Indian Cucumber Root, Medeola virginiana, lives up to its name, as its rhizomes have a mild cucumber taste. Equally as enticing are its flowers — delicate and oh so intricate.
This member of the Lily family has one whorl of leaves if it isn’t going to flower (too young or without enough energy to reproduce), and two if it is. If there are two whorls of leaves, look under the top whorl and you will find flowers unlike any other you have seen. The pale petals fold back and from the center emerge three long reddish styles and several purple stamens (reproductive parts). Occasionally the flowers are above the topmost leaves, but typically they are below.
The change in position that Indian Cucumber Root flowers undergo as they develop into fruit is as fascinating as their appearance. The pedicels, or stalks, of these flowers become more erect once the flowers have been pollinated and fertilized, to the point where the dark blue berries mature above the upper whorl of leaves. You can see both stages in this photograph (styles have yet to fall off the developing fruits).
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Getting inside the flower of Bottle Gentian or Closed Gentian (Gentiana clausa), one of our latest flowering plants, in order to collect nectar and pollen is a monumental task that few insects, other than fairly large species of bumble bees, attempt. The petals are closed so tightly it takes even bumblebees several seconds of pushing, shoving and cramming to push the petals aside and get through the miniscule opening at the top of the blossom.
Pollen is the primary bumblebee attractant, as the sugar concentration of Bottle Gentian’s nectar is fairly low. Some bumble bees take a short cut – they chew a hole to gain access to the reproductive parts of the flower. The hole is often two-thirds of the way up the blossom, directly opposite the pollen-laden anthers within the flower. Look closely at the hole in the lefthand blossom in the photograph and the adjacent, dissected blossom, and you will see that the bee’s aim was dead on. You can even detect a portion of the anther through the hole.
If you examine plants that are still flowering this late in the season (such as asters, goldenrod and late-blooming turtlehead) early in the morning when it’s still quite cool or late in the day, many of the pollinators you see will be bumblebees, not honey bees. One reason for this is that they have different temperature tolerances for flight. You rarely see a honey bee when the temperature is below 57°F as they cannot fly when it is this cool. Bumblebees, however, are capable of flight when the air temperature is as low as 50°F.
Even so, bumblebees cannot take off unless their flight muscles are above 86°F; they maintain the temperature of their thorax (where wings and wing muscles are located) between 86°F and 104°F regardless of the ambient temperature. The way in which they raise the temperature of their thorax involves uncoupling their wing muscles so that the wings themselves do not move. They then use their wing muscles to shiver and raise the temperature of their thorax until it’s sufficiently warm enough for them to fly.
At rest a bumblebee’s body temperature will fall to that of its surroundings. If it is cool out, and the bumblebee wants to take flight, you can actually see its abdomen pumping to ventilate the flight muscles. An entomologist studying this phenomenon discovered that the rate of pumping can give an indication of the temperature of the bee. It ranges from around 1 pump per second when the bee is 86°F, to 6 pumps per second when it reaches 95°F.
The Pruinose Squash Bee (Peponapis pruinosa) is most often noticed when it’s gathering nectar or pollen from squash, pumpkin, watermelon or gourd blossoms. (Squash bees have been shown to be excellent pollinators of zucchini and butternut squashes, among others. If numerous, they thoroughly pollinate all available flowers, rendering later visits of honeybees superfluous. Before Europeans brought honeybees to the New World, squash bees were busy aiding the adoption, domestication, spread, and production of squashes and gourds by indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.) The bee’s black and white striped abdomen is easy to recognize.
While female squash bees are busy foraging for pollen in the flowers of plants in the Cucurbitae family, male squash bees can be seen darting between flowers, searching for mates. By noon, they are fast asleep in the withered flowers.
Pruinose Squash Bees are solitary bees, with every female digging her own nest in the ground. These consist of vertical tunnels that end with a number of individual chambers that are a foot or two deep in the soil. Each chamber is provided with an egg and a lump of pollen so that when the egg hatches, food is readily available. (Photo: five Pruinose Squash Bees packed into a single Bindweed flower)
At this time of year moist, rich woods are brilliantly lit up with the white flowers of a scraggly shrub called Hobblebush, whose name is derived from the tendency of its sprawling branches to trip people walking through the woods.
Hobblebush’s inflorescences consist of clusters of blossoms that together can measure six to eight inches across. The smaller flowers in the center (still buds in this photo) are fertile, possessing both stamens and pistils, while the larger flowers in the outermost ring are sterile. The inner fertile flowers produce fruit if pollinated and fertilized. The larger outer flowers, being sterile, do not produce fruit — their sole function is to attract insects to pollinate the central mass of fertile flowers.
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Blue Cohosh, one of our early spring wildflowers, has diminutive flowers that open before its leaves fully expand. Like Wild Ginger, Blue Cohosh flowers are the color of rotting meat, which may account for the fact that flies are its main insect visitors. Flies tend to feed at a single flower until satiated, which is not conducive to cross-pollination, and thus most fertilization in Blue Cohosh is the result of self-pollination.
Native Americans treated a wide range of afflictions with Blue Cohosh, including gallstones, fevers, toothaches and rheumatism. The most common use of its rhizomes, or underground stems, was as an aid to speed and ease childbirth. Even today it still serves this purpose — 64% of midwives surveyed reported using Blue Cohosh to treat women before or during childbirth. It has, however, had deleterious effects on some women and has not been evaluated by the FDA.
If your home, shed or barn has weathered, unpainted wood and is riddled with ½”-diameter, perfectly round holes, there is a chance that carpenter bees are hibernating in them. Carpenter bees resemble bumblebees in both size and appearance (a carpenter bee has very few hairs on the top of its abdomen, which appears black and shiny, whereas bumble bee abdomens are often yellow and hairy), but they are not social insects. Instead of having a common nest in which they live and raise their young, carpenter bees drill holes in wooden structures or trees inside of which they chew tunnels that contain six to eight brood chambers for their young. After creating the chambers, the female carpenter bee places a portion of “bee bread” (a mixture of pollen and regurgitated nectar) in each one. On top of each pile of food she lays an egg and then seals off the chamber. The larvae eat and grow, pupate and emerge as adult bees in late summer. At this point they feed on nectar, pollinating a wide variety of flowers before they return to their tunnels to over-winter.