gardening for bees

The Bee Inspired Garden: spectacular blooms for bee people

The Bee Inspired Garden welcomes pollinators of all types.

Conceived by a beekeeper with love for all kinds of bees, Bee Inspired Gardens in Onalaska, Washington offers visitors a place to interact with pollinators galore. The massive plantings are teeming with honey bees, wild bees, flower flies, and butterflies. Be sure to visit!

Inside: Bee Inspired Garden is “a demonstration pollinator habitat and interactive educational center designed to educate the public about the critical role pollinators play in our lives and economy.”

In the early spring of 2020, I agreed to speak to beekeepers at the newly dedicated Bee Inspired Garden in Onalaska, Washington. But the raging pandemic slayed the schedule, so I never made the trip.

This past spring, however, a full two years later, I received a surprise invitation to stop by the gardens and photograph bees whenever I liked. Descriptions of outsized patches of crimson clover, Oregon sunshine, and bachelor buttons accompanied the overture. Just the thought of wandering loose among all those flowers made me giddy with anticipation.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 162 No. 11, November 2022, pp 1239-1243.

The Bee Inspired Garden is near my home, perhaps 45 minutes: a half hour south on the freeway, followed by a hard left toward the mountains. There, remnants of northwest forest fringe patches of fenced farmland and hills rollercoaster toward the Cascades. About halfway between Seattle and Portland, the tiny towns along the road remain hidden and nondescript, but to me, they feel like home.

After crawling through the town of Onalaska (speed limit strictly enforced) I admired the flower-laced roadsides and blooming trees. Rural roads always remind me of the hours I spent in the backseat of my parent’s car, curious about silos and tractors and cows. I soaked in the roadside wonders while smearing the windows with my Tootsie Rolled fingers.

A garden among the trees

As I got closer, I searched for something — a house, barn, or signpost — anything to signal I was in the right place. With relief, I finally spotted a farmhouse ahead on my left. Trouble is, the little voice who lives inside my dashboard — Samantha, is it? — insisted I had arrived at my destination. But I couldn’t see any destination, just more lovely trees, and the farmhouse on the wrong side of the road.

I found a place to U-turn and went back, passing an unmarked driveway through the trees, and then another hidden by thick brush. But there it was on a post, the coveted number I was searching for. Samantha was right. Again.

Agapostemon virescens live throughout most of North America and are fond of flowers in the Asteraceae family.
Agapostemon virescens live throughout most of North America and are fond of flowers in the Asteraceae family. All photos in this post by Rusty Burlew.

A paradise of complexity

I inched my pickup beneath a canopy of trees until the drive stopped abruptly at a closed gate. As I parked, I considered my options for leaving. I could back into a treacherously fast country road with no visibility or circle about in a pasture. Worry later, I decided.

Within seconds, I was greeted by my host, Kay Crawford. Kay is a bright, lively, diligent beekeeper with a passion for gardening and pollinator protection. We began perusing the plantings right where we stood, then strolled through the gardens closest to the house. A virtual jungle of flowering species grew everywhere, alive with bees and other winged creatures, all of them buzzing, flitting, humming, and clicking.

The breadth and depth of the plantings, the variation in form, and the complexity of arrangement astounded me. The panoply of colors and layered aromas was pure sensory overload.

I’ve spent years looking for a nest of Agapostemon bees and I finally found this one between the rows of Kay’s flowers. Several females were sharing the entrance hole, flying around and waiting for their turn to enter. Beneath the ground, each female builds her own nesting tunnels.
I’ve spent years looking for a nest of Agapostemon bees and I finally found this one between the rows of Kay’s flowers. Several females were sharing the entrance hole, flying around and waiting for their turn to enter. Beneath the ground, each female builds her own nesting tunnels.

A buzzing, humming diorama

But nothing prepared me for what came next. Once we passed the house, the foliage of trees, shrubs, and plantings opened onto wide fields burdened with blossoms. The acreage sloped gently downhill, opening upon a vista of distant peaks snuggled tightly against the base of Mt. St. Helens in all her snow-topped glory.

Nothing on the road leading to the Bee Inspired Gardens hinted at what lay beyond the tree-choked driveway. And nothing about the footpath through the roadside gardens hinted at the vista beyond. It reminded me of a diorama. You peek into a tiny hole, expecting to see the inside of a box. Instead, you see another world, exotic and enchanting.

The barn, the honey house, and Kay’s bee house sit on the far side of her home. Beside the barn is the “Gabeebo” surrounded by its own pollinator garden and a handful of colorful top-bar hives. [See September’s “A Slovenian-style Apiary Overlooking a Mountain Top.”]

Woodland on the far side of the barn conceals a small stream that feeds into a pond. The pond, encircled by its own brand of trees and pollinator plants, provides a cavern-like coolness in contrast to the sunny, flower-bedecked slopes. I could have spent the entire day sitting on a stump and watching the water meander by.

This small bee found lots of pollen in the Oregon Sunshine. She’s a pollen tramp for sure.
This small bee found lots of pollen in the Oregon Sunshine. She’s a pollen tramp for sure.

A USDA grant and piles of work

Kay spent years planning and developing her gardens. Signs of work — the gruesome, physical kind — are evident from the lovingly crafted buildings to the trim lawns and hand-painted beehives. But in terms of massive flowers, the planting beds defy description. Flowers as far as you can see bedeck the slopes, all of them calling to the bees.

The Bee Inspired Garden is a dream come true for Kay. She envisioned a place where visitors could experience rich pollinator habitats and learn about the complex role pollinators play in our lives and in our economy. Indeed, the gardens provide an immersive experience, highlighting both the pollinators and the plants they depend on.

With an eye for landscaping and a careful selection and placement of forage plants, Kay succeeded at the delicate task of combining managed honey bees with abundant wild bees. And along with the bees, she attracted a plethora of pollinators, including flower flies, butterflies, moths, birds, wasps, and beetles. The fields are delightfully buggy and teeming with life.

Kay selected the plantings to match the local climate and please diverse pollinators. In line with the tenets of pollinator gardening, the blooms arrive in successive waves throughout the growing season. I made three trips this year, and each time the blooming offerings were different.

For those interested in bumble bee conservation, a bee garden with multiple deep flowers like this purple Phacelia will attract many bumbles.
For those interested in bumble bee conservation, a bee garden with multiple deep flowers like this purple Phacelia will attract many bumbles.

Getting started as a beekeeper

Kay began to think about beekeeping in the winter of 2017. Like many beginners, she liked the idea of pollinating her gardens and harvesting a bit of honey. The following January, she enrolled in a beekeeping course taught by her local Lewis County Beekeepers Association.

After a lifetime of riding and being thrown from frisky horses, Kay decided Langstroth boxes would be too heavy for a retired equestrian with multiple injuries. Despite being encouraged to start with Langstroths, she opted for top-bar hives outfitted with a few personalized enhancements. By the fall of 2018, she added four AZ hives and a Slovenian-style bee house.

This large red-legged Andrena prefers fruit trees and is probably just sunning herself on the daisy.
This large red-legged Andrena prefers fruit trees and is probably just sunning herself on the daisy.

A hedgerow grant for pollinators

During that first year, Kay began looking for grant programs that might assist with beekeeping expenses. She discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) has a financial assistance program that encourages farmers to plant pollinator hedgerows around their fields.

The grant program administered by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is open to applicants with a USDA-registered farm, and is designed to “enhance pollen, nectar, and nesting habitat for pollinators.” Funding is based on the length of the proposed hedgerow plantings and is paid incrementally after each step of the process is completed and inspected.

The grant is competitive. Funding priority is given to beginning farmers, limited resource farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, and veterans. After winning a grant, the farmer has one year to begin the project and, once complete, he should maintain the hedgerow for a minimum of 15 years. Payments to the farmer are considered taxable income.

Bumble bees especially enjoy catmint.
Bumble bees especially enjoy catmint.

A quick go-ahead from the government

Kay first contacted the NRCS on February 20, 2018. A local Resource Conservationist, Lisa Schuchman, with experience working with small farmers and pollinators, visited the site on March 26. Together, they wrote a plan and submitted the grant application by the May 4th deadline. By July 26, the contract was signed.

The proposed hedgerow bordered Kay’s hay fields and totaled 1793 linear feet. Ten different species of bare-root shrubs, each selected to increase the blooming season for pollinators, were chosen from a master list provided by NRCS.

After completing each step of the hedgerow establishment, the work faced inspection. Weed management, site preparation, native shrub planting, and more weed management consumed plenty of time and energy.

California poppy attracts a wide variety of pollinators and lights up the garden with its sunny yellow blooms.
California poppy attracts a wide variety of pollinators and lights up the garden with its sunny yellow blooms.

Those darn weeds

Between the fall of 2018 and the end of 2019, Kay hired a commercial spray company on three separate occasions to treat weeds. They left the soil in the planting area undisturbed so as not to expose buried seeds. Once the site preparation was complete, Kay was cleared to plant and ordered her bare-root shrubs from a company in Oregon.

In mid-February 2020, Kay and two helpers planted 1050 shrubs six feet apart, leaving plenty of room for mowing between them. The plantings were inspected upon completion and several times later to assure the weeds were kept in check.

The flowers were so dense that I couldn’t see the ground beneath them. But I could hear things going on down there, scritching in the soil, romantic tussles, and neighborly disagreements.
The flowers were so dense that I couldn’t see the ground beneath them. But I could hear things going on down there, scritching in the soil, romantic tussles, and neighborly disagreements.

Of weeds and shrubs

Kay says, “In hindsight, I underestimated the time it would take to keep the grass and weeds mowed between the small shrubs. With all the rain we get during our Pacific Northwest winters, you can practically watch the weeds grow and they can quickly overtake the new plantings.

“For the last two springs, it has taken me seven hours every week to mow between the plants on a big 53-inch deck riding mower. In addition, the unusual summer heat and drought we have experienced in the last two years have taken their toll on the plants because they are not irrigated.

“Finally, this year, the plants are growing taller than the weeds and are spreading, which is gratifying. One more year of mowing and they should begin to shade out the weeds. Then they are on their own!”

The 1050 native shrubs included 100 buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus), 100 red stem ceanothus (Ceanothus sanguineum), 200 ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), 100 Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), 100 golden currant (Ribes aureum) 100 blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulean), 200 Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), 100 serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), and 50 Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis).

As dense as these plantings were, many blooms contained multiple bees, and some hosted flower flies, butterflies, and beetles. Here, a hover fly joins two honey bees for the feast.
As dense as these plantings were, many blooms contained multiple bees, and some hosted flower flies, butterflies, and beetles. Here, a hover fly joins two honey bees for the feast.

More than just a hedgerow

The Bee Inspired Garden contains more than just the hedgerows. Kay planted an impressive array of flowers even before the site preparation for the hedgerows was complete.

In the fall of 2019, she seeded 28,733 square feet of white Dutch clover, 4410 square feet of Canada goldenrod, 9534 square feet of crimson clover, 13,230 square feet of lacy phacelia, 3822 square feet of California poppy, 2940 square feet of blanket flower, 7920 square feet of sanfoin, 4410 square feet of Oregon sunshine, a 150-foot row of bread seed poppy, and a 210-foot row of Joe Pye weed. In addition, 15 little-leaf linden trees (Tilia cordata) and 5 sourwoods (Oxydendrum arboretum) rounded out the first year.

The Gabeebo sits close to the beehives in a pollinator garden. Because Kay covered the structure with fine mesh, visitors who might otherwise fear bees can sit in the structure and safely view the action.
The Gabeebo sits close to the beehives in a pollinator garden. Because Kay covered the structure with fine mesh, visitors who might otherwise fear bees can sit in the structure and safely view the action.

Not everything thrived

Many of the fall seeds failed to bloom the first year. Undaunted, in the spring of 2020, Kay over-seeded some areas with crimson and white Dutch clover. She also tried bachelor buttons, larkspur, rudbeckia, and more California poppy.

Next, she added a selection of transplanted and potted plants around the Gabeebo. Those included peonies, Joe Pye weed, dahlia, lavender, wild foxglove, sedum, scabiosa, veronica speedwell, aster, and lavender. Down the hill from the Gabeebo, she planted 20 more sourwood and 10 seven sons trees.

Once again, many plants failed, but Kay replaced those with others, always striving for the right plant in the right place. Although it was an incredible amount of work, the results are impressive.

In the spring of 2022, she augmented the plantings with 355 assorted spring bulbs, 567 more perennials, 1270 row feet and 46,350 square feet of flowering seeds, including 4200 square feet of Great Basin honey bee mix, and more flowering shrubs. In December of that year, she planted 210 row feet of rose campion, 2400 square feet of purple coneflower, and 840 square feet of bread seed poppies. For good measure, she threw in 840 more spring bulbs.

I love watching honey bees forage on poppy. They shake, quiver, and climb over each other in a panic to collect the bountiful gray pollen.
I love watching honey bees forage on poppy. They shake, quiver, and climb over each other in a panic to collect the bountiful gray pollen.

Failing is part of the process

Trying to find the perfect plants for our local environment is tricky. We have a rainy season that lasts most of nine months, October through June. The latitude, which is close to 50 degrees North, exacerbates the dark and damp, making the winter nothing but soggy. The three months of summer — July, August, and September — are hot and arid, without a hint of rain. Finding plants that can deal with such a stark contrast is tough, especially on non-irrigated farmland.

The constant trying and failing is part of that process because even the plants that “should” make it here can fail. A good example is the phacelia. Kay’s has failed three times, whereas when I spread a few seeds around, I can’t get rid of the stuff for years. That’s just the way of the Pacific Northwest coast.

Each time I toured the gardens in spring and early summer, Kay was busy weeding and mowing, philosophically making plans for the next round.

The Nomada bees are kleptoparasites on other bees. A selection of kleptoparasitic bees is a sign of a healthy and diverse bee population.
The Nomada bees are kleptoparasites on other bees. A selection of kleptoparasitic bees is a sign of a healthy and diverse bee population.

The purpose of Bee Inspired Gardens

If the sole purpose of the Bee Inspired Gardens was to take your breath away, it would be a rousing success. But it is so much more.

The larger purpose is to create a space for environmental education, a place where the public and volunteers can become involved in learning about and developing sustainable forage for pollinators. The gardens provide hands-on learning experiences for teachers and students about the importance of pollinators and the challenges they face.

The demonstration habitat includes pollinator hedgerows, wetlands, cover crops, annual wildflower beds, and herb and perennial gardens. All of these features increase safe forage, the number of nesting sites, and the length of the blooming season.

Above all else, Kay hopes her visitors return home and create their own pollinator gardens and consider the fascinating hobby of beekeeping. And if you are fortunate enough to visit the Bee Inspired Garden, just circle through the pasture when you’re ready to leave.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

The segregation of bee species amazed me. Each species chooses the plants it likes best, often with little crossover. It was a graphic reminder of why a diversity of plants is the gold standard for a healthy pollinator garden.
The segregation of bee species amazed me. Each species chooses the plants it likes best, often with little crossover. It was a graphic reminder of why a diversity of plants is the gold standard for a healthy pollinator garden.

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

8 Comments

  • Rusty, I do not live far away from Bee Inspired Gardens. Your article was very inspiring and full of information about pollinator plants that I did not know I could grow in the Northwest! Thank you!

    • Valerie,

      That’s very cool. You can contact Kay for a visit, too. Go at peak season and it is awesome.

      • It is exciting to see us open up to all pollinators. A couple of years ago, I read an article about what Holland has been doing for ~20 years. Three phrases intrigued me: Bee Hotels, Bed and Breakfast for Bees, and “What you do for one you do for all pollinators.” So now, as well as mentoring for honey bees, I am involved in promoting all pollinators. Our county recently joined Bee City USA, and I encourage you all to persuade your city to do the same

  • I envy you living near such a fantastic place. I don’t know of anything like it near me.

  • Kay has demonstrated a true passion for pollinators with her dedicated time, persevering energy and abundant plantings. I wonder how many pollinator species will quickly call this jewel, home? Thank you Kay for bee-ing an awesome steward example.

  • Thanks for this article Rusty. Even though I live in southern California, I’d love to visit Kay’s place in Washington. What month do you think is the best to visit?
    Thanks, Laurie

    • Laurie,

      I think that May and June are ideal months. Kay has a large variety of plants, so the blooming extends for quite a while. The photos here were all taken between the end of April and the beginning of July. If you give Kay a call, she will tell you what’s in bloom.

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