Stocking up for the winter

We wait all summer for New England Aster to show off its beautiful lilac-purple to bright pinkish flowers, and it never disappoints.

bees-on-new-england-aster

Dense clusters of flowers attract a variety of pollinators in the fall with bright-colored flowers, lots of pollen, and nectar.

Besides being a very attractive addition to the garden, New England Aster is an important late-season resource for pollinators, especially Monarch butterflies as they fatten up before fall migration.  Flower nectar and pollen are energetically harvested by lots of bee species, as they top off their hive or overwinter nest supplies.

bees-on-new-england-aster

Honeybees, which I rarely see in my backyard, were numerous on this patch of New England Aster and were collecting both nectar and pollen.  This bee already has good-sized pollen baskets on its rear legs.

bees-on-new-england-aster

Common eastern bumblebees (center) were probably the most common bee on these flowers, but shared the resources with at least five other species of bees and a couple of species of Syrphid flies (hoverflies), seen in top left.

Hoverfly-on-new-england-aster-

Both a large bodied (about as big as a honeybee) and a smaller bodied hoverfly worked the flowers. These are bee mimics, presumably avoiding predation by pretending to be fearsome stingers.  However, they have no weapon defense except their coloration, and have only one pair of wings (unlike bees and wasps which have two pair) with which they hover over and between flowers.

bees-on-new-england-aster

A smaller green sweat bee is unperturbed by the far larger bumblebee foraging next to it. There isn’t really much competition when there are so many flowers in this patch of aster.

bees-on-new-england-aster

I assume bees can smell or taste the presence of nectar in a particular flower, so some of the flowers got worked over very intensively by some bees that probed their tongues into every recess in the collection of disk florets in the orange center of the flower.

Honeybees and bumblebees are particularly good dispersers of flower pollen, as it easily attaches to the spines on their legs or hairs on their heads and bodies, as seen in the photo above.  The smooth exoskeletons of the body and legs of the hoverflies and sweat bees make them far less effective in transferring pollen from one plant to another.

If you live east of the Rocky Mountains where New England Aster grows, you might have noticed the profusion of aster flowers that has suddenly occurred over the past couple of weeks.  I assume synchronous blooming like this over widespread areas is probably triggered by the changing daylength, and is advantageous in pulling in large number of pollinators to maximize pollination and seedset in these asters.

11 thoughts on “Stocking up for the winter

  1. Is there a reason why you seldom see honeybees? Here in the UK they are in crisis due to agrochemicals and I’ve heard you have the same situation in the US.

    Lovely collection of insects BTW. I especially like the stripy hoverfly, we have a similar one here which we call ‘the footballer’ because of it’s black and yellow striped shirt.

    • Thanks for asking that, Finn. Our honeybees are suffering from “colony collapse disorder”, which may have multiple causes (pesticides, and neonicotinoids, in particular, being one). The hive fails because the workers sicken, die, fly off, etc., deserting the queen and larvae. We’ve already seen the effect of decreased numbers of pollinators on the prices of fruit, and especially almonds.

      • Wow! I didn’t know that the price of crops is already increasing due to the lower yields caused by the drop in bee numbers. I wonder how long will it be before the powers that be will deal with this appropriately. Properly scary stuff!

        • I may have over-stated the case for the effects of decreases in pollinators on the price of fruit, much of which is grown in California. Shortage of water from the prolonged drought there is also a contributor to rising market prices, but there is no doubt that agrochemicals are a major culprit in the declining health of bees. Here’s a good article on the subject: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2014/04/california-almond-farms-blamed-honeybee-die

        • Thanks for the link Sue. The bees are really struggling here too as a result of neonicotinoids etc. And just to make things worse we now have a full blown invasion of giant Asian hornets which apparently also kill our native honeybees. I can’t help thinking there are going to be some profound ramifications of all this in the near future.

        • I think the story in that link encapsulates pretty much everything about the iniquities of agribusiness, where multiple independent factors aren’t considered in a holistic way. Ecologic and economic catastrophe may lie down that road if we don’t suddenly see sense!

  2. Asters are perfect platforms to watch the pollinators at work. I have not got enough but the ones that I have are generously forming new plants that I will be able to divide after they flower. So I should have even more places to watch next year – and I love the sounds. Amelia

    • I see that these asters are considered a “weed” in Europe. We give you these beauties, and you give us buckthorn and ground ivy?? Not a fair trade, Amelia.

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