Gardening Column

Contact information for Oregon State University Extension Service – Columbia County

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On Bees

There are hundreds of native bees that live in the ground and aren’t even recognized as bees. These solitary insects come out to pollinate and return to their nests so quickly most people never see them.

There are a lot of bees in the city that are solitary. They have radically different lifestyles than honey bees. I’m struck by people who want to save the bees who don’t know this. They’ll see an insect that looks like a fly and not realize it needs your help, too.

Bumble bees – one of the largest-sized bees in the country – are a group to be concerned about. Not as much research has been done compared to honey bees, but there is evidence of decline of some species, and one bumblebee in the Midwest is endangered.

We have about 500 species of bees in Oregon and we know that, of 30 or so bumble bee species, a handful are experiencing declines. But that may just be the tip of the iceberg since we have even poorer information on the remaining 470 or so species.

Home gardeners, whether they know it or not, provide pollen and nectar for pollinators simply by planting a mixture of flowering plants. In fact, it’s been shown that cities provide better forage than bordering agricultural land that tends to be planted in large, one-crop fields that may attract only one or a few types of bees. If you have diversity as in many cities, there’s an opportunity to feed many mouths. You lay out a smorgasboard for everyone. The more things you plant, the better.

There are three general principals to attracting bees to the garden:

Choose plants attractive to bees. Walk through the neighborhood to see what they’re visiting. Many nurseries have areas where they display pollinator-friendly plants. Check the many lists available, including https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/25-plants-attracting-native-bees-garden, as well as in newspaper and magazine articles. Keep in mind, not all flowers provide food for bees. Some plants have been bred that don’t provide nectar or pollen. The rule of thumb is that natives tend to be better sources, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t exotic plants that offer food, also. Rosemary is a good example.

Plant in swaths. Planting something is better than nothing, but you’ll notice that a single plant rarely has pollinators visiting. Bees are economical. They want to go to a big box store. No mom-and-pop stores for them.

Have plants that bloom at different times of year. In spring in the Willamette Valley, there’s a big burst of cherries, maples, Oregon grape and then ceanothus and lupine come on, but after that there are gaps. Pay attention and fill in those lulls with flowers.

From Andony Melathopoulos and Kym Pokorny, OSU Extension

Plant a block for the bees

San Francisco urban gardens were studied for their bee attractiveness. Flowers were monitored twice a week for bee visitors, both native and domestic. They looked at about 700 flower species and cultivars within species and found that only 5-10% of the flowers attracted measurable bee numbers. One interesting fact was that attractiveness of individual flowers increased if the flowers were found close to other flowering plants. Flowering blocks needed to be about three feet by three feet or more to see this effect.

Not surprisingly, native bees preferred native plants, though there were some significant exceptions. There are lots of options for taking waste ground and making very attractive bee habitat. For more information, go to urban bee gardens : http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/ or the Xerxes Society, http://www.xerces.org/

Tidy isn’t always best

Many living things count on the disorder of life and death to survive. For example, a significant number of tiny bees use dead stems to lay their eggs in. I first noticed this years ago when a potted outdoor Brugmansia died in a very cold winter. There were some remaining flat-cut semi-woody stems that were quickly bored and occupied by little bees. Carpenter bees will make holes into the soft pith of dead cut rose stems to lay their eggs. They can’t bore into living wood and do no damage at all to the rose. Many other plants in your garden have semi-woody stems that could be attractive to pollinators. Gardeners have been known to harvest suitable dead stems and put them in sheltered containers to be found by the bees in the spring.

There is some serious research going on to identify all the wild bees we have. Many have very specific requirements. One wild be enthusiast in Washington County has created blocks with holes of many diameters and Plexiglas viewing ports to watch them. He has discovered a number of species not known to be in Oregon. For those of you with an interest in bee identification and attention to detail, there will be a wild bee pollinator one-day workshop either this November or next spring to train people to contribute samples to the state bee atlas. Watch the newsletter for more information. Picture from beewatchin blog.

A nod to the sunflower

Sunflowers rotate their growing point during the day from east to west and then rotate back east at night. This is called heliotropic movement for you botany fans and/or crossword puzzle enthusiasts. All this comes to a halt when the flower buds form. Then, the plants quit rotating and face east permanently.

Why east and not south or west? Why stop? It turns out that flowers facing east get five times the number of pollinator visits and that seems to be related to higher morning temperatures of the flower. Flowers forced to face west and then heated artificially in the morning received more visits than unheated west-facing flowers. So, it appears, as always, it comes down to reproductive success, which for the sunflower means keeping the honey and bumble bees happy the first thing in the morning with a nice warm landing pad.

The OSU Extension office closed to face-to-face public contact but you can still reach us!

We are developing plans for re-opening that will have to be approved by the University and ultimately, the Governor. Our target is mid-June. In the meantime, all of us (faculty and staff) will still be working (mostly out of the office), answering phone calls left on our answering machines, email messages (chip.bubl@oregonstate.edu), writing newspaper columns and newsletters, and working to develop programs that can reach you on-line.

We are really committed to helping our communities in any way we can, especially in our areas of subject matter expertise (farming, gardening, forestry, food, food safety, and nutrition, healthy decision-making, and youth education) and any other way we can enrich your life and/or make you safer in these challenging times. Please do not hesitate to contact us! And please, take all steps necessary to ensure that you and your loved ones are safe.

Free online OSU vegetable gardening class

Free online beginning OSU/Food Bank vegetable gardening class (“Seed to Supper”

Pressure gauge testing: We have, for years, tested the pressure gauges of home canning equipment. They should be checked periodically to make sure food that needs to be pressured canned to avoid botulism gets the right treatment. We plan to set up a series of days to do the testing. If you are interested, contact Jenny Rudolph at our office and she will email you the date(s) and time when we will be doing the testing. Her email is Jenny.rudolph@oregonstate.edu

Celebrate pollinators

June 22-28, 2020 has been designated National Pollinator Week! It is a time to celebrate pollinators and spread the word about what you can do to protect them. Here are some articles that might interest you.

Free newsletter (what a deal!)

The Oregon State University Extension office in Columbia County publishes a monthly newsletter on gardening and farming topics (called County Living) written/edited by yours truly. All you need to do is ask for it and it will be mailed or emailed to you. Call 503 397-3462 to be put on the list. Alternatively, you can find it on the web at

Many Extension publications available online

Are you putting up salsa, saving seeds, or thinking about planting grapes? OSU has a large number of its publications available for free download. Just go to https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/ . Click on publications and start exploring.

The Extension Service offers its programs and materials equally to all people.

Contact information for the OSU Extension office

  • Oregon State University Extension Service – Columbia County
  • Address: 505 N. Columbia River Highway St. Helens, OR 97051
  • Phone: 503 397-3462
  • Email: chip.bubl@oregonstate.edu.
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