Leafcutter Bees: Gentle Summer Garden Pollinators

Leafcutter Bees: Gentle Summer Garden Pollinators
Leafcutter bees to the rescue!

Many gardeners wish they could raise honeybees to ensure their garden’s pollination but raising honeybees takes a lot of time, money and training. Some communities don’t allow honey beekeeping because of safety concerns. The problems facing honeybee populations are well known but honeybees are not the only bees suffering due to habitat loss, pollution, disease, and climate change.

Leafcutter bees are alternatives to honey bees that gardeners can rely on and they are better pollinators, easier to raise, cheaper, and most importantly, safer for children.

What are Leafcutter Bees?
Leafcutters bees are solitary bees, which means each female is fertile and she does all of the chores to raise her young. There are many different species of leafcutter bees and some species build their individual nests inside of pre-made nesting holes while others build nests underground.

Leafcutter bees get their name from their habit of building protective cocoons for their young out of pieces of leaves. The mother leafcutter bee builds a leafy cocoon for each egg and provisions the egg with all the food it will need to eat to grow into an adult bee. Sometimes a leafcutter bee will gather flower petals instead of leaves and cocoons made from petals are beautiful.

A reusable wooden nesting tray for leafcutter bees; note rose petal coccoons bottom right.

Alfalfa Leafcutter Bees: Perfect for Farms & Gardens
One species of leafcutter bee stands out from the rest and it has many features that makes it a perfect bee for pollinating summer gardens and farms. Even though it’s a solitary bee, the alfalfa leafcutter bee (Megachile rotundata) likes company because they build their nests near one another. There is no sharing of nests, however. Gregarious, or neighborly bees are prefect for farms where many bees are needed to pollinate the fields.

A farmer's batch of leafcutter cocoons, many have open holes from bees emerging
Alfalfa leafcutter bees became heroes in the 1940’s when they saved the declining alfalfa seed industry. A high protein feed source for livestock, the loss of this crop was threatening a major livestock nutrient. Hay mixes and seed production decreased when pollinating bees lost their habitats to changes in agriculture and residential growth. Farmers turned to leafcutter bees because these bees are 15 times better pollinators of alfalfa than honey bees. Today, the alfalfa leafcutter is still used extensively to pollinate alfalfa and other crops. Although they are named after alfalfa, we simply call these bees leafcutter bees because they are generalists that love to pollinate flowers of all types near their bee house.

We cannot easily raise bee species that nest underground but we can easily raise and, as needed, move hole-nesting bees. Alfalfa leafcutter bees nest in 6mm nesting holes and we’ve been raising them for decades and know very well how to care for them.

Easy to Raise & Better Pollinators
The female leafcutter bee carries pollen on the underside of her hairy abdomen, and then scrapes the pollen off within her individual nesting hole. Pollen is carried loose and dry on her hair and it falls off easily as she moves among blossoms. Leafcutter bees have a short flying range of only 300 feet from their bee house and you can be sure they are busy at work nearby in your garden or field. Leafcutter bees are active in the warm summer months and they are perfect for pollinating squash, melons, cucumbers, peas and other summer vegetables and fruits.
Leafcutter bees carry pollen dry and loose on their hairy bellies.

Raising leafcutter bees is easy and doesn’t require much time or training. The steps are simple: set up the house (like hanging a bird house), set out nesting holes and leafcutter cocoons, wait and watch, and bring filled nesting materials inside in early fall. There is no need for protective gear, since the bees overwinter in leafy cocoons and they rarely sting, nor expensive equipment to rent or buy because there is no honey to manage (only social honey bees make honey). Watch this video from Crown Bees that explains how setting up leafcutter bees is easy and takes only a few minutes.

Setting up leafcutter bees is easy and takes only a few moments

In terms of time, plan about 15 minutes to select a location and set up your house. Warning! When your bees emerge and start pollinating, you’ll have to set aside time to observe them come and go. Time flies as you watch them laying eggs for next season’s bees!
In late August, after bee activity stops, store filled nesting holes (open ends up) in an unheated garage or shed that is dry and secure. Placing filled nesting holes in a fine mesh bag will protect them from pests. Overwinter bee larvae in the nesting holes until next spring. In just 1 to 2 hours a year of your time, you’ll get a healthy garden yield and amazing garden companions. A bonus is that you’ll typically increase your bee cocoons from when you started. You can share your extra leafcutter cocoons with local family or friends and help them learn about how to raise these gentle safe bees.

Leafcutter Bees are Gentle
These solitary female bees can’t gather pollen and nectar, lay eggs, cut and gather leaves, and defend her nesting hole. Instead, she may be shy and wait for you to leave the vicinity of her nesting house or simply fly around you. Leafcutter bees are extremely gentle and allow you to approach their bee house without fear of being stung.
Although leafcutter bees have stingers, they will only sting if their life is threatened. Male bees do not have stingers and stings are only caused when the female bee thinks it is being squished. Even if you are unfortunate enough to be stung, the effects are generally no worse than a mosquito bite.
What’s Inside of a Leafcutter Bee’s Nest?
Leafcutter bees do not create holes or damage structures to make holes. North America is home to several native leafcutter bee species. Alfalfa leafcutter bees prefer nesting holes that are 6mm in diameter, some native North American leafcutter bees are larger and prefer 8 mm holes. There are even leafcutter bee species that nest underground!

A female leafcutter bee gathering a leaf to protect her eggs.

The female leafcutter bee uses her large jaws to make small, oval cuts in thin-walled leaves that she can then curl in half and carry back to her nesting site. The leaf texture must be just right, not too thick or spiny, similar to rose, hosta, and lilac. Some leafcutter bee raisers have not been able to find evidence of cut leaves, even with hundreds of leafcutter bees in their bee home. You may want to plant peas for leafcutter bees since peas grow quickly, are easy to grow, and can be used as sacrificial leaves for the bees.

The mother leafcutter bee builds a protective leafy cocoon for each egg. She builds the leafy cocoons by starting at the back of the nesting hole. The interior end of the leafcutter cocoon is round and the exterior end is flat. Inside the cocoon is a pollen loaf, which is a mix of nectar and pollen, and a single leafcutter egg. Each leaf cocoon is right next to each other and sometimes when you harvest the cocoons they are stuck to one another. When the female bee is done building cocoons in the nesting hole, she adds an extra thick layer of leaf bits at the opening. She may claim and fill a few different nesting holes but she works on them one at a time.

The leafcutter egg might hatch right away or it might go into hibernation for the fall and winter. If the summer season is long enough, the larva has time to develop quickly into an adult. These new adult bees are called second generation bees and they go right back out to mate and start the cycle again. When the second generation bees emerge you’ll see a large hole in the front flat end of the leaf cocoon. Extra generation of bees means a leafcutter bee’s pollination season is long, it’s just another reason why they are great summer garden pollinators.

The BeeHaven leafcutter bee house is an easy way to get started.

Keys to Successfully Raise Leafcutter Bees
1. Place your house with nesting material facing the early morning sun. The warmth wakes your bees earlier to start pollinating. Follow the setup instructions.

2. Leafcutter bees build protective cocoons out of leaves. If she can’t find the right type of leaf to cut and carry, she’ll leave your yard and set up her home elsewhere. This is the number one problem people face. Try planting peas for these superior pollinating bees.
3. After bee activity stops, store filled nesting holes (open ends facing up) in an unheated garage or shed that is dry and secure. Overwinter bee larvae in the nesting holes until next spring. Leaving them outdoors exposes them to pests and weather elements.
4. Harvest leafcutter cocoons in the early spring. You will remove pests and diseases as you harvest cocoons. You will also be able to take inventory of your leafcutter cocoon stock after harvesting them.
5. Leafcutter bees need to be incubated in order to develop into adult bees. At room temperature, it takes the cocoons about 6 weeks to develop and it will take less time in a warmer temperature. Leafcutter bees that are purchased from Crown Bees arrive incubated and ready to emerge from their cocoons.
Description of Leafcutter Bees
1. Alfalfa leafcutter bee females are black with pale yellow stripes on the abdomen and face. They are about 2/3 the size of a honey bee. Male alfalfa leafcutter bees are overall brighter in color and have green eyes and longer antennae.
2. In general, they emerge later in the summer when temperatures are in the 80°’s F (25°’s C). Plan the emergence of your leafcutter bees for when the temperatures are warm enough and your garden’s flowers are blooming.
3. The nesting range for these bees is about 300′ (100m) from their nest.

Content courtesy of Crown Bees

Morro Bay – A Story of Cooperation and Celebration

Morro Bay – A Story of Cooperation and Celebration
By Walter Heath, Morro Bay in Bloom

The effect of the City of Morro Bay, California’s participation in the America in Bloom program is lot like the effect of Professor Harold Hill’s arrival in the mythical town of River City, Iowa in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. In that beloved American musical, Prof. Hill’s charm cajoled the townspeople into cooperating and celebrating their strengths. The benefit of America in Bloom is the realization that, in order to succeed in the program, communities have to pull together.

The process of identifying, during the compilation of our first “Community Profile,” all of the good things that residents are already making happen was illuminating for all the constituent groups of our community. City staff, the business community, civic groups and, specifically, art, civic-beautification and heritage-preservation groups became aware of existing investments of time and energy in our community. The information facilitates understanding that informs our city’s annual goals-and-objectives setting process.

A group of stakeholders in civic beautification, environmental, art and heritage preservation meet regularly to formulate a list of unmet needs that is submitted for review at annual public goals-setting workshops with city staff and city council. The current America in Bloom judges’ evaluation is used to develop the list. Some items on the unmet needs list are budgeted for completion during the upcoming fiscal year. As a result of public scrutiny during the workshops, aspirational items are prioritized.

As with Professor Hill’s “think system,” the America in Bloom program has provided Morro Bay an opportunity to discover what’s possible for our community and to celebrate what we have. We have learned that Morro Bay’s heritage is primarily cultural and tied throughout the ages to human interaction with our beautiful natural setting. As one of the last authentic small beach communities in California, understanding our special qualities informs the choices we make to shape our future.

A Story of Transformation: Madisonville, Kentucky

A Story of Transformation: Madisonville, Kentucky

Madisonville, Kentucky is a city rich in assets with acres of prime parkland offering outstanding recreational opportunities, a low cost of living, exceptional health care, and more.  As the county seat of Hopkins County, Kentucky, the city also benefits from legal and governmental job opportunities.  Despite these advantages, however, downtown Madisonville entered the lean economic years beginning in 2008 in a weakened condition which was threatening to get worse.  This was most apparent in the downtown shopping area which included more than 17 vacant storefronts and offered little to entice residents to shop or dine in town.

But change was afoot in the city.  In 2007, through a grant from the state, the city had acquired a new City Hall.  Also, the county was preparing to build a large new county courthouse in the downtown area. Unfortunately, budget overruns mandated that the landscape plans for this project be shelved, promising a rather stark aesthetic. A group of civic minded individuals decided that a plan was needed  to create a friendlier, more inviting environment at the human scale for the downtown.

In 2011, Madisonville joined America in Bloom.  Under this umbrella initial volunteer efforts to improve the streetscape included the installation of both hanging floral baskets and public art displays.  Some building owners volunteered to paint storefronts to rejuvenate the downtown in the weeks leading to the arrival of the AIB  judges. The first year’s AIB score was not impressive, but the judges’ suggestions for the city were.  Invigorated, more volunteers joined the AIB effort and the improvements began to take hold.

A portion of the downtown was deliberately targeted as an area for public gatherings and beautification efforts continued.  In an effort to bring more people downtown, live music concerts were initiated and quickly became very popular.  Foot traffic in the downtown area intensified.  Through efforts of the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses, some of the vacant storefronts began to fill with restaurants and local retail shops.  Soon, a bank took over the vacant old municipal building and, in response to the growing popularity of the downtown as a gathering space, a public/private effort was initiated to create a beautiful downtown community park in the green area in front of the bank.  Today, this park includes a permanent stage, greenspace, and art and floral displays and is home to numerous events including the live outdoor music concerts.

All these efforts over the years have proved contagious, with people noting the clear visual difference between “then” and “now,” and many people say, “I stay in town now.” Jenny Gibson, a downtown advocate and active volunteer said it all in a recent quote about the improvements for Madisonville as a direct result of involvement in AIB:  “Sure!  It’s been pretty dramatic.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of 7 vacant buildings (one of which is being worked on and that number includes the old Bart’s building and Blackwells, which we have prospects for).  In 2011 I can think of at least 17 vacancies.  The occupants have consistently changed from primarily law and government office to small retail, food service, and personal services, which is necessary for the district to thrive.  AIB involvement has helped us focus on building an environment suitable for growth.  The other side of the success has been the more recent businesses’ understanding that together we are stronger than alone.  In other words, we work together and help each other to succeed!”

Get to Know Wild Bee Hotels

Get to Know Wild Bee Hotels

A truly healthy wild bee hotel set up

Tips for 5-Star Wild Bee Hotels

Bee hotels are fast becoming a backyard staple. Similar to birdhouses, bee hotels provide vital and missing nesting habitat. In the wild, hole-nesting bees usually nest in holes in standing dead trees, fallen logs, and broken branches of bushes and large grasses. Wild hole-nesting bees are desperately searching for suitable nesting sites and we’ve seen them make do by nesting in the ends of old garden hose nozzles, openings in metal garden furniture, and even the hollow ends of wind chimes. But unlike birdhouses, we can’t just build bee hotels and leave them alone. Bee hotels need to be maintained and managed or they are destined to become slums for bees. Our bee guests deserve the best accommodations!

Opening our Eyes to the Real World of Bees

The bees that nest in bee hotels are really, really different than honey bees or bumblebees. We’ve all grown up learning about the social structure of honey and bumblebees and we’ve come to think that their lifestyle represents all bee behavior. The truth is, the world is home to 21,000 species of bees (and more are discovered every year) and a whopping 90% of bee species do not live in social structures.

Instead, most of the world’s bees live alone. We call this bee behavior and lifestyle “solitary” and every solitary bee is fertile. Solitary female bees are fertile queens and they have all the duty and responsibility to take care of their young. Each female bee has to gather pollen and nectar, build nests, and lay eggs.

Solitary female bees are gentle because they are too busy to aggressively protect their nesting site and they simply can’t risk their lives. Solitary bees will only defend themselves as a last resort, like when they are accidentally squished or stepped on. Many solitary bees have barbless stingers and rarely does someone develop an anaphylactic allergic reaction to their mild venom.

About 1,000 hole-nesting bee species are native to North America

Solitary bees don’t live in colonies, they don’t build hives, they don’t make honey or wax, and they don’t form attack swarms. To understand the world’s bees, we kind of, sort of, have to forget everything we think we know about bees. Out of the world’s 21,000 + bee species, there are only 7 species of honey bees after all, and bees are as diverse as apples to oranges and pears.

To Build a Great Bee Hotel, Get to Know Wild Hole-Nesting Bees

So, if 90% of bees don’t live in hives, how do they live? About 70% of bees species nest underground and the remaining 30% nest in cavities or holes in wood or hollow broken stems. Some hole-nesting bees like to drill their own holes and these are called carpenter bees. Large carpenter bees, in the Xylocopa genus, chew tunnels in solid wood and since it takes so much time to dig a good tunnel they reuse nesting homes. Small carpenter bees, in the Ceratina genus, prefer to chew tunnels in the soft pith of broken stems like in raspberry and blackberry canes.

Blue orchard mason bees are gentle, easy to raise spring pollinators

Many hole-nesting bees are too small (and too efficient!) to chew their own holes in solid wood. Instead, they save time and energy by nesting in pre-made holes like old grub tunnels. Or they use the crevice in peeling bark and build just one wall along the bottom. Hole-nesting bees that nest in pre-made cavities come in a variety of sizes and it’s best for them to nest in a hole that is just the right size and depth for them. Examples of popular hole-nesting garden pollinators are blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria) and alfalfa leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata).

Peak-a-boo: a mason bee inside of a cardboard tube

Most solitary bees have a short lifespan as flying adults. For example, male mason bees are only flying for 2 weeks, long enough to mate, and female mason bees are actively flying for 4-6 weeks. With such a short timeframe as adults, solitary bees do not make honey. This short lifespan also drives some solitary bees to have a short flying range from home, too. When they first look for a good nesting spot they may fly a few miles searching, but once they check into their new bee home they only fly a few hundred feet (about 100 meters) from their nesting site. Surprisingly, a big chunk of a solitary bee’s life is spent in their nesting site hibernating over the winter.

What’s Inside a Hole-nesting Bee’s Nest?

The female bee is building nesting chambers inside the nesting hole and she builds them in a series, all in a line. Of course, she starts at the back and each nesting chamber is provisioned with food for one egg, which is a mix of pollen and nectar called a pollen loaf. The female bee lays an egg that is firmly placed in the pollen loaf and then seals the chamber with a protective material to keep each egg safe as the next chamber is built. The protective material is either a wall between nesting chambers or it is a protective cocoon that the mother builds to encase the larva as it develops.

Mud walls, pollen loaves, and larvae inside a mason bee nest

The protective nesting material depends on the species and when that species is active in the year. Many mason bees are active in early spring and they use mud, which is wet and workable for gathering. Some spring mason bees use chewed up leaf bits (called leaf mastic) or a mix of pebbles, mud, and leaves. Leafcutter bees build protective leafy cocoons from the summer’s abundance of soft, pliable leaves. Resin bees gather sap while it is warm and flowing in the hot summer months. Some bee species mix a few ingredients together and all bees protect their nesting hole with an extra thick layer of nesting material. This protective layer is right at the edge of the hole and it’s called a capped end. The materials used for capped ends and their texture gives us a clue to who built the nest.

After the bee egg is laid, it can either hatch and develop into a flying adult right away or go into hibernation, otherwise known as diapause. Bee larvae are usually white and they look like chubby grubs. Once the larvae eats its pollen loaf and has nothing left to eat it spins a cocoon and goes through the cycles of metamorphosis. Spring mason bee eggs hatch and develop over the summer and they hibernate as fully formed adult bees, which makes them ready to go as soon as the daytime spring weather warms above 55*F consistently.

We can easily and safely harvest blue orchard mason bee cocoons in the fall and take care of their sturdy, waterproof cocoons by storing them in the fridge. We’re learning more about how other wild bees develop in their cocoons so that we know when we can safely and easily harvest cocoons to ensure the bee’s health.

Many hole-nesting bees that are active in the summer need warm weather to incubate to finish developing. Some bee species are able to have more than one generation develop in the long summer season. For example, alfalfa leafcutter bees can hatch and develop right away and new adults are called second generation bees. This means that the leafcutter bees can spend even more time pollinating your garden and farm.

Pests and Diseases that Harm Bee Hotels

There are a lot of tutorials for bee hotels and their intentions are great, but one big piece of knowledge missing about hole-nesting bees is the fact that they struggle with pests, diseases, and predators just like any other creature. Man-made nesting holes are not the same as the nesting holes found in nature and the nesting holes of bee hotels are close enough together for common diseases and pests to spread and overrun a bee hotel. To reduce and deter diseases and pests is easy, simply harvest cocoons and separate healthy cocoons from infected nesting chambers.

The three big problems that hole-nesting bees face are pollen mites (they eat the pollen and nectar loaf before the bee larva does), chalkbrood (a fungal infection that converts a larva into a mass of fungal spores), and parasitic wasps (gnat-sized wasps that lay eggs inside of healthy larvae). As you harvest cocoons, you can learn how to identify infected chambers and keep healthy cocoons safe.There are larger, more well-known predators like ants, certain beetles and birds.

Provide easy to open nesting holes and learn about your native bees

Design Tips for Successful Bee Hotels

As experts with decades of experience raising hole-nesting bees, the following are tips for how Crown Bees would design and manage a bee hotel. Some of the tips sound time-consuming, but in reality each step should only take a few moments. Our effort to do things right is well worth it since the UN has reported that 40% of the world’s insect pollinators are facing extinction. Our bee hotel’s wild hole-nesting bee residents are the bees that actually need our help.

1. Protect developing larvae. Plan your bee hotel ahead of time so that you can remove nesting materials as they are filled and store the filled nesting holes in a warm location. You want to keep nesting materials in locations that have similar temperatures as the outdoors, like a garden shed or unheated garage. Removing and protecting filled nesting holes in a fine mesh bag keeps the small parasitic wasps from being able to attack larvae. To protect a drilled block of wood, place liner inserts or rolled paper inserts (pinch the back end closed) into each drilled hole and remove and replace these as they are filled.

Keep an eye on the filled nesting materials. Parasitic wasps may have already attacked and they are able to develop into adults very quickly, you don’t want them to harm more larvae. Also watch to see if your bees are the type that develop in the same season they were laid and are ready to emerge.

2. Provide nesting holes in the proper size range, made of the right materials. Avoid bamboo and plastic straws, as these do not let the moist pollen loaf breathe. Many bamboo shoots are much too large for any North American bee to use. Nesting holes should be between 4-10 mm in size and should be about 6” long. Nesting holes that are too shallow will skew the sex range of next generation’s bees. Natural, locally available nesting materials are best. Crown Bees’ Pollinator Pack provides cardboard tubes and lake reeds in the right size range and they are easy to open for cocoon harvest.

3. Protect nesting materials from wind, rain, and birds. Build a protective outer structure that has a 2-3” overhang. If birds are attacking the nesting holes, use 1” wide wire cloth and bubble around the bee hotel. Do not install wire cloth flush against the nesting holes because this will obstruct the bees from entering. Bees need some landing space for approaching and taking off.

4. Avoid a hotel that is too large. While a bee hotel that is 4 feet wide and 6 feet tall looks great, draws a lot of attention and raises awareness to our bees, this size is much too ambitious and will become a burden to maintain. Provide a bee hotel that matches what the area nearby the house can provide, for example, many flowering trees and bushes can provide more pollen than a meadow of flowers can. Also, think about the time that you can devote to cleaning and managing the bees that move in.

5. Location and a word about solitary predatory wasps. Orient the bee hotel to face the morning sun, as hole-nesting bees are cold-blooded and need the sun’s warmth to get the energy needed to fly. We know that mason bees prefer some afternoon shade and have heard that too much shade could actually attract solitary hole-nesting wasps. Solitary wasps are predators of garden pests and they fill nesting holes with caterpillars, aphids, and even spiders. Hole-nesting wasps are great beneficial insects that are a good indicator that your garden is balanced and supports all insects. Solitary wasp larvae are also white but their shape and skin are different from a bee, they are longer with large bumps and they feel waxy.

You might want to provide two bee hotels in your yard with each bee hotel facing a different direction. One house can face east and another can face southeast. We are curious to learn if bee species have a preference for orientation of their nesting house. You might also want to place a hotel in your yard and one in a wild location, like a meadow or forest. A natural habitat could be home to a different mix of local wild bees that you could then introduce to your yard.

To ensure your wild bee’s health, harvest their cocoons

6. Harvest cocoons. After protecting and storing filled nesting materials over the winter, open materials and harvest cocoons in the early spring. If you can, organize and separate cocoons based on appearance and when their nesting holes were capped. When you incubate in the BeeGuardian bag you have more control for releasing the bees outside. Incubating inside of the fine mesh bag also helps you reduce the release of the gnat-sized parasitic wasps.

Join the Native Bee Network

You can help us all learn more about our native hole-nesting bees by participating in Crown Bee’s citizen science project. The Native Bee Network is a way for gardeners and farmers to gather information and share it with other growers. Traditional scientific knowledge can tell us a bee’s scientific name but there is so much more we can know about each bee species. We need to know what size hole they prefer, what nesting materials they use, if they are specialists or generalists, and when they are active. The answers to these questions can be answered by anyone that takes the time to watch the bee guests and protect their nesting materials.

Join the Native Bee Network to learn and share knowledge with gardeners and farmers.

On the Road to Elfin Forest

On the Road to Elfin Forest
By Kristin Pategas, AIB Judge

My fellow judge, Tony Ferrara and I were not in Kansas anymore or Orlando for that matter where I caught my flight. After flying for more than eight hours with an hour car journey from San Diego International Airport, I arrived in the small, rural, unincorporated county area known as Elfin Forest, California. No, Tony and I were not on the hunt for garden elves or a yellow brick road. We had traveled over 2,280 miles to tour the natural beauty of one of the two last remaining chaparral communities in the world and meet the dedicated residents who have worked very hard to preserve and protect their treasured resource.

Elfin Forest is home to about 210 homes surrounded by over 3,000 acres of preserved land. In the 1940s this area was described by a botanist as the best example of an elfin forest he had ever seen where low rainfall creates a forest of miniaturized trees. This enchanting name stuck and the residents soon identified their community as Elfin Forest, installing custom-wrought roadway monuments along the two public roads that pass through it and diligently working to keeping this area rural.

As you may realize by now, this community is not a typical America in Bloom community. It lacks municipal buildings, sidewalks, streetlights, sewer, and even stop signs. There are no historic structures and few businesses. With no tax revenues, the community relies solely on donations and volunteerism to maintain its private roads, trails, and fire-wise demonstration garden.

Low rainfall (less than 6 inches a year) limits the installation of typical floral displays and landscape beds. However, in 2005 Elfin Forest invited America in Bloom to tour their community and assist them in discovering more opportunities to preserve and celebrate their natural heritage. They were pleased with the results from implementing some of the recommendations from their evaluation. Now, with heightened development pressures all around them, Elfin Forest reached out to America in Bloom for more ideas to help them transition from acquiring land to land management and conservation education, as well as ways to create an even greater sense of community.

In just two days of touring we meet with members of the volunteer town council, the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department, local businesses, the Escondido Creek Conservancy, the Olivenhain Municipal Water District and numerous residents. We received a clear picture of how this community, loosely organized in the 1970s, had successfully grown into a strong team of volunteer committees and most importantly, a cooperative spirit of dedicated neighbors.

Now that we have returned to our respective homes, after another long day of travel, our job is to assimilate Elfin Forest’s Community Profile, numerous publications and our notes from the past two days of touring. Then we will supplement with our own research to write an extensive evaluation with five recommendations in each of the criteria America in Bloom evaluates: floral displays, landscaped areas, urban forestry, environmental awareness, heritage preservation, overall impression and community involvement. We’re just rolling up our sleeves.

No, we may not have found storybook elves, but we did find many hard working “elves” that make up the community of Elfin Forest.

Tavares, Florida - Judges Visit First-Time Participant

Tavares, Florida - Judges Visit First-Time Participant
By AIB Judge Sue Amatanglo

Many have used the saying planes, trains, and automobiles when describing their travel experiences from one destination to another.  But for the city of Tavares Florida, the judges used not only planes, trains, and automobiles to reach their destination; it also took trucks, boats, walking shoes, golf carts and seaplanes to experience every unique detail of this beautiful lakeside city.

Tavares, America’s Sea Plane City, is nestled in Central Florida just north of Orlando on Lake Dora. Daily flights surf their shores originating from FA1, the city’s designated seaplane base.
Although it took many modes of transportation to navigate this city of 14,583 residents, as a first year AIB participant, nothing moved the judges more on their tour than the pride that every person had in their community along with their contagious enthusiasm. Time and time again we were told of the excitement that America in Bloom has brought to their community and how they were able to accomplish things that they never thought they could. One of the most impressive was the Freedom Flag monument and circle.

Pride went much deeper than the pride they have for their community. Patriotism certainly runs deep in Tavares where donors from the community, along with other inspired citizens, pledged amounts ranging from a few dollars up to $3,000 to make a Veterans Memorial a reality. The goal was reached within a short period of time and the funds were used to erect a 60’ flagpole anchoring a high profile traffic circle centered in the county government campus. A commemorative granite donor monument, with the inscription “Freedom is Never Free”, was placed adjacent to the traffic circle recognizing the efforts of so many that contributed.

According to Traci Anderson, Tavares in Bloom Committee Chair and Landscape Specialist for the city, the judge’s visit was the catalyst they needed to gear up and plant up the Freedom Flag with perennials. She asked city staff to complete this project at the last minute (a week before the judges arrived). In just a week, they were able to get the needed PO’s, secure the plant material, pick it up and deliver everything to get the project done. But that wasn’t all. Before anything could be planted, there was a need to first remove masses of jasmine groundcover, a lot of poor soil and then bring in good soil to fill and raise the level of the garden. Working together as a team, within 6 hours the soil was all replaced and the area surrounding the flag was planted.

Just like each and every community that we have the pleasure to get to know, there are so many wonderful things to see, so many inspiring stories to tell and so many lasting experiences to share and for AIB judges, Laurie Potier-Brown and Sue Amatangelo - Tavares, Florida was no different.

Stories from the Road - Brewton, Alabama

Stories from the Road - Brewton, Alabama

By Stephen Pategas, AIB Judge

Stephen Pategas
This being my fourth year of judging, I have come to realize that there isn't a typical judging experience. This is probably heightened by the fact I am self employed as a landscape architect and leading the Winter Park Blooms efforts in Winter Park, Florida (nestled up to Orlando but a world away).

With Winter Park's fifth entry this year everything should have been push button. What I did not count on was a judging assignment with a 7 AM flight the day after the AIB judges finished in Winter Park. I had to make arrangements with Brewton, Alabama, to coordinate with my fellow judge, juggle my work load to block out six days instead of two, pack my bag while I was busy hosting the judges, and twist my mind set from being judged - to judging a community. Numerous checklists were crucial for pulling off those feats.

Hosting AIB judges is a fairly demanding two days, and the day after is counted on for decompression, deep satisfying breaths, and a round of back patting amongst committee members. Instead, at 5:30 a.m. I was being driven to that early morning flight to Pensacola, FL (nearest airport to Brewton). Thank you to my wife Kristin (also an AIB judge) for that sacrifice. The good news was there was time to sightsee that day in gorgeous weather in Pensacola with fellow judge Laurie Potier-Brown from Tampa. There was the question of what to do with luggage when someone wants to spend a day walking around as a tourist. The answer is: the chamber of commerce! Willa cheerfully watched our bags until Connie Baggett from Brewton picked us up in the late afternoon. We even picked up advice and a free map from Willa. We mailed her a thank you note from Brewton.

The one-hour drive to Brewton was picturesque and informative as we learned more about Brewton. Over the next two days we learned about the history of Brewton with its early founding based on the timber industry and the use of Burnt Corn and Murder Creeks to transport timber. Yes, there are stories behind those names and that is just one of the fun parts about being introduced to new places with their sincere, friendly people. Of course we saw much more, including stately mansions built by the timber barons of the past, a revitalizing downtown in spite of freight trains barreling through, new parks and trails under development, and a pitcher plant bog that was nothing less than magical. Fortunately it wasn't too moist and as I had feared, I didn't get my only pair of shoes wet.
Pitcher plant bog
One thousand miles later, I was home. But no time for relaxing as I had to work on a recap of Winter Park's judging experience, return more than a few emails, start on an Evaluation Report for Brewton, and prepare for visiting four other communities I will judge in July. I wonder how early my flight to Lewisburg, West Virginia will leave?

Please consider making a donation to help finance AIB judges' travel. We are asking you to donate to our travel fund to help to connect our talented volunteer judges with dynamic In Bloom community leaders across the county. This year my fellow judges and I will travel more than 63,700 miles to plant pride and to make America bloom. We need your support to help us complete our journey. Donate today.

Please watch this cool video to learn more about our judges' travels. Then click the Donate Now button below to take the next step.

Every $1 you contribute gets us 1 mile closer to making America Bloom. 
Please click here to donate.