Their colorful wings darted in and around us. So many of them, flitting through the air, weaving in and out of the meadows filled with wildflowers. Black and white, blue — striking in their pattern. The butterflies seemed to be enjoying this perfect blue sky day as much as the hikers.
Symbiotic is the perfect word to describe the relationship between wildflowers and the pollinators. Both flowers and insects get something out the relationship. They are interdependent — one can not exist without the other. The flowers need pollinators to help them reproduce. For the pollinators, the flowers provide a source of nourishment — the nectar — that helps them to thrive.
Wildflowers are ingeniously adapted to attract pollinators — using their shape, color, and even markings to attract pollinators. It is as if they are saying — “pick me, pick me!”
Bees are attracted to blue, purple and yellow flowers while butterflies like red, yellow, orange and pink. Ever wonder why yellow wildflowers seem to dominate throughout the Rocky Mountains? Yellow attracts both bees and butterflies equally, and so has the best chance of carrying their seed and reproducing. Out hiking the high country during summer months, I always think of this as I traipse through fields of yellow alpine avens or sunflowers.
Hummingbirds love red flowers, but they love trumpet-shaped flowers the most as they allow them to hover in mid-air like a helicopter and stick their long needle-like bill inside and sip the nectar out of the flower.
My favorite adaptations of wildflowers to attract pollinators are their shapes. Perhaps none so distinctive as the flowers of the pea family, like the showy golden banner and the purple vetch. Pea flowers have a very distinct banner, wings, keel formation that makes them easy to identify. The keel or lip that comes down in front provides a landing platform for bees, while the bee pushes its head into the flower to get the nectar. While the bee is doing this, the flower places pollen on the back of the bee’s neck, and almost impossible place for the bee to get it off. In this way, the flower has ensured its pollen will get carried flower to flower.
In addition to its exquisite pale pink color, wild geranium provides just a little extra incentive to pollinators to help them gather their pollen. The petals have lines leading into the center of the flower, acting as a landing strip to the bee or butterfly. When it comes to ensuring reproduction, no flower can offer too many tricks to bring pollinators to them.
You might think it is only insects that help with pollination, but wildlife and yes, even human beings can also help to pollinate. Have you ever seen a deer or elk lying in a meadow, nibbling on green grasses or even the flowers? Her roll in the meadow has picked up pollen on her coat, which as she moves to her next feeding spot will spread it on to new flowers.
Even people as they hike through meadows, can pick up pollen on our socks and hiking boots. So next time your eyes water, and you feel yourself about to sneeze, don’t curse the pollen. All those myriad of colors and shapes that make the mountain meadows so glorious this type of year are the product of a lot of hard work by a lot of bees, butterflies and birds.