bee forage

Piggyback plant has dazzling red-orange pollen

The deep red-orange pollen of the piggyback plant makes a bee look spectacular.

Deeply colored pollen on the legs of bees is thrilling to see. The pollen of piggyback plant is a dazzling red-orange that seems to glow.

Shaded woodland can be full of surprises. Tolmiea menziesii, also known as the piggyback plant, is extremely attractive to pollinators. It even lures them into the dark, dank forest floor where bees are often scarce. But certain bees, especially small native bumbles, go from flower to flower, swiftly collecting sacks of bright red-orange pollen that almost glows.

The orange on the anthers is not nearly as dark as the orange in the pollen baskets.
The orange on the anthers is not nearly as dark as the orange in the pollen baskets. © Rusty Burlew.

Day-Glo orange pollen pellets decorate bee legs

If you compare the color of the pollen in the corbiculae to the color of the pollen still in the anthers, you can see a vast difference. This occurs particularly in the corbiculate bees that add nectar to the pollen as they compress it into pellets. Just like dark spots that appear on wet fabric, the pollen becomes darker, as least partially, from the nectar alone.

In addition, it appears darker when packed tightly. The pollen of corbiculate bees such as honey bees, bumble bees, and orchid bees is often much more vibrant than the dry pollen loads of most other bees.

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Tolmiea menziesii is known as the piggyback plant because small buds form at the base of the leaf blades that grow into daughter plants. A little plant arises from the mature plant, a clone of the “mother,” and rides piggyback as it grows.

The leaves of Tolmiea are roughly heart-shaped with coarse teeth.
The leaves of Tolmiea are roughly heart-shaped with coarse teeth. © Rusty Burlew.

The piggyback plant is a common houseplant

According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon, Tolmiea is sold as a houseplant because it’s tolerant of the low-humidity environments found inside modern housing. This seems strange since the plant prefers the very wettest parts of the forest floor. The book also explains that the plant was named after Archibald Menzies, one of the first botanists to explore the Pacific Northwest coast.

The brownish-purple leaves make a nice contrast with the orange pollen.
The brownish-purple blossoms make a nice contrast with the orange pollen. © Rusty Burlew.

This plant was the one I was searching for last week when I became distracted by a swarm. I found the swarm in a tall tree and later found the orange-legged bumbles. But the best part? The next day, that swarm left its roost in the maple tree and moved into one of my empty hives. Wonders never cease.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Tolmiea menziesii showing piggy-back leaf.

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6 Comments

  • I was wondering what this could be!

    We’re up here in North Bend surrounded by forest, so this is a likely contender. Would anything else elicit such a color?

  • Lovely to hear you caught that swarm. I’m a non-beek but I love how readable, entertaining and informative your site is. Keep it up 🙂

  • Thank you for all of your blog entries. I learn something new and interesting every time.

  • Dear Rusty,

    First of all, thank you for this amazing blog! I find myself spending hours reading your beautifully crafted pages, full of great information, wit and lyricism. The post about “bees are made to last” left me with tears in my eyes: so poetic! Speaking of which, I was so happy to read that the amazing swarm that lasted for 8 days in heavy winds and rain finally decided to move into one of your empty hives. Great ending to a beautiful story.

    I am a new beekeeper (this is my second winter) and, as I read about the Tolmiea pollen, I remembered how last spring I stood near my two hives watching in fascination how the bees were carrying in the most brilliant, deepest orange pollen I had ever seen. I will have to research whether or not Tolmiea grows here in the woods of Northern Wisconsin. Thank you again for all you do! I wish you and your bees a safe and healthy winter!

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