Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Native Pollinator Study Group (and Blog) Update

Every fourth Monday evening in Olympia a number of us gather to explore the rich diversity of bees. Right now, with winter rain and wind and lack of flowers, there is not much chance to observe pollinators except in a book.  Despite this, our January topic is shaped by two bumble bee optimists whom we hope to glimpse.  To prepare for February’s topic, (and in case you got a book-store gift card recently), we recommend three recent books that showcase the diversity of bees in North America, and invite you to grab (at least) one of them. For more information, including the bee books we recommend, check our Study Group page, or our page of just the fliers.

P. S. Google Blogger, our blog host, sent out the following. We aren't quite sure what it means, but here it is: 

"[S]tarting the week of January 11, we [Google / Blogger] will remove the ability for people with Twitter, Yahoo, Orkut or other OpenId providers to sign in to Google Friend Connect and follow blogs. At the same time, we’ll remove non-Google Account profiles so you may see a decrease in your blog follower count.

We encourage you to tell affected readers (perhaps via a blog post), that if they use a non-Google Account to follow your blog, they need to sign up for a Google Account, and re-follow your blog. With a Google Account, they’ll get blogs added to their Reading List, making it easier for them to see the latest posts and activity of the blogs they follow."

We hope this doesn't mean that we won't be able to notify you when we update our blog, but at this point there isn't much we can do beyond letting you know ahead of time in ways like this.  GB

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Owls in the Night

Barred Owl
     Somewhere in the deep dark of early morning, the Barred Owl called.  A piercing series of low hoots, repeated over and over again.  I came out of deep sleep and groggily pieced together the pattern:  Who COOKS for YOU?  Who COOKS for you?  With that voice pattern I knew it was a Barred Owl.

     I noticed Glen was stirring and quietly asked him:  “Do you hear the owl?”  He came fully awake with a snort and said: 
“What? What owl?” And then he heard it as well.

     We lay in the dark and listened to it call for several minutes.  Glen wondered if it might be calling to a mate, but we heard no answering calls.  I wondered if it might have been a young owl, born this year and moving through the neighborhood, looking for a territory to claim.  We tried to figure out where it was, and guessed that it was probably north and west of us, near Schneider creek.  

     We’ve lived in this neighborhood for over twenty years now, first on Garfield ravine and now
near Schneider creek and its ravine.  Even in the middle of a small city, these ravines are still great owl habitats, so this is not the first time we’ve heard Barred Owls.  But they rarely stay;  even though city rats provide a fabulous source of food, city crows tend to band together and drive out owls.  So it is a real treat when one comes through and graces us with its presence.

    So we lay in the dark and let the sound of the Barred Owl lull us back to sleep.  Somewhere in the night, it keeps watch and it hoots.  I feel safe and comforted by its presence.


photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation


Monday, September 21, 2015

They're BAAAACCK! Part 2


American Widgeons, loafing along the lake
A few days ago Nancy, my dad and I took a walk around Capitol Lake.  In the dog days of late summer, the lake is thick and turgid with clots of algae:  there are very few waterbirds.  But as the weather shifts into more cold & rain, and the days move into September, the waterbirds who winter over on this lake start to filter in.  And so it was a few days ago.

     We saw a few hundred American Widgeons.  These are small dabbling ducks, who feed in shallow water.  Their favorite feeding strategy is to upend themselves, dabbling with their bills along mucky bottoms and paddling with their feet to maintain their position.  From the surface what we humans see is the butt end; in widgeons the feathers under the tail are a bright white, so there is this marvelous big flash of white butt when they go ass over teakettle to feed.

    They are often the first wintering ducks to show up on the lake.  Part of this may be that Capitol lake is currently full of mats of bright green aquatic vegetation and this is the preferred winter food of widgeons.  

American Widgeons & friends
     They may stay here throughout the winter;  if Capitol Lake runs out of vegetation, they will leave the lake and look for other sources of winter food.  Sometimes they will leave the water and seek marshy green fields, finding their food there.  By next spring they will form pair bonds and return to their breeding habitat in wet tundra in Canada and up the Arctic circle in Alaska.    
     As we walk along the trail at Capitol Lake, we can’t usually see them:  the shrubs lining the path tend to block most of our views.  But we hear them:  they are pretty chatty to each other, making a distinctive “rubber ducky” kind of squeaky contact call.  They tend to stay together in groups, so the squeaking noises can be pronounced.
     There are reasons they hang out together:  as Nancy, Dad and I watched, a Bald Eagle swooped in over them.  Masses of screaming widgeons left the lake surface in a hurry, beating wings to avoid this predator.  The eagle made a leisurely circle around the panicking widgeons and went to a nearby perch, where it will keep an eye on the dinner table.  It didn’t catch any ducks on this pass, but my sense of  its behavior was that it was doing an exploratory flushing of the prey, watching for a weak or unwary duck.  Sooner or later, it will succeed.  And if the duck dinner doesn’t happen, there’s always salmon.

     When I see the American Widgeons begin to group on the lake, I am reminded that this is the
season of migration.  These ducks are showing me migration in action.  Let the fall season begin…

•  All photos by Nancy Partlow


Saturday, September 5, 2015


King Salmon on the Deschutes estuary
     In early September in the Pacific NW we got some of the first deep soaking rains for several months.  A prolonged hot and dry series of months finally broke to an unseasonal fall storm, coming several weeks earlier than normal.

     Normally we moan about the rain, but nearly everyone I knew was profoundly grateful.  I could almost feel the trees drinking it up and the rain-washed leaves finally able to collect sunlight more efficiently. The amphibians started to move too: Glen and Nancy and I went out on a couple of very warm, rainy nights and watched tiny froglets leave the breeding pond for the winter woods.   Birds are starting to form winter guilds;  I watched chickadees, bushtits and nuthatches forage in a group, gleaning scale insects off of our Mock Orange.  The wheel of the season turns and this year it is rain that is turning that wheel.

     But that’s not all.

     For several weeks now, adult salmon have been coming in Puget Sound.  They head for the streams & rivers in which they were born and they wait for the right conditions to run the rivers.  Well, it turns out that rain triggers these movements:  the fresh rainwater cools the rivers, raises the water level and sends the strong unique scent of each river out into Puget Sound.  All these things make the migration possible.  So the salmon wait.

      Our local watershed is the Deschutes river and there are several types of salmon that are born in that river and return to it late in the summer.  There is a dam they have to pass through in order to get into the river, and they can only do so at high tide.  After the rains came this week, Nancy went to the dam and got these great pictures.  The salt water was unusually clear and almost teal-blue, no doubt because of the fresh rainwater coursing out of the dam.

     These are King (Chinook) salmon: the huge size, spotty blue-green backs and dark gums are distinctive to this species.  In late July into September, they leave the North Pacific ocean, head down the Straits of Juan de Fuca and into Puget Sound;   finally they head south to Olympia, to the Deschutes river where they were born.  A couple of hours before high tide, the dam closes, so they are forced to wait out the tidal cycle.  Today I went down at high tide and watched 60+ fish circling restlessly, trying to find a way through the dam and up into the impounded river.

     They don’t wait alone.  In the waters around the dam, Harbor Seals lurk.  Normally the fish can easily elude the seals, but in the enclosed waters near the dam, the seals are much more effective in catching them.  Here is a photo Nancy took: a Harbor Seal munching on its salmon catch, with a gull nearby hoping for scraps.

    Nor is it just the Harbor Seals that wait.  During the running of the salmon, there are always many people hanging over the rail, fascinated by this yearly event.

    Here are some sobering statistics:  a female salmon may lay as many as 4000 eggs, usually in a gravel bed nest or redd.  Of these eggs, maybe four will make it to adulthood and return to run the river to spawn.  What we see here are those rare survivors, returning once again to our waters, turning the wheel of life once again and bringing the promise of future generations.


Resources:  All photos by Nancy Partlow

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Treefrog In Transition

Text and photos by ©Nancy Partlow

Several nights ago, I heard the call of a male Pacific Treefrog  (AKA Pacific Chorus Frog) through the bathroom window - Cree-EEEEK.  I could tell that it was probably somewhere in the covered walkway between the carport and the back patio, but thought I didn't have a prayer of finding it.  A few days later when I was rummaging around in a wheel barrow full of gardening paraphernalia I sometimes keep parked in this area, a little tan and brown spotted frog suddenly appeared on the rim of the barrow.
I figured it might have been hanging out in an open bucket of fresh planting soil, seeking a cool refuge from the recent heat and drought.  Greeting the little creature, I ran a bit of water into the bottom of a plastic watering can, which I then set beneath the wheel barrow. I did this because I’ve occasionally found tree frogs hiding inside watering cans on my back patio. 

Two mornings later, I searched for the frog but didn’t immediately find it. On a hunch, I checked the area around the hose connection a few feet away. In my experience, chorus frogs periodically loiter there, perhaps for the moisture.  Sure enough, I spied it on the hose rack next to the faucet, tightly snuggled between the coils of a black rubber hose.

By this time, the frog was not brown but a combination of green and brown. 

BB & B readers may recall a previous blog about chorus frogs where we wrote about this species’ ability to change color through the use of pigment cells in its skin.  In researching the literature about this neat trick, I discovered some disagreement among scientists as to why these frogs change color.  In my admittedly-unscientific opinion, they do it for camouflage.  Every time I’ve seen a chorus frog, it’s been the same color as its background. Although this one wasn’t the same hue as the hose it was perched on, (some have the ability to turn light gray), it did match the color of the plant foliage on the ground just below it.  Perhaps it had spent the previous day hiding out in that greenery, or was about to.  

Whatever the reason, the frog was beautiful. I’ve seen chorus frogs with all- green skin on their upper body, or mottled green and brown coloration, but nothing like this. Its back was mostly lime green, with tan still clearly visible along the edges.  The liver-colored spots and stripes from the previous few days were almost completely gone, although the black eye stripe was still there.
Patches of green were visible on its legs, while the cute ovals on its face reminded me of clown make-up.  I thought, "The frog is coloring a paint-by-number picture, using its body as the canvas.  How cool is that?"

I took a few photos of the little fellow, then left him to his own devices. I try not to intrude too much on the animals I see.  Their lives are hard enough as it is.

I didn’t see or hear the frog again after that day. More than likely, it was migrating from a nearby wetland to the forested area behind my house, where it would spend the terrestrial phase of its annual life cycle hiding in the shrubs and forbs, or buried in the leaf litter beneath the trees. 
I’ve been hoping to observe a frog change its color for a long time, and am thrilled to have finally caught one “in the act” in my own back yard. 
What a finished "paint job" looks like.
Courtesy USGS Amphibian Research & Monitoring Initiative
About Pacific Treefrogs:

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Of Toads and Mountains

Mount Baker from Boulder Creek
     Last week Glen and I went camping at Baker Lake, just southeast of Mt. Baker in northern Washington state.  Over the years we’ve been on a mission to camp near each of the major peaks in the Cascade Range.  This year, Mt. Baker was our goal.

     We camped at Panorama Point campground, which is along southeastern border of the impounded Baker river.  This river/lake is eight miles long and sits right at the feet of Mt Baker, so there is a lot of snow and rain draining into this lake.  Our campsite was sitting near/on a wetland that adjoins the lake, so  it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find (and hear) amphibians.  

Western Toad Bufo Boreas  (photo L. Halleck)
     One night after a thunderstorm and soaking rain, we were walking over to the Sani-can facility to do our evening ablutions, prior to turning in for the night.  I had my flashlight trained on the ground, watching for trip hazards.  Suddenly, along a path that I had come to know well, we saw a weird lump sitting right smack in front of us.  I trained my flashlight on it and found:  my first ever Western Toad Anaxyrus (Bufo) boreas.

     It was dry skinned and warty, light gray, with dark blotches near the warts.  The most distinctive field mark was a thin creamy-white line running down its spine from neck to vent.  It was about 3 inches in length, which is an average size;  apparently they can get up to five inches in length, with females being bigger.  

    It sat in our path;  it blended very well with the gravel that surrounded the Sani-can.  It remained very still, doing its best to blend in like a rock.  Finally it blinked and revealed itself to be a living animal.

     Over the evening and next morning we saw it several times, always near dusk or dark, always near the Sani-can.  We speculated that it might be territorial:  the smell of the Sani-can definitely attracted insects and so for the insect-eating toad, this is prime habitat.  Also the nearby wetlands and Baker Lake itself are excellent feeding and breeding habitat sites.  

    I was charmed.  As a birdwatcher, we always are on the look out for “life birds”.  This was a life amphibian for me, and as such, a real treat.  

•  Washington Herp Atlas
•  Toad photo by L. Halleck from The Herp Atlas
•  Mount Baker photo by Glen

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Shameless Promotion (Bees & Other Pollinators)

When, twenty years ago, Janet introduced Mason Bees into our family, neither of us had a notion of what she was starting.  By now I well know that mason bees are an entry drug into the world of bees, for they are easy to both raise and observe.  They have lured me deep into the pollinator world.

This past weekend (July 24 - 26) was definitely another tipping point, where I attended a program mostly about recognizing bumble bees.  Forty plus folk gathered in a Snohomish County Extension classroom (one county north of Seattle) to expand their knowledge of pollinators and receive instruction on how to recognize bumble bees down to their species and gender, taught by Rich Hatfield.  Rich is the biologist for Bumble Bee Watch, (a project of The Xerces Society), and he did a good job covering a complex topic.

A poster: Study pollinators at Oly Public Library on 9/28/15The field trip the next day was soggy — the first real rain in weeks.  It started with showers, and many of the bees we spotted were wet and huddled under larger flowers.  Ninety minutes in, and both insects and insect surveyors were soaked and wanting to hide. With our field trip shortened, some of us retreated nearby for warmth and hot drinks.  By the end of the workshop day I already knew that I wanted (needed) to do the same thing in Thurston County -- well not the getting soaked part, but that will happen too.  With the caffeinated conversations in my head, I considered the next steps while driving home a few counties to the south.

So what is next?  How about a monthly study group on native pollinators (not honey bees) and then a weekend short course, this time in Thurston County.  Look for regular updates including speakers / topics on our blog main page under "Pollinator Study":
Pollinators Study Group (Thurston Co, WA)

This is your invitation: if you live in the area and are interested in being part of a regular study group that wants to both learn more about some of the pollinators of the South Sound, and share some of your knowledge with others as well, please come.  The first meeting will be a mix of "Show and Tell" (bring something), and planning for the future.  We look forward to seeing you.

Meeting room, Olympia Timberland Regional Library, Monday, Sept 28th, 6:00 p.m. 

Glen Buschmann
360/ 352-9009

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Wasp Hunting

Display, Thurston Co Fair Beekeeper booth -- Bald-faced hornet
Now is the time of year where the aerial nests of yellow-jackets and bald-faced hornets assume a size of significance, easily exceeding a soccer ball in size.  I respect them, and give the nests wide berth.  Soon, the nests will start producing queens and drones and by September each nest will have started its inevitable decline into chaos.  But for now (early August), each working female is intent on provisioning the young in the ever-growing nest.

This week I put in a stint at the Beekeeper Booth at our county fair,  and read an article by Rusty Burlew / with some of her recent observations of wasps.  So I've been thinking about and looking for them.  But I was not expecting my attentions to lead to the following wasp tale, fascinating if somewhat gross -- and perhaps understandably unphotographed.

Really this tale really started the day before with a malodorous cat gift underfoot -- grumble grumble -- a mishap that put both Janet and me in a state of greater alertness.  Today it was Janet who saw a feline land mine in the middle of our dry lawn.  To those who do not know us, our response was peculiar, for instead of following a disposal plan, we brought out the lawn chairs: two bald-faced hornets were locked in an energetic stinging battle over this apparently valuable resource.

Bald-faced hornet on fennel
This we watched for a while.  I, having hose in hand and perhaps feeling a slight degree of pity for both the battle and for creatures reduced to this as a source of moisture and nutrition, gave both wasps and poo a shot of water.  One wasp circled and returned to the target and lawn -- now fresher and more attractive.  A couple of dozen flies invited themselves to the revitalized bounty. 

With the flies, the battle scene truly became murderous.  The remaining BFH revealed herself to be an adept hunter, adroitly capturing a fly, flying off presumably to her nest, and then returning.  We watched for a while with a perverse sense of appreciation combined with some disgust.  Finally, I removed the hazard.

But the wet lawn, odors, and insect routines remained, and thus Janet and I did not leave either.  The provisioning hunts by this wasp continued — waiting, pouncing, circling, waiting, waiting, darting, pouncing, and in time, success.  With the main nutritive target gone, flies were fewer and more twitchy, and the difficulty of hunting increased.  Our primary knowledge of wasp feeding habits has been learned while seated at the picnic table, when a meal is animated only by its being moved from barbecue to plate to mouth.  This was different.  So we watched the show and speculated, with a running commentary and considerable admiration.

I will still give wide berth to the nest of this wasp, just as I would to a roaming grizzly bear or resting rattlesnake.  But this paper-making hunter has my respect on a whole new level.


Short video by Miklos Bacso of Bald-faced Hornet hunting, similar story -- sorry about the ads.
Photo Credits
Nest photo Paul Henderson for Thurston Co Fair
BFH photo Nancy Partlow

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lorquin's Admiral Butterfly in the Pollinator Garden

     In our last blog, I wrote about butterflies.  I remarked that our warm sunny spring was going to provide great opportunities for butterfly sightings.  This week we had more evidence of this.

     Nancy was in her pollinator garden early one morning, watering the plants.  The sun had just come out:  lo and behold what should appear but a Lorquin’s Admiral butterfly.  This is one of our common June butterflies;  it can be found in city backyards, often around apple trees, where the males defend the trees and allow females to lay eggs on the leaves.

     This butterfly perched briefly on Nancy’s hose and then moved over to a compacted mole hill, now wet from Nancy’s watering.  You can see it as it flies in and starts to do a series of complex butterfly behaviors.

•  First, it pumps its wings open and closed.  When I saw that I knew it must have just gotten up:  this is a butterfly behavior in early morning, akin to how we humans stretch as we get out of bed.  They stretch their wings, pumping hemolymph (an insect’s version of blood) from their bodies into their wings, getting ready for flight.  
•  Secondly, it carefully positions its body to receive the strongest rays of the sun.  Butterflies are solar powered and rely on the sun’s light and heat to warm them up enough to get ready for action.  It has placed itself in such a way as to collect heat right on its body and the flight muscles just underneath.  This  helps prepare the animal for a day of flying, feeding and mating.
•  Finally it chose to do all these things on a pile of wet soil.  Butterflies are known to do something called “mud-puddling”;  the males in particular gather in clubs around muddy puddles, stick their drinking straw (aka proboscis) into the slurry and drink in mineral rich water.  It seems as if they especially need sodium, which is otherwise in short supply in their 100% nectar diet.  Here is a link that talks about this behavior:

     Nancy had never seen this butterfly behave in this way in her garden.  This is yet another example of how nature can show us amazing things, even when we are in the middle of ordinary tasks.  


All photos & videos by Nancy Partlow
The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Pyle

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cause and Effect: Nelson's Hairstreak Butterflies

    In this late winter to spring, we have had a long series of sunny, dry days.  A few weeks ago I remarked to my fellow blog naturalists that with these conditions, this was going to be a going to be a good year for butterflies.  And so it has proved to be…

    Nancy was in our backyard on one sunny afternoon, goggling over all the pollinators that were clustered on our Ceanothus shrub.  She was focused on all the bees, but suddenly noticed a small brown butterfly, its proboscis extended, drinking deeply of the nectar provided by the tiny blue flowers.  She got some great photographs and came back in the house to share her discovery with me.  It was a Nelson’s or Cedar Hairstreak butterfly Callophrys nelsoni.

     This is a life butterfly for me, meaning I’d never seen it before.  I was very surprised to find it in our small city backyard.  The thing about butterflies is that they tend to flit into a garden, grab some nectar and move on.  But if you provide a key host plant for that butterfly, they might actually stick around your yard.  That is what happen with this Hairstreak.  .

     It turns out this hairstreak butterfly lays its eggs only on cedar trees.  The males will perch all day on cedar branches, waiting for females to come by.  When she arrives, they will mate, and then the female will lay single eggs on the tips of cedar branches.  This hairstreak uses both our native cedars Western Red and Incense Cedars, but will also use Cedar of Lebanon, native to the middle East.

     In our front yard is a old, very tall Cedar of Lebanon.  It is facing south and gets full sun, conditions which butterflies love.  We have lived at our place for eight years now;  it is my guess that in all these years, the Hairstreaks have been using our cedar as a host plant, then diving down into our pollinator garden to feed.   And we had never known about this butterfly.

     We are nature watchers and we are excellent observers.  Yet until this year, we missed the Hairstreak butterflies.  It just goes to show that there are always new things in nature and in our own backyard, to provide a rich source of amazement and learning...


•  All photos by Nancy Partlow
•  A great blog on Washington Butterflies:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Rhododendrons and Bumble Bees

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©

For most of my life, I was afraid of bees.  This made my childhood in our suburban backyard a fraught affair.   You see, my Mom loved rhododendrons, and planted them in different corners of our yard.  I dreaded bloom time, because the rhody bushes would come alive with clouds of visiting bumble bees.  I devised mental maps in my head of relative zones of safety throughout the yard to navigate me as far from these shrubs as possible.
Nancy with Brinker the dog, and her mother's Jean Marie Montague

So I find it amusing that when I now hear the buzzing of bumble bees in a rhododendron bush, I make a beeline toward it instead of in the opposite direction.

Janet’s 2008 study of local bumble bees was a turning point for me.  I was at first highly dubious of her work with stinging insects, but the more she shared her newfound knowledge with me, the more I became fascinated by these little creatures.

When I eventually started to take pictures of bumble bees inside rhododendron and azalea flowers, I made a surprise discovery that finally cracked the code of why bumble bees are so attracted to these plants.

First off, the flowers of many rhododendron and azalea plants are chock full of nectar.   When in bloom, these shrubs are like neighborhood fueling stations for bumble bees.  The bees’ abdomens pulsate like little basting bulbs as they suction the precious sugar solution from the nectar repositories deep in the base of the flowers. 

But the other thing these blossoms offer is pollen; which I accidently discovered while taking bumble bee photos at the magenta-colored azaleas in my neighbor’s yard.
I kept hearing the bees making funny noises as they landed on flower after flower.  I was perplexed by what they were doing.  On closer inspection, I noticed that azalea (and rhododendron) anthers are little “pollen pots”  jammed full of bumble bee larvae food. 
The openings to these pots are really tiny, so to expediently “get at” the pollen, the bumble bees were using a technique at which they excel: buzz pollination.  Grabbing hold of a pollen pot, a bumble bee purposefully vibrates its flight muscles (but not its wings) at a frequency that makes the anther eject its contents. 
Bombus mixtus bumble bee buzz-pollinating
an azalea anther
Similar to pulling the ripcord on a tightly-packed parachute, the pollen, connected to viscous “threads”, emits from the pot like a baby spitting up milk.

The bumble bee quickly gathers up these threads, but sometimes filaments of pollen festoon the bee’s body. 
Other bee species glean pollen from rhododendrons, as well.  I’ve watched solitary ground-nesting bees extract the pollen directly from the anthers using their mandibles.  They too are gathering food for their larval young.


Bumble bees utilize rhododendrons in one additional way that is still a mystery to me.  When the plants are near the end of their bloom periods, the bees seem irresistibly drawn to the bases of the flowers (calyxes), even if the blossoms are falling off, or are gone completely.  Are the bees simply going after the last dregs of nectar, or (and this is sheer speculation on my part), could they possibly be collecting some sort of substance on the calyxes? Honey bees collect tree resin for its antimicrobial properties, to help line their nests.  Maybe bumble bees do something similar, especially since all parts of a rhododendron are poisonous, even, apparently, the nectar:  

Whatever the bees are doing, this activity is not without its risks.  Anyone who has ever dead-headed rhododendron flowers (something we had to do quite often as kids), knows that certain rhody varieties have very sticky calyxes.  One day, while visiting a friend’s house, he pointed out several bumble bees that were completely stuck to calyxes on one of his rhododendron bushes.   

The poor things were struggling mightily to no avail, and we were reluctant to try to help them for fear of being stung.

Taking photos of bumble bees on rhodies and azaleas has been a transformative experience for me. Besides learning about how the bees interact with the flowers, I have gained a much greater appreciation for these previously-avoided plants, and for the beautiful world that pollinators inhabit. 



Thursday, May 14, 2015

The West Olympia Pollinator Pub Crawl

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©

Many eco-conscious people are starting to plant gardens for native pollinators around their homes, businesses and neighborhoods. This is a good thing. Native pollinators of all stripes are being greatly impacted by loss of habitat, pesticide/herbicide use, and climate change. Yet with a bit of forethought, even the most urban of landscapes can be made more pollinator friendly.

For example, there are some really great roadside pollinator attractions in west Olympia along the Olympic Way/Harrison Avenue corridor. These two streets are extremely busy with cars, yet at certain times of the year, especially in May and June, they’re very busy with bees as well.

A few years ago, my clever sister Janet coined the phrase “pollinator pubs” to describe specific types or groupings of plants which, when in bloom, are highly attractive to nectar- and pollen-seeking insects. At the time, she was scouting out sites for her 2008 research project on native bumble bees. Her basic criterion was for places close to home, accessible, and with easily viewable bees. She was surprised to realize that some locales on Harrison and Olympic Way fit the bill.

Her first discovery was the beautiful rhododendron stands at Woodruff Park. Spring bumble bees love rhododendrons because they have deep, rich nectaries and cunning little pollen-filled anthers. When in bloom, the huge Woodruff Park bushes are alive with spring-emergent bumble bees, predominated by the species Bombus melanopygus. When standing next to these shrubs in full flower, it is made abundantly clear that for this brief moment in time, bumble bees own this place and human beings are but barely-tolerated intruders in their ephemeral kingdom.

Earlier in the spring, this same site welcomes newly-emerged queen bumble bees to the lovely crocus plantings scattered around the park, as profiled in Janet's blog called The Crocus Pantry from March of 2009.

Another good pollinator site is the lower roundabout on Olympic Way. Years ago, a resident living next to the road planted a hedge of several different varieties of rhododendrons. Every spring, these rhodies create a beautiful wall of color for anyone driving or walking up the 4th Avenue Bridge. While it is difficult to observe bees on these plants, below them a row of ceanothus bushes nestles against a cement wall.

Flowering in an unearthly shade of blue, pollinators flock to these shrubs for the copious nectar and white pollen the flowers produce. Bumble bees scramble over zillions of tiny blossoms utilizing buzz pollination to more quickly collect the precious food granules for hungry larvae back at the nest.  These ceanothus bushes were heavily frost-damaged by last year's winter cold snaps, but they appear to be coming back nicely.

Bombus melanopygus on ceanothus

Seven Oars Park is surprisingly, not a great place to see pollinators, except perhaps in March when the large red-flowering currant shrubs are in bloom. Frenetic nearby vehicle traffic probably scares off any hummingbirds that might otherwise fight over this great nectar source, but the occasional queen bumble bee can be observed stoking up on the racemes of this early spring bloomer.

Olympia Coffee Roaster II has a nice stand of orange poppies and white daisies that add a lovely color accent to a rather barren stretch of Harrison Avenue. Although poppies are less attractive to pollinators than many other plants, I’ve seen Bombus vosnesenskii bumble bees busily floating between poppy blossoms to collect pollen at this location. I really appreciate businesses like this that plant flowering pollinator gardens along their street frontages. It adds so much visual interest and attractiveness to a neighborhood, and extends a warm welcome to other species that share our community.  

West Central Park on the corner of Harrison and Black Lake Blvd. has just recently installed a pollinator garden. I look forward to seeing the different types of pollinating insects that will frequent this site as the plantings become established over the next few years.

My sister Janet turned me on to another great pollinator pub at her place of business, Westside Wellness, on Kenyon Street just off Harrison Avenue. She called me one day and said, “Nance, you’ve got to check out the cotoneaster next to the parking lot. It’s just crazy with all kinds of bees.” She was right. Cotoneaster has a multitude of teensy pink flowers that are shallow open cups, which makes them easily accessible to bees of all tongues lengths. This has the effect of drawing in nearly every known species of local bumble bee, in addition to many other types of pollinating bees and flies. One year at this site I experienced the highest number, and most varied species of bumble bees I’ve ever seen anywhere. I literally didn’t know where to look there were so many of them.
As if that isn’t enough, there is also stand of white-flowering cotoneaster planted along the Westside Wellness property line right next to the drive-through lane of the Anchor Bank next door. These shrubs are also very busy with bees, and for some reason, pollinators pause a few seconds longer at each flower than with the pink variety, making it easier to observe their behavior. An added benefit is that the insects are much more readily seen against the paler inflorescences.

Ground-nesting bee on cotoneaster

Ceanothus and a deep-blue flowering rosemary round out the insect-friendly nature of this site, making it a pollinator pub extraordinaire. I think the fact that this is the only place I’ve ever seen a Brown Elfin butterfly in town confirms that view. I watched a Brown Elfin laying eggs on cotoneaster leaves there recently.

Brown Elfin butterfly on cotoneaster

I doubt that pollinator appeal was even considered when these plantings were installed. These are all tough, drought-tolerant species planted on a non-irrigated south-facing slope. That they are major pollinator attractors is probably incidental. However, it just goes to show what is possible for even the most inhospitable of environments.

Speaking of which, another great spring pollinator site on Harrison is the “hell strip” between the parking lot and sidewalk at Mud Bay pet supply store. One day in May a few years ago, a swathe of purple caught my eye as I drove by. I just had to stop, knowing that lavender is primo pollinator territory. I wasn’t disappointed.

When in flower, this particular array of Spanish lavender is busy, busy, busy with newly-minted bumble bees just out of the nest. As their pelts glow vividly in bright hues of red, yellow, orange and black, the bees hum with vitality and purpose amongst the dark-violet plumes. Bombus melanopygus males in their brilliant regalia, (they are consorts to queens, after all!), are especially gorgeous.

Male Bombus melanopygus on Spanish lavender.

Bombus vosnesenskii worker on Spanish lavender.

One final pollinator pub along the Harrison/Olympic Way corridor is Bark and Garden Plant Nursery. Because of its large concentration of flowering plants over several months, B. & G is a place to see bumble bees when you can’t see them anywhere else.

It is therefore ironic that this nursery continues to sell neonicotinoid pesticides, which mounting evidence indicates are contributing to the precipitous decline of pollinators in this country and worldwide. Bark and Garden, Olympia’s largest remaining locally-owned nursery, is a place to go when you want to figure out which non-native perennials and annuals bumble bees favor. If you visit, you might ask the owner to “go organic” as a favor to bees, the earth and you.

This brings our tour of specific west side watering holes to a close. If you decide to check out to any of these locales, please be mindful that a couple of them are businesses with small parking lots. I’m thinking particularly of Mud Bay and Westside Wellness. When either of these lots are near full, please return later so that patrons have a place to park. Thanks.
The result of bumble bee pollination