Stalking Bees in the Oregon High Desert
Imagine e-mailing someone you met once, three years earlier at a beekeeping seminar. In a short note you write, “Why don’t I come visit you? You can feed me, entertain me, and chauffeur me around until I decide to leave. Won’t that be fun?”
Being an introverted recluse, this is unimaginable to me. The idea is so far off the wall, my face burns just thinking about it. Yet somehow, that is precisely what I did. And you know what? They agreed.
Over the Mountains
After a 250-mile drive, crossing the Oregon Cascades and then sliding between rolling hills of carrot seed and bee boxes, I approached their home with trepidation. I was so nervous I disconnected the first phone call and had to redial. The voice on the line didn’t sound familiar and for a moment, I considered retracing my route back to Washington. But alas, I pressed on and met my hosts at the mouth of their private road outside Prineville.
It wasn’t until they parked their Gator in front of me, head-to-head, that I realized they couldn’t turn around until I backed out of their way. But first, in the piercing desert sunshine, I greeted Naomi and was introduced to her husband, Larry Price. I hadn’t yet met the hill, but that was soon to come. I was nervous as a cat as we sorted the vehicles and got underway.
A Road Like No Other
Now I, too, live at the end of a private road that is hilly in places and littered with muddy potholes and outsized boulders. Most of my acquaintances think it rather uncivilized, but after more than two decades, I am comfortable with gravelly, rocky, and dusty passages. Until that moment, I felt well-versed in the subject.
The Price roadway, carved from Oregon basalt, is steep and produces a heart-pounding view from the side windows. To my left, a jagged cliff rose out of sight. To my right, tree tops floated in empty space with no hint of earthly connection. I shifted into four-wheel drive and reminded myself to pay attention to the road.
As we continued, I noticed several inhospitable tracks that veered toward mystery. Some had a name or a number, but none showed signs of life. The scenery reminded me of a time I was lost in the Anza-Borrego desert and unable to find my car: Super-heated rocks all look alike. I shuddered with the unpleasant memory and realized I could never find my way out of this maze without help. Words of warning came to mind, lyrics from the song Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”1 What had I done?
As we crept in tandem up the hillside, I believed it was the steepest, rockiest road I had ever driven. In fact, I continued to believe that until we got to the actual steep part, which made the first section seem positively wimpy. I shuddered and eased into four-wheel low.
Off the Grid and Into the Light
A mile and a half along, near the top of the hill, we passed through a post and wire gate onto the Price land. Suddenly, the Ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and western juniper gave way to a sweeping multi-county vista. In the midst of such an enchanting place, I felt I had emerged on the other side of the rabbit hole.
The house itself is built from native rock overlooking untold miles of central Oregon, and a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding an open floor plan brings it all inside. Free from the electrical grid, the property is outfitted with solar panels that power everything from the well pump to the freezers.
But the real magic is outside where a multi-season rotation of flowering plants feed Naomi’s honey bees as well as an ever-evolving panoply of wild pollinators. The parched rocks give way to gardens brimming with vegetables, berries, and flowers.
Along the pathways, concentric rows of lavender shimmied with impatient digger bees, and tall strands of silvery lamb’s ear quivered with bumbles and masons vying for lunch. Nearby, patches of golden yellow rabbitbrush winked with striped sweat bees and green-eyed sand wasps.
Naomi and Larry Price are beekeeping rock stars. Naomi, a master beekeeper, is active in a number of Oregon beekeeping organizations. Together with Larry, she designed the Valhalla Long Hive and, later, the Valkyrie Long Hive. Both versions are built for beekeepers who cannot — or would rather not — lift heavy bee boxes, and both are designed to maximize honey bee health. In addition, the Prices have mentored countless beginners, taught classes, and assisted with all manner of bee crises.
The Price home is a hub for busy beekeepers. At least from my perspective, every knock on the door or ring of the phone was another beekeeper with questions, tales from the hive, or samples of honey. Most intriguing, the Prices have developed their own protocol for trap-outs, one in which they actually coax the queen to leave her hive.
In addition to their unfettered love for honey bees, Naomi and Larry are active with the Oregon Bee Project, a group attached to Oregon State University that is creating a record of native bees found in Oregon through the work of citizen scientists. It is the Prices’ passion for native bees that convinced me to visit.
The Oregon Bee Project
In 2014, after a disastrous bumble bee kill that made national news, the state declared a pollinator emergency and the Oregon Bee Project came to life. Sarah Kincaid, an entomologist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, says Oregon is the “only state in the whole country that has a funded mandate to put together a strategic health plan for pollinators.”
According to Kincaid, the state may be home to more than 500 species of native bees, many of which may play a vital role in Oregon’s six billion dollar agricultural industry. But since the bees in Oregon have never been completely cataloged, it is impossible to know which species are in decline. So, with the help of other state agencies and an eager band of citizen scientists, the Oregon Bee Atlas was formed to expand knowledge of the state’s bees. The Atlas, a part of the Oregon Bee Project, has broader goals of increasing habitat for pollinators and protecting them from pesticide exposure and disease.
Stalking the Desert Bees
Since bees evolved as desert-loving creatures, the greatest bee diversity is still found in dry areas of the world. Sure enough, the Oregon high desert — which rises from 2000 to 9700 feet above sea level — is a perfect place for bee hunting. The natives are attracted to the desert plants as well as cultivated ones, and the Prices know all the best places to look. So with my pickup jammed with backpacks, cameras, and assorted nets, tubes, catch-cups, and guide books, I embarked on this journey two years in a row.
With so many pollinator-friendly plantings, a world of bees exists in the Prices’ own backyard. On both visits, I found an ever-evolving selection of bees to photograph, from tiny fruit-fly sized carpenter bees (Ceratina) to bulky bumbles to wily cuckoo bees looking to freeload. Of the flowers I saw, four native plants were especially popular with the wild bees.
The first — and undisputed winner — is curlycup gumweed, Grindelia squarrosa. Gumweed is a wildflower in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) that can be found in many of the drier regions of North America. The entire plant grows to about one foot tall and has yellow flowers that open to roughly one inch in diameter. The plant is easily recognized by the recurving bracts that surround the flower and lend the name “curlycup.”
The first time I touched it, I knew I was in trouble. It is incredibly sticky, gummy, and smells like turpentine. Soon, everything I touched was also sticky and gummy and smelling of turpentine, including my camera, water bottle, and backpack. The white, resinous ooze seeps from the flowers days before they open and coats the outside of the bud with an odorous milky armor that glints in the sunshine.
The patch of gumweed at the Price household is not large, but it’s extremely well-attended. We saw a wide variety of bees on the flowers, including many parasitic cuckoo bees collecting nectar. It’s amazing to me that bees don’t get themselves stuck in the goo, but they don’t. Even the smallest of bees comes and goes with nary a worry.
Green-Banded Mariposa Lily
The green-banded mariposa lily, Calochortus macrocarpus, is a striking flower in the Liliaceae family that is native to the dryer regions of the Pacific Northwest. On my first trip, I noticed individual blooms arising from the shaded floor of the pine forest, often separated by a surprising distance. I was impressed by their simple design and their ability to thrive on the parched slopes of Ponderosa pine. Some of the blooms hosted tiny black masked bees (Hylaeus) that glinted like polished sports cars against the pink petals.
On my second trip, I didn’t give the lilies much thought until I wandered away from the gumweed to find some shade. I sat beside a lily in a muffled mat of pine needles and peeked inside. Much to my amazement, I saw a circus of bees. They were crawling all over the anthers and down into the depths of the flower, three, four, five species all at once. And the best part? They were all bedecked in pink!
The masked bees were back, but not alone. They were joined by hairy-legged longhorn bees (Melissodes), striped sweat bees (Agapostemon), and the occasional fat bumble. These bees — all with hot pink leggings — shared the space with flies, beetles, and the occasional butterfly. I was giddy with the discovery of pink pollen, pestering Naomi and Larry to look at my photos over and over again.
A third bee favorite was mountain hollyhock, Iliamna rivularis, a member of the mallow family. According to the USDA Forest Service, this native plant is found in forested slopes, meadows, and disturbed areas east of the Cascade Mountains from British Columbia to Colorado. It has prolific pale pink flowers that teem with bees.
On the Oregon plants, the most frequent visitors I saw were stripped sweat bees, longhorn bees, and honey bees. However, the single mountain hollyhock I have at home was a favorite of skinny, black metallic sweat bees (Lasioglossum).
Rabbitbrush is another drought tolerant plant the bees love. Like some other plants in the Asteraceae family, including gumweed, it provides lots of nectar and pollen, as well as resins. Two well-known species occur in the drylands of central Oregon. Rubber rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa, has blue-green branches year round. Green rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus, is a smaller plant with yellow-green foliage that turns brown in the fall.
The small yellow flowers attract many native insects, including bees, wasps, and butterflies. While I watched, a number of sand wasps visited the rubber rabbitbrush, along with striped sweat bees, furrow bees, and honey bees.
Hot Flashes and Naked Girls
Whenever I go bee trekking, I review my supply list endlessly, making sure I have everything I might need. But, invariably, the problems that arise in the field are a complete surprise. Take my camera flash, for example.
I use a fill-in flash for most of my bee photos. The point of a fill-in flash it to lighten the shadow areas in a photograph. Since the contrast between light and dark areas increases in bright conditions, a lot of extra light is needed to prevent the shadow areas from looking black. The camera software analyzes the scene and tells the flash how much light is needed.
But under desert conditions, I could only take a few photos before my batteries became too hot to handle and the flash shut itself off with a heat warning. In order to keep taking pictures, I had to keep switching batteries — four AA cells — over and over again. This was annoying.
My theory is that under the bright conditions of the desert, much more light must be added than normal. Lots of light requires lots of energy, so the batteries work hard, draw down fast, and heat up like crazy. It wasn’t the ambient heat that caused the problem, it was the high contrast subject matter — those naked “girls” in the sunshine.
Passing the Hat
After hundreds and hundreds of photos, the three of us developed a failsafe system of bee photography, wherein Larry was the bee spotter and Naomi the battery cooler.
First, Larry would find some bees. I would scurry over and take pictures until the batteries were too hot to touch. Then I would open the flash and dump the batteries into my sun hat before passing the hat to Naomi. Naomi held the hat in front of the air conditioner inside the truck while I went back out with an alternate set of batteries to where Larry was impatiently waiting with more bees. We repeated this process every few minutes for hours on end. It was inefficient for sure, but we got the photos!
Sharing the Forage
If you watch the high desert bees carefully, you can see that honey bees do not overwhelm the forage. Even with multiple colonies on the property, we saw very few honey bees on the local plants. The honey bees were busy, for sure, and their pollen baskets were always full, but where they were foraging was unclear. Even stands of spotted knapweed, which we assumed would be loaded with honey bees, entertained few. Most of the foragers I saw were happily working the garden, doing what we expect them to do.
Between calls from sometimes frantic beekeepers, we spent the evenings poring through guidebooks and miscellaneous leaves, petals, and stems trying to connect bees with their favorite forage. While we recapped the day’s take, Naomi would suddenly remember spots we could visit the next day. During one of those evenings, I got my first taste of stingless bee (Melipona) honey, compliments of my hosts. This gastronomic adventure was a bucket-list item for me and it lived up to all my expectations.
In the end, it wasn’t quite like the Hotel California because they let me leave. At least for a while. But as I began the precipitous descent across the confusing landscape, I wondered how I would ever “find the passage back to the place I was before.”1
Honey Bee Suite
- The Eagles. Hotel California. Asylum Records. 1976.