Trekking for pollinators

Here’s my newest crazy project: I want to learn which native pollinators visit which native plants in my local forests. So far, I’ve spent a lot of hours trekking around and finding very little. Oh, there are plenty of flowers; I just don’t see many pollinators on them. Furthermore, I can find almost nothing about this subject in books or online. My hunch is that little is known about who pollinates what in the wild.

In the Capitol State Forest. Mt.Rainier in the distance.
In the Capitol State Forest. Mt.Rainier in the distance.

Today, though, I found this bumble bee on a flower of Siberian minor’s lettuce, Clatonia sibirica. This plant, sometimes called candy flower, is common in the wetter wooded areas of our region. Whole hillsides of it are in bloom right now. The flowers are tiny and the bumble bee was huge, causing the flower to drape nearly to the ground. As you can see, the bee’s proboscis is slipped down between the sepals and the petals, rather than through the middle of the flower. I don’t know if this is common or if this particular bee was just clumsy.

Bumble bee on Siberian miner's lettuce.
Bumble bee on Siberian miner's lettuce.

And that brings me to another problem. I’m pretty good with plant identification and, when in doubt, I’m not too shabby with a dichotomous key and a dissecting kit. But bug i.d. is something else. Right now I’m shooting for family. If I can place the insect in a family, I feel like I’ve really accomplished something.

Daisies and common velvet grass (Holcus lanatus).
Daisies and common velvet grass (Holcus lanatus).

Right now the hillsides that were logged several years ago are teeming with native grasses and not-so native daisies, but the combination is enchanting. Also in abundance are native foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and introduced dandelions (Taraxacum officinale). Honey bees are all over the dandelions and small sweat bees frequent the daisies. Bumble bees normally pollinate foxglove, although I saw none today.

Sweat bee on oxeye daisy.
Sweat bee on oxeye daisy.

Then there are the gorgeous flowers that everyone ignores, including the brightly lit native tiger lily (Lilium columbianum). Local superstition says that if you smell a tiger lily you will get freckles on your nose. Who knew?

Native tiger lily.
Native tiger lily.

And of course there are always surprises. I took a photo of a thimbleberry flower (Rubus parviflorus) and wondered about its lack of pollinators. But once on the computer, I saw bugs all over it. Hmm. No clue what they are, but they apparently like the flower.

Thimbleberry flower.
Thimbleberry flower.

It’s hard to convince people we need to conserve species when we know absolutely nothing about them. Wouldn’t it be a giant step forward if every field guide to flowers noted what pollinators normally attend that species? It’s something to think about—perhaps something to strive for.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Tom
Reply

I love your photos. What lens do you use for the macro?

I saw our sub species of Adrenidae tody here in Ellensburg. What a sweet little bee.

Tom

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

I use a Tamron 90mm 1:1 macro with either extension tubes, diopters, or a teleconverter.

Emily
Reply

In the UK we have various societies who do regular field trips to look for bugs and bees and do research on their conservation needs, for instance BWARS (the bees, wasps and ants recording society – http://www.bwars.com/). Are no societies in the US doing similar work?

I love the photo of the bumble bee.

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

There are groups, although I think most are on a more local level. Most of the ones I know about are on the east coast, especially those dealing with bumble bees, and that puts them a good 3000 miles from here. There are organizations that do a lot of counting and species reporting here on the west coast, but very few correlate specific plant species with specific insects . . . and that is the thing I’m most interested in.

gram
Reply

A trip to the nearest entomology museum would be quite a help, I think. You usually just need to contact them about visiting beforehand. There is nothing that compares to looking at an actual pinned specimen that someone has already spent the time to I.D. Absolutely beats any field guide or taxonomic key you could find. Some specimens will even have information on what plant the insect was collected from, giving you a place to start looking. Not nearly as fun as watching them moving around on blooms, but helpful!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Gram. Good idea.

Betsy
Reply

Hi,
This is really interesting. Did you end up putting anything together (a list? blog post?) that matches the pollinator with the native plant? Thanks!
Betsy

Rusty
Reply

Betsy,

It is a work in progress. I have developed a list, but I haven’t posted it yet.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website