Leafcutter Bee (Megachile rotundata) Tour

July 19, 2019 — Hosted by John Wold, Ashlawn Farms, Laurel, MT

Attendees: Sheri Fredericksen, Gordon Clark, Mary Davis, Kyle and Pat Neary, Nan Grant, Carolyn Jones, Sue and Marvin Carter

Ashlawn Farms was established in 1909 and homesteaded by John Wold’s grandfather who moved west from Northwestern Minnesota. The name of the farm comes from the many ash trees located on the property. The family farms several crops, including some on dryland acres located south of Laurel. Leafcutter Bees (Bees) play an important role in the family’s alfalfa seed business which started in 1986.

In early years, a harrow was used to try and open the alfalfa flowers to allow pollination to occur, however, it was a practice that was destructive to the plant. During the 1970’s, farmers realized that bees worked extremely well to pollinate the alfalfa.

The alfalfa seed business is extremely weather dependent. Once the alfalfa plants begin budding, the Leafcutter Bee larvae, which have been stored in tubs during the winter, are placed into screened boxes. 19 Leafcutter 2The temperature in the incubation room is gradually increased to about 85 degrees for the larvae to mature into swarming Bees. Once the Bees begin swarming, they are hungry and ready to go to work. Ideally, if the weather can maintain about 80-85 degrees, the Bees are released to begin pollination of the alfalfa.20 Leafcutter 3

The Bees have no typical “queen;” however, the females do all of the work. The boxes containing the nesting holes are put into trailers and towed to locations where they are spaced out appropriately to pollinate the alfalfa. (The placement of the nesting boxes is 23 Leafcutter 6due to the Bees nesting range of 300 feet.) In total there are approximately 3,000 nesting holes per box. The trays of mature Bees are transported to the field by pickup (in the evening or morning) when the temperature is cool, and placed into the top of the trailers which can house 18, 24 or 28 nesting boxes. The screens are then removed. Once the temperature begins to rise, the Bees begin to swarm as they leave the boxes. The Bees are very weak and the first thing they do is learn to fly and begin to feed to gain strength. Once they build up strength, the females then choose a nesting hole.24 Leafcutter 7

Once a female Bee claims a nesting hole, it is hers and will not be used by another female while the eggs are being laid in the hole. The female Bee lines the hole with “cuts” of leaf material from nearby plants creating a sort of cocoon for depositing the pollen and nectar and laying the egg. The female Bee opens the alfalfa blooms and sucks the nectar and gathers the pollen from several 21 Leafcutter 4flowers on her belly and carries the pollen back to her nesting hole. (Since the females carry the pollen on their dry bellies, each flower they enter to gather more pollen is pollinated by the pollen that has been carried from the previous bloom.) The female Bee scrapes the pollen off inside the nesting hole, then spits the nectar into the pollen creating a paste-like food source for the larvae to feed on prior to diapause.1  When enough pollen and nectar has been collected, she then lays the egg and seals it with cuts of leaf material to protect the egg from predators. Female Bees literally wear their wings off flying into and out of the nesting holes and have a life span of about 5-6 weeks; the males live only about 2 weeks once they fertilize the females.

Approximately 6 gallons of Bees2 per acre are required to adequately pollinate the 22 Leafcutter 5alfalfa blooms. Great care is taken to ensure the alfalfa is not over-pollinated as it can have a detrimental effect to the alfalfa seed yield.

Once pollination is complete, the boxes containing the larvae are retrieved from the field and placed into the incubation room (at a temperature of 50-55 degrees) for the following year.3 The alfalfa plant is sprayed with a chemical defoliator causing the plant to dehydrate so that it is ready to harvest. One pound of alfalfa seeds equals approximately 250,000 seeds. Depending on the amount of alfalfa acres, the family’s total yield can vary year to year.

Leafcutter Bees have a gentle nature and although they have a stinger, would only sting if threatened. A sting is comparable to a mosquito bite. The Bee is renowned for their superior capability with pollinating alfalfa.

I “bee-lieve” a good time was had by all and the tour was very informative.

~ Submitted by Sheri Fredericksen



  1. Diapause is a predetermined period of dormancy, meaning it’s genetically programmed and involved adaptive physiological changes, i.e., from the time the larvae are placed into a cool temperature to the time the incubation room temperature is increased to make the larvae mature.
  2. Approximately 10,000 bees equals one pound.
  3. The larvae will remain in diapause until the incubation room temperature is increased the following summer to begin the metamorphosis cycle into mature Leafcutter Bees.

Helping Bees

Bees and other pollinators are in decline. In the summer 2019 issue of “Permaculture” magazine, there is an article entitled “Bee Roadzz” by Milly Carmichael that offers some hope. The following is a synopsis of that article.

In 2014 in England the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) wrote the 10-year National Pollinator Strategy to improve the state of bees and other pollinating insects and to monitor progress. Yet despite this focus on the pollinators’ plight, bees are in trouble still. The reasons for the decline in population of honeybees and other bees are manifold and complex and include loss of habitat. “…in the UK, in the last 60-70 years we have lost 97% of wildflower meadows, 300,000 km. of established hedgerows and 80% of flower-rich chalk downland.”16 Helping Bees 2

A group of people in the village of Marlborough decided to tackle this problem from a local perspective. Knowing that honeybees can travel up to 4 miles to find food and that their nearest village was 7 miles away, the people of Marlborough met with their neighboring village and set up a “bee road” between the 2 villages. They met with many different people in the town as well as farmers in the adjacent area. The first step was to work with existing resources, then re-assess and take the project further if successful. “Whatever can be done is encouraged, whether it is: reviewing garden plans and choosing more bee-friendly ones; sharing those plans with friends and neighbors; taking part in national monitoring schemes; reducing pesticide use; creating hibernation and nesting habitat for solitary bees; landowners surveying field margins for wildflowers and seeding the less rich areas…planting dozens of honeysuckle cuttings in the hedgerows; or letting a corner of a churchyard grow wilder.” Farmers were encouraged to increase wildflowers in edges of fields as well as in meadows, re-introduce hedgerows, and plant flowering trees.

In addition to increasing food sources in the farmland between the towns, creating bee habitats in yards and gardens was encouraged. “There is growing evidence that allotments, domestic gardens and community green spaces in urban environments offer enormous potential for increasing pollinator populations and protecting genetic diversity.”

17 Helping Bees 3

Now more villages are becoming involved in creating bee roads. The Marlborough group’s goal is to cover the country with “Bee Roadzz” so bees have habitat and food sources continuously available instead of islands of food and shelter surrounded by deserts without these resources.

In Montana our towns are many miles apart, so creating bee roads like these would be hard. But in urban areas we could work to make our yards and gardens more bee-friendly and also work with farmers and ranchers to increase food sources and habitats for bees similar to the English project.

~Submitted by Ann Guthals

Asclepias syriaca (Common milkweed)

Common milkweed is a member of the Asclepiadaceae (milkweed) family.

It easily adapts to growing in a variety of soils from rocky to clay to sandy to chalky and is often found near the banks or flood plains of lakes, ponds, and waterways, in prairies, forest margins, roadsides, and waste places. In Montana it is often found at the edges of fields near ditches. In other words, it is prolific once it gets established. A single pod normally releases 50 – 100 seeds attached to a white, fluffy coma (“parachute”) that allows wind dispersal.

Common milkweed is nature’s mega food market for insects. Over 450 insects are known to feed on some portion of the plant. Numerous insects are attracted to the nectar-laden flowers and it is not uncommon to see flies, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, and butterflies on the flowers at the same time. Milkweeds contain various levels of cardiac glycoside compounds which render the plants toxic to most insects and animals. (Humans should not ingest!) For some insects, the cardiac glycosides become a defense. They can store them in their tissue which renders them inedible or toxic to other animals. Monarch butterflies use this defense and birds leave them and the caterpillars alone. What the birds do not know is that northern monarchs feeding on common milkweed accumulate relatively little of the toxic compounds and probably would be edible.

Monarch butterflies can be helped by encouraging existing patches and planting new ones. It is the only plant the monarch caterpillar eats, and eggs are laid on the underside of its leaves. The plant grows readily from seed and spreads quickly by deep rhizomes. Because common milkweed can be weedy and difficult to remove, care should be used to establish the plant only in places where spread can be tolerated. If you want to add milkweed to your yard, propagation by cuttings of the tuberous rhizome is easy and reliable.

Less well-known human uses include historical Native American medicinal concoctions for everything from ringworm to temporary sterility and as a source for making strong fiber string. Milkweed is collected in the autumn after the leaves have begun to fall off, the stalks turn gray or tan, and the plant dries up. If the milkweed stems will break off at the ground, it’s time to harvest. The dried stalks are then split open and the fibers are twisted into string. Breaking off as many stalks as possible (or burning) encourages re-sprouting in the spring.

03 Milkweed 2Dried milkweed pods can add interesting lines and texture to a fall flower arrangement so take a walk and look for this prolific plant as Montana’s vegetation dries and turns golden.

Submitted by Elizabeth Waddington

Winter and Beyond: Scale, Spider Mites, Whitefly, and Aphids

Although I feel no affection for this topic, many gardeners (myself included) struggle with scale, spider mites, whitefly, and aphids outdoors in the summer season and indoors in the winter. I thought some basic information, emphasis on basic, on these insect pests would be welcome.

The many species of scale which feed on all types of plants is categorized into two janfebmar 11.1janfebmar 10.3groups: armored (hard) and soft. Females lay eggs beneath their bodies which usually hatch within a one- to three-week period. The newly hatched pin tip sized crawlers are mobile and move to other fresh areas on the plant for feeding.

When the hard-bodied type females select a spot and insert their mouth parts into the plant to suck on the sap, they are no longer mobile and gradually build up a hard outer shell which is often undetected and difficult to treat. Adult males have wings and they look like small gnats. On indoor plants, there may be several generations per year. Their presence is often first detected by the shiny dots of honeydew they excrete, followed by damage to the host plant which manifests in yellowing leaves. Look for them on the undersides of leaves or along the branches. If left untreated, they can severely weaken the plant, sometimes to the point of death. As there are many types of scale, keep an eye outside too because they can be a serious problem in the garden on trees and shrubs.

janfebmar-11.5-e1559335804474.pngMealybugs are a soft-bodied member of the scale family. They produce multiple overlapping generations of fluffy white insects which often prefer softer tender growth and can be controlled with the same methods used for the other pests in this article.

Spider mites are not true insects but are classed as arachnids, which are eight-legged animals such as ticks, scorpions, and spiders. Spider mites are tiny and are usually detected by their tiny webbing and the yellowing leaves of their host janfebmar 11.6plants. They are extremely prolific indoors and out and should not be ignored if they are spotted. Since they prefer hot dry conditions and the accompanying dust, the humidity of a water hose or a mister is highly recommended.

Whitefly, another sucking insect, have developed some resistance to many synthetic pesticides. Whitefly adults look like tiny white moths and can rise in clouds when disturbed. They also have a crawler janfebmar 11.2nymph stage, during which they are almost invisible. The full whitefly life cycle is only 25 days and as their population grows, they cause yellowing, desiccation, and leaf curl on the host plant. They can also spread several plant viruses and generally weaken the health of their hosts. As with many other sucking insects, they deposit sugary honeydew which attract ants and can host black sooty mold. Yellow sticky traps made for whitefly are helpful for monitoring and can mildly suppress the adults.

Aphids are small soft-bodied insects that may be green, red, grey or even black depending on their food source and species. They are usually but not always, wingless. janfebmar 11.3Instead of laying eggs, they have live birth and prolifically breed many generations per year. They deposit copious amounts of honeydew and are sometimes guarded by ants who harvest the sugary honeyjanfebmar 11.4dew. You may also notice leaf curl or yellowing leaves, stunting (think snowball bush or your favorite plum tree in the spring), and general lack of vigor in their host plants. Some types of aphids attack the roots of plants. Along with other types of insects, aphids can also cause plant gall and other deformities. Once you have the pest under control, the damage should not continue. However, the already-damaged leaves will not fully recover. Aphids are attracted to plants with high nitrogen levels and fresh tender leaves, so don’t over-fertilize and keep a sharp eye on new growth in the spring.

Fungus gnats are another pest that can thrive on winter houseplants. Unlike most pests, they damage plant roots and require a different treatment to get rid of them. Preferring to lay their eggs in soft moist soil, the best defense is to let the top two inches of soil get dry between watering. A layer of sand on top of the soil also makes for an inhospitable nursery. Yellow sticky traps can help put a dent in the adult populations.

The following practical controls for scale, spider mites, whitefly, and aphids can be used outdoors and indoors:

Nature has her own methods for staying in balance, so aim for good health and the least intervention necessary. Natural predators to these pests include parasitic wasps, lady bugs, lace wings, other insects, and even birds. Healthy plants are often able to repel or at least ride out insect pest infestations. For this reason, water your plants regularly and feed as they require it.

I always begin my battles with water. Often a good spray with the hose (or the shower) is janfebmar 11.8very effective and a safe opening salvo. Remove badly infested areas of the plants and remove as many of the remaining insects as you can by squishing them and then washing them off again. A quality mister is a good friend for indoor plants, especially if spider mites are a problem.

Take a few minutes to water the roots of plants that may be new or young or in un-sheltered parts of the yard that receive a lot of sun and drying wind. If there is no snow cover, it could mean the difference between survival and death, especially if the plants have been weakened by harsh weather and untreated pests.

If an indoor plant is small enough for you to reach all of it, it is often effective to remove the visible pests by hand and wipe the leaves and stems firmly with a damp rag or a makeup sponge soaked with alcohol. Or simply squish the pests one by one while wearing an evil grin, then rinse if possible, and continue with stronger treatments only if necessary. It is best to prune out densely infested areas and immediately dispose of them.

To combat pests during the outdoor growing season, it is always best to start without chemicals to avoid damaging the many beneficial insects which will be attracted to your pests. Sometimes you can even purchase those beneficial insects.janfebmar 11.9

If you had trouble with scale, spider mites, or aphids this past summer outdoors in your garden, a good next step this winter would be to spray your plants with horticultural oil in late winter or early spring before bud break, being careful to cover all stalks and stems. Horticultural oil works by smothering the overwintering insects and eggs. It is safe to use on most outdoor and many indoor plants but you must cover the whole plant surface whether indoors or out.

The use of insecticide should be carefully considered, and the safest products tried first. There are some new organic insecticides on the market containing citrus oil which are very safe. The next line of defense which can be used indoors or out is an insecticidal soap such as Safer Soap. After removing what insects you can, a dose of insecticidal soap followed by a light treatment of horticultural oil is helpful. The soap is more effective on the crawler stages of scale while the oil which smothers the pests is effective on all stages.

The chemical azadirachtin which is derived from neem oil is potent on insects including scale, spider mites, white fly, and aphids, if absolutely necessary. A botanical pesticide, it is safe for organic production and can be applied up until the time of harvest if used on food products. It leaves no residue, can be used on indoor or outdoor plants, and is safe for bees.

If you feel the need to use chemicals to eradicate scales in your trees or shrubs outdoors, make sure you research the right time of the season in which to do it, and cover all the surfaces of the plant, keeping in mind that pesticides are most effective on the crawler stage of scale. The Morton Arboretum has a helpful schedule for treatment (http://www. mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/help-pests).

Always be observant, vigilant, and read and follow directions of any chemicals if you must use them. Even organic, botanical pesticides can be harmful if not used correctly. As Master Gardeners, we have been taught the principles of Integrated Pest Management, so it is a good idea to review them annually and follow them as closely as possible.

Feel free to contact me or any Master Gardener with questions we might be able to answer. Please continue to tap into the vast source of knowledge that we, Master Gardeners, have and love to share. Here’s to another happy, healthy, and productive year in your gardens!

https://www.planetnatural.com/pest-problem-solver/ houseplant-pests
http://msuextension.org/broadwater/blog-article. html?id=17791

Written and Submitted by Ann McKean

Winter Indoor Plant Care

Winter Indoor Plant Care
by Elizabeth Waddington

Here are a few tips to keep your indoor plants thriving through our long cold Montana winters.


  • Pests can be a real annoyance. They usually appear after outdoor plants are brought inside for the winter, or when a new houseplant is brought home. Your houseplants may also sprout bugs once brought inside your house because they no longer have outdoor predators.
  • Spider mites thrive in warm, dry houses. Frequent misting under the leaves of houseplants will discourage them. A solution of 1 cup flour, ¼ cup buttermilk, and a gallon of cool water, applied in a mist, may be a good organic deterrent.
  • Small flies may occasionally appear around houseplants. These are called fungus gnats and are harmless to plants and humans in their adult form, though their larvae can damage young roots. Letting the soil dry out a bit between watering can discourage fungus gnats.
  • Remove aphids from houseplants with a mixture of equal parts rubbing alcohol and water and add a drop of dish-washing detergent. Apply with a soft brush. This also works on mealybugs and scale.

janfebmar 4.2


  • When arranging houseplants in your home, consider their lighting needs. Some plants require lots of direct light to thrive, while others prefer lower levels of indirect light.
  • Put plants that can tolerate full sun in south-and west-facing windows, plants that like partial shade in east-facing windows, and low-light plants in north-facing windows.
  • Most flowering plants need to be within three feet of a sunny window.
  • Most plants require 12 to 16 hours of light per day.
  • Rotate plants once in a while to encourage even growth and prevent legginess.


  • Believe it or not, more houseplants die from over-watering than from anything else! Water plants with room-temperature water.
  • Use filtered water if your tap water contains high amounts of minerals or chemicals. Fluoride can cause the leaf tips of some houseplants such as peace lilies, to turn brown.
  • Water houseplants in un-glazed clay pots more frequently because the porous clay will absorb and evaporate some of the water.
  • If your houseplant leaves are dripping, even when you haven’t watered, it’s trying to rid itself of excess water (a process called “guttation”). This makes a plant vulnerable to disease-causing fungi, so you may want to reduce the amount of water you’re giving the plant.


  • Most houseplants are in a resting phase during the winter and do not require fertilizer. However, a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) works fine, fertilizers with a higher ratio of nitrogen will promote more foliage growth, and flowering plants can use a fertilizer with more phosphorous.

janfebmar 4.1


  • Most houseplants grow well with daytime temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees F and night temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees F. Temperatures below 50 degrees F or rapid temperature fluctuations may damage some plants.
  • Keep houseplants away from cold drafts, radiators, and hot air vents. Also make sure houseplant foliage doesn’t touch cold windows by placing a cardboard between the window and plant.


  • Humidity is a tough factor to perfect, as most homes are especially dry in Montana winters. Most common houseplants will be happiest when the relative humidity is between 40 and 50%.
  • Group houseplants near each other to form a support group to cope with the low humidity of most winter homes.
  • Set plants on shallow trays of moistened gravel to raise humidity. This keeps the pots out of standing water.
  • Occasionally turning on a humidifier near your plants can be effective at combating indoor dryness. You would have to hand mist plants several times a day to raise the humidity sufficiently.
  • Plants like cacti and succulents can tolerate lower levels of humidity.


  • Loosen the dirt in your pots periodically. Re-invigorate your houseplants by removing the top ¼ inch of soil and top-dressing with fresh potting soil.
  • If your houseplants’ leaves grow dusty, gently wipe them down with a wet paper towel. Too much dust can clog a plant’s stomata (pores), making it harder for the plant to “breathe.”

Challenge: does someone want to try this off-beat tip? To get rid of bugs in houseplants, push a clove of garlic into the plant’s soil. If the garlic sprouts and grows, just cut it back.


Submitted by Elizabeth Waddington


The summer that I turned ten there was a huge spider in our garden. She would spin a new web almost every day. Many days, I would take her off her web and set her on a length of sewing thread about a yard long. She would crawl up the thread until she reached the top, at which point I would spin my arms so she was at the bottom again, and up she would crawl. When we had both had enough, I would restore her to her web and give her a cricket from my ‘cricket farm.’ which was just some crickets in my garden who also served as playmates for an only child in a rural place. She and I played this game until the end of summer when I had to go back to school. I don’t know if the free meal was sufficient compensation for my daily molestation, but she tolerated me and I adored her. I guess it must not have been too awful for her because she stayed there all summer instead of moving her digs somewhere else. It wasn’t until adulthood that I finally identified her as an Argiope aurantia. She was large with yellow and black markings that were reminiscent of a tiger swallowtail butterfly, and her large orb web had a giant zig zag down the center. (Spoiler alert: I love animals, especially insects.)

Spiders, known as arachnids, seem to be right up there with snakes for triggering fear and disgust. The image of the black widow has been woven into our culture as a representation of evil. I would like to convince you otherwise.

My Argiope, common name Yellow Garden Spider, is a fascinating creature. Arachnids are easily identified by their eight legs and – if you get close enough to see – four eyes. As with most spiders, the female is considerably larger than the male. The males wander until they locate a female and then make a web nearby, eventually mating. After mating, the female will make several egg sacs and hang them in her web. The eggs will hatch in autumn, perhaps even after she has died from the cold, but the baby spiders will remain dormant inside the egg sac until spring. Each egg sac contains anywhere from 300 to 1400 eggs. As with other spiders, once a female finds a suitable location for her web, she will remain there all season unless she is disturbed. I suppose my Argiope friend thought the free crickets were worth the trouble.

Black Widow Spider                                                 2018 newsletter 1.1

These beautiful orb webs trap all kinds of goodies including everything from aphids to wasps to caterpillars to grasshoppers, but there are other types of webs that are equally effective, including funnel webs, sheet webs, mesh webs and the good old fashioned tangle webs also known as cobwebs. These webs can be useful in identifying the spiders who made them. I found a black widow in my garden last summer who had wrapped up a bumble bee and a wasp in her tangle web. Spider silk is one of the strongest natural materials, and is being studied by scientists and mechanical engineers for its potential uses.

Spiders are carnivores and are excellent pest control, and even help prevent the spread of disease by eating the insects that can spread it, such as fleas, cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes. Norman Platnick of New York’s American Museum of Natural History says, “Spiders are primary controllers of insects…without spiders, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.” He postulates that “if spiders disappeared, we would face famine.” Less dramatically, spiders in your house make excellent pest control, and if you can overcome your fear, they can keep your home virtually pest free without chemicals! If the thought of sharing your home with spiders is too much for you, try to capture them and toss them out the door instead of squishing them. They are wonderful partners in your garden for managing all the hungry pests who want to eat your plants.

Although a spider bite is deadly for its prey, most spider bites are little more than bothersome to humans. Furthermore, spiders will not bite unless provoked by intense harassment or accidental contact such as being sat on or otherwise trapped. It’s wise to keep your garden shoes and boots inside, since a dark damp place is a favorite for black widows and ground dwelling spiders. If you stick a toe into a shoe and corner a spider, she will potentially bite in self-defense. Although some are more aggressive than others, as with almost every wild animal spiders would prefer to run away rather than to bite you. The native black widow is Montana’s only venomous spider of concern and if you think you have been bitten by one of these spiders, seek medical treatment. Be aware that as the days shorten in late summer, spiders may seek the protection of your home. (Unless they are black widows that can be a good thing.) Happily, according to Laurie Kerzicnik at Schutter Diagnostic Lab, scientists have determined that hobo spiders are not harmful to humans. She also reminds us that venomous spider bites are extremely rare in Montana and she points out that if the spider’s fangs even manage to pierce the skin, the infection following the bite can often be more dangerous than the venom itself. The non-native brown recluse cannot survive our cold temperatures, but could potentially hitchhike in on luggage. The bite from this spider can be dangerous, because it can become necrotic and seriously infected. Always seek the opinion of a doctor if you have any insect bite that causes concern, but remember that, statistically, more people in the U.S. are killed per year by dog bites (28) and cows (20) than black widows (7).

The next time you see a spider and panic, think of Charlotte, the benevolent spider. Spiders are beautiful, complex animals who are peaceful and relatively harmless to humans, and perform a vital role in the web of life.


Respectfully Submitted by Ann McKean