Flower Benefits to Bees:  Nectar, Oil…and pollen for warning coloration?

Flower Benefits to Bees:  Nectar, Oil…and pollen for warning coloration?

Like to watch flower visitors?  I  do, although other folks may have more exciting hobbies.  A great flower for pollinator-watching is Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliana).  Everybody comes along:  butterflies, wasps, beetles, bees, and who knows what else.  Here’s a sampler from just today:

I’ve got warning colors!
Who’s your favorite Beatle?
Queen on the way
More warning coloration. Oh look—here comes a Duskywing
Landed safely

When it comes to beautiful bugs, why pick favorites?  But the visitors who piqued my biological curiosity today were bumblebees in connection with their warning coloration.  A few words on that: Creatures and plants benefit from not being eaten, duh.  That’s why, double duh, there are so many defensive mechanisms ranging from stinky skunks to rhinoceros horns.  Now let’s say you’re a well-armed bug, perhaps deadly poisonous or with a wicked sting.   That helps of course, and it helps even more to not be attacked to begin with: thus warning coloration.   Try to eat me, and YOU’LL REGRET IT!   Now let’s say you are harmless and likewise benefit from not being attacked.  If you look like something able to hurt an attacker, warning colors protect the harmless too.      We’ve all seen it:  things that sting and the mere posers use yellow and orange bands and blotches mixed with black to say “let me bee.” Okay, with that obvious foundation, here’s the cool part (as I see it).

Look at that bright orange basket of pollen on the leg.

Bumblebees have warning coloration mostly in the form of yellow and black bands.   There’s also orange, and that varies in an interesting way.  The showiest coloration on many bumblebees  is an add-on:  big showy baskets filled with colorful pollen on the legs of females.  

That orange pollen sac on the hip HAS to contribute to the warning coloration.

Could it be that a reward for being a busy bee is extra protection?  Not all bumblebees have the baskets of orange pollen.  Unloaded females don’t, and males don’t.  Perhaps some species never do.  In any case, some bumblebees have orange fur near where others have baskets of pollen.  Fake pollen baskets, that is. Examples include the “Tricolor Bumblebee” and the “Red-Belted BB.”  

Orange fur on this red-belted bumblebee looks much like the orange leg basket on others. Photo with public license USGS Bee Inventory.

In other words, as I see it, leg baskets full of orange pollen offer enough protection to be worth “mimicking.” Just to thicken the plot, even fly “wanna-bees” often have orange hips resembling the baskets.

Dronefly. I can’t sting, but look at my orange hips. Photo by Martin Cooper.

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Posted by on July 1, 2022 in Uncategorized


Nurse trees, seed rains, and arboreal facilitation

Nurse trees, seed rains, and arboreal facilitation

South Florida has expansive open space where sparse trees are isolated or in clusters, or over-abundant in dense single-species stands.    That makes it especially easy and fun to observe the relationships between “big” tree species and their smaller underlings, especially when it is clear that the smaller species benefit (or suffer) under their big green overlords.   

Now of course even a cow knows the benefits of shade.  Still, the obvious can be fun to observe in the way it “turns out,” and not everything about life under trees is as clear as shade vs. sun.   You might say the biological effects of a shady existence range from “duh” to subtle, speculative, and impossible to measure.

Tree roots alter the soil chemistry and associated microbes.  Deep tree roots lift water up to smaller shallow-rooted plants.  Roots from a tree or its leaf litter might generate natural herbicides, or improve the soil, or favor beneficial fungi.   Trees are giant funnels concentrating rain and the nutrients washed down the trunk in it.  Trees and their immediate neighbors may experience fires differently from the surroundings.    Trees may “discourage” their own offspring beneath their boughs in order to minimize “parent-baby” competition, or they may send up root suckers that outcompete other species.

Slash pine and dahoon holly at its feet.

In wet habitats trees often occupy or help create hummocks elevated above the surrounding marsh bottom.   A depression marsh or wet prairie is usually open, with isolated slash pines, pond cypresses, or pond-apples having shrubs and perennials crowded around the trunk bases.    Perched birds raining seeds and guano would account for some of this, especially in the cases of tree-base species characterized by bird-friendly fruits:  myrsine, dahoon holly, and wax myrtle.    But birds are not the whole story.  You’d think the berries would get around within the marsh, even by floating, yet you seldom find myrsine, dahoon holly, and wax myrtle on the deeper non-elevated marsh bottom.  The  deeper marsh bottom is owned by different species, mainly peelbark St. Johnswort,  buttonbush, and corkwood (Stillingia aquatica). 

Saw palmetto can form thick impenetrable almost-single-species “carpets” in some open wet (or dry) habitats.  The dense coverage can shade out almost all other vegetation.   A small number of woody species can sprout under the intense palmetto shade and eventually rise up above the smothering fronds.  Champions of this are two related hollies:  dahoon holly and gallberry (holly).    Seedlings of these two have the rare super-ability to tolerate the deep shade, and no doubt benefit from the palmetto suppressing their other competition. 

Hollies overtopping saw palmetto

By the way, staggerbush can achieve the same feat in dry scrub rising from under layers of palmetto fronds there.   Benefiting from protection in severe nasty scrub is understandable.  The endangered  four-petal paw-paw and likewise endangered apple-cactus reportedly need nurse trees in their scrubby  homes.  There is especially room for research on the roles of nurse trees in scrub, given the blazing sun, poor sand soils, deep water tables, and relentless coastal winds.

Gallberry holly in the shadows. No saw palmetto can hold me down!

Trees alter wind patterns.   The main scrub oaks locally are sand live oak and myrtle oak.   The two are almost always intimately intermixed around here, but in notably different proportions when tree-sized.   Maturing myrtle oak dominates scrubby zones surrounded by a windbreak of sand pines.  By contrast, larger sand live oaks dominate the open portions of dunes devoid of pine protection.

Myrtle oaks cuddly with sand pine


Posted by on June 24, 2022 in Uncategorized


Thank you

To everyone who ordered our new wildflower guide 

(they are almost sold out)

All the existing orders will be mailed tomorrow (Wed. 6/21/22)

(if you want one and have not ordered it, email George before 8 pm today with your mailing address!  Can still go into tomorrow’s mailing, with invoice for $17)

John  Bradford, George Rogers

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Posted by on June 21, 2022 in Uncategorized


Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg, the Moss or the Vine (Both?)

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg, the Moss or the Vine (Both?)

There’s something intriguing about the miniature self-contained ecosystems on swampy shady palm trunks. Lots of pushing and shoving, you know, lichen challenging moss kinda thing.   Who stands their ground, and who gets displaced?   But it’s not all pushin’ and shovin’.   Today’s nice friendly relationship is —so subtle you might question its reality, but I believe. 

Deep in the frog kingdom lives a moss called Syrrhopodon incompletus, which is hard to say but simple to spot as the dark green mats enjoying shaded palm trunks where the dark water is up over your ankles (unless you are on a nice boardwalk in Riverbend Park).   Brush off that spider, and look upward to the vines climbing the trunks.  Largely Virginia Creeper.

VA Creeper

With some luck in the right place you’ll see that the climbing vine and moss tend to hang out together, frequently with the moss flanking the vine as it rises into the tree.   

Moss and vine together

How that might come about is easy to imagine:  the moss makes a nice water-retentive substrate for the vine’s thirsty roots high above the moist nutritive ground.


Maybe the vine is a conduit for water and nutrients washing down the trunk.  You know, like those rain chains you can use in place of a downspout.    Maybe the vine is a “river” and the moss the “fertile floodplain” along the river.


Let’s go to the evidence.   Start with the vine using the moss.  It makes obvious sense.  Vine roots need water and nutrients, and moss is a storehouse. Secondly, studies on other plants in other places have shown epiphyte mats (such as moss) to feed plants with roots penetrating the mats (such as Virginia Creeper).   That is, our narrow case fits a broader known pattern. Third, and this is iffy at best, the Virginia Creeper’s clinging root pads grab the moss so tightly that when you pull the vine from the tree, it takes moss with it.  (A skeptic might say, that shows clinging but not proving extraction of benefits.)  As a final point of evidence, young growing vine tips too small to have been water conduits seem to follow the moss.     Personally, I think the vine uses the moss as a private rooting bed.

Tiny vine tips seem to follow moss.
Vine pulled free, holding on to moss (technically, liverwort).

What about the reverse:  the moss using the vine?  Again, it makes good sense.  How could water running down the vine not help the adjacent moss?  After all,  you can find examples of moss benefiting from water channels other than vine stems.   For instance, a fork in a tree can funnel a narrow stream of water down the trunk.  The moss likes those “streams.”   Similarly, there are places where a big epiphyte on the trunk, say Cardinal Airplant, catches water and then releases it as a drizzle, like a drippy sponge.   Today’s moss can flourish airplants.  Personally, I think the moss does use the vine as a private irrigation line.

Moss below tree fork.

So then, if this is all true in both directions (!), you have a remarkable situation of mutual facilitation.   I’m not suggesting that the two species have evolved to help each other—that would be “mutualism.”  But here we seem to have a win-win circumstance where two species seem to “luck into” each other, like a man with a pack of cigarettes, meeting a man with a book of matches.

Moss thriving below airplant drippage
Look how the vine “steers.”

Posted by on June 17, 2022 in Uncategorized


Get our BRAND NEW wildflower guide!

Limited quantity (really) Strictly non-profit (we work at a loss) The summer flowers are out and beautiful!

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Posted by on June 16, 2022 in Uncategorized


Clammyweed has Funny Flowers

(Clammy refers to the stickiness of the plants.)

Polanisia tenuifolia


Spider-flower, aka Cleome (Cleome hassleriana and relatives), is a garden flower like a friendly ghost haunting my memories of gardens long ago and far away.  That lovely cultivated species has a locally native mini-me, Clammyweed (Polanisia tenuifolia).  The thundering arrival of the rainy season has given Clammyweed a boost, making it a joy to encounter all spunky in scrub habitats.

Clammyweed on sterile white sand. The big upright candles are fruit pods. By John Bradford.

It has a floral oddity.   On any individual the flowers tend to be a mix of bisexual and male-only.   Put differently, all flowers have pollen-producing stamens (“male”), but only some have both stamens and “female” pistils (seed-making organs).    The several stamens are easy to recognize, being bright yellow.  The pistils look like bent fingers curving upward across the face of the flower to become the long skinny pods characteristic of Polanisia, and of Cleome.

Bisexual flower with “bee-fly,” the anthers pale yellow to left. The pistil shown by arrow.

The term for a mix of bisexual and male-only flowers on the same plant is andromonoecy (ANN-dro-MON-ee-cee), a word you’ll forget before the next paragraph.   But before you forget it, what good is andromonoecy?  Why would a species combine bisexual flowers with male-only flowers on the same individuals?   It’s rare.

Over the decades, various botanists have floated possible explanations.   The prevailing thought, laced with some speculation, is that because female flowers are “expensive,” a plant can sustain only a limited number of them, especially in a tough habitat like scrub.   That is, fruits and seeds resulting from a female flower make big demands a parent plant’s limited resources, like too many children in a human family.  In the thirsty nutrient-deprived scrub a stressed plant can afford only so-many plump viable seeds.   And it gets worse:  each fruit contains lots of seeds, with each seed requiring a successful pollen grain delivery.     You need a good bit of pollen even if fruiting is limited.

Male-only flower. No pistil. Large yellow nectar gland at center.

So then let’s see, redundantly.  Because the scrub-stressed plant can sustain only “so many” fruits filled with nutrient-demanding seeds, it is counterproductive to make too many bisexual flowers.    But still the plant needs plenty of pollen for even the constrained seed crop,  augmenting the pollen supply by making male-only flowers.   Moreover,  male-only flowers offer the added benefit of adding to the plant’s scent and visual display, and offer nectar and pollen food rewards.    “Hey bugs, get some nectar and pollen, and while you’re here drop off some pollen on that bisexual flower.”

That invites the question of,  is pollen from male-only flowers able or likely to fertilizer bisexual flowers on the same plant?   Neither answer is a “deal breaker,”  and data from similar situations suggests same-fertilization to be possible but unusual, an experiment waiting to be tried on Polanisia tenuifolia.

Both flower types visible. Note the pistil bent upward in the left-most flower. By JB.

Posted by on June 10, 2022 in Uncategorized



Ixora pavetta a rare introduced curiosity in Southeast Florida Scrub

Up and down the coast from around Hobe Sound to Miami an odd non-native small tree makes rare appearances.  Ixora pavetta is a member of the Coffee Family, not the sort of Ixora we think of as nutrient-deficient hedges all over S Florida.  Those are mostly hybrids of I. coccinea

Today’s Ixora has tiny fragrant white flowers in large clusters.  You might say it is an invasive exotic, but it is the best-behaved invasive exotic in town, and you don’t find this tropical oddity much in cultivation either, except maybe around Miami.  So far as is known, its wild Florida occurrences are at  Hobe Sound,  Jupiter (Jupiter Inlet Natural Area where I took the pictures), Boynton Beach,  Ft. Lauderdale,  and Miami.

The species is cultivated a little in Florida, and a lot in and near its native India.  Do the handful of local wild occurrences arise from each other, or from separate cultivated individuals?  What’s puzzling, at least north of Broward County you just don’t have much if it in cultivation.  The pea-sized fleshy fruit is naturally dispersed in India by sloth bears.   We don’t have abundant sloth bears locally, but is a raccoon all that different?   And of course birds probably lend a hand.

Hundreds of faded flowers, just a couple fruits

At the local wild sites there are a few scattered trees, but it obviously does not spread much or aggressively.  The proper pollinators may not be around.  In India fruit production reportedly varies with pollinator availability. In Florida, at least at Seacrest and Jupiter Inlet,  only a tiny minority of flowers make a fruit.   As an Ixora, Ixora pavetta has what’s known as an “ixoroid” pollination system. The pollen-making anthers deposit the pollen onto the immature non-receptive stigma, to be picked up there by a pollinator and transferred to the ripe stigma of a different flower.  

The pollen-producing anthers have placed their pollen on unripe stigmas (the columns at the flower centers), then bent down.

That may require particular pollinators, perhaps with the time of day mattering, not any ol’ bee that happens along.   Speculate as we will, something inhibits pollination and fruiting.   That may be a “lucky break” in a naturalized exotic species.

The flower clusters attract big red serious-looking ants.  They do not seem to be coming for floral nectar, but the leaf bases have flaps (stipules) covering little secretory glands called colleters, which I’ll bet are the ant bait.

Today’s plant is a member of the coffee family, which is always interesting medicinally, given that the coffee family has a way of producing bioactive compounds, such as, well, coffee.   In India Ixora pavetta has an ancient history of treating a whole bunch of troubles. Here are ten examples dug up fast on Google:  muscle aches, chest pains, dark urine, soft-tissue damage, eye troubles,  fatigue (I like coffee for that), constipation,  whooping cough, anemia, and good fortune from squares of its hard dense wood.  In India that wood is favored by wood-turners.

*Careful: the name “Torchwood” is applied to at least three different shrubs.  Another name for Ixora pavetta is misleadingly Jungleflame.  This may seem weird, given the white flowers encountered in Florida, but the species can make red flowers in certain times and places.


Posted by on June 3, 2022 in Uncategorized


Dr. Benjamin Saurman, obscure Fl botanist, and life-saver?

As John and I worked today on our almost-done soon-to-be-printed informal wildflower identification guide based on John’s wildflower photos, the picture sorting ran us past a very odd species, if it is a species at all, Narrowleaf Hornpod, Mitreola angustifolia. For a very long time, I’ve suspected this species is no-good, merely a mutated form of the more common Lax Hornpod, Mitreola petiolata. All that is boring, and we’re not going there. The only reason I mention the problem is to note that, well, if you think a species is fake news, go look at the original specimen(s) used in naming it. Now THAT gets interesting.

Mitreola angustifolia

Mitreola “angustifolia” is based on plants preserved before 1841 by the remarkable Alvin Chapman, M.D. and first-ever important Florida botanist living in Florida. He lived in Apalachicola through the Civil War years and discovered a lot. Just like the species problem, it is not my goal now to explore Dr. Chapman’s astounding life and legacy, but rather that of a different M.D., also in Apalachicola at the same time, Dr. Benjamin Saurman. Dr. Saurman gathered more or less the 2nd oldest preserved M. angustifolia in 1867. Wazzup with that?

This is more or less the 2nd collection of Mitreola “angustifolia.” Look at the label in the next photo:

This label is hard to read, but look who collected it (lower right corner). 1867!

Thanks in significant part to the biographies of people who contributed plants to the
Putnam Museum Herbarium and to the Missouri Botanical Garden archives, we know some things about Dr. Saurman.

Dr. Saurman was an 1867 medical school graduate of the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But instead of becoming a fancy Philadelphia physician, Benjamin had other ideas. He answered a Craig’s List ad to migrate to the boondocks in Florida and serve as a botanical (not medical) assistant to Dr. Chapman. While in Florida, Saurman collected a whole lot of plants, even after Dr. Chapman died, including the mysterious “Mitreola angustifolia.”

But that’s not all Saurman did, and now we get to the good stuff. He was beyond multitalented. In 1875 Saurman founded and served as Editor of the Apalachicola Times newspaper, which lives on to this day.
Writing and editing must have agreed with him, as Saurman later went on to edit newspapers in Pennsylvania and in New England and co-wrote a history book.

But B.S. was not merely a physician, botanist, writer, and editor. Add inventor to the list. In 1875, in Florida, he patented a “Lady’s Thread Cabinet.” You can still look up the patent via the U.S. Patent Office website. Apparently its cool innovative feature helped dispense the thread directly from the cabinet, no muss, no fuss, no tangles.

Saurman’s next invention was pretty different. He witnessed a head-on train crash in 1899. He must have been struck with the avoidability of the tragedy, because he patented a new railway signal system.

From a California newspaper…but after all, Saurman was connected in the newspaper world.
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Posted by on May 20, 2022 in Uncategorized


Figs and Their Wormy Three-Way Symbiosis

Ficus species, Wasp Species, Nematode Species

Amazing thing about figs—they are pollinated by tiny wasps inside the hollow fig entering and leaving by the little hole at the end opposite the stem.   Figs and their pollinator wasps (and their parasitic wasps) are covered abundantly on the Internet, so let’s gloss over wasps today and go a step beyond.  Maybe you are ok with wasps inside figs, but how about squiggly wiggly eel worms (nematodes?).    Thank you Dee Staley for today’s figgy pudding. 

 Figs are built like no other fruit.  A fig is a swollen hollow stem with hundreds of flowers lining the inner cavity.  That hollow space is the wasps’ boudoir, where their social lives produce wasp babies inside the fig.   Each “seed” in the fig (stem) is actually a seed-sized fruit, think of an itsy bitsy nutlet.

Swollen hollow stem with lots of flowers…and squirmy things…on the inside.

Look closely in the upper right corner and see nematode disembarking from fig wasp. (Photo by G. Woodruff and P. Phillips BMC Ecology Vol. 18)

Some of the research on nematodes in figs occurred on native Strangler Figs and Bearded Figs in Florida.  There are variations and exceptions with respect to fig species, wasp species, and nematode species, but generally speaking the female wasp enters the fig to lay eggs inside the fig flowers lining the chamber.  The female wasp arrives with nematode worm passengers.   After laying eggs, the female dies, and –ugh–the tagalong nematodes come forth into the fig from the wasp cadaver.   The newly arrived nematodes take up residence inside the fig, and just like the wasp, spawn within.   Then as the new generation of hatching female wasps begins departing to go pollinate another fig, the baby nematodes hop aboard and treat the wasps as their little Uber drivers.

Anybody want a fig newton?


Posted by on May 13, 2022 in Uncategorized


Chapman’s Blazing Star…Lovely Autumn Wildflower (in May?)

Liatris chapmanii

(The origin of “Liatris” is not known, perhaps a very old name.  Alvin Chapman was a physician and seminal Florida botanist.)


Something’s odd in the Delaware Scrub Natural Area in Jupiter.   Driving by yesterday, what is that tall purple wildflower in the scrubby sand?    Stop, go back and check it out—well, how weird, it is Chapman’s Blazing Star.   Liatris chapmanii, which always blooms late summer and autumn, is in full bloom across one corner of the natural area.   How can that be?   It is one of the earlier-flowering Liatris species,  August-October, but May is absurd.

Chapman’s Blazing Star, yesterday May 5, 2022

The main reason many autumn flowers bloom in the harvest months is a response to the lengthening nights after the June 21 summer solstice, the daylength cue sometimes interacting with temperature.   If the long night is interrupted with artificial light it can throw off the plant’s internal clock.  When horticulturists deliberately break up long nights with artificial light to manipulate flowering, turning on the lights  is called a  “NI” (night interruption).  Researchers Ignacio Espinosa and Will Healy in Maryland, interested in commercial year-round Liatris (L. spicata) production as a cut flower, applied different combinations of temperatures and NI’s to influence the Liatris flowering season in varied ways.  Our L. chapmanii is more “tropical” so its temperature-related behavior would differ from more-northern L. spicata.

All that being so, what triggered flowering in Chapman’s Blazing Star 6 months out of sync?   Looking around the site of the funny flowering, there is “NI” on a pole…a street light (actually two of them) beaming directly onto the Liatris patch.  Wonder if anything else there flowers at the wrong time.


Posted by on May 6, 2022 in Uncategorized

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