Idaho’s Native Milkweeds

Concern for monarch butterflies has resulted in increasing interest in milkweeds. Understandably so, as they are the host plants and food source for the larval stage of these migrating butterflies. But milkweeds are an impressive group of plants in their own right, and their ecological role extends far beyond a single charismatic insect. Work to save the monarch butterfly, which requires the expansion of milkweed populations, will in turn provide habitat for countless other organisms. A patch of milkweed teems with life, and the pursuit of a single caterpillar helps us discover and explore that.

Asclepias – also known as the milkweeds – is a genus consisting of around 140 species, 72 of which are native to the United States and Canada. Alaska and Hawaii are the only states in the United States that don’t have a native species of milkweed. The ranges of some species native to the United States extend down into Mexico where there are numerous other milkweed species. Central America and South America are also home to many distinct milkweed species.

The habitats milkweeds occupy are about as diverse as the genus itself – from wetlands to prairies, from deserts to forests, and practically anywhere in between. Some species occupy disturbed and/or neglected sites like roadsides, agricultural fields, and vacant lots. For this reason they are frequently viewed as a weed; however, such populations are easily managed, and with such an important ecological role to play, they don’t deserve to be vilified in this way.

Milkweed species are not distributed across the United States evenly. Texas and Arizona are home to the highest diversity with 37 and 29 species respectively. Idaho, my home state, is on the low end with six native species, most of which are relatively rare. The most common species found in Idaho is Asclepias speciosa commonly known as showy milkweed.

showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Showy milkweed is distributed from central U.S. westward and can be found in all western states. It occurs throughout Idaho and is easily the best place to look for monarch caterpillars. Side note: the monarch butterfly is Idaho’s state insect, thanks in part to the abundance of showy milkweed. This species is frequently found growing in large colonies due to its ability to reproduce vegetatively via adventitious shoots produced on lateral roots or underground stems. Only a handful of milkweed species reproduce this way. Showy milkweed reaches up to five feet tall and has large ovate, gray-green leaves. Like all milkweed species except one (Asclepias tuberosa), its stems and leaves contain milky, latex sap. In early summer, the stems are topped with large umbrella-shaped inflorescences composed of pale pink to pink-purple flowers.

The flowers of milkweed deserve a close examination. Right away you will notice unique features not seen on most other flowers. The petals of milkweed flowers bend backwards, allowing easy access to the flower’s sex parts if it wasn’t for a series of hoods and horns protecting them. Collectively, these hoods and horns are called the corona, which houses glands that produce abundant nectar and has a series of slits where the anthers are exposed. The pollen grains of milkweed are contained in waxy sacs called pollinia. Two pollinia are connected together by a corpusculum giving this structure a wishbone appearance. An insect visiting the flower for nectar slips its leg into the slit, and the pollen sacs become attached with the help of the corpusculum. When the insect leaves, the pollen sacs follow where they can be inadvertently deposited on the stigmas of another flower.

Milkweed flowers are not self-fertile, so they require assistance by insects to sexually reproduce. They are not picky about who does it either, and their profuse nectar draws in all kinds of insects including bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, and ants. Certain insects – like bumble bees and other large bees – are more efficient pollinators than others. Once pollinated, seeds are formed inside a pod-like fruit called a follicle. The follicles of showy milkweed can be around 5 inches long and house dozens to hundreds of seeds. When the follicle matures, it splits open to release the seeds, which are small, brown, papery disks with a tuft of soft, white, silky hair attached. The seeds of showy milkweed go airborne in late summer.

follicles forming on showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Whorled or narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) is widespread in western Idaho and neighboring states. It is adapted to dry locations, but can be found in a variety of habitats. Like showy milkweed, it spreads rhizomatously as well as by seed. Its a whispy plant that can get as tall as four feet. It has long, narrow leaves and produces tight clusters of greenish-white to pink-purple flowers. Its seed pods are long and slender and its seeds are about 1/4 inch long.

flowers of Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

seeds escaping from the follicle of Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

Swamp or rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is more common east of Idaho, but occurs occasionally in southwestern Idaho. As its common names suggests, it prefers moist soils and is found in wetlands, wet meadows, and along streambanks. It can spread rhizomatously, but generally doesn’t spread very far. It reaches up to four feet tall, has deep green, lance-shaped leaves, and produces attractive, fragrant, pink to mauve, dome-shaped inflorescenses at the tops of its stems. Its seed pods are narrow and around 3 inches long.

swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Asclepias cryptoceras, or pallid milkweed, is a low-growing, drought-adapted, diminutive species that occurs in southwestern Idaho. It can be found in the Owyhee mountain range as well as in the Boise Foothills. It has round or oval-shaped leaves and produces flowers on a short stalk. The flowers have white or cream-colored petals and pink-purple hoods.

pallid milkweed (Asclepias cryptoceras)

The two remaining species are fairly rare in Idaho. Antelope horns (Asclepias asperula) is found in Franklin County located in southeastern Idaho. It grows up to two feet tall with an upright or sprawling habit and produces clusters of white to green-yellow flowers with maroon highlights. Horsetail milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata) occurs in at least two counties in central to southeastern Idaho and is similar in appearance to A. fascicularis. Its white flowers help to distinguish between the two. Additional common names for this plant include western whorled milkweed and poison milkweed.


A Few Fun Facts About Pollen

Sexual reproduction in vascular plants requires producing and transporting pollen grains – the male gametophytes or sperm cells of a plant. These reproductive cells must make their way to the egg cells in or order to form seeds – plants in embryo. The movement of pollen is something we can all observe. It’s happening all around us on a regular basis. Any time a seed-bearing plant (also known as a spermatophyte) develops mature cones or flowers, pollen is on the move. Pollen is a ubiquitous and enduring substance and a fascinating subject of study. In case you don’t believe me, here are a few fun facts.

Bee covered in pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen is as diverse as the species that produce it. Pollen grains are measured in micrometers and are so tiny that the only reason we can see them with the naked eye is because they are often found en masse. Yet they are incredibly diverse in size, shape, and texture, and each plant species produces its own unique looking pollen. With the help of a good microscope, plants can even be identified simply by looking at their pollen. See images of the pollen grains of dozens of plant species here and here.

Pollen helps us answer questions about the past. Because pollen grains are so characteristic and because their outer coating (known as exine) is so durable and long-lasting, studying pollen found in sediments and sedimentary rocks helps us discover all sorts of things about deep time. The study of pollen and other particulates is called palynology. Numerous disciplines look to palynology to help them answer questions and solve mysteries. Its even used in forensics to help solve crimes. Criminals should be aware that brushing up against a plant in bloom may provide damning evidence.

Pollen oddities. While all pollen is different, some plants produce particularly unique pollen. The pollen grains of plants in the orchid and milkweed families, for example, are formed into united masses called pollinia. Each pollinium is picked up by pollinators and transferred to the stigmas of flowers as a single unit. A number of other species produce other types of compound pollen grains. The pollen grains of pines and other conifers are winged, and the pollen grains of seagrass species, like Zostera spp., are filamentous and said to hold the record for longest pollen grains.

The pollinia of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) look like the helicopter-esque fruits of maple trees. photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen tube oddities. In flowering plants, when pollen grains reach the stigma of a compatible flower, a vegetative cell within the grain forms a tube in order to transport the regenerative cells into the ovule. This tube varies in length depending on the length of the flower’s style. Because corn flowers produce such long styles (also know as corn silk), corn pollen grains hold the record for longest pollen tube, which can measure 12 inches or more. Species found in the mallow, gourd, and bellflower families produce multiple pollen tubes per pollen grain. Hence, their pollen is said to be polysiphonous.

Pollen is transported in myriad ways. Plants have diverse ways of getting their pollen grains where they need to be. Anemophilous plants rely on wind and gravity. They produce large quantities of light-weight pollen grains that are easily dislodged. Most of this pollen won’t make it, but enough of it will to make this strategy worth it. Hydrophilous plants use water and, like wind pollinated plants, may produce lots of pollen due to the unpredictably of this method. Some hydrophilous plants transport their pollen on the surface of the water, while others are completely submerged during pollination.

Employing animals to move pollen is a familiar strategy. Entomophily (insect pollination) is the most common, but there is also ornithophily (bird pollination) and chiropterophily (bat pollination), among others. Plants that rely on animals for pollination generally produce pollen grains that are sticky and nutritious. They attract animals using showy flowers, fragrance, and nectar. The bodies of pollinating insects have modifications that allow them to collect and transport pollen. Certain bees, like honey bees and bumblebees, have pollen baskets on their hind legs, while other bees have modified hairs called scopae on certain parts of their bodies.

Pollen is edible. Some animals – both pollinating and non-pollinating – use pollen as a food source. Animals that eat pollen are palynivores. Bees, of course, eat pollen, but lots of other insects do, too. Even some spiders, which are generally thought of as carnivores, have been observed eating pollen that gets trapped in their webs.

Pollen is thought to be highly nutritious for humans as well, and so, along with being taken as a supplement, it is used in all sorts of food products. To collect pollen, beekeepers install pollen traps on their beehives that strip incoming worker bees of their booty. Pollen from various wind pollinated plants, like cattails and pine trees, are also collected for human consumption. For example, a Korean dessert called dasik is made using pine pollen.

pine pollen – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Pollen makes many people sick. Hay fever is a pretty common condition and is caused by an allergy to wind-borne pollen. This condition is also known as pollinosis or allergic rhinitis. Not all flowering plants are to blame though, so here is a list of some of the main culprits. Because so many people suffer from hay fever, pollen counts are often included in weather reports. Learn more about what those counts mean here.

Related Posts: 

When Urban Pollinator Gardens Meet Native Plant Communities

Public concern about the state of bees and other pollinating insects has led to increased interest in pollinator gardens. Planting a pollinator garden is often promoted as an excellent way for the average person to help protect pollinators. And it is! However, as with anything in life, there can be downsides.

In many urban areas, populations of native plants remain on undeveloped or abandoned land, in parks or reserves, or simply as part of the developed landscape. Urban areas may also share borders with natural areas, the edges of which are particularly prone to invasions by non-native plants. Due to human activity and habitat fragmentation, many native plant populations are now threatened. Urban areas are home to the last remaining populations of some of these plants.

Concern for native plant populations in and around urban areas prompted researchers at University of Pittsburgh to review some of the impacts that urban pollinator gardens may have and to develop a “roadmap for research” going forward. Their report was published earlier this year in New Phytologist.

Planting a wildflower seed mix is a simple way to establish a pollinator garden, and such mixes are sold commercially for this purpose. Governmental and non-governmental organizations also issue recommendations for wildflower, pollinator, or meadow seed mixes. With this in mind, the researchers selected 30 seed mixes “targeted for urban settings in the northeastern or mid-Atlantic USA” to determine what species are being recommended for or commonly planted in pollinator gardens in this region. They also developed a “species impact index” to assess “the likelihood a species would impact remnant wild urban plant populations.”

A total of 230 species were represented in the 30 seed mixes. The researchers selected the 45 most common species for evaluation. Most of these species (75%) have generalized pollination systems, suggesting that there is potential for sharing pollinators with remnant native plants. Two-thirds of the species had native ranges that overlapped with the targeted region; however, the remaining one-third originated from Europe or western North America. The native species all had “generalized pollination systems, strong dispersal and colonization ability, and broad environmental tolerances,” all traits that could have “high impacts” either directly or indirectly on remnant native plants. Other species were found to have either high dispersal ability but low chance of survival or low dispersal ability but high chance of survival.

This led the researchers to conclude that “the majority of planted wildflower species have a high potential to interact with native species via pollinators but also have the ability to disperse and survive outside of the garden.” Sharing pollinators is especially likely due to super-generalists like the honeybee, which “utilizes flowers from many habitat types.” Considering this, the researchers outlined “four pollinator-mediated interactions that can affect remnant native plants and their communities,” including how these interactions can be exacerbated when wildflower species escape gardens and invade remnant plant communities.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The first interaction involves the quantity of pollinator visits. The concern is that native plants may be “outcompeted for pollinators” due to the “dense, high-resource displays” of pollinator gardens. Whether pollinator visits will increase or decrease depends on many things, including the location of the gardens and their proximity to native plant communities. Pollinator sharing between the two has been observed; however, “the consequences of this for effective pollination of natives are not yet understood.”

The second interaction involves the quality of pollinator visits. Because pollinators are shared between native plant communities and pollinator gardens, there is a risk that the pollen from one species will be transferred to another species. High quantities of this “heterospecific pollen” can result in reduced seed production. “Low-quality pollination in terms of heterospecific pollen from wildflower plantings may be especially detrimental for wild remnant species.”

The third interaction involves gene flow between pollinator gardens and native plant communities. Pollen that is transferred from closely related species (or even individuals of the same species but from a different location) can have undesired consequences. In some cases, it can increase genetic variation and help address problems associated with inbreeding depression. In other cases, it can introduce traits that are detrimental to native plant populations, particularly traits that disrupt adaptations that are beneficial to surviving in urban environments, like seed dispersal and flowering time. Whether gene flow between the two groups will be positive or negative is difficult to predict, and “the likelihood of genetic extinction versus genetic rescue will depend on remnant population size, genetic diversity, and degree of urban adaptation relative to the planted wildflowers.”

The fourth interaction involves pathogen transmission via shared pollinators. “Both bacterial and viral pathogens can be transmitted via pollen, and bacterial pathogens can be passed from one pollinator to another.” In this way, pollinators can act as “hubs for pathogen exchange,” which is especially concerning when the diseases being transmitted are ones for which the native plants have not adapted defenses.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

All of these interactions become more direct once wildflowers escape gardens and establish themselves among the native plants. And because the species in wildflower seed mixes are selected for their tolerance of urban conditions, “they may be particularly strong competitors with wild remnant populations,” outcompeting them for space and resources. On the other hand, the authors note that, depending on the species, they may also “provide biotic resistance to more noxious invaders.”

All of these interactions require further investigation. In their conclusion, the authors affirm, “While there is a clear potential for positive effects of urban wildflower plantings on remnant plant biodiversity, there is also a strong likelihood for unintended consequences.” They then suggest future research topics that will help us answer many of these questions. In the meantime, pollinator gardens should not be discouraged, but the plants (and their origins) should be carefully considered. One place to start is with wildflower seed mixes, which can be ‘fine-tuned’ so that they benefit our urban pollinators as well as our remnant native plants. Read more about plant selection for pollinators here.

Year of Pollination: Pollinator Walk at Earthly Delights Farm

Last week I had the privilege of attending a pollinator walk with a local entomologist at Earthly Delights Farm, a small, urban farm in Boise, Idaho. The entomologist was Dr. Karen Strickler, an adjunct instructor at College of Western Idaho and the owner of Pollinator Paradise. A small group of us spent a couple of hours wandering through the farm looking for pollinators and discussing whatever pollinator or non-pollinator related topic that arose. Earthly Delights Farm, along with growing and selling produce using a subscription-based model, is a seed producing farm (and part of a larger seed growing operation called Snake River Seed Cooperative), so there were several crops flowering on the farm that would typically be removed at other farms before reaching that stage, such as lettuce and carrots. The farm also shares property with Draggin’ Wing High Desert Nursery, a nursery specializing in water efficient plants for the Intermountain West, which has a large demonstration area full of flowering plants. Thus, pollinators were present in abundance.

A series of isolation tents over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties.

A series of isolation tents placed over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties – an important component of seed saving.

While many groups of pollinators were discussed, including leafcutter bees, bumblebees, honeybees, sweat bees, hummingbirds, and beetles, much of our conversation and search was focused on syrphid flies. Flies are an often underappreciated and overlooked group of pollinators. While not all of the 120,000 species of flies in the world are pollinators, many of them are. The book Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society has this to say about flies: “With their reputation as generalist foragers, no nests to provision, and sometimes sparsely haired bodies, flies don’t get much credit as significant pollinators. Despite this reputation, they are often important pollinators in natural ecosystems for specific plants, and occasionally for human food plants.” They are especially important pollinators in the Arctic and in alpine regions, because unlike bees, they do not maintain nests, which means they use less energy and require less nectar, making them more fit for colder climates.

One food crop that flies are particularly efficient at pollinating is carrots. According the Xerces Society, carrot flowers are “not a favorite of managed honeybees.” Most flies do not have long tubular, sucking mouthparts, so they search for nectar in small, shallow flowers that appear in clusters, such as plants in the mint, carrot, and brassica families. Flower-visiting flies come in search of nectar and sometimes pollen for energy and reproduction. While acquiring these meals they can at times inadvertently collect pollen on their bodies and transfer it to adjacent flowers. They are generally not as efficient at moving pollen as other pollinators are, but they can get the job done.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be important pollinators, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be effective pollinators as well, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

During the pollinator walk, we were specifically observing flies in the family Syrphidae, which are commonly known as flower flies, hoverflies, or syrphid flies. Many flies in this family mimic the coloring of bees and wasps, and thus are easily confused as such. Appearing as a bee or wasp is a form of protection from predators, who typically steer clear from these insects to avoid being stung. The larvae of syrphid flies often feed on insects, a trait that can be an added benefit for farmers and gardeners, particularly when their prey includes pest insects like aphids. Other families of flies that are important pollinators include Bombyliidae (bee flies), Acroceridae (small-headed flies), Muscidae (house flies), and Tachinidae (tachinid flies).

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) - one species of hundreds in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower visiting flies (photo credit:

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) – one species of thousands in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower-visiting flies (photo credit:

Because many species of flies visit flowers and because those flies commonly mimic the appearance of bees and wasps, it can be difficult to tell these insects apart. Observing the following features will help you determine what you are looking at.

  • Wings – flies have two; bees have four (look closely though because the forewings and hindwings of bees are attached with a series of hooks called hamuli making them appear as one)
  • Hairs – flies are generally less hairy than bees
  • Eyes – the eyes of flies are usually quite large and in the front of their heads; the eyes of bees are more towards the sides of their heads
  • Antennae – flies have shorter, stubbier antennae compared to bees; the antennae of flies also have bristles at the tips
  • Bees, unlike flies, have features on their legs and abdomens designed for collecting pollen; however, some flies have mimics of these features
Bumblebee on Echinacea sp.

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea sp.

Another interesting topic that Dr. Strickler addressed was the growing popularity of insect hotels – structures big and small that are fashioned out of a variety of natural materials and intended to house a variety of insects including pollinators. There is a concern that many insect hotels, while functioning nicely as a piece of garden artwork, often offer little in the way of habitat for beneficial insects and instead house pest insects such as earwigs. Also, insect hotels that are inhabited by bees and other pollinators may actually become breeding grounds for pests and diseases that harm these insects. It is advised that these houses be cleaned or replaced regularly to avoid the build up of such issues. Learn more about the proper construction and maintenance of insect hotels in this article from Pacific Horticulture.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.

Year of Pollination: An Argentinian Cactus and Its Unlikely Pollinator

A few weeks ago I wrote about pollination syndromes – sets of floral triats that are said to attract specific groups of pollinators. In that post I discussed how pollination syndromes have largely fallen out of favor as a reliable method of predicting the pollinators that will visit particular flowers. In this post I review a recent study involving a species of cactus in Argentina that, as the authors state in their abstract, “adds another example to the growing body of mismatches between floral syndrome and observed pollinator.”

Denmoza rhodacantha is one of many species of cacti found in Argentina. It is the only species in its genus, and it is widely distributed across the east slopes and foothills of the Andes. It is a slow growing cactus, maintaining a globulous (globe-shaped) form through its juvenile phase and developing a columnar form as it reaches maturity. D. rhodacantha can reach up to 4 meters tall and can live beyond 100 years of age. Individual plants can begin flowering in their juvenile stage. Flowers are red, nectar rich, scentless, and tubular. The stigma is lobed and is surrounded by a dense grouping of stamens. Both male and female reproductive organs are extended above the corolla. The flowers have been described by multiple sources as being hummingbird pollinated, not based on direct observation of hummingbirds visiting the flowers, but rather due to the floral traits of the species.

Denmoza rhodacantha illustration - image credit:

Denmoza rhodacantha illustration  (image credit:

In a paper entitled, Flowering phenology and observations on the pollination biology of South American cacti – Denmoza rhodacantha, which was published in volume 20 of Haseltonia (the yearbook of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America), Urs Eggli and Mario Giorgetta discuss their findings after making detailed observations of a population of D. rhodacantha in early 2013 and late 2013 – early 2014. The population consisted of about 30 individuals (both juveniles and adults) located in the Calchaqui Valley near the village of Angastaco, Argentina. At least three other species with “hummingbird-syndrome flowers” were noted in the area, and three species of hummingbirds were observed during the study periods. Over 100 observation hours were logged, and during that time “the studied plants, their flowering phenology, and flower and fruit visitors were documented by means of photographs and video.”

The flowers of D. rhodacantha only persist for a few short days, and in that time their sexual organs are only receptive for about 24 hours. The flowers are self-sterile and so require a pollinator to cross pollinate them. Despite their red, tubular shape and abundant nectar, no hummingbirds were observed visiting the flowers. One individual hummingbird approached but quickly turned away. Hummingbirds were, however, observed visiting the flowers of an associated species, Tecoma fulva ssp. garrocha. Instead, a species of halictid bee (possibly in the genus Dialictus) was regularly observed visiting the flowers of D. rhodacantha. The bees collected pollen on their hind legs and abdomen and were seen crawling across the lobes of the stigma. None of them were found feeding on the nectar. In one observation, a flower was visited by a bee that was “already heavily loaded with the typical violet-coloured pollen of Denmoza,” suggesting that this particular bee species was seeking out these flowers for their pollen. Small, unidentified beetles and ants were seen entering the flowers to consume nectar, however they didn’t appear to be capable of offering a pollination service.

D. rhodacantha populations have been observed in many cases to produce few fruits, suggesting that pollination success is minimal. The authors witnessed “very low fruit set” in the population that they were studying, which was “in marked contrast to the almost 100% fruit set rates of the sympatric cactus species at the study site.” This observation wasn’t of great concern to the authors though, because juvenile plants are present in observed populations, so recruitment appears to be occurring. In this study, dehisced fruits were “rapidly visited by several unidentified species of ants of different sizes.” The “scant pulp” was harvested by smaller ants, and larger ants carried away the seeds after “cleaning them from adhering pulp.”

The authors propose at least two reasons why hummingbirds avoid the flowers of D. rhodacantha. The first being that the native hummingbirds have bills that are too short to reach the nectar inside the long tubular flowers, and often the flowers barely extend beyond the spines of the cactus which may deter the hummingbirds from approaching. The second reason is that other plants in the area flower during the same period and have nectar that is easier to gather. The authors acknowledge that this is just speculation, but it could help explain why the flowers are pollinated instead by an insect (the opportunist, generalist halictid bee species) for whom the flowers “could be considered to be ill adapted.” The authors go on to say, “it should be kept in mind, however, that adaptions do not have to be perfect, as long as they work sufficiently well.”

Patagona gigas (giant hummingbird) was observed approaching the flower of a Denmoza rhodacantha but quickly turned away (photo credit:

Patagona gigas (giant hummingbird) was observed approaching the flower of a Denmoza rhodacantha but quickly turned away (photo credit:

More Year of Pollination posts on Awkward Botany:

Year of Pollination: Pollination Syndromes and Beyond

A discussion of pollination syndromes should begin with the caveat that they are a largely outdated way to categorize plant-pollinator interactions. Still, they are important to be aware of because they have informed so much of our understanding about pollination biology, and they continue to be an impetus for ongoing research. The concept of pollination syndromes exists in part because we are a pattern seeking species, endeavoring to place things in neat little boxes in order to make sense of them. This is relatively easy to do in a hypothetical or controlled environment where the parameters are selected and closely monitored and efforts are made to eliminate noise. However, the real world is considerably more dynamic than a controlled experiment and does not conform to black and white ways of thinking. Patterns are harder to unveil, and it takes great effort to ensure that observed patterns are genuine and not simply imposed by our pattern seeking brains.

That being said, what are pollination syndromes?  Pollination syndromes are sets of floral traits that are thought to attract specific types of pollinators. The floral traits are considered to have evolved in order to appeal to a particular group of pollinators – or in other words, selective pressures led to adaptations resulting in mutualistic relationships between plants and pollinators. Pollination syndromes are examples of convergent evolution because distantly related plant species have developed similar floral traits, presumably due to similar selection pressures. Pollination syndromes were first described by Italian botanist, Federico Delpino, in the last half of the 19th century. Over several decades his rudimentary ideas were fleshed out by other botanists, resulting in the method of categorization described (albeit briefly) below.

Honey bee on bee's friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

A honey bee getting friendly with bee’s friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

Pollination by bees (melittophily) – Flowers are blue, purple, yellow, or white and usually have nectar guides. Flowers are open and shallow with a landing platform. Some are non-symmetrical and tubular like pea flowers. Nectar is present, and flowers give off a mild (sometimes strong) sweet scent.

Pollination by butterflies (psychophily) – Flowers are pink, purple, red, blue, yellow, or white and often have nectar guides. They are typically large with a wide landing pad. Nectar is inside a long, narrow tube (or spur), and flowers have a sweet scent.

Pollination by hawkmoths and moths (sphingophily and phalaenophily) – Moth pollinated flowers open at night, have no nectar guides, and emit a strong, sweet scent. Flowers pollinated by hawkmoths are often white, cream, or dull violet and are large and tubular with lots of nectar. Those pollinated by other moths are smaller, not as nectar rich, and are white or pale shades of green, yellow, red, purple, or pink.

Pollination by flies (myophily or sapromyophily) – Flowers are shaped like a basin, saucer, or kettle and are brown, brown-red, purple, green, yellow, white, or blue.  Some have patterns of dots and stripes. If nectar is available, it is easily accessible. Their scent is usually putrid. A sapromyophile is an organism that is attracted to carcasses and dung. Flies that fall into this category visit flowers that are very foul smelling, offer no nectar reward, and essentially trick the fly into performing a pollination service.

Pollination by birds (ornithophily) –  Flowers are usually large, tubular, and red, orange, white, blue, or yellow. They are typically without nectar guides and are odorless since birds don’t respond to scent. Nectar is abundant and found at various depths within the flower.

Pollination by bats (chiropterophily) – Flowers are large, tubular or bell shaped, and white or cream colored with no nectar guides. They open at night, have abundant nectar and pollen, and have scents that vary from musty to fruity to foul.

Pollination by beetles (cantharophily) – Flowers are large and bowl shaped and green or white. There are no nectar guides and usually no nectar. The scent is strong and can be fruity, spicy, or putrid. Like flies, some beetles are sapromyophiles.

Locust borer meets rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

A locust borer meets rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

In addition to biotic pollination syndromes, there are two abiotic pollination syndromes:

Pollination by wind (anemophily) – Flowers are miniscule and brown or green. They produce abundant pollen but no nectar or odor. The pollen grains are very small, and the stigmas protrude from the flower in order to capture the windborne pollen.

Pollination by water (hydrophily) –  Most aquatic plants are insect-pollinated, but some have tiny flowers that release their pollen into the water, which is picked up by the stigmas of flowers in a similar manner to plants with windborne pollen.

This is, of course, a quick look at the major pollination syndromes. More complete descriptions can be found elsewhere, and they will differ slightly depending on the source. It’s probably obvious just by reading a brief overview that there is some overlap in the floral traits and that, for example, a flower being visited by a bee could also be visited by a butterfly or a bird. Such an observation explains, in part, why this method of categorizing plant-pollinator interactions has fallen out of favor. Studies have been demonstrating that this is not a reliable method of predicting which species of pollinators will pollinate certain flowers. A close observation of floral visitors also reveals insects that visit flowers to obtain nectar, pollen, and other items, but do not assist in pollination. These are called robbers. On the other hand, a plant species may receive some floral visitors that are considerably more effective and reliable pollinators than others. What is a plant to do?

Pollination syndromes imply specialization, however field observations reveal that specialization is quite rare, and that most flowering plants are generalists, employing all available pollinators in assisting them in their reproduction efforts. This is smart, considering that populations of pollinators fluctuate from year to year, so if a plant species is relying on a particular pollinator (or taxonomic group of pollinators) to aid in its reproduction, it may find itself out of luck. Considering that a flower may receive many types of visitors on even a semi-regular basis suggests that the selective pressures on floral traits may not solely include the most efficient pollinators, but could also include all other pollinating visitors and, yes, even robbers. This is an area where much more research is needed, and questions like this are a reason why pollination biology is a vibrant and robust field of research.

A bumble bee hugs Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla)

A bumble bee hugs the flower of a blue sage (Salvia pachyphylla)

Interactions between plants and pollinators is something that interests me greatly. Questions regarding specialization and generalization are an important part of these interactions. To help satiate my curiosity, I will be reading through a book put out a few years ago by the University of Chicago Press entitled, Plant-Pollinator Interactions: From Specialization to Generalization, edited by Nickolas M. Waser and Jeff Ollerton. You can expect future posts on this subject as I read through the book. To pique your interest, here is a short excerpt from Waser’s introductory chapter:

Much of pollination biology over the past few centuries logically focused on a single plant or pollinator species and its mutualistic partners, whereas a focus at the level of entire communities was uncommon. Recently we see a revival of community studies, encouraged largely by new tools borrowed from the theory of food webs that allow us to characterize and analyze the resulting patterns. For example, pollination networks show asymmetry – most specialist insects visit generalist plants, and most specialist plants are visited by generalist insects. This is a striking departure from the traditional implication of coevolved specialists!


Year of Pollination: The Anatomy of a Bee

A greater appreciation for pollinators can be had by learning to identify them – being able to tell one from another and calling them by name. Anyone can tell a butterfly from a bee, but how about telling a sweat bee from a leafcutter bee? Or one species of sweat bee from another species of sweat bee? That takes more training. This is where knowing the parts of a bee becomes important.

I am new to learning the names of pollinators. I’ve been learning the names of plants for many years now (and I still have a long way to go), but my knowledge of insect identification is largely limited to one entomology course I took in college and the occasional reading about insects in books and magazines. So, this post is just as much for me as it is for anybody else. It also explains why it is brief and basic. It’s for beginners.

This first illustration is found in the book Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm. The book starts with brief overviews of pollination, pollinators, and pollinator conservation, but then spends nearly 200 pages profiling specific plants and describing the particular species of pollinating insects that visit them. The photos of the insects are great and should be very useful in helping to identify pollinators.

bee anatomy_pollinators of native plants book

This next illustration is from the book California Bees and Blooms by Gordon W. Frankie, et al. The title is a bit deceptive because much of what is found in this book is just as applicable to people outside of California as it is to people within. There is some discussion about plants and pollinators specific to California and the western states, but there is also a lot of great information about bees, flowers, and pollination in general, including some great advice on learning to identify bees. The book includes this basic diagram, but it also provides several other more detailed illustrations that help further describe things like mouth parts, wings, and legs.

bee anatomy_california bees and blooms book

As part of their discussion on identifying bees, the authors of California Bees and Blooms offer these encouraging and helpful words to beginners like me: “Even trained taxonomists must examine most bees under a microscope to identify them to species level, but knowing the characteristics to look for can give you a pretty good idea of the major groups and families of bees that are visiting your garden. These include size, color, and features of the head, thorax, wings, and abdomen.”

If you would like to know more about the pollinators found in your region, including their names, life history, and the plants they visit, books like the aforementioned are a good start. Also, find yourself a copy of a field guide for the insects in your area and a good hand lens. Then spend some time outside closely and quietly observing the busy lives of the tiny things around you. I plan to do more of this sort of thing, and I am excited see what I might find. Let me know what you find.

Here are a few online resources for learning more about bee anatomy and bee identification:

Other “Year of Pollination” Posts: