The amount of wild milkweed has declined in past years, and horticulturists and home gardeners alike have been working to restore it. This past year, there were less than 275,000 monarchs overwintering in Mexico, and that number was even further reduced by a late winter storm. By comparison, the most recent peak year of 1997 had over 1.2 million monarchs overwintering in the Mexican forest. Increasingly, researchers are finding: no milkweed, no monarchs.

Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow' DSC_4776

The native species of milkweed in the Northeast that we are propagating here at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Horticulturist and propagator Dan Robarts is growing large amounts of these three varieties, in addition to experimenting with some small numbers of other beautiful – if not native – varieties.
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How can you help the monarchs?

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Over the past few years there has been a dramatic decline in the monarch butterfly population. This has been caused by a variety of things, including loss of milkweed, drought conditions, pesticide, and habitat loss. Although some of these dangers are natural and can’t be avoided, there are ways to help out from home. So, how can you help the monarchs?

A crucial part of the monarch’s survival is their access to milkweed, so planting a form of native milkweed would be a great help. Monarchs start their life on a single leaf of milkweed, relying on it to develop and grow. Milkweed also serves as protection: the toxins monarchs receive from eating the milkweed make the butterflies poisonous to many predators such as birds. To help fight the loss of milkweed, you can plant milkweed native to your area.

Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey 2008

Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey 2008

Here at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens there are two main types: first, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which prefers watery places such as areas around swamps and lakes; and second, butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) which prefers drier areas.
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Preparing for Monarchs: The Migration of Our Flying Hort Staff

Monday, March 28th, 2016

Monarch on Buddleja davidii 'Attraction' Butterfly Bush

A sweet, earthy wind blows over the green and soggy Great Lawn. It settles at times, letting the sun take a turn at warming your cheeks, but it remains persistent, bending grasses and branches. The wind bears on it warmth, and rain, and the promise of thousands of tiny wing beats making their way slowly and steadily from Mexico to Maine.

Like so many of Maine’s residents, Monarch butterflies spend the winter in the relative warmth in the south, though unlike our human snowbirds, they cluster together high in the trees in central Mexico, turning the forests of Michoacán a brilliant orange. They begin their return to the north just after mating and for many of the butterflies migrating, their first trip to Maine happens just a few weeks into their adulthood.
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