September 10, 2013


Rubber Rabbitbrush
Ericameria nauseosa
Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)

Quick ID
In general, rabbitbrush looks a bit like Big Basin Sage--a scrubby shrub with grayish-tinged, woolly leaves.  Like sagebrush, it's found in dry, open plains or disturbed sites, and grows from 1 to 6 feet high.  The leaves are linear and alternate on flexible stems.  The yellow flowers bloom late (August-October), blanketing the plains and slopes with the type of brilliant display most flora exhausted months ago.  Being in the Asteraceae family, each flower is actually a loose cluster of mini-blooms known as "disc flowers", like the ones in the eye of a sunflower or daisy.  The "ray flowers" that we know as petals in other Asteraceae species are absent in rabbitbrush.  

Found up to 10,000', from Canada to Mexico, east of the Pacific mountain system and stretching to the Great Plains.  Look for it growing near dryland bunchgrasses and shrubs like Big Basin Sage (Artemesia tridentata), Basin Wildrye (Leymus cinereus), Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) and Bluebunch Wheatgrass (Pseudoregenaria spicata).

What's in a Name?
The genus name Ericameria is relatively new to rabbitbrush.  I'll spare you the taxonomy rant this time, and just say that I learned this plant as Chrysothamnus, a "golden thicket".  Makes sense, right?  But now this lovely Latin name that I've been sneakily slipping into casual conversation and engraving on my garden signs is no more, and we have Ericameria in its place.  Erica is Greek for the heath plant, whose leaves are said to resemble those of the rabbitbrush.
The "nauseous" root in the species name is in reference to the strong smell the plant gives off, rather than the idea that ingesting it will make you sick.  In fact, the plant's thick latex has been used for centuries as a sort of chewing gum (hence the "Rubber" part).  It provides shelter for and is eaten by rabbits and other small mammals.
In some southern parts of the country, Rabbitbrush is known almost exclusively as Chamisa, from the Spanish word for brush or kindling, and ultimately derived from the Latin chama (--> flamma--> "flame").   

The presence of rabbitbrush, which often grows on very poor soils, is considered a useful indicator that land is eroded or overgrazed.  It can be an important winter forage for antelope, mule deer and elk on depleted rangelands, but is sometimes reported to be toxic to livestock.
The plant has a few adaptations that allow it to thrive in arid, inhospitable places.  It's tolerant to a wide range of soil types, alkalinity, salinity, cold and drought.  The felt-like fuzz covering the stems (technically known as trichomes) acts as insulation and reduces water loss.  The light gray stems also reflect more heat than dark green leaves would, keeping the shrubs cool as a cuke in the harsh summer sun of the open prairie.
Historically, rabbitbrush has been used to make yellow or green dye, and prepared as a tea to help coughs and colds.  The flexible twigs are good for baskets, and the seeds can be ground and used much like cornmeal.  
People have been looking for a way to use the natural latex found in the roots and inner bark to produce rubber since the 1930s, but haven't found a commercially viable way to extract it.  There is currently an investigation underway by the University of Nevada, looking at the potential of rabbitbrush as a multi-use industrial crop for biomaterial and bioenergy applications.  Here's the interesting project summary.

Wild Gardening
Plants need about 4' of space, and take about 4 years to mature.  They tend to produce a million branches, generally arising from a common point and not overtaking neighbor plants.  New plants sprout up from the roots and can be divided, and the seeds germinate easily.These plants thrive in poor soils, and overwatering or fertilizing can produce leggy, sprawling growth.  If your rabbitbrush is getting a little wily from growing in moist, rich soil, go ahead and give it a heavy pruning in early spring.  Trimming till the branches along the stems are about 6" will make for more compact, bushy growth the next season.  
Being a late bloomer, rabbitbrush fills an important niche both as an ornamental perennial and a fall pollen source for bees, flies and butterflies.  To see this plant in late fall, spilling over with brilliant color and buzzing with hundreds of hungry and deprived insects, is really incredible.  It tolerates fussing-over, but seems to delight in neglect: no extra water, no soil amendments, no pruning or deadheading.  The soft, pale branches complement the muted palette of a xeric landscape perfectly, and provide a safe haven for nesting birds and other small animals.
The rubber rabbitbrush planted here provides a strong structural element to this native thicket.  In the foreground  is green rabbitbrush (Ericameria viscidiflorus), which tends to be a more compact shrub with lush yellow blooms.

September 4, 2013

Western Yarrow

Western Yarrow
Achillea millefolium
Asteraceae (Sunflower family)

Quick ID
Yarrow forms a spreading carpet of soft, fern-like leaves that grow 3-5" long and have a little silvery tinge to them.  The flower stalks can get to be 3' tall (shorter where it's shaded) and are topped with clusters of creamy white flowers.  Leaves and flowers alike have a distinctive smell, kind of sharp and pungent.
At first glance, the flowers of the native White Spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia) look an awful lot like yarrow, but on closer observation they're pretty different.  Spiraea flowers (on the right in the photo above) have long stamens that waggle out past the petals, and the leaves are broad and toothed.
Tansy, blech!
There are plenty of non-native yarrows grown and sold at nurseries.  These are the yellow and pink-flowered varieties, and they have a strong tendency to be weedy in gardens.  There is also an invasive weed called Common Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) that's often mistaken for yarrow.  It looks similar, but only in the crudest sense.  Tansy is a pretty plant, but, ahem, a HUGE pain in the ass, devastating to native plant communities, impossible to get rid of, etc etc.  Don't grow it.  Don't pick a bouquet and give it to your honey.  I see you looking at it with those doe eyes.  But it's so yellllowww...!  Quit it.  It's bad.  Tell your neighbors.

Western yarrow is circumboreal, meaning it occurs all throughout the northern (boreal) latitudes of the globe, including every state and province in North America.  You find it especially in the west and central parts of Montana, in habitats ranging from streambanks to open hillsides to wooded forests.

What's in a Name?
Everything about yarrow is steeped in rich history, and its name is no exception.  The common name comes directly from the old Saxon word for the plant, gearwe. The genus Achillea honors the Greek hero Achilles of the Trojan wars, and hints at this plant's long importance as a medicinal herb.  Achilles was taught of yarrow's healing properties by Chiron, his centaur tutor.  Achilles had no need of it himself, of course, having been rendered invulnerable to wounds due to a good dunking in the river Styx as a baby.  The only spot that remained vulnerable was the small place where his mother Thetis pinched his heel as she dipped him in the water, and this is where Apollo shot the arrow that was the death of him.  (Turns out Apollo was also the one who taught Chiron all that good stuff about plant medicines!  Hmmm...)  Anyhow, during his life as a war hero, Achilles is said to have carried the yarrow plant with him into battle to heal his soldiers' wounds.  The fresh leaves are indeed a clotting agent, and can be used to staunch nosebleeds and bloody scrapes.   For this reason, yarrow has also been known in the past as bloodwort, sanguinary, soldier's woundwort, stanchweed and thousand seal.  The name for this blood-clotting alkaloid is achilleine, which is still used in modern medicine to suppress menstruation.
The species name millefolium literally means a thousand leaves, and leads to another common name for yarrow, "milfoil".  Also included in the long list of traditional names is death flower, eerie, bad man's plaything (!), old man's mustard, seven year's love, knyghten, snake's grass and devil's nettle.
Yarrow isn't considered a great grazing plant for domesticated or wild animals.  It's one of those "they'll eat it if they have to" plants, which makes it good for landscaping where deer are a problem.  Milk from cows that graze on yarrow is considered "disagreeable" tasting, and I can tell you from experience that honey from a yarrow patch tastes...really weird.  Very strong.  Disagreeable, you might say.  In fact, the alkaloids, volatile oils and glycosides in yarrow are so apparent, so in your face, that some people just can't stand it.  Late in the summer, when the white flower clusters are starting to brown, the smell coming off a yarrow stand is strong.  "Literally smells like vomit," says a friend of mine.  Whelp, says I.  Smells like yarrow.  You either love it or you hate it.  For me, it's both at the same time.
Those same smelly chemicals are what has made yarrow such an illustrious plant for thousands of years.  The medicinal properties go on and on.  Besides being a blood coagulant, it's also reported to be a good anti-inflammatory chest-rub for colds, induces sweats to break a fever, eases toothaches and earaches, soothes burns, brightens your eyes and repels mosquitoes.  I believe it.  If you dig up a bit of yarrow, you'll see little pink tips on the roots.  Chew on these.  They taste like carrots and make your tongue go all numb and tingly.  There are powerful chemicals at work in this plant.  I've never seen anyone poisoned from it, but it could happen.  Don't say I didn't warn you.  I have seen it be irritating to some people's skin.

Wild Gardening
In many ways, yarrow is a wild gardener's dream.  It's so easy to grow from seed.  Just wait till the flower heads are brown, shake them off into a bag, and make sure they're good and dry so you don't get mold.  The seeds don't even need cold stratification; you can just sprinkle them on any old soil and they'll grow like gangbusters.  They also transplant like nobody's business.  I've literally yanked yarrow out of my yard, thrown it onto a patch of roughed up ground, done a two second "cover up, smoosh down and water," and had a healthy new yarrow patch within a week.
Obviously, this plant is tenacious.  In an irrigated yard, it will take over if you let it.  Maybe that's a good thing!  I'm letting a chunk of my lawn get taken over this summer.  It's nice because you don't have to mow it (it's a wildflower!) but if you do, it's fine.  Just nice soft ferny lawn.  Never have to water or fertilize.  But this tenacity also means that stray yarrow plants are constantly popping up in every other part of my yard.  I'm semi-okay with it, because the foliage is nice and I don't have to feel bad about ruthlessly yanking it out when it's gone too far.  And it will go too far.  So if you want a tidy controlled environment where everybody follows the rules and steps in time, yarrow's probably not for you.  If you want a crazy-easy native plant that needs next to nothing in terms of upkeep, look no further.  In fact, if you don't irrigate at all (and live in a really dry climate like ours) yarrow will be much less of a pain.  So really what you should maybe do is go native, quit watering, and embrace wholeheartedly the plants like these that thrive on neglect.
Also, make sure you like the smell before you plant a bunch.  Some people don't.
The pollinators love it though!  Prolific flowers, nice big landing pad for bees and butterflies, and a long bloom season.  The seed heads look really nice if you don't cut them, too, and add great winter interest to your landscape.  Oh, yarrow.

One More Thing...
I don't suppose I've mentioned, here on Flora montana, my great love of story songs and old folk ballads, but there, I've said it.  Oh I love them, and an old Scottish standard, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, just happens to be one of my favorites.  Especially Ewan MacColl's version.  So good.

July 25, 2013

Red Baneberry

Red Baneberry
Actaea rubra
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
Quick ID:  
Look in rich, moist thickets and shaded forests for this striking, relatively uncommon plant.  It can grow up to three feet high, with flowers appearing in early to mid-summer as fluffy clusters atop tall stalks.  The white flowers have lots of antenna-like stamens that wave out past the small petals.  Soon, the flowers fade and stalks of bright red berries take their place.
The species and subspecies of Actaea are closely related and not always easy to distinguish.  There is a white baneberry (A. pachypoda), but the red baneberry species (A. rubra) sometimes bears white fruit as well.  True white baneberries have thicker pedicels (flower-bearing stalks) than the "red" species.  You can recognize Actaea berries by the little buttons on their ends.  The white berries, with their pupil-like spots, have been used in the past as eyes for children's dolls, hence one of the common names for the plant, "Doll's Eyes".  Kind of creepy looking, if you ask me.   
Found through the northern temperate zones of North America and Eurasia.  In Montana, it's most likely to be spotted in the southern and western parts of the state (see the USDA range map)
What's in a Name?
The family name Ranunculaceae comes from the Latin rana, frog, in reference to its members' affinity for wet places.  Actaea is the Latin name for a generally strong-smelling plant.  The Greek aktea is the word for the elderberry tree (Sambucus sp.), whose leaves the baneberry resembles.  Rubra is a ubiquitous species name meaning "red".  The common name "baneberry" refers to its toxicity--bane ultimately comes from the ancient root gwhen-, "to murder or wound".
You might also hear baneberry called red cohosh, necklaceweed or snakeberry.    
All parts of this plant are poisonous, with the toxin protoanemonin most concentrated in the berries and roots.  Symptoms include "the usual"--vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, stomach cramps--but the toxin ultimately acts on your heart, and can cause circulatory failure.  So don't eat it!  That said, people have been eating this plant for thousands of years.  North American Indian tribes have used a decoction of the roots to treat rheumatism, coughs and colds, and to improve the appetite.  It is said to increase milk production after childbirth, and decrease excessive menstrual bleeding.  A poultice of chewed leaves was used to soothe wounds, and there are several references to it being ingested to soothe stomach pains caused from swallowing hair. (Huh?)  But once again, unless you're a trained professional, please, don't eat it.  Eating as few as two berries can cause severe pain, and a few more can mean respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.
Baneberry is not, however, poisonous to livestock.  Sheep and horses will graze on it when there's not much else around, and elk will eat the foliage in the fall (Actaea foliage stays green late in the season, after most plants have withered in the frost).  Birds like Grouse, Gray Catbird (seen here), and American Robins also relish the berries, as do mice, squirrels, chipmunks and voles.

Wild Gardening:
Despite its murderous name, baneberry makes an excellent woodland garden perennial.  The foliage is lush, the flowers and fruit are highly ornamental, and it can take part to full shade.  It provides cover for small mammals and will attract songbirds to your yard.  Plants are not hard to find at nurseries, particularly those specializing in natives.  If you do decide to try propagating from seed, remember that, like many wildflowers, they need a period of cold stratification before they'll germinate, and it might take two seasons to get them to sprout.  Naturalize along with other moisture-loving species like twinberry, horsetail, thimbleberry, sedge, alder and aspen for a lush, verdant woodland garden.

July 8, 2013


Scrophulariaceae (The Figwort Family)

What's in a Name?
It's most often told that "penstemon" is from the Greek for five stamens,  but the word may actually be derived from the Latin for "almost a thread (stamen)," in reference to it's sterile fifth "staminode".  And while the new family, Plantaginacea (more on all this later...), is from Plantago (L. "plantain"), the Scrophulariaceae family has a much more interesting naming story.

Now, a word about names.

Am I allowed to love etymology and loathe taxonomy?
Meriwether Lewis' 1806 specimen 
I remember when I started to learn botanical Latin; how the whole world opened up in a new way.  I love the roots hidden in the names of plants, and the puzzles.   In them, we can hear the real words of Pliny and Virgil and Theophrastus. Cornus. Acer. Betula. Salix.  There's Greek and Latin, medieval history and ancient mythology. Calypso. Achillea. Hypericum. Traditional languages and foods and medicines. Poisons.  Camassia. Lavandula. Apocynum. Many names are metaphorical, a poetic interpretation of the plant.  Echinops. Pteris. Ipomoea.  We learn their color, their parts, the way they hold themselves, where they come from and how they grow.  The way they taste. Ranunculus. Sylvestris. Aquilegia. Saccharum.  We learn who has stolen the botanist's heart.  Aloysia. Luciliae.  Many were named during the surge of scientific curiosity that marked the Age of Enlightenment, when botanical exploration was much more harrowing than it generally seems today.  The explorers who "discovered" and documented and named these North American species often had epic, adventurous times doing so, and the tales of their expeditions are full of drama, danger and mystery.  Charles Darwin and Lewis and Clark are famous for their discoveries, but there are tales to tell in all the lives of David Douglas, Thomas Nuttall, John Lindley, John Charles Fremont, William Baldwin, William Darlington, Frederick Pursh, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Torrey, Archibald Menzies, John Bartram...and so many others.  There's a lifetime of stories behind these plant names, and I tend to grow attached to them.  They're part of my story too, of my growing and learning and exploring my own world.
I learned the Penstemon species when they were in the Scrophulariaceae family, as they have been for 150 years.  For me, penstemon is the poster-child scroph, with its puckered, pouty lips.  In my heart, this is where they belong, alongside the monkeyflowers and blue-eyed marys.  But while the sport of taxonomy is full of mysteries and stories of its own, it's also a notorious pain in the ass.  Full of unpronounceable, impossible to remember words that are always changing. For a word-romantic like myself it could be maddening, if not for this simple, secret coping mechanism:  I just ignore it.  It's very un-scientific of me, I know, and very stubborn.  But as far as I'm concerned, penstemons are figworts and not plantains and in my heart of hearts, there they shall remain.  Molecular phylogenies be damned.
Quick ID
There is a bit of variation in this genus, but the flowers are distinct.  Most are shades of purple, some leaning more towards blue or pink (even red).  White flowers are pretty common too, and there are a couple of yellow species.  All have five petals, fused into a tube at the base and flared out into two upper and three lower lips at the ends.  Inside the tube you'll find five stamens--one sterile (the staminode), the other four bearing anthers.  The plants are usually anywhere from 3" to 30" tall, some woodier than others, with simple, opposite leaves growing in clusters near the base of flower stalks.

Penstemon is the largest genus of flowering plants in North America with over 270 species.  Thirty-six of them are listed in Montana, with many of these designated as "species of concern" and only found in very localized areas.  They are also commonly called beardtongues.  Flowers in the genus Keckiella, found in the southwest, are also commonly known as penstemons or beardtongues, and are actually the progenitors of the Penstemon genus we have today. The ones I encounter most often in western Montana are Wilcox (P. wilcoxii), small blue (P. procerus) and fuzzytongue (P. eriantherus).  They're easy to tell apart, although you might encounter plants that look very similar to each that are a different species entirely.
In general, Wilcox penstemon is the classic, tall, super showy blue-lipped flower that you see all over rocky slopes just about the time the larkspur are beginning to fade.  They form basal rosettes of glabrous (hairless), narrow eye-shaped leaves, a couple inches long, that tend towards a reddish-purple edge.  Flower stalks generally reach ~12-18", but can be over two feet tall if the plants have access to more water.  The flowers are light-bluish to deep purple and are just stunning.
The small-flowered, somewhat woody Penstemon procerus is also common, with its stalks standing at attention.  You'll find this one in wetter places like meadows and gullies.  The plants and individual flowers are about 1/3 - 1/2 the size of the larger Wilcox variety, and tend to be darker shades of purple.  The leaves are also much more narrow and lanceolate.

Fuzzytongue penstemon is a knockout--one of my all-time favorites.  It's soft, small, and has a mesmerizing flower.  The tube formed by the petals is cavernous and very mouthlike, with the four anther-bearing stamens curved like fishbones around the bearded tongue of the fifth sterile stamen.  They grow in the toughest of conditions, on the driest, highest, windiest mountains.  They're incredible.

Wild Gardening

Penstemon is a snap to grow and propagate, thriving in difficult soils, drought and heat.  The many-seeded fruit capsules are easy to collect.  When the capsules start to split open the seeds are ready; just cut off the stalks and collect them in paper bags.  These plants need cool moist stratification to germinate, so either sow seeds outdoors in fall, or in pots that will be left outside for the winter. Once the leaves are up they transplant well, and are perfect rock garden specimen plants for an early summer show of color.  And the bees adore them.  I've spent many hours in my backyard watching the hubbub of activity around the Wilcox' penstemon in particular.  On a sunny afternoon, you're guaranteed to find dozens of native bees happily dipping their heads into each purple tube for a sip of nectar.
For a ton more information on growing penstemon, check out Susan Greer's Native Penstemons in our Gardens.  If you want to dig deeper, don't miss Myrna Jewett's really great article about growing shrubby beardtongues for rock gardens, with additional insight into the North American evolution of the Penstemon genus.  In it, she points out that penstemons are shifting slightly toward being hummingbird-pollinated, with an interesting discussion on why that might be. 

May 27, 2013

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Arrowleaf Balsamroot
Balsamorhiza sagittata
Asteraceae (Sunflower family)

Quick ID
In late spring, arrowleaf balsamroot covers open hillsides in an unmistakable blanket of golden, sunflower-like flowers.  The fuzzy, silvery-green leaves can be 6" wide and over 12" long, arising from from the base of the plant in tufts like bunchgrasses.  Flowers bloom May-July, and are borne singly on stalks that can get 3' tall.
Flowers like these are known as "composites" and are actually made up of two different types of inflorescence.  Tiny tubular disc flowers cluster together to form the central eye, while the "petals" are actually a ring of ray flowers.  Some species in the Asteraceae family have only ray flowers (like dandelion), some have only disc flowers (like rabbitbrush) and some have both together!
Native to western North America, you can find arrowleaf balsamroot growing in meadows, sagebrush steppe and conifer forest openings at low elevations (most commonly 3500-7000') as far east as the Dakotas, south to Arizona and north at least to BC and Alberta.

What's in a Name?
Nice and straightforward.  The leaves are shaped like arrows.  Sagittata comes from the Latin word for arrow, "sagitta".  Balsamorhiza is named for the large woody taproot, which produces a thick sap that smells like balsam fir.  "Balsam" basically indicates any nice-smelling plant, and rhiza is the Latin word for root.

Did you know that arrowleaf balsamroot, with its cheery flowers up to 4" wide, is our biggest wildflower here in Montana?  And such an important species in western landscapes.  Balsamroot is rich in protein, providing excellent graze for deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn.  The nutritious oily seeds are important to birds and rodents, and the open-faced flowers are perfect for native pollinators.  Every part of the balsamroot plant is edible, and has been used as food and medicine across its native range for thousands of years.  The massive taproot, which can be eight feet deep and as wide as your hand, makes it especially well-equipped to withstand fire, grazing, weeds and drought.  I love looking up at a hillside blooming in full force, picturing the massive roots drilling into the earth deeper than I am tall, opening tunnels for underground excavators, lending a foothold to the sloping soil, casting about for that fleeting sip of moisture.  If I had x-ray eyes, I have a feeling I'd keep them trained downward.
Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery collected arrowleaf balsamroot near present-day Lincoln, MT, in July 1806.  Their specimen sheets, prepared by the fascinating botanist Frederick Pursh, are still housed at the Lewis & Clark herbarium in Philadelphia.

Wild Gardening
As a tremendously showy, long-lived specimen plant that can withstand nature's brutality with the best of us, arrowleaf balsamroot should be a wild gardener's dream.  This is not, however, a species for the weak-willed or fickle-hearted.  Balsamroot requires steadfast determination and cooperation.  The massive taproot makes transplanting nearly impossible.  They can be grown from seed, but like many of our native wildflowers, they need to go through cold stratification.  No worries though; this isn't as technical as it sounds.
My personal wild gardening strategy is based on equal parts logic and ease: just watch what the wildflowers are doing, and copy them.  If the balsamroot at my elevation is dropping seed in mid-July, my own planting won't be far behind.  I'll put extra seed down, figuring some will get carried off by insects and other critters, and many just won't take at all.  The winter weather will naturally take care of the required cold stratification, and when temperatures warm up, the seeds will sprout when they're good and ready.  I'll be patient, knowing that even in perfect conditions, it will take five years for my seedlings to flower.  But when they do...ohhh baby.  My happy little bees are bound to buzz right up and kiss me on the nose.

May 23, 2013

Wild House of Bees FAQs

Wild House of Bees
Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  What kind of bees live in a house like this?
A.  NOT honeybees!  These houses are for native solitary bees.  There are thousands of species of bees native to North America.  About 70% nest in tunnels dug in the ground, and the rest prefer hollow stemmed plants or other holes found in nature.  The most common "cavity nesters" in Montana are mason bees (Osmia spp.), leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.), carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), yellow-faced or masked bees (Hylaeus spp.) and cuckoo bees (Nomada spp.)  Many wild bees don't look like "typical" bees at all, but rather resemble ants, flies, hornets...or even little flying metallic robots!

Q.  How do you get the honey out?
A.  You don't!  Native bees don't make honey.  Instead, they provide pollen reserves to feed their young.

Q.  Will my bee house attract wasps?

A.  No!  Aggressive paper wasps are no more likely to take up residence in your bee house than in any other cranny they find.  They nest communally in paper combs, and won't move into your bee tubes.  There are, however, native solitary wasps!  Like our native bees, these wasps are non-aggressive and fascinating to observe.  Read more...

Q.  Do these bees sting?
A.  Rarely.  Without a hive or honey to defend, native bees are extremely docile.  Many don't have stingers at all, and those that do will only sting if severely threatened.  The stings are relatively painless...more like a mosquito bite than a bee sting, really.  Even if you're allergic to honey bee stings, there's little cause for concern.  There have been no recorded cases of people going into anaphylactic shock from native bee stings.  Read more...

Q.  Do I have to order bees?
A.  You can, but it's not necessary.  Unlike European honey bees, solitary bees occur naturally in the environment, and are actively searching for cavities to nest in.  It might take a little while for the wild bees to find your nesting box, but once they do they'll come back year after year.

Q.  How long will my bees live?
A.  Native bees have a pretty short life span.  Using mason bees as an example, the cycle goes like this:  in the spring, as soon as temperatures are warm enough, females will emerge and start looking for flowering plants to collect pollen from.  Back at the home tube, they'll stash a little pollen bundle along with a freshly laid egg, pack in some mud, and start again.  Pollen, egg, mud...pollen, egg, mud...until the tube is full of about 8 cells.  The two or three cells closest to the tube opening contain unfertilized eggs which will result in male bees, and the inner eggs will hatch females.  Mama bee will continue filling up tubes until her life span is reached, around 6 weeks.  When the eggs hatch, the bee larvae eat the little pollen reserve and spin a little cocoon to begin the metamorphosis process.  The larvae pupate into young bees, which wait out the winter inside their nesting tube.  In spring, as soon as temperatures are warm enough, the fresh crop of bees will emerge.  Males come out first, mate with the females and die.  And the whole cycle starts again!

Q.  Do native bees compete with honey bees, or vice versa?
A.  Yes and no.  Yes, wild bees and honeybees are after the same resources; nectar and pollen.  But in many ways, they go about gathering these resources very differently.  Honeybees are great pollinators of farm crops.  They bounce down field rows from one flower to the next, returning to a hive that can be conveniently moved anywhere in the country that has warm weather and a flowering crop.  Commercial agriculture as we know it is entirely dependent on honeybees this way.  But remember, honeybees are native to Europe.  They didn't evolve alongside the plants that grow naturally here, and as such, are terrible pollinators of native plants.  They can only operate in a narrow range of temperatures and dates, and aren't adapted to the myriad of flower shapes and sizes found in the wild.  There are thousands of species of native bees, each born to fill a special little niche in nature.  And in fact, native bees actually help honeybees become better pollinators themselves (read more on this UC Berkeley study).
The best way to ensure there's enough food for everybody is to grow a variety of bee-friendly plants that flower throughout the season.

Q.  When should I hang my bee house up?
A.  As soon as the weather warms up to the mid-50s, wild bees will be out foraging and looking for a place to nest.  Around here that usually starts around March, and ideally your bee house should be up before then to provide a warm welcome!

Q.  Does it need to hang in a special place?
A.  Since bees can't fly when it's too cold, they like their nests to face the warm morning sun (south or east).  But super duper hot midsummer sun could cook them, so a little shelter is nice.  Maybe on a tree that lets in spring sunlight, and provides some shade when it leafs out in the summer.  They should be about 5-10' off the ground, in a stable place that doesn't get too jostled around, and be near a source of mud and flowering plants.  That said, you can hang your bee house pretty much anywhere!  They're perfect for small yards or porches, in the city or country, in any type of ecosystem where they can find food.  Providing a little more habitat for the bees can never hurt.

Q.  What are they built out of?
A.  I use a variety of recycled materials, depending on what's available.  This is a great way to use misshapen, warped or otherwise "imperfect" reclaimed lumber that isn't fit for more precise building projects...the bees don't care about wonky angles or bent boards!  I also try to find blue-stained lumber cut from trees killed by bark beetles.  Might as well make something beautiful out of that ecological mess.  Each house is coated with an inert mineral oil for a little extra protection from the weather.  For the tubes, I try to use invasive species, making a nice combination project of weed eradication and pollinator conservation.  I've experimented with Fuller's teasel, water hemlock, elderberry, sunflowers, milkweed, corn stalks, raspberry canes and some others.  

Q.  How long does a Wild House of Bees last?  
A.  With a little upkeep, you can use your Wild House of Bees for many, many years.  Since the smell of varnish repels bees, the wooden frame is coated in non-toxic mineral oil to prevent rotting.  If you wish, you can paint on a new coat every few years to keep the wood nice and sealed.  You can find it at any drug store for pretty cheap.  The only other thing that may need upkeep is the nesting tubes that fill in the frame.  Replacing these tubes every few years will help discourage pests and parasites from taking up residence inside, and get rid of any tubes that begin to rot...they are, after all, just hollow plant stems and sticks!  The back of your nesting box can be easily removed for cleaning out and replacing tubes.  You can cut new ones of your own if you have a source, or order them here.  

Q.  I don't live in Montana...will it still work?
A.  Absolutely!  Wild bees are looking for nesting places all over the country and indeed, all over the world! The nesting tubes in the Wild House of Bees will attract the native species found in your area.  Most of the info found here is specific to Montana but still applies to other areas.  If you have any questions about wild beekeeping in a different region, let me know and I'll point you in the right direction.

Q.  Where can I buy one?
A.  Each Wild House of Bees is made to order by hand, so no two are exactly alike.  They generally measure 9-18" tall by 9-12" wide, with prices ranging from $25-80 + S&H, depending on work and materials involved.  Custom orders are always welcome!  Check out upcoming Events & Exhibitions, or visit Flora montana on Etsy to order one today.

Visit the An Introduction to Wild Bees for more information, or dig a little deeper with this compilation of Resources for the Wild Beekeeper.  Good luck on your wild beekeeping adventure!  

~Happy Bees, Happy World~