Perennial bee garden

Would you like to grow a beautiful perennial garden in Utah? Just add water! (Duh? Well, I just learned this.)

Luke Petersen convinced me. Water conservation is necessary in the desert, and a virtuous goal, but… if you want lots of flowers to attract lots of insects and abundant growth (i.e., classic aesthetics) in a short-ish amount of time, there’s really no other way.

Choose species with moderate watering requirements and soak the heck out of the garden once per week when it starts to get hot. Luke actually left the water on for 3 days straight in early July, to make sure the soil was well soaked before heading into July and August. He’s obviously been around this block a few times.

The garden 4 months ago, right after planting:

And on July 1st, just before the deluge of irrigation water. Now that I look back, things do look a little parched. Luckily, an experienced person intervened.

Insect Hedge @ Borski Farm

A hedgerow for beneficial insects installed at Borski Farm earlier this year.

I planted this perennial row along a west-facing concrete wall in suboptimal soil for growing food crops, but fine for shrubs, perennials, and grasses.

I chose heat loving species. Shrubs include butterfly bush, rabbit brush, and shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla); grasses are Karl Foerster feather reed grass and blue grama; perennials include a bright yellow blanket flower (Gaillardia), prairie winecups (Callirhoe), spring-blooming candytuft (Iberis), catmint (Nepeta), evening primrose (Oenothera), meadow sage (Salvia), an upright stonecrop (Sedum), goldenrod (Solidago), blue flax, a couple Penstemons, and red hot poker (Kniphofia).

Bee Garden out of control

Well, I chose instant gratification this time around and got it.

Going forward, I would not recommend using any “pre-fab” seed mix containing bachelor’s button (aka cornflower) OR corn poppy. Although they are spectacular, these nonnative species take over and a lack of diversity is the result. I had a lot of weeding to do this year in the shade meadow at Petersen Farm!

A local flower farmer (@wasatchblooms) did come harvest some bachelor’s button stems, so about 0.01% went to a good cause..

Insect Hedge @ Wheeler Farm

This hedgerow is part of a larger “farmscape” installation at Wheeler Historic Farm to be used for demonstration purposes. My planting is the grass and shrub edge adjacent to the ditch.

The shrub component is Dwarf Korean Lilac and “Knockout” Rose; the grass component along the ditch is tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa).

Keeping up with the cabbage aphids

First real action this year on the Insect Hedgerow Project, from Spring 2019…. a huge aphid boom on overwintered kale at Green Team Farm and LOTS of ladybugs which also overwintered on site. Fascinating to watch predator and prey!

I collected data on population growth of the cabbage aphid (the prey) and also tracked the ladybug abundance (then, the most abundant predator) to amass some baseline data for this study, funded by Western SARE.

Bee Gardens: shade meadow

Here is the shade meadow progression at Petersen Farm in 2018.

I seeded a couple “pre-fab” shade-tolerant mixes here (mostly non-native species) in Fall 2017, as this strip gets about 4 hours of sun per day.

I had about a dozen species blooming in May, most of which extended through August. There were about five species that started blooming in mid summer, and by September, I still had about five species still blooming. Best performers were California poppy, rose mallow, scarlet flax, and coreopsis. Cornflower was too invasive, I removed most of it before it went to seed.

Overall the meadow was pretty to look at, but the value for bees was marginal this year due to the predominance of non-native annual species. Check back next year when most of the perennials in the mix start to bloom!

Insect Hedgerow #2

This hedgerow was installed in a very narrow space! About three feet wide, at the south end of a one-acre suburban farm in Salt Lake City (called Hand Sown Homegrown).

The composition is one third grasses (little bluestem, blue grama), one third narrow shrubs (Standing Ovation Serviceberry, Black and Golden Tower Elderberry), and one third flowering perennials. The perennials are clustered at either end for ease of maintenance.

Insect Hedgerow #1

“Insect hedgerows” are linear flowering plantings I am planning on six farms this fall and spring. As part of my grant, I need to determine whether or not the plantings can attract the aphid killers (ladybugs, lacewings, wasps, syrphid flies..) and make an impact on aphid management for farmers. I will be tracking cabbage aphid outbreaks next year to get a sense of their population growth rates and what predator insects are present to “manage” them at each site. This baseline data will determine where to go next.

Check out my first installation, at Green Team Farm in downtown Salt Lake City.

Bee Gardens: an experiment

Besides the "shade meadow" I seeded another meadow strip at Petersen Farm last fall that contained only native, drought-tolerant flowers and grasses.  All the flowers are known to be "bee-favorites" so I am hoping to get some serious bee forage established.

Unfortunately natives grow quite slowly and many can be difficult to establish from seed, even if properly cold stratified with a fall seeding. Watching these native species emerge has been many tiny, harrowing journeys, and most have not made it for whatever reason... I still hope to get a few plants to survive this year.

A few of the current survivors (as of yesterday):


Wish us luck!

Bee Gardens: shade meadow

One part of my bee garden project at Petersen Farm.

I seeded two flowering meadow 'strips' that can be replicated on awkward/unusable pieces of farmland. Below is one of the strips, seeded in November 2017 with a combination of cheap seed mixes from High Country Gardens (CO) and Pineview Horticultural (ID), both sold as "shade-tolerant" for this spot in between two greenhouses.

Every farm has a few shady spots that are unsuitable for crops. And a surprising number of flowers will grow and bloom in the shade.

The downside of these pre-fab mixes is that most species are non-native. However, they still provide food for bees, plus plenty of beauty and interest. A sampling of what has emerged so far:

Signs of Life

I have been busy with farm habitat projects this year. I hope to use this space for updates. I am excited to share what I'm learning and I sometimes need a break from all that learning as well.... Enjoy and feel free to comment!

The first flower that emerged this spring as a result of my "efforts": Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii).    


Cactus pollen freaks

Many Diadasia bees are pollen specialists. Meaning, these species will only collect pollen from certain plants to feed their offspring. No one really knows why, although scientists love to speculate. Let's just enjoy these cactus pollen freaks getting completely covered...

What a beautiful patch this was!

Mason bee high rise

These tiny mason bees make nests inside wood cavities dug out by beetles. I stumbled upon this veritable high rise complex of tiny mason bees, nesting inside timber posts on an outdoor enclosure at Tracy Aviary.

These bees are solitary, so each female makes her own nest. The wood posts contain hundreds of these solitary bee nests. The bees are so small that the owls inside the enclosure as well as Aviary visitors are unaware that they exist! Not me though... ;)

Common sweat bees

 A follow-up to my previous post, on nests of the common sweat bee, Halictus.

Here are some pretty photos of common sweat bees foraging, on citrus flowers in Salt Lake City.

Common sweat bees are great bees to look for right now.. they are a little smaller and skinnier than a honeybee, with trim hair bands at the base of each abdominal section.

Thanks to Amy Sibul for the photos!

My backyard bees

Having "bees in your backyard" is how stewardship begins. To support bees, you may have plants bees visit, or your neighbors do. You may be lucky enough to have ground-nesting bees on your property.

This year I have ground-nesting bees in my own backyard for the first time! The common sweat bees, Halictus. They are easy to see - almost as big as a honey bee and they usually cluster their nests in the same area.

Sweat bees are some of the first bees to appear in spring - the first females emerge, mate, and excavate nests. These ground nests will soon become populated with small groups of related females, as newly hatched bees stick around. As a result of the generation overlap, these nests usually persist for much of the growing season.  What a treat to watch it unfold!

For ground-nesting bees, sunny, relatively bare, and relatively hard-packed soil is apparently preferred. This site has a rocky surface. Rocks are fine as long as the bees can access the soil. It is VERY hard to predict where bees will nest. They just show up.

The nests of solitary bees are quite "ephemeral," as they come and go quickly. The life span of an adult bee is only a few weeks, so when a solitary female bee excavates and provisions her nest alone, it is over when she dies. The nest is usually sealed or covered quickly when provisioning is done, or when the solitary females dies. Social and semi-social bees (like sweat bees), by contrast, have nests that last several months due to the generation overlap.

Flashes of blue

Blue mason bees (Osmia) are among the first bees of spring. Relatively large (honeybee-size), relatively slow, and BLUE METALLIC (most). Many look dark until they catch the light.

They are attracted to bee boxes with reeds, paper straws, or drilled holes for building their nests. The main purpose of a bee box is to see them in action (in my opinion). We're not really saving the bees with these things, but we sure can get to know them.

If you an amateur bee photographer, Osmia are simply "flashes of blue."

Last pic = Kathlyn Collins

A monitoring effort

Red Butte Garden has been kind enough to let me monitor mason bees (cavity-dwelling solitary bees) on their property for the last several years. I have seven monitoring locations in the Garden and Natural Area.

I use these wooden "houses" stuffed with Phragmites reeds to attract the bees. Bees in Utah apparently like the reed clusters haphazardly charred with a torch.... so I oblige.

Here are a few of the more photogenic placements. Just out last week.

This year reeds were harder to get due to the flooding. LOTS of water/precip this year!