The world of Milkweeds

Milkweeds are definitely under rated plants and, unfortunately, only associated with Monarch butterflies. This is a good starting point but not the full story of milkweeds. Even the name is interesting. The Genus name honors the Greek god, Asklepios, the god of medicine. There are 100 species throughout the world and Canada has 13 native to her soils of which Ontario boasts 11.

There have been planting programs to bring back milkweeds to the landscape. Why? The obvious answer is that this plant group is the food source for the magnificent Monarch and its caterpillars. The loss of milkweeds in Monarchs spring and summer breeding areas is believed to be a significant factor for their decline in populations. Agricultural intensification, development of rural lands and the use of mowing and herbicides to control roadside vegetation have all lead to the drastic decline of milkweeds.

But beyond the Monarch, many insects and hummingbirds drink nectar from its flowers. In fact, because milkweeds produce vast amounts of nectar over a sustained period, it is rated by pollination experts as a plant of special value to native bees. Orioles will use the plant fibers from its stems to construct nests. Other nesting birds use the silks from seed pods to line their nests. The Queen butterfly, dogbane tiger moth and milkweed tussock moth also use milkweed as their larval plant.

In Nature, every act uses biological energy. The production of flowers, leaves and nectar are all carefully planned since energy must be diverted into each process. The production of high quality nectar by milkweeds is no accident and is totally dependent on the process of pollination. The pollination path of milkweeds is quite complicated and intricate.

All milkweeds are incompatible. They can’t pollinate themselves but must depend on insects to transfer pollen between unrelated plants. Compared to other insect visited flowers, milkweeds are very unique. Their pollen is contained in small, waxy sacs (pollinia) that are located in vertical grooves (stigmatic slits) within the flower. Each pollinia contains several hundred pollen grains which are inaccessible to pollinators visiting, milkweed must offer large amounts of nectar as a reward. Not only does milkweed offer large amounts of nectar, the nectar is of very high quality.

When insects come for their nectar reward, their legs or mouth parts may slip into the stigmatic slits and come into contact with the pollinia sacs containing the pollen grains. The sacs are barbed in nature and is removed from the flower as the insect tugs its body part out of the stigmatic slit. The unknowing insect then transfers pollen to the next milkweed. Although this process is complicated it does not require ‘specialist’ insects. Insects need only be large enough to remove and carry the pollinia to the next flower.

Interestingly, not all larger insects visiting milkweeds are equal in their pollinator abilities. A huge array of insects visit milkweeds from bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and beetles. It is the large bees and wasps and butterflies that are the most efficient pollinators of milkweed. And even though Monarch butterflies visit milkweed flowers often, they are not efficient at transferring pollinia. Believe it or not, it is the swallowtail butterfly family that are important pollinators of this plant. From my research, bumble bees, honeybees, eastern carpenter bees are the most significant insect pollinators.

If you would like to read further on the native milkweeds of Ontario please visit the milkweed article.

In Search of the Ancients

The Ancient Black Tupelos

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Such was the case of the ancient Black Tupelos aged 400 – 500 years old. We purposely waited till the Fall so that we could see their brightly colored leaves on the forest floor. A great harvest day. Very excited about this years germination. To see the full story, follow the link.

Black Tupelo leaves

Finally…We Have False Indigo

Last year, we had a bus tour coincide with the blooming of the false indigo. I love the way one of the passengers described the plant. ‘Pollinators just don’t love this plant, they attack it!’ And he was right. There were insects everywhere. Some were on the plant and others hover waiting for their opportunity.

I disappointed a lot of people that day by saying we had no false indigo. We had been trying different recommendations from different sources but nothing seemed to work. Got lucky on the 3rd attempt. Finally…we have false indigo.

Seriously, there are plants that pollinators love and then…there is the false indigo.

Feeding the Pollinators


We are continuing our farming for pollinators series. We have just posted the next article named feeding the pollinators. The hardest thing in any recovery or introduction program is that of integration. The articles are designed to fold into one another and integrating information from one subject to the next.

We are getting very excited in anticipating our land preparations for the upcoming beekeeping season. It will be a definitely different year where we will be caring for native and honeybees. Whatever we learn or amend we will post so that everyone can learn and share the experiences.

Happy beekeeping.

Becoming Bee Nest Friendly


We are researching many articles and sources in order to best prepare for our upcoming spring project. While the world is focusing on the European honeybees in crisis, we are focusing on our wild native bee populations for Ontario. In one word I can sum up our bees. DIVERSE. Diverse in their appearances, diverse in their nesting requirements, diverse in their feeding and, basically, diverse in every way from one another. The one take home message is that there is no ‘ one fit solution for our native bees ‘.

Our project is multi faceted. Although we are an organic nursery and honey producer we want to go to the next level. We want to become Bee City certified and take the public with us on our journey. We must all learn and implement changes to protect our precious pollinators.

To see the full story on becoming nesting bee friendly follow the link.

St. Cuthberts Ancient White Oak

It is never just about finding ancient trees and collecting seed to preserve their genetics for generations to come.  There is so much more – the human connection.  Inevitably, when you find the ancient tree, there is a human guardian connected to it.

So is the case of the St Cuthberts white oak.  The Lea family, back in 1818, was one of the founding families for the Leaside area.  By 1890, the Lea’s donated land for construction of a church.  There was no steeple built.  The white oak that was present during construction acted as the focal point of the church.  Today, to find the church just look to the sky and the giant white oak guides the way.

We were honored to meet the church representatives and tree enthusiasts last week on our quest to find this tree.  Thanks to the tree guardians, this tree has received Heritage status and still graces the side of the church.  Unfortunately, this great white oak is just a remnant of the old growth forest that once covered this terrain.

We are hoping that next year will not be a drought year and we will be back visiting the St. Cuthberts white oak on a quest to retrieve acorns.

Discovering the Treaty Tree


Height 213 m
Circumference 518 cm
Age approximately 400 years old

Treaty Tree
Treaty Tree

This 400 year old tree in Niagara is the official boundary marker in the first land deed in Upper Canada signed in 1781 between the Chippawas and the Mississauga and the English Crown. The deed, signed by King George, was for a 4 mile wide strip of land bounded by the Niagara River between Lakes Ontario and Erie. To mark the boundary, the 4 First Nations chiefs chose a large, white oak, forked 5 feet from the ground near Lake Ontario at a distance of 4 miles from the west bank of the Niagara River.

This is a designated Ontario heritage tree.


We were very happy to track down the location of this magnificent tree with the help of Forests Ontario.  The 2 men responsible for getting this tree designated as an Ontario heritage tree are seen in this photo.  Unexpectedly, it turned out to be a mast year for this old tree and we managed to collected 200 germinated acorns.

This trees’ legacy will live on!

Treaty Tree in Niagara
Treaty Tree in Niagara

Discovering Ancient Oak Trees in Toronto, Ontario

This weekend we went on a historic walk.  We went to the historic village of Swansea which is more than 300 years old.  This village was completely surrounded by the city of Toronto, and by 1967, had been amalgamated.

As far back as 1615, indigenous peoples and settlers have been using this area for travel.  Etienne Brule, walked the Toronto Carrying Trail and stayed at the native encampments at the Humber River.  By 1793, this area was declared a mill reserve so that the forests could remain intact for the use of the King’s sawmills.  This area was unused and eventually was turned into parks and house lots.

It was this rich historic area that we explored in hopes of finding some of the ancient white, red and black oaks.  It took a bit of sleuthing since it is old residential area with many of these ancient trees residing in backyards and private property.

So much fun – we will be back to investigate again!

The Best Trees and Shrubs for Ontario Pollinators

So many people ask what is the best to plant for pollinators to feast upon.  I base my recommendations on published bee appeal values posted by universities.  I only selected plants that rated very good or excellent for bee appeal.  Also, we only selected native species since these species have developed special bonds with our pollinators.

Here is the listing:

  • Serviceberry
  • Canada and American Plum
  • Cherry
  • Ohio Buckeye
  • Eastern Redbud
  • Northern Catalpa
  • Indigo bush
  • Eastern flowering dogwood
  • Hawthorn
  • Basswood
  • Eldeberry
  • Honey locust
  • Sumac
  • Meadowsweet