While we wait for warmer weather and the chance to begin tending our gardens, birds and other small creatures are already hard at work searching for food and the most flower-rich habitats that will provide a rich source of nectar and pollen.
The activity of some wildlife species such as birds can be easily spotted from the vantage point of a window. It’s enjoyable to watch leaf litter flying in all directions as birds hunt for food and select choice bits of debris for nesting. There are also much smaller creatures that are not as easy to detect such as beneficial insects like lady beetles and non-stinging braconid wasps as well as native pollinators such as butterfly and moth species that overwinter in leaf litter. All perform essential tasks in the garden and it is important not to disturb them too early.
Pests overwinter in the garden as well. Aphid eggs, for example, are extremely cold hardy. Our recent mild winter will have allowed both beneficial insects and pests to survive equally well. By providing safe habitat, you can attract more native pollinators and beneficial predators to your garden and at the same time, participate in biodiversity conservation.
Brock Wolfe is in the business of designing and building move-in ready houses for birds, bats, butterflies, bees and squirrels. Wolfe also creates squirrel jar feeders that help to distract squirrels and keep them from raiding bird feeders. A hands-on craftsman who works with wood, metal, glass, stone, and ceramics, Wolfe owns Braecrest Design together with his wife Robyn.
Wolfe grew up in rural Manitoba. His father was a veterinarian. "I was raised around creatures and involved in their well-being," says Wolfe. His career in manufacturing engineering took Wolfe outside the country and away from home for long periods at a time. Eventually his desire to spend more time with family as well as his craftsman mindset and passion for nature led him to launch Braecrest Design in 2006.
I first met the Wolfes at the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market in 2008. Over the years their product line has expanded, in part, due to customer inquiries about how to attract specific wildlife species to the areas where they garden whether it is on a patio, condo balcony, porch, front yard, side yard or backyard.
Creature comforts include not only safe, clean accommodations but also good food sources and clean water that is close at hand. Wolfe carefully researches the types of houses that are suitable for specific wildlife species as well as the preferred plants that support their healthy survival. The wildlife houses are built using Western Red Cedar, brass corrosion-resistant screws and high-performance wood adhesive. The attractive and functional designs are finished with environmentally-friendly wood stains. Wolfe recycles used materials when possible and combines them with natural and man-made materials sourced locally or elsewhere in Canada.
Attention is paid to every detail. The inside back wall of Braecrest Design’s ladybug house, for example, is roughly grooved to provide lady bugs with a surface on which they can rest or sleep. Wolfe recommends mounting your ladybug house at ground level amongst plants. He suggests burying a brick just deep enough so that the top of the brick is level with the soil surface. Place the ladybug house on top of the brick. "If the location is not sheltered or very windy, mount the ladybug house on a wooden stake or post, positioning it so that the house is at ground level," says Wolfe.
Native ladybugs (also known as lady beetles) are bright red with black spots and are a natural predator of aphids. There is also an invasive Asian lady beetle which is reddish-orange and lacks a consistent number of black spots on their wing covers. Some experts say the invasive species can be identified by a distinctive "M-shaped" black marking on its otherwise white head. This invasive species also devours huge amounts of aphids but has a propensity to bite and is quickly overtaking our native species.
Mason and leaf-cutter bees are solitary species that play an important role in pollinating flowering plants, fruit trees and crops. Both these native species are non-aggressive towards humans. Wolfe has designed a series of bee houses with peaked roofs that provide a place for these cavity-nesting bees to lay their eggs and raise their young. Mason bee females fill the circular bee house holes that are arranged in rows with eggs and pollen and cover the holes with mud caps.
Wolfe recommends mounting the bee nesting house (which comes with a pre-drilled mounting hole) along a fence or hedge facing the sun.
Butterfly houses feature a series of narrow entrance slots that keep birds out. Suitable for all types of butterflies, the wooden houses come in a range of sizes and styles and open easily for cleaning. "You can also insert long, dry twigs through one of the openings," says Wolfe. Locate your butterfly house in a sunny location, about 1.2 metres above ground, away from prevailing winds.
"There are also some creatures we want to attract for selfish reasons such as bats," says Wolfe, "because bats are phenomenal consumers of nighttime flying insects." Wolfe consults with Dr. Craig Willis, professor of biology, University of Winnipeg, whose work focuses on the conservation of bats. Wolfe offers several different types of bat houses, including multi-chamber houses, that have been built to meet criteria established by Bat Conservation International.
There are six bat species found throughout Manitoba. One of the species is the Little Brown Bat which can devour up to 1,500 nighttime flying insects (including mosquitoes) in a single night. How’s that for pest control?
In our cold climate, the best colour for a bat house is black, says Wolfe. "For protection from predators, the bat house should be located at least three metres above ground." He recommends choosing a location that receives at least six hours of direct daily sun.
Southern Manitoba is likely to see some extreme weather this summer with elevated temperatures and strong winds. Providing a source of clean, fresh water in the heat of summer for bees and butterflies to puddle in is more than just a kindness. By adding water daily, says Wolfe, these tiny creatures will be encouraged to stay longer in your garden. Wolfe creates hand-glazed and hand-painted terracotta saucers that hold a small amount of water. He also creates custom blended glazes to match outside decor. The bee and butterfly puddles, as they are called, come in different sizes and should be cleaned regularly with a soft brush and brought indoors for the winter.
Wolfe has customers who garden on condo balconies and have reported seeing bees as high as the eighth floor. By growing container gardens with a diverse mix of flowering annuals, perennials, herbs, or vegetables, says Wolfe, it is possible to attract several different types of pollinators to your balcony, porch, or patio. Choose plants with different flowering times to ensure a greater availability of pollen and nectar that will support pollinating insects from early spring to autumn.