Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know it, so it goes on flying anyway.
~Mary Kay Ash
On a recent visit to Mount Mitchel State Park I was amazed at the abundance of wildflowers along the high ridge lines in the park including flows of White Wood Asters, Cut-leaved Coneflowers, Pale Jewelweed, and smaller clusters of Filmy Angelica and Pink Turtlehead. And everywhere we went, we could hear the sound of pollinators buzzing around the flowers. It turns out, most of the buzzing was coming from very busy bumblebees. Along the trail to Mt. Craig, I stopped to watch some bumblebees struggling to pollinate what must be one tough flower to get into – a Pink Turtlehead, Chelone lyonii. Here is a short video:
Seems as though the Pink Turtlehead is reluctant to give up its reward to just any ol’ pollinator. The upper lid of the flower overlaps the lower like a turtle’s beak, hence the common name. The male parts mature first, and when the pollen is ready, the flower is very hard to pry open so only the strongest of pollinators, like bumblebees, can get the job done. When the pistil starts to mature, the flower relaxes a little and is easier to enter, but it requires a long-tongued insect to reach the nectar. Again, certain bumblebees fit the job description. The advantage for the flower to requiring such pollinator specificity is that it helps ensure their pollen gets carried to other flowers of the same species and doesn’t get wasted on different flowers.
Bumblebees as a group (there are close to 50 species of bumblebees in North America) are very efficient pollinators compared to most other insects that visit flowers. They are fast workers (some research indicates they visit twice as many flowers per minute as honeybees); because of their generally larger size, they can carry heavier loads of pollen, enabling them to make longer foraging trips; their large bulk also aids them in making contact with the stamens and pistils of the flower, thus ensuring better pollination; they tend to be fuzzy, which causes pollen to stick to their bodies better; and they can forage at lower temperatures and lower light intensities than most other pollinators. The latter may be especially important in an environment like Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina. Indeed, at about 5:30 p.m. one evening on our camping trip, I noticed a swallowtail butterfly that landed in a fir tree at our campsite to roost for the evening (it had clouded up and was threatening rain). Meanwhile, the bumblebees still buzzed about their business for at least an hour more, and started much earlier the next morning, in spite of the drizzle.
Here’s another short video of pollinators actively working the flowers of a Filmy Angelica, Angelica triquinata.
So many flowers, so little time, especially at these high elevations. Hoping to get back up there in the next week (high of 67 degrees reported yesterday:) and see if the bumblebees are still hard at work. I am betting they are.