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Stalking the Wild Flora and Fauna of Galiano Island

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

The middle of June is a great time for heading to Galiano Island to pull weeds and look for some bees. It’s an impromptu trip on invitation from Andrew Simon, the brilliant biodiversity scientist. After over two years it’s so great to be heading back to the Island, where I have such good memories from one of my favourite events—the Galiano/Mayne bioblitz of 2019. It was like a trendy summer music festival, but with all the rock stars of the local science world. Were you there? Did you get the t-shirt? Yes? Okay, but did you stay at the cashmere goat farm on Mayne Island and eat scrambled eggs with a world-renowned expert on jumping spiders? I did!

I was supposed to head there the day before, but the atmospheric river dance kept me from hoofing it to the ferry on public transit. I would have been wet, miserable, and soaked to the bone and all my gear would be compromised. Couldn’t risk it. So luckily the day I decided to set out was sunny and breezy when I boarded the ferry on foot. We ended up waiting one hour for the ferry to load for a forty-minute ride. So many cars came off. I stopped counting at 180. But no matter, I found myself a seat on the deck and watched cormorants sunning themselves on the rocks at the Tsawwassen terminal. Gulls carried seaweed in their beaks to line their nests. Wispy cirrus clouds stretched out against an ombre blue backdrop. I had that pleasant stirring in your guts that you get when you’re embarking on an adventure, especially when it’s a last-minute decision and the details are a bit . . . nebulous.

Andrew picks me up at the ferry terminal and we catch up as we drive to the site. I’m here to help pull some weeds at a restoration site in Georgeson Bay, at a shore access managed by the Galiano Island Park and Recreation Commission. I’m also getting a sense of the site for a potential future collaboration with the Native Bee Society of BC. I’m really excited about the possibilities! Andrew parks at the side of the road. We meet three local folks who have been weeding since ten this morning. A blue healer barks at a rotting log it’s been worrying. In a gentle voice, Kevin calms the pooch down. Andrew introduces me and puts me to work while he helps the gardeners tell the invasive grasses from the native ones. I’m on invasive Himalayan blackberry duty. We have to take out the blackberry and the invasive grasses so the native plants can survive and thrive: wild strawberry, blue-eyed grass, Oregon grape, Oregon tea (Clinopodium douglasii), red columbine, shortspur sea blush and more. Andrew tells me that several of these species have become quite rare on Galiano Island; the community biodiversity project, Biodiversity Galiano, has informed the selection of plants that are potentially at risk of extirpation from Galiano Island.

Taking out the blackberry reveals hidden treasures that are overshadowed by the prickly stems and leaves of Rubus bicolor. You have to use a delicate touch where the roots of the invasive plants are close to the native plants. In other places you really have to tackle that thick, vigorous taproot that just keeps on giving the new growth. I try my best to rip it out, but the stewards will have to keep at it at regular intervals to prevent plants creeping from over the neighbors’ fences, who have agreed to let them weed a buffer zone on their side of the property. I’ve brought my own garden gloves to deal with the prickly leaves and stems of the blackberry. The sun is warm so I slather on 30 SPF lotion and start digging. It’s very satisfying to pull out a black berry plant with the roots, but those that are connected to larger tap roots which are very difficult to extricate. I stop for a rest and a drink of water and I sit on the burlap taking photos of the bees in the shortspur seablush (Plectritis congesta).

I’m surprised to see blue orchard bees foraging this late in the season, but it was a cold, wet spring, so they must have hedged their bets and emerged late. One of my photos shows a mason bee with pink pollen on its head and thorax which means it likely found some Claytonia siberica nearby. The pollen from shortspur seablush is bright yellow. It gives the bees a little yellow mohawk when they rub their heads on the stamens while foraging for nectar. There are some small worker bumble bees here and quite a few fuzzy blonde male bumble bees, which seems a bit early in the season. I also observe one lonely little Andrena male who also has pink pollen grains on his thorax.

There are also bees foraging in the weeds around the sea blush: a tiny geranium with pink flowers affectionately known as Stinking Bob (Geranium robertianum) and the pea-form flowers of common vetch. (Try searching for plants in the pea family on Galiano Island, or any other group of life, here. ) The Bombus melanopygus females really seem to like the geraniums, which flop down when the bees hold on the flower as they sip nectar. I see holes in the petals that look like bite marks where the bees might have clung on with their mandibles to stabilize themselves. I find a Bombus mixtus worker robbing the nectar from the vetch by inserting her tongue into a hole she has made by biting the corolla. Firey rufous hummingbirds chase each other up and around the hedges. Occasionally, I see a flash of orange-red gorgets on a male whose territorial ire has been piqued.

Andrew leads me down the path to the beach where he points out another area of the restoration site that has more trees and shade. A bulk of the invasive spurge laurel has been ripped out of here by enthusiastic volunteers. Now they will put in ferns and other native plants that will thrive in the dappled shade. I head down to the beach while Andrew waits for the second shift of volunteers. There are bright yellow flowers of Sedum spathulifolium on the cliff and way up on the ledge I see graceful pink farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena). For a moment I wish I could hop on a hummingbird’s back to see the bees in the flowers high above my reach.

The second team, a group of Make A Difference Week volunteers, arrives from the University of Victoria. They tackle the invasive Daphne laureola

—a noxious plant that some folks have a reaction to when it is handled. It’s best to wear masks and gloves and avoid touching it with bare skin. We all put in some more time extricating the invasives and I spend some more time daydreaming and taking photos of bees, including a sleepy Bombus vancouverensis that’s nestled in on a black berry leaf. The women give us some gifts—stickers and rain-proof journals and Andrew gives them some firewood from his personal stash before they head back to their campsite.

Any chance we can see some meadow death camas I ask Andrew. “ Well, since it’s you . . . he grins and gets a dreamy look on his face to think about where we could go on an adventure, within the short time frame we have. Most of the places he’s thinking of are a bit of a hike and we don’t have time because we have to pick his partner up from work. So we head to Bellhouse park where we find some lovely fool’s onion (Triteleia hyacinthina), whitetip clover (Trifolium variegatum), small-leaved monkey-flower (Erythranthe microphylla), and field mouse-ear (Cerastium arvense). However, it’s getting late in the afternoon and the temperature is becoming cool for the bee action. Time to finally get something to eat. (When you’re with Andrew—life is too exciting to worry about conventional meal times.) We devour tasty tacos at The Crane and Robin while we watch trucks unloading a dusty barge of gravel. After wolfing down my meal I’m tired and content.

It's such a pleasure to spend time alone with Andrew to have an intimate quiet chat. He’s so frenetically busy with the tasks of a community-based scientist, connecting scientists with community and the flora and fauna they love. He does multi-layered work in the conservation community alongside scientific research that is rigorous, ethical, and incredibly broad in scope. From mosses and bumble bees to nudibranchs and rare onions, Andrew’s scope of knowledge and expertise covers a lot of ground, air, and water. He’s curator of the Biodiversity Galiano project, for which he was honored with an Islands Trust Community Stewardship Award. To help sustain this work, he co-founded IMERSS, a multidisciplinary group of artists, scientists, scholars and community members dedicated to community-based long-term ecological research in the Salish Sea. (The Native Bee Society of BC recently collaborated with them on a microscopy event.) Andrew’s excited about the Paddle Along for Biodiversity fundraiser they have coming up, which includes cormorant surveys on kayaks. For more information see this link .

Just when I think the adventure is over, I am introduced to a botanist named Frank Lomer, who is fascinated with tracking and creating herbarium samples of rare introduced plants in BC. I share my love of Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Frank tells me he remembers ads on tv with Gibbons touting the benefits of goldenrod tea. (Imagine if he’d been alive today—he’d be a youtube superstar!). We use skipping lunch as an excuse to have some late-night snacks at Pilgrimme restaurant. It’s such a thrill because I’ve wanted to try their food for years! We eat some incredible delicacies—starting with black garlic broth with leek oil and drink local cider and a cherry saison beer from Delta. As we sit on the patio in the fading twilight, Frank and Andrew discuss the finer points of botanical identification, regarding the local lupins and how to tell them apart. I’m eating it up along with the asparagus—not wild, but Euell would have approved. To cap off the night I indulge in a sweet potato rhubarb cake with a buckwheat groat tuile and cajeta sauce. Creative and delicious, it had me thinking I must try combining sweet potato and rhubarb in a future pie.

Turns out I’ve literally missed the last boat that would connect to a bus to get me home, so I end up spending the night. I go to sleep with the croaking chorus of nearby frogs and awake to the dawn chorus of forest birds. The next morning Andrew’s partner Lauren offers to take me to the local farmer’s market. She runs the post office which is housed in her tea and stationery shop. She serves me a dark, rich malty black tea for breakfast. Andrew gives me a slice of cake with chocolate mocha ripple ice cream. How can I refuse? He gets ready to head on another botanical adventure on Valdes Island.

As we walk to the market, the roadside shrubs that provide such a volume of food for bees are blooming: fragrant Nutka rose is fizzing with buzz-pollinating bumble bees, Pacific ninebark is dotted with dark chocolatey Andrena bees, red osier dogwood attracts tiny sweat bees, and a few early blooms of invasive Himalayan blackberry bring all the bees to the verge. I find a blue orchard bee napping in one of the blooms, nestled in among the stamens. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Osmia lignaria napping. They are just so busy and industrious! There are also cultivated California lilac shrubs here and there in people’s yards which are covered in blue-purple flowers. All kinds of bees are frantically scrambling over the thumb-shaped clusters of tiny blossoms, madly collecting pollen to feed their brood.

Lauren gives me a tour of the local community garden where we see all sorts of bumble bees in the chive blossoms, including one Bombus vancouverensis queen. At this point in the season, most bumble bee queens are underground laying eggs as her daughter worker bees go out to get pollen for their baby sisters. I hope she found a good spot to establish a nest. Lauren and I stop and look up when we hear an eagle wittering. We watch two bald eagles fly overhead and a small raptor, which we struggle to identify. I talk to Lauren about the “natural gaze” and how I’ve spent most of my life looking down and rocks, flowers and bees. I’m just starting to look up as I become acquainted with naturalists who are inspired by feathered fauna. I’ve been trying to get birders hooked on bees for years, and now I’m also becoming hooked on watching avian behavior and identifying their species by ear.

When it’s time to head back home on the ferry I grab some salad and asparagus quiche and a loaf of bread from the local Oxeye Bakery. I reluctantly say goodbye to Lauren and head to the beach to eat my quiche and wait for the ferry to dock. A line of peeping adolescent Canada geese swim under the pier. I wish I had some binoculars with me to take a closer look. As long as I can see and hear I want to allow my curiosity to pull me closer to the natural beauty around me. I feel so grateful to spend time with friends that share the desire to embrace biodiversity with passion and camaraderie. Long live the birds and bees of Galiano Island, and the people who work tirelessly to keep them safe for future generations to enjoy.

Links for further exploration:

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