Hepatica’s Survival Strategy

Early spring blooming wildflowers are typically small, lovely, and very delicate looking.  But looks can be deceiving.  Most are actually very tenacious, often with multiple strategies geared to enable them to survive and reproduce.  Take the Hepaticas (Anemone americana, A. acutiloba) for example.

They are among the earliest blooming spring wildflowers, starting as early as mid-March in the southern part of their range to as late as May in the northernmost areas. The flower stalks emerge from their blanket of fallen leaves and bloom well before the new season’s leaves unfurl on the trees above them.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa) emerging from its blanket of leaves

Hepatica is able to get a head start on the blooming season because its leaves remain viable throughout the winter, gathering energy and photosynthesizing when the conditions permit. When the warmer spring days arrive, Hepatica is ready to go full steam ahead with photosynthesis. The overwintering leaves may be green, or mottled with maroon.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); note its evergreen leaves

Hepatica produces bright flowers in shades from white to deep blue-violet, perfect for enticing pollinators to assist with cross-pollination. The flowers contrast well with the browns and tans of the decomposing leaf mulch surrounding them, beckoning to early flying solitary bees and flies.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with whitish flowers and mottled leaves

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with deep violet flowers

Hepaticas have a short blooming season, at a time of year when weather can be unpredictable. It’s more difficult to photosynthesize in cool temperatures, so plants have to be very efficient about how they allocate their energy.  The early flying solitary bees and flies that are their likely pollination partners are interested in nectar, but they need pollen even more.   Many bees and flies consume pollen for the nutrients it provides, and female bees also harvest pollen to feed their larva.  Pollen is a very effective reward to attract these visitors, so effective that Hepaticas have evolved not to put any energy into producing nectar.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

The bee moves on to another flower. Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa); with bee harvesting pollen

Hepatica does hedge its bets a little. It protects its pollen by closing its flowers at night, and on rainy days.  Cross-pollination with the assistance of an insect is preferred, since a stronger genetic result is more likely.  But if that doesn’t happen, Hepaticas are able to self-pollinate.  It’s better than not reproducing at all.

Regardless of how pollination is achieved, ants disperse Hepatica seeds, as they do for about 30% of spring blooming plants in the forests of the northeast. They are enticed to do this by the nutritious food packets, called eliasomes, that are attached to the seeds.  Ants take the seeds back to their nests, eat the eliasome, and discard the seed, usually in a location that is rich in soil nutrients and safe from seed-eating birds.

Hepaticas employ two strategies to protect themselves from being eaten by browsing insects or larger animals. Like many members of the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family, their leaves are toxic.  The newly emerging flower stems, bracts and leaves, as well as the fruits (achenes) that develop later, are all hairy, a characteristic that discourages herbivores, and may also help to keep the plant’s tissues warm during cool spring days and nights.

Hairy fruit capsules and bracts of Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtuse)

Hepatica gets its name from its resemblance to a human liver, both in shape and in the maroon color often seen in its leaves. ‘Hepatica’ is derived from a Greek word that means ‘the liver’.  Other common names for Hepatica are Liverleaf and Liverwort.

There was a period during which it was thought that if a plant resembled a body part, it would be effective in treating diseases of that body part (the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’). As a result, the Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) native to Europe was used in preparations for treating liver ailments for many years, but more recent scientific testing of Hepatica has refuted its efficacy.

There are two Hepaticas in North America, Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone Americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa) and Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. acuta).  They are named for the shape of the lobes of their leaves.  Aside from that, they look the same.  They are so similar to each other and to the European Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis), that some experts consider the North American species are sub-species of Hepatica nobilis.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. acuta); Notice the maroon leaves from the previous season; the pointed lobes distinguish this species from Round-lobed Hepatica. The new leaves, flower stems, bracts, and even the flowers are hairy.

Hairy fruit capsules and pointed bracts of Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. acuta)

Both the North American Hepaticas can be found in rich woodlands, often on dry upland slopes. Sharp-lobed Hepatica has a preference for rocky soils that have a higher calcium content.  Both can be found in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada.  In the United States, Round-lobed Hepatica may be found from Minnesota to Maine, south to Arkansas and the Florida panhandle, but it is more common in the northern and eastern part of its range.  Sharp-lobed hepatica has a similar U.S. range, it is more common in the northern and central parts of its range.  It has not been reported in New Jersey or Florida.

So Hepatica’s survival strategy includes winter-hardy leaves to enable winter and early spring photosynthesis, hairy, toxic foliage to deter herbivores, produce flowers that entice pollinators, but self-pollinate if necessary, and partner with ants for seed dispersal. Seems pretty comprehensive!

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone americana, synonym Hepatica nobilis var. obtuse)

Related Posts

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants

Resources

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

Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

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

Spira, Timothy A. Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont.  2011.

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

https://www.plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=HENOO

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=HENOA

 

To Love Winter: Striped Wintergreen

It may be winter in the northern hemisphere (at least some days), but there is still plenty to see if you go for a walk in the woods. Some plants may be easier to spot in winter than they are during the growing season, because they have less competition for light, and for your attention.  Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of those plants.  Striped Wintergreen can be seen in woodlands, skimming just above the fallen leaves.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in fruit

A clue that winter is the perfect time to look for this plant is found in the translation of its genus, ‘Chimaphila’, whose origins are the Greek words ‘cheima’, which means ‘winter’ and ‘phileo’, which translates as ‘to love’.   Plants of this genus are named for their love of winter.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Why do they love winter? Striped Wintergreen is an evergreen perennial of the forest understory, growing to a height of about 4 – 12 inches (10 – 30 cm).  Somewhat woody at the base of the stem, botanists classify this species as a shrub or subshrub.  Its green and white striped leaves make it easy to spot in the winter months when leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs that tower over this diminutive plant.  During the growing season, its taller neighbors often obscure Striped Wintergreen from view, as well as from the sun’s rays.  But throughout winter, Striped Wintergreen’s evergreen leaves have unfettered access to the sun’s energy.  They can photosynthesize, store the energy, and make it available to support Striped Wintergreen’s summertime reproductive efforts.

Striped Wintergreen is known by many other aliases (common names), including Spotted Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, and Rheumatism Root. Some of these names refer to the medicinal uses of this plant. Striped Wintergreen contains chemical compounds with antiseptic, antibacterial, and astringent properties, among others.  One of the compounds, ursolic acid, is effective in treating arthritis and other causes of pain and inflammation.  Striped Wintergreen and a close relative that is also called Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) have been used to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones.  The name Pipsissewa is derived from a Creek Native American word that means ‘to break into small pieces’, referring to stones in the urinary tract.

Is it just lucky happenstance that Striped Wintergreen contains compounds that have beneficial medicinal effects for humans? Not completely.  Striped Wintergreen faces some of the same pressures that humans do from bacteria, fungi and microbes, all of which are present in the thousands in the fallen leaves with which Striped Wintergreen lives, and that are working to break down the leaves until they become the next layer of nutrient-filled soil.  Striped Wintergreen has evolved to produce chemical compounds to protect itself from this efficient recycling team surrounding it.  What is lucky for us is that these chemical constituents also have a positive effect in human bodies.

Striped Wintergreen blooms in summer, usually sometime from June through August.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom. Fruit capsule from previous season is visible on the left.

When fully open, the flowers with their recurved petals resemble crowns, a possible explanation for another common name for this plant, Striped Prince’s Pine.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) flower. Notice its resemblance to a tiny crown.

Striped Wintergreen’s primary pollinators are Bumble Bees (Bombus species), but Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) may also be enticed by nectar to visit the flowers.  If the bees help Striped Wintergreen successfully achieve pollination, the resulting fruit is visible throughout the winter.  These dry fruit capsules look like tiny turbans, or miniature winter squash split open at the seams to release the seeds inside.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) fruit capsules.

The chemical compounds present in Striped Wintergreen, along with leathery, waxy-coated leaves, are generally effective in deterring herbivores. Deer don’t typically browse this plant, even though it’s one of only a few that are green in the winter.  But the photo below shows that someone, probably a Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile species), has figured out a way to use parts of the leaves.  Leaf-cutter bees harvest regularly-shaped oval, circular or semi-circular pieces of leaves to construct cells in their nests.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) with semi-circles removed from the leaf edges, probably by a Leaf-cutter Bee.

Striped Wintergreen’s native range is the eastern third of the United States, north to a few locations in southern Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. It’s rare at the edges of its range, and is listed as endangered in Illinois, Maine, Ontario and Quebec, and exploitably vulnerable in New York state.

Experience some ‘Winter Love’ (another common name for Chimaphila maculata).  Look for Striped Wintergreen in winter, and you’ll know where to find it during the summer months when it’s in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) in bloom.

More Reasons to Love Winter

Reasons to Love Winter

An Orchid in Winter

Coralberry – A Winter Standout

What Winter Reveals:  Hoptrees

Late Winter Bird Food

A Winter Garden Can Be a Wildlife Habitat

Resources

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Pipsissewa.  From Planting the Future, Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Gladstar, Rosemary and Hirsch, Pamela.  2000.

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

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Martin, Laura C. Wildflower Folklore.  1984.

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

Evergreen Native Plant Database

Illinois Wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native American Ethnobotany Database

USDA NRCS Plants Database

 

 

A Holiday Break

If you feel the need for a little break from all the holiday shopping and festivities, I recommend a walk in the woods.

If the ground isn’t snow-covered, you might look for Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) while you are out walking. It’s a low evergreen perennial that creeps across the forest floor, resembling strings of tiny holiday garlands.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry may be peeking out from under fallen leaves.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

Look closely at a patch of moss, and you might find Patridgeberry interspersed with it.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses

Patridgeberry’s bright red fruit usually persists on the plant throughout the winter and even into spring.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in spring, with fruit from the previous year still present.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in spring, with fruit from the previous year still present.

It may actually be easier to find Patridgeberry in the winter than it is during the growing season, depending on its situation. This diminutive ground cover may be hidden by taller herbaceous plants and shrubs in the late spring when it begins to bloom.  If you find it in winter, you’ll know where to look to see the flowers, probably sometime in late May or June.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in bloom, partially hidden by taller plants

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) in bloom, partially hidden by taller plants

Bumble Bees are the primary pollinators of Patridgeberry’s tiny trumpet-shaped flowers. The flowers are always in pairs; in fact, they are actually joined.

Patridgeberry's (Mitchella repens) paired flowers in bloom.

Patridgeberry’s (Mitchella repens) paired flowers in bloom.

The two flowers share a single ovary, the part of the flower from which a fruit develops.  As a result, no more than one berry is produced for every pair of flowers.  You might think of this as analogous to conjoined twins that share a body part.  In recognition of this trait, another common name for this plant is Twinberry.  If you look closely at the fruit in the photo below, you can see two dimples, each with a somewhat jagged edge.  This is where each individual flower was joined to the ovary.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) fruit. Notice the jagged edged 'dimples' where the two flowers were attached to their shared ovary.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) fruit. Notice the jagged edged ‘dimples’ where the two flowers were attached to their shared ovary.

Wild Turkey, Ruffed Grouse, Bobwhite, White-footed Mice, Red Fox and Eastern Chipmunks are among the animals that eat Patridgeberry fruits. The animals subsequently disperse Patridgeberry’s seeds, which are accompanied by natural fertilizer (the animal’s excrement) to give the seeds a good start.

Native American tribes have used various parts of Patridgeberry, sometimes in combination with other plants, as a gynecological aid and pain reliever, as well as to treat rashes and urinary tract problems, among other problems.

Patridgeberry can be found in the woods of the eastern half of the United States, and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and parts of Newfoundland & Labrador.

For the holidays, do whatever best renews your spirit. A walk in the woods will do it for me.

If the ground is snow-covered, there will be other holiday decorations to see, courtesy of nature. Nothing you have to put up, or take down.  No muss, no fuss.  Just beauty.

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses and mushrooms

Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) mixed with mosses and mushrooms

Related Posts

A Holiday Display, Courtesy of Nature

Resources

Capon, Brian. Botany for Gardeners.  2005

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Martin, Alexander C.; Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L. American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany.  1998.

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

Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Botanical Garden

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

Bountiful Blue Wood Aster

Blue Wood or Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) began its seasonal bloom in late September, and amazingly, at the end of November it’s still possible to find some blossoms.

Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) with Sweat Bee (Halictus species)

Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) with Sweat Bee (Halictus species)

Like all Aster (Asteraceae) family members, each flower ‘head’ of Blue Wood Aster consists of many tiny flowers that bloom gradually over a period of several weeks, offering nectar and pollen to a variety of flower visitors.  Each Blue Wood Aster flower head has an outer ring of ice blue petal-like ray flowers designed to advertise this feast. Tiny tubular disk flowers form the center of the display; this is where Blue Wood Aster makes its bountiful food available in hope that while dining, visitors will pick up pollen and transfer it to another plant of the same species, enabling pollination to occur.

Blue Wood Aster’s disk flowers are pale yellow when they’re in bud and when they first open. They turn pink or magenta as they age, and when they have been successfully pollinated.  This color change is a signal to pollinators, directing them to the receptive yellow flowers which are not yet pollinated and that will reward them with nectar, and steering them away from blossoms that are already satisfactorily pollinated and will not produce a nectar reward.  This evolutionary adaptation makes the most efficient use of both the plant’s and the potential pollinator’s efforts.

To share in the bounty offered by Blue Wood Aster, I invite you to a virtual time-lapse visit to our garden in central New Jersey.  You can see the last Blue Wood Aster blossoms for this year, and a selection of the many of the visitors that this lovely plant hosted throughout the season. Notice that the potential pollinators are generally visiting the yellow disk flowers, those that are still open for business, not the pinkish flowers that have shut down their nectar production.

Bumble Bees are the most frequent visitors.

Bumble Bee (Bombus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Bumble Bee (Bombus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

An athletic Eastern Carpenter Bee drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

An athletic Eastern Carpenter Bee drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

But many species of Sweat Bees (Halictid bees), and even Honey Bees dine on Blue Wood Aster nectar and pollen.

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) with Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) with Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bee (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A gang of Sweat Bees (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A gang of Sweat Bees (Halictus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bees (Halictid bees) of two different species visiting Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Sweat Bees (Halictid bees) of two different species visiting Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Halictid bee) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Halictid bee) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Sweat Bee (Augochlorella species) investigating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) nectaring from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) nectaring from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Mason Wasp stopped by for nourishment.

A Mason Wasp (Ancistrocerus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Mason Wasp (Ancistrocerus species) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Many fly species paused to drink, most disguised as bees or wasps in an attempt to appear threatening to potential predators.

A Syrphid or Flower fly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower fly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Toxomerous geminatus) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Toxomerous geminatus) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Syrphus ribesii) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Syrphus ribesii) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Sericomyia chrysotoxoides) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Sericomyia chrysotoxoides) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Eristalis tenax) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

A Syrphid or Flower Fly (Eristalis tenax) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia sericata) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia sericata) drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)

Even late season butterflies and moths were able to refuel on Blue Wood Aster nectar.

A Clouded Sulphur butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Notice the heart-shaped leaves that are characteristic of this species.

A Clouded Sulphur butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Notice the heart-shaped leaves that are characteristic of this species.

A Pearl Crescent butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Not only do these butterflies benefit from the nectar, but their caterpillars dine on the foliage of several aster species.

A Pearl Crescent butterfly drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium). Not only do these butterflies benefit from the nectar, but their caterpillars dine on the foliage of several aster species.

A Corn Earworm Moth drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

A Corn Earworm Moth drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

A Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis) and Bumble Bee on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

A Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis) and Bumble Bee on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium).

Meanwhile, a Brown-hooded Owlet Moth caterpillar dined on the leaves and spent flowers of Blue Wood Aster.

Brown-hooded Owlet caterpillar eating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) leaves and flowers.

Brown-hooded Owlet caterpillar eating Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) leaves and flowers.

Blue Wood Aster is native in much of the eastern half of the United States, and in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia in Canada. It can be found in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, meadows and roadsides.  There may still be some blooming near you!

 

Related Posts

Asters Yield a Treasure Trove!

New England Asters – A Hotbed of Activity!

Mysterious Bumble Bee Behavior

Resources

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

Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Mader, Eric; Shepherd, Matthew; Vaughan, Mace; Black, Scott Hoffman; LeBuhn, Gretchen. Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies. 2011.

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

Wagner, David L.; Caterpillars of Eastern North America, 2005.

Wilson, Joseph S.; Carril, Olivia Messinger. The Bees in Your Backyard. 2016.

USDA NRCS Plant Database

 

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).

 

Acknowledgements

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

Thanks to Jeff Worthington for ‘wanna-bees’.

Resources

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