On the lookout for emerald ash borer in western Multnomah County

(Emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire. Photograph by Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – Forestry, Bugwood.org; Image link)

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) (EAB) is a brilliant metallic green beetle native to north-east Asia that was unintentionally introduced to the U.S. around 2002, likely in ash wood used in cargo shipping. The insect has since had a devastating effect on all species of ash trees in North America, in both natural woodlands and cities. It is currently detected in 35 states, mainly in the Midwest and northeast, and 5 Canadian provinces. EAB has spread from people moving firewood, logs, or ash trees from nurseries, as well as by the natural movement of the insect. There is great concern that this damaging insect could jump all the way from Colorado to Oregon via firewood, a concern held for the spread of multiple invasive insects, which is why firewood should only be purchased locally. EAB could cause immense harm to our forested wetlands since Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) is the primary tree species that occupies such habitats and it is highly vulnerable to attack by Emerald ash borer.

U.S. map with states colored in and red dots marking location of EAB detections

Midwestern and eastern U.S. states have been most impacted by EAB and there is a risk that the insect will find its way further west.

Due to the level of concern, a local partnership effort – initially coordinated by Oregon Department of Agriculture, and now by the Portland office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) – is in place to watch for the insect in our region. Because of our familiarity with the local landscape and connections to local landowners, WMSWCD was asked to get involved. WMSWCD is contributing to the effort by deploying and checking traps in our district and then identifying collected insect samples, following established guidelines. These guidelines inform where traps should be set and how and when to check them.

smart phone with view of map and data point app

Staff conservationists use a data collection app to track projects and the location of EAB traps

WMSWCD technical staff has set traps in Oregon ash trees in 6 varied and dispersed locations that could be potential pathways of transmission to new sites. Trap locations include a rural pastureland that might catch insects coming from the east side of the Tualatin Mountains; a forested spot on the east side of Tryon Creek State Natural Area; two in the Northwest Industrial area of Portland, to capture insects that might be traveling in wood shipping pallets on trucks; one on Sauvie Island; and one near the Smith & Bybee wetlands.

two photos (left: EAB trap with green cups stacked vertically hanging in tree; person removing bottom cup attached to green trap

(left) EAB trap hangs in an ash tree; (right) WMSWCD staff conservationist removes the collection cup from the bottom of an EAB trap to inspect its contents

We put traps out during the time of year that adult EABs would be actively flying around – between June and late September. Our team checks the traps every 3 weeks and sends data to APHIS, including information on where the traps were placed, when they were checked, and if any target insects were found. The traps tend to collect a small number of other flying insects, but so far we have, thankfully, not found any EAB.

two photos: on left, pouring pink liquid with dead insects into a filter; on right, filter folded up inside a clear plastic bag with labeling information

(left) Emptying contents of an EAB trap into a filter; (right) Filtered contents of EAB trap in labeled plastic bag for later identification and data collection

What happens if we find emerald ash borer in our district?

In 2012, EAB was found in firewood in California that was bound for Oregon. Through diligent monitoring, it was discovered in time and prevented from spreading to our state.

Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), in coordination with Oregon Department of Agriculture, City of Portland Parks & Recreation, City of Corvallis Parks & Recreation, OSU Extension, and USDA APHIS, and the U.S. Forest Service, has a robust response plan in place in the event EAB is found in Oregon.

Researchers in Michigan have explored the effectiveness of injecting some ash trees with a prophylactic insecticide to make individual trees resistant to an EAB infestation. This is most realistic as a management strategy in the landscape context. Other ways to mitigate the effects of EAB in the future may include potential biocontrols and selective tree removal, or collecting and preserving seeds of ash trees now to save for re-introduction later.

Conservationists in our area are raising an important question: Should we still be planting Oregon ash on restoration sites if the trees will likely be killed by EAB when it arrives in Oregon? Many believe arrival of EAB is an unavoidable outcome. In some locations, especially poorly drained bottomland areas, including forested wetlands and along some streams, there isn’t a great substitute for our native ash, however. Native alder and black cottonwood are also found in riparian areas, but these trees are not as common in our poorly drained wetlands. One option is to continue planting ash trees along with as many other adapted native woody plant species as we can in wetland restoration projects. Among these planted ash trees may be some individual trees that survive an EAB infestation, and those trees could prove vital to restoring the species in the future. There is not much to replace the pure ash stands that grow in certain wetlands of the Willamette Valley and their disappearance would be a huge ecological loss.

And while it is good to be prepared for the worst, we recognize that there are many unknowns when it comes to a new species being introduced to a new location. By preventing the introduction and establishment of EAB in Oregon for as long as possible, we give researchers more time to develop mitigation strategies.

What can you do to help this effort?

  • Become a pest detector! Oregon State University Extension offers the Oregon Forest Pest Detector Program with online trainings about pest insects. Find more information about the program and the pest detector course.
  • If you see an insect that you think could be Emerald Ash Borer, report it immediately to the Oregon Invasive Species online hotline or call 1-866-INVADER.
  • You can also call the USDA Emerald Ash Borer Hotline at 1-866-322-4512.

Learn more about the Emerald ash borer:


Watering in an era of climate change

When thinking of Oregon, a lush, diverse, green landscape with wet winters and dry summers may come to mind. With the last heatwave, we are beginning to see the start of a new normal. Heat waves caused by climate change are going to shift and shape Oregon’s landscape. Gardening in a new era of climate change will bring challenges. Having an understanding of vegetation and hydrology will make it easier to know how to care for your own landscape and what to expect in coming years.

Preparations before and correct actions during a heatwave are essential to help native landscapes survive extreme weather. Following are a few key things to keep in mind about watering during a drought.

In preparation for a heatwave, watering weekly to a depth of at least six inches will help your plants develop deeper root systems that will stay cool and moist in deeper layers of soil.  More frequent shallow watering causes plants to develop shallow root systems, because roots don’t need to grow deeper to reach water. Shallow soil lacks moisture and root protection provided by deeper soil layers. Selecting native plants will help ensure your landscape survives extreme heat, as well-selected native plants are typically more adapted to our droughty summers.

Understanding the source of your water during a drought will help with management of your landscape. If your water comes from a city or town, reaching out to utilities is the best way to figure out how much water you’re able to use. Utilities will also advise on managing household water, which will be equally important during a heatwave emergency. If you’re using well water, an understanding of the depth of the well will help determine how much water you will be able to use. Shallower wells are more susceptible to droughts than deeper ones, but deeper wells take longer to recover after droughts so being aware of that is important too.

Focusing on watering trees and shrubs instead of grasses and perennials will also be more effective long-term than keeping a green lawn. Trees and shrubs are important for maintaining overall landscape temperature and health. They provide cooling shade and food for wildlife during heatwaves and also contribute to overall watershed health, by preventing soil erosion. When rain does return, trees and shrubs, with their extensive root and mycelium network, will help protect the soil from erosion and nutrient loss by binding soil to the land.

Retaining moisture is just as important if not more important than creating it. With this in mind, using a heavy layer of mulch – one to two inches deep around flowers, and three to four inches deep for shrubs and trees – will help keep soil moist for longer and also protect shallow root systems.

Creating shade for native plants will also decrease leaf burn and help create temperature relief on hot days. When temperatures do start to moderate, the immediate urge may be to prune off dead leaves, but try to resist! As hard as it may be to look at burnt leaves and brush, leaving them on the plant will create natural shade and retain moisture for longer.

Being patient and watering plants based on their need for water after a heatwave is important to help plants transition back to wet winter weather and to help them rest and come back again the following spring.


Folk medicine making on Sauvie Island: a relationship with land, plants, and community

We had the pleasure and honor of talking recently with Jennifer Rose Marie Serna, a Latina folk herbalist, mother, regenerative farmer, land activist, skill educator, and owner of Wapato Island Farm, to learn more about what she and her farm family and community have been creating on the island since West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District first began working with her a decade ago.

Jennifer’s family roots originate in coastal Mexico, the southwest U.S., and Ireland. She and her family have been on the farm since 2005, arriving just after the birth of her third child. Wanting to be close to their grandchildren, Jennifer’s parents purchased the land on Sauvie Island where they could all live. They named it Wapato Island Farm in honor of the original inhabitants, the Multnomah tribe of Chinookan people, and their name for the island before it was renamed Sauvie Island. Wapato is a native tuber plant that grows on the island and was an important staple crop for the tribe and others that lived on the island during harvest season.

In the early years of the farm, the Serna family was required to complete a grass seed contract already in place with the previous owners. During that time, Jennifer was able to start the herb garden, which thrives today. She was also busy caring for her now four children, the youngest of which was born on the farm. “In that way, we began to prepare the land,” recalls Jennifer.

After the contract was released, they transitioned to organic farming and began to seek certification with help from Sauvie Island Organics (now Sauvie Island Growers). The 32-acre property is now fully certified organic through Oregon Tilth.

In 2011, Jennifer first reached out to West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District to participate in a pollinator hedgerow project on Sauvie Island where sites were planted with rows of native flowering plants and shrubs to provide food and habitat for hummingbirds, bees, wasps, butterflies, and other pollinating animals. Several years later, we began to connect farmers with cover crop seeds and technical assistance for cover cropping, and Jennifer was one of the first farmers to get involved.

From cover crops to harvest crops

Spring oats were in the mix of cover crop seeds Jennifer used, and over time she allowed the oats to reseed themselves, instead of following the typical practice of turning the cover crops into the soil to retain nutrients for other plants. Now one of the farm’s primary crops is milky oats, along with around 50 different herbs and 10 different kinds of mushrooms, all for making folk medicine.

garden plot with many different plants

A mixture of vegetables and herbs grow near the oat field

“We have about two and a half, three acres of milky oats, which for us is a lot to give to one plant,” Jennifer explains. “We try to follow indigenous style of growing so we don’t want to mono crop. To give that much land to one plant, we feel it’s very, very important.” And the early cover cropping helped the farm get to where they are today. “We have people come out to gather when the milky latex is ready. We let them take as much as they want for personal use. It’s so amazing to have had access to the seeds. What you offered to us, we’re able to offer so much medicine to so many people.” Jennifer describes the benefits of the plant and compares its role to that of a medical specialist. “You have your general practitioner doctor and then you have your specialists. The milky oat is a specialist for the nervous system. It rebuilds the myelin sheath of the nervous system and it continues rebuilding even when it’s out of your system. And it helps you feel calm and relaxed but it doesn’t make you tired. It actually gives you energy. And it’s oat tops for tea, and oats for cooking…it’s a really amazing plant! That’s why we grow so much of it and why we offer it to the community.”

Their method for farming mushrooms is quite different than growing vegetable and medicinal crops. For the variety that prefer to grow in rye, the rye is first pressure cooked to make the sugars more available for the mushrooms. The mash is inoculated with spawn from the abundant spawn bank and then layered into a 5-gallon bucket with more rye grains. The mushrooms sprout out holes in the sides of the bucket where they are collected for drying and use in medicines. As opposed to many mushroom sprouting kits, the Wapato Island Farm creates its own substrates and uses little to no single-use plastic. The spent mushroom material goes into the compost, and then into the soil where it has helped amend the clay-heavy soil into a nutrient rich mix with a thriving mycelial network.

white bucket with holes in sides next to person's feet

A mushroom sprouting bucket with holes in the side.

Community and exchange

Much like the mycelial network helps create rich fertile soil, the community of people on the farm is so important to helping it thrive. “We skill share and teach people how to make folk medicines, and we work with the community in other ways too. I don’t really understand how folks can work in the business of plants and seeds and not involve social justice, so we do a lot of that as well, and do our best to honor the land. And be kind,” Jennifer said, with a warm, easy laugh.

Though deeply thoughtful and kind herself, Jennifer is also resolute in her leadership. She is building a culture of exchange and commitment on the farm, one that creates opportunity for the land and fosters learning, dedication to the rigors of farming, and allows knowledge to be passed down for generations. “There needs to be elders coming in and being like ‘Okay, this is what’s up. This is how you do it. Are you going to be here at nine or are you going to be here at six a.m.?’ There needs to be that container for people.”

“Receiving is beautiful, giving is beautiful, but there has to be both. I have some really amazing seeds I was gifted – four corn seeds from Guatemala.” She reflects on the work it took to grow and harvest the corn, and what it took for the corn to find its way to her. “That whole village is no more. It’s gone. And they wanted to make sure that their seeds were carried forward to a new place. So when I’m able to share those seeds or other seeds, I’m happy to give them, but there has to be understanding of an exchange. It doesn’t have to be money. They can make an offering to the pond, and that can be a song, that can be a stone that they found, that can be weeding, whatever it is.”

This kind of dedication to growth and connection to the land leads to opportunity for people as well. Jennifer is contemplating large next steps, “How can we get affordable housing here on the island?” Island farm workers live in the Portland area but often quite far from the farms where they work. “How can we get garden space for folks to bring their seeds over and grow food important to their culture?” Jennifer provides a number of small plots near the farmhouse for community members to grow culturally significant plants and foods, but she says she is maxed out. The farm also hosts a traditional temazcal sweat lodge for use by the Mayan community.

small garden plot surrounded by tall grasses

One of the community garden plots on the farm

Honoring the land

One way Jennifer and the community at Wapato Island Farm honor the land is with low impact indigenous farming methods. Their large number of regular volunteers allows them to hand broadcast seeds, hand water or use small sprinklers, and use broadforks instead of tractors to turn the soil, which avoids compaction and fuel use by tractors, and more closely follows indigenous practices.

The farm is currently leasing several acres to outside farmers who do use several practices that align with Jennifer’s values, though also still use tractors. Jennifer envisions moving the entire farm to indigenous practices. “Eventually, as we grow together with a group of people, those practices will shift and we can be tending this whole land in a way that feels really good. Many children down the road will hopefully be able to benefit.”

Honoring the seeds and the plants

 Jennifer finds great importance in having a relationship with the plants she grows. To her, it’s about much more than just using a plant for its medicinal properties. She believes to grow your own food is nurturing for your spiritual and your physical self and it reminds people what it means to be human. It helps us appreciate the work required for basic human needs. “To do that means you are taking time to grow your own food, because we all need to eat. If you’re in an apartment, that’s okay you can grow some stuff in there. You are taking time to honor these seeds in a good way.” And this need for appreciation and relationship extends to “everything from the foods, to the medicine, to our structures that we live in, to our clothes” she says, and as a culture we’re not there yet. “We’re distracted in so many ways with screens and digital lifestyles…it’s miles to go…”

hand touching pink rose blossom on rosebush

Rose is harvested on Wapato Island Farm for a variety of folk medicines

Where to find Wapato Island Farm and their medicines

Wapato Island Farm is at the Montevilla Farmer’s Market every Sunday except the third Sunday, the Come Thru market which is BIPOC-only vending (open to all for visiting), and the Sauvie Island market on the second Sunday, May-October.

They also have volunteers on the farm every Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Visit their website: https://www.wapatoislandfarm.com/

And be inspired by their photos on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wapatoislandfarm/

 

 


2021-2025 Long Range Business Plan is complete!

We are excited to announce the completion of our 2021-2025 Long Range Business Plan which was formally adopted by our Board of Directors at the June 15, 2021 meeting. This strategic planning document guides the scope of our conservation work and the supporting financial sustainability and organizational health initiatives needed to implement this work over the next 5 years. The plan is centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

View our 2021-2025 Long Range Business Plan

The District incorporated new and diverse perspectives into the development of this plan. Key to this step was reaching out to individuals and communities that the District has not historically worked with.

This outreach initiated important new relationships with representatives of underserved and other marginalized communities – relationships the District will strive to strengthen through implementation of the plan.


Thank you!

We are grateful for of the community members, community leaders, owners of farms and forests, other conservation program participants, organizational partners, and District staff and board who provided valuable ideas and time to help us create this plan! We received 342 community survey responses and conducted 39 partner and program participant interviews to gather community input on what we should focus on over the next 5 years.


A Day in the Life of a Field Conservation Intern

By Martina Avendano, Field Conservation Intern

With the feeling of a good day completed at work, an episode of my favorite podcast on, and the comforts of air conditioning on a warm spring day in April, I was happy to start making my way home! Not long after merging onto the stop-and-go traffic of I-84, I felt a tickle on my ankle.

Earlier that day, I had spent some time in the woods recording forest measurements with Laura Taylor, Interim Forest Conservationist. We hiked and bushwhacked through the forest, hugging trees every couple of meters. And not just for fun! We were measuring and recording the diameter of trees along a transect to assess the forest’s health and maturity. This activity also gave a couple of ants the opportunity to crawl onto us, bravely defending their colony. By the end of the day, a few stragglers were still crawling on me.

I quickly realized that what I had brushed off my ankle wasn’t an ant. I took a quick peak and saw two little eyes staring back at me. I was carpooling with a Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla)! Pacific tree frogs can be distinguished by the dark stripe across their eyes and their rounded toe pads. Just a normal day at work!

patch of tall green weeds on left, cleared patch on right

Garlic mustard removal, before (left) and after (right)

During the second week of May, I got to personally see the strong hold that garlic mustard can have on the landscape. At a site in the Green Hills neighborhood, working with Seasonal Conservation Technician Ari DeMarco, I was greatly surprised as I walked up to a solid stand of it. With my hori-hori in hand, I began pulling. Pretty soon I was in the depths of the garlic mustard, with twigs in my hair and a collection of catchweed (Galium aparine) across my sleeves. All in all, Ari and I collected three large bags of garlic mustard. It’s really great knowing that many more garlic mustard plants won’t set seed. Days like these make me really proud to be a part of this field!

Throughout these past months, I have had the opportunity to participate in various projects. From continuing the garlic mustard removal legacy of past interns, to visiting project sites and learning about restoration practices. Some of my favorite days have also involved crouching down in front of a new plant and looking for distinguishing characteristics to identify it. But best of all, I have really enjoyed getting the chance to work with everyone at West Multnomah SWCD. From Zoom meetings to getting out in the field and meeting in person.

Note to reader: My carpool mate was safely returned to the outdoors at a local park.


Homes for Portland’s native bees

The emergence of native nesting bees are a welcome sign of spring in the Northwest. There are upwards of 100 species of native bees just in the Portland area, yet many are largely unknown compared to the non-native honey bee. Most native bees are smaller, solitary – and therefore not aggressive and not a threat to people – and tend to get overlooked. But in fact, native bees are often more efficient pollinators for crops and flowers and critical for a healthy ecosystem.

Unfortunately, bees and other insects across the world are in decline due to pesticide use, climate change, disease, and habitat loss. Bees and other insects like butterflies, beetles, flies, and even wasps are important pollinators for many of our agricultural crops and other flowering plants. While there has been growing public awareness of the need to conserve pollinators, often the focus has been on the few species used in commercial agriculture and less emphasis has been placed on providing appropriate nesting sites and resources for our lesser-known native bees.

Residents are inspired to create bee nesting habitat to help slow this decline, and they want to know how best to do this. However, scientists and the conservation community lack basic necessary information on numerous species of bees. In many regions, scientists do not even know what species of bees are present. This makes it difficult to develop guidelines for bee conservation.

woman with tall wood post in front of fence

 

Last fall, we talked to Stefanie Steele about her research on nesting bees in Portland, Oregon. Steele investigated how and where native cavity nesting bees make their nests. The majority of bees nest in the ground, and about 30 percent nest in cavities. Steele’s research focused on the nesting height and diameter preferences of solitary cavity nesting bees that use wood or plant cavities above ground, versus those that nest underground by mining into the soil. Specifically she looked to answer these three questions: What cavity nesting species are present in the greater Portland, Oregon area? What cavity nesting widths do species use? And what nesting heights do species use?

“To effectively conserve bee communities, we first need to know what species are here and how and where they nest and what they need to survive,” Steele explains. “Most bees are collecting materials to bring into the nest, like mud, petals, pebbles, and plant materials, therefore we need to learn what to provide. Nesting research data will help residents of greater Portland know how best to provide habitat for cavity nesting bees.”

She recently completed her Master’s in Science at Portland State University and shared results of her research. The study placed nests at 0.5 meter, 1.5 meters, and 2.3 meters above the ground. Overall she found that cavity nesting bees used all three of these nest heights, but did not have a preference for height. Therefore, cavity nests should be made available at varying heights, similar to naturally occurring cavity nests in logs, stumps, snags, or stems. Of the cavity widths that were tested – 3, 5, 6, 8 & 10 millimeters – all sizes were used. The 3 mm and 5 mm wide cavities were used most by a variety of bee and wasp species. (Read the full thesis to find detailed methods, results, and many more incredible photos! Link coming soon!)

two pinned bee specimen against pink background

Leafcutter bee (Megachile angelarum) (left: female, right: male) were the most abundant occupants in Steele’s nest blocks.

cross section of block of wood with channels holding bee nests

Megachile angelarum nests in 5 mm wide cavities. These cavity nesting bees primarily used plant resin to build the cells of their nests.

Here are a few tips for creating bee habitat where you live:

Blue orchard mason bees are one of Portland’s many mason bees or Osmia species. Blue orchard mason bees are only active in the spring and will use a range of a cavity sizes, including 5, 6, and 8 mm width holes (diameters), and they are opportunistic. Steele even found some nesting in her wind chimes! Despite what many people think, it’s not necessary to bring cocoons or nests inside for winter. However, with a new invasive cleptoparasitoid fly, the Houdini fly, found in the Pacific Northwest, mason bee nests should be checked for these flies. See the Washington State Department of Agriculture page for more information on how to recognize these flies and actions you can take.

Other cavity nesting bee species like many of the leaf-cutter, wool carder, resin, and cellophane bees often are smaller bodied than the blue orchard mason bee. They are primarily active during the summer months, so it is important to provide cavity nesting sites in a range of sizes and offer a variety of different kinds of flowers throughout the summer season for these bees.

Tip: Providing ample nesting opportunities in various places can allow cavity nesting bees to spread out and be less impacted by parasitoids and predators that might devastate a single nest site. If you are building a nest box, use thicker wood on the sides to prevent wood from warping from moisture. Trapped or increased moisture in wood, or in plastic tubes, can lead to mold and will be less attractive to bees.

Cavity nesting wasps should be welcome residents in your garden! These wasps hunt insects (aphids, caterpillars, crickets) and spiders to feed their young. Gardeners often consider these insects pests, so the biocontrol service provided by these wasps can be very beneficial. Solitary cavity nesting wasps used all five cavity sizes, but used 3 mm cavity widths the most.

Small carpenter bees will chew tunnels in pithy plant stems like asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), raspberry (Rubus spp.), and elderberry (Sambucus spp.), for example.  Cut stems at the end of winter to at least 6-8” tall and leave them standing through at least the following spring and summer. New plant growth will grow around the cut stems and eventually the cut stems will decompose on their Learn more about creating habitat for stem-nesting bees.

Mining bees and sweat bees are some of Portland’s most abundant ground nesting bees. Many require bare ground to nest, but some will also nest in grass or mix vegetation lawns. Bare soil is an important resource for these bees, as well as cavity nesting bees who use mud to build their nest cells.

Bumblebees will often use pre-existing holes in the ground, such as abandoned rodent burrows, and others will nest in pre-existing cavities above ground, such as in a tree or even an unoccupied bird house.

Want to drill holes in a snag or downed log? Use these size drill bits to replicate the diameters that Steele studied, and make a hole about 6 to 8 inches deep: 3mm = 1/8”; 5mm = 3/16”; 6mm = 1/4”; 8mm = 5/16”; 10mm = 3/8”

Embrace a “messy” natural garden year-round! Leave the leaves, sticks, and logs on the ground. Leave cut stems sticking up and allow new stems to grow in a “winterscaped” landscape. Clear a few small areas to expose bare ground. Consider replacing lawn with native plants. Perfectly manicured lawns are not good habitat. Natural areas and features allow for many more opportunities for bees to find just the right spot to make a nest.


Meet our 2021 Field Conservation Interns!

Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Martina Avendano moved to the Portland metro area at the age of four and has greatly enjoyed growing up in Oregon. She graduated from Warner Pacific University where she studied biology and developed her love for field work. While at Warner Pacific, she worked as an undergraduate field assistant helping to track the nesting success of American kestrels at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. She also interned with the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and worked as a field technician at the Phillip W Schneider Wildlife Area in eastern Oregon. Martina enjoys going on bike rides, practicing her bird identification, and baking delicious goodies. She is excited to be working with WMSWCD this year to remove garlic mustard across the district, develop her skills in environmental stewardship and learn many new things along the way.

Isa Rojas is an energetic and creative person with a passion for the environment. Isa’s love of the natural world stems from her time spent as a child living in New England. After studying Natural Resource Management and GIS at the University of Vermont. Isa wanted to live in a space the echoed her core values of environmental activism and community development. After moving to Portland Isa became active in many nonprofits such as Bark, and Latino Network. Isa enjoys hikes in the high desert, foraging, and exploring Portland’s many coffee shops.


Be ready to evacuate during wildfire

By Michael Ahr, Forest Conservationist, West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District

Many of the woodland owners in the Tualatin Mountains have deep roots in Oregon. We’re sure many of you have close family and friends who have been greatly impacted by our recent wildfires. It’s warmed our hearts to hear stories of people on the hill taking in friends as well as livestock owned by loved ones – another example of the strong connections and community spirit in the Tualatin Mountains.

Reports are suggesting that this will be the deadliest wildfire season in Oregon’s history. The stories we’re reading are heartbreaking.  The West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District is known for recommending actions that reduce wildfire risk, but rather than stressing those actions at this time, we prefer to encourage all of our Skyline Neighbors and nearby woodland owners to focus on human safety and prioritize their evacuation planning before they worry about land management this fall and winter. Have emergency kits ready and your “go bags” packed. These will help in wildfire evacuation as well as earthquake preparedness. Make sure you know every possible way to leave your property for a safer place. The Skyline Ridge Neighborhood Emergency Team (SR NET) has been helping people prepare for disasters like this for years. Get information from this NET at https://www.srnpdx.org/be-prepared.html.

As we recover from these fires, we’ll hear stories of homes being saved by the actions people took to reduce fuels in their forest or trim trees around their house. However, we’ll also hear many stories where people took these protective actions and still lost everything, including human life. It’s natural to ask questions like, “Why were these fires so damaging?” or “Why did they overwhelm fuels reduction projects?” There are many reasons for this, many of which land managers and scientists will be learning more about as these fires are further examined. Below are just a few thoughts for now…

  • Much of the fire risk reduction that we do on forest land is related to mitigating risk from surface fires. These are the fires that burn sticks, shrubs, and other plant material lying on the ground. These fires might cause property damage, but can also help rejuvenate the ecosystem and offer benefits to many species of plants and wildlife. We thin forests to create wider tree spacing and pile slash in an effort to make sure that surface fires will burn with lower intensity and not significantly damage living trees.
  • When a fire climbs a tree and starts burning the upper branches in the canopy, it will spread quickly. As these fires spread, we call them crown fires. The fires in September were crown fires which can be very damaging and unpredictable.
  • One factor that leads to a surface fire becoming a crown fire is wind, and winds continue to cause problems after reaching the crown. As trees burn, strong winds can carry burning embers up to one mile away. This means that embers can literally fly over all the good forest management that you’ve done, land on your deck, and start a fire. Note that burning embers and strong winds were a major reason why the Beachie Creek, Riverside, and Holiday Farm fires grew in size so quickly. This is also why we hear frightening stories from those who evacuated of new fires starting all around them as they were driving to safety.
  • During intense fires, some of the actions you’ve taken at your house might be more important than the actions on your woodland. Cleaning gutters, sweeping your deck, and several other tasks are very important. See a great list of recommendations here.

To stay safe during wildfire, the actions you take on your woodland and around your home are important. If a backyard campfire or overheated car starts a fire near your home, these measures can help offer great protection. But keep in mind that catastrophic fires are known to occur in western Oregon, and have occurred for centuries, which means that you should be prepared to evacuate. Sometimes nothing you do in preparation or to combat an active fire are enough to keep you and your family safe. Please consult the resources provided in links above to craft an evacuation plan and pack emergency items. Stay safe!


A community approach to native bee research in Portland

If you were to guess how many species of native bees there are in Portland, how many would that be? And where do these bees prefer to nest? Local emerging entomologist, Stefanie Steele, a Master’s student at Portland State University (PSU) studying native bees in the Portland area, is working to answer those questions.

At the garden at Green Anchors in North Portland, one of her research sites, Steele slowly makes her way among the abundant flowering plants, inspecting them for tiny buzzing pollinators. A quick flick of her insect net captures a long horned bee (which turns out to be Melissodes sp., an Asteraceae plant specialist) that she carefully navigates into a clear plastic vial for safe transport back to the lab for identification.

magnified view of bee head and mandible

The 5-dentate (“tooth”) mandible is visible on this Megachilidae bee. The number of teeth and shape of the mandible is a key feature for identifying this species, as the number of teeth can vary depending on the genus and species.

“It’s very hard to identify them in the field,” says Steele. “You need a microscope to look at very small morphological features such as the venation on their wings – maybe they have two or three submarginal cells, or if specific veins are curved or arched. Or other very small details, like the size and density of the punctures on their integument (the “skin” on the abdomen) or counting the number of teeth on the mandible.”

It all started with honeybees

Steele’s interest in bees began at a young age when she was part of her school’s bee club which kept several honeybee hives on the school roof. “Have you ever been inside a honeybee hive?” asks Steele. “I recommend it to everyone. It’s a full immersive experience, seeing all the bees walking around, seeing how they’re communicating with each other, even the smell of it and the sound of them. It’s a really, really cool experience. And they work together cooperatively so well. Their whole social system is really amazing and intriguing to see. That’s what got me hooked.”

Steele moved to Portland to try out a different location after two years at the University of Cincinnati. Like many others, she was drawn to all the different natural environments in Oregon. She went back to school at PSU to finish her bachelors in biology and during that time was inspired to start the Bee Task Force (scroll down on page linked here to find the Bee Task Force) with help from other students and faculty. The Task Force was focused on maintaining honeybee hives and creating pollinator habitat for the honeybees and for native bees in that area. It was through this work that Steele met Susan Masta, PSU Associate Professor and head of the Masta Lab where Steele’s graduate work is now based, and where her research expanded to native bees.

Portland bee survey

Bee collection and identification are key components of a 3-year survey of bees in urban Portland that Steele developed as an undergraduate with Masta. Before this project, no one else in the Portland area had published a survey to determine what native bee species reside in our area, as bees on the west coast are far understudied. They are looking to discover what bees are found here, when they are active, and also what their floral and other plant associations are – which plants and flowers they use for nectar, pollen, nesting materials, or nesting sites.

Through the Portland bee survey, Steele, Masta and team have so far found over 100 species of bees in urban Portland. The survey team is still working to identify the species they collected, and as they learn more, they expect those numbers to increase. The next step will be to publish the results of the first three years of the survey. Future research may depend on available funding and staffing to collect and identify new specimens.

2 side-by-side photos of capturing a bee in a small plastic vial

Steele collects an Melissodes sp. for identification.

One challenge that Steele and colleagues face with identification is the lack of a comprehensive species list to reference for Oregon. “There is still so much to be learned about the bees of Oregon,” Steele explains. “We’re still working on identification in general within the U.S., but the east coast overall is well studied. The west coast is far less studied, so a lot of the morphological cues that we’re using to identify the bees comes from the east. There is some overlap within species, but they aren’t all entirely the same.”

Steele is helping to grow that state-wide knowledge. Some of the species she has collected will be housed within the invertebrate collection at the Portland State Museum of Natural History where they can be used for education, research, or historical state records.

Native bee nesting research

two people standing in a garden next to tall wooden post

Masta Lab volunteers Dan Mullen and Erica Rudolph setting up a post with nest blocks at the PSU Community Orchard.

Steele’s graduate work with Susan Masta grew out of the Portland bee survey. Steele is focused on investigating the nesting height and diameter preferences of solitary cavity nesting bees. Her research is sited at 14 locations around the city including Green Anchors, the PSU campus and community orchard, and friends’ and colleagues’ homes that have gardens designed to attract pollinators. She erected posts with 54 wood nesting boxes set at 3 different heights, each with trays that had 31 cavities of varying diameters ranging from 3 to 10 millimeters.

Volunteers helped monitor the boxes throughout the nesting season, recording which of the cavities contained nesting material, adult bees, or wasps that also nest in cavities. Once nesting activities were complete, Steele collected the boxes for incubation in the lab. Overall, her nests had good occupancy rates—about 28% and successful incubation reared fifteen species of bees. She did see some loss of specimens due to mold that may have developed because of weather at the end of the nesting season or was introduced by the female bee. “The adult bee may inadvertently collect pollen that has mold spores on it,” Steele explains. “As she moves throughout the cavity, building separate cells for each egg, she can distribute those mold spores throughout the entire nest.”

During incubation, Steele also saw some parasitism, which can be a sign of a healthy ecosystem. In some of her nest trays, tiny wasps (likely Melittobia) or the bee fly mimic (Anthrax) had infiltrated the nesting cells while still in the field and laid their eggs on top of the bee eggs. The larvae of these parasitoid insects feed on the larva of a host bee or wasp, eventually killing it. In one case, an undergraduate assistant counted 80 of the 1-millimeter wasps parasitizing one bee larva. Steele comments, “Just imagine all of these wasps completing their development and then moving on to the next developing bees. Crazy.”

2 side-by-side photos of tiny wasps. Larva on left adults on rightva

(Left) Parasitoid wasp larvae feeding on Megachile angelarum (bee) larva; (Right) Adult parasitoid wasps

Awaiting results

Aside from these losses, Steele’s research, timeline, and goals stayed on the course she had set initially. She is currently analyzing the massive amount of field data she and her volunteers collected. One early takeaway that the research confirmed is the importance of available cavity nesting habitat. Bees only get a short window as an adult to find suitable nesting sites to create the next generation of bees. “Most of a bee’s life is spent in diapause when they’re essentially inactive and at a more vulnerable state as a larva – about ten or eleven months out of the year,” Steele says. “And then for four to six to eight weeks, they’re active flying adults.”

Yard features that are sometimes considered unattractive, like dead leaves and logs on the ground, dead tree limbs, or even entire snags – standing dead trees – actually provide important bee habitat. “Beetle larvae will excavate tunnels in downed logs or standing dead trees, and when the beetles are gone a bee will find that unoccupied cavity, and that is prime habitat,” explains Steele. Deadheaded hollow or pithy stemmed plants are also great habitat. “Some bees, like small carpenter bees in the genus Ceratina, will chew out the pithy stemmed plants and then nest inside,” she says.

“About 70 percent of bee species nest in the ground,” says Steele, “but 30 percent nest in cavities, and with all that perpetual yard tidying, nesting habitat is severely limited. So, you could change your habits, but you could also provide artificial nesting structures.”

For gardeners looking to provide nesting structures, offering a variety of cavity hole sizes is important, especially smaller holes. In Steele’s study, the 3 and 5 millimeter diameter holes were used most. “The female bee wants to ensure a tight fit to reduce moisture and parasitism and still allow space she needs to lay eggs and fertilize some of them,” says Steele. She found that a greater number of smaller rather than larger bodied bees occupied the nests she put out. “Osmia lignaria is the mason bee that a lot of people are familiar with. They are a little bit smaller than a honeybee. I found them nesting in the five millimeter size, six millimeter size, and the eight millimeter size cavities. So if you provide a diversity of sizes, then greater numbers of bees would be able to utilize those spaces.”

Placement of cavities is also important to consider. Facing holes southeast is ideal to catch some heat from the morning sun, and prevent overheating as south-facing holes may experience. Boxes should be sheltered and angled slightly downward to prevent rain from getting inside. Steele also recommends providing a selection of plants and flowers that will bloom throughout the growing season. “There’s less floral nectar available at the end of summer season into fall, so providing more forage for them throughout the entire season is very important,” she says. (See our Pollinator Plants & Bloom Periods chart for guidance.)

Communities in science and nature

Steele’s own community plays an important role in her research. The Oregon Bee Atlas designed and donated 30 of the 54 nest boxes, and are also leading a state wide survey effort of the bees of Oregon. Steele also found help from woodworkers at Green Anchors with the proper tools to build the remaining boxes. Her volunteer monitors were also essential for helping collect data.

The greater scientific community however, has presented a challenge for Steele. She is often one of the only BIPOC at a workshop or conference in her field, and she finds it discouraging and uncomfortable at times. However, she feels fortunate for the colleagues, mentors, and advisors in her life that encourage and elevate her. She also finds joy in engaging young people in the fascinating world of bees, and showing them that she too is what an entomologist looks like, a woman of color. Steele looks forward to connecting with more BIPOC in her field and related fields.

Steele also hopes her research will help inform gardeners and others looking to support our local native bee populations with information on suitable habitat and how to make outdoor spaces more attractive to cavity nesting bees.

For more information and project updates contact Stefanie Steele, steelestk@gmail.com.

For information on pollinator research completed by West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, see our Pollinator Monitoring Community Science Program page


Monitoring Understory Seeding Project Plots

By Hannah Spencer, West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Field Conservationist Intern

One of the first projects I worked on as a new intern with West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (WMSWCD) was the Understory Seeding Project headed by staff conservationists Laura Taylor and Michael Ahr, and I was absolutely ecstatic at the opportunity to be involved. Officially part of the District’s Forest Understory Vegetation Enhancement Project, this project was funded through a federal Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant, and was undertaken to figure out how to increase native groundcover using native seed mixes, especially on sites that had once been overrun by invasive species. Several properties had been selected as study sites in 2018, and this spring I went with Laura to check on their progress.

The first site we visited was a narrow forested patch between two homes. The understory was fairly clear and open, with some large shrubs and a thick layer of leaves on the ground. The site had recently been cleared of ivy and vinca, leaving a blank slate on the forest floor for the native seeding study. When we arrived, I saw that this site was already showing signs of success. In the first plot was a circle of bright, new green with a neon pink flag in the center to mark it as one of our study plots. In all, there were six plots at this site: two were seeded with a native seed mix; two were raked first, then seeded with natives; and two were raked but not seeded, as control plots. Not all of the plots at this site were covered in bright green baby plants, like the first one. For example, it looked to me like the plots that had been raked first, then seeded with natives, were more densely peppered with seedlings than plots that had not been raked first. However, we were here to do more than just visually evaluate the greenness of the various plots. This was science! We had data sheets that needed filling.

Before I could really be useful collecting data, I needed to learn to identify the plants we were observing. I was already comfortable identifying a lot of the native plants found in the Pacific Northwest, but I discovered that seedlings can look vastly different than adult plants; some of the seedlings were so tiny, they could have fit on the head of a nail! It’s difficult to tell them apart when they are that small. Luckily for me, Laura is an incredible botanist and a wonderful teacher, and I soon learned to pick up on details like the hairs on a tiny stem, or a notch in the tip of a leaf. As we started to count the plants in each plot and record them on our data sheets, I began to feel more confident. There is something so joyful to me about identifying plants, like the feeling of meeting a new person you can just tell you’re going to like.

Over the course of a few weeks, we monitored all eight sites. Some were mostly bare, with islands of seedlings, like the first site. Other plots were covered in grasses, and we had to hunt for our neon pink markers. In some cases, our markers had been eaten by elk, and we had to find the plots using photos from previous years!  Once we found the plots, we surveyed them for plant diversity and density, paying closest attention to species that were present in the seed mix we had used. We also noted if other plants, such as ivy or vinca, or natives not present in the seed mix, were present in the plots. Once we had collected data from all eight sites, we were able to look at trends across the whole project.

The data showed that my impression at the first site was correct: raked plots typically had more plants on them then plots that hadn’t been raked. This is probably because raking away debris before planting helps seeds get better access to soil, making it easier to establish than if they had to contend with dead leaves and branches. This means that if a landowner wanted to maximize coverage in their seeded areas, giving the ground a thorough rake before seeding might be worth their while.

The downside to this is that raking an entire forest would be extremely labor intensive, not to mention extremely disruptive to plants, animals, and soil. The best way to use raking is to choose small patches scattered throughout the understory, and rake and seed those. But what about those unraked parts of the forest (which will be the majority of the forest)? Can property owners do anything to improve the understory that has to be left unraked? Well, another trend we found was that plots which were not raked but were seeded still had a higher density of native plants than the control plots. As a bonus, they also had a lower density of exotic plants than either the control plots or the raked/seeded plots. This means that simply seeding their land without raking can be significantly beneficial to a landowner’s understory. This method won’t provide the same diversity or density that raking first would, but it will still help promote native plant populations. A landowner could even use a combination of raking small plots and seeding the rest of the understory to maximize native understory plant coverage

person holding an inside-out flower

Inside-out flower in seed (Vancouveria hexandra)

Another interesting result was the discovery of which species performed best in our plots. The seed mix used on the plots contained 17 different species, but some species didn’t perform well—or at all. For example, we did not see a single penstemon in any plot. (Such an underachiever.) Native understory seed mix is currently pretty hard to find, and expensive when you do come across it, so it’s important to know that your money is being spent on seeds that will perform well. According to our plots, the best investments seem to be: inside-out flower, small-flowered nemophila, miner’s lettuce, western fescue, pathfinder, sweet-cicely, Columbia brome, and blue wild-rye. Even though these species may be difficult to find as seed in stores, WMSWCD recommends that landowners who have these plants present on their properties can try collecting their seed and spreading it to bare areas of their properties. Just be very careful not to collect seeds from a plant you aren’t sure about—you don’t want to accidentally collect and spread an invasive species!

WMSWCD will be publishing a formal, detailed report on their findings later this year, so the entire community will have access to the information gleaned over the course of this study. And landowners can expect understory seeding to be included in more of the projects they undertake with WMSWCD. As WMSWCD shifts to exploring understory seeding in practice, other partners will continue exploring experimentally, such as Erin McElroy, a graduate student with Portland State University’s Department of Environmental Science and Management. Erin has been monitoring plots of her own using a similar protocol to the one WMSWCD used, but she has been including even more variables, such as the presence of worms, the soil profile, and aspect at her sites. Her research will help fine-tune the ways in which land managers can make their understories as successful as possible. She is also contacting local nurseries to talk with them about their interest in producing and selling native understory seeds, so she could have a direct hand in making seed more accessible in the Portland area. I feel so lucky to have been able to contribute to this project, and I’m excited to see how Erin, the WMSWCD staff, and the rest of the Understory Seeding Project partners continue to explore this topic.