Category Archives: Pollination

Bees and Baptisia

Seems to be wondering, “Just how do I get in here?”

Another reliable plant in our front garden is the perennial Blue False Indigo, Baptisia australis, a member of the family Fabaceae (legumes) that contains other garden plants such as beans, sweet peas, lupines and the shrubby caraganas. Blue False Indigo grows best in gritty well-drained soil, but it also does well our clay-based Edmonton earth. It can be slow to establish, but is long-lived and will eventually grow to about 90 to 120 cm tall (3 to 4 feet) and wide. The stems begin branching half-way up and have grey-green foliage with trifoliate leaves. The flower spikes are tipped with upright terminal racemes with the pale blue to deep violet pea-like, bisexual flowers about 2.5 cm (1 inch) long. It thrives in full sun and is tolerant of dry conditions.

At the doorway, but how to open it?

B. australis flowers in early summer for about two weeks. The sexual parts of the flowers are enclosed by the two lower petals (called a keel), with the pollen-bearing anthers in close contact with the stigma,  so it can be self-pollinating. However, the flower design still allows for insect pollination in a very selective way.

Ghostly anthers within the keel.

Ghostly anthers within the keel.


Baptisia flower petal arrangement

The petals of the Blue False Indigo flower are arranged in a classic pea-flower shape. There is a large upper petal called the banner (sometimes called the standard) with a petal called the wing on either side. The two lower petals that form the keel are fused on the bottom edge and contain the stamens and pistil. The nectar lies at the base of the stamens, which are unreachable by most insects. Most, but not all–bees of a certain weight and/or persistence can find a way to get at the riches of nectar and pollen that are hidden deep within the flower.

Bombus nevadensis feeding at False Blue Indigo, Baptisia australis.

Big bee, no problem. This queen Bombus nevadensis uses her mid-legs to hold the wing petals and reveal an opening at the base of the flower to reach the nectar. The keel has opened to reveal the stamens which brush under her abdomen.


The smaller leafcutter bees (Megachilidae) don’t have the weight, so they resort to a more forceful entry method…

...using its mega-jaws as a  brace,

Using its mega-jaws as a brace…


…and pushing down on the wing petals, raises the anthers and the stigma to brush pollen under the bee’s belly. Note the wear-and-tear on the wing petals–this flower has been visited a few times before.


Here’s another view, with a newer blossom and the bee pushing down the keel with the hind legs, exposing the green stigma and the yellow pollen-coated anthers. Did it reach the nectar?

And another view on an older flower. Enthsiastic waving of the abdome clearly show the pollen-gathering site on Megachile species is under the length of the abdomen and called the ‘scopa‘. The anthers, stigma and style are also clearly visible.

And another view of a Megachile on an older flower. Enthusiastic waving of the abdomen clearly shows the pollen-gathering scopa under the abdomen. The anthers, stigma and style are also clearly visible.

Another view, with the legs at work inside the keel. It appears that the legs are brushing pollen up to the scopa.

Another view, with the legs at work inside the keel. It appears that the legs are brushing pollen up to the scopa.

(All images taken in our front garden in Edmonton, Alberta between June 24 and July 3, 2014)

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Big Bumble

I am in the process of  tweeking a macro photography presentation for tomorrows workshop at the Ellis Bird Farm, when I came across this pic. Photographed in the front garden, this Bombus nevadensis queen is visiting the flowers of blue indigo (Baptisia australis), a favorite of the many smaller leaf-cutter bees we have had in the garden this year. The E.H. Strickland Entomological Collection page has a great description on the life history of this bee, authored by L. Vandervalk (2011) and based on D.V. Alford’s book, Bumblebees (1975):

Once a suitable nest has been found, the queen constructs an apple sized hollow structure within it. The queen deposits her eggs in parallel rows within a mound of pollen on the floor of the structure; she also constructs a honeypot for storing nectar. Newly hatched larvae begin consuming the pollen mound, requiring the queen to continue provisioning it. The queen periodically incubates her brood by sitting upon it and respiring to generate body heat. The larvae spin cocoons in the final instars, as do the pupa; the cocoons may be re-used later for storage of pollen or nectar. Upon pupation, the emerged adults take nectar from the honey pot. Once the nest consists of the new young workers and the queen it can be considered a social unit and is referred to as a colony.

Yes, this queen incubates the young! Read the complete description at the species page.

Thanks to Gary Anweiler for the ID!

(3 July, 2014. Canon T2i with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens with a single diffused Canon Speedlite 270EX II. ISO 200, 1/100 sec. @ f11.)

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Supporting Pollinators

Syrphid fly on lilac bloom

Syrphid fly on lilac bloom

Why worry about pollinators? Pollinators fertilize flowers that produce fruit and seeds that many animals need to survive, including ourselves! Recently, with bees in the news due to colony collapse disorder, many are concerned about honeybee decline, and how other pollinators can be supported. Gardeners and land owners can improve conditions for pollinators. When people think of attracting insect pollinators to a garden, usually the first thing that comes to mind is flowers for bees.  Yet there is far more to encouraging pollinators than growing a few flowers and there are more pollinators than just honeybees.

So what do we need to understand to support all pollinators?

1. Recognize that a variety of insects assist in pollination, including  native bees, and to a lesser extent, moths,butterflies, flies, beetles, wasps and sometimes even ants.

2. That all these insects have four stages of life: egg, pupa, larva and adult, and that all stages of their lifecycle should be supported.

To support all stages of their lifecycles in the garden they need:

  • nest and egg-laying sites
  • food plants for larvae
  • a diversity of plants that bloom in overlapping periods, throughout the growing season, for nectar and pollen feeders.
  • shelter to overwinter
  • a pesticide-free habitat

For more information on how to make your space more friendly for pollinators, and to learn more about pollination, check the following sites:

In Canada:

In the USA:

In Britain



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The Week on Sunday #38

This Week on Sunday is book-ended by two videos from TedTalks. Both are new to me and worth seeing:

♦ From the 17 September, 2013–Marla Spivak on the many reasons that bees are in trouble:

♦ It used to be when you found a bug in your bread, you sent it back to the baker….now they’re adding bugs on purpose! Read how buggy bread has the potential to provide affordable nutrients to the poor in underdeveloped countries in Flour made with insects wins 1m for McGill-team.

♦ Perhaps the most bizarre adaptation to an insect’s face yet…

This is the larva of a neuropteran as photographed by J. Gállego, a Spanish nature photographer who works in Spain and North Africa. Visit his blog and Why Evolution is True for more on this amazing larva and the fantastic lacewing that it turns into!

♦ Using a white-background technique similar to that used by the  Meet Your Neighbours Project, David Liittschwager, shows how biodiversity plummets in heavily farmed land:  Cornstalks everywhere but nothing else , not even a bee.

♦ And to close, from the 22 of February this year: how flies fly, by a very entertaining speaker, Michael Dickinson:


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Farewell to Pollinator Week

Pollinator Week ended in the United States yesterday, but let’s not forget about these essential critters.

I could have called it “Plight of the Bumblebees“, but here are some that are doing well in our city garden…

Buglife in the U.K. have initiated a call-out for a Pollinator Pledge. What can you do to to help save bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other pollinators? One way is in your garden: remove lawn, stop using pesticides and add more flowering trees, shrubs and perennials (preferably native). You’ll be doing a good thing to help sustain wild bee populations.


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The Week on Sunday #35

Welcome to this Week on Sunday!

♦ Today I will lead off with a preview of an amazing documentary – More Than Honey. It takes a look at the lives of bees and beekeepers in this era of Colony Collapse Disorder.

♦ You can learn more about More than Honey in the review at Scientific American.

♦ Not new ‘news’ but good news for fans of Stephen Dalton, the master of in-flight photography. Stephen developed his equipment and skills in the 1970’s to produce amazing books with photographs of in-flight birds, bats and insects. He is back with digital technology and practicing his magic again. In 2012 he was featured in MicroMagic at Festival Photo Montier, and now his work can be enjoyed at a more permanent gallery at the Cob Lane Gallery at Holly Farm, Ardingly, Sussex. Surely this should be a point of ‘pilgrimage’ for all those who were inspired to take up high-speed photography by Stephen!

JUMPING SPIDER (Philaeus chrysops)Corfu. © Stephen Dalton. Used with Permission

JUMPING SPIDER (Philaeus chrysops) Corfu. © Stephen Dalton. Used with permission.

Be sure to visit his website and his blog Life at Holly Farm for more information.

That’s all for this week!

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