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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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