Sunday, May 24, 2015

Floral Visitors 11

This certainly feels like a strange year, considering the mild Winter which rushed into a hot dry spell that instigated a burst of blooms from all sorts of plants, and now it has been raining for a few days! I can only assume that the conditions have been great for plants, because many have flowered better than any year that I have lived here. The pollinator activity has been very high, the insects rejoice in the bountiful harvest. Here is a much-too-small sampling of what I have been able to capture this week, a few moments of time meant to represent hours and days and thousands of pollinator and flower interactions, it's never enough!

The South bed
This is one of the raised beds that sits next to our house. The original planting consisted of two large coniferous shrubs, seen at the edges of the photo. Whatever was originally planted in between had died before we moved in, the space being inhabited by sheep sorrel and prickly lettuce. After removing the weeds, I amended the clay that filled the bed (the landscapers used clay for everything here!) with manure and had originally planted Centaurea cyanus, Calendula, and Eschscholzia californica. That first year I realized what I created was a jungle, though bees and other pollinators did appreciate it. I decided to tear all of those out, and over time planted Anchusa (the blue flowers), Echinacea, AlliumThymus (two types, along the front, bottom of the photo), Agastache, Gladiolus, Veronica (a dwarf variety), Sedum album, Hyssopus, and Coreopsis. Earlier in the year I showed Scilla, Muscari, and Crocus that were planted in this bed, now dormant. It seems like a lot, but the plants grow very happily together in a relatively tiny space. California poppy now grows in the gravel around the bed, which I tolerate because I think it's beautiful and better than the weeds that we get here (most notably Hypochaeris radicata, like a tall dandelion).

Thymus serpyllum with hidden fly
The creeping thyme has been a perfect addition to this south facing bed. The bed is built from concrete interlocking wall blocks, the type used for retaining walls, and the thyme cascades down the sides and hides the blocks wonderfully. Honeybees and flies love the flowers. Can you find the fly camouflaged in the photo?

Eschscholzia californica with solitary bee
In front of the South bed live a few large, almost shrub-like in their proportions, California poppy plants. They have perennialized, growing out of the intersection of the wall and the gravel. Small bees of many types capitalize on the abundant orange flowers, which close as soon as there is a shadow cast over them as the sun sets. I think they are mostly a source of pollen for the bees, possibly yielding some nectar too, though not in great quantity (or just not good nectar producers in this location/climate).

Hypochaeris radicata with solitary bee
Rough cat's ear is a European native that has invaded several countries including the United States. It is similar to dandelions (Taraxacum sp.) except it is much taller (flower stalks can reach two feet). Dandelions have hollow stems with deeply lobed notched leaves while Hypochaeris has mildly lobes, rough hairy leaves, and solid stems. I'm not sure if it is the same in other localities or countries, but the dandelions here flower very early in the year, around February I think, while the Hypochaeris is only starting to flower now. Despite this invaders tenacity and voracious spreading habit (through seed and division of root crowns), it is a very good resource for pollinating insects and even birds (once it has set seed). See the video below of a solitary bee visiting a flower:

A realization, and an afterthought: This video was filmed from inside the house through a window, and my wife and daughter were in the room too. I completely forgot to edit the audio, so you get to hear me daughter talk towards the end. My first thought when I realized this was "Oh crap! I have to redo it!" but then, many of you might not even have the volume turned up anyway. Also, why should I erase a cute recording of my sweet little girl? If you do not want to hear it, please turn your volume down. It's all good!

Allium amplectens 'Graceful' with solitary bee and fly
Planted in various beds and locations around the house and in the garden is Allium amplectens 'Graceful', a California and Oregon (possibly Washington) native of hot and dry openings. This selection appears very adaptable, though seems to flower better where it gets more sun. When planted in large groups, it attracts many many insects (good ones) like the photo above illustrates. It isn't the best picture because it was taken from inside the house through a window. Watching the pollinators working the flowers through the window makes it feel like a zoo exhibit, and I've always loved the zoo (I'm originally from San Diego, I practically grew up at the zoo, for those who know me it may explain a lot!)

Allium amplectens 'Graceful' with solitary bee
These bees are well adapted to pollinating these flowers. I watched over and over as they would move around to most if not all of the flowers on each umbel, searching for nectar. I'm hoping for a good seed crop this year, both for myself and to share with the Pacific Bulb Society Seed Exchange.

Allium amplectens 'Graceful' with fly
The sheer diversity of pollinating insects on this selection suggests to me that it is well adapted to this region. Many flies and bees, and possibly the odd moth or butterfly have visited these flowers in the past few weeks. The large flies seen in the photo of the thyme (top of the post) as well as the one in this photo as well as other tiny flies have been frequent visitors. The only time I have seen this much pollinator activity on a single flower source was when the fruit trees were in bloom. For those who love both bulbs and pollinating insects, this is a good one.

Iris pseudacorus with small wasp
Far away from home, a large patch of Iris pseudacorus grows in a ditch in front of a trailer camping resort. I shared this in a previous posting, but I felt it was worth including here again. Being an invasive species from Europe, yellow flag (as it is called) does not fit into our ecological web, particularly when it comes to pollinators. This small wasp (definitely not a bee, note the position of the wings and lack of pollen-carrying apparatus) is very much unsuited to pollinate the large flowers. Wasps generally have no interest in pollen, instead feeding on nectar. Unlike bees, most wasps only feed on nectar as adults, while they feed their young other insects, mostly just chewed up parts. Perhaps it is a good thing that these flowers aren't pollinated more efficiently more often, this would only increase their spread and facilitate the speedy takeover of more riparian habitats (I mentioned in a previous posting, this species likes very wet conditions, often in ditches and shallow creeks or pond edges).

Robinia pseudoacacia
The black locust tree, Robinia pseudoacacia, is worth mentioning here although I did not get the opportunity to photograph a pollinator at work (unless you count the tiny fly in the center). The trees are fully covered in drooping racemes of papilionaceous (pea-like) white flowers. Honeybees adore the trees, bringing in a lot of nectar to hives located close to the trees, also contributing to an early honey harvest for some. The trees are only in bloom for a matter of weeks before the petals begin to rain down with a snow-like effect, particularly beautiful when there is a slight breeze.

Symphoricarpos hesperius with honeybee
Otherwise known as creeping snowberry, Symphoricarpos hesperius is a generally under appreciated understory herb native to much of Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. For the longest time I had no idea what it was, having never seen it in flower (it is admittedly easy to miss). One day, I was taking a walk with my daughter up our shared gravel driveway and I heard the characteristic buzzing of honeybees, much louder than the typically silent solitary bees and much quieter than the loud distinct buzzing of Bombus or Xylocopa (the big bees). Just then, the movement of a bee in my peripheral caught my attention and I saw them.

This is one of those rare occasions when honeybees venture into the generally shadier parts of the yard, apparently highly attracted to a single plant. This is always special to me, because honeybees tend to avoid plants in shade, instead preferring plants in the sun, even if the plants are in both sun and shade. For example, clover may grow and flower in both sun and shade, but honeybees will usually prefer the flowers in the sun. This could be because flowers release scents unlocked by the warmth of the sun, or perhaps are better nectar producers in sunnier locations, compared to shadier sites. Symphoricarpos may have adapted to shade by being able to attract bees in the shade. Very peculiar, I am very pleased to see the bees interest in this otherwise easy-to-miss native.

Silene hookeri with syrphid fly
Silene hookeri, or Hooker's Indian-pink, is an attractive perennial native to Southwestern Oregon and Northern California. I have long wondered what types of insects pollinate it, but now I am fairly confident that flies are the most likely pollinators. On observing a group of plants on a warm day, I noticed a variety of flies visiting the flowers, and even moving from flower to flower! This kind of thing makes me very happy, mostly because flies in the garden are rarely seen as pollinators, or even acting like pollinators. Seeing flies practice flower constancy, much like a honeybee or other types of bees, is fairly rare.

Eriogonum compositum with beetle
On a trip with my daughter to a rest stop park close to our house, we came across this beautiful plant. It is almost carrot-like with white flowers held in an umbel, but it has six petals on each small flower instead of five, like all the plants in the Apiaceae (carrot family). I am not familiar with the genus Eriogonum, but have always admired it for the beauty of the inflorescences the different species possess.

Cistus with two bees
On the same trip with my daughter we came across a planting of Cistus and Lavendula. Small solitary bees were all over the Cistus, seemingly mostly for pollen. This flower had two bees, so it was obviously special. Bees typically don't like company when foraging and it is rare to see two in a single flower. This seems especially true with solitary bees, maybe less so with honeybees, but it really depends on the plant and how much the bees like it at the time.

Cistus with solitary bee
Most of the bees that work these types of flowers (open with many stamens projecting like Anemone, Rosa, and others) will move in a circle around the center crawling over the anthers, dislodging and collecting as much pollen as they can. While honeybees literally pack the pollen tightly into their "pollen baskets" (AKA corbicula) using a bit of nectar, solitary bees by contrast do not wet or pack their pollen in but instead collect it in scopa in a dry state. This method of pollen collection is much more efficient for pollination simply because it is more able to fall out onto the receptive stigma of a plant of the same species.

Kniphofia and Cistus at the Wildlife Safari in Winston, OR
Recently I took my family to the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. It was so much fun! It is essentially a drive through safari with many Eurasian and African megafauna like rhinos and giraffes, elephants, hippos, and many herding ungulates (hoofed animals). Also there was what could be considered a small zoo, and petting zoo. Throughout the premises were a diverse group of plants, including many geophytes! The large scale use of geophytes is always a surprise to me. The most abundant of the "lily-like" plants were the Kniphofias, often planted en masse like this photo illustrates. Honeybees were all over them, a surprise to me since I had never seen them to be so interested in these plants before.

Kniphofia with honeybee
It should be no surprise that honeybees have been able to work these flowers, both having species or subspecies from Africa. Though they are pollinated by African sunbirds, the honeybees seemed perfectly capable of accessing the nectar, though probably unable to effectively pollinate the flowers because of the position of the anthers. The protruding stamens are perfect for bird pollination, and I have in past years seen hummingbirds (distantly related to sunbirds) visit the flowers very frequently for the nectar.

Stachys byzantina with honeybee
Another surprise to me was seeing honeybees visit Stachys byzantina, AKA lambs ear. I have rarely seen honeybees show interest in it in my garden, yet they were working it eagerly at the Winston Wildlife Safari. Like other members of the mint family, Stachys produces little pollen. However, it also produces many many tiny flowers, so the chances of pollination increase. This pollen to flowers ratio is pretty consistent with many plants, think of the many Spring flowering bulbs who produce relatively few flowers per plant but correspondingly large quantities of pollen.

Rhododendron occidentale
Back at home, I have been noticing these attractive roadside beauties growing happily by a moist ditch on the side of the road bordering a densely forested area. The western azalea, Rhododendron occidentale, is a gorgeous and highly fragrant shrub. Bumblebees and Xylocopa (large carpenter bees) were gregariously working the fragrant blossoms, yet the location of the plants made it difficult to get a good shot of them, unfortunately. The ditch was fairly steep, and I had to try carefully not to slide down (into the poison oak thicket below!) But I did slide a bit, luckily not into the poison oak! The plants were growing with Physocarpus capitatus, which was just coming into flower. If I can remember I would like to try and collect some seed of these amazing rhodies to try them in my own garden!

Dichelostemma congestum with syrphid fly
Dichelostemma congestum, known affectionately as the forktooth ookow (the common name is of Native American origin, referring to the forked appendages surrounding the anthers) is in bloom now. Blooming much later than Dichelostemma capitatum, the two can also be told apart from the number of stamens, D. congestum having three fertile stamens visible, D. capitatum having six. The flowers are held on tall stalks, taller in my observation than D. capitatum. I've also noticed that when D. capitatum is in bloom, the grass is much shorter, and they are better able to hold themselves up. In contrast, D. congestum will almost flop over without support, practically requiring the tall grasses it grows with in order to stay upright.

Dichelostemma congestum with honeybee
Forktooth ookow attracts a wide variety of pollinators, including butterflies and flies. This photo is the record of the first time I have seen a honeybee visit the flowers. This photo was taken on a roadside patch of wildflowers, not too far from my house, that included Wyethia amplexicaulis, Chlorogalum, nonnative Centaurea cyanus, and Dichelostemma congestum.

Wyethia amplexicaulis
This is a beautiful sunflower relative, growing two feet tall with flowers two to four inches across. Solitary bees have been the visitors I have seen in years past, but in the few minutes I was there taking photos there were bumblebees. The seeds are apparently edible, somewhat like small sunflower seeds, that when roasted can be eaten like a snack.

Centaurea cyanus with honeybee
Centaurea cyanus, AKA bachelor buttons, are invasive here where they can get a foothold. Most of the time they are the blue-flowered variety, but in this patch were also these gorgeous intermediary colored forms. Honeybees and small solitary bees were working the flowers, consistent with previous year's observations.  

Centaurea cyanus
If this color form was sold more often, it would sell more than the blue-flowered form. Wow.

Centaurea cyanus with solitary bee
As a gardener, I am in a way attempting to "play god" on a tiny scale by gardening. Our desire to create aesthetically pleasing gardens can sometimes undermine the unimaginable complexity of the natural world, even considering plant ecology alone. My goal as a gardener has always been to give back as much as if not more than the garden gives me, if that is even possible. I think to be realistic about being a modern human is to realize that our figurative footsteps result in serious life-or-death consequences. Homes and roads alone take up immense amounts of spaces. Considering just how many plants can live happily in such a small space as my South bed (top of the post) which is less than ten feet by four feet wide, it is merely an imitation of what nature can accomplish. I cannot help but feel like a hypocrite, guilt from using roads and living in a house, not something that I am willing to change at this time. By gardening, I do not believe it is a fair trade, yet by acknowledging the fundamental inequality of human life as I know it I can live forward and make choices fair to all life. Plants and insects are some of the oldest life-forms on Earth, we as humans are the new tenants. Let us be polite guests to our gracious hosts!

Foothill Blvd., between Grants Pass and Rogue River in Oregon


  1. Centaurea cyanus - common name here cornflower. Things like California poppy grow well here in the UK, but they won't be flowering until mid to late summer. I've never seen one persist from one year to the next, although they self seed.


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