Honey Bees vs Native Bees

All About Bees

by Rebecca Hansen

Bees are one of our agricultural industry’s most important resources and indeed one of our planet’s most important resources, and the survival of the human race is in the hands of the pollinators.  The pollinator issue is a hot topic these days, but, there is more to pollinating a crop than meets the eye.  There is great complexity in the relationship between the bees and the plants in an agricultural setting and a lot to learn when it comes to honey bees vs native bees.  The needs of the plant species and the pollinators must match up pretty closely.  When it is all working together everybody benefits!  The farmer has successful crop yields and the bees are happy, healthy and well fed.  The flower structures, pollination method, pollen size and shape, nectar content are just some of the plant qualifications that a bee species looks for when ‘shopping’ for food and nectar.

Some bees such as the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) are polylectic which means that they will be able to find good food sources from many different plant species.  That is why a wildflower mix of several species is really great for the Honey Bee, as the time when nectar and pollen sources are available is lengthened.  Other bees are oligolectic, like the Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee (Megachile rotundata), that is very picky about the plant species that it chooses for its nourishment.  In fact, these bees primarily like alfalfa.  The Honey Bee has specialized pockets on its hind legs where it stores the pollen which it then takes back to the nest for food storage.  The Leafcutter Bee has special hairs on its front where it collects the pollen that is used and stored in the nest where the eggs are laid.  The honey bee is a social bee in that it lives in colonies with males and females with differentiated duties.  This allows for the nests to be collected and moved to various crop locations.  The leafcutter bee is a solitary bee in that, after mating, all females, individually, collect pollen and nectar and build their own nest for eggs and protection. But because they prefer to build their nests in close proximity to other leafcutter bees, they can be lured to man-made nests and can also be transported to other crop locations.

Both of these bee species are so different from each other but both are commercially used to pollinate different crops for just that reason.  They don’t compete with each other for the resources available. Take a bit of time to learn more about the pollinators in your pollinator gardens and look at the flowers that they most frequently go to for food.  Find out their ‘favorites’ so you can plant more of those.  All l those hardworking critters are “‘busy as bees” helping to ‘save the human race’ by making food and agriculture products for you and me.


Watch a movie on setting up a new Honey Beehive:
Great learning video about the lifecycle of bees:
Watch a Leafcutter Bee making a brood cell:
Making a Leafcutting bee house:




leafcutter bee photo: http://www.ars.usda.gov/images/docs/14415_14609/ALCB1.gif


How to get your Neighbors & Friends Interested in Pollinators

Talking About Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to educate other people to care and get your neighbors and friends interested in pollinators too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?  I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.  It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids
Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff.
It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes
Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others
Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Photo Credits:






Pollinator flower mixes

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower mixes


Bumblebees Love Purple

Why Do Bees Have a Favorite Color?

by Sandy Swegel


I visited one of my favorite suburban lawn alternative gardens yesterday.  It’s a true pollinator’s heaven of nectar and pollen, right on a neighborhood street. Full of perennial gaillardia and rudbeckia, and reseeding annual larkspur, cleome and sunflower, the garden uses about the same amount of water as your average lawn.

Bees were everywhere.  Neighbors stop by in wonder at what can be done with a front yard instead of plain old grass.  In the median strips in front of the flowers, kales and lettuces produced greens for the neighbors. This time of year, gaillardia and rudbeckia are dominant with their yellows, oranges and reds.  But something different this year was a plethora of purple larkspur.  Curious, I  asked community urban farmers Scott and Wendy about the variation.  They and the landowner are all careful gardeners, unlikely to throw in something different without a reason.  Scott explained matter-of-factly, “Well it’s for the bumblebees. They prefer purple.”  I was skeptical since I see bumblebees all day on different colored flowers.  He assured me they had watched the field the last couple of years. The bumblebees always went for the purple flowers.  And walking on the path, huge fat bumblebees were on the purple larkspur, gorging away.


I couldn’t resist a little more research and sure enough, studies in Germany showed that baby bumblebees love purple flowers. Purple flowers are thought to contain more nectar than other colors and that baby bumblebees who chose purple flowers had a better chance of survival…they then passed the purple preference onto their offspring.

I’m not sure what most piqued my curiosity this day…I loved learning that bumblebees like purple flowers best.  But I think I was more intrigued by Wendy and Scott just noticing all season that the bumblebees liked one particular color.  In the end, though, I’m most impressed with the bumblebees who somehow got the humans to plant their favorite food.  Very clever bees.

Photo credits:


Stalking the Wild Monarch

All About the Monarch Butterfly

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Show and Tell time.
It’s time to take the kids or some curious adults outside and prove your superior knowledge of the ways of nature and introduce them to butterfly eggs.  It’s been a good milkweed year in the wild this year. Lots of spring rains followed by warm days have made the perfect home for milkweed plants.  Milkweeds are growing in my garden and along roadsides and ditches.  If milkweed plants are fully grown…mine are in tight bud about to bloom…you can walk up to almost any plant and look under the leaves and find little tiny white monarch butterfly eggs.

Milkweed plants, Asclepias, as you probably know are the ONLY host plant for the monarch butterfly.  The butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves. The eggs hatch hungry little larvae that chew up the leaves.

The larvae get big and fat and eventually form pupae, also on the underneath side of a milkweed plant.

Finally, “ta-da” a monarch butterfly emerges.

I have two favorite kinds of milkweed plants in my garden.  The “showy milkweed” Asclepias speciosa with the big pink seed head you’ve seen in fields, and “Butterfly weed” Asclepias tuberosa which is my favorite because it’s bright orange and looks good in the dry August garden next to the Black-eyed Susans.  It also makes a great picture to see a Monarch butterfly on one of the orange flowers.

Monarchs are happy to choose either of these two “milkweeds” or any of the other more than 100 different species of milkweeds around the world. So you can pick the flower you like and grow it in your own garden. Grow it and the monarchs WILL come.  I’ve had good luck with fall or winter direct sowing of the seeds that easily grow into blooming plants the next year.  After that, they reseed themselves gently.

Video links


And, just in case there are any monarch butterflies out there that don’t know how to do this, here is an instructable!




Make Your Own Mud Puddle

How To Attract More Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

I’m always in search of how to do things more easily and efficiently in the garden. Once again today I was at the garden center eavesdropping and heard a typical customer question: ”What should I plant to get pollinators to my yard?” The answer the garden center owner gave surprised me.  I was expecting a list of bright colorful flowers that were good sources of nectar and some host-specific plants for butterflies. Instead, I heard the best and simplest answer to this common question: “There are lots of good plants to use,  but the most important thing you can do is provide a good source of water.” He then elaborated that it couldn’t just be a birdbath or water fountain…it needed to be shallow and ideally have the minerals pollinators crave.

So the quick and easy way to get LOTS of pollinators to your yard is to make mud puddles.  Or if you’re a bit tidier, a water sand bath.

Any way to get small puddles of water will work. You’ve seen this when flying insects gather around a dripping spigot, or when there’s a ledge in your water feature that water flows slowly over. In nature, pollinators gather along the edges of streams and lakes.

To mimic nature, take a plant saucer and fill it half with sand and fill with water to just over the sand.  The sand is the source of minerals and gives an easy surface to rest upon.  Bees especially will drown in deeper water.  To make it extra nice, sprinkle compost over the sand to add extra nutrients.  If you’re out in the country, a nice flat cow patty will do the trick…Put it in a big round plant saucer and add water.

If you’re in a very dry climate like me, the water evaporates much too quickly in hot weather.  The customer I was eavesdropping on at the garden center had a burst of inspiration: “I’ll put one of my drip lines in it so when I water the plants, the “puddle” will get water.”

A less elegant solution is to take a one-gallon water bottle and put a pinhole in the bottom and place it on some bare soil. Fill the bottle and water will drip out slowly keeping a mud puddle going.

I’ve put out an attractive saucer with sand, and a water bottle over bare dirt to see which works better. So far, the plain wet dirt is winning when they’ve got a choice. Now, why do I suspect they’d probably like the wet cow patty the best.



Pollinator mixes

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower seed mixes

Hummingbird Moths aka Sphinx Moth, Hawkmoth or Hornworm

About These Important Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

When we think of pollinators, we think of bees and butterflies, but one of the larger groups of pollinators are moths.  They go from flower to flower looking for nectar and their hairy faces and bodies pick up lots of pollen that get taken to the next flower.  Most people think about moths just when they notice the moths flitting around the porch light at night, but gardeners see moths all the time without even realizing it.  The little white “butterflies” around our veggie garden are cabbage moths.

One of the most intriguing moths in the garden is the Sphinx moth or hummingbird moth.  It hovers especially over flowers, especially at dawn or dusk, looking for super sweet nectar. Most people think it’s a hummingbird the first time they see one.

Unique Facts

They are the only moth that “hovers” over flowers like hummingbirds do, fluttering their wings rapidly while they “drink” nectar.  This is why they are called “hummingbird moths.”

They can fly very fast, up to 30 miles per hour. They can also fly swooping down as hawks do. This is why they are called “hawkmoths.”

They are big. Their front wingspan can be eight inches and their proboscis (for feeding) can be 10 inches.

They are more active at night but you can see them during the daytime too, especially around twilight.

They find their flowers from a distance by their scent.  They love sweet-smelling flowers.  Once close up, the use their vision to find white or light colored flowers. They often feed on the same flowers by night that the hummingbirds use during the day.

The weirdest thing about the hummingbird moths is that their larval form is a hornworm. Gardeners see them most often as the dreaded tomato hornworm.

They get their name The Sphinx moth because the larvae will raise the front portion of their body up when you disturb them, causing it to resemble the Egyptian Sphinx.

Flowers that are Pollinated by Hawkmoths:

Evening Primrose
Four O’Clocks
Bee balm

These amazing hawk-sphinx-hummingbird moths are so useful in the garden, that now I have to let some of the tomato hornworms live just so I can have more moths around. Yikes.

Extension Fact Sheet about Hawkmoths

How to Start Mothing

Pollinator of Month

Slow Motion Video of Hawkmoth

How to Rear Sphinx Moths


Why Gardeners Should Get A CSA Share

Community Supported Agriculture

by Sandy Swegel


You’ve heard about CSAs by now.  Community Supported Agriculture is a system where you pay one flat rate for a weekly share of food from a local farm.  It’s a great plan that gives farmers a guaranteed basic income and gives you access to good local food.


“But I have a vegetable garden, why should buy a CSA?”


You’ll become a better gardener and a better cook that’s why. 


When you get a CSA share, you not only get a box of vegetables, you get a relationship with a farmer.  If you pick up on the farm, here’s what you can learn:


Succession planning. If you pick up on the farm or read your farm’s blog, you’ll see that every week, farmers are doing something new…starting new seed, planting cover crop, letting chickens run on a fallow area, pulling out bolted lettuces.  CSA farmers know how to get the max output from the most efficient input. You can learn a lot by going home to your garden and doing what they did.


You’ll learn to love vegetables you thought you hated.
Every year you buy seeds based on your own long-held ideas of what tastes good.  If it weren’t for a CSA I would never have learned that turnips are exquisite.  I didn’t like turnips as a child.  Even growing turnips I’d pick them when it was hot so they had already become a bit bitter. But our CSA harvested turnips young and tender, refrigerated them and sliced thinly.  They were beautiful and crunchy and make an awesome Middle-eastern style pickle.


You have a free garden consultant.
If you linger at the farm towards the end of pickup or go to farm-day picnics for CSA members, you can bring all of your garden questions and get expert tips on how to grow better or how to deal organically with pests.


You’ll learn new ways to cook and prepare foods.
Most CSAs have newsletters with recipes for the week’s food share.  You’ll get menu ideas and learn cooking techniques you hadn’t thought of.  And you’ll learn about vegetables in a new way.  Maybe you just grow your favorite tomato, but you’ll learn that a sauce made just of yellow tomatoes gives an entirely different flavor and texture experience.


You’ll eat more vegetables.
The only problem with CSAs is that you get a lot of food.  It can feel like a chore at first to have to prepare so much food from scratch.  But you want your money’s worth so soon you’ll schedule all that fresh food processing into your week.  Vegetables rather than processed foods and meats become the focal point of your diet.


Photo Credit http://tinyfarmblog.com/tag/csa-share/

Butterfly Love

Loving Our Earthly Companions

by Sandy Swegel


I have friends who are serious eco-tourists.  They were the first people I knew to swim with dolphins.  Then they starting swimming or boating with whales, petting them and picking lice off whales. This year the trip de rigeur was down to Mexico where you can be surrounded by tens of thousands of flying monarch butterflies.  We mere humans don’t have wings, but down in the monarch migration zones, it’s almost like having wings. My friends were awed and literally touched by clouds of fluttering butterflies.  They appreciate and LOVE butterflies in a new way now.


The best thing about butterfly love? Or bee love or whale love?  It’s going to be what saves species.  When I was a kid, studying butterflies involved using straight pins to pin dead butterflies to styrofoam blocks.  Kids now go to nature camps or butterfly pavillions or good schools and become so aware of what magical creatures butterflies are that children become society’s butterfly protectors.  Last summer a friend wasn’t watching where she was going and was going to accidentally stomp on a butterfly as she was tromping in the garden.  One of the kids playing nearby wailed “Stop! Watch out! There’s a butterfly!”


So, find some ways to experience butterflies up close.  In Denver, we’re lucky to have a Butterfly Pavillion.  Almost as intense is a 3-D IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies” now showing around the country.  Saving species, or saving the world is really pretty easy when the first step is learning to love our earthly companions.   The kids will explain it to you.

Photo credit and link:  http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/home/






A Wild Thicket

Keeping a Little Wild in Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

When it comes to our gardens, we Americans are of a divided heart. Deep in our ancestral memories are the manicured gardens of Europe.  We swoon over the groomed roses and delphiniums of England, We admire the orderliness of rows of Tuscan poplars. We see the almost mathematical grid of Versailles echoed in Jefferson’s Monticello. We use raised beds to confine our vegetables just as the medieval cloister gardens were enclosed.


 At the same time, we Americans are a frontier people, dazzled by the wildness and grandeur of raw untamed nature.  Grassy plains and dense woodlands and mountains majesty tug at our hearts even as we tend our suburban plots.


To fill the needs of our wild nature souls, I think it’s always good to have a wild area in our yard. One that manages to thrive only on what nature provides and provides a haven for small wildlife.  Generally, there is some place in your yard that already refuses to be tamed. Someplace wild plums keep sprouting and sumacs come unbidden.   This is the area to encourage in your yard – your secret garden, if you’d like – or just the area you see from your kitchen window reminding you that beneath the dishes and chores and children and jobs, you have a wild spirit too.

My favorite thicket started with the wild plums that kept coming back. Over time, a couple of chokecherries worked their way in, and the patch of lemon balm appeared all on its own.  Birds planted wild roses. Squirrels brought in nuts. I decided to play along with nature and seeded an unruly pollinators’ hedge filled with the nectar and pollen-rich flowering plants that bees and butterflies crave. I let the wild queen anne’s lace have some space in the back and I didn’t pull the dandelions. I did plant one of those tall dark purple butterfly bushes for structure and I seeded a buffer zone of grasses and wildflowers to create a neutral zone of sorts between “The Lawn” and “The Thicket.” 

 I don’t really “garden” the thicket but over time I’ve planted some naturalizing crocus and daffodils and a handful of seeds a decade ago that keep the spring display stunning.  About the only care I give the area is water during really dry spells and a birdbath of water because butterflies and birds and bees need something to drink.

 I am proudest of my tended garden…the showy beds of vegetables and annual flowers, the elegant stretches of roses and flowering shrubs and tulips in Spring. But deep down, it is my thicket that I love the most.

Bring More Color to Your Wild Areas

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

At this time of year when we’re mired in cold and snow, I yearn for two delights of Spring:  when the daffodils and tulips bloom and when the meadows burst with wildflowers.  One thing about wildflowers though, especially in our suburban gardens.  A few years after planting it seems that just a few wildflowers start to dominate.  Often it’s the bachelor buttons and California poppies, both beautiful flowers, but we need diversity and variety and wild color to really shake winter off.

The secret to a lush wildflower area (besides good rainfall) is to over-seed the area every once in a while with some of your favorite flowers.  I usually take the easy way and just throw out a packet of our mixed wildflower seeds to get an overall refreshing of the original mix I planted years ago.  But for one friend who has created a “hot colors” theme of red and orange in her garden, we throw out packets of red wildflowers.  This year we just did a search for Flowers by Color and picked out the flowers we liked with the truest red colors.  We settled on red columbines for Spring, red firecracker penstemons for early summer and red gaillardia for mid-summer.

Finally, my absolute favorite reseeding in the Spring is to seed the Parade of Poppies mix.  There just are never enough poppies of any sort in my mind.  This year I’ve slipped a seed packet in my coat pocket for some guerilla gardening during my sunny day walks along old abandoned properties and ditches that grows lots of weeds.  Poppies will brighten my path this year!

This year I’m also going to try taking a baggie full of our new StrawNet (pellets of straw) when I do my wild area guerilla gardening.  The biggest problem with just throwing seeds out onto abandoned land is that I can’t water them every day.  StrawNet absorbs water and helps create a little moist barrier for new seeds so I expect it to help more seedlings survive even if we have a dry Spring.  Sometimes nature needs a little help to be as beautiful as she can be.

Photo Credit: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/columbines/images/aschockleyi/aquilegia_schockleyi_habitat_katewalker_lg.jpg