Of Bees Birds and Berries

Winter 2019-2020
Hyssop officinalis, from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé “Flora von Deutschland,” Österreich und der Schweiz1885
Hyssop officinalis, from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé “Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz,” 1885.

By Joyce White

I am grateful that younger friends and neighbors share some of their observations and experiences of Nature with me. Last spring a neighbor was out of work for a few weeks, healing from surgery. During this unusual period of daytime leisure, he observed robins that had built their nest at the end of the deck of his log home. Parent birds were kept busy feeding always-hungry nestlings.

As he watched their busy comings and goings, he noticed that they went down into the long grass and came back rather quickly. “How are they getting worms or bugs so quickly?” he wondered. As he observed more closely, he saw that they were carrying ripe wild strawberries in their beaks and feeding them to the hungry baby birds in the nest!

In my 86 years, I had never seen nor heard anyone describe this phenomenon before. Anyway, it seems like a very sensible adaptation of those robins to use what was available and easier to procure than worms. Since I have a lifelong fondness for wild strawberries myself, I considered those robins particularly wise.

Busy Bees

I had never seen so many bees at work in any one area as when I visited Wendy Green’s Albany, Maine, herb gardens in August. Their persistent hum permeated the whole area as they moved from flower to flower. A tall, pinkish flower appeared to be their favorite, though. There were several clumps of them, and the flowering part – a sort of long, bristly pink bloom on a long green stem – of each plant was covered with frantically foraging bees.

The plant, I learned later, is hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis, a perennial, shrubby, aromatic plant with the square stems characteristic of the mint family. Hyssop likes dry soils and grows to 2 feet tall on slender, stiff stems with lance-shaped leaves growing opposite. It blooms from July into October. Although it is mostly a cultivated perennial now, it is a native wild plant in Europe and naturalized to North America as far south as North Carolina.

Seeing all those bees nearly covering hyssop blossoms in their rapture was what really made me pay attention to the plant. I had actually grown hyssop at one time but harvested it for a medicinal tincture before it flowered. I had never observed the frenzied delight of bees on hyssop blossoms.

Lemon balm has since overrun my hyssop, but now that I see how attractive hyssop is to bees, it will be reinstated. I’ll plant it not just in one small plot but near the vegetable garden, berry bushes, peach trees and, of course, herb gardens. Such an excellent hardy perennial to attract pollinators is valuable news for all of us as bees and other pollinators are diminishing every year. And for people who are actually involved with tending beehives and extracting honey, hyssop is said to produce an unusually sweet-smelling honey.

In addition to its value to pollinators, hyssop has a long history as a medicinal plant. So powerful is its scent that elderly women in Europe are said to have pressed its flowers in their psalm books to keep themselves from falling asleep during church services.

Medicinally, hyssop has been used mainly as a remedy for respiratory ailments. Ancient Greek physicians recommended it for bronchitis and other inflammations of the chest and throat. For herbalist Wendy Green, hyssop is one of the main ingredients in her respiratory tincture, which she has found helpful in the common ailments of colds and flu, bronchitis and pneumonia, and in some more serious respiratory diseases. In addition to hyssop, she includes mullein, marshmallow root, coltsfoot, plantain, goldenrod and goldenseal, all from her own gardens, plus grated ginger, in a mixture of brandy and vodka with a little honey. The alcohol extracts the medicinal properties from the plant material.

Back to Birds

In another robin and berry story, a friend was watching the second hatch of baby robins in their nest in a sheltered place under her deck. She described seeing parent robins moving the grass where wild blueberries grow and then bringing ripe blueberries back to the open mouths of three baby robins. When I told her of my neighbor watching wild strawberries being fed to June nestlings, she said, “Oh, yes. In June they fed babies wild strawberries. They had red beaks then, and now they have blue beaks.”

I wonder why I’ve never seen or heard anyone, until this year, describe this admirable habit of birds feeding ripe wild berries to baby birds. It seems unusual to me but maybe it is so common that nobody thinks it important enough to mention.

About the author: Joyce White, a frequent contributor to The MOF&G, lives in Stoneham, Maine.

This article is for informational purposes only. For serious medical conditions, please consult a health care provider.

Editor’s note: White isn’t the only one who had not known that birds feed berries to their young. In Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas 2, Dr. Steven Hopp writes about a Black Heart cherry tree near his garden from which he saw “a pair of Northern Mockingbirds repeatedly carrying cherries to their nestlings, alerting me to the possibility that birds were carrying cherries to their young. I also watched a downy woodpecker feeding cherries to a fledgling … Over two weeks I watched twenty-one different species eating cherries, with many of them carrying cherries away from the tree.” He then learned from ornithology literature that feeding cherries and berries to nestlings is common – especially as nestlings get older and need less protein than rapidly growing younger nestlings, and as they can regulate their own body temperature and more easily digest berries.

In the ‘70s, Benedict Pinkowski studied the diet of eastern bluebird nestlings and fledglings for his Ph.D. work at Wayne State University in Michigan and found, “Lepidoptera larvae were the most common food of both nestlings and fledglings and comprised 32.4% of the nestling diet. Orthoptera (mostly Acrididae and Gryllidae) were also common (25.6%) especially in summer. Spiders (11.3%) were particularly important early in the season and for newly-hatched young. Fruit was uncommon in the diet of nestlings but was fed to fledglings in summer and made up 11.0% of all fledgling foods recorded.”

(“Crazy for Cherries: a look into breeding bird use of fruit,” Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas 2, July 10, 2017; “Feeding of Nestling and Fledgling Eastern Bluebirds,” The Wilson Bulletin, March 1978)

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