If you’re reading this from New Mexico, the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Grand Opening of Visitor Center and 10th Birthday is on Saturday, September 10th, about a month away. I hope you’ll join us!
I’ve dedicated more time to nocturnal critters this summer. It’s super rewarding to check the porch lights for moths and find a new one. So many cool insects hang out at night if you go and look.
There are plenty of diurnal critters too. Wasps (yes, wasps!) in all sizes and colors and a few new native bees for my yard list are among the highlights. It is lovely to sit outside with my camera, surrounded by nature. I enjoy watching bees collecting pollen, wasps hunting for a meal, and hummingbirds chasing each other.
7June22 Plants in the garden, and sharing plants from the neighbor’s garden
Most urban and suburban lots are small relative to the natural tracts of native habitat, so there are limits to what we can plant, both in size and variety.
And, it turns out, putting your yard into context with the nearest forage/host area is quite important because many insects are limited in how far they can travel for food and lodging. To some, a football field of length can push limits of mobility.
So if you are close enough to a natural area that you can leverage it’s resources, fantastic! Add one or two specimens of various native plants can still get you to critical mass if considered as shared resources with the natural area. Same goes for sharing other resources, like water and nesting habitat.
Similarly, you can view the plants and other resources in your neighbor’s yards as something to be shared by the pollinator web of animals.
The neighbor behind us has a large Sissoo tree (not a tree that I would recommend), and the birds love the height and cover it affords. Good thing, because our backyard is only 2 years old, and even our fast growing mesquite and palo verdes need a bit more time to become truly comfortable perches.
Other neighbors have citrus, hibiscus and Arizona Yellow Bells to share. Let’s look at how some of the plants in and around the garden are looking on this 109 degree day.
I’ve found some interesting bees on the sunflowers, but no butterflies so far. On the non-pollinator side of things though, the sunflowers attract a wide array of insects from lace bugs, psyllids, long legged flies, assassin bugs and lady beetles! Oh, and birds eating the insects off of the leaves.
7June22 Blood-colored Milkweed Bug, Tarantula Hawk Wasp, Queen Butterfly, Ceraunus Blue Butterfly, Great Horned Owl
The beauty of a pollinator garden is a two-edged wand:
The reward of knowing you are contributing to the health of the ecosystem that you inhabit
The treasure hunt of discovering the web of characters that visit your paradise
In the previous installments of this post I presented the blank slate layout of our garden along with the ideas that drove the implementation of the garden. In these next installments I’ll be sharing the visitors to the garden, and in the process also showing the plants and structures that define the spaces.
Although it may appear that your garden has only one or two varieties of milkweed bugs, closer observation is likely to reveal more diversity. Our garden also has Large Milkweed Bugs, Water Small Milkweed Bugs and Southern Small Milkweed bugs.
These wasps can be quite intimidating, flying like military helicopters in the garden, but they take little interest in humans. They do seem to love the Desert Milkweeds (Asclepius subulata) and Desert Willows. As the name implies, these wasps hunt tarantulas, and there must be a lot of tarantulas around because the garden is currently a-buzz with these wasps. I love tarantulas, so I’m keeping the faith that eco-balance is holding steady.
So if there is any doubt about the versatility of milkweeds in the garden, it should be apparent at this point that they serve as more than host plants for Monarch and Queen butterflies.
Queens are aptly named, so regal and beautiful! Last year I “rescued” a caterpillar right before a cold snap and raised it indoors: The Making of a Queen.
Blues are tiny wonders in the garden, and you need to be up close to appreciate their beauty and differences. The top side of the wings are blue for males, but females vary from blue to silvery-blue to brown. Host plants for the Ceraunus Blue include legumes like Mesquites and Acacias.
Also known as the “tiger of the air” this owl primarily hunts rabbits and hares, rats and mice, and voles. One look at those talons and it’s clear this is a very capable predator, and it will hunt whatever it can overtake.
I was very excited to see this owl swoop into the tree during daylight hours, and even more fortunate to have camera at hand. Local nesting birds were pestering the owl, trying to protect their nests I would guess, but the owl was unflappable and stayed in the same spot for hours.
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
Design: TJ’s framework drawing for pool and landscape. This is the third post in this series. You can read the first post here.
Bucking the trend of right angle, manicured modern design, we decided to go with organic shapes to soften the landscape and align with the natural shape of the plants. Have we waited long enough for this to come back into vogue? That has yet to be seen, but, of course, it’s a moot point since we’re designing the yard for ourselves (and then, ultimately, pollinators too!)
It’s worth noting that every pool designer was only offering rectilinear pool designs. In fact, our pool builder said he had not built a freeform pool in about a decade. Fortunately for us, TJ is a true landscape artist and provided a framework that we loved.
On the left side of the drawing is the North Side yard. As previously mentioned, this area was defined as a xeriscape with walkways, with a strong need for privacy in the east corner, and a requirement for water retention and control for roof runoff.
On the right side is the South Side yard, which was defined with oasis elements around the pool, a strong need for privacy at the south wall, and a requirement for water retention and control for roof runoff.
I added drip irrigation infrastructure in four zones:
South side yard
North side yard
North side along the house
Cacti and succulents
The final implementation of this plan varied from the foundation drawing, as is often the case with the best laid plans. Considerations affecting change included:
A 3 year plan for privacy, which required choosing faster growing plants at a higher density than shown in the drawing
Plant availability – I don’t have a landscape license so couldn’t buy wholesale, but did almost all of the purchasing and planting. Some plants called out in the drawing were not practical to procure and plant given the desired size or function.
Cost, of course. As anyone who has planned and completed large projects is likely aware, you can cost, labor and time, but not all three at once.
Coming up next: Planting, Phase 1
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Welcome back! This is the second installment in this series – in the previous post I presented the history of the project and the design considerations for the South Side Yard – you can view that post here.
The side yard on the north side of the house has two separate microclimates. The area near the house gets sun in the summer, including late afternoon sun, but during the late fall until early spring, no sun hits the landscape because it’s shaded by the house. Selecting plants for this area can be a challenge, but with some judicious selections the summer sun can be moderated. This area will also be responsible for retaining and controlling water runoff from the roof.
Towards the block fence the sun exposure is more consistent, especially for taller shrubs and trees. The goal here is to have a xeriscape and walkways, similar in design to a botanical garden.
On the west end of the side yard there is a mild need for privacy screening, but a much stronger need for shade since the late afternoon summer sun comes blazing over the front gate. You can almost feel the heat radiating from the dirt in this early afternoon picture. So we’ll be using trees and shrubs to create some microclimates for plants and people.
The east end of the side yard has two large 2-story homes, both with second story balconies, so privacy is a big consideration. Screening will be accomplished with trees and shrubs.
Landscaping a bare earth tract home backyard into a taste of paradise, then evolving it to support pollinators and the web of characters that support an ecosystem. This is the first of a series of posts to share the story of discovery and a labor of love.
It’s 2019, and after 9 months of searching for a resale home, we ended up purchasing a new tract home further out than we wanted, but availability and price aligned to a relative sweet spot, and we made the leap.
(A View from the Rearview Mirror: A great bit of luck, that leap. Who knew a pandemic was on the horizon, and home prices would begin to see upward price pressure that was unimaginable. In fact, when the pandemic first hit, the developer began discounting homes due to lack of demand.)
We had just moved to Phoenix from the midwest and I had taken some landscape classes at the Desert Botanical Garden to learn about plant selection, irrigation and water conservation, so this project would put the newfound knowledge to good use.
I wasn’t, however, yet aware of the importance of native plants to support pollinators in the yard. So the foundational landscape that we designed and planted was focused on a botanical garden style xeriscape with oasis elements. Tuning the landscape for pollinators came later, after the pandemic hit and I became involved with the MetroPhoenix EcoFlora iNaturalist project (more on that later) and the Maricopa Native Seed Library.
South Side Yard Design
A blank slate can be daunting, as shown above in our initial “scorched earth” yard. This side yard faces slightly off from 180 degrees south, so it gets lots of winter sun. Because of the way the sun travels, however, it also gets late afternoon summer sun, which is the hardest on plants.
A two story home with a second story balcony, and a next door home that’s close to the fence, guided us to design for privacy along the fence line. Another design element would be a pool to make the summers more enjoyable and to add an oasis in the desert aesthetic. We also wanted walking paths to give the yard a botanical garden feel.
And of course, water conservation is a necessary and practical aspect of the design. To efficiently deliver water to the plants I decided to use multiple zones of drip irrigation, and since rain water (hopefully the monsoons will return in 2022!) is the best hydrator for plants, the design will incorporate swales to retain water shed from the roof, which drains along the wall with the A/C unit.
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.
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.
American Bumblebee: Despite being on the verge of the endangered species list, it is the most common to see in our area. Females, especially queens, are large and have the most black bands on their backs of any species here.
Bombus pensylvanicus sharing Common sunflower with Svastra obliqua (longhorn bee) in Albuquerque
Sonoran Bumblebee is a close relative of the American and can be hard to tell apart. You are more likely to see them outside in the low desert around Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Cruces.
Morrison’s Bumblebee is the third most common of the large, black and yellow bumbles and closely related to the Nevada Bumblebee (6th most common). This species is almost entirely yellow and its conservation status is Vulnerable.
Bombus morrisoni enjoying a Prairie sunflower in author’s garden
Now we get to the smaller, red-belted species. First up is Hunt’s Bumblebee, which “is a striking species, consistently marked with deep colors except in faded individuals.”
The Great Basin Bumblebee is number 5 in our area. This species also has yellow hairs on its face, but a different pattern of black, yellow, and red than Hunt’s, with red and black hair bands touching on the abdomen.
USGS/FWS Native Bee Lab have developed a simple Plant/Bumble Bee Survey that permits anyone to survey what plants Bumble Bees use anywhere there are Bumble Bees (literally). Our goal is to quantify which plants bumble bees use, rank them by that use, and also identify which ones they don’t use.
We call it “Ask a Bumble Bee.”
How can I get involved? Just email <firstname.lastname@example.org>
You only need a cellphone (for taking pictures of plants), pencil, paper
You can survey any location where bumble bees occur
Your garden, arboretums, parks, plantings, natural areas, refuges, urban, suburban, farm, wilderness, roadsides, and weedy patches are all places we would like you to survey. The richer the plant diversity, the more plants are competing for bumble bees and clearer preference will be.
You can survey a site repeatedly throughout the year.
Take a half-hour walk on whatever path you like
Take notes about all the blooming plants to 10 feet on either side of that path
Count all the bees along this route and note what flowers are they on
Take pictures of all the flowering species (so we can check ids later. Note: iNaturalist.org and apps are great for insect and plant ID.)
Take pictures of your field sheets and upload all the pictures using your phone (no apps to download!)