Year of Pollination: Scarlet Gilia and Its Pollinators

Flowers that are visited and/or pollinated by hummingbirds typically fit the following description: petals are brightly colored, often red; petals are fused to form a long, narrow tube; a “landing pad” is absent; abundant nectar is produced deep within the flower; and fragrance is weak or nonexistent. Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) is a typical example of such a flower, and hummingbirds are indeed among its most common visitors. But there is so much more to the story.

Scarlet gilia (also commonly known as skyrocket) is a wildflower in the phlox family (Polemoniaceae) that occurs in many parts of western North America. It is considered a biennial or short-lived perennial. It spends the first year or so of its life as a compact rosette of fern-like leaves. Later it sends up a branched, flowering stem that can reach 5 feet tall or more. The flowers are slender, trumpet-shaped, and composed of five fused petals that flare outward creating five prominent, pointed lobes. They are self-incompatible and require a pollinator in order to set seed. The stamens of an individual flower produce mature pollen before the stigma of that flower is ready to receive it – this is called protandry and is one mechanism of self-incompatibility.

The rosette of scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata)

The rosette of scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata)

The flowering period of scarlet gilia can last several months. Depending on the location, it can begin in mid-summer and continue through the fall. During this period, it produces dozens of flowers. It is also at this time that it runs the risk of being browsed by elk, mule deer, and other animals. This doesn’t necessarily set it back though, as it has the potential to respond by producing additional flowering stalks and more flowers. Its flowers are visited by a variety of pollinators including bumblebees, hawkmoths, butterflies, syrphid flies, solitary bees, and of course, hummingbirds. But hummingbirds, in many parts of scarlet gilia’s range are migratory, and that’s where things get interesting.

Early flowers of scarlet gilia are usually red. As the season progresses, flowers slowly shift from red to pink. In some cases, they lose all pigmentation and become white. In the early 1980’s, pollination biologists Ken Paige and Thomas Whitman set out to determine the reason for this shift in flower color. They spent three years observing a population of scarlet gilia on Fern Mountain near Flagstaff, Arizona. They noted that the change in flower color corresponded with the migration of hummingbirds and that the now lighter colored flowers continued to be pollinated by hawkmoths until the end of the flowering season.

ipomopsis aggregata

A series of experiments and observations led them to conclude that hummingbirds prefer darker colored flowers and hawkmoths prefer lighter colored flowers. By shifting to a lighter flower color, scarlet gilia appeared to be taking advantage of remaining pollinators after hummingbirds had migrated. They also concluded that the color change was not the cause of hummingbird migration since other flowers with nectar-rich, red, tubular flowers (specifically Penstemon barbatus) remained available in the area throughout their migration. It was also noted that the flowers of scarlet gilia shifted the timing of nectar production, presumably to better match the behavior of hawkmoths which are more active in the evenings.

No plants were observed shifting from light colored flowers to dark colored flowers, which further supported their conclusion. They also compared the population they studied to populations that do not lose their hummingbird pollinator and noted that when hummingbirds remain, the flowers of scarlet gilia don’t change color.

Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) with white flowers

Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) with white flowers

But just how effective are hummingbirds as pollinators of scarlet gilia? A seperate study carried out by a different group of researchers determined that, while hummingbirds were “the most common floral visitor,” long-tongued bumblebees were the more effective pollinator when it came to pollen deposition and seed set. The study involved observations of a scarlet gilia population in Colorado over a 5 year period. Considering how well the floral traits of scarlet gilia match up with the hummingbird pollination syndrome, it is surprising to learn that long-tongued bumblebees are comparatively more effective at pollinating them.

This study provides further evidence against strict adherence to pollination syndromes and the most effective pollinator principle, both of which imply specialized plant-pollinator interactions. (I wrote about these topics here, here, and here in earlier Year of Pollination posts.) In their discussion, the authors propose two possible explanations as to why scarlet gilia, despite its phenotypic floral traits, does not appear to be specialized. One explanation is that “natural selection favors a specialized [floral] morphology that excludes all but a single type of visitor, but there are constraints on achieving this outcome.” Perhaps the pollinators aren’t cooperating; their opportunism is leading them to “exploit flowers on which they can realize an energetic profit, even if they do not mechanically ‘fit’ very well.” The “sensory abilities” of the pollinators may be “broadly tuned,” making it difficult for plants to develop flowers with “private signals detectable only by specific types of pollinators.”

The second explanation proposed by the authors is that “selection favors some degree of floral generalization, but that flowers can retain features that adapt them to a particular type of pollinator in spite of generalization.” In the case of scarlet gilia, specialization could be detrimental because after they send up their flower stalks, they are doomed to die. This gives them only one season to set seed, and if hummingbirds are either not available that year or only available in limited numbers, a scarlet gilia population can lose the opportunity to reproduce. As the authors put it, “the fact that individual plants enjoy only a single season of reproduction, suggests the value of ‘backup’ pollinators.” This may also explain why flower color shifts in order to take full advantage of hawkmoth pollination after hummingbirds are gone.

Scarlet gilia is not only a beautiful and widespread wildflower, but also a plant with a very interesting story. Follow the links below to learn more about this fascinating plant:

The Moon Trees

On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 left Earth and headed for the Moon. It was the eighth manned Apollo mission and the third to land on the Moon. On board were three astronauts – Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, and Stuart Roosa. Joining the astronauts were about 500 tree seeds that were given to Roosa by Ed Cliff, the Chief of the Forest Service at the time. While Shepard and Mitchell explored the surface of the Moon, Roosa and the seeds hovered above it in the spacecraft. After Shepard had hit a couple of golf balls and Roosa had circled the Moon 34 times, the crew rejoined and headed back to Earth.

Roosa’s collection of tree seeds consisted of 5 species – Douglas fir, redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, and sweetgum. Upon returning to Earth, Roosa handed the seeds back over to the Forest Service. They were then planted at Forest Service stations in Mississippi and California. Some of the seedlings were planted adjacent to trees grown from seeds that had remained on Earth in order to conduct a comparison study. The other seedlings were available for dissemination.

Official Moon Tree Emblem

Official Moon Tree Emblem

Around this time (1976-77), America was celebrating its bicentennial, so many of the trees were planted in commemoration of this event. A loblolly pine was planted at the White House. A sycamore was planted in Washington Square in Philadelphia. Valley Forge got a Moon Tree, and so did Brazil, Japan, and Switzerland. Moon Trees were planted at various parks and institutions in many states throughout the country. In fact, there were so many requests for Moon Trees that several rooted cuttings of the original seedlings had to be produced.

Unfortunately, in the frenzy of shipping out Moon Trees, a complete record of where and when the trees were planted was not maintained, and so it remains unclear where all the trees are today and how many of them are surviving. When NASA employee, Dave Williams, became aware of Moon Trees, he embarked on a quest to compile a list of them. His webpage contains the short list of trees he has been able to confirm and document so far.

According to Williams’ list, Idaho received two Moon Trees. A sycamore was planted at University of Idaho in Moscow, and a loblolly pine was planted at Lowell Elementary in Boise. The sycamore perished sometime within the last decade. The loblolly pine remains…but perhaps not for long.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) at Lowell Elementary in Boise, Idaho - one of many Moon Trees planted in the late 1970's.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) at Lowell Elementary in Boise, Idaho – one of many Moon Trees planted in the 1970’s.

And this is how I came to learn about Moon Trees. This fall, local news reported on efforts being made to save Boise’s Moon Tree. The soil around it is compacted, it’s not getting enough water, and it has become infested with a pest insect. When community members learned of its potential demise, they resolved to save it. Money was raised to pay for the water it requires, and a local tree company volunteered to assist with necessary treatments. Its future remains uncertain; however, this renewed awareness and attention may be just what it needs to survive.

Upon learning about Boise’s Moon Tree, I decided to pay it a visit. After all, not only is it in my hometown, but it is also in my neighborhood, just a short walk from my house. It was pretty obvious right away which tree was the Moon Tree as its trunk is completely covered in oozing sap – a sure sign of infection. It is also located in a spot that doesn’t appear to be receiving any supplemental irrigation. The stresses caused by compacted soil and dehydration left it vulnerable to attack.

But maybe it wasn’t the best tree for the site to begin with. Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is native to the southeastern United States where it is commonly found growing in acidic, wet soils – a stark contrast to the dry, alkaline soils of the Treasure Valley. Still, it is Idaho’s only known remaining Moon Tree – a tree whose seed went to space, circled the moon, and was brought back to Earth where it was planted in celebration of the 200th anniversary of this nation. It is worth saving, with the hope being that it will inspire not only a connection to the natural world but also to the broader universe which all living beings call home.

Read more about Moon Trees:

Houston, We Have Moon Trees

A Race Against Time to Find Apollo 14’s Lost Voyagers

In Search of Moon Trees

Drought Tolerant Plants: Rabbitbrush

Gardener seeking shrub. Must be drought tolerant. Must have year-round interest. Must be easy to grow and maintain. Preferably flowers in late summer or early fall. Must be attractive – not just to humans, but to wildlife as well. Serious inquiries only.

My answer to a solicitation such as this would be rabbitbrush. While there may be other perfectly acceptable plants that fit this description, I think rabbitbrush deserves major consideration. It’s easy to grow and can be kept looking attractive throughout the year. When it is flush with vibrant, golden-yellow flowers at the close of summer, it not only becomes the star of the garden visually, but also a savior to pollinators readying themselves for winter. Plus, it requires little to no supplemental water, making it a true dry garden plant.

There are many species that go by the common name rabbitbrush. The two that I am most familiar with are Ericameria nauseosa (rubber or gray rabbitbrush) and Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus (green or yellow rabbitbrush). Both of these species are native to western North America, and both have a number of naturally occurring varieties and subspecies.

Rubber rabbitbrush - Ericameria nauseosa

Rubber rabbitbrush – Ericameria nauseosa

Rubber rabbitbrush is a densely branched shrub that reaches an average height of 3 feet. Its leaves are slender and numerous, and its stems and leaves are covered in short, white, felt-like hairs giving the plant a light gray appearance. Native Americans used the flexible branches of this plant to weave baskets. They also made a tea from the stems to treat coughs, colds, chest pains, and toothaches. Bundles of branches were burned to smoke animal hides. The stems and roots contain a latex sap, and certain Native American tribes are said to have used this sap as chewing gum, possibly to relieve hunger or thirst. A rubber shortage during World War II led to investigations into extracting the latex from rabbitbrush. This idea was soon abandoned once it was determined that even if every rabbitbrush in the West were to be harvested, the resulting increase in rubber would be modest compared to other sources.

Green rabbitbrush is typically smaller than rubber rabbitbrush, reaching a maximum height of about 3 feet. Its stems and leaves appear similar to rubber rabbitbrush except they lack the dense, white hairs and are brown and green respectively. Also, the stems and leaves of green rabbitbrush have a stickiness to them, and the leaves are often twisted or curled.

Rabbitbrush is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). Plants in this family generally have inflorescences that are a combination of ray and disk flowers (or florets) clustered tightly together and arranged in such a way that the inflorescence appears as a single flower. Consider sunflowers, for example. What appear to be petals around the outside of a large flower are actually a series of individual ray flowers, and in the center are dozens of disk flowers. Both rubber and green rabbitbrush lack ray flowers, and instead their inflorescences are clusters of 5 or so disk flowers that are borne at the tips of each branch creating a sheet of yellow-gold flowers that covers the shrub. Native Americans used these flowers to make dyes.

The fruits of rabbitbrush are achenes with small tufts of hairs attached. Each achene contains one seed. The tuft of hair (or pappus) helps disseminate the seed by way of the wind. Many of the fruits remain attached to the plant throughout the winter, providing winter interest and food for birds.

As rabbitbrush ages it can become gangly, floppy, or simply too large for the site. This can be avoided easily by cutting the plant back by a third or more each fall or spring, which will result in a more manageable form. It can also be cut back nearly to the ground if it is getting too big.

Seed heads of rubber rabbit brush (Ericameria nauseosa)

Seed heads of rubber rabbit brush (Ericameria nauseosa)

The leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds provide food for a variety of animals including birds, deer, and small mammals. The plant itself can also provide cover for small mammals and birds. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a pollinator magnet. It has wildlife value, it’s drought tolerant, it’s easy to maintain, and overall, it’s a beautiful plant. What more could you ask for in a shrub?

More Drought Tolerant Plant posts at Awkward Botany:


Blue Sage

Prickly Pears

Water Efficient Landscape at Idaho State Capitol Building

Desert Willow

The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Drought Tolerant Plants: Desert Willow

Hailing from dry washes and riverbanks of the desert southwestern United States and northern Mexico, desert willow is a tough tree or large shrub with delicate, showy flowers and wispy foliage. Its beauty and its ruggedness has made it a popular plant for dry gardens. It requires little attention maintenance-wise, yet attracts all kinds of attention otherwise. If you live in a desert climate that generally stays above 0 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, this plant belongs in your garden.

Desert Willow - Chilopsis linearis

Desert Willow – Chilopsis linearis

A member of the family Bignoniaceae – a family that consists of at least 8o genera including catalpa (Catalpa spp.) and trumpet vine (Campsis spp.) – Chilopsis linearis is the sole member of its genus. The common name, desert willow, refers to its habitat and its long, slender, oppositely and alternately arranged leaves that resemble those of many willows (Salix spp.). Other common names include flowering willow, willowleaf catalpa, desert catalpa, and false-willow. There are two recognized subspecies – linearis and arcuata.

Desert willow is found most commonly in areas where seasonal flooding occurs. Known as desert dry washes – or simply dry washes or desert washes –  these are areas in the desert where runoff from heavy rains accumulates resulting in saturated soils followed by a prolonged dry period. Groundwater often remains accessible year-round to the deep roots of plants in this type of habitat. Desert willow shares this habitat with several other large shrubs and small trees including mesquite (Prosopis spp.), palo verde (Parkinsoinia spp.), and smoketree (Psorothamnus spinosus). Desert willow occurs along stream banks and river banks as well, where seasonal flooding also occurs.

Desert willow generally reaches a width of 10 to 15 feet and a height of at least 15 feet, although it has the potential to grow taller than 30 feet. It often has an open and sprawling or leaning habit, but it can be pruned to look more tree-like. Pruning can also result in more flowering, since flowers appear on new growth and pruning encourages growth. Watering this plant during the dry season can also lead to a flush of growth and more flowering. This is something to keep in mind, as it is the flowers that are the star of the show.

Persisting from late spring through midsummer (and sometimes longer), the 1 to 2 inch, trumpet-shaped, pink to rose to purple blossoms are hard to miss. They occur singularly or in clusters at the tips of branches. The ruffled-edges of the petals and the prominent streaks of color within the corolla tube add to the attraction. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bumblebees are common visitors to these fragrant flowers. Summer rains or occasional watering can encourage flowering throughout the summer. Overwatering, on the other hand, can be detrimental.

The flowers eventually form long slender seed pods called capsules that reach up to 10 inches long. Inside the capsules are a series of hairy seeds. The hairs form small wings on the sides of the seeds. The seeds are eaten by a variety of bird species. Various species of birds can also be seen nesting in desert willow, and a variety of other animals use desert willow for browsing and/or for cover.

The fruits of Chilopsis linearis.

The fruits of Chilopsis linearis

The hairy, winged seeds of Chilopsis linearis

The hairy, winged seeds of Chilopsis linearis

Desert willow prefers sunny, southwest facing sites and tolerates most soil types. It performs best in soils that are well drained, low in organic content, and have a pH that is neutral to alkaline. The soil can be saturated at times, but should be given a chance to dry out – just like in its natural habitat. Avoid the impulse to add fertilizer.

Desert willow is said to be easy to propagate from cuttings or from seeds. It is commercially available, and several cultivars have been developed offering diverse flower colors and other special traits. It’s easy to grow, requires little attention, and provides an eye-catching floral show – all excellent reason to add this plant to your water-efficient landscape.

One tip from my experience seeing it survive the winters of southwestern Idaho: the deciduous leaves of Chilopsis linearis don’t reappear until very late in the spring – so late, in fact, that one might start to worry that the plant has perished. Don’t fret though; some winter kill is possible if sub-zero temperatures were experienced, but most likely it is still alive.

More information about desert willow:

Encyclopedia of Life

USDA Plant Guide

Native Plant Information Network 

The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Year of Pollination: Hand Pollinating Cucurbits

Because of their large, open, unisexual flowers, plants in the gourd family are perfect for practicing hand pollination. There are several species in this family that are commonly grown in gardens, and all can be hand pollinated. Hand pollination of cucurbits is most often done when there are problems with pollination (lack of pollinators, etc.) or for seed saving purposes (i.e. to ensure that a variety breeds true). It can also be done just for fun, and that’s mostly what this post is about.

But first, if your goal is to save seeds and maintain the integrity of the varieties you are growing, there are a few things to keep in mind. Cucumbers, melons, and watermelons are all different species (Cucumis sativus, Cucumis melo, and Citrullus lanatus respectively), so you won’t have to worry about crosses between these crops. You will, however, have to worry about crosses between different varieties within individual species. So, for example, if you are growing multiple varieties of cucumbers – or if your close neighbors are also growing cucumbers – you should hand pollinate. Summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, and some gourds are members of at least four species in the genus Cucurbita (C. pepo, C. maxima, C. mixta, and C. moschata). There is a possibility of hybridization between some of these species as well as between varieties within the same species, so precautions should definitely be taken when saving seeds for these crops. This can mean, along with hand pollination, placing bags over flowers so that bees are unable to bring in pollen from “the wrong” plants.

There are plenty of great resources about saving seeds that offer much more detail than I have gone into here, one of which is a book by Marc Rogers called Saving Seeds. Consult such resources if you would like to try your hand at seed saving. It’s easier than you might think, and it’s very rewarding.

Regardless why you are hand pollinating your cucurbits, the first step in the process is differentiating a male flower from a female flower. This is simple. Female flowers in the family Cucurbitaceae have inferior ovaries, meaning that the ovary sits below the area where the petals and other flower parts are attached. The ovaries are quite pronounced and resemble a miniature fruit. The male flowers lack ovaries, so instead are simply attached to a slender stem. You can also observe the sex organs themselves – male flowers have stamens, female flowers have carpels. Male and female flowers may also be located on different areas of the plant and may open at different times of the day. All that being said, the most obvious indication is the “mini-fruit” at the base of the flower or lack thereof.

Cucurbit flowers: male (top) and female (bottom) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Cucurbit flowers: male (top two photos) and female (bottom two photos) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Once you have identified your flowers, you have a limited amount of time to hand pollinate them. It’s best to find flowers that are just starting to open, as the female flowers may only be receptive for as little as 24 hours. You can use a cotton swab to gather pollen from the male flower, or you can simply pluck the flower from the plant, remove the petals, and touch the pollen-loaded anthers to the stigmas of a female flower. Either way, you must get the pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower as that is the essence of pollination. Simply put, it’s plant sex. Play some soft jazz while you do it if you want to.

A honeybee in a squash flower

A female squash flower with honeybee inside

A honeybee covered in pollen drinking the nectar of a female squash flower

Honeybee covered in pollen drinking the nectar of a female squash flower

As with saving seeds, there are a lot of resources out there explaining the details of hand pollinating cucurbit flowers, including this guide from Missouri Botanical Garden and the following You Tube Video.


While we are on the subject of cucurbit flowers, it should be noted that squash flowers are edible and can be prepared in a variety of ways, as described in this post at The Kitchn. Just another reason to be impressed by this amazing group of plants.

The Gourd Family

Pumpkins are practically synonymous with fall. Outside of every supermarket, bins overflow with pumpkins and other winter squash; inside, shelves are stocked with pumpkin flavored, pumpkin spiced, and pumpkin shaped everything. It’s the season of the almighty gourd – a family of plants that not only shares a long history with humans but also features some of the most diverse and unique-looking fruits on the planet. They are a symbol of the harvest season, a staple of the Halloween holiday, and certainly a family of plants worth celebrating.

Chinese lardplant (Hodgsonia heteroclita) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Chinese lardplant (Hodgsonia heteroclita) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The gourd family – Cucurbitaceae – includes at least 125 genera and around 975 species. It is a plant family confined mainly to tropical/subtropical regions, with a few species occurring in mild temperate areas. Most species are vining annuals. A few are shrubs or woody lianas. One species, Dendrosicyos socotranus, is a small tree commonly known as cucumber tree. Plants in this family have leaves that are alternately arranged and often palmately lobed. Climbing species are equipped with tendrils. Flowers are unisexual and are typically yellow, orange, or white and funnel shaped. They are generally composed of 5 petals that are fused together. Male flowers have 5 (sometimes 3) stamens; female flowers have 3 (sometimes 4) fused carpels. Depending on the species, male and female flowers can be found on the same plant (monoecious) or on different plants (dioecious). Pollination is most often carried out by bees or beetles.

The flowers of balsam apple (Momordica balsamina) - photo credit:

Balsam apple (Momordica balsamina) – photo credit:

Vining habits and diverse shapes and sizes of leaves and flowers make plants in this family interesting; however, it is the fruits born by this group of plants that truly make it stand out. Known botanically as pepos – berries with hard or thick rinds –  their variability is impressive. Imagine just about any color, shape, size, or texture, and there is probably a cucurbit fruit that fits that description. Even the flesh of these fruits can be incredibly diverse. Some fruits are small and perfectly round; others are long, twisting, and snake-like or have curving neck-like structures. Some are striped, variegated, or mottled; others are warty, ribbed, or spiky. What’s more, the cultivated pumpkin holds the record for the biggest fruit in the world.

The spiky fruits of wild cucumber (Echinocystus lobata) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

The spiky fruits of wild cucumber (Echinocystus lobata) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Having such unique fruits is probably what drew early humans to these plants. Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) were one of the first species of any plant family to be domesticated (more than 10,000 years ago). This occurred in several regions across the Old World and the New World even before agriculture was developed (more about that here). Today, numerous species in this family are cultivated either for their edible fruits and seeds or for seed oil and fiber production. Others are grown as ornamentals.

The genus Cucurbita is probably the most cultivated of any of the genera in the family Cucurbitaceae. Summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins  – all are members of various species in this genus. Cucumbers and melons are members of the genus Cucumis. Watermelon is Citrullus lanatus. Gourds are members of Cucurbita and Lagenaria. Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula are grown as vegetable crops (the young fruit) and for making scrubbing sponges (the mature fruit). Chayote (Sechium edule) and bitter melon (Momordica charantia) are commonly cultivated in latin and asian countries respectively. And the list goes on…

Considering that there are so many edible species in this family, it is important to note that some are quite poisonous. The genus Bryonia is particularly toxic. Consumption can result in dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and ultimately, death. As Thomas Elpel states in his book Botany in a Day, “this plant is not for amateurs.”

White bryony (Bryonia dioica) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

White bryony (Bryonia dioica) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Researching this family has been fun, and this post barely scratches the surface of this remarkable group of plants. One species in particular that stands out to me is Alsomitra macrocarpa, a liana from the tropical forests of Asia. Commonly known as Javan cucumber, this plant produces football-sized fruits packed with numerous seeds that are equipped with expansive, paper-thin “wings” that assist the seed in traveling many yards away from its parent plant in hopes of finding room to grow free from competition. Here is a video demonstrating this resourceful seed:

Year of Pollination: Bumblebees and Climate Change

Bumblebees, generally speaking, are having a rough time. In a world increasingly dominated by humans, some bumblebee species continue to thrive while many others are seriously struggling. Several are nearing extinction. A recent study involving 67 species of European and North American bumblebees concluded that climate change is having a major impact. Bumblebees do not appear to be migrating north in response to warming climates – a hesitation that could spell disaster.

There are over 250 species of bumblebees worldwide (46 are found in North America north of Mexico). Unlike other bees, whose diversity is greatest in Mediterranean climates, bumblebee diversity is highest in cool, temperate climates and montane regions. The majority of bumblebee species are native to the Northern Hemisphere; a few species are native to South America, and a handful of species from Europe have been introduced to New Zealand and Tasmania. Some species of bumblebees, such as the polar bumble bee (Bombus polaris) and the forest bumble bee (Bombus sylvicola), can be found in extreme cold climates and are among a select group of pollinators found in such areas.

The field guide, Bumble Bees of North America, by Paul Williams, et al. provides this description:

“Bumble bees are very hairy bees with combinations of contrasting bright colors, mostly black and yellow, sometimes with various combinations of red or white. They have two pairs of wings that are usually folded back over the abdomen while they are foraging on flowers, or hooked together as a single unit when in flight. Bumble bees also have slender elbowed antennae, and females of the pollen-collecting species have the hind tibia expanded, slightly concave, and fringed with long hairs to form a pollen basket or corbicula.”

Most bee species are solitary insects; bumblebees, like honeybees, are social insects. Unlike honeybees, bumblebee colonies begin with a new queen each year. New queens, after mating in late summer, overwinter in a protected area and emerge in the spring. They then search for food and a nesting site. Suitable nests include abandoned rodent dens,  the bases of bunchgrasses, hollow logs, and human-made structures. They build up a colony of workers which maintain the nest and forage for food and other resources. As the season comes to a close, the queen produces males and new queens. The new queens mate, go into hibernation, and the rest of the bumblebee colony dies off.

Brown-belted Bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Brown-belted Bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Bumblebees face numerous threats, both natural and human-caused. Despite their defensive sting, they are regularly eaten or attacked by various mammals, birds, and invertebrates. They are also host to a variety of pests, parasites, and pathogens, some of which have been introduced or exacerbated by human activities. The commercial bee industry is particularly at fault for the spread of certain maladies. Other major threats include loss of habitat and excessive and/or poorly timed use of insecticides. One looming threat that new research suggests is especially concerning is climate change.

A group of researchers from various institutions looked at the historical ranges of 67 species of bumblebees in Europe and North America over a 110 year period. They “measured differences in species’ northern and southern range limits, the warmest or coolest temperatures occupied, and their mean elevations in three periods relative to a baseline period.” They found that on both continents bumblebees are not tracking climate change by expanding their northern range limits and that their southern range limits are shrinking. They also observed that within the southern range limits, some bumblebee species have retreated to higher elevations. They investigated land use changes and pesticide applications (in the US only) to determine the effect they had on the results. While these things certainly affect populations on an individual level, climate change was determined to be the most important factor that lead to nearly universal range contractions of the bumblebees in this study.

The question then is why are they not tracking changing climates the same way that many other species of plants and animals have already been observed doing? Bumblebees evolved in cooler climates, so shrinking southern range limits is not as surprising as the bumblebees’ delay in moving north. Many factors may be contributing to this phenomenon including lack of specialized habitats beyond their historical ranges, daylength differences, and population dynamics. The researchers call for further investigation in order to better evaluate this observed “range compression.” They also suggest experimenting with assisted migration of certain bumblebee colonies, which in general is a controversial topic among conservation biologists. (Read more about this study here.)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The loss of bumblebees is concerning because they play a prominent role in the various ecosystems in which they live. They are prolific and highly effective pollinators of both agricultural crops and native plants, and they are also a major component in the food web. Some species of plants “prefer” the pollination services of bumblebees, such as those in the family Solanaceae. Many plants in this family benefit greatly from buzz pollination – a process in which a bumblebee (or occasionally bees of other species) grabs hold of the flower and vibrates its body, dislodging the pollen.

Participating in bumblebee conservation is simple. It’s similar to any other kind of pollinator conservation. Just learning about the pollinators in your region and being mindful of them can make a big difference. If you own or rent property and have space for a garden (even if its just a few containters on a patio), choose plants that provide food for bumblebees, including spring and summer bloomers. If you live in North America, this Xerces Society publication and the field guide mentioned above are great resources that can help you determine which plants are best for your region. Additionally, if you are working in your yard and happen upon a hibernating queen or a bumblebee nest, do your best not to disturb it. It may disrupt your gardening plans for a season, but the bumblebee sightings and the pollination service they provide will be worth it.

One family of plants in particular that you should consider representing in your yard is the legume family (Fabaceae). Bumblebees are commonly seen pollinating plants in this family, and because these plants have the ability to convert nitrogen in the air into fertilizer, their pollen is especially rich in protein. In his book, A Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson describes the relationship between bumblebees and legumes:

“From a bumblebee’s perspective, legumes are among the most vital components of a wildflower meadow. Plants of this family include clovers, trefoils and vetches, as well as garden vegetables such as peas and beans, and they have an unusual trick that allows them to thrive in low-fertility soils. Their roots have nodules, small lumps inside which live Rhizobium, bacteria that can trap nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form usable by plants. … This relationship gave legumes a huge advantage in the days before artificial fertilizers were widely deployed. Ancient hay meadows are full of clovers, trefoils, vetches, meddicks and melilots, able to outcompete grasses because they alone have access to plentiful nutrients. Most of these plants are pollinated by bumblebees.”

More information about bumblebees and bumblebee conservation:

Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Bumble Bee Watch

BugGuide (Bombus)

The Xerces Society – Project Bumble Bee