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

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.

Ask a Bumblebee

Source:  Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (BIML) | Facebook

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 <bumblebeecount@gmail.com> 

American Bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus

Details:

  • You don’t need to identify bumble bee species (though our goal is to get you there)
  • Everything is non-lethal 
  • 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. 

Basic instructions:

  1. Take a half-hour walk on whatever path you like 
  2. Take notes about all the blooming plants to 10 feet on either side of that path 
  3. Count all the bees along this route and note what flowers are they on 
  4. 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.) 
  5. Take pictures of your field sheets and upload all the pictures using your phone (no apps to download!) 
  6. Done (but we want you to do more than one really) 

Meet the plants: Beardtongues

Beardtongues (or Penstemon, the scientific name of the genus) are blooming again in Arizona. With over 50 wild species in Arizona and New Mexico (and more than 270 total), there’s a lot of options for our gardens. We hope you’ll pick up a few of these plants when visiting your local, native plant nursery this spring!

Perhaps, you will enjoy tall, sweet-smelling blooms of Palmer’s?

How about the hummingbird magnet, Scarlet Bugler?

The lovely, purple hues of Rocky Mountain?

Or the hot pink, Northern Arizona endemic, Sunset Crater?

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.