Feeding Frenzy-Manzanita and Friends

Every year in my garden, and in the garden at Tree of Life Nursery where I work, and maybe in your garden, too, the earliest Manzanita to bloom is Arctostaphylos refugioensis.  Last year it had plentiful flowers at Christmas, but this year it’s quite early and in full bloom in time for Halloween.

White flower clusters on Arctostaphylos refugioensis
White flower clusters on Arctostaphylos refugioensis
Arctostaphylos refugioensis, Refugio Manzanita, late October
Arctostaphylos refugioensis, Refugio Manzanita, late October

On Saturday, October 30th, I attended a talk by pollinator and native plant expert Bob Allen at the nursery, and in the course of a talk about gardening for butterflies he mentioned that manzanitas are good nectar plants for adult butterflies and moths. When I arrived home later that afternoon, lo and behold, two Monarch butterflies were fluttering high around my front yard, and further observation showed that their target was the profuse blooms of my Refugio manzanita. Guru Bob strikes again!

I got my camera out of the car and traded out for my close-up lens, and set up shop next to the plant.  It is quite eye-catching as you can see – about eight years old and not yet fully grown. The clusters of bright white flowers are beautiful and very showy against the green foliage.

The plant was buzzing with honeybees, and it seemed that the butterflies were a little daunted, either by the bees or by my presence, and at first they alighted only rarely and for a short time.  Finally, though, one of them found a good spot near the top of the plant, and took a good protracted drink of nectar while I clicked away.


While waiting for the Monarch, I was treated to several other interesting pollinators on the smorgasbord. The ubiquitous honeybees were too common, and a pair of hummingbirds were too quick and too shy to be photographed, but I did manage to capture three images.  One was a very large fly – almost as big as carpenter bee – and the abdomen appeared to flash blue-black in the right light.  Aren’t his/her wings interesting, with the black color near the based, graduating to see-through, with a delicate rusty—brown outside border?  I also captured the skipper butterfly and a huge fuzzy black & yellow bumblebee.  If anyone can contribute their knowledge about the fly or the bumblebee I’d be indebted.

Do you notice sliced holes through the “bells” in several of the photos below?  I’ve been told, probably by my guru Bob Allen again, that the honeybees poke holes in the top of the manzanita flowers to “steal” the nectar, bypassing the bottom opening of the flower as they just wouldn’t be able reach far enough to the nectar.  So, the hummers beak and the monarch butterfly proboscis are long enough to ensure they are doing their pollination job in exchange for nectar, but the honeybees and probably some of the other insects are just freeloading.

Next day was Halloween, and I checked out my pollinator magnet manzanita again.  Here is the previously shy Anna’s Hummingbird with pin feathers showing on his gorget:

I also saw a Painted Lady butterfly.  The fascinating thing about this butterfly is that I can see in my photos the proboscis unrolling, and it appears from the positioning of the butterfly and the reach of the proboscis to be, at times, using the holes made by the bees to nectar on the flowers.

Practically every garden should have a manzanita.  They are among our most durable and beautiful plants.  Find out which ones are native to your area, or what would be appropriate for your yard by contacting your local chapter of CNPS.  And enjoy manzanita bloom season right now!

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  1. Very interesting your information…I like it.It is sad to say that hear I cannot observe as you can do there.I have to visit the botanical garden which is very far from home. I am really interested from other people like you to inform us in your web page. Thanks for for doing this and continue the great work.

  2. Love those photos! I had no idea that manzanita flowers are so attractive to butterflies.

    The great fall performers in my garden were once again California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) and Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna). One bird was essentially ‘parked’ in the front yard, another in the backyard, guarding its trove of red flowers and nectar. We delayed the pruning of the stalks until the plants were pretty much done flowering to not deprive the hummers of their favorite nectar source.

    1. The hummingbirds can really put on a show! Thanks for sharing your garden experience, Arvind. Anyone who doesn’t have a California fuchsia in their garden is really missing out on summer entertainment.

  3. First of all, I love my manzanitas. They are full of bees and butterflies every spring, and little tiny apples later on.

    However, I have a tree I can’t seem to identify. (I have two of them in my yard.)

    It is about the size of a good-sized manzanita, but has rough bark, like an oak tree, for example. It has glossy evergreen leaves, which are about 3″ long, pointed, leathery, with a strong fold in the middle. Right now, the trees have flowerbuds, which are in little clusters of…budlets?….each about the size of teh end of your little finger, covered with tiny dark pink buds. I don’t remember what color they open to, but the tree has red fruit in the fall.

    It looks kind of like a madrone, except for the bark.
    I’d love to get more of them, especially as we are losing all the live oaks in my area and I want to replace with natives where I can – even small ones! I am in San Diego county, at 3500 feet. We go down into the low 20’s in the winter (sometimes less), and in the 100’s in the summer. Mostly we have live oaks, jeffrey pines, incense cedar, manzanitas, willows, scrub oaks and cotton woods, if that gives you an idea of the habitat.

    Can you help?


    1. Thanks for your comment Cindy. I think your large shrub might be a Sugarbush, Rhus ovata. It has wonderful flowers at this time of year, and it should be native to your area. You should google for it and check if the pictures match your plant. If not, hopefully you can post a photo here so we can check it out.

  4. I’m a newby to SoCal, but trying to learn what I can at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, which I’m sure you are familiar with. They specialize in native Californian plants, and have the largest collection of CA natives in the world. Unfortunately not everything that decides to visit, and sometimes take up residence, in the Garden is native. Honey bees are an example. Just the other day, one of the experts there was pointing out the little holes in the manzanita flowers – yes drilled by honey bees – and that it is an interesting example of the unbalanced effect of invasive species: the native solitary bees (carpenter bees) can get access to the nectar and pollen through the normal route, where they help pollinate…not free-load like the invaders! At least that’s what we were told. Some internet surfing suggests that the native bees know how to rip through flowers for nectar as well. What do you know about this difference?
    Thanks for those great photos.


    1. Hi Ben:

      Rancho is wonderful – I always enjoy a visit there and learn something new every time.

      I’m not sure what are the most important manzanita pollinators. In this article, https://cnps.org/cnps/publications/cnpsbulletin/v40.2_apr-jun2010.pdf, I make reference to hummingbird pollination of manzanitas, but I believe that certain bumblebees, using “buzz pollination” are more important. Perhaps it varies between species of manzanitas. Something to research further!

  5. Your big black fly there is a Syrphid fly in the genus Copestylum (probably mexicanum). The larvae of C. mexicanum eat rotten cactus, so it would be interesting to look to see if you can find the larvae in such a thing.

    1. Thanks, Kerry! very interesting to hear ID on these cool flies. I don’t know about larvae – I will see if I can notice anything now, as manzanitas are blooming everywhere.

  6. To my knowledge as a beekeeper, honeybees do not cut flowers at the base therefore circumventing the pollination-for-nectare trade system. Carpenter bees on the other hand, do.

    Wonderful pictures and descriptions by the way! I rather enjoyed them. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment / correction – and appreciate the kind words about the article. This manzanita is still going strong 6 years later, and it had an epic flowering year this year. Bloomed at Christmas.

      1. I stand corrected! Your observation is absolutely correct. It seems honey bees are known for cutting manzanita flowers to access the nectar.

        I would love a manzanita like that in my yard. Do you have any other flowering evergreens the bees are fond of?

        Thank You!

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