Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

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.

Blood-colored Milkweed Bug on Desert Milkweed

There have been discussions about whether milkweed bugs are a friend or foe in the garden, but personally I haven’t found them to cause significant harm and I consider them part of the self-balancing ecosystem of the garden.

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.

New World Tarantula-hawk Wasps on Desert Milkweed

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.

Queen on Desert Milkweed

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.

Ceraunus Blue on Baja Fairyduster

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.

Great Horned Owl in a Sissoo Tree

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.

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

Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

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.

Landscape Framework (tjfitzloff@gmail.com)

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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Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Design: North Side Yard

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.

Northwest Side Yard

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.

Northeast Side Yard

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.

Coming up:


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Musings from a Phoenix Pollinator Garden

Blank Slate

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

South Side Yard (A/C wall of house faces 191 degrees South)

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.

Coming up:


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Species Spotlight – Sandia Hairstreak and Beargrass

March 13, 2022. New Mexico’s state insect, the Sandia Hairstreak butterfly, is flying again in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque.

RangeCallophrys mcfarlandi was discovered in New Mexico, a state that still encompasses nearly all of its US range. It also occurs in West Texas and south into Mexico. 

Life History. Larvae have a very restricted diet, eating only flowers and developing seeds of Texas and Woodland beargrass (Nolina texana and Nolina greenei). The similar Nolina microcarpa is widespread in New Mexico and Arizona, but it blooms in late in summer, which apparently is a deal-killer.

Left: old flower stalk of Nolina greenei; Right: hillside teeming with Beargrass

The host Beargrass species are not easy to find at nurseries, but this plant grows easily from seed. I bought seed from alplains.com and they germinated indoors before I transplanted outside in very sunny spots. Another option is to sustainably collect a small number of seeds from wild plants you encounter. They are ripe by mid-summer when the color is coppery. (Warning, they grow slowly, like related Agaves and Yuccas.)

Source for Range and Life History: Butterflies of New Mexico: The Gossamerwings II: The Hairstreaks (Lycaenidae: Theclinae) – Pajarito Environmental Education Center (peecnature.org)

2021 in New Mexico Butterflies – From the PEEC Blog

“Time moves on, and the 2021 butterfly season has come to an end.

As I pull together New Mexico data for the LepSoc’s Season Summary, it seems worthwhile to highlight and expand on some of the wild and wacky aspects of the recent year in New Mexico butterflies, and to ask:

How do we mark our individual or collective progress toward greater understanding of our various butterflies?”

To read more, visit:

2021 in New Mexico Butterflies – Pajarito Environmental Education Center (peecnature.org)

What should I plant for the most pollinators?

As much as possible! Okay, that’s not much of an answer.

First, which kinds of pollinators do you want to attract?

Hummingbirdsred tubular Penstemon and Acanthus flowers work great.

Beessunflowers are your best bet.

Butterflies and moths aren’t so picky, but you’ll want to provide host plants, like milkweed for Monarchs.

Left: Male longhorn bees (genus Melissodes) shelter overnight on sunflowers (Helianthus)

Right: Spiny goldenweed (Xanthisma spinulosum) volunteers in author’s yard

Where can I buy these plants? Check out our new page here: pollinatorweb.com/host-plants/native-plant-nurseries/

Also, don’t kill all the “weeds” in your yard. Many native plants are dispersed by wind and birds and will grow on their own if given a chance.