When Sunflowers Follow the Sun

Tropisms are widely studied biological phenomena that involve the growth of an organism in response to environmental stimuli. Phototropism is the growth and development of plants in response to light. Heliotropism, a specific form of phototropism, describes growth in response to the sun. Discussions of heliotropism frequently include sunflowers and their ability to “track the sun.” This conjures up images of a field of sunflowers in full bloom following the sun across the sky. However cool this might sound, it simply doesn’t happen. Young sunflowers, before they bloom, track the sun. At maturity and in bloom, the plants hold still.

What is happening in these plants is still pretty cool though, and a report published in an August 2016 issue of Science sheds some light on the heliotropic movements of young sunflowers. They begin the morning facing east. As the sun progresses across the sky, the plants follow, ending the evening facing west. Over night, they reorient themselves to face east again. As they reach maturity, this movement slows, and most of the flowers bloom facing east. Over a series of experiments, researchers were able to determine the cellular and genetic mechanisms involved in this spectacular instance of solar tracking.

Helianthus annuus (common sunflower) is a native of North America, sharing this distinction with dozens of other members of this recognizable genus. It is commonly cultivated for its edible seeds (and the oil produced from them) as well as for its ornamental value. It is a highly variable species and hybridizes readily. Wild populations often cross with cultivated ones, and in many instances the common sunflower is considered a pesky weed. Whether crop, wildflower, or weed, its phototropic movements are easy to detect, making it an excellent subject of study.

Researchers began by tying plants to stakes so that they couldn’t move. Other plants were grown in pots and turned to face west in the morning. The growth of these plants was significantly stunted compared to plants that were not manipulated in these ways, suggesting that solar tracking promotes growth.

The researchers wondered if a circadian system was involved in the movements, and so they took sunflowers that had been growing in pots in a field and placed them indoors beneath a fixed overhead light source. For several days, the plants continued their east to west and back again movements. Over time, the movements became less detectable. This and other experiments led the researchers to conclude that a “circadian clock guides solar tracking in sunflowers.”

Another series of experiments helped the researchers determine what was happening at a cellular level that was causing the eastern side of the stem to grow during the day and the western side to grow during the night. Gene expression and growth hormone levels differed on either side of the stem depending on what time of day it was. In an online article published by University of California Berkeley, Andy Fell summarizes the findings: “[T]here appear to be two growth mechanisms at work in the sunflower stem. The first sets a basic rate of growth for the plant, based on available light. The second, controlled by the circadian clock and influenced by the direction of light, causes the stem to grow more on one side than another, and therefore sway east to west during the day.”

The researchers observed that as the plants reach maturity, they move towards the west less and less. This results in most of the flowers opening in an eastward facing direction. This led them to ask if this behavior offers any sort of ecological advantage. Because flowers are warmer when they are facing the sun, they wondered if they might see an increase in pollinator visits during morning hours on flowers facing east versus those facing west. Indeed, they did: “pollinators visited east-facing heads fivefold more often than west-facing heads.” When west-facing flowers where warmed with a heater in the morning, they received more pollinator visits than west-facing flowers that were not artificially warmed, “albeit [still] fewer than east-facing flowers.” However, increased pollinator visits may be only part of the story, so further investigations are necessary.


I’m writing a book about weeds, and you can help. For more information, check out my Weeds Poll.


Bat Pollinated Flowers of a Mexican Columnar Cactus

Pollination syndromes – suites of floral traits used to determine potential pollinators and routes of pollination – have been informative in studying plant-pollinator interactions, but are generally too simplistic to tell the full story. Most flowering plants are generalists when it comes to pollinators, whereas pollination syndromes imply specialization. Not all pollinators are created equal though, and some may be more effective at pollinating particular plants than others. In fact, occasionally pollination syndromes ring true and a predicted plant-pollinator combination turns out to be the most effective and reliable interaction.

According to a study published in American Journal of Botany by Ibarra-Cerdeña, et al., Stenocereus queretaroensis, a species of columnar cactus endemic to western Mexico, adheres to this scenario. Stenocereus is a genus in a group of columnar and tree-like cacti called the Pachycereeae tribe. Cactus in this group are generally bat pollinated; however, their flowers are typically visited by various species of birds and insects as well, and in some cases, bats are not the primary pollinator. In their introduction, the authors note that specialization appears to be more common in tropical latitudes, and chiropterophilic (bat pollinated) columnar cacti that occur in temperate regions can be comparatively more generalized. This is because “extratropical chiropterophilic cacti appear to be faced with unpredictable seasonal year-to-year variation in pollinators,” while “cacti in tropical regions” experience “highly reliable seasonal availability of nectar-feeding bats, thereby leading to a temporally stable pollination system.”

Stenocereus queretaroensis is a massive cactus, reaching up to ten meters tall. Several vertical stems rise from a short, stocky, central trunk. Each stem has up to eight distinctive ribs and averages around 15 centimeters in diameter. Groupings of white to grey spines up to four centimeters long appear along the ribs. Flowers are light-colored, around 10 to 14 centimeters in length, and occur along the upper half of the stems, extended well beyond the spines. Flowers open at night – producing abundant nectar – and close by the afternoon the following day. Floral characteristics led the authors of this study to predict bats to be the main pollinator, and they set up a series of experiments to test this.

Stenocereus queretaroensis - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Stenocereus queretaroensis – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Part of their experiment consisted of five treatments involving 130 flowers on 75 plants. One group of flowers was bagged and allowed to self-pollinate naturally, while another group was bagged and self-pollinated manually. A third group was left exposed during the night but bagged in the morning, while a fourth group was bagged during the night and exposed during the daytime. The final group was left alone. For each of these five treatments, aborted flowers and mature fruits were counted and seed set was determined. Nectar samples were taken from a separate group of flowers at two hour intervals from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM, after which no nectar was produced. A camera was also used to document floral visits. Visits were deemed “legitimate” when the “visitor’s body came in contact with anthers and/or stigma” and “illegitimate” when “no contact with anthers or stigma” was made.

The researchers found S. queretaroensis to be “incapable of self-pollination,” as no fruit set occurred for the first two treatments. The control group and the nocturnally exposed group had nearly identical results, producing significantly more fruits with greater seed set compared to the nocturnally bagged group. During the day, flowers were visited by four species of birds (two hummingbirds, a woodpecker, and an oriole) and several species of bees (mainly honey bees). During the night, apart from illegitimate visits from a nectar robbing hawkmoth, one species of bat was the dominant floral visitor, and the majority (93.8%) of the visits were legitimate. This bat species was Leptonycteris curasoae, the southern long-nosed bat.

Leptonycteris curasoae - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Leptonycteris curasoae – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The abundance of nectar-feeding bats was monitored in the study area over a four year period, and L. curasoae was by far the most abundant species throughout the study period. Nectar produced in the flowers of S. queretaroensis was at its maximum around midnight, which seemed to correlate with observations of bat visits. Even though daytime visitors appeared to contribute to fruit and seed set, the nocturnal treatment produced significantly more fruit with significantly higher seed set, suggesting that bats are the more efficient pollinator. Insects visiting during the daytime, when nectar was decreasingly available, were most likely robbing pollen.

The authors acknowledge that for most plant species, “a wide array of taxonomically diverse fauna such as insects, birds, and mammals usually serve as potential pollinators,” and that “generalized pollination systems are more frequent than specialized ones.” However, in this case, “a close association between L. curasoae and S. queretaroensis [suggests] that the chiropterophilic syndrome is still a useful model.”

Related Posts:

Attract Pollinators, Grow More Food

It seems obvious to say that on farms that rely on insect pollinators for crops to set fruit, having more pollinators around can lead to higher yields. Beyond that, there are questions to consider. How many pollinators and which ones? To what extent can yields be increased? How does the size and location of the farm come into play? Etc. Thanks to a recent study, one that Science News appropriately referred to as “massive,” some of these questions are being addressed, offering compelling evidence that yields grow dramatically simply by increasing and diversifying pollinator populations.

It is also stating the obvious to say that some farms are more productive than others. The difference between a high yield farm and a low yield farm in a given crop system is referred to as a yield gap. Yield gaps are the result of a combination of factors, including soil health, climate, water availability, and management. For crops that depend on insects for pollination, reduced numbers of pollinators can contribute to yield gaps. This five year study by Lucas A. Garibaldi, et al., pubished in a January 2016 issue of Science, involving 344 fields and 33 different crops on farms located in Africa, Asia, and Latin America demonstrates the importance of managing for pollinator abundance and diversity.

The study locations, which ranged from 0.1 hectare to 327.2 hecatares, were separated into large and small farms. Small farms were considered 2 ha and under. In the developing world, more than 2 billion people rely on farms of this size, and many of these farms have low yields. In this study, low yielding farms on average had yields that were a mere 47% of high yielding farms. Researchers wanted to know to what degree enhancing pollinator density and diversity could help increase yields and close this yield gap.

By performing coordinated experiments for five years on farms all over the world and by using a standardized sampling protocol, the researchers were able to determine that higher pollinator densities could close the yield gap on small farms by 24%. For larger farms, such yield increases were seen only when there was both higher pollinator density and diversity. Honeybees were found to be the dominant pollinator in larger fields, and having additional pollinator species present helped to enhance yields.

These results suggest that, as the authors state, “there are large opportunities to increase flower-visitor densities and yields” on low yielding farms to better match the levels of “the best farms.” Poor performing farms can be improved simply by managing for increased pollinator populations. The authors advise that such farms employ “a combination of practices,” such as “sowing flower strips and planting hedgerows, providing nesting resources, [practicing] more targeted use of pesticides, and/or [restoring] semi-natural and natural areas adjacent to crops.” The authors conclude that this case study offers evidence that “ecological intensification [improving agriculture by enhancing ecological functions and biodiversity] can create mutually beneficial scenarios between biodiversity and crop yields worldwide.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

A study like this, while aimed at improving crop yields in developing nations, should be viewed as evidence for the importance of protecting and strengthening pollinator populations throughout the world. Modern, industrial farms that plant monocultures from one edge of the field to the other and that include little or no natural area – or weedy, overgrown area for that matter – are helping to place pollinator populations in peril. In this study, after considering numerous covariables, the authors concluded that, “among all the variables we tested, flower-visitor density was the most important predictor of crop yield.”

Back to stating the obvious, if pollinators aren’t present yields decline, and as far as I’m aware, we don’t have a suitable replacement for what nature does best.

This study is available to read free of charge at ResearchGate. If you are interested in improving pollinator habitat in your neighborhood, check out these past Awkward Botany posts: Planting for Pollinators, Ground Nesting Bees in the Garden, and Hellstrip Pollinator Garden.

Year of Pollination: Botanical Terms for Pollination, part one

When I began this series of posts, I didn’t have a clear vision of what it would be. I had a budding interest in pollination biology and was anxious to learn all that I could. I figured that calling 2015 the “Year of Pollination” and writing a bunch of pollination-themed posts would help me do that. And it has. However, now that the year is coming to a close, I realize that I neglected to start at the beginning. Typical me.

What is pollination? Why does it matter? The answers to these questions seemed pretty obvious; so obvious, in fact, that I didn’t even think to ask them. That being said, for these last two “Year of Pollination” posts (and the final posts of the year), I am going back to the basics by defining pollination and exploring some of the terms associated with it. One thing is certain, there is still much to be discovered in the field of pollination biology. Making those discoveries starts with a solid understanding of the basics.

Pollination simply defined is the transfer of pollen from an anther to a stigma or – in gymnosperms – from a male cone to a female cone. Essentially, it is one aspect of plant sex, albeit a very important one. Sexual reproduction is one way that plants multiply. Many plants can also reproduce asexually. Asexual reproduction typically requires less energy and resources – no need for flowers, pollen, nectar, seeds, fruit, etc. – and can be accomplished by a single individual without any outside help; however, there is no gene mixing (asexually reproduced offspring are clones) and dispersal is limited (consider the “runners” on a strawberry plant producing plantlets adjacent to the mother plant).

To simplify things, we will consider only pollination that occurs among angiosperms (flowering plants); pollination/plant sex in gymnosperms will be discussed at another time. Despite angiosperms being the youngest group of plants evolutionarily speaking, it is the largest group and thus the type we encounter most.

A flower is a modified shoot and the reproductive structure of a flowering plant. Flowers are made up of a number of parts, the two most important being the reproductive organs. The androecium is a collective term for the stamens (what we consider the male sex organs). A stamen is composed of a filament (or stalk) topped with an anther – where pollen (plant sperm) is produced. The gynoecium is the collective term for the pistil (what we consider the female sex organ). This organ is also referred to as a carpel or carpels; this quick guide helps sort that out. A pistil consists of the ovary (which contains the ovules), and a style (or stalk) topped with a stigma – where pollen is deposited. In some cases, flowers have both male and female reproductive organs. In other cases, they have one or the other.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

When pollen is moved from an anther of one plant to a stigma of another plant, cross-pollination has occurred. When pollen is moved from an anther of one plant to a stigma of the same plant, self-pollination has occurred. Cross-pollination allows for gene transfer, and thus novel genotypes. Self-pollination is akin to asexual production in that offspring are practically identical to the parent. However, where pollinators are limited or where plant populations are small and there is little chance for cross-pollination, self-pollination enables reproduction.

Many species of plants are unable to self-pollinate. In fact, plants have evolved strategies to ensure cross-pollination. In some cases, the stamens and pistils mature at different times so that when pollen is released the stigmas are not ready to receive it or, conversely, the stigmas are receptive before the pollen has been released. In other cases, stigmas are able to recognize their own pollen and will reject it or inhibit it from germinating. Other strategies include producing flowers with stamens and pistils that differ dramatically in size so as to discourage pollen transfer, producing separate male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecy), and producing separate male and female flowers on different plants (dioecy).

As stated earlier, the essence of pollination is getting the pollen from the anthers to the stigmas. Reproduction is an expensive process, so ensuring that this sex act takes place is vital. This is the reason why flowers are often showy, colorful, and fragrant. However, many plants rely on the wind to aid them in pollination (anemophily), and so their flowers are small, inconspicuous, and lack certain parts. They produce massive amounts of tiny, light-weight pollen grains, many of which never reach their intended destination. Grasses, rushes, sedges, and reeds are pollinated this way, as well as many trees (elms, oaks, birches, etc.) Some aquatic plants transport their pollen from anther to stigma via water (hydrophily), and their flowers are also simple, diminutive, and produce loads of pollen.

Inforescence of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a wind pollinated plant - pohto credit: wikimedia commons

Inflorescence of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a wind pollinated plant – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plants that employ animals as pollinators tend to have flowers that we find the most attractive and interesting. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and are anywhere from odorless to highly fragrant. Odors vary from sweet to bitter to foul. Many flowers offer nectar as a reward for a pollinator’s service. The nectar is produced in special glands called nectaries deep within the flowers, inviting pollinators to enter the flower where they can be dusted with pollen. The reward is often advertised using nectar guides – patterns of darker colors inside the corolla that direct pollinators towards the nectar. Some of these nectar guides are composed of pigments that reflect the sun’s ultraviolet light – they are invisible to humans but are a sight to behold for many insects.

In part two, we will learn what happens once the pollen has reached the stigma – post-pollination, in other words. But first, a little more about pollen. The term pollen actually refers to a collection of pollen grains. Here is how Michael Allaby defines “pollen grain” in his book The Dictionary of Science for Gardeners: “In seed plants, a structure produced in a microsporangium that contains one tube nucleus and two sperm nuclei, all of them haploid, enclosed by an inner wall rich in cellulose and a very tough outer wall made mainly from sporopollenin. A pollen grain is a gametophyte.”

A pollen grain’s tough outer wall is called exine, and this is what Allaby has to say about that: “It resists decay, and the overall shape of the grain and its surface markings are characteristic for a plant family, sometimes for a genus or even a species. Study of pollen grains preserved in sedimentary deposits, called palynology or pollen analysis, makes it possible to reconstruct past plant communities and, therefore, environments.”

Scanning electron microscope image of pollen grains from narrowleaf evening primrose (Oenothera fruticosa) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Scanning electron microscope image of pollen grains from narrowleaf evening primrose (Oenothera fruticosa) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

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:

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.

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