My name is Mykl Nelson, a world citizen intent on feeding the globe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first distinct connection to food I remember was in the late 90s while living in İzmir, Turkey. We had a large mulberry tree in our yard which bore delicious fruit. I also remember the bazaar in the Buca province. Cart after cart of people selling mounds of all manner of produce. After leaving Turkey, and for maybe half of my childhood summers, I lived on the farm of my paternal grandparents’ in Worland, Wyoming. I saw many aspects of high, dry farming of row crops: sugar beets, alfalfa, barley, and dent corn. I could only catch fleeting glimpses into the life of my grandfather, a commodity farmer. But in my recent years I’ve been openly told that these American farmers vehemently hoped their children were “too smart to get into farming.” Their wish came true. Of four children and nine grandchildren, I’m the only one in agriculture.

I turned on to agriculture when a friend and I built a 400 square-foot poly-tunnel in our backyard in Colorado. We didn’t know anything more than that we wanted to grow our own food. I remember feeling so incredibly accomplished, fulfilled, and validated picking personal salads straight into dinner bowls. I took that inspiration to fuel my travel to the Pacific Northwest, a place I knew I could immerse myself in the world of tending plants. I pushed every aspect of my network to get more involved in farming and to gain space to garden. I’ve worked on three organic urban farms since moving to Oregon. I went back to school and retrained from political science to agricultural science. I continued my education with a graduate project which firmly oriented my interests to the world of urban agriculture.


I am now an instructor of urban agriculture here at Oregon State University. My current duties are to develop new online courses to train and empower new urban growers to produce food within the confines of their modern environment. This work is challenging, as urban agriculture suffers from a distinct lack of focused research. One of the most relevant discoveries from my graduate research project is that nearly all advice extended to urban growers is simply copied from traditional agriculture. Even if suggestions are altered with respect to the scale and local environment of urban growers, the research supporting these suggestions is still wholly based upon traditional agricultural methods of food production. I am developing my courses with this mismatch in mind. I have changed my approach from seeking to broadly support food production and instead specifically analyze and adapt traditional recommendations to work in an urban environment.

I use scientific research to inform my course development on many levels. At the macro-level, articles like one by Oberholtzer, Dimitri, and Pressman (2014) have reported that most farmers, and new farmers especially, struggle with complications in managing the farm’s business much more than the challenge of growing their crops. I used these findings to inform the outline of a new course that I am developing: Introduction to Urban Agriculture. Rather than spending time covering the how or why of plant growth in much detail, I’ve instead focused on how urban growers can adapt agricultural principles to their unique environment. I strive to keep students aware of how these factors should influence their management activities and always keep the concept of ‘value’ in their mind. On a more micro-level, I have built the lectures regarding soil and plant growth with adaptations of my own previous graduate research.

My method of teaching is heavily influenced by a new wave of teaching research which is well represented by James Lang’s book: Small Teaching. Broadly, this approach suggests frequent review of material as well as a more piecemeal and cyclical approach to teaching topics rather than large chunks of lecture punctuated by intermittent exams. Further, I refuse to accept that an online classroom is limiting. Modern students are demanding more than just lectures laid over powerpoint slides. I am exploring numerous avenues to increase engagement and foster social connection, all facilitated by digital platforms. I expect my courses to provide foundational pillars of knowledge for new urban growers as they pursue OSU’s new and entirely online certificate in urban agriculture. I hope to see every student embark on their own path to grow food within their urban environments. I look forward to reports of former pupils starting and operating successful urban farming businesses.

Image from: http://www.nwplants.com/

This entry is from Lucas Costner, an undergraduate horticulture major at Oregon State University.  It highlights one of the plants that Aaron Anderson is using in his research.

Original “Plant of the Week: Douglas Aster” post available here: http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gardenecologylab/2017/11/07/plant-week-doulgas-aster/ 

 

Last November I took a look at a Pacific Northwest favorite, the Douglas aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum (1)). What I didn’t know then was just how popular this species would be with the bees we had been sampling in the field. It turns out that while surveyed gardeners ranked Douglas aster 14 out of 27 in terms of attractiveness, based on the 2017 data it boasted the third highest number of bees (2). This means that it is the most attractive native perennial species for bees that we sampled, and the 2018 data shows this as well (3). Based on the gardeners’ ranking, however, which placed it in the bottom 50% of all the species we sampled, it also looks as though the Douglas aster is in need of some public relations help. 

It is my personal belief that it isn’t just the showiness of the blooms or the potential benefits to X, Y and Z that brings plants into our gardens, but rather the stories we tell about them. Familiarity after all is more than just recognition; it is also marked by appreciation and understanding. One of the stories we can tell through our work in the Garden Ecology Lab about Douglas aster is of its relationship with our native bees. As gardeners we are uniquely positioned to both benefit from and to be of service to these insects. 

Here are some of their “faces”: 

Long-horned Bees

Melissodes sp. 

The most common genus of bees collected from Douglas aster in the field, Melissodes are true summer and fall flyers, easily recognizable by their long antennae. These bees are solitary ground nesters, although they have been observed forming nesting aggregations in the soil (4). While we collected potentially five species of Melissodes in total, one species in particular, Melissodes microsticta, was especially common. Many Melissodes species are generalists, but can usually be found visiting members of the Asteraceae family (such as sunflowers and our Doulgas aster) because of their late season blooms.

 

Image from: https://odabeeguide.weebly.com/melissodes.html

Yellow-faced Bumblebee

Bombus vosnesenskii

The second most commonly collected visitor of Douglas aster, the yellow-faced bumblebee is really a remarkable native pollinator. While many native bees are considered solitary, bumble bees are social insects, with a queen and workers (4). Like non-native honeybees, they have been investigated for their potential as commercial pollinators, being used in greenhouse production (5). Isabella Messer wrote a post for the “Pollinator of the Week” series highlighting these ubiquitous bees that can be found here: http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gardenecologylab/2017/08/29/pollinator-week-yellow-faced-bumble-bee/ 

 

Image from: https://odabeeguide.weebly.com/bombus-sp.html

Ligated Furrow Bee

Halictus ligatus

The third most commonly collected visitor of Douglas aster is the ligated furrow bee. Found throughout North America, Halictus ligatus is special amongst native pollinators (like the yellow-faced bumblebee) for its social nature (4). Sociality is rare amongst native bees, as it is in nature in general, but amongst the Halictus the situation is even more unique. This is because, unlike other social species, Halictus have been seen to switch back and forth between solitary and social behaviors over time as environmental conditions differ (4). Isabella wrote a post about these bees a while back for the “Pollinator of the Week” series that can be read here: http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gardenecologylab/2018/04/30/pollinator-week-mining-bee/ 

 

Image from: https://odabeeguide.weebly.com/halictus.html

Virescent Green Metallic Bee

Agapostemon virescens

The fourth most commonly collected visitor of the Douglas aster is none other than my personal favorite, the virescent green metallic bee. These stunning bees are communal soil nesters and are members of the Halictidae family, cousins of the ligated furrow bee introduced above (4). I wrote a post about them for the “Pollinator of the Week” series last November that can be found here: http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gardenecologylab/2017/11/13/pollinator-week-virescent-green-metallic-bee/ 

 

Image from: https://odabeeguide.weebly.com/agapostemon.html

In addition to these bees, we also collected striped-sweat bees (Agapostemon texanus/angelicus), brown-winged furrow bees (Halictus farinosus), metallic sweat bees (Lasioglossum sp.), and common little leaf-cutter bees (Megachile brevis). We also collected with a number of long-horned bees (Melissodes) that have yet to be identified to species. 

Walking the streets of Portland and seeing Douglas aster’s purple flowers still in bloom this late in October brings a smile to my face because it tells me that people are indeed planting this species. If only for its benefit to wildlife and pollinators in particular, that is still good news. As you may be able to tell from the information given above, we are still learning about these bee species while we are simultaneously working to save them — not just for future generations but for ourselves as well. Hopefully, by putting a “face” to the bees that visit and depend on these plants and our gardens, the bond that links us to them can be strengthened and our preference for them in our landscape enhanced. 

 

Sources: 

  1. Geraldine A. Allen 2012, Symphyotrichum subspicatum, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora, http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/eflora/eflora_display.php?tid=88843, accessed on October 30, 2018.
  2. Langellotto, G. (2018, September 12). Do Gardeners Like the Same Flowers as Bees? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gardenecologylab/2018/09/12/do-gardeners-like-the-same-flowers-as-bees/ 
  3. Anderson, A. (n.d.). First Look: Research Into Native Plants in the PNW Garden. Webinar. Retrieved from http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gardenecologylab/2018/10/23/webinar-on-willamette-valley-native-plants-and-pollinators/ 
  4. Wilson, J. S., & Messinger Carril, O. (2016). The Bees In Your Backyard. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  5. Dogterom, M. H., Matteoni, J. A., & Plowright, R. C. (1998). Pollination of Greenhouse Tomatoes by the North American Bombus vosnesenskii. Journal of Economic Entomology, 91(1), 71-75. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/jee/91.1.71
  6. Oregon Department of Agriculture: Bee Pollinators of Oregon. (2016). Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://odabeeguide.weebly.com 

All bees have been pinned, labelled, and data-based. Now we’re (and when I say ‘we’re’, I’m mostly referring to Lucas and Isabella) are going through the painstaking process of photographing all specimens: head on, from the top, and from each side. We’ll then start sorting them by morphotype (how they look), and working to identify them. Some of the bees are very common, and fairly easy to identify (like Anthidum manicatum, Bombus vosnesenskii, Apis meliifera). Others will take a bit more time and expertise to get to species.

You can take a look at the entire album, representing about 150 of the nearly 700 collected bees. We’ll be adding the rest of the bees, as we can.

We collect and pin the bees, because most are difficult to identify, without getting them under a microscope, and without the help of a museum-level bee specialist. For those bees that are easy to identify by site (such as the ones listed above), we only collect one per garden (so that we have a record of its presence). We don’t collect multiple specimens of the same species, if we can identify it in the field. And, we don’t collect obvious queens (larger, reproductive bees).

We collect using a combination of water pan traps and hand collection. For hand collection, we use a pooter (an insect aspirator) for the smaller bees and baby food jars for the larger bees.

Water pan traps. We buy plastic bowls from the dollar store, prime them, and paint them with UV paint that is optimized for the wavelengths that bees see.
Here, I’m holding an insect aspirator, otherwise known as a pooter. You can suck insects off of flower heads without damaging blossoms, by carefully placing the metal part of the pooter, over the bee. It is then sucked into a small plastic vial, which I’m holding in my right hand.

This is such an exciting part of the research for me. I find myself obsessing over the photos, trying to organize them in my mind, and to at least get them to genus. Grouping them by genus makes it easier for an expert to sort through and identify them. And, I’m so grateful for their assistance, that I want to make it as easy as possible for them!

We’ve collected bees from gardens near Forest Park, in Portland’s city center, and in outlying suburbs. We’ll analyze the data to see if there are any patterns associated with garden location (forest, city, suburbs), or to see if there are specific bees that are only found in forest gardens, for example.

A monarch butterfly on showy milkweed. Image Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife. Image Source: https://www.fws.gov/pacific/images/feature/2017/highlights/Milkweed.jpg

Now that our lab group is working on native plants and native bees, I thought it would be fun to do a ‘Plant of the Week’ and ‘Bee of the Week’ series.  This second entry is from Lucas Costner, an undergraduate environmental science major at Oregon State University.  It highlights one of the plants that Aaron Anderson is using in his research.

The showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is a perennial forb, native to the western United States and Canada(3).  It is hardy through USDA zones 3a to 9b (1). While the showy milkweed is listed as threatened in Iowa, it can become fairly weedy once introduced to gardens if left unmanaged, due to rhizomatous growth

(3). The plants do best in full-sun, and are an excellent choice for gardeners looking for a low-maintenance, native plant that is very attractive to pollinators (3). In particular, the showy milkweed is known for its attractiveness to the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), which utilizes the plant for habitat, as well as a larval host plant and adult nectar source (1,2,3). The monarch butterfly is not alone in its use of the showy milkweed.  Eleven other species of Lepidoptera are known to reproduce on milkweeds (2), and the flowers are frequented by many species of bees and hummingbirds (1). The flowers are an appealing addition to the garden from an aesthetic perspective as well, featuring large, dense umbels of pink star-shaped flowers from May through September (3). The stems can reach heights of up to five feet and

have oppositely spaced, elongate leaves that are gray-green in color and covered in small hairs (3). At the end of the season, the flowers form interestingly shaped fruit pods packed with seeds whose silky white hairs are specially adapted for wind dispersal.

1. ”Showy Milkweed for Western Monarchs.” Monarch Butterfly Garden. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 June 2017. <http://monarchbutterflygarden.net/milkweed-plant-seed-resources/asclepias-speciosa/>.

2. Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Portland: Timber Press, 2009. Print.

3. Young-Mathews, Annie, and Eric Eldregde. Plant fact sheet for showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Corvallis: USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service, Aug. 2012. PDF.

 

Gardens are unique and understudied systems that can have multi-faceted and positive impacts on environmental and public health.  But, key to realizing the potential, positive impact of gardens are the decisions that are made when planning, installing and maintaining garden beds and features.  These decisions are especially important, because gardeners manage and maintain a significant amount of land in the United States.  Take lawns, for example.  Studies suggest that lawns represented the single largest irrigated crop in the United States, and that there are more acres of lawn than the combined acreage of corn, alfalfa, soy, orchards and rice1.

Of course, lawns are just one component of a garden ~ perhaps the least interesting component, from an ecological point of view.  Gardens are special, because of their unique levels of plant abundance and diversity2, which in some cases can be considered ‘biodiversity hotspots’3.   In New York, my lab group documented the important role that plant abundance and diversity in urban and suburban gardens can play in conserving pollinator biodiversity4, 5, 6.  Recently, some of the top researchers in the country argued that conservation plans could better harness the positive environmental benefits of gardens and landscapes7.  But, before we can get there, we need to answer some basic questions.

This is where the Garden Ecology Lab comes in.  Our group works at the interface of ecology and sociology, to try and understand the benefits of gardens to the environment and to human health and well-being.  We want to document the biodiversity of plants, pollinators and other organisms in Oregon gardens, and analyze what factors constrain or promote garden biodiversity.  I’ve done this work in New York, but want to repeat these first steps in Oregon.  Ultimately, the goal is to understand how gardens ~ and the decisions we make in our gardens ~ either promotes or constrains ecosystem services, such as pollination, pest control, and more.

Our group is diverse, and includes students interested in ecology, horticultural therapy and urban soils.  Extension and outreach is embedded in all that we do, such that we plan to work closely with gardeners (as citizen scientists) to describe and understand garden biodiversity, and to communicate findings to broader audiences. We’ll be looking for garden study sites and cooperating gardeners in the coming months, and invite you to get to know us, just a bit more.

References

1Milesi, C., S. W. Running, C. D. Elvidge, J. B. Dietz, B. T. Tuttle, R. R. Nemani. 2005. Mapping and Modeling the Biogeochemical Cycling of Turf Grasses in the United States. Environmental Management 36:426–438.

2Thompson, K. K. C. Austin, R. M. Smith, P. H. Warren, P. G. Angold, K. J. Gaston. 2003. Urban domestic gardens (I): putting small-scale plant diversity in context. Journal of Vegetation Science 14:71-78.

3Gea Galluzzi, G., P. Eyzaguirre, V. Negri. 2010. Home gardens: neglected hotspots of agro-biodiversity and cultural diversity. Biodiversity and Conservation 19: 3635–3654.

4Fetridge, E., J. S. Ascher, G. A. Langellotto.  2008. The bee fauna of residential gardens in a suburb of New York City (Hymenoptera: Apoidea).  Annals of the Entomological Society of America 101:1067-1077.

5Matteson, K. C., G. A. Langellotto. 2010. Determinates of inner city butterfly and bee species richness. Urban Ecosystems 13:333-347.

6Matteson, K. C., J. S. Ascher and G. A. Langellotto. 2008. Richness and composition of the bee fauna of urban gardens in New York City (Hymenoptera: Apoidea). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 101:140-150.

7Hall, D. M., G. R. Camilo, R. K. Tonietto, J. Ollerton, K. Ahrne, M. Arduser, J. S. Ascher, K. C. R. Baldock, R. E. Fowler, G. W. Frankie, D. Goulson, B. Gunnarsson, M. E. Hanley, J. I. Jackson, G. Langellotto, D. Lowenstein, E. S. Minor, S. M. Philpott, S. G. Potts, M. H. Sirohi, E. M. Spevak, G. Stone, C. G. Threlfall.  2016. The city as a refuge for insect pollinators: conservation for the city. Conservation Biology. Online First.

We study gardens: the plants, insects, animals, people, decisions and management practices that either improve or degrade a garden’s ability to promote environmental and human health.

An underlying premise of our work is that gardens are important and understudied systems, that are key to building more sustainable, healthy and just communities.  

Garden Ecology Lab, Spring 2019. (L-R): Isabella Messer, Angelee Calder, Gail Langellotto, Aaron Anderson, Signe Danler, Mykl Nelson.

Our garden pollinator work is supported by a generous donation from Spike Wadsworth and Y. Sherry Sheng.