A Story of Gophers & Great Camas

According to the staff at Oak Creek and many other gardeners and farmers I’ve had the opportunity to talk to, it appears that though 2020 was a difficult year for humans, it was truly a remarkable year for gophers and other rodents.

From left to right: wild type Great Camas, Camassia leichtlinii, the native cultivar ‘Sacajawea’, and the native cultivar ‘Caerulea Blue Heaven’.

Gophers & Camas

No matter how often a gopher was trapped and removed from Oak Creek last summer, the next week there would always be a mound of freshly turned soil on the grounds, indicating a new gopher had taken its place. While they seemed to enjoy popping up in some of the Organic Gardening Club’s beds, they had an extra fondness for my own experimental garden beds. Fresh gopher-turned soil was most commonly found in any plot growing our native Camassia leichtlinii (Great Camas) and the plots surrounding them.

Bulb size comparisons for the three varieties included in our study.

We planted our 15 camas plots in the fall of 2019. Five plots were planted with the wild type camas species, Camassia leichtlinii (Great Camas). Five more were planted with the C. leichtlinii cultivar ‘Caerulea Blue Heaven’, and the final five were planted with C. leichtlinii ‘Sacajawea’. By the spring of 2020, the camas plots were relatively untouched, aside from some minor grazing by deer on a handful of plots. In April our three camas varieties began blooming in sequence (the native first, followed by ‘Blue Heaven’ and ‘Sacajawea’, respectively), and by mid June they had all gone to seed. 

Deer browsing on early spring shoots of C. leichtlinii ‘Sacajawea’.

Though the gopher troubles seemed to really begin in June, there were signs of their activity that we did not heed. In spring of 2020 I was planting a Clarkia amoena cultivar plug. Upon removing some soil to make room for the plant, I found that the soil seemed to drop off into a massive hole beneath the plot I was planting. I shook some soil loose to fill the hole, planted my Clarkia, and moved on. Later in the season, a different Clarkia plant would be found dead, and upon its removal, another tunnel would be found beneath the top layer of soil.

By August, there had been so much gopher activity in our beds that I decided we needed to conduct a damage assessment. I asked Tyler to dig around in a Camas plot that seemed particularly ravaged by the gophers, to see if he could find any of the original 40 bulbs we had planted. His searching returned no bulbs.

Bulb Thieves

I immediately went through each of the 15 camas plots and rated them with a visual assessment of the gopher activity that we would use to determine how many bulbs likely remained in the plots. The levels we decided on were “low/no damage” “Low damage”, “Moderate Damage”, “High Damage” and “Extreme Damage”. Plots with no damage were expected to have all 40 original planted bulbs. On the other end of the spectrum, plots labeled “Extreme” were expected to have no remaining bulbs.

At the end of our field season, we dug out the bulbs from each of the camas plots so we could assess the actual damage, and so we could install fencing to keep all future gophers out. During the bulb dig, we recorded the total number of bulbs found in each plot. In the table below, I have shared the visual damage rating for each plot, the estimated number of bulbs expected to be in the plots, and the actual number of bulbs we found.

Rep #Bulb TypeVisual Damage RatingEstimated Remaining BulbsActual Remaining Bulbs
1Blue HeavenLow-no402
2Blue HeavenLow-no4066
3Blue HeavenHigh1053
4Blue HeavenHigh1066
5Blue HeavenHigh105
Totals110192
1NativeExtreme00
2NativeLow408
3NativeExtreme08
4NativeExtreme030
5NativeHigh103
Totals5049
1SacajaweaHigh100
2SacajaweaHigh100
3SacajaweaModerate200
4SacajaweaLow-no400
5SacajaweaModerate200
Totals1000
Table 1: Camas Plot Estimated and Observed Damage. Damage values are estimates of how many of the original 40 bulbs are likely to remain in each plot.

While our findings from this unexpected study of bulbs were unfortunate, they tell an interesting story. An important point to note is that many of the bulbs have divided since they were planted, which is why in a few cases we found more than the original 40 planted bulbs. Regardless, there is a clear preference for the native C. leichtlinii and native cultivar ‘Sacajawea’ bulbs over the ‘Blue Heaven’ cultivar. We also noticed that any bulbs that were planted more shallow than the recommended 2-3x the height of the bulb were missed by the gophers.

Finding the Gopher Stash

After the exploratory bulb digging, we excavated each of our camas plots to around 1 foot in depth to install fences to keep the gophers from returning to our plots. While digging out the excess soil, we would often find a bulb or two that weren’t located during the initial bulb removal (these numbers are not included in Table 1, as we did not record them). In one section where the three camas types were planted in a row, we excavated a huge section of the garden, and made an amazing discovery (extra Kudos to Tyler who did the bulk of the work on this section).

On one of the walls of the hole, we found a gopher food chamber with thick white roots sticking out of the bottom of it. We removed some soil from the entrance, and discovered a chamber filled with camas bulbs. We carefully removed them and found over 60 bulbs that had been stolen from our plots. 

The 3 excavated plots, the food chamber, and the pile of 66 bulbs removed from the burrow.

Some of the bulbs were clearly the wild type great camas, identified by their characteristic long neck. The others we suspect to be ‘Sacajawea’ bulbs, as the burrow was found in what used to be a ‘Sacajawea’ plot. Any unknown bulbs were brought to my home and planted in a planter box to be identified in the next couple of months. The ‘Sacajawea’ bulbs have variegated foliage, making them easy to pick out once their shoots appear above the soil. We won’t know if the remaining mystery bulbs are ‘Blue Heaven’ or large wild type bulbs until they bloom in the spring.

Moving Forward

On the left: Jen (me) building a gopher exclosure. On the right: Tyler finishing installing a gopher exclosure.

In November of 2020 we installed our fences, refilled the gaping holes with soil, and replanted all of the camas bulbs, including some supplemental purchased bulbs of each of the three varieties. The native Camas and ‘Blue Heaven’ were successfully replanted with 40 bulbs. We were only able to order enough ‘Sacajawea’ bulbs to achieve a density of 30 bulbs per plot, though they will receive additional geophytes if any of the mystery bulbs turn out to be variegated. The mystery bulbs have yet to push their shoots through the soil, but I will include an update on their identities when I have them. 

Thank you to Tyler, Izzy, Max, and my fiancé Elliot for helping out in this laborious process. I absolutely would not have been able to safeguard the new camas plantings without your efforts and support in this process.

Virtual Field Day: Garden Ecology Lab

Our colleague, Brooke Edmunds, was kind enough to shoot and edit this short video on two of our current lab projects: Jen Hayes’ study of native plants and nativars and Tyler Spofford’s study of the economic costs and benefits of growing vegetables in bucket gardens.

As we near the end of our 2020 field season, stay tuned for research updates.

Garden Ecology Lab Research Update

COVID-19 has impacted our research in many different ways, including making it more difficult to find time to provide research updates on a regular basis. Despite the long silence, we have many projects up and running this summer! In fact, we’re launching four new projects, finishing up three long-term projects, and writing up another two projects.

In this blog post, I give a brief overview of the four new Garden Ecology Lab projects that launched this summer.

Microbiome of Garden Soils and Gardeners: Dr. Gwynne Mhuireach’s project has been spotlighted in a recent blog post and webinar. She has selected the 40 gardeners that will be included in her study: 20 high desert and 20 Willamette Valley gardeners, half of whom are organic and half of whom are conventional gardeners. Soon, these gardeners will be sending in their soil and skin swab samples. And then, the long process of analysis will begin.

She’s studying the microbe community in garden soils, and how those might differ according to garden region (Willamette Valley or high desert) and gardening practices (organic versus conventional soil managmeent). She’s also studying whether garden soil microbes transfer to gardeners’ skin during the act of gardening, and if so, how long those microbes persist on the skin.

Pollinators on Native Plants and Native Cultivars: Jen Hayes is well into the data collection phase of her first field season. She is working with undrgraduates Jay Stiller, Tyler Spofford, and Isabella Messer to: track flowering phenology, measure floral traits, observe pollinator visits to study plots, and collect pollinators so that they can later be curated and identified to species. Jen has written about her research project, in a past blog post. I’ve also set up a Flickr album to host photos from her study.

Native plant and nativar study site, at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture. A yarrow cultivar, ‘Salmon Beauty’, can be seen in the foreground. Nemophila, Clarkia, and Escholzia cultivars can be seen in the background.

Jen’s field site is located at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture at OSU, which makes it so much easier for undergraduate student researchers to participate in this project. She samples pollinators on Tuesdays and Fridays. She takes 5-minute observations of pollinator visits on Mondays and Thursdays. In between, lots of time is spent weeding and watering plots, counting flowers, and measuring floral traits.

Cost / Benefit Analysis of Growing Edible Plants in Containers: Tyler Spofford is a new lab member, who is completing his undergraduate degree in the BioResource Research program at OSU. He is working to develop a ‘budget’ for growing food in low-cost containers. I’ve summarized this ‘budget’ data for growing food in standard vegetable gardens, but no data yet exists (that I can find) for containerized vegetable gardens. Tyler is growing 40 tomato plants across two sizes of containers (3 gallons and 5 gallons), as single plants and in combination with basil. He’s keeping track of all of the costs (both money and time spent to grow food). When he harvests food, he’ll weigh his harvest, and track the economic benefit of his efforts, and how container size and planting configuration (one or two crops per container) influences harvest. I’ve set up a Flickr album for his study, to host project photos.

Tyler’s project grew out of my concern that, even though 18,000+ people enrolled in a free, online vegetable gardening course (over 40,000, at last count) ~ that the people who might be most at risk for food insecurity may not be benefitting from Extension Master Gardener resources and information. Tyler’s project is one component of a larger effort to develop more support for renters who might want to grow their own food.

Bucket gardens, on the day that the tomatoes were planted into 5-gallon BiMart buckets. We tried to keep all materials and plants low cost and easily accessible. Photo Credit: Tyler Spofford.

Below is an excerpt from a concept paper I’m writing on the topic:

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is exerting stress on multiple pressure points related to the economic and food security of U.S. households: more people are in need of food aid and more people are concerned about food access. The U.S. has a long history of gardening in times of national emergency (e.g. Victory Garden of WW I and WWI II, ‘recession gardens’ of 2008). The benefits of gardening as a tool of economic security and resilience are well-established. However, research suggests that these benefits are largely restricted to homeowners. Currently, most state and local laws afford no legal right to renters who want to grow their own food. Community gardens might offer renters opportunities to grow their own food, except that these gardens are often associated with gentrification. To promote public health in the face of economic and health risks of COVID-19 and future pandemics, it is critical to support the food gardening efforts of the most vulnerable. Those in rental housing have been found to be most vulnerable to food insecurity, as well as the food and economic insecurity associated with natural disasters.

Pollinators on Buddleja Cultivars: Cara Still is studying how breeding butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii cultivars) for sterilty impacts the pollinator community that visits Buddleja blossoms. Buddleja davidii and some fertile varieties of this plant are considered noxious weeds in Oregon, and many other places. Normally, noxious weed status would make it illegal to sell or trade butterfly bush in Oregon. However, the Oregon Department of Agriculture allows exceptions for non-sterile cultivars and interspecific hybrids.

Buddleja ‘Buzz Velvet’ (I suspect that plant breeders have a lot of fun, naming new cultivars)

Cara is studying whether or not the plants that are allowed for sale, under the exceptions, still pose a risk of invasion. Our group is working with Cara to document the abundance and diversity of pollinators that visit eight fertile Buddleja cultivars with 16 cultivars that have been bred for sterility.

When I was initially approached to participate in this project, I thought that it should be obvious that sterile cultivars would not attract pollinators. Afterall, sterile cultivars don’t produce pollen, or produce very little pollen. Without pollen, I doubted that bees would visit the plants. But, it is possible that sterile plants would still produce nectar. And, many pollinators ~ such as butterflies and moths ~ visit plants to consume nectar, rather than pollen.

The more I looked into the literature, I realized that no one has yet studied how breeding for sterility might affect a plant’s attractiveness to pollinators. Would sterile forms of butterfly bush no longer attract butterflies? Would sterile varieties attract syrphid flies that visit blossoms for nectar, and not pollen? We’ll let you know what we find, in about a two years. In the meantime, you may want to visit the Flickr album of photos I set up for Cara’s study.

How attractive are native wildflowers to gardeners?

For my dissertation research, I am studying which native Willamette Valley wildflowers are most visited by pollinators and natural enemies for use in home gardens and urban landscaping. I’ve previously shared preliminary results from my field study on our blog, namely pollinator abundance and richness. For a refresher, here are summaries from 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Initial survey

Determining which of these flowers are most attractive to insects is only half of the equation — I also want flowers that are attractive to gardeners. To investigate this I developed two surveys — thanks to anyone reading who took them!  The first simply asked gardeners to rank the aesthetic appeal of my study plants, as well as how likely they would be to utilize them in their home gardens. This allowed me to get a baseline understanding of how appealing these flowers are for use in home gardens and landscaping.

As you can see in the figure below, many of the plants most visited by bees (highlighted in orange) were the least attractive to gardeners (Fig. 1), while plants gardeners liked the most (e.g. Iris, Columbine) were hardly visited by bees. However, its notable that many of these native wildflowers ranked around a four on a 1-5 scale, showing that these flowers do have a high potential appeal for use in landscaping! 

Figure 1: Gardener ranked aesthetic appeal of study flowers on a scale of 1-5. Orange bars note plants that were consistently highly visited pollinator plants. N=587

Follow-up survey

The follow-up survey consisted of a subset of ten flowers most visited by bees, and again asked respondents to rank the aesthetic appeal and likelihood of planting for each of these flower species. Then, they were shown facts about and images of bees that visit each flower species, and asked whether they viewed each plant species more favorably, less favorably, or the same. Finally, they were asked to re-rank how attractive they found the flower species and how likely they would be to use the species in their garden, both on a scale of 1-5.

Gardener acceptance

This second survey showed a remarkable increase in gardener acceptance of pollinator friendly native plants after being educated on plant-pollinator associations. Over 80% of respondents stated that they viewed Clarkia amoena as more attractive after gain, and over 60% of respondents viewed Phacelia heterophylla, Madia elegans, and Gilia capitata as more attractive (Fig. 2). 

Figure 2: Percent of respondents viewing flower species as more attractive after learning about pollinator associations. N=184.

Likelihood of planting

After learning about the benefits these flowers provide to pollinators, gardeners were also more likely to plant all ten flower species (Fig. 3). Notably, they were 40% more likely to plant Phacelia heterophylla, (a species that ranked as the least aesthetically appealing overall in the first survey). As a whole, they were also over 20% more likely to plant Solidago canadensis, Clarkia amoena. Similar increases were also observed in likelihood of planting Oreganum vulgare and Nepeta cataria. Many of the plants that showed a smaller percent change are species that started out with a higher aesthetic appeal (e.g. Gillia capitata, Lavendula intermedia, Aster subspicatus), meaning gardeners were already very likely to include these plants in their home garden before learning about the ecological benefits they provide. 

Figure 3:  Percent change in respondent’s likelihood of planting each top pollinator flower after learning about the pollinators associated with each. N=184

Ecological beauty

What does this all mean? This suggests that although native plants are frequently denounced as being less attractive than showy garden species, many home gardeners are still willing to use native flowers in their landscaping. Additionally, this lends credence to the concept of “ecological beauty” – that many gardeners are willing to utilize plants that will increase the habitat value and wildlife diversity in their yards. 

From the Lab to Your Laptop: Getting Research to the Public

The members of the Garden Ecology lab spend much of their time on research into subjects that affect, what else, the ecology of home gardens. Pollinators and their relations with native and non-native plants, bee variety and abundance in gardens, and soil nutrient levels, are among the topics they are delving into.

One of the challenges for the lab members – and for all scientists – is how to get the results of their research into the hands of people who can use it. Scientific papers are the traditional way, but not many people actually read those, and it can take a long time for research to trickle out from papers to the general public. If you read this blog, you’ve discovered one of the ways current research is disseminated quickly, and you’re learning new ideas that you may be able to implement in your own research or gardening.

Science you can use in your garden

Another way research gets to the public is through teaching. Lab members present new data in lectures, interviews, presentations, workshops and classes, including OSU Extension’s Online Master Gardener training, which I teach. Each year the course reaches around 40 Oregon MG trainees, plus another 60 or so horticulturally-minded people who take the course simply to improve their garden knowledge. In addition, our single-subject Short Courses are accessed by several thousand people per year. So any new research I can include in these courses can potentially reach hundreds or thousands (depending on the subject) of gardeners per year, who in turn may influence other gardeners.

With this in mind, I have cited Mykl Nelson’s research on excessive nutrient levels in managed vegetable garden soils to caution students about the perils of over-fertilizing. In 2020, my new module on Gardening with Pacific Northwest Native Plants will be influenced by Aaron’s data on the native flowers most favored by native pollinators. His research, plus other research taking place elsewhere, is showing that just planting a garden of pollinator-attracting plants may not be the best tactic to help native pollinators. A garden full of bees is often, really, a garden full of honey bees. What about all the native bees that are less visible, but at least as important? Aaron Anderson’s research into which plant species attract which bee species is beginning to show that the plants most attractive to honey bees are generally not the same as those most attractive to native bees.

Native bee on a native rose
Honeybees on non-native sunflower

The takeaway? Gardeners who want to support pollinators can take the extra step of searching out and growing native plants that are especially attractive to native bees, in addition to the many flowers that honey bees frequent. This is what I will be teaching my Master Gardener trainees in Oregon, and the rest of my students all over the country; many of them will in turn teach other people. Bit by bit the new information gets out there, and more native bees may find the flowers they need to thrive.

2019 Native Plant Field Season Update

I’m thrilled to announce that this summer I completed the third field season of my study. This is slightly bittersweet – while I’m excited that we are done with hot fieldwork, I will miss chasing bees around the farm and the view of Mt. Hood. I’m incredibly thankful for this third season of data, as it will help account for some of the temporal variation inherent in ecological studies. In fact, pollinator communities in particular tend to be highly variable both within and across field seasons. Having three seasons of data will hopefully allow us to identify more reliable patterns of pollinator visitation between my study plants.

Lots of lab work remains, as I’m tackling the insect samples that we collected with the bee vacuum. With the help of a dissecting scope, I’m attempting to identify the each specimen to at least the taxonomic level of family to get a sense of the broader insect communities associated with each flower species in my study. It will be several months before I can share this species-richness data, but in the meantime I have bee abundance data to share with you!

Aaron and Lucas in the native plant study site, in 2017. You can see the 1m by 1 m plot in the foreground by Aaron, a second one near Lucas, and a few more in the distance.

As a refresher, we performed timed pollinator observations at each plot. This consisted of observing each blooming plot for five minutes and counting all the insects that landed on open flowers. Bees were sorted to “morpho-type” (honey bee, bumblebee, green bee, and other native bee). Though this doesn’t give us species-level information on the floral visitors, it allows us to understand which plants attracted the most pollinators overall, and allows us to detect any patterns of visitation between honey bees, bumblebees, and solitary native bees. Below is a summary of some of the highlights.

2019 overall bee abundance by plant species:

  • Origanum vulgare, Lavendula intermedia, and Eschscolzia californica were top five bee plants in 2019, just as they were in 2018.
  • In 2019, Phacelia heterophylla and Solidago canadensis jump into the top five, while Nepeta cataria and Gilia capitata fall out of the top five. It should be noted that Nepeta was the sixth most attractive plant, with about the same visitation level as Solidago.
  • Again, similar to 2018, it appears that honey bee visitation was driving the high visitation rates of the popular exotic garden species (marked with a red asterisk), while native wildflowers were being visited more frequently by native bees.
  • I’ve included the 2017 and 2018 overall abundance graphs as well, for comparison. You can see that the overall abundance was higher in 2019 for the two most popular plants, at about ~25 bees per observation period!

2017 overall bee abundance by plant species:

2018 overall bee abundance by plant species:

Since honey bee visitation drove the high abundance of many of the top pollinator plants, I took honey bee visits out of the data set and made a new graph, to compare which plants were most attractive to native bees.

2019 native bee abundance by plant species:

As you can see above, honey bees are excluded from the analysis, the top five most popular plant species completely reshuffles.

I’ve included that 2017 and 2018 native bee abundance data below for comparison.

2017 native bee abundance by plant species:

2018 native bee abundance by plant species:

Please stay tuned for more updates on the bee species richness we collected in 2019, as well as data on the other insects (pests and natural enemies) that we collected!

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

PolliNation Podcast and Lab Update

If you love bees, and you have not yet subscribed to PolliNation, you’re missing out! OSU Professor and PolliNation podcast host, Andony Melathopolous, does a wonderful job assembling a diverse array of guests to talk all things pollinator.

Aaron Anderson recently joined Andony on episode 94 of thePolliNation podcast, to talk about his research on native plants, different insect groups, and gardeners.

Aaron talks about the 100+ study plots that he manages (two of which you can see, below), as well as which plants were most attractive to bees (such as the California poppy, on the left) versus those that were more attractive to gardeners (such as the Oregon iris, on the right).

In other news, our lab group has been very busy. All of the 2017 and 2018 bees from our garden pollinator study have been identified to species (unless they are truly recalcitrant to being ID’d to the level of species).  Gabe has been working with Lincoln Best to identify the 2018 bees.  The 2017 were verified by Sara Kornbluth, and provided a great reference collection against which we could compare the 2018 bees. Gabe has been a short-time member of our lab group, but his expertise has been a huge benefit to our program. He leaves us at the end of April to start field work in the College of Forestry. After that, he heads to UC Davis to do his Ph.D.

For the garden bee project, we have >50 verified species of bees collected from Portland-area gardens, with a few more at the morpho-species level. This summer will be our final year of collections.

This summer will also be Aaron’s final year of field work at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center. This final year will help to resolve some of the differences we saw between his 2017 and 2018 data set.

After two years of amazing assistance in the lab and in the field, Isabella has started an independent research project on campus. She has planted some of Aaron’s study plants in gardens on campus, and is looking to see if bee visitation and bee communities markedly change, when you take them out of single-species plantings (like Aaron is studying) and put them into a garden setting.

Mykl is working to write up his urban soils data for publication. We are also hoping to do a side publication, comparing the soil types that we’re finding in home gardens, and seeing how they align with the types of soils that nesting bees prefer.

Lauren is writing up her capstone paper, and is preparing to defend this term. She surveyed gardeners to try to understand how well they can identify bees from other insects, and how well they knew bee-friendly plants from those that offered few or no nectar/pollen resources to bees.

Signe is taking the data that we are collecting, and working our findings into the online Master Gardener course. The best part of our work is being able to see gardeners put some of our research-based recommendations into action. Signe plays a huge role in translating our work for the general public.

Angelee is a relatively new member of the lab. She comes to us from the OSU STEM Leaders program. She’s learning lab protocols and lending a hand on just about every project. She has been a joy to work with.

Lucas has moved on from the lab, but still helps us with remote data-basing work, on occasion. He was a joy to work with, and I feel lucky that he stuck with us for a few years.

This fall, Jen will be joining our group as a new M.S. student. We will also be close to launching the first course in the online Urban Agriculture certificate program, which is being spear-headed by Mykl. We should also be pushing out a few more papers from our garden work, to join our first concept paper on the value of urban garden bees to urban and peri-urban agriculture.

 

Plant of the Week: Douglas Aster (Revisited)

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 

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.