Monday, April 11, 2011

Where have all the spring beauties gone?

We are studying the pollination of spring beauties. The main pollinator of this lovely early spring wildflower is a bee, called the spring beauty bee (naturally). It is a species of Andrena, small, black and slender. Like all other Andrena, it has characteristic hairy spots between the eyes. This pollinator may visit other spring flowers for nectar, but it is thought that it only gathers pollen from spring beauties. To learn more about this bee, its geographic distribution, populations and its role in ecosystems, a number of volunteers throughout the eastern United States are collecting data of its visits to spring beauties.

So, I started prospecting my favorite spots where I had found these little gems of the woods floor in previous years. I was frustrated to find lesser celandines instead. I kept walking the familiar trail, and the scene was always the same: extensive carpets of glossy dark green leaves and vibrant yellow flowers. Only here and there did I see a sprinkling of spring beauties, fresh leaves of trout lilies and a few other early flowering plants of the woods.
I must say that lesser celandines are really beautiful. No wonder why they were brought to this country as ornamentals! And no wonder why many garden centers sell them and gardeners buy them! The sinister side of this invasive beauty doesn’t seem to register in the minds of commercial centers and uninformed gardeners. But conservationists see something else. Lesser celandine is replacing some of the native plants, creating a cascade effect on the balance of nature. Native plants feed native pollinators and many other insects, which in turn, benefit other members of the natural community.

I turned my attention to lesser celandines: Do they get any visits by pollinators? Do they provide any services to the natural community?
I sat down for hours on a small picnic stool surrounded by blooming lesser celandines, camera in hand, ready to snap pictures of pollinators; hardly any came. I will continue to observe lesser celandines, but I fear that I already know the answer: specialist pollinators, such as the spring beauty bee or the trout lily bee are not likely to visit these invaders of forest and gardens, useless to them. I know that in their native land lesser celandines are visited by mutually adapted pollinators and that they provide food to some caterpillars (which in turn feed birds), but nobody seems to find them nutritious in this country.
Alarmingly, this plant is a very successful invader, with means to spread by bulbs and with the ability to sprout so early in the spring that it has a head start over the other plants in the forest. Thus a rent appears in the web of life. The more this successful invasive keeps spreading, the larger the rent becomes.

Update, April 28: Fortunately I have been seeing lots of spring beauties in other places. Let us hope that lesser celandines don't spread there too.

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012


  1. I often see bee flies (Bombylius major) visiting spring beauties and other spring ephemerals. Do you know if they are effective pollinators? I'm guessing not, since they tend to feed while hovering rather than walking around on the flower as a bee does.

  2. Some beeflies are certainly pollinators. They may be among the earliest ones, before there were bees, according to Grimaldi and Engel (Evolution of insects). I would like to think that B. major does some pollination too. I wonder if there are any studies.