CORVALLIS — Honeybees get all the attention, but they aren’t the only bees pollinating our gardens. In Oregon, more than 500 native bees are out doing their part, too.
As National Pollinator Week nears — June 18 to 24 — it’s time to bring them into the limelight. Many are beautiful — like the metallic sweat bee with emerald green head and thorax or the cute ball of fluff called a digger bee. They’re also docile, leaving people alone as they move from plant to plant gathering and depositing pollen.
Without insect pollinators, cucumbers, apples and berries — along with thousands of other plants — wouldn’t bear fruit or vegetables. That makes conservation vital, said Gail Langellotto, entomologist and horticulturist for Oregon State University Extension Service. To help make this happen she is surveying bee species from 24 Portland-area gardens, all tended by a cadre of OSU Extension master gardeners.
For this Garden Ecology Lab research project, Langellotto visits the gardens monthly to collect bees. They are then sent to experts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for identification. The information collected enhances the Oregon Bee Atlas, a volunteer program charged with surveying the whole state.
“We want to generate a species list from Oregon gardens,” she said. “Other states have them, but we don’t know what native bees appear in Oregon. If we know which bees we have, we can determine their health and how we might help them.”
The Oregon Bee Atlas is one of several projects undertaken by the Oregon Bee Project, a collaboration of OSU Extension, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Department of Forestry. The project was undertaken by mandate of the Oregon Legislature after 50,000 bumble bees were killed five years ago when blooming linden trees in a parking lot were sprayed with pesticide.
“The Oregon Bee Project is about putting tools in people’s hands to literally build and care for native bee pollinator habitat, and gardeners are really at the forefront of that effort,” said Andony Melathopoulos, OSU Extension bee specialist and leader of OSU’s participation in the project.
On the Oregon State campus in Corvallis, Al Shay, a horticulture instructor at OSU, has led a campaign to show how to be kind to bees. He and his students build pollinator houses and plant accompanying gardens. They’ve installed them, not only on campus, but around town at the Corvallis Fire Department downtown, the Methodist Church and Sunset Park.
Shay hopes to have 20 more pollinator houses placed in public locations by next year, some accompanied by gardens.
“As we become more urbanized, it makes sense to provide habitat for pollinators,” he said. “We’re trying to get the word out and tell people to do the same things in their own backyards.”
Langellotto agrees. Part of her research is looking at volunteer gardens and noting what conditions pollinators thrive in. They use mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) to see what’s adjacent to the gardens — highways, forests, waterways, shopping centers, farms or any other land use that may be nearby.
“We expect gardens can be a fantastic habitat for bees,” she said. “Gardens can be incredible for conservation in general. If we’re able to identify garden features that help conserve bees, we will communicate that and hopefully get gardeners to do some of these things.”
Plant selection is the biggie, she said. One tiny garden in her study is right up against Interstate 5 but had the second most number of bees of the 24 they surveyed. And most likely it will rank first or second in diversity.
“It suggests that intentional plant choices make a difference,” Langellotto said. “If you plant it, they will come.”
Native plants play a large role, but there are many exotics that do just as well. Look for single flowers with flat faces; fluffy double flowers deter bees. Choose a diversity of plants and have some that bloom at different times of the year — some plants like Oregon grape even bloom in winter.
Plant in swaths. Planting something is better than nothing, but you’ll notice that a single plant rarely has pollinators visiting.
“Bees are economical,” Melathopoulos said. “They want to go to a big-box store. No mom-and-pop stores for them.”
One of the most important things gardeners can put into practice is limiting use of pesticides (check with your local Extension office or Master Gardeners to determine what is wrong with your plants before treating).
Native bees are solitary and live in ground nests, so leave a little bare ground for them.
“Bees are crucial to the food we eat,” Langellotto said. “They help maintain the plants we love. Something as simple as planting a sustainable garden can help with conservation.”
Check out the Oregon Bee Project’s website for information on events planned for National Pollinator Week.
Top 25 plants for attracting pollinators
Bloom winter through early spring (February through April):
Vine maple (Acer circinatum): Native, deciduous large shrub or small tree that can be trained to a single or multi-trunked form. Good as an understory plant under tall evergreens. Zone 7.
Tall Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium, formerly Mahonia): The Oregon State flower, this native evergreen shrub busts out with huge can’t-miss-them clusters of yellow flowers. Zone 7.
Camas (Camassia spp.): A native bulb with tall foliage and an even taller stalk of blue flowers.
Crabapple (Malus floribunda): Deciduous tree with masses of pink or white blooms, followed by red berries. Zone 4.
Willow (Salix spp.): Many different types of this deciduous shrub or tree, depending on which you choose. Some have a graceful weeping form. Zone 6.
Bloom spring through early summer (April through June):
Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia spp.): Native deciduous shrub or small tree with star-shaped white flowers followed by maroon-purple berries. Zone 4.
Borage (Borago officinalis): An annual herb with fuzzy foliage and delightful clusters of blue flowers; will reseed year to year. An ancient plant that is used for medicinal purposes.
California lilac (Ceanothus spp.): Tough evergreen shrub with knobs of blue flowers that cover the plant like a blanket. Drought tolerant. There are many cultivars. Zone 7-8.
Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.): An adaptable perennial prized for its bright yellow flowers, often with a red eye, and drought tolerance. Various zones.
Geranium (Geramium spp.): These perennials are not the blustery blooming annual plants that we’re all familiar with; they are tough, hardy perennials with five-petaled flowers in many shades of purple and pink. Zone 3.
Globe gilia (Gilia capitata): A native annual that’s very adaptable to different situations. Sports puffs of lavender flowers. May reseed.
Lupine (Lupinus spp.): Tall spikes of flowers make this perennial a distinctive plant in the garden. The most common is blue, but hybrids run the gamut from pink, red and yellow to white and even bi-colors. Zone 3.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana): A native deciduous shrub or small tree with pendulous white flowers and attractive bark. Zone 2.
Bloom mid- to late summer (July through September):
Blue giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum and spp.) A sturdy perennial with rods of lavender-blue flowers. Smells like anise when crushed. Zone 4.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): The familiar, friendly orange perennial wildflower that’s as tough as it comes. Drought tolerant. Zone 5.
Oregon gumweed (Grindelia stricta or integrifolia): A native plant bearing school-bus yellow, daisylike flowers. Great for the beach. Zone 8.
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale): Another native, yellow-blooming perennial with daisylike flowers and a big cone in the center. Zone 3.
Showy tarweed (Madia elegans): This yellow-blooming native plant is an annual herb, and a beautiful one at that. Flowers are centered with a red ring.
Catmint (Nepeta x faassenii): A pretty, pest-free perennial with gray-green, fragrant foliage and spikes of small flowers in shades of blue and purple. Zone 5.
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Airy clouds of lavender flowers distinguish this heat-loving, low-water perennial. Zone 4.
Phacelia (Phacelia spp.): A fast-growing perennial with fernlike foliage topped with fascinating blue flowers that unfurl in a fiddlehead shape. Zone 7.
Stonecrop (Sedum spp.): There are many species of this succulent, both tall and low. Groundcovers normally put out small yellow flowers; tall have blooms in shades of pink. Drought tolerant. Various hardiness, some as low as Zone 4.
Bloom late summer to fall (September through November):
Michaelmas daisy (Aster amellus): An easy-to-grow perennial with daisylike flowers in various shades of purple and pink. There’s even a white one. Zone 4.
Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis): A native perennial with abundant sprays of sunshine yellow. Zone 4.
Douglas aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum): An adaptable, very-long blooming native perennial with lavender-blue, daisylike flowers. Zone 5.
— List compiled by Signe Danler, OSU Horticulture Department