Pollination Station

In previous wildlife hacks, I encouraged you to alter your perspective to experience the nature surrounding you. By focusing on sound rather than sight, you can learn what types of birds call your house a home. By waking up early, you can be sure to hear them at their finest.

In a yard where we’re accustomed to watching children and pets play, reclining in the shade, or firing up the grill, we may be forgiven for not seeing the wildlife surrounding us. To be fair, most animals will not announce their presence. They will steer clear from large, loud humans if they can avoid it, hiding in the bush, under rocks, and out of sight.

It is very difficult to see that which does not wish to be seen; it’s much easier to observe things that don’t seem to care. Fortunately, many pollinating insects are much less skittish than your typical vertebrate.

If you have any form of flowering plant at your house, even if it’s a weed, you can bet on some form of pollinator visiting that flower at some point. As you relax in your yard, pick a flower or group of flowers and make it a game to find out what pollinates it. While there is a good chance you’ll see a typical honeybee, you might also be visited by less common pollinators. Several species of bumblebees, butterflies, bee flies (these are a real thing), or simply flies may all pay a visit to the flowers you choose. Depending on the flower type, you may also see hummingbirds, moths, or even bats...though you'll have to stay out late for the nocturnal pollinators.

Good old-fashioned honeybees on a stunning flower.

A California Poppy, with an unidentified insect lurking inside! Pollinator?

Another California Poppy flanked by Fiddlenecks and an array of sunflower relatives. All of these flowers are pollinated by insects.

Fiddlenecks get their name from their shape, reminiscent of the neck of a violin.

Sunflowers and their relatives are actually composite flowers. Notice how all of the "petals" on the outside of the flower are individual blooms.

There are a few important caveats here. First, your flower must be actively flowering. That is, if your dandelion has gone to seed, its reproductive journey is already complete. The bright colors and sweet-smelling nectar aromas that attract pollinators are gone. As the flower has already been fertilized, no pollinators are required.

Here is a gorgeous poppy in bloom. This will attract pollinating insects.

This fertilized California Poppy has lost all of its petals, leaving only its female parts to develop the seeds. No pollinators should be interested anymore.

It’s also important to recognize the color and shape of the flower you choose to observe. In general, tube-shaped flowers with narrow openings will likely attract hummingbirds, not insects. This is especially true if these flowers are red. Tube-like flowers of this nature support specialized pollination from long-beaked hummingbirds. As they reach their long beaks into the flower to sip its nectar, their heads inadvertently gather pollen near the opening of the flower, which they carry to the next flower. While hummingbirds will visit tube-shaped flowers of all colors, the color red appears to be unexciting to bees and bee-like insects. If you see a red, tube-shaped flower, it’s probably exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds.

California Fuchsias are red-orange, tube-shaped, and primarily hummingbird pollinated

Hummingbirds like this one make use of their long beaks to sip nectar from tube flowers.

All said, know what you’re looking for. It’s hard to find a bee when you’re looking at a flower pollinated by a bird, and you’re probably too close to the flower for a bird to feel safe if you’re expecting to see a tiny insect. Another helpful tip would be to avoid white flowers if you have the option. Colorless flowers may appear different to a pollinator that can see in ultraviolet, but there is a reasonable chance that these colorless flowers are pollinated by nocturnal animals such as moths or even bats. Color is less important at night, but smell is crucial. If a flower's smell promises an abundant nectar reward, moths will hone in on the flower.

Desert Chicories are moth-pollinated. At night, their color is much less important than their fragrance.

Joshua Trees aren't actually trees. They are moth-pollinated flowering plants.

Joshua Trees produce large flowering bodies pollinated by Yucca Moths.

It might seem disheartening if you’re in a highly urbanized area or a sparsely vegetated desert, but I can assure you that pollinators and other insects will find a way. If you look for pollinators, you will find them.

A pollinating insect inside the bloom of a prickly pear cactus. Even Death Valley gets its share of insect activity!

I photographed this ladybug at the summit of Mount Lassen, an elevation of over 10,000 feet.

Next week, we’re going to take our search to the ground.

Educational Sources:

California Native Plant Society. Calscape. New Mexico Plumseed (Desert Chicory).

Schemske, D. W, & Bradshaw, H. D. (1999). Pollinator preference and the evolution of floral traits in monkeyflowers (Mimulus). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 96(21), 11910-11915.

United States Forest Service. Moth Pollination.

Photo Credits:

Anna's Hummingbird. Mikayla Helmbold (

All remaining photos. Jake Ewald

Mikayla Helmbold also provided crucial editing and color-balancing of the California Fuchsia, as the smoke-tinted skies made an accurate photograph impossible.

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