Meet the Author: Dr. Shaun McCoshum

Shaun McCoshum is the author of two books on pollinators and gardening – Gardening for Wildlife in the arid south west regions and Inviting Pollinators and Other Wildlife Into Your Garden – available on Amazon.com. He received a master’s degree in botany from Miami University (Ohio) and a doctorate from Oklahoma State University in zoology.

Hunt’s Bumblebee on Rabbitbrush

What is your background? How did you first get interested in bees and gardening for wildlife?

From a young age I had been gardening and using permaculture techniques before I even learned the term. My maternal grandparents lived a block away, and they both were in their late teens when the Great Depression hit. When I was six, both my parents lost their jobs and we became really poor, and very food insecure, so my grandmother got to work. She had me helping her do work to grow fruits and vegetables in her garden. Most people did not realize how much of the yard was growing food for us. In back we had more organized food gardens. I continued gardening throughout my younger years; then in high school, I started working as a landscaper and helping friends and family install similar gardens, all the while being aware that areas needed to be cared for to support wildlife to help control pests and pollinate flowers.

These experiences simply paved the way for me to study biology at Humboldt State University and get a botany minor. Between my master’s and PhD, I worked in conservation, which really helped me grasp ecological niches, microhabitats, and looking at areas from the animal’s perspective. During my PhD, I focused on pollinator communities and worked on side projects with monarch butterflies. I went on to do my post-doctoral work at Cornell University working on bee communities in the Mojave Desert and their vegetation community associations, as well as large-scale solar farm impacts to those communities. After my post-doc, I worked as the preserve manager for Westchester Land Trust in New York, then moved onto consulting and permitting, which I do now, while still collecting data and publishing research and books.

Gray hairstreak and bee fly on Cowpen daisy

Why did you decide to write a gardening book?

The short answer is because a few people told me I should. With my background in native bees, monarch butterflies, ecology, and conservation, I end up doing a lot of public speaking. I also enjoy reading gardening articles. Between these two things, I kept answering questions that were clearly based on incomplete or incorrect information, most of it printed in gardening articles and even coming from some conservation groups. My first book focused only on the arid regions of North America to help clarify some of the misinformation that is spread around. [Read my review of his first book here.]

Who is your intended audience? Anyone who has an interest in urban ecology, wildlife conservation, or gardening.

Ashmeadiella bee and flower beetle on native bindweed

What piece of advice would you give to people wanting to start a pollinator garden?

Pollinator gardens should be viewed in context of their surrounding landscape and provide shelter, in addition to native plants for target species. For example, in densely populated urban areas where lawns are abundant and habitat is lacking, a small pollinator garden will not be accessible to bee species that have been driven away, nor will it support many bees overall. Therefore, providing an abundance of flowers for smaller generalist bees and butterfly host plants will be more useful than flowers that support just a few bee species or do not host any butterflies. Resources for nesting bees and pupating butterflies would have to be selected based on the region, but a few logs with holes drilled in always helps. Conversely in areas where there are more wild, plant-filled areas, pollinator gardens that use native plants uncommon in the area will help local pollinator communities because species dependent on those plants are likely still nearby. Viewing a garden from the landscape context is also helpful when trying to attract other wildlife like birds, toads, or even lizards. 

Bordered patch caterpillar on sunflower

What kind of research did you do for the book?

So much. In addition to the literal decades of studying, reading scientific literature, doing conservation work, new data collection, and gardening – I started compiling data for topics and reading various forums, print articles, and reviewing resources gardeners might be using. The most important research I did for this book was probably gathering the data for plant and bee associations, and their current ranges. For the bee species profiles I also reviewed a lot of literature searching to find what substrates each species nested in. I put these aspects together to provide specific information on what a pollinator garden that would “save the bees” really looks like, going beyond articles with native plant lists that benefit honeybees, not native bees.

For the articles that do talk about “bee hotels,” they inadvertently prioritize a nesting behavior used by about 30% of bees and rarely address proper size or care of those structures. There are very few articles that address ground nesting bees, which my new book covers; but promoting ground nesting bees is showing up more and more on online platforms, which is good to see.

Checkered skipper on paperflower

Were there any surprise findings? What did you learn in the process?

The most surprising thing I found was how much we simply do not know about pollinators. I had been somewhat aware of the lack of data, but it wasn’t until I was trying to compile information that I really grasped the lack of data. For example, there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the continental United States, but researchers have described the nests of less than 500 species. Frustratingly, many of those descriptions do not characterize soil texture or document entrance solar exposure, both of which are important to nesting bees. So, in this book, soil diversity and structure are discussed to help cover different possibilities. Sandy soils are used more often by nesting bees than any other type of soil.

It was also shocking to see, and this is in the book too, that more than 50% of counties in the contiguous United States have fewer than five native bee species digitized as of 2020. We simply have not done a thorough survey. The data for which bee species feed on which plants are also lacking. Even in this book I could only report plant associations, and I explain this does not mean the bees will feed on those plants. When bee researchers collect bees, they often do not include notes on if the bees were collecting pollen, feeding on nectar, collecting oils, plant parts, or simply sitting on the plant. Most likely, the bees were feeding in one way or another, but the data simply do not exist for most bee species yet. Luckily, community science platforms like iNaturalist are improving our knowledge, but it is difficult to help gardeners choose plants for their gardens when we aren’t sure which bee species might be in the area.

Male longhorn bee (Melissodes) on Spiny goldenweed

All pictures by Shaun M. McCoshum, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). Some answers edited for clarity and length. My thanks to Shaun for agreeing to be interviewed. – Elliott

Book Review: Gardening for Wildlife in the arid south west regions

Thank you for reading my review of “A short introduction to Gardening for Wildlife in the arid south west regions” by Dr. Shaun McCoshum. If you are interested, the book is available for purchase on Amazon.com

With 29 full-size pages, this book is lightweight, but not light on content. It is specifically aimed at arid environments, which is refreshing given the lush, yet unrealistic, gardens portrayed on many websites. Even if we long for shady lawns, it’s irresponsible to maintain high water use landscaping in Arizona and New Mexico.

Native desert landscapes can serve as inspiration for our own gardens, and they are the best way to support native wildlife

The book is essentially split into 5 sections: brainstorming/planning for your garden, reptiles, bees, butterflies, and birds. I would characterize this book as in between a do-it-yourself guide and a reference manual – it has explicit instructions for planning your space, lizard sunning spots, bee hotel, and water feature, but also leaves it open to the reader in terms of selecting plants and doing further research.

The ligated furrow bee, Halictus ligatus, and Spiny goldenweed, Xanthisma spinulosum are discussed in this book

One of the strengths of the book is the knowledge Dr. McCoshum brings to the bee section. I love the discussion of ground-nesting bees, which are the majority of native bees in the world (and especially the desert southwest). The book addresses crucial elements of bee habitat in addition to the plants that they forage. Regarding the plant lists, you may want a wildflower book or Internet browser handy, as the names are largely in Latin.

Bottom line, I recommend this book. I think it will be most useful to people starting out, renovating part of a yard, or wanting to attract more of a specific kind of wildlife, like bees or lizards. It would make a great, not so subtle, gift to a neighbor who’s still hanging onto their lawn. You can hear more from Dr. McCoshum in this Youtube recording of a talk he gave for NMSU: https://youtu.be/Q6v6CLOui6c

Glamorous Moths #5 – Penstemonia

The way that gardeners feel about moths and butterflies is often quite different, despite how closely related they are. We are happy to grow milkweed to attract Monarchs and allow the caterpillars to devour whole plants. Weed is in the name milkweed, so I think we value the plant more for its role in the Monarch’s life cycle. On the other hand, who ever heard of growing corn to attract Helicoverpa zea or tomatoes to encourage Manduca sexta?

Perhaps the most despised moth is the peach tree borer, which “bring major harm to important fruit-crop trees, destroying the tree’s vascular system through boring and girdling while inducing plant pathogens to invade the weakened tree” (Source). That’s terrible, right? How dare those selfish moths cripple our precious fruit trees?

Without further ado, I would like to introduce the Penstemon clearwing, also known as the Beardtongue borer.

Penstemonia clarkei, Clarke’s Penstemon clearwing, seen in Los Alamos, New Mexico

Penstemonia is a genus of moths in western North America (presumably including northern Mexico) in the family Sessiidae (clearwing moths). [Quick sidenote: Hemaris clearwing moths are in the hawk moth family, Sphingidae.]

Clearwing moths often resemble wasps and bees in coloration and marking. They have elongate wings, often transparent owing to the lack of scales. Most of the larvae are borers in the limbs, trunks, bark, or roots of trees, shrubs, herbs and vines (like the infamous peach tree borer). Some bore in galls on woody or herbaceous plants. Majority of adults take nectar. [Source: bugguide.net]

What about our Penstemon clearwing? 

There are at least 5 species of Penstemonia in North America. Larval feeding is probably limited to Penstemon or closely related plant species in Cheloneae. (I’ve discussed Penstemon plants on the blog before: https://pollinatorweb.com/meet-the-plants-more-beardtongues/). The larva will be found within a stem [or roots] at crown level and damage appears as a wilting or dieback of individual stems. Pupation is probably in the soil at the base of plants, but there is no description of them. [Source: Colorado State University Extension (colostate.edu)]

I have a feeling that populations of Penstemonia moths will start to increase and spread as more gardeners grow native, drought tolerant beardtongue plants. I hope you will welcome these pollinators into your yards with open arms.

The potential consequences of ‘bee washing’ by Sheila R. Colla (2022)

Over recent decades, the plight of wild bees and other pollinators has gone from a niche area to one of the most mainstream environmental topics. Scientific research interest, capacity and consequently publications have grown tremendously in recent years, as has mainstream media coverage. The public has been engaged in a variety of ways to “save the bees” including through community science, policy consultation, planting of pollinator gardens and other widespread initiatives and campaigns … ‘Bee washing’, a term coined by MacIvor and Packer (2015), refers to items or actions claiming to support declining bee populations, and thus claiming to be pro-environment, without due diligence or scientific support … The crux of the matter is that when conservation actions are misplaced, as in the case with bee washing, they can actively harm populations meant to be conserved, waste limited resources (e.g. time, energy, money), misinform the public and/or de-legitimize scientific evidence.

Excerpts from Colla, S. R. (2022). The potential consequences of ‘bee washing’ on wild bee health and conservation.

To read more, visit https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijppaw.2022.03.011 or the International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife, 18, 30–32

Native bumblebees may be threatened by “pathogen spillover” from managed species

In order to better protect wild bee health and biodiversity, conservation actions and policy will have to shift away from bee washing to more evidence-based, nuanced and precautionary approaches. Efforts should focus on reducing the reliance of systems on managed bees and reducing the impacts of managed bee use on wild bees. This will require policy which acknowledges and values the importance of wild bee health biodiversity for pollination services for crop plants and for resilience under climate change. Critical actions to protect wild bee health includes screening and monitoring of pathogens among commercial stock and in adjacent wild populations.

Excerpt from Colla, S. R. (2022). The potential consequences of ‘bee washing’ on wild bee health and conservation.

One Year in my Pollinator Garden

Painted Lady visits apple blossoms (Vanessa cardui on Malus domestica)

I joined iNaturalist in April 2021 to participate in the City Nature Challenge – 2022 edition is coming up soon! – and I had no idea at the time that it would be my go-to resource for appreciating and documenting the visitors in my pollinator garden. I was quickly drawn in by the many friendly and knowledgeable users and the potential to improve my understanding of the natural world. One year later, I’m delighted to reminisce and share highlights from my edible garden and native plant xeriscape. It has been a blast watching, photographing, and learning to identify hundreds of species of plants and animals. Please, join me for a celebration of diversity in my New Mexico neighborhood.

3 varieties of sunflowers (Helianthus) blooming in summer 2021

Getting Started

My journey to hosting a pollinator garden in Albuquerque began with an all but blank slate. The front yard was a sea of bare gravel plus cheatgrass, tumbleweeds, and goatheads, while the back featured 8 Russian olive trees and plenty of dandelions. In 2020, I decided to transform the landscaping and hired a local company to cut down the invasive trees. In their places, I planted Peach and Apple trees for fruit, Utah serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) and New Mexico olive (Forestiera pubescens) to feed songbirds, and Bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) for shade and fall color. Thanks to the New Mexico Native Plants Society, Plants of the Southwest, Osuna Nursery, Hilltop Landscaping, the American Penstemon Society, and the ABQ Backyard Refuge Program, I found plenty of resources and support to select appropriate, drought-tolerant plants for my yard and begin to create habitat for wildlife.

Habronattus festus jumping spider

Watching the Grass Grow

At the beginning of the project, I typically saw common city birds, lizards, bumblebees, rock squirrels, paper wasps, and not much else. It takes a while for new plants to get established and for neighborhood critters to (re)discover my yard. It’s all worth it now for moments like watching an American Robin eat serviceberries, a longhorn bee sleeping on a sunflower, or munching on a fresh apple that I grew.

Large-tailed Aphideater (Eupeodes volucris hoverfly) on Arugula

When I started, I was familiar with common pollinators, like honeybees and hummingbirds, but there were so many branches of the Animal kingdom of which I wasn’t aware. (I’m doing a little better now and I hope you’ll scroll through some of our visual guides Insects – Pollinator Web.) By slowing down and observing with purpose, I find something new in the garden almost every day. It is both fun and frustrating to follow a little bee on her journey to collect pollen as I struggle to get clear pictures for identification.

Tripartite Sweat Bee on Scorpionweed (Halictus tripartitus on Phacelia integrifolia)

By The Numbers

Honestly, I have been blown away by the diversity that can exist in 0.2-acres of land. We tend to think of deserts as arid and empty; in reality, Arizona and New Mexico combined have over 1,000 species of native bees plus more than 300 species of butterflies! I have recorded more than 600 yard species in the last 12 months, using iNaturalist. They include:

  • >100 species of cultivated plants, including 20 varieties of native trees and shrubs
  • 75 bees
  • 59 butterflies and moths
  • 59 birds
  • 58 flies
  • 50 ‘true bugs’ (Hemiptera)
  • 47 volunteer plant species (“weeds” and wildflowers introduced by wind or animals)
  • 45 wasps
  • 37 beetles
  • 21 spiders
  • 12 crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids
  • 11 ants
  • New Mexico Whiptails and Southwestern Fence lizards
  • Flame Skimmer and Blue-fronted Dancer (dragonflies)
  • 2 springtails
  • 1 mayfly!
An unexpected mayfly showed up as I was leaving for work last year

Closing Thoughts

Imagine what we can do working together in our communities by planting yards full of flowers, instead of spraying chemicals and mowing lawns.

Every square inch of planet earth has ecological significance, even where we live, work, and play. If we landscape these areas with plant function as well as aesthetics in mind, we can create viable habitat where humans are, not just where humans are not … Today’s environmental challenges are so enormous that it is easy to feel helpless, as if one person can’t make a difference – despite the cliché that suggests you can. In this case, however, the cliché is right on: by choosing ecologically-effective plants for your landscape, by shrinking your lawn, and by removing your invasive ornamentals – all actions a single person can take – you will be able to make a difference that you can see, and enjoy, almost immediately. Life will return to your property!

Quote from Doug Tallamy
Lewis’ Soldier Beetles were abundant in fall 2021 on snakeweed, goldenweed, and Chamisa

Glamorous Moths #4 – Southern Flannel Moth

Wide ranging across the southern USA and northern Mexico, the Southern Flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis, is this week’s featured moth. Read more here, if you’re interested: Megalopyge opercularis (ufl.edu). Flannel moths are in Superfamily Zygaenoidea with Jewel Caterpillar moths, like Dalcerides.

Male Megalopyge opercularis by Judy Aschner on iNaturalist.org

It’s larval food plants are mostly oak trees and some Manzanita species in Arizona and Mexico. The caterpillar is small and hairy like adults and it would be really cool to find one in the wild, so please let us know if you see any!

Southern Flannel caterpillar by Diana Foreman on iNaturalist.org

Meet the Plants: More Beardtongues

Common southwest species include Beardlip/Scarlet bugler (top row, 2nd from left), Palmer’s beardtongue (top, 3rd from right), and Rocky Mountain beardtongue (bottom row, 2nd from right).

I previously shared a few common garden Penstemon in this post. Yesterday, I was watching a talk on Penstemon by Dr. Andi Wolfe (Ohio State University) and she has some beautiful slides. Please enjoy this look at Penstemon diversity.

The shape and size of Penstemon flowers varies dramatically. Top row, second from the left, is Penstemon barbatus, a common wild and garden plant in Arizona and New Mexico.
Botanists use the anthers (male reproductive organs) of Penstemon flowers to classify species.
In the bottom of most Penstemon flowers is the staminode aka beardtongue. One theory states that this provides a landing platform for bees to enter the flowers.

Glamorous Moths #3 – ‘Colorado’ Yucca Moth

This is the third post in a semi-regular series of interesting, colorful, and unique moths of Arizona and New Mexico. Today, I’d like to introduce you to yucca moths.

Prodoxus coloradensis © BJ Stacey on iNaturalist.org

Yucca moths are in the Family Prodoxidae and found across the USA and Mexico. They are a spring and summer moth, timing their flights with blooms of different plants in the Agave family (Asparagaceae). Prodoxus coloradensis is found from southern California to West Texas and north along the front range of Colorado. It’s black stripes are a bold contrast to many plain, white yucca moth species.

Yucca moth caterpillar © Bill Harms on iNaturalist.org

Like all desert blooms, Joshua trees depend on just the perfect conditions: well-timed rains, and for the Joshua tree, a crisp winter freeze. Researchers believe that freezing temperatures may damage the growing end of a branch and stimulate flowering, followed by branching. You may notice some Joshua trees grow like straight stalks; these trees have never bloomed—which is why they are branchless! In addition to ideal weather, the pollination of flowers requires a visit from the yucca moth. The moth collects pollen while laying her eggs inside the flower ovary. As seeds develop and mature, the eggs hatch into larvae, which feed on the seeds. The tree relies on the moth for pollination and the moth relies on the tree for a few seeds for her young—a happy symbiosis. 

Source: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/jtrees.htm

Glamorous Moths #2 – White-lined Sphinx

This is the second post in a semi-regular series of interesting, colorful, and unique moths of Arizona and New Mexico. Today’s inspiration comes from a brief encounter last Friday. I was at an orchard and a White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), was getting nectar from plum flowers mid-afternoon.

Hyles lineata visiting Lantana in Phoenix © George Roark

These strong fliers are members of Family Sphingidae – the sphinx, hawk, and hummingbird moths. They are active at dusk (occasionally daytime) and can hover like hummingbirds instead of landing on flowers.

“Hornworm” caterpillar of Hyles lineata © Kevin Faccenda on iNaturalist.org

This insect has a wide host range. Some of the plants utilized as host plants in the Midwest include apple, evening primrose (Oenothera spp.), four-o’clocks (the common annual Mirabilis jalapa and wild four-o’clock, M. nyctaginea), fuchsia, Gaura lindheimeri, grape, pentas, purslane, tomato, and willow-weed (Epilobium). Other native plants are used elsewhere, such as sand verbena (Abronia umbellate), wishbone plant (Mirabilis californica and other species of Mirabilis), and brown-eyed evening primrose (Camissonia claviformis ssp. piersonii) in the desert Southwest and toothed spurge (Euphorbia dentate) in Texas.

Source: https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/white-lined-sphinx-moth-hyles-lineata/

Glamorous Moths #1 – Dalcerides ingenita

This is the first post in a new, semi-regular series of interesting, colorful, and unique moths of Arizona and New Mexico. The first post is inspired by Ronald Parry’s talk I saw on Zoom last week (recording here on Youtube). In the USA, the label “moths” represent over 90% of all Lepidoptera species, but butterflies get most of the attention. We can save the Monarchs and appreciate/support their overlooked “cousins” too!

Dalcerides ingenita caught in Gila National Forest, NM © Ronald Parry

Dalcerides ingenita (no common name yet) is the only species in the moth family Dalceridae that makes it north of the USA-Mexico border. The caterpillars are covered in a gelatinous material to deter parasites and predators. The larval host plants are manzanita and native Emory’s and Blue oaks.