After a long bleak winter it is wonderful to see wildflowers in the spring, foretelling of warmer weather and the return of color to the forest. The earliest wildflowers to bloom, such as Hepatica, Trout-lily, Bloodroot, Spring-beauty, Toothwort, Mayapple and Trillium, are called “ephemerals,” meaning “lives for a day.” They all bloom for a very short period of time and usually when it’s still cool weather. Because they are strictly insect pollinated this could be a problem, since insect activity is minimal in the early spring. Enter our hero: The bumble bee
The bumble bee is a predominate insect that pollinates most early blooming flowers because they can tolerant cold weather. They can begin foraging early on cold mornings, and keep at it well into the evening cool down. Flying bumble bees generate body heat that is protected by a dense “fur” that insulates them. In warmer weather bumble bees are more active early and late in the day, but tend to be inactive during the hot mid-day.
Some flowers are totally dependent on bumble bees for pollination because their nectar is stored so deeply inside the flower that only Bumble Bees, with their very long tongue, are attracted to them. Red Clover, Jewelweed, Dutchman’s-breeches, and the Virginia cowslip are all structured to favor the large bumble bee.
Individual bees foraging for nectar tend to specialize on one certain flower even when a large variety of species are available. One that feeds on Red Clover pretty well sticks with that flower most of its life. Which flower the bee specializes in is determined during its first few foraging flights. Bees do not instinctively know how to enter flowers, and like us learn by trial and error. A novice bee may take 20 seconds to figure out how to get to the nectar, while an experienced bee can get it immediately. Evidently young bees try several kinds of flowers and eventually favor one or two and work only those.
The next time you’re out enjoying the beauty of wildflowers, remember to also appreciate the faithful pollinators that make them possible.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.