Shrubby St. Johnswort

For about eight weeks during the summer, Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) is decorated with flowers, like ornaments on a holiday tree in mid-summer.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)

Each bright yellow blossom has five petals that provide a backdrop to a sphere-shaped burst of stamens, the male reproductive parts of the flowers.  Reaching out for a pollen deposit from the very center of the flowers are their female reproductive parts, called pistils.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) flower

This gaudy display is attractive to me, but more importantly, it’s a very effective lure for potential pollinators.  Bumble Bees are among the most likely visitors and effective pollinators.  While they climb around the stamens, eating and harvesting pollen from the anthers at their tips, they also pick up quite a bit of pollen on their hairy bodies.  As they forage, pollen on their bodies may be brushed off on the stigma at the tip of a flower’s pistil, setting the wheels in motion for pollination to occur.

Female Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) foraging on Shrubby St. Johnswort flowers

Female bees eat pollen themselves, and they also collect pollen to bring back to their nests to feed their larvae.  In the photo below, you can see the ‘bee bread’ this female has collected on her hind legs.  Quite a haul!

Female Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) harvesting pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

Other bees, like Sweat Bees, also visit the flowers for their pollen.

Female Sweat Bee (Lassioglossum species) harvesting pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

Female Sweat Bee (Lassioglossum species) eating pollen from Shrubby St. Johnswort flower. Notice the pollen on her back leg that she has harvested to take back to provision her nest for her larvae.

Flies are also consumers of pollen.  Flower Flies (also called Syrphid flies or Hover flies) are among those attracted to this pollen banquet.  They may also help with the pollination process, although their bodies are not as hairy as many of the bees.

Flower Fly or Syrphid Fly (Toxomerus geminatus) on Shrubby St. Johnswort flower

This bounty of pollen is so successful in enticing insects for whom pollen is an important part of their diet, primarily bees and flies, that Shrubby St. Johnswort doesn’t expend any energy producing nectar, finding it unnecessary to do so.

If the inadvertent pollination activities of these insects provide the expected payoff, this shrub lives up to the designation ‘prolificum’ in its scientific name, becoming ‘very fruitful’.  Fruit capsules replace the flowers, eventually opening to release their seeds for dispersal by gravity, or by hitching a ride on a passing animal. These dry fruits are visible throughout winter and into the following spring.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) fruit capsules

Shrubby St. Johnswort is related to the more well-known Common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), which is used for many medicinal purposes.  Shrubby St. Johnswort shares at least one chemical compound, hypericin, with its more famous relative.  Hypericin has a photosensitizing effect on its consumers, that is, it makes the skin of the animal that eats it especially sensitive to the sun, and exposure to sunlight after consumption results in rashes.  Producing hypericin evolved as an effective deterrent to animals that might otherwise be tempted to eat this plant, including deer.

Shrubby St. Johnswort is a relatively compact deciduous shrub that can grow to a height of about 6.5 feet (2 meters).  It does well in a variety of soils, from dry and rocky to moist, and can tolerate full sun to part shade.  Shrubby St. Johnswort is native in the eastern half of the United States, and in the province of Ontario in Canada.

Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)



Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eastman, John.  The Book of Field and Roadside.  2003.

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names.  1996

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plants database

Missouri Botanical Garden


Mysterious Bumble Bee Behavior

On a cool day in early November, my husband spotted a cluster of Bumble Bees on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) in the garden outside our living room window.  A queen bee was at the center of the group.  She was clinging to a flower, with as many as four other bees grasping her.  Amazingly, the queen was supporting the weight of the entire group.

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens)) on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens)) on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

We watched for about an hour.  During that time the number of bees clutching the queen varied a bit as some of the bees came and went.

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens) on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens) on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

It was a puzzle trying to figure out what was going on. Since the temperatures were fairly low, could they just be huddling together for warmth?

Later, when I looked at the photos I had taken, an explanation for their behavior presented itself. The smaller bees appeared to be males, one actively mating with the queen, with the others doggedly hoping for their turn.  (A bunch of hangers-on and wanna-bees. Sorry!)

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens), one mating with the queen.

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens), one mating with the queen.

In the Bumble Bee world, the only females that mate are queens. The primary role of male Bumble Bees is to pass on their genes if chosen by a queen for a chance to mate.  Queen Bumble Bees decide who their mating partners will be.  When a queen is ready she’ll chose the lucky male that will be the recipient of this honor.

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens), one mating with the queen.

Bumble Bees (probably Common Eastern Bumble Bees (Bombus impatiens), one mating with the queen.

This gathering may have been the male bees’ last chance to pass on their genes. The males, any non-breeding females and the old queen from a colony will die as the cold winter temperatures set in.

Only newly emerged queen Bumble Bees survive through the winter. Soon after successful mating, this new queen will seek an underground winter hibernation shelter. If she survives the stresses of winter, she will be among the first bees we see next spring, foraging on spring ephemerals.  She’ll look for a nest site, provision it with nectar and pollen, and begin laying eggs for the new Bumble Bee generation.

Queen Bumble Bee in spring on Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica).

Queen Bumble Bee in spring on Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica).



Thanks to Dr. Randi Eickel of Toadshade Wildflower Farm for help identifying the bees and their behavior.

Thanks to Jeff Worthington for ‘wanna-bees’.


Goulson, Dave. A Sting in the Tale.  2015.

Heinrich, Bernd. Bumblebee Economics.  2004.

Colla, Sheila; Richardson, Leif; Williams, Paul. Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States.  2011.

Bumblebee Conservation Trust – The Bumblebee Lifecycle