Backyard Apple Tree Ecology

I love my backyard ecology. There is much going on. Right now my apple trees are in full bloom. They are calling to honeybees and other pollinators. They are using oodles and oodles of resources–energy and material they have gathered from the sun, soil, and air in order to provision their future generations with the benefits that come through genetic exchange. Each tree is pouring nectar into its flowers. The bees are taking that nectar and in doing so cover themselves in pollen, which they drop on other flowers, on other trees. Win-win. The trees get to use sex to increase their offspring’s survival and the bees get enormous stores of the sun’s energy in the form of sugars, which will benefit their offspring.

Later the tree will encase its precious seeds in something that will attract other of the tree’s helpers: Frugivores. Certain birds and mammals (including the mammals that live in my house) will eat the fruit and carry the tree’s seeds far and wide (or that’s the way it’s suppose to work).

The tree without these helpers would doom its future generations. We all need helpers. And these trees are my helpers. They will give me both honey and apples which will make pies, dried apples and juice:

The apple trees also provide for a spiritual dimension. In the summer I hang a hammock and in the long days of summer when I get home where I read and think. My daughter has a large flower garden under the trees and she spends time walking underneath the trees in a small circular path that rings the five trees where she thinks and dreams and imagines new worlds. She will sometimes walk under the trees for hours.

Hunting among the apple tree leaves are vespid wasps. Yellowjackets. They are great for the trees and our garden. They take a sip of nectar, but they are not great pollinators. Unlike bees they are not very hairy and don’t hold the pollen as well. They only take enough nectar to suffice for the day’s hunt. And they are hunters. They are going to pull caterpillar larvae, leafhoppers and other competitors from our garden plants and produce. They take these little insects and grind them up in their jaws and feed them to their larvae. Our house is ringed with yellow jacket nests. Yeah, we have to pull them down sometimes because they’ve built it where we want to go, and they do not share their space. But if they are away from where people gather we let them be. They are helping us.

If you are really lucky. Really, really lucky. A baldfaced wasp will build it’s paper nest in one your trees. They look like dark large yellowjackets. They build beautiful paper nests about the size of a soccer ball. Although they can be rather nasty neighbors if you get in the tree with them, you can stand underneath and they don’t mind. They don’t see you as a threat until you are even with them. Here’s my daughter under one (upper right):

At the end of Fall the new generation of queens they’ve reared will have abandoned the nest and have found a safe place to overwinter, like under the bark of a fallen log. The worker females die. You can then take their old home, they won’t use it again and decorate with it. We have several of these hanging in our house. Works of art from nature.

Because we use no pesticides, the apples are wormy with coddling moth larvae. But we don’t mind. They are easily cored for juice or the wormholes cut away for eating. We feel like Brigham Young Did:

Last season when the grasshoppers came on my crops, I said, ‘Nibble away, I may as well feed you as to have my neighbors do it; I have sown plenty, and you have not raised any yourselves.’ And when harvest came you would not have known that there had been a grasshopper there. Pay attention to what the Lord requires of you and let the balance go.

According to present appearances, next year [1868] we may expect grasshoppers to eat up nearly all our crops. But if we have provisions enough to last us another year, we can say to the grasshoppers—these creatures of God—you are welcome. I have never yet had a feeling to drive them from one plant in my garden; but I look upon them as the armies of the Lord.

Whether we know it our not we are embedded in ecologies of reliance. These are necessary to life. When we forget this we forget that we are dependent on each other including our helper plants and animals–like wasps!

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21 responses to “Backyard Apple Tree Ecology

  1. mfranti May 13, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Oh man I love this post.

    Steve, this is an excellent story and reminder to everyone.

  2. Brad May 14, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Steven, you really are a hero of mine. There are few who have the courage to make the choices required to learn that when we understand our connectedness to an irreducibly interconnected world and live in the light of that awareness, life can be so much more fulfilling.

  3. Betty Jo May 14, 2011 at 9:43 am

    FYI, Coddling Moth Pheromone traps are permitted under the National Organic Program rules. They are available from places like Peaceful Valley (www.groworganic.com). The traps are reusable, the lures can be stored in the freezer until they are needed. You might want to try these for your apples.

  4. Tracy M May 14, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Beautiful. And I’m envious of your paper nests… love them.

  5. missy. May 14, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Lovely, lovely, lovely. And I love the Brigham Young quote. So many world religions teach principles of nonviolence toward all living creatures, and I love reminders that this doctrine is also embedded in Mormonism… it’s just a shame that we talk about it so rarely.

  6. Russell Arben Fox May 14, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Awesome, Steve. And forget those wasps nests–I’m envious of your apple trees! We’re sorely lacking in a sufficient bee population around here.

  7. mfranti May 14, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Betty Jo!

    So good to see you around here. It’s been ages since I’ve heard from you. Hope all is well on the farm.
    Thanks for the tip on the moth traps. I just put in my first apple tree this spring.

  8. Tod Robbins May 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Steve,

    Are the baldfaced wasps native to Utah? Any suggestions of how to attract them? 😉

  9. margie May 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    I have lived at my present home for 42 years and one of the amazing things to me is watching the ecology of my little piece of earth get healthier as I have adopted more and more environmentally friendly practices. It is like the word is getting out to the universe that it is a wholesome place to come because, each year now, I see an abundance of fauna coming for a visit. I love the bees and they love me back, but I see from this lovely post that I need to become more tolerant of wasps.

  10. reader Rachel May 14, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    I’m a little jealous that your backyard is so vibrant. We still have years more work to reclaim ours from when it used to be a parking lot. But even urban spaces that have been sorely abused deserve our care and cultivation, and they will reward that work with beauty and bounty.

  11. Corktree May 16, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    I love the layers of this post.

    It has at times frustrated me to leave things be as God intended. When nearly a whole crop of apples becomes inedible, it’s hard to not want to spray the inconveniences away. But these are some great reminders for patience, and perhaps the push I need to plant a few more varieties so that the loss seems less.

    Are hornets useful in any way?

    I’m also learning to live with dandelions. I pluck the flowers and leave the greens as potential food sources. 🙂

  12. mfranti May 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Courtney,

    If I’m not mistaken, hornets are a type of wasp. And bald faced wasps are actually bald faced hornets. Hornets can be your friend.

    But I’m no etymologist.

    I suppose I could google the answer but I want Professor Steve to correct me.

  13. Corktree May 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    You’re probably right Mel. I googled some pics and the nests look more like that of wasps anyway. It’s hard to tell since all the nests we have are somewhat small and don’t have the characteristic paper wasp nest shape to them yet. Just the honeycomb-ish layer against the house. We haven’t had any problems with them yet and if they eat garden pests I’ll keep them, but considering the last reaction I had to a bite I think I’ll do some more research 😉

  14. SteveP May 16, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Hi All! Sorry to be so slow to respond. Correct you, mfranti? Never. Yes, Bald Faced Hornet is correct! Hornets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets! I wish I could find a way to attract them, Tod, I would gather them by the hundreds in my yard, but I don’t know how it’s done and I don’t think anyone does. Although, I think it’s not tried often. The call for attracting vespid wasps to your yard has been surprisingly low. Even though they are great for your garden.

    Betty Jo, Thanks for the tip on pheromone traps, however, I’m a little skeptical of their value for backyard growers, see here (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7412.html#MANAGEMENT) because sometimes it can actually attract them to your trees from far away and usually the traps are just used to monitor populations not control them. People do sell them as a control, but there are questions about their effectiveness for small-time backyard growers.

    Corktree, likely if it is building on your house it is a common yellow jacket wasp.

  15. mfranti May 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    For example, steve, you should have told me that I didn’t spell entomologist correctly.

    I knew I left out the N but I didn’t realize there was no Y. Please correct me when I make lazy mistakes like that.

  16. Corktree May 18, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    It was my understanding that yellow jackets are the least desirable to have around in terms of safety, but are yellow jacket wasps different? Are they beneficial? The ones I see flying around have pretty long legs that hang down.

  17. mfranti May 18, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    CC,

    Yellow jackets are a type of wasp, too. They are beneficial predators but like Steve says, you don’t want to share spaces with them.

  18. Brad May 18, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Exactly, Mel. You want them to hang out in your garden and orchard, but not yo build a home on the side of your house.

  19. SteveP May 18, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Yellow Jackets can be vicious and you don’t want them where people are. They are very territorial and you want to make sure children and others will not frequent the same place–they usually win the first round. One of the best places for me once was on a window that didn’t ever get opened and my whole family would watch them every day as their nest got larger and larger. It beat TV!

    I just been introduced to a marvelous short story by David James Duncan’s book River Teeth called ‘Yellowjacket’ where he moves from hating yellow jackets to honoring them. The story begins (caps original to the first of the story), “WHAT I’VE DONE TO THEM, WITHOUT WAITING FOR AGGRESSION ON THEIR PART, IS STALK THEIR UNDERGROUND STRONGHOLDS BY NIGHT, POUR GASOLINE DOWN THROUGH THE ARCHITECTONIC HALLS AND NURSERY CHAMBERS, BURN THEIR SLEEPING BODIES TO CINDERS, DIG EVERY LAST CHAMBER OUT WITH A SHOVEL, GRIND THE PALE BLIND YOUNG (STILL, SOMEHOW, WRITING) INTO THE DIRT WITH MY HEEL AND MUTTER, ‘WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO YOU?”

    Great story.

  20. Pingback: Growing Organic Apples | the Organic Gardening Guide

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