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Big life in a little flower garden

July 13, 2015


Any garden looks interesting, if you look closely enough.

On Sunday afternoon (July 12) I was reminded of this fact when I found myself sitting beside the brick-lined planter outside of the Firehall Branch of the Vancouver Public Library.

In truth, I was there to steal electricity but in keeping with the spirit of the place, I was reading an ePub file of a book on my laptop while it was charging off an accessible outlet on the outside of the planter.

The book I was reading (well, rereading) was Tracy Kidder’s 1981 nonfictioner The Soul of a New Machine, a white-knuckle account of the struggle to design a new 32-bit mini computer.

A bumble bee makes a landing approach while in the background ants gang up on a flower.

A bumble bee approaches a flower while, in the background, ants gang up on a flower.

Gripping stuff but I’ve read it about a hundred times.

My attention soon wandered to follow the erratic flight — from flower to flower — of a bumblebee, which, as we’ve all heard cannot possibly fly…much faster than 3 meters per second, poor thing.

Bumblebees are both absurd and adorable; so furry and so large by the scale of their environment. They look like flying micro-pandas with bad jaundice. Yet they’re quite fast and sure-footed in action.

Never mind that every little yellow flower this bumble alighted on, had to bow its head like a subject under the weight!

Busy as a bee, this little planter!


Bees get two things from flowers. First they collect protein-rich pollen produced by flowers’ male stamen. They do this in order to feed it their larvae. And second, to encourage bees to collect the pollen frequently, flowers dispense a little bit of sugar-rich nectar to each bee that visits.

All bees consume nectar to have the energy to forage and many (including bumbles) take it back to their hive where it is digestively converted into honey.

What the bees unknowingly give to the flowers is the help that the flowers need in order to reproduce. As bees collect pollen and nectar over their foraging area, the bees cannot help but transfer some of the pollen that they’ve collected — and which is actually male plant sperm — to the female pistils of other flowers of the same species.

The bumblebee that I watched hop from flower to flower, over and over again, was oblivious to its vital role in the pollination and propagation of plant species.

Nature, it must be said, also moves in mysterious ways.

This nectar stuff must be good!


At one point I was so focused on snapping photos of the bumble as it landed on a particular flower, that I completely missed a drama going on in the background.

For whatever reason, ants were clotted by the dozen on one flower stem — I say “for whatever reason” but I’m sure it had to do with food and sugary food at that.

What the flowers give quid pro quo to bees, other critters will try to take for free — not realizing that they too are helping the flowers.

The bee faces competition for the nectar from flies and wasps and even larger creatures.

The bee faces competition for the nectar from flies and wasps and even larger creatures.

Wasps are best known for eating other insects but in the early summer months, these pesky predators also play the role of pollinators because they too raid flowers for nectar and pollen. Naturally the pollen sticks to them and they fertilize plants in the course of their travels.

In fact, flowers are designed so that any insect with a long tongue, even an adult fly, can have a go at getting the sweet nectar; all the insect has to do is go through the pollen to get it. The more potential pollinators the better, says nature.

There are bumblebees, it’s true, that do not have long tongues and these bumbles learn to cut sideways into certain flower’s to get at the nectar. But I don’t think it’s fair to call them thieves because they may also collect pollen from the flowers and are therefore still holding up their end of the bargain.

The entire animal kingdom has fallen for pollen

There were even a tiny mouse scrambling among the blossoms to get some nectar.

There was even a tiny mouse scrambling among the blossoms to get at pollen.

While I watched the little planter in front of the Firehall Library on Sunday, in addition to bumblebees and wasps and flies and butterflies — all working among the blossoms, I was surprised to see a little grey mouse nervously scrambling up the green stalks and over the bright flower petals.

Pollen, as I mentioned, is very high in protein and carbohydrates (sugars) and there are few animals it seems that won’t eat the stuff if the opportunity presents itself. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Fairview, Insects

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