pollinator habitat

How does your garden grow?


Remember those pollinator gardens we discussed back in January? Remember the plant lists for bees and the arguments about natives versus invasives? Well then, how is it going?

On this end, I’ve got good news and bad—tales that are amazing, funny, and disappointing. Here’s my report so far.

Siberian squill: I planted hundreds of Siberian squill bulbs in the fall of 2013 in the hopes of seeing blue pollen on my bees. Dozens of people told me it was invasive, that it would take over my entire property, that I would be sorry. But in spring of 2014 I was delighted with the flowers, the blue pollen pellets, the many native bees that came calling, and the dozens of photos I managed to get.

But this spring? Nothing. No plants (well, maybe five or six), no flowers, no blue. I was severely disappointed. So much for invasive. The lesson learned is that what is a sure-fire invasive nightmare in one ecosystem is a complete dud in the next. I wanted to be invaded but I was abandoned. Oh well.

Straw bale garden. I planted six straw bales this spring, four with potatoes and two with pollinator plants. Shortly after I planted, one reader told me he had tried it, found the straw field had been treated with herbicide, and all his plants died. I kept my fingers crossed, remembering that if it worked, I wouldn’t have to weed, deal with slugs, or water incessantly.

Apparently, I got lucky because my plants lived. But the slugs hadn’t read the bit about not liking straw, and every morning there are dozens of them at the salad bar munching away. Well, at least as many as can fit between all the wheat that sprouted from the top and sides of the bales.

All the articles I read said to use straw, not hay, so you don’t get seeds. I used wheat straw and got (not surprisingly) wheat—hairy masses of healthy, strong, stubborn wheat. I’ve spent more time pulling wheat seedlings than I ever would have spent pulling real weeds. Not only that, but between the wheat and the slugs, grew mushrooms—dozens of shapes and sizes and colors popped up through the top and out through the sides.

And then there’s the water. I read that the bales hold moisture so you can water less frequently. As it turns out, I have to water the bales twice for every time I water the rest of the garden. The bales seem wet enough, but the plant roots can’t seem to find it. Bummer.

Lemon Queen Sunflowers: At this time, the Lemon Queens (the sunflowers used by the Great Sunflower Project) seem to be doing fine. They are about three feet tall and look healthy—but this is my second batch. The first batch got picked out of the ground by Steller’s Jays, so I had to reorder the seeds and plant again. I started the second batch in the kitchen and held my breath when I finally transferred them to the garden. So far, so good.

Encap Honey Bee Mix: I planted this because I was curious. The bag says it contains mulch, fertilizer, seed and sparkling crystals that “swell and glisten when enough water has been applied.” So every day I water and look for sparkles. When the ground starts to float away, I stop, but still no sparkles. I’m getting plants from it, so I should be happy, right? But I want sparkles.

Last year’s perennials: Every year I plant more perennials, always looking for those plants that attract bees. Except for the Siberian squill, last year’s perennials are doing well. And here’s the best news: I saw a host of bee species this year I never saw before. Every year I think I’ve reached some kind of limit—an asymptote—but every year I see more and more different species. It is really true that if you plant flowers and hold the pesticides, you will enhance your wild bee population in short order.

In addition to several new-to-me Andrena bees, I’ve also spotted an Agapostemon, large leafcutters, Osmia aglaia, Bombus californicus, and a couple of species I haven’t yet identified. Is that cool or what?

My ceanothus bushes are as loud as my honey bee hives, but the sound comes not from honey bees but from scores of bumble bees. The blossoms are heavy with them, dipping and bobbing under their weight. The laburnums, highbush cranberry, and aronia have also been teaming with wild bees, while my honey bees have been distracted by maple, cascara, bitter cherry, and now blackberries.

One problem I didn’t see coming was my nesting tubes. They filled up early, so I purchased several more canisters in a hurry and they too were quickly filled. Next, I carefully removed the paper straws, stored them in a different container, and replenished the straws. When they filled, I had to do it again. The season is still young, so this exercise isn’t over. At least it’s a good problem to have.

Fall flowering perennials. I planted many new fall-flowering plants this year, mostly based on your recommendations in the plant lists. Yesterday, my bed of Autumn Joy sedum got undermined by a mole that managed to turn them all over, one-by-one, right down the row. I replanted them before the sun did too much damage (I hope). We’ll see.

So there you have it, the highlights and lowlights of my pollinator garden so far this year. So tell me about yours. What’s working and what’s not? What’s disappointing and what’s amazing in your bee garden today?



This male berry bee (Osmia aglaia) is taking a rest after a lot of, um, strenuous activity. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Hi Rusty

    Moles… All around us in the surrounding pastures. When one of the buggers tunnels under the fence I put “Mole be gone” on the hill and they leave quick. It is not a toxin but just castor oil. It really works. The name may not be just as I said. If you don’t find it, I will look in the shop to see what the real name is.

    My Autumn Joy are big. 4th year here.

    • Tom,

      Funny you should mention it. I got something called Sweeney’s Mole and Gopher repellant. It is castor oil, just like you said. After I replanted the Autumn Joys I put some along the tunnel and, so far, they haven’t come back.

  • My Lemon Queens are five feet tall. Hoping for good results. My echinacea tennesensis (sp.) – an endangered prarie flower – is currently getting lots of attention. I am certain my coneflowers and my Zinnias and my borage and my Mexican Sunflowers will also be favorites again this summer. They are all part of
    my grand and colorful “beekeeping experience”!

  • I have enjoyed your blog so much as I learn about bees and beekeeping. The comments are worth reading as much as your text! Thank you.
    Given that you mentioned mushrooms, I thought you might be interested in some of the concepts from this Paul Stamets video:

  • I planned to let a few cilantro plants go to seed so that I could collect them and was delighted that every bee in the area loved the tiny purplish/white flowers. The pollen is purple and attracted many other types of pollinators in addition to honey bees. It was so attractive to them that I let the whole row of cilantro flower. They have flowered for a long time, grew to about three feet tall and are now bending under the weight of a recent rain storm we enjoyed here.

  • You are so right about invasive in one part of the country; dud in another.
    In South Florida, many plants that are so called invasive up North, are barely able to survive a season or two. Here, it’s best to stick with natives, and especially the “weedy” ones, such as Bidens alba, for nutrition pollen and nectar year round. Also Firebush is a giant feast for bees and hummingbirds alike. It’s loudly a buzz at dawn each day. Keep planting!

    Not to back track, but is it ok to use the dried herb Thyme in a smoker?

  • We planted a lot of the West Coast Seeds bee garden blend, and it’s been great – lots of different flowers coming in waves. I’ve seen berry bees, bumble bees, and honeybees all at it. The mix is: Blue Mink, False Queen Anne’s Lace, Lacy Mix, Godetia pinks, Dwarf Bouquet, Marine Heliotrope, Dwarf Blend, Statice, Phacelia, and Crimson Clover

  • My Phacelia Tanacetifolia is thriving here in Yakima, WA. It’s been over 100 degrees here the last 3 days, and the heat has not fazed them a bit. The bumbles don’t like the heat of the day so I only see them in the morning and evening, I’ve identified 3 different species! There are so many other pollinators that I can’t identify. I have checked out all of the insect and pollinator books in Yakima but they don’t have what I need. Do you have any suggestions? I’m planting a new pollinator garden this weekend around an old stump that I will be drilling holes in for nesting. Hopefully that will work.

    • Stephanie,

      There is an amazing lack of bee references. I use bits and pieces from many books and websites. Rumor has it that a man in Wenatchee is in the process of writing a reference for Washington bees.

      Remember that fully 70% of all bee species live underground, so provide for your ground-dwellers as well as your cavity nesters.

  • The Spanish Lavender bushes were alive with bumbles this year. I wonder if there is competition among species, since the honey bees were not much present at the same time. The honey bees did a wonderful job with my marionberries and blackberry cultivars meanwhile. Those bloomed maybe a month ago, and are just loaded with ripening fruit. And the honey bees are loving the kale, collard and cabbage flowers that the winter survivors are producing.

  • Glouceste UK. We planted two manuka bushes three years ago. This is the first time they have flowered and a brave sight they are covered in little white stars. If the bees would only show more interest…

  • Hi Rusty, been hangin’ round here awhile and have got such a crush . . Oh well.

    I am in South Carolina, low country area. My plant, that is probably a weed (Groundsel tree) Baccharis halimifolia
    L. seems to be absent from your list.

    This plant usually after mid September attracts every insect including honey bees but short on Butterflies for 3-4 weeks. There have been days I thought the darn thing would lift-off. Along with a neighbor both equipped with cameras photographed 26 flying insects one day late Oct.


    • Bobbee,

      I looked up your “weed” and it appears to be a North American native. Very cool. No wonder it attracts so many insects.

  • Gorgeous little bee, Rusty – reminds me of our Virescent Green Metallics.

    If you have a woodstove, the best deterrent for slugs is wood ash, sprinkled in a thick ring around the base of plants. The ash is actually tiny spicules of mineral left when the wood burned, and the slugs’ integument, which is just a mucous membrane, can’t tolerate it. Also sweetens the soil helping the hay to decompose.

    I don’t have a separate pollinator garden, but right now our bees are enjoying Yellow Sweet Clover. Somewhere, something clicked in a bureaucratic brain, and they’re sowing it in roadside landscaping, rather than Crownvetch, which bees don’t seem to have much use for. I toss the seed over any area that doesn’t get much mowing.

    Oh, and yesterday the buckwheat was sprouting!

    Northern Kentucky

  • Bummer about your sedum. It’s a tough plant so I hope they recover. They root very easily from cuttings so if you do lose any you could replenish if you wanted to. I’m sorry, but I confess I laughed at your straw bale woes. Nothing is foolproof, I guess.

  • Hi Rusty,

    This is my first year with honey bees, and I never realized how many flowers we already have on our property until I started looking for bees. I started a bloom dates list and have filled a page with different varieties. The honey bees have preferred the larger plantings: our tall holly bushes and an expanse of purple salvia we put in last year. Lots of other bees abound, this weekend I watched a number of varieties visiting lamb’s ear flowers. One of these days I’ll start taking pictures to identify them.

  • Straw Bale: Did you condition your bales with blood meal and top it off with soil before you planted? I got organic bales from an organic farmer and treated the bales for 2 weeks before planting. Then topped it off with some soil (helps with the water retention). I still have wheat growing, but not so much….have a ton of mushrooms sprouting, also great for water retention. Plants are thriving and our bees are getting water from the bale run off…it’s a win, win! Oh and I have my bales on a timer – they get watered everyday, using a soaker hose, for 45 or so minutes. So the flow is low and has time to spread and soak in. So far I’m please with my bales. Now we wait and see how they do in the really hot weather that’s just around the corner.

  • Planted a 50′ row of Lemon Queen sunflowers in late April. We (Fredericksburg, Tx) had 9.5″ of blessed rainfall in May & EVERYTHING is jumping. The Lemon Queens are about 8′ tall & are loaded with buds. Not much bee activity as yet as they are just now starting to bloom.

  • Rusty, Loved your straw bale idea, but I’m in the midst of trying to eradicate a serious takeover of the garden with mugwort. This stuff will survive anything, and doesn’t even have a decent flower for pollinators. Since I was inspired by the straw bales and wanted something, decided to use old bee boxes on top of weed barrier to plant potatoes. As the taters get taller, on goes another bee box with more soil. We’ll see how many taters we get.

    On eradicating the mugwort, as soon as there are 4 or 5 hot dry days, I will experiment with spraying 4:1 horticultural vinegar and orange oil. Since the plants don’t flower worth a damn, it shouldn’t harm any pollinators.

  • Grants Pass Oregon, currently in the 100s and we had some late cold weather that kept my seeds in their packages

    monarda (bee balm) planted last year, came back strong, twice as tall as last year, just starting to bloom and nothing noticing it yet.
    Aster – blooming strong, no attention
    sunflowers – not blooming yet,
    autumn joy sedum (at your suggestion) just turning pink, still in the pot I bought it in, no pollinators
    lavender, back from last year, already past it’s prime, still attracting some little bee
    thyme – (supposedly repels varroa) blooming and not attracting anything
    St johns wort – planted in the fall and coming up nicely but not flowering. Down the block the honey bees are loving it’s blooms.
    Salvia – just starting to bloom, one small bee was on its leaves
    Clover – clover is the choice of bees in my yard today. I mow around it in the grass yard, let it blossom and hopefully seed, and I focus irrigation on it, and today it’s full of honey bees and many different smaller bees.

  • I was a cold winter in West Georgia that turned into a cold wet winter that turned into a cool wet spring. The crocus bulbs that we planted last fall along the sunny side of a barn came up wonderfully and provided several photos of crocus blooms covered with frozen rain but no bees seemed interested. What bees were flying during that time were coming in with a greenish brown pollen that I think comes from the alder bushes along the creek banks.

    The crimson clover (not to be confused with red clover) was abundant this spring but with so many wild flowers and trees blooming I would not plant for the bees specifically but it makes a wonderful cover crop for the gardens and does great things for the soil. With so much for the bees to work with I have not planted that much for spring blooming but now that the main nectar flow is over the bees are covering up the Durana clover that I planted. This is the third year that I have seen this with the clover so I have already booked a grain drill for the fall and plan on over seeding about 15 acres of it, blending it with fescue grass already growing. I have seen that if we clip the clover the bees seem to really attack the new blooms when they are between 6 and 8 days. We are cutting areas on a rotational basis now so we have some blooms in that stage most days.

    I have not been impressed with buckwheat the past two years but based on info from one of your readers I plan on planting a couple of acres in late July to provide something during the typical dearth period. One of the things I am beginning to wonder about is the importance of soils being balanced with nutrients for the plants we are planting for the bees. In agriculture, and that is what we are dealing with, it is critical to remember that everything starts off in the soil and taking care of the soil has to be the first step toward a bountiful harvest.

    As always thank you Rusty for providing a constant flow of thought provoking, timely and useful information. You have helped me become a better beekeeper and I hope a better farmer. Stopping to consider the bee sheds a whole new light on different practices. I like to think that when we know better we tend to do better.

  • My Lemon Queen is attractive! Six to seven feet tall and erupting into bloom in SW Virginia.

    I would send you a photo, but don’t know how.

    Thanks for the suggestion. It’s a very pretty flower in its own right.

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