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Snack food for bees: autumn joy sedum

Right now I’m totally fixated on Autumn Joy sedum as a honey bee plant. It began when I was typing the responses to the Honey Bee Suite plant survey. The same plant repeatedly cropped up in the responses, and it was unusual in that people were always very specific about the variety: it couldn’t be just any sedum, it had to be Autumn Joy.

Immediately afterward, I tried to buy seed but I couldn’t find any. Added to that, I read that it was difficult to start from seed. Since I had no prior experience with sedums, I decided to heed the advice.

As soon as perennials began to show up in the local stores, I began to search. My first several attempts yielded nothing, but finally I went to the huge local gardening center that seems to grow faster than the plants they sell. It must be four or five times bigger than it was just a few years ago; in fact, it now fills multiple buildings. They even have a display of hives and smokers, conveniently located near the check-out for those customers who, while standing in line, develop a sudden urge to keep bees.

Now bear in mind that I didn’t know what I was looking for, only that is was called Autumn Joy sedum. But by strolling up and down the aisles with a cart, I eventually found myself in the sedums.

Actually, “strolling” isn’t the best word. Every time I came to a hose—and there were plenty—I had to pick up the front end of the cart and then the back end. I tried running over the the first hose really fast but nearly catapulted myself over the top. And for some reason I can’t remember, I had to lift the cart from the bottom. At any rate, the strolling, bending, and lifting weren’t so bad until I put a few two-gallon potted bushes in there, and then it became a kind of weight-bearing exercise that wasn’t any fun.

In the sedum section I was dumbstruck by all the different varieties. They were arranged on tiered shelves starting at ground level, but there was only a few of each of maybe 60 or 70 named cultivars. Methodically I slid along on my knees reading all the little tags that were partially stuck in the dirt, pulling them out one by one, but no Autumn Joy. When I found nothing, I went back through the tags again, certain I must have missed it. But no.

Finally, with filthy knees and gritty hands, I asked an employee with a hose where the Autumn Joy was. She more or less sneered and said, “We don’t sell candy bars.”

I didn’t pursue it. At any rate, there were other plants on my list. I found an Eryngium, some Agastache, two Ceanothus, and a Russian sage. The show rooms were filled with the intoxicating aroma of damp earth and wet leaves. The hoses hissed at the junctions, and little arcs of spray painted the walkways and dotted my clothes with mist. At one point the aroma of sage was so heavy I could taste it.

Finally, I headed toward the cashier, having selected more plants than necessary. The very last time I bent down to lift the cart, I saw it: a little hand-written card announced, “Autumn Joy Sedum.” These plants had big leaves (I’d spent all that time looking at little leaves) and, of course, these plants weren’t anywhere near the others. In fact, they were in a different building altogether. Not about to let them get away, I put all six in my cart.

So now I am mother to a half-dozen “Almond Joy” plants—candy bars for bees. From what I’ve heard, honey bees trip over themselves to get to these. I don’t know about native bees, but I intend to find out. I even began a new Pinterest board dedicated to learning as much about these as I can.

So far I learned they are easy to propagate, fairly winter hardy, and bloom in the fall when other forage is short. They provide fall color, winter bird food, and they are totally non-invasive. Thank you to all who recommended them.


Autumn Joy sedum. Photo by Leonora Enking.
Autumn joy sedum. Photo by Leonora Enking.

A beekeeping mystery

About ten days ago, on a cold and gusty mid-April day, I was making the rounds of my hives. All the colonies were tucked in against the 40-degree mid-morning sunshine. All but one.

Inexplicably, one hive had a group of about 200 bees frantically fanning at the opening. Other bees were nearby clutching blades of grass and fanning, and still others were fanning from their perches on the legs of the hive stand. Every bee was was facing the hive and beating its wings at a frenetic pace.

I’ve seen similar behavior when young queens are out on a mating flight. Some workers fly out with the queen, and others fan the entrance, making sure she know how to get back home.

The problem with this theory is that it was cold, windy, and early in the year. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t seen a single drone in 2015. So it didn’t seem like a mating kind of day.

It was too cold to dig through the hive and, at any rate, I didn’t want to disturb whatever operation they had going. Nevertheless, I did remove the lid for a peek. As soon as I opened it I heard the unmistakable sound of queen piping and chirping—as noisy as broody hens all scrambling for the same nest. I quickly replaced the lid, perplexed.

The colony isn’t large but about normal for having just overwintered. The queen is an unknown. Although she is marked, this colony was a mid-summer swarm that nested in a trap last year.

Due to temperatures and my own schedule, I haven’t yet been able to examine the colony, but from the outside all seems normal again. Nothing about it looks swarmy, so I imagine it must have been a supersedure in progress.

But will a colony send a virgin out on a cold and blustery day without a drone in sight? Do scout bees survey the local DCAs (drone congregation areas) before the virgin goes out, or do they just hope for the best? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but from my point of view it doesn’t look good. Any thoughts?


Notice Board . . .

In case you missed it: A Song of the Bees

Homes for the underground majority

Most of us who want to attract native bees to our yards and gardens do so by providing housing in the form of tubes, straws, hollow reeds, or drilled wood. While there is nothing wrong with this, the irony is that fully 70%—or nearly three-quarters—of all bee species live underground. Above ground cavities are completely useless to most bees.

So, if we really want to attract a variety of bees, we need to prepare space for the ground-dwellers. This is not an easy task, which is why it is frequently overlooked.

Many people don’t have land available for bee habitat. Some folks live in apartments, condos, or subdivisions where it is easy to have a few drinking straws on the porch but impossible to have a patch of bare earth. Others live in areas where bare earth is considered an eyesore. Still others live where the soil is mostly covered in asphalt and concrete. Nevertheless, there are things we can do.

What the bees need

Ground-dwelling bees like sandy soil, such as sandy loam, that is damp but not wet. It should be bare—free of plants and their annoying roots. It should be gently sloped, about 30 degrees is nice, and should face south or southeast in a sunny location. In addition, it should not be covered with mulch of any type. But here is the kicker—something that’s easy to forget: it must remain undisturbed nearly all year.

Why undisturbed? Because unlike honey bees, most native bees hibernate underground for about ten months of the year. They spend this time as a pupa or an adult, depending on the individual species. If we disturb their nests by tilling, disking, or shoveling the soil, we kill the bees.

How to do it

Researchers have found that even small bare patches can be useful for bees. While some native bees nest in large aggregations containing thousands of nesting holes, others build off by themselves wherever they find a good spot.

You can build “scrapes,” which are simply patches of earth with the plant life scraped free. You can build forms out of wood or brick, and fill them with sandy loam sloped toward the sun. Or you can truck in soil and just mound it in a sunny location.

Even a flower pot can be used. So if you live in condo with a balcony, for example, you could have several pots with flowers and one with bare soil that you water occasionally. Dampness is necessary for the bee tunnels to maintain their shape; if the soil gets too dry, the tunnels may collapse.

The sandy loam should be about 50 to 70% sand. Since you are not growing plants in it, the percentages of clay, silt, and organic matter are not too important. To make loam for bees, in most cases you can just take your native soil and mix it with an equal amount of sand.

When will they come?

In a study in Oxfordshire UK, where they dug four 3 x 5 m nesting plots, solitary bees nested in the first year. During the next three years, 80 different species of solitary bees and wasps colonized the plots [1]. Other similar experiments in Europe and Oregon have produced nests during the first one to three years.

Give it a try

If you decide to build an underground bee bed, take some photos and let us know what you did. This is new territory for most of us, so any hints, suggestions, or bee stories would be especially welcome.


[1] Gregory S. & Wright I. (2005) “Creation of patches of bare ground to enhance the habitat of ground-nesting bees and wasps at Shotover Hill, Oxfordshire, England.” Conservation Evidence, 2, 139-141.


This large managed alkali bee bed is in Touchet, WA. The pipes you see are for underground irrigation that keeps the soil slightly moist. The white on the soil surface is salt, the requirement that gives alkali bees their name. The bees that live in the bed pollinate the alfalfa fields that you see in the background. © Rusty Burlew.
This tiny sandbox for bees is at Oregon State University. The soil was taken from the university golf course where a large natural bee bed was discovered in a bunker. © Rusty Burlew.
Remember: sunny, south-facing, gently sloping, sandy loam, no vegetation, slightly damp, no mulch, leave undisturbed.

It’s time for pollinator habitat

There’s a place in front of my top-bar hive where I back my truck and turn around. I was doing that yesterday, having just retrieved a load of tree seedlings, when I saw the strangest sight in the mirror. Strange for this time of year, at least—a cloud, dark as chocolate, spinning above the hive.

I don’t ever remember seeing so many airborne bees on a February day. The front of the hive was coated and the air above was thick. The temperature had spiked to near 60 and the bees careened all around as I watched, totally fascinated.

What came to mind as I lingered near the hive was all the partly made pollinator domiciles I have in bits and pieces scattered about the house, the shed, the barn. These are projects I began last fall, thinking I had forever to get them done because spring was so far, far away.

So besides planting all those seedlings, my plan for the weekend includes drilling holes, cutting reeds and elder stems, and completing my native bee habitat. I also have to fill the bumble bee houses with bird nests I saved from last year.

This post serves as a reminder that, even up here in Washington, the native bees are on their way. Some of the bumble bee queens emerge as early as February and start patrolling the ground looking for vacant rodent holes. Many natives begin foraging much earlier than honey bees, so now is the time to sweep the welcome mat, plant some flowers, and beehold.


Elder stems are popular bee habitat. The pith is soft, so the bees can dig a hole of the perfect diameter. © Rusty Burlew