What are bees doing right now? Spring edition

It’s early spring and the trees have begun leafing out. Colorful flowers are springing from the ground, and the landscape is slowly coming to life with insect activity. In this post, I’ll highlight some of Oregon’s ubiquitous spring bees, what they are up to, and how to easily recognize them.

Graphic by Jen Hayes

Queen bumblebees are emerging from their winter burrows under leaf litter and forest duff. They zoom by with boisterous buzzes. Queen bumblebees are sturdy and furry, and can power through wind, rain and cold better than any other type of bee. Queens are much bigger than the workers that will come once the queens find nest sites and begin laying eggs. For now, they work alone, preparing to lay their first set of worker eggs.

If you see (or hear) any queen bumblebees this spring as they scan the sparsely blooming landscape, they are most likely looking for a proper nest site, finding nectar to energize this search, or, if one has already found her nest, she may be collecting pollen to feed her developing worker offspring.

A rain-drenched Yellow-faced bumble bee on Oregon Grape. Photo by Jen Hayes.
A female mason bee has brought bright yellow pollen to her nest. Video by Jen Hayes.

Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) are a cherished Oregon spring bee active from March to early June. Look closely in a bee hotel for a chance to observe mason bees in action!

Male mason bees emerge first from their pupal cocoons. You might see them patrolling bee hotels waiting for a female to chase down. When the females emerge a little later, they mate and then begin their work provisioning nests with pollen balls and eggs. An individual female has a short lifespan living only about 20 days, but in this time, she may provision anywhere from 2 to 7 nest holes each containing many offspring cells.1 Quite the busy bee!

Andrena is a genus of mining bees that are some of the earliest risers when it comes to spring emergence. They are a diverse group of small, furry, ground-nesting bees that are only active for a few weeks out of the year. Andrena are solitary bees, but can be seen foraging and mating in droves on early blooming fruit trees like cherry, apple and pear. Last spring, I watched hundreds swarm this cherry tree to collect nectar and mate.

Spring Bee Quick ID:

Now, let’s identify some of the bees you may see out and about on sunny spring days when the wind is low. We’ll start with the most conspicuous group – the bumblebees. Bumblebees are the biggest and the loudest bees on the landscape, covered in a thick coat of fuzz. Here’s how to recognize the 3 most common species of bumblebees you’ll see in the Willamette Valley in early spring.

Bombus vosnesenskii or the “yellow-faced bumblebee” is by far the most common bumblebee in this region. It is recognized by the yellow fuzz on its face and yellow band near the distal end of its abdomen.

B. vosnesenskii foraging on butterfly bush. Photo by Mallory Mead.
B. melanopygus queen foraging on Wartleaf Ceanothus. Photo by Mallory Mead.

Bombus melanopygus, the “black-tailed bumble bee” is another of the earliest Bombus species to emerge. You can identify this bee by the orange band in the middle section of its abdomen!

Bombus mixtus, the “fuzzy-horned bumblebee”, tends to emerge a little later than the previous two species, and has orange hair on its lowest abdominal segments.

B. mixtus flies amid borage plant. Photo by Mallory Mead.

Mason bees can be recognized by their deep iridescent blue-green color, that sparkles in the sun. Males are distinguished from females by their small size and the yellow mustaches found on the front of their faces. Females lack the yellow tufts and are larger than the males but smaller than a honey bee. They carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen which is a trait unique to their bee family, Megachilidae.

Female mason bee. Photo by Jen Hayes.
Male mason bee. Photo by Mallory Mead.

Andrena are a diverse group that are tricky to identify. They can be distinguished from other small, furry bees by the presence of velvety hairs between their eyes and the middle of their face called “facial fovea”.2

Pollen on Andrena bee. Photo by © vespidmacro, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

Facial Fovea. Photo from the ODA Bee Guide

They also carry pollen on their hind legs and on hairs between their abdomen and thorax, which distinguish them from bees in the Megachilidae family.

We hope this little guide will help you experience the native bees in your landscape this spring that make the pollen go round.

Thank you for joining us on this exploration of Oregon’s spring bees and what they are currently doing! We will release two more blog posts in this series, one for each of the four seasons. Blogs will be posted during their prospective seasons, so be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the next in the series!

What are bees doing right now? Winter Edition ❄️.

Welcome to the Garden Ecology Lab’s “What are the bees doing” mini-series! This series will extend through the four seasons to shed some light on where bees are in their life cycle and what they may be doing during each of the four seasons. We begin with winter, and an overview of the overwintering and nesting strategies of common groups of bees in the Pacific Northwest.

Graphic by Jen Hayes

As the seasons change, where do all the bees go? Different groups of bees utilize unique strategies to survive the cold of winter. In many cases, bees require cold temperatures to develop properly, and as spring rolls around, they rely on thermal cues to determine when to start their next phase of life.

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We can divide bees into four broad categories based on their strategy to nest and survive the winter. There are the Ground Nesters – who find or dig in the ground to nest and lay eggs, Cavity Nesters – who nest in hollow reeds, canes, or in people’s backyard “bee hotels”, Bumblebees – whose new-born queens burrow into leaf litter, waiting to start a colony in spring…. and then there is the oddball: the European Honey Bees, who are not native to North America, but were brought here along with European colonizers and are now key players in modern agriculture. They do things pretty differently than our native bees, so we’ll start our discussion with them.

The European Honey Bee

European honey bees (Apis mellifera) survive the winter huddling in their hive! They are an example of a social insect and many consider a honey bee hive a superorganism. Fueled by their honey stores, the colony huddles together in a mass to thermoregulate at temperatures between 33 – 36°C (91.4 – 96.8°F).1 I love these words from the American Bee Journal:

 "The honey bee is a cold blooded insect; but the honey bee colony is a warm blooded creature."1

We will see that honey bees are the only bee in our landscape to overwinter socially. The rest go it alone.

Bumblebees

A Bombus californicus queen on Comfrey (Symphytum sp.) in early Spring. Photo by Mallory Mead.

Bumblebees are social bees too, living in natural cavities most often in the ground, but in winter, the members of the colony die off except for the new-born queens. These queens will fly out of the hive on her maiden voyage to mate with a male bumblebee before finding a place to settle and overwinter alone.

Queens find a safe environment often a few inches deep under leaf litter or light soil. As temperatures decrease in Fall and early Winter, the queens do not thermoregulate. Instead, they enter diapause, which is a state of arrested development. An overwintering queen appears frozen in the soil until warmer temperatures wake her again. In the late Winter or Spring she will begin looking for a site to start her own colony.

Cavity Nesting Bees

About 30% of native bees are cavity nesters who build their nests inside cavities in wood or reeds.2 These bees avoid overwintering as adults, and instead, they lay their eggs in cavities and die before the winter temperatures come.

Female cavity nesting bees forage for pollen and nectar and nesting materials in the spring or summer and make balls of pollen and nectar (often called “bee bread”) as food for their offspring!

They lay eggs on the pollen balls, and then proceed to seal off compartments, one for each of the eggs, until the cavity nest is full. These eggs will hatch into larvae that consume the bee bread as winter approaches.

Bee nests in bamboo sticks, indicated by the mud caps at the front of the stakes. Photo by Gail Langellotto
Video by Oliva Honigman.

Here is a video of a small carpenter bee larva eating its bee bread, magnified under a microscope!

Once the larvae finish off their food store, they may spin themselves a cocoon in which they further develop into pupae. Cavity nesters spend the winter developing from pupae to young adults in their cocoons. These developing bees go into a state called torpor to survive the winter, where the bee is inactive and its body temperature drops, but it still goes through critical physiological processes and development.

These bees must experience low Winter temperatures natural to their region to undergo proper development. Mason bees, for example, have lower survival and vital rates when exposed to warm nest temperatures that simulate predicted climate change temperatures for their region.3

Empty mason bee cocoons that were removed from cavities for an experiment, and a newly emerged male mason bee. Photo by Mallory Mead.

Mason bees (genus: Osmia) are cavity nesters that have become well known in garden and agriculture circles in recent years, but many other groups of bees fall into this category too including leafcutter bees (family: Megachilidae), small carpenter bees (genus: Ceratina), large carpenter bees (Genus: Xylocopa), and masked bees (family: Colletidae).

SARE has a great resource on identifying which cavity nester might be nesting in your bee hotel!

A friend of the lab, Olivia Honigman, conducted a brief research project on small carpenter bees in Vermont. Here are some photos from her study that showcase a tiny cavity nesting bee, from the genus Ceratina, nesting in raspberry canes.

Ground Nesting Bees

Last but certainly not least are the ground-nesting bees which make up about 70% of native bee species! Bees from the genera Andrena, Lasioglossum, and Halictus fall into this category.4 Ground-nesters have unassuming nests that are hard to spot, but under the soil, they are putting down bee loaves and laying eggs in a compartmentalized fashion, just like cavity-nesters!

Similarly, adult ground-nesters die after they finish provisioning their nests for their offspring. In the winter, the young bees of the new generation are developing from pupae into adults in their underground nests.

Left: exposed soil revealing tiny holes- could these be bee nests? Top right: A ground-nesting bee pokes its head out of its home. Bottom right: The entrance to a ground-nesting bee’s home. Photos by Gail Langellotto.


Although their nests are modest, some of Oregon’s showstopper bees fall in the ground-nesting category, such as the metallic green sweat bees (Agapostemon).

Metallic green sweat bee on a Clarkia flower. Photo by Mallory Mead.

Long-horned bees from the genera Melisoddes and Eucera also flaunt unique forms with noticeably fluffy, feathery hair on their legs they use for collecting massive volumes of pollen!

A female long-horned bee with dense hairs or scopa on her hind legs. Photo by Mallory Mead
This long-horned bee has “pollen pants” Photo by Mallory Mead.

To invite these bees to your garden, leave patches of earth free from wood mulch and instead mulch with compost! To avoid disturbing ground nests, avoid tilling when possible.4

Here is a great resource from the Xerces Society on how to protect pollinators during the Winter months.

Something remarkable about nesting in the ground is that, depending on nesting depth, ground nesters are more buffered from extreme temperatures than honey bees and cavity nesters whose homes may be in the direct sun. This may be a critical difference when it comes to surviving climate change.

Changing Climatic Norms…

With climate change upon us, native bees have experienced warmer than usual winter temperatures. These conditions may be suboptimal for their development and survival and encourage bees to emerge earlier in the season. Cavity and ground nesting bees require low temperatures with which they have evolved to reach physiological benchmarks for their development, and scientists worry that there will be phenological mismatches between plants and their pollinators in which bees emerge at different times than when their optimal food sources are in bloom as plants and insects will experience novel timing of thermal queues under climate change predictions.5

As bees and other pollinators face a multitude of challenges, we should support our local bees and appreciate them while we can!

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Thank you for joining us on this exploration of what bees are doing during the winter! We will release three more blog posts in this series, one for each of the four seasons. Blogs will be posted during their prospective seasons, so be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the next in the series!

Top 10 Oregon Native Plants for Pollinators: Week 8

The Garden Ecology Lab’s Pollinator Plant PR Campaign Presents….. Globe Gilia!

The Garden Ecology Lab is releasing a series of plant profiles of the top 10 Oregon native plants for pollinators, based on Aaron Anderson’s 2017-2019 field trials of 23 Oregon native plants. We will feature one plant per week for 10 weeks, this is week 8! Profiles will include photos, planting information, and will highlight common pollinators of each plant.

Photo by iNaturalist user © slewiiis,
 some rights reserved

Plant Facts

  • Scientific Name: Gilia capitata
  • Life Cycle: Annual
  • Growth Habit: Erect, clusters
  • Bloom Duration: May – June
  • Hardiness Zone: 7-10
  • Light requirements: full sun
  • Special Traits: Drought tolerant, tolerant to various soil types.
  • When to plant: Seeds can be sewn directly in the fall, or can be stratified indoors over the winter before planting out in the spring.

Pollinator Facts

  • Globe Gilia provides both nectar and pollen to its insect visitors.
  • Gilia was found to be associated with the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii in Aaron’s research.
  • Globe Gilia is also a larval host for at least one moth species, Adela singulella, but possibly four others as well.
  • In addition to insect visitors, Gilia is can be an occasional nectar source for hummingbirds1, which love its tubular flowers!

Photo by iNaturalist user © mudcitymelissa,
 some rights reserved

Globe Gilia‘s Native Range in Oregon

There are three subspecies of Gilia capitata in Oregon: Bluefield Gilia (ssp. capitata), Dune Gilia (ssp. chamissonis), and Pacific Gilia (ssp. pacifica). Dune Gilia and Pacific Gilia are considered to be rare plants in California (rare, threated, or endangered, rank 1B).

Distribution maps acquired from Oregon Flora with imagery from Google. Copyright 2022.

Globe Gilia as a pollinator plant

Globe Gilia may have only been associated with a single bee species in Aaron’s native plant research, but it is truly a powerhouse of an annual plant: it supports a highly diverse and abundant community of native bees! Gilia’s globe of flower heads provide pollinators with plenty of foraging spots to choose from, and the dense mass also allows easy access for both small and large pollinators, by acting as a nice landing pad. From their comfortable perch, butterflies and larger-bodied bees can dip their proboscis (tongue) into the nectar-rich blossoms. Smaller bees may need to crawl in to the individual flowers to access the nectaries.

Gilia is a great annual plant option to include in pollinator mixes and in meadows. It’s an easy to care for plant, requiring minimal water during the growing season. It grows up to three feet in height with lovely lavender – dark purple – blue flower heads, lacy foliage, and surprising blue pollen! The flowers contrast wonderfully with many other mid-summer blooms, such as poppies, Oregon sunshine, asters, and Clarkia.


Infographics developed by LeAnn Locher, Aaron Anderson, and Gail Langellotto.

Abundance Calculations. Bee abundance was calculated using estimated marginal means of bee visitation to each of our study plants from 5-minute observations conducted from Aaron’s 2017-2019 field seasons. Estimated marginal means (EM Means) were assigned to categorical values and averaged across years to yield the following categories: 0% = Very Low =EM mean below 0.49; 25% = Low = EM mean of 0.50 to 0.99; 50% = Moderate = EM mean of 1 to 1.49; 75% = High = EM mean of 1.50 to 1.99; and 100% = Very high = EM mean above 2.0.

Diversity Calculations. Bee diversity was based on the total sum of species collected on each of our study plants from 2017 to 2019. A Chao 2 Estimator was used to estimate total expected species richness for each plant; Chao 2 estimates were then used to create categorical values, as follows: 0% = Very Low = 9.99 or lower; 25% = Low = 10 to 14.99; 50% = Moderate = 15 to 19.99; 75% = High = 20 to 24.99; 100% = Very high = 25 or higher.


Did you know?

When you think about pollen, one color tends to come to mind: yellow. Perhaps you conjure up an image of a bumblebee in a field of clover, weighed down by some giant orange-toned pollen baskets as well. Many of us might stop there, and conclude that pollen must be either yellow or orange, as those are the predominant pollen colors we see in the plant world. The absolutely exciting news is that, like flower colors, pollen also comes in a rainbow of colors. Globe Gilia, for example, has pollen that comes in shades of blue!

A spotlight on pollen colors

As some of you may remember from my (Jen’s) 2021 field update, last summer, a few of us from the Garden Ecology lab had the wonderful opportunity to visit Jasna Guy and Lincoln Best’s exhibit ‘In Time’s Humm’ at the High Desert Museum in Bend. Part of this display was a pollen color study, showing Jasna’s recreations of pollen colors using pastels. We saw pollen in shades of yellows, oranges, red, pink, purple, white, and even green. Color can truly be found anywhere if you look closely enough! Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that even nectar may come in various colors, too… If you’re excited about pollen colors like we are, you might see if your local library has a copy of this book, and you might enjoy looking at pollen colors through the seasons, put together by the North Shropshire Beekeepers’ Association.

Now back to Globe Gilia: Photos from the field

Tune in next week for the next edition of our Pollinator Plant PR Campaign.

3 Ways to Help Pollinators During Winter

I’m sure many are familiar with the long treks that many pollinators make when winter begins to roll around. Monarch butterflies will travel thousands of miles to reach their final destination. Rufous hummingbirds will spend August swooping and diving in your backyards before moving Southward as September slowly drizzles it’s way into October. But not every pollinator decides to seek warmer climes as the temperature drops. Many opt to hunker down and wait out the cold weather, seeking shelter in any manner of burrow all around your gardens. This post is focused on several things that you, as caretakers of your gardens and friends of pollinators, can do to watch out for your hard working friends. 

Photo: Steven Severinghaus / Flickr Creative Commons 2.0
  1. Leave the leaves

One of the most important things you can do to help overwintering pollinators is by doing nothing at all. By leaving the ground cover of leaves, sticks, and plant material you are also leaving the material that many pollinators use to make nests. Many pollinators will snuggle down into this protective layer, and be safe and sound during the colder months. By not raking up the leaves deposited by shedding trees, you are helping pollinators have a safer and more comfortable winter. If a little clean up is necessary, try not to completely remove the leaves or plant material, but instead, rake it onto beds or around shrubs so that it stays as part of the environment. Along with protecting pollinators, leaving this cover can help retain soil moisture, prevent weeds, return nutrients to the soil, and reduce waste entering landfills. So if and when possible, consider leaving the leaves. 

Pale Swallowtails overwinter in Central Oregon during the chrysalis stage of life. Photo: Steve Pedersen. 
  1. Postpone pulling up dead stems, or moving old bark 

Many pollinators will use dead stems or old bark as protection from the elements while they are overwintering. If possible, postpone pulling dead steams, or throwing out old branches, sticks or bark. Cavity dwelling pollinators will often seek shelter inside wood piles, old logs, or dead flower stalks. Several types of chrysalis’s have patterns similar to wood to blend into the environment while the pupa inside waits for spring. Butterflies that do not migrate will spend winter in varying life stages, some as eggs, some as caterpillars, some as a chrysalis, and some as adults. Therefore, it is best to leave as many forms of shelter as possible. Keep your eye on any bamboo posts in your garden, as many different types of bees will use these as bunkers during the cold. Be careful when moving or uprooting, and keep an eye out for pollinators hiding in crevices, cracks or crannies.

Photo by Kyle Blaney
  1. Leave your hummingbird feeder up

There are many different opinions on this advice. Many people will say that leaving your hummingbird feeder up during the winter will deter the hummingbirds from migrating. However, there is no easily found evidence that supports this. The Audubon Organization indicates that you can leave up your feeder for as long as you have hummingbirds, and having a feeder up as winter rolls around will not keep hummingbirds from migrating. Hummingbirds migrate due to genetics and other factors, not necessarily due to availability of food. However, not all hummingbirds migrate. Anna’s hummingbird, which can be found across the Northwest, Oregon included, is nonmigratory, and might be extra appreciative of feeders that are left up during the colder months. Adding extra sugar to keep the hummingbird food from freezing is not recommended, however, as this can dehydrate the birds. Keep the ratio of 1:4 parts sugar to water. Instead, to try and prevent freezing, you can take the feeder inside at night; hummingbirds don’t feed at night. You can also hang an incandescent bulb near the feeder, as this can generate enough heat to keep the feeder thawed. 

While the three listed above are only a few steps to be taken to help overwintering pollinators, a little help can go a long way for our essential pollinator companions. They, like any of us, just want to stay warm and fed during the cold months, and I’m sure would greatly appreciate any help from you in helping them stay that way.

Top 10 Oregon Native Plants for Pollinators: Week 5

The Garden Ecology Lab’s Pollinator Plant PR Campaign Presents….. Canada Goldenrod!

The Garden Ecology Lab is releasing a series of plant profiles of the top 10 Oregon native plants for pollinators, based on Aaron Anderson’s 2017-2019 field trials of 23 Oregon native plants. We will feature one plant per week for 10 weeks, this is week 5! Profiles will include photos, planting information, and will highlight common pollinators of each plant.

Photo by iNaturalist user jessdraws.
no rights reserved (CCO).

Plant Facts

  • Scientific Name: Solidago canadensis*
  • Life Cycle: Perennial
  • Growth Habit: Erect, arching
  • Bloom Duration: July-October
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-9
  • Special Traits: Moderately drought tolerant, deer and rabbit resistant
  • Light requirements: Prefers full sun, but tolerates some shade.
  • When to plant: Plant starts in the Spring, or sow seeds directly in the Fall.

Pollinator Facts

  • Canada goldenrod provides both nectar and pollen to its insect visitors.
  • In Aaron’s research, Canada goldenrod was found to be associated with a species of long horned bee, Melisoddes microstictus and bees from the genus Bombus (bumblebees).
  • Other common visitors to Canada goldenrod are Northern Checkerspot butterflies, Field Crescent butterflies, Wavy-Lined moths, and Common Grey moths.
Bumble bee visiting Canada Goldenrod. Photo by Signe Danler

*A Note on Taxonomy

Canada goldenrod is often treated as a complex, or group of species, under the scientific name Solidago canadensis. In western North America, the complex includes S. elongata, S. lepida, and S. altissima. Tall goldenrod, S. altissima, is not native to Oregon, so when we refer to Solidago canadensis in Oregon, this only includes S. lepida “Cascade Canada Goldenrod” and S. elongata “Western Goldenrod”.

Goldenrods (the genus Solidago) are known to be a very difficult plant to identify to species, because they have a great amount of variation in their morphology within even a single species. To avoid any concerns about what species you’re getting when sourcing goldenrod or other native plants, we highly recommend purchasing plants from a local native plant nursery or grower that sources their seeds within your region!

Canada Goldenrod’s Native Range in Oregon

Oregon is home to Solidago lepida "Cascade Canada Goldenrod" and Solidago elongata, "Western Canada Goldenrod". Both of these species are found throughout Oregon, though they were previously thought to be geographically distinct.

Maps and legend acquired from the Oregon Flora Project, with Imagery Sourced from Google.

Canada Goldenrod as a pollinator plant

Canada goldenrod grows in prairies, meadows and riparian areas across Canada and the United States. Great for erosion control, hedgerows and pollinator gardens, Canada goldenrod will fill space with hardy foliage year round and present a showy display of golden flowers in the late summer. The pyramidal inflorescences are lined with tiny composite flowers that brim with nectar and pollen. Goldenrod supports many late season butterflies, moths, bees, beetles and some wasps.

Goldenrod is a wonderful late-flowering plant for pollinators; it hosts a moderate abundance and a high diversity of insect visitors. During its peak bloom, you can often find numerous different insects foraging on goldenrod. We love combining goldenrod with Douglas aster for a beautiful late-season floral display of yellow and purple, though it also compliments shorter annual species as well.

Infographics developed by LeAnn Locher, Aaron Anderson, and Gail Langellotto.

Abundance and Diversity Calculations. Bee abundance was calculated using estimated marginal means of bee visitation to each of our study plants from 5-minute observations conducted from Aaron’s 2017-2019 field seasons. Estimated marginal means (EM Means) were assigned to categorical values and averaged across years to yield the following categories: 0% = Very Low =EM mean below 0.49; 25% = Low = EM mean of 0.50 to 0.99; 50% = Moderate = EM mean of 1 to 1.49; 75% = High = EM mean of 1.50 to 1.99; and 100% = Very high = EM mean above 2.0.

Bee diversity was based on the total sum of species collected on each of our study plants from 2017 to 2019. A Chao 2 Estimator was used to estimate total expected species richness for each plant; Chao 2 estimates were then used to create categorical values, as follows: 0% = Very Low = 9.99 or lower; 25% = Low = 10 to 14.99; 50% = Moderate = 15 to 19.99; 75% = High = 20 to 24.99; 100% = Very high = 25 or higher.

Did you know?

Although this goldenrod is often blamed for people’s late summer allergies, the culprit is in fact ragweed! Ragweed and goldenrod have different pollination styles: ragweed produces masses of airborne pollen in an attempt to reach other ragweed plants by wind. Since goldenrod has evolved with pollinators to carry its pollen in a targeted fashion, goldenrod produces less pollen, very little of which is airborne.

Canada goldenrod has additionally been used as a plant medicine in many cultures; it was used as a substitute for English tea during the American Revolution for its pain-relieving and diuretic effects. Goldenrod flowers are edible and make a colorful garnish that make a beautiful addition to garden salads.

Photos from the field

Tune in next week for the next edition of our Pollinator Plant PR Campaign.

Top 10 Oregon Native Plants for Pollinators: Week 4

The Garden Ecology Lab’s Pollinator Plant PR Campaign Presents….. Varileaf Phacelia!

The Garden Ecology Lab is releasing a series of plant profiles of the top 10 Oregon native plants for pollinators, based on Aaron Anderson’s 2017-2019 field trials of 23 Oregon native plants. We will feature one plant per week for 10 weeks, this is week 4! Profiles will include photos, planting information, and will highlight common pollinators of each plant.

Photo by iNaturalist user Leslie Flint.
CC Some rights reserved.

Plant Facts

  • Scientific Name: Phacelia heterophylla
  • Life Cycle: Biennial/ annual, typically grown as an annual in Oregon
  • Growth Habit: Upright, mounding
  • Bloom Duration: April – July
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-7
  • Special Traits: Shade tolerant, drought tolerant
  • Light requirements: Full sun to part shade
  • When to plant: Seeds should be sown in the fall, starts may be planted in the fall or spring after the last chance of frost.

Pollinator Facts

  • Varileaf Phacelia provides both nectar and pollen to its insect visitors.
  • Phacelia was found to be associated with five bee species in Aaron’s research: the obscure bumblebee (Bombus caliginosus), Edward’s long-horned bee (Eucera edwardsii), the fuzzy-horned bumblebee (Bombus mixtus), the confluent miner bee (Panurginus atriceps), and the yellow-faced bumblebee (Bombus vosnesenskii).
  • Phacelia is also a larval host for 4 moths: the Bilobed Looper Moth (Megalographa biloba), the Geranium Plume Moth (Amblyptilia pica), the Orange Tortrix Moth (Argyrotaenia franciscana) and Clepsis fucana1.

Photo by Aaron Anderson

Varileaf Phacelia‘s Native Range in Oregon

Phacelia heterophylla is native to most of the Western United States – From Washington to California, east to Montana and south to New Mexico. It is additionally native to Canada, where it is currently considered “imperiled” by the IUCN red list2.

Varileaf Phacelia's native range covers nearly the entire state of Oregon! It's native habitat includes moist conifer forests, riparian areas, sagebrush, mountain brush, as well as in aspen and fir communities3.
Maps and legend acquired from the Oregon Flora Project, with Imagery Sourced from Google.

Varileaf Phacelia as a pollinator plant

A female long-horned bee (Eucera sp.) searches for some leftover forage on a spent Phacelia heterophylla inflorescence. Photo by Aaron Anderson.

Varileaf Phacelia is the epitome of an underappreciated pollinator plant! This annual with petite white flowers attracts both an abundance and diversity of insect visitors. With stamen that stick out of the corolla, it heavily advertises its nutritious rewards, attracting plenty of busy bees. In fact, it commonly hosted 5 different bee species in Aaron’s field surveys, including three charismatic bumblebee species, one of which is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List: Bombus caliginosus, the obscure bumblebee4.


Infographics developed by LeAnn Locher, Aaron Anderson, and Gail Langellotto.

Abundance and Diversity Calculations. Bee abundance was calculated using estimated marginal means of bee visitation to each of our study plants from 5-minute observations conducted from Aaron’s 2017-2019 field seasons. Estimated marginal means (EM Means) were assigned to categorical values and averaged across years to yield the following categories: 0% = Very Low =EM mean below 0.49; 25% = Low = EM mean of 0.50 to 0.99; 50% = Moderate = EM mean of 1 to 1.49; 75% = High = EM mean of 1.50 to 1.99; and 100% = Very high = EM mean above 2.0.

Bee diversity was based on the total sum of species collected on each of our study plants from 2017 to 2019. A Chao 2 Estimator was used to estimate total expected species richness for each plant; Chao 2 estimates were then used to create categorical values, as follows: 0% = Very Low = 9.99 or lower; 25% = Low = 10 to 14.99; 50% = Moderate = 15 to 19.99; 75% = High = 20 to 24.99; 100% = Very high = 25 or higher.


In a survey of gardeners conducted by Aaron and the Garden Ecology Lab, Phacelia heterophylla ranked last among 23 native plants scored for their aesthetic appeal. It may appear “weedy” to some gardeners, but as an annual, it could easily be interspersed with more attractive annual face flowers (such as California poppy, meadowfoam, farewell to spring, or baby blue eyes) to create a colorful and nutritious pollinator garden. Varileaf Phacelia is also a great native annual to include in dryland pollinator gardens, considering it is drought tolerant and able to grow in both nutrient poor and rocky soils.

Did you know?

Photo by iNaturalist user jwlipe. CC Some rights reserved.

Varileaf Phacelia also has the common name "Variegate Scorpionweed", and the pictures above can show you exactly why! It's flowers are borne on elongated stems which are tightly curled, similar to a fiddlehead from a fern! The flowers bloom from the base to the apex of the stem, and the "scorpion tail" slowly unravels as the blooms travel up the stem.

Photos from the field

Of all of the plants we highlight in this 10-week series, Varileaf Phacelia is the one plant that Gail regularly says is in great need of it's own public relations (PR) team. The goal of these plant profiles is to share information and photos of these plants that might convince readers to love this plant as much as we (and the bees) do! 

Let us know which plants have caught your eye, or those that may still take some convincing, by leaving a comment below! 🐝

Tune in next week for the next edition of our Pollinator Plant PR Campaign.

2021 Field Update: Natives & Nativars

Our second field season studying pollinator visitation to Oregon native plants and native cultivars spanned from April to late September of 2021, although if Douglas Aster had any say in the matter, we would likely still be sampling. The densely blooming Symphyotrichum subspicatum continued to produce a smattering of new flowers through November of last year, and we predict it will do the same this year, too!

Our field crew this summer included Tyler, Svea, Mallory and I. Together, we sampled on 33 different dates across the growing season, allowing us to collect around 2000 physical pollinator specimens, and observe 6,225 unique interactions between pollinators and our study plants! This season we conducted floral trait measurements (including the dimensions of flowers), took multispectral photos, and additionally collected pollen from a subset of our study plants.

From left to right: Mallory vacuum-sampling off of Douglas Aster 'Sauvie Snow', Tyler shaking a farewell-to-spring flower to get pollen off of it, and Svea photographing Baby Blue Eyes 'Penny Black'.

This year, we introduced a third cultivar for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica ‘Purple Gleam’), yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Moonshine’), and farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena ‘Scarlet’). The new cultivars were established in the spring, which resulted in a late bloom for the annuals, so we expect to see them blooming during their typical period in 2022. The Achillea ‘Moonshine’ replaced Achillea ‘Salmon Beauty’ in being the most abundant yarrow cultivar; it began blooming almost immediately as it was planted into our field site and is still continuing to push out blooms through October alongside the Douglas Asters. 

The plant groups in our study: the larger circles with orange text are the native plants, and the smaller circles and turquoise text are the cultivars. The top row contain the perennials yarrow, western red columbine, great camas, and Douglas aster. The bottom row shows the three annuals farewell-to-spring, California poppy, and baby blue eyes.

In addition to watching new plants bloom in the study garden, we had the opportunity to observe many incredible pollinators in the field this summer. We saw a hummingbird visit the Western Red Columbine, we tried to capture videos of leaf-cutter bees snipping little petal pieces off of farewell-to-spring, and at a neighboring plot we observed a male wool-carder bee section off an entire patch of Salvia for a female bee.

On the left: Farewell-to-spring 'Scarlet' with crescents cut out of the petals by leafcutter bees. Top right: A female wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) collecting trichomes from Yarrow 'Calistoga'. Middle right: A leafcutter bee with a piece of petal from Farewell-to-spring 'Dwarf White'. Bottom right: A leaf cutter bee removing a piece of petal from Farewell-to-spring 'Aurora'.

We were also able to take a couple educational field trips this field season in order to learn about pollinator studies ongoing outside of Oak Creek. In June, we went up to the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, OR to listen to three talks about pollinators at the Blueberry Field Day. We learned how to score the productivity of honeybee hives, how to properly don a the top of a bee suit, about blueberry’s best pollinators, and blueberry research projects at the University of Washington.

In August, we made a trip to Bend for a different kind of study… an artistic one! We travelled to the High Desert Museum in order to visit Jasna Guy and Lincoln Best’s exhibit “In Time’s Hum…”. Jasna is a brilliant artist inspired by pollinators, which translates into the subject of her pieces as well as her artistic media. Many of her pieces are made using encaustic (a method of painting using wax, bee’s wax in her case!), dipped directly into bee’s wax, or involve pollinators in some other format, including her color study of pollen, which attempts to replicate the colors of fresh pollen as well as the colors after bees have mixed them with nectar. In the center of exhibit were two cases filled with bees collected and identified by Linc, surrounding some of the dried plant specimens they forage on.

These field trips were a wonderful way to see what other pollinator work is happening in our broader community and to inspire future studies. It was especially exciting to see how Jasna and Linc combined art and science with their exhibit, which is something many of us in the Garden Ecology Lab are interested in.

1. Mallory, Svea, and Jen at the blueberry Field Day. 2. Svea, Jen, Mallory, and Tyler at the High Desert Museum. 3. A panorama of the "... In Time's Hum ... " exhibit. 4-5. Art on the outside of the exhibit. 6. A snapshot of two pollen samples from Jasna Guy's pollen color study.

While we cannot make conclusions until we complete our final field season, we are excited to report some of the variation in visitation between native plants and native cultivars that we have observed in our first two field seasons. In the first field season, our observations of native bees foraging on the study plants revealed three plant groups to have variable amounts of visitation. Yarrow, farewell-to-spring, and California poppy all had at least one cultivar that received substantially less native bee visits than the native type. In our second year, all three of farewell-to-spring’s cultivars received less visitation than the native Clarkia amoena. Poppy had only one cultivar with less native bee activity than the native (Purple Gleam), and in the case of Douglas Aster, both of the cultivars actually had more visitation by native bees than the native. 

Figure 1: Average Abundance of Foraging Native Bees during 5-Min Observations in 2021. Individual plants are color-coded by genus. The naming scheme combines the first three letters of the genus and specific epithet; cultivars are denoted by an underscore and a 1-2 letter code to identify them. For example, AQUFOR is the native Aquilegia formosa, and AQUFOR_XT is Aquilegia  x ‘XeraTones’.

Native Plants and Pollinator Survey

Aaron Anderson is repeating his original survey on native plants and pollinators. This time, he is trying to understand how knowledge of a plant’s ecological function may alter impressions of native plants.

The survey takes about 25-30 minutes to complete. Folks who have taken the survey thus far have commented on how much they learned from taking the time to answer the questions.

If your time and interest allows, we would be extremely grateful if you could take the time to respond to this survey. The direct link to the survey is:

http://oregonstate.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9Alhv961rZX8Vs9

If you have friends or acquaintances who also might be interested in taking the survey, please feel free to share it with them.

A syrphid fly pays a visit to a California poppy at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center.

A bee visiting one of the Canada goldenrod plots in our Native Plant study.

Gilia capitata

Lotus unifoliolatus

Pollinator of the week: Bombus fervidus

This entry is from Angelee Calder, and undergraduate Agricultural Science student at Oregon State University. It highlights a bumblebee that can be found in Oregon gardens, but that is currently listed as ‘Vulnerable’ to endangered species status, due to documented population declines (Hatfield et al. 2015).

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Dorsal view, Bombus fervidus. This bumblebee was collected from a Portland area garden in August 2018. Photo Credit: Angelee Calder and Isabella Messer

Anterior view, Bombus fervidus. This bumblebee was collected from a Portland area garden in August 2018. Photo Credit: Angelee Calder and Isabella Messer

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When we think of bees, we usually conjure up the image of a cute fuzzy black and yellow puff of an insect. Bombus fervidus, which is also known as the Golden Northern Bumble Bee, looks just like that cute bee stereotype. This bumble bee has a black face, yellow body, and single black band across its body near its wings (Discover Life 2019). Although Bombus fervidus can be found across most of the whole United States, studies have shown that their population numbers are declining (Colla and Packer 2008). This bee is attracted to clover, which is one reason to tolerate (or even embrace) clovers in residential lawns.

We spent 120 hours hand collecting bees from 24 Portland area gardens in 2017 and 2018. In addition, across these two years we set out water pan traps to collect bees for an additional 3,450 hours of passive collection. In all this time, we only collected two Bombus fervidus. Both were collected from the same yard in August 2018. This yard is our largest garden, and it sits adjacent to Forest Park. It could be that this species, known to be in decline, does best with larger patches of habitat, that are close to a natural area.

The Northern Golden Bumble Bee is in the running for cutest bee, so make sure to take a look while he is out foraging. The peak viewing times to catch a glimpse of these cuties May to October (BugGuide.Net 2019).

References

Colla and Packer. 2008. Evidence for decline in eastern North American bumblebees (Hymenoptera: Apidae), with a special focus on Bombus affinis Cresson. Biodiversity and Conservation 17: 1379. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-008-9340-5.

BugGuide.Net. 2019 “Species Bombus fervidus – Golden Northern Bumble Bee”, https://bugguide.net/node/view/23135. Accessed February 27, 2019.

Discover Life. 2019. “Bombus fervidus“, https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q. Accessed February 27, 2019.

Hatfield, R., Jepsen, S., Thorp, R., Richardson, L., Colla, S. & Foltz Jordan, S.2015. Bombus fervidusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T21215132A21215225.http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T21215132A21215225.en. Accessed  February 27, 2019.

Webinar on Willamette Valley Native Plants and Pollinators

Aaron’s webinar on his Ph.D. research has been posted on YouTube.

He highlights some really interesting results from his 2017 and 2018 field seasons, including recommendations for what to plant, if you are interested in attracting native bees to your garden. I’ve asked him to write a blog post, summarizing the results to readers.