The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 10: Flowers and Pollinators
June 30, 2022
By Birgitta Jansen
One more Chronicles from June — yes, still catching up!
Around mid-June, when I ambled up the Sunflower Hill Trail a bit, a surprise awaited me. A considerable segment of the hillside was celebrating “life-in-yellow” especially along the lower part of the Powerline Trail. Yellow? The balsamroot was no longer in bloom, so what could this be? So down Powerline I went to take a closer look at this yellow riot.
What I found was a variety of mostly yellow flowers such as the golden aster (Heterotheca villosa), prairie cinquefoil (Potentilla pensylvanica), slender hawksbeard (Crepis tectorum), Sulphur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius), and Dalmatian toadflax also called butter-and-eggs (Linaria genistifolia). These last three are, unfortunately, also European imports. But what these plants all have in common is that they either tolerate or even seek out dry and disturbed soil. Well, the eastern part of Sunflower Hill certainly qualifies.
As I was trundling about, I also noticed that the number of pollinators seemed to have increased as the weather warmed up. Pollinators play a critical role in plant reproduction.
The cycle is this: Plants make their own food using energy from the sun for photosynthesis. We, like all other animals, cannot make our own food. So we eat not only plants, but also other animals that eat plants. In that way, plants are responsible for just about every bite of food we eat. It’s so obvious, but we don’t often think about it this way. Without plants (and plant reproduction), our lives would look very different. We might not even exist.
However, a serious problem looms on the horizon. More than 80% of flowering plants depend on pollinators for reproduction. Therefore it is most worrisome that we are now seeing reports from across the globe that insects are in decline. Scientists have determined that this is mostly due to loss of habitat and nesting areas. Then there are the many chemicals used in pest control and industrial agriculture, which are also responsible for the demise of many insect species.
Unfortunately, there’s more that threatens the well-being of insects. Many natural cycles have been disrupted due to changes in climate. This means that the arrival of the pollinators may or may not coincide with the flowering of plants. Relationships between plants and pollinators have developed over thousands of years. This includes the timing of when the plants flower and the insects emerge, because they need to happen at the same time. But as our climate is dramatically changing, the flowering of particular plants that are pollinated by certain pollinators may no longer be synchronized. That means that the reproduction of plants is compromised.
I spoke with a farmer in Creston who commented that the bees were only active in his cherry orchard for one day. One day! He only came to our Kimberley Farmers’ market on one occasion because he simply did not have enough cherries to warrant a return trip.
He explained that not only were the temperatures initially too cool for the bees, but as soon as it warmed up and bees started arriving, the area was hit hard by an upswing of mites that kill the bees. His wife added with visible dismay, “We have two apple trees, but there’s not one apple on either of them.”
These Varroa mites are tiny red-brown parasites that live and feed on honeybees by sucking their hemolymph (insect blood). They can also carry bee diseases that can devastate entire colonies. The mites are native to Asia, which means that the bees here have no defenses against them.
Then another man joined the conversation. He lives in the Meadowbrook area and said that recently he has seen more bees, especially in the clover that he lets grow in his yard. But then he added thoughtfully, “not as many as in other years.”
Not only do we obtain much of our food from plants (fruits, vegetables, and nuts), but half of the world’s oils, fibers, and other raw materials come from them. Plants prevent soil erosion and sequester carbon. Plants play a vital role in creating and sustaining healthy ecosystems. Pollinators — the plants’ partners — move the pollen from plant to plant. This also prevents inbreeding by moving the genes around.
We actually have a name for all of this: ecosystem services. Such is the importance of the role that the humble insect plays.
Important pollinators in our area of BC are the bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, birds, and bats. BC has the largest diversity of butterflies in Canada. There are 187 known species. Unfortunately, some butterflies have already gone extinct. Ambling along the trails showed me there are many different butterflies, moths, beetles and a great variety of other insects on The Hill, but I did not witness any birds or bats in action. (However, I did see hummingbirds in our garden busily doing the rounds several times a day.)
Butterflies are abundant on Sunflower Hill. One day in June, I saw a gorgeous large butterfly with a striking black and white pattern. With camera in hand, I chased it, stalked it, ran after it, and tried to sneak up on it, all to no avail. I couldn’t get within 30 feet of this beautiful creature. After putting in considerable effort, I took one picture with a longer lens to try to at least have an image to identify it. After that I decided, “enough of that, time to make my way down Campground Trail and go home.” Just before I reached Campground Trail, the butterfly reappeared, hovering two feet in front of me.
Two days later I encountered what I now knew to be a pale tiger swallowtail. The photo tells the rest of the story. All in all, I spent quite some time with this beauty, looking at it and photographing it. I was totally charmed and found myself smiling all the way down The Hill to the parking lot.
Bees are amazing. Honeybees were imported from Europe approximately four centuries ago but there are over 400 native ground and twig nesting bees here in BC. A few of these are social and live in colonies or nest together, but most are solitaries. They come in various shapes and sizes and visit the widest range of flowers and crops of any pollinator group.
I spotted only one hyperactive bumble bee on a large ceanothus bush covered with fragrant flowers in their prime. Why just one?
There are over 35 species of bumble bees here in B.C. They form small colonies, usually underground, and are adept at making good use of existing old burrows. One interesting little factoid: apparently bumble bees are regarded as better pollinators than honeybees because bumble bees vibrate. Who knew?! I didn’t see many other bees until sometime in July.
In the European Union, policymakers are trying to slow down the loss of insects by using strict pesticide bans and decreasing light pollution. Light pollution? As it turns out, light pollution might deter some insects like moths from laying eggs and exposes many insects to predators. Having witnessed bats in action around light sources, yes, I can vouch for that. Fortunately, neither light pollution nor pesticides are a problem on Sunflower Hill. May there be many more such places.
Meanwhile, there are reports that in China, workers are pollinating flowers by hand, but this method appears to be not as efficient and successful as the pollinators. Even the use of robots and drones is being considered. Let me not comment further.
But we can help the pollinators by planting the type of plants that sustain them. As an expert Kimberley gardener told me — standing in her vegetable garden that was abuzz with insects — the insects love any of the flowering herbs, especially oregano, lavender, and bee balm. We can also set up bee houses for the solitary bees. Further guidance on choosing plants can be found on the Pollinator Partnership website, which provides ecoregional planting guides for many different ecosystems across the U.S. and Canada. The guide for our region is the Columbia Mountains and Highlands and it provides information about what we can plant in our gardens to help the pollinators.
Two excellent local resources are the Nupqu Native Plant Nursery at 8425 Mission Road in Cranbrook and Wildsight. Their website will have information on “No-Mow-May” on their website next spring. No-Mow-May refers to not mowing your lawn in May, but letting it grow to accommodate the needs of insects.
We need the pollinators, and now the pollinators need us too, more than ever.
A heartfelt “THANK YOU!” to Laura Duncan for reviewing each Chronicles essay, to Neal Nurmi for processing my countless photographs, and to Heather van der Hoop for making the blogs look so good. I appreciate your contributions and support more than words can say.
All photos by Birgitta.The images above are taken with a specialized macro lens, which means the flowers are shown larger than you see them along the trail. You can also click on the photo to enlarge the image to full screen.