bee forage

Oregon Sunshine: shine a light on your pollinators

Washington skies were gray and drizzled when I first alighted at the Bee Inspired Garden in Onalaska last week. Bundled in multiple sweatshirts, I figured I had a zero chance of spotting bees, so I left my camera in the pickup.

This spectacular pollinator haven deserves a closer look, but today I want to fulminate over a particular plant. I’ve seen Oregon sunshine before, but mostly in small patches tucked between sharp rocks, nestled on coastal cliffs, or glowing in deserty outcrops. But this patch was anything but modest, covering over 4400 square feet in a golden sheen.

The name Oregon sunshine is apt. If you’re not familiar with the coastal Pacific Northwest, trust me when I say it is dank, dark, and drear most of the time. But patches of this perky composite with its saffron blooms and silver-gray leaves illuminate the landscape like LED lamps. 

A Nomada cuckoo bee, bedecked in red, pauses for a nectar snack. All photos by Rusty Burlew.

Pollinator patrol

After a brief walking tour of the grounds and plantings, my host, Kay Crawford, turned me loose to explore and photograph. I fetched my camera somewhat reluctantly because I had seen few bees under the threatening skies. But as the earth warmed, Kay’s honey bees tentatively ventured from their abodes while brave bumbles slotted themselves into the foxgloves. Never say never.

I dawdled amongst the hives for a while, then wandered down to the beckoning yellow patch. Holy moly! In less than twenty minutes, everything had changed. I never saw so many natives in one place. Every bloom, thousands of them, had at least one bee, and many had multiples. Bees tussled over some flowers, as in “I was here first!” and shared the others. Big bees, bitty bees, and beastly bees frolicked in the blooms, rolling among the petals and packing pollen.

A magnificent assortment of both wild bees and honey bees appeared as soon as the day warmed.

No beeless blooms

Despite the sheer number of pollinators, photographs were tough. The wind whipped across the landscape, thrashing the flowers like a stand of midwestern wheat. Gusts of wind accompanied by intermittent drizzle are not “pollinator-friendly,” but the bees remained, as enthralled with this display as I was. They held tight while swaying and packing.

Near the Oregon sunshine, about four feet away, was a patch of fully flowered catmint. The catmint was purple and noisy, hosting a selection of bumbles and a scattering of flower flies. As I walked between the two plantings, I noticed a conspicuous segregation of bee species.

To my left, a variety of bumble bees bounced loudly among the catmint blooms. To my right, the Oregon sunshine shimmered with short-tongued species, including halictids and andrenids, and many cuckoo bees in the genus Nomada. The contrast in species was a valuable reminder of why a selection of plant types is the gold standard for pollinator gardens. Different plants attract different bees, and no single plant is good for all bees.

Many ground-dwelling bees visited the Oregon sunshine. Although I searched for nests in the area, I didn’t find any.

Sunshine specifics

I hope some of you will add Oregon sunshine to your future plantings. Eriophyllum lanatum is native to western North America and thrives in a variety of climate types, from coastal to subalpine. It responds to its environment, growing tall and spindly in wetter regions while remaining short and compact in drier ones. Although this perennial seems best adapted to drier soils, it can thrive as long as soil drainage is fast and complete.

At first glance, the flowers resemble many other Asteraceae. The greenish-gray leaves are distinct, however, with a woolly coat and silvery sheen. The flowers, which bloom from May to August (right through our major nectar dearth) are yolk yellow with an orange-hued central disk.

Besides providing nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and flower flies, several species of moth larvae eat the leaves. Deer and rabbits stay clear mostly, so Oregon sunshine is an excellent choice for your next pollinator planting.

Honey Bee Suite

Kay’s honey bees also visited the flowers. This one has started to collect pollen and store it on her rear legs.

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