Garden Ecology Lab Year in Review: COVID Edition

This past year presented challenge and change to the Garden Ecology Lab. COVID locked us out of the lab and out of the field for a period of time. We said goodbye to two lab members (Angelee graduated! Cliff decided to move on from graduate school), and said hello to new lab mates (Cara took over Cliff’s project; Gwynne started her post-doc; Tyler, Jay, and Max all joined the lab as undergraduate researchers and research assistants). In addition to COVID and personnel changes, I had orthopedic surgery that took me away from work for a little under a month.

But somehow, despite the challenges and changes, we managed to make progress on several research projects. Below, I present a partial reporting of the Garden Ecology Lab year in review for 2020. Besides each project heading is the name of the project lead(s).

1) Garden Bees of Portland (Gail & Isabella): Jason Gibbs’ group from the University of Manitoba provided final determinations for a particularly difficult group of bees to identify: the Lasioglossum sweat bees. In addition, Lincoln (Linc) Best provided determinations for garden bees collected in 2019. Isabella is entering in some of our last remaining specimens, and I am working through the database of over 2,700 collected specimens to ‘clean’ the data and double check data entry against specimens in hand. There are a few specimens that need to be re-examined by Linc, now that we have determinations from the University of Manitoba, the American Museum of Natural History (Sarah Kornbluth), and a graduate of Jim River’s lab (Gabe Foote).

Altogether, we collected between 76 and 84 species of bee across a combined acreage of 13.2 acres (sum total acreage of 25 gardens). The low end estimate conservatively assumes that each unique morphospecies (i.e. Sphecodes sp. 1 and Sphecodes sp. 2) are a single species, whereas the high end estimate assumes that each is a unique species. A few noteworthy specimens:

  • We collected one specimen of Pseudoanthidum nanum, which is a non-native species to our area, which seems to be establishing and spreading in Portland. Stefanie Steele from Portland State University is writing a note on this apparent introduction, and is using data associated with our single specimen in her paper.
  • We collected one specimen of Lasioglossum nr. cordleyi which might or might not be a new species. The notation nr. cordleyi means that this specimen looks similar to L. cordleyi, but that the morphology of this specimen is different enough than the normal ‘type’ for this species, that it catches your attention. Jason Gibbs’ group is retaining that specimen. Further study will be needed to determine if it is indeed a new species, or not.
  • Some of the species we collected (as well as their ecological characteristics) suggest that gardens might be healthy habitat for bees. For example, we collected 72 specimens of Panurginus atriceps, which is a ground-nesting, spring-flying bee. Previous studies of garden bee fauna found ground-nesting and spring-flying bees to be relatively rare. We found them to be surprisingly (but relatively) common in our collections. We also collected seven putative species and 23 specimens of Sphecodes bees. This type of bee is a social parasite that does not collect nectar or pollen or construct a nest for their brood. Instead, they take advantage of the hard work of other bee species, by laying their eggs in the nest of another female. Parasitic bees are often used as bioindicators of habitat health. They would not be present on a site, unless the site also supported their obligate hosts.
  • We collected two species of bee that are listed on the IUCN red list for threatened and endangered species: Bombus fervidus (18 specimens) and Bombus caliginosus (10 specimens). I am not yet sure if their presence in urban gardens suggests that these species are recovering, that these species might be urban-associates that would be expected to thrive in urban gardens, and/or if gardens might represent particularly good habitat for these species.

In 2021, I *hope* that I can complete gathering data for this study, so that I can begin to analyze data and write. I hope to make it out to every garden, one last time, to finalize garden maps that will be used to calculate the area allotted to ornamental plants, edible plants, hardscape, and unmanaged areas. Aaron has already mapped out the landscape surrounding each garden at radii of 500 and 1000 meters. Together, these data will be used to understand whether/how garden composition and the surrounding landscape interact to influence bee species richness.

2) Native Plants and Pollinators (Aaron Anderson): In February, Aaron successfully defended his dissertation proposal and passed his oral examination, and thus advanced to Ph.D. candidacy!! Since that time, he has been busy sorting, identifying, and counting three years’ of insect samples from his 140 study plots, representing five replicates plots of 23 native plants, four ornamental plants, and a control ~ a task that he finished two weeks ago! His bees have been identified to species by Linc. Aaron has identified the thousands of other insects in his samples to the taxonomic level of family. He is working through analysis of his massive data set, and is simultaneously working on two manuscripts: one focused on just the bees and the other covering all other insects. We plan to turn the key points of these two chapters into an infographic that can be used by gardeners and green industry professionals, to select native plants that support an abundant and diverse assemblage of beneficial insects.

Aaron recently submitted the first paper from his dissertation for publication consideration, to the journal HortTechnology ~ and it was accepted, pending revisions! This paper reports on his survey of gardeners’ impressions of the aesthetic value of his study plants, and includes five specific recommendations for native wildflowers that Pacific Northwest nurseries might consider growing and marketing as pollinator plants (e.g. Gilia capitata, Clarkia amoena, Eschscholzia californica, Madia elegans, and Sidalcea asprella virgata). These plants all fell within the ‘sweet spot’ of being attractive to both pollinators and to gardeners.

Aaron’s plots at the NWREC station remain in place. Although we are through collecting data for Aaron’s study, I am applying for grant funding to study how plant traits ~ both the reward that plants offer pollinators and the displays that they use to attract pollinators ~ change with plant breeding for specific aesthetic traits, and whether/how these changes affect pollinator visitation. We also hope to study how highly attractive pollinator plants function in mixed plantings and in garden settings.

3) Bees on Native Plants and Native Cultivars (Jen Hayes):

Jen successfully completed her first field season of research, which is a monumental accomplishment during this time of COVID restrictions on our work. In early 2020, Jen finalized her list of study plants, which included one native species and 1-2 hybrids or native cultivars. This, in and of itself, was a huge accomplishment. Although we started with a much broader list of potential study plants, so many native plants did not have native cultivars or appropriate hybrids available for sale.

Jen’s study plants, which include one native (top photo in each group) and 1-2 native cultivars or native hybrids.

Once Jen and her crew put the plants in the ground, a new set of challenges emerged. For example the native yarrow emerged with pink flowers, which was a clear signal that these plants were not true natives. In addition, the Sidalcea cultivars that Jen and her crew planted came up looking different than the Sidalcea native. This sent Jen on a journey to the OSU Herbarium, where she learned that the Willamette Valley’s native Sidalcea malviflora has been reclassified as Sidalcea asprella, and that the cultivars we purchased were hybrids of Sidalcea malviflora (native to SW Oregon and California). This all suggests a need to work with local nurseries and/or growers of native plants, to see whether or not there needs to be or can be standards for sale of native plants. Should native species and native cultivars be verified or share provenance? Should gardeners be asking for this information? I don’t know, but I think that they’re important questions to consider.

With one field season’s worth of data in hand, the native cultivars were more attractive to all bees (with overall patterns being driven by the abundance of the European honey bee) for all floral sets, except California poppy. When we excluded honey bees from the analysis, to look at (mostly) native bees, no clear pattern of visitation on native plants versus native cultivars emerged. Native California poppy was most attractive to native bees. But, native cultivars of Sidalcea were more attractive to native bees (keeping in mind that in 2020, our native cultivars were not cultivars of our regionally appropriate native plant). For all other plants, there was no difference. We look forward to collecting additional data in 2021 and 2022, to see if the lack of difference in bee visits to native plants versus native cultivars holds up. Particularly for the perennials, we are finding that bee visits change so much from year to year, as the plant becomes established.

4) Garden Microbes in Soil and on Skin (Dr. Gwynne Mhuireach): Dr. Mhuireach successfully recruited 40 gardeners to participate in this study: 20 from western Oregon and 20 from the high desert. She has received and processed all soil samples and all skin swab samples for PCR (genotyping), which will be used to infer the diversity and identity of the soil microbial community in garden soils and on gardeners’ skin. She has also received survey responses from all study participants, so that she can characterize gardeners’ crop types, time in the garden, and gardening practices (e.g. organic, conventional, or mixed).

Dr. Mhuireach then sent me the soil samples, so that I could process them for submission to OSU’s Soil Health Lab. The Soil Health Lab is currently performing the chemical and physical analyses on each soil sample, so that we can determine if there is any relationship between soil characteristics, gardening region (e.g. western Oregon or high desert), crop choices, management practices, and the microbes that can be found in garden soils and/or on gardeners’ skin. Gwynne just received the first data back from the PCR analyses ~ and we can’t wait to share some of the intriguing findings with you, after we’ve had some time to process and digest the data!

Because of COVID-19 lab closures, we are a bit behind where we had hoped to be at this point. We anticipate receiving all data from each service lab by the end of January or in early February. You can read more about Gwynne’s project, here.


Beyond these four studies, Tyler started his BioResource Research project (costs and yield of container grown and intercropped tomotoes), and Isabella worked on her thesis (parasitoids in Portland area gardens). We also collaborated with OSU Computer Science students to turn a database of first frost / last freeze dates that Angelee compiled, into a web-based app (the app is still in beta-testing, but we hope to release it, soon!). I will detail those studies, in another post. But for now, I’m getting excited for the smell of carnitas that is filling the house, and that will go on top of the New Years’ nachos that will help us ring in 2021! I hope that you all have a very Happy New Year, and that 2021 brings health, and happiness, and joy to all.

About Gail Langellotto

I'm a Professor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University, where I also coordinate the statewide Master Gardener Program.
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