Updated: Feb 21, 2022
It's likely you spotted your first bee of the year in February or March, when the rain and snow were just beginning to give way to the fresh promise of spring. Since then, countless flowers have bloomed, bees have come, and the literal fruits of their labor are ripening across the land. The yearly drought of this Mediterranean climate has also come, leaving most of the state rainless for many months. One may conclude that the bee season and its diversity have dried up with it, but that is far from the truth. The early fall months have plenty of native bees in store for Washington State. From the east side to the west, the high country to our backyard gardens, there is still diversity to discover if we know where to look.
The Western Lowlands
To find bees in fall, one must simply have the awareness to look wherever flowers are found. However, by mid-September abundant fields of wildflowers are almost a distant memory in the western Washington lowlands. A remnant bloom of fireweed may be found here and there in fields or roadsides, but the last redoubt of abundant native wildflowers in this region is found at the edges of Puget Sound salt marshes and coastal bays, where Douglas aster (Symphiotrichum subspicatus) and Puget gumweed (Grindellia integrifolia) can be common. Patches of these wildflowers in the mid-day sun have the potential to attract a great array of bees. The asters entice leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.) especially the showy late-season Megachile fidelis with its yellow-striped abdomen and gracefully spread wings. The particularly fortunate observer might notice a sporty-looking resin bee (Dianthidium spp.) visiting the gumweed, or an array of sweat bees (Lasioglossum spp.) or the shiny and tiny small carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.).
If getting out to the shores is not on your agenda, the simplicity of a weedy old field can be an interesting place for bees. The first rains of the season in late September will almost instantly ignite the dandelions back into bloom and these can be the optimal flower to find the brilliant metallic green bees (Agapostemon spp.), furrow bees (Halictus spp.) and various Lasioglossum sweat bees using the cheery yellow blooms into early November.
Even though it's invigorating to be out in the fresh air of the region’s wild places, there is no greater place in western Washington to locate native bees in the fall months than a thoughtfully planted pollinator garden. There are many fantastic fall native and ornamental flowers to choose from that will attract bees. Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) is a native more common to eastern Washington but will thrive in the west as an easy-to-grow water-sipper that will bloom almost endlessly if deadheaded. Bluebeard (Caryopteris spp.) is a small bee magnet shrub native to eastern Asia that is readily available at many nurseries and will produce loads of attractive blue flowers. Oregon seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus) is a low-growing, abundant-blooming fleabane from the California and Oregon coasts that is one of the finest bee flowers of all for this region, especially in the late season.
And what is fall without the glory of dahlias (Dahlia spp.) or mums (Chrysanthemum spp.)? These can be spectacular bee flowers if you buy the correct varieties. Be aware that most nursery-sold versions of these are genetically manipulated to have flower heads filled solely with petals, leaving the reproductive part of the flower shrunken and concealed where the bees cannot find it. These plants might look pretty but will do little or nothing for the bees. Some nurseries have begun to stock these flowers in their more natural form, where the yellow centers, complete with stamens, pistils, nectar and pollen are present. In this form, they are spectacular bee-attracting flowers.
The Columbia Plateau
Although dryness pervades much of eastern Washington year-round, it strangely doesn’t stop the native wildflower parade in the same way it does on the wetter, greener west side. Drive along almost any road in the Columbia Plateau and you’ll see the stunning fall bloom of rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa). Take a closer look and you’ll find a mind-boggling array of bees. If bee season were a fireworks show, this shrub's bloom is its grand finale. You’ll find cellophane bees (Colletes spp.) aplenty, and many others including the diminutive fairy bees (Perdita spp.) and large, stocky, long-horned bees (Melissodes spp.) residing on the blooms.
Alongside the rabbitbrush grows the small clump-forming snow buckwheat (Eriogonum niveum), a potent pollinator attractor in its own right. Keep an eye out for the brilliant tawny-colored long-horned bees (Melissodes spp.) with sky blue eyes (pictured below). Many of our state’s buckwheat species are magical with not only bees, but a vast array of pollinators.
Eastern Washington riparian areas will also maintain a bloom into these later months. Look for bees of many kinds on goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and asters (Symphyotrichum spp.). A particularly exciting bee to find is the colorful Triepeolus cuckoo bee pictured below. If you're roaming the shores of the Columbia River, keep an eye out for bees on the charming yellow Columbia Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria var. Atkinsonia) blooming in bare gravel areas near the water. In its cultivated form, this Coreopsis is often included in pollinator seed mixes and makes a wonderful addition to any fall bee garden.
Speaking of bee gardens, a green-thumbed eastern Washington pollinator enthusiast can't go wrong with adding in the regional natives mentioned above. Even rabbitbrush with its roadside ubiquity can look stunning in a cultivated space. Other widely used fall pollinator garden plants include blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata), rocky mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata), and the many handsome garden versions of shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa). Cutting back or deadheading some of your late spring or summer bloomers can also yield a second fall bloom. The attractive and popular Munro's globe mallow (Sphaeralcia munroana), typically a late-spring/early-summer bloomer, will respond well to this, offering an impressive orange fall bee-attracting bloom.
The High Country
The majestic high mountain meadows still hold some pollinator magic even into the cooler days of late summer and early fall. In some very high meadows and in riparian areas, expansive blooms and their bees can be found into late September. Bumblebees of many species are typically the stars, as in many meadows they are the only bees that can handle the cooler high elevation temps, which is thanks to their thick coats and ability to regulate body temperature through shivering. The cool air also leaves them slower-moving and more docile, permitting very close observation and photography.
When wandering the meadows above, keep an eye out for the blooms of Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), Sharptooth angelica (Angelica arguta) and fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium). A sunny warm day will usually furnish active bumblebee visitors, and on cloudy days you might find several bees listlessly meandering among the flower heads or even resting motionless. The vast majority of bumble bees you'll spot in the late season are males . Because these have no affinity to a nest for taking shelter on a foul weather day, they will simply pause on the flower heads they frequent. You may also find future queen bumble bees, of which are usually much larger than their male counterparts. It is bumblebee mating season. At season’s end the queens will live on to overwinter in a safe hiding spot with plans to emerge at the conclusion of next summer’s snowmelt. Species to look out for include the very common two-form bumble bee (Bombus bifarus), and the rare high country bumble bee (Bombus kirbiellus). Other species include the frigid bumble bee (Bombus frigidus), forest bumble bee (Bombus sylvicola), and the lucky and meticulous observer may locate the Fernald’s cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus fernaldae).
A good tip for high country bee watching, especially during this time of year, is to locate an area that has been burned in the relatively recent past. Fire resets the succession of plant species by reducing the forest canopy, allowing light to the ground. This creates conditions in which herbaceous plants and pollinators can thrive. The appropriately-named fireweed is a ubiquitous colonizer of these areas and a powerful bee attractor. Although wildfire has many negative effects, it's vital to note its importance in promoting diverse, dynamic ecosystems.
There is still much to observe before the rains and chill of winter press pause on nature’s progress. Wherever you are in the diverse landscape of our great state during these early fall months, we hope you find yourself amongst flowers taking notice of the brilliance of bees.