Keeping Company with Flowers: A Glimpse into the World of Pollinators

On my kitchen counter I have not one but two little vases of flowers from the garden. One holds a fragrant pink rose, the other holds a handsome collection of high-dark-coned rudbeckia, flowering mint and lavender. If you are a dirty-fingernails-gardening-gardener, you will understand the title of this week’s piece being Keeping Company with Flowers. After all, isn’t that what we do? We court our plants, we tend them, we adore them, we help them to increase their numbers the best we can, and in return we are rewarded with: flowers. Flowers that delight and feed us with color, form, fragrance, flavor, fruit and on-going fascination. Photo: Rudbeckia maxima with flowering silver mint and lavender spires. A nice cut-flower bouquet and a wonderful collection of pollinator flowers – bees, butterflies and birds enjoy them all.


As gardeners, part of what we love about our flowers are the many other creatures that also love them and court them. The bees and birds and butterflies and others who likewise ‘keep company with flowers.’ Many creatures come for the pollen and nectar that flowering plants promise and generally provide, others come to nest, to lay eggs, get a sip of water – even to dine on the creatures there gathering pollen, nectar and water. All together, this incredible web of life and learning is right before our very eyes – in the wild and in our gardens if we only take the time to look. Photo: Squash bee gathering pollen. Squash bees are important specialist native solitary bees of two genera, Peponapis and Xenoglossa. Females forage at the flowers of squashes, pumpkins and gourds, their sole pollen hosts. Photo by John Whittlesey ©2012

The amazing abundance of life lived among flowering plants and our taking the time to observe this abundance are at the heart of a summer exhibit at Gateway Science Museum in Chico: Keeping Company with Flowers: A Glimpse into the World of Pollinators. The exhibit is based around photographs of pollinators in wild and garden settings, taken by Northern California plantsman, garden designer, photographer and naturalist, John Whittlesey. The aim of the exhibit is to increase awareness of and appreciation for the beauty and diversity of pollinators in Northern California. The exhibit was co-created by John Whittlesey and myself. Photo: A collection of two beetles and a bumblebee sharing a meal on the easy-access open face of a pollen-and-nectar-abundant helenium species.

Keeping Company with Flowers is organized into 9 sections: an Introduction; 4 sections on types of pollinators, including Bees & Wasps, Flies, Beetles and Butterflies & Moths; and 4 conceptual sections, including Gardening for Pollinators, The Art of Observation – looking at the myriad life forms on coyote bush in late summer, Habitat & Agriculture and the Co-Evolution of Flowers and their Pollinators. Photo Bottom: Visitors at the Flies section of the Keeping Company with Flowers exhibit. Flies are remarkably diverse pollinators and many of the most interesting mimics are flies. In nature, insects and other animals often evolve to look like something else. Looking more dangerous or looking less conspicuous can confuse predators and increase an animal’s chances of survival. This evolution of physical similarity between otherwise unrelated creatures is known as mimicry. In the insect world, this is a frequent and easily observed phenomenon. Top: The robber fly is a bumblebee mimic in the genus Laphria. It has long strong legs for grabbing prey, and piercing-sucking mouthparts to eat them. They attack other bees, bumblebees and other bugs in mid-air. Photo by John Whittlesey ©2012

While many people are familiar with the European honeybee as an important (though non-native) pollinator, Keeping Company with Flowers highlights pollinators which are often less noticed: our native bees, wasps, flies, beetles and butterflies and moths. Pollinators native to Northern California play key roles in the ecology of our region. Images and supplemental materials introduce visitors to what pollination is, who these pollinators are, their habitats, and ways in which to support them. Photo: Tiny fly on an almond blossom. How do you tell a bee from a fly? While there are many technical characteristics to key out, at a quick glance, flies have much shorter, stubby antennae, while bees have longer antennae generally with a noticeable joint or ‘elbow’ in them. Flies also have just one set of wings, while bees have two sets – two wings on each side of their bodies.

What is Pollination? Who are Pollinators?

Photo: A stunning native Humboldt lily, the pollen-laden anthers at the end of the stamens surround the flower’s central pistil. The pistil, or female portion of the flower’s reproductive parts, is topped by the stigma, through which pollen enters and then travels down the style (stalk) of the stigma to the plant’s ovary at the very base.

Pollination is the process of transferring pollen from the anthers (male and pollen-producing parts at the top of a flower’s stamens) of a flower to the stigma (the top and pollen receiving portion of the pistil or female structure) of a flower. Pollen is transferred between flowers by animals, by wind and even by water. Most pollinating insects and animals inadvertently transfer pollen from flower to flower as they go about their real work of drinking nectar and eating pollen provided by flowers, or gathering these resources for their young. Photo: Longhorn beetle covered in pollen from a native corn lily (Veratrum californicum) in a Northern California mountain meadow. Beetles were among the first insect pollinators of the earliest flowering plants. Photo by John Whittlesey ©2012

Pollination is a critical step in plant fertilization, allowing plants to form seeds in order to reproduce themselves and ensure their survival for another generation.

A pollinator is an animal that moves pollen from one flower to another. Pollinators include bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, hummingbirds and wasps. These animals gather pollen or nectar from flowers as food for themselves or their young, and in so doing inadvertently transfer pollen from plant to plant. Photo: The co-evolution of flowering plants and their pollinators is nothing short of awesome. A hummingbird nectaring at large salvia illustrated nicely how the plants is built so that when the hummingbird is positioned to successfully reach the nectar – the flower’s anthers brush across the back of the bird’s head, thereby transferring pollen for the bird to then take with it to the next flower. Genius adaptive engineering. Photo by John Whittlesey ©2012

As pollinators go about their work of gathering protein-rich pollen or sugar-packed nectar from a flower, loose grains of pollen stick to their bodies. Pollen is effectively captured by special hairs that can line a pollinator’s legs, head or the underside of their abdomen. When these animals move from flower to flower, some of the loose grains of pollen are transferred from flower to flower as well, setting the stage for potentially successful pollination. Photo: Fly on native coyote mint (Mondardella sp.). Notice the white pollen grains sticking to the spiky hairs on the abdomen. Photo by John Whittlesey ©2012

Pollinators are essential to the reproduction of many flowering plants. Healthy viable populations of pollinators are critical to the ecology of all ecosystems. They are also important to agriculture and home gardens. The health of our lives, landscapes and economy are interwoven with the health of pollinators. Photo: A healthy vibrant home-garden designed by Bernadette Balics of Ecological Landscape Design in Davis. This garden is outfitted with plenty of food, water and shelter for visiting pollinators.

The Creation of an Exhibit:

In the summer of 2011, John and I had the good fortune to attend together “Native Bees as Pollinators” a wonderful two-day class taught Dr. Robert Schlising, professor emeritus of Biological Sciences, CSU, Chico, and his colleague Rob Irwin. The class was put on by the Friends of the Chico State Herbarium, and really opened my eyes to the science behind some of the creatures I was fascinated by. After a photographic presentation that John made in fall 2011 to the Mt. Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society entitled ‘In the Company of Flowers’, I suggested to him the idea of the exhibit. After spending a good six months putting the exhibit together, John and I talked this week about the inspiration and process behind it. Photo: A blue-eyed bee positioned to extract nectar from deep within the tiny tube of a Verbena bonariensis bloom.

I asked John: What got you started taking such detailed close-up photographs of pollinators originally – long before the Herbarium class. He responded that he has taken photographs of flowers and gardens, birds and bugs for a long time just because he enjoys it, but that early in 2011 he got a new macro lens for his “very basic Nikon D60.” This “105mm macro – a very good lens” brought a whole new level of detail to his photographs and while he started with flower photos, he was soon even more deeply engrossed by what was visiting the flowers – and what these visitors showed him about themselves, the flowers they were visiting and the mutualistic relationships between them. Photo: Of course when you are photographing flowers and their pollinators, you will get a view of their whole life cycle, from what the pollinators eat to what eats them! Here a spider makes a meal of female bumblebee. You can tell this is a female bee because only females collect pollen in so-called ‘pollen baskets’ on their hind legs. The collected pollen will be the color of the pollen produced by the flowers they are collecting from at any given time ranging from yellow to red to blue!

Q: After all the time and consideration that went into putting the exhibit together, which section do you like the most?

A: Clearly the butterfly/moth wall is the most esthetically pleasing, yet I enjoy studying the fly wall. Until this year and paying close attention to who visits flowers, I never realized the variety and how many flies visited flowers for nectar and or pollen. From flies that look like bumblebees to the tiny beautifully marked hover flies I was amazed at the diversity. Photo: John Whittlesey and Jennifer Jewell in front of the Butterflies & Wasps section of the exhibit.

Q: What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibit?

A: I would like people who see the exhibit to go home, sit out next to a group of flowering plants, watch carefully and observe that there are many more pollinators in their gardens and native habitats than the European honeybee.

Q: In the process of the exhibit development and research, what did you find most interesting?

A: What is interesting about the pollination of flowers is that the flowers are offering up nectar to this whole array of insects, flies, bees, wasps, butterflies, hummingbirds, in the hopes that some pollen will be picked up incidentally by these visitors and carried to another flower where a few pollen grains which may end up on the stigma beginning the process of pollination. Healthy populations of diverse pollinators is critical for this process to occur. Photo: Owls clover moth (Schinia pulchripennis) camouflaged nicely against owls clover (Castilleja sp.) on Table Mountain, Oroville, CA. Photo by John Whittlesey ©2012

From my own side, my favorite section visually is either the bees and wasps or the butterfly/moth wall. Hands-down, my favorite image is the exhibit’s signature image of a small bee literally rolling around in the pollen at the center of a squash flower.

Not only is the image one of pure color and (FUN) dynamic form, but the information you can gather, the signs and symbols inherent in this one image encapsulate the heart of this exhibit: it invites you to pause, to look, to appreciate – to learn more. Photo: A school child looking closely at the enormous variety of insects to be found visiting the California coyote bush at the Observation wall.

John concludes in a personal statement on the Observation wall: “Be patient, take your time, look closely, breathe, pay attention. It is an amazing world that unfolds before you.”

Solid advice in any setting, but perhaps particularly when Keeping Company with Flowers.

Keeping Company with Flowers: A Glimpse into the World of Pollinators, the exhibit, will be at Gateway Science Museum in Chico until August 10, 2012. The museum’s hours are Monday – Friday 9 am – 1pm.

If you are interested in Native Bees as Pollinators, the Friends of Chico State Herbarium are again hosting Dr. Robert Schlising and Robert Irwin teaching this in-depth and informative workshop on July 26, 2012. For more information or to register go to: http://www.csuchico.edu/biol/Herb/Events.html Photo: There are more than 1600 bee species in California alone. Only one of these is the European honeybee. Of our native bees, most do not live in social groups or hives, but are solitary ground or twig nesters. Here a ground nesting bee emerges from the entrance to her nest. To provide much needed habitat for such bees, make sure to leave some bare – UNMULCHED – soil in undisturbed/unirrigated areas of your property and garden.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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1 Response

  1. Avatar pmarshall says:

    I didn't realize there was such a variety of pollinators. The photography is very nice, very colorful!,Ilove color, but I don't have a very good "green thumb". I try, but now it is so hot, I don't last long out there. Than you for this story and the photos. I liked them all.