Recently I went into my vegetable garden to visit the squash bees. They come out every year at this time when plants in the Cucurbitaceae family bloom. Cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins are just a few of the cucurbits they visit to gather pollen. The males just hang around to breed so that the females can build a nest and lay eggs.
Squash bees are among the 1,600 bees native to California and just one of the many types of native bees that visit my garden. The female builds her nest in the ground so be sure to leave some ground bare of mulch or other coverings.
Napa County Master Gardeners began studying bees when reports emerged of the declining honeybee population. We learned that some bees like to nest in holes in wood, so several of us built nests out of wood. I made several. The one I made from a piece of log with a little roof on it has done the best. It's a nest for mason bees.
I knew the bees were there, but I didn't actually see any until I took the nest to an event for schoolkids at the Napa County Fairground. A bee came out, hung around for a while and then flew away. This was in March when the fruit trees were starting to bloom. About 30 holes were filled in the nest log, each with several bee eggs. A male always hatches first; females follow.
I watched the nest log a lot over the next few weeks. The bees had hardly emerged when they began building new nests. Now, once again, 30 holes are filled and the eggs should hatch next spring.
Bumblebees have been present in my garden for several years. They love my Salvia macrophylla ‘Hot Lips', which is native to Mexico. Sometimes the plant is covered with bees, mostly bumblebees.
Last spring I learned about the teddy bear bee (Xylocopa varipuncta), a common name for the male Valley carpenter bee. I was working in my garden when a big yellow bee approached me and buzzed slowly back and forth in front of me. He was an attractive bee, so I went inside to research him and identify who was visiting me. I learned that the males have no stinger and can be an inch long. He was definitely the biggest bee I have ever seen.
If you want to draw these bees to your garden, plant California native plants. The native bees and plants developed together. Honeybees were imported to this country because they produce honey. However, they have had many health problems over the past years.
Scientists are studying how native bees might play a bigger role in pollinating crops. About 100 food crops need pollination annually to produce fruit.
I even find bees in my garden in winter. I have a clematis that blooms in December and January. When I go out in the cool of the day, I find bees sleeping in the blooms. I never linger long enough to identify which type of bees they are, but I like knowing they are still flying.
Among the other native bees are digger bees and sweat bees. Some native bees are as tiny as gnats. Seventy percent of bees nest in the ground and the rest in wood holes.
At one time, I had many paper wasps building nests in my garden. They were docile around me, and they did gather insects for their nests. One winter a queen wasp overwintered on a door in my shed. I would go in periodically to check on her. She had many small wasps gathered around her, but their numbers kept declining so I often wondered if she ate them to get her through the winter. Eventually she was the only one left in the shed.
If you would like to learn more about native bees, you can find many resources online. California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists by Gordon W. Frankie, Robbin W. Thorp, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertter is an excellent reference. You can also consult www.helpabee.org.
Tree Walk: Join U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County for a free guided tree walk through Fuller Park in Napa on Monday, August 8, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Registration is recommended as space is limited. Meet at Fuller Park, corner of Jefferson and Oak Streets. Online registration or call 707-253-4221. Trees to Know in Napa Valley will be available for $15. Cash or check payable to UC Regents. Sorry, we are unable to process credit cards.
Workshop: The U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Growing Fall and Winter Vegetables” on Saturday, August 13, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Discover the joy of harvesting vegetables from your own garden in fall, winter and early spring. Topics will include timing, watering, fertilizing, managing pests and harvesting. On-line registration (credit card only). Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check only).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.
At my house, zucchini appears on the table steamed, shredded, roasted, grilled, dressed and plain. When I have an abundance of zucchini, it finds its way into soups, vegetable loaves, frittatas, quiches and ratatouille, the Provençal summer vegetable stew.
Grated zucchini is a great addition to sweet and savory breads, adding moisture and reducing the need for fats or oils. In a chocolate cake, zucchini is undetectable to all but the most discerning child. And zucchini is easy to grow.
Most zucchini grows on non-vining bushes. The variety known as zucchino rampicante or ‘Tromboncino’ can travel quite a distance around the garden. It is warm enough now to plant zucchini from seed. Plant again halfway through the summer and replace tired plants.
Zucchini is a heavy feeder, so provide generous helpings of compost and a rich mix of nutrients. Like most squash, it also needs consistent and ample moisture to yield well.
Zucchini plants have both male and female flowers. Female flowers appear first on heirloom varieties and second on hybrids. Male squash flowers do not produce fruit but have long, slender stems and a center of golden pollen. Female blossoms are large and squatty, with a tiny squash embryo at the base.
For squash to develop, pollen from the male must be transferred to the female. If you have ever noticed tiny squash that did not develop and then fell off, those were female blossoms that were not successfully pollinated.
Gardeners sometimes wonder why they see many flowers on their squash plants but no squash. That could be because both male and female flowers are not yet present. If you do have flowers of both sexes and still no squash, you may have a pollination problem.
If pollinators are scarce in your garden, take matters into your own hands. Find a small paint brush. Locate one of the smaller male flowers on a slender stem, collect the yellow pollen on your clean paint brush, and dust it into the squattier female blossom. Baby zucchini should follow in due time.
In many parts of the world, zucchini flowers are considered as delicious and useful as the squash. Zucchino da fiore is a variety favored in Italy for the abundant blossoms the plants produce, but any squash blossom, male or female, is edible. Pick blossoms early in the morning and transport them carefully to the kitchen. Stuff with mozzarella, dip in flour or batter, and fry.
At the store or farmers’ market, look for perky blossoms with no sign of wilting. Handle carefully and use within a day or two. Blossoms are fragile and do not hold up long. Best to pick them in your own garden the morning you are going to use them.
By picking and cooking some of the blossoms, you slow the avalanche of zucchini that a good growing season can bring. For a variety of squash-blossom recipes, check out http://www.bonappetit.com/ideas/zucchini-blossom-recipes/search.
It can be hard to decide which zucchini to grow as there are many good choices. ‘Tromboncino’ (shaped like a trombone) is a long, curving, light green to tan zucchini that can reach three feet in length yet still stay tender and creamy. ‘Ronde de Nice’ is a round zucchini, light green or celadon grey. Picked when only two to four inches across, it is great for stuffing or individual servings.
Consider a traditional dark-green zucchini, such as ‘Raven’ or the striped ‘Romanesco’ or ‘Safari.’ Tender-skinned pale varieties include ‘Clarimore,’ ideal for grilling or steaming. Shred and freeze extra zucchini in plastic bags to pull out for fritters, cakes, soups and breads later.
Workshop: Napa County Master Gardeners will lead a workshop on “Succulents in Your Garden” on Saturday, June 15, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Napa Valley College’s Upper Valley Campus, 1088 College Avenue, St. Helena. Learn what succulents will grow best in our climate and how to utilize them in your garden design. Learn how to care for them and keep them looking good and free from pests and diseases.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://ucanr.org/ucmgnapa) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions?