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

1 comment:

  1. This is elegant! Your blog brought to mind and sight William Blake's words:

    To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour

    Jerry Parker