Sunflower fields as critter-friendly habitats — part 2: bees and bugs

Do you know why the common name in English for Helianthus is sunflower? The common name is the same in Dutch (zonnebloem), German (Sonnenblume) and several other languages. In French (tournesol) and Spanish (girasol), the common names refer to “turning to the sun”, an accurate description of how this plant behaves.

Sunflowers exhibit a phenomenon known as heliotropism — an inclination to turn East in the morning so that the developing buds are warmed by the sun. The plant heads track the sun during the day and, at night, they reorient themselves to face East again. So if you pay attention when you visit a sunflower field at different times of day, you’ll notice they face a different direction in the morning and afternoon.

It’s not only birds, butterflies — and people! — that enjoy sunflowers. When these flowers grow in abundance, plenty of varied insects come to enjoy them and I’ll share something about these “sun worshippers” with you.

Bees of varying sizes were feeding in the sunflower fields that I visited. The large carpenter bees (Xylocopa) were not difficult to spot with their smooth shiny abdomens.

The similar-sized, fuzzy-looking bumble bees (Bombus) were actively visiting one sunflower after another.

American bumble bees (Bombus pensylvanicus) were foraging on nearby hibiscus blooms.

At a different site in neighboring Durham county, where sunflowers bloom later, I saw bumble bees on partridge peas and other yellow flowers.

 

There, too, my attention was caught by a bee that looked quite different from others that I’d seen. It proved to be a leafcutter bee (Megachilid), which has large mouthparts that enables it to cut pieces of leaves, plant resins and soil to line its nest.

The leafcutter bees are interesting in their unique method of carrying pollen. Rather than collect pollen in baskets called corbicula on their hind legs, they gather the substance in a clump of abdominal hairs called a scopa or pollen brush.

Back at the sunflower fields, I observed one medium-sized cuckoo bee (Epeolini) eventually become covered with sunflower pollen. These bees do not have an anatomical structure for carrying collected pollen and the females, like avian cuckoos (or cowbirds), lay their eggs in other bees’ nests.

The much smaller Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) were very numerous. It was interesting to discover that for some time, the NASA website included a section on honey bees! It stopped being updated when the principal investigator retired but NASA maintains the site because of the valued information it contains. Some of the interesting facts they listed about these insects:

  • Bees can fly about 20 mph (32 kph).
  • The highest recorded number of eggs laid by a queen was 2,000 per day!
  • Bees have been on our planet for about 30 million years!
  • To make 1 pound (0.45 kg) of honey, bees need to collect nectar from about 2 million flowers!!
  • The average foraging bee (all females) makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
  • The main way in which honey bees communicate among themselves is via chemicals called pheromones.

The honey bees and common Eastern bumble bees make a good choice by spending lots of time in sunflower fields. Scientific studies indicate that ingested sunflower pollen enables them to suffer less infection from two common parasites, a real boon for bees who might otherwise succumb to colony collapse as a result of disease.

 

Both in the sunflower and other fields, it was fascinating to see other types of small bees as well. The small green sweat bees perhaps prefer more colorful blooms as that is where I mostly saw them.

These tiny non-aggressive bees are attracted to sweat because it provides them with moisture and salts.

There were some other interesting insects besides butterflies and bees in the sunflower fields and surrounding vegetation. While looking at some bumble bees circling a large sunflower head, I had inadvertently photographed a pair of much tinier insects near the center of the flower. I actually only noticed them when I was looking at the photos at home or I would have tried to focus on them better in the field.

When I enlarged the photo, I was able to get a somewhat fuzzy look at them and BugGuide identified them for me as sunflower seed maggots (Neotephritis finalis). These tiny insects have prettily patterned wings, but I discovered there is not a lot of information available about them; some research in North Dakota in 2008 concluded they might be a pest but no other data were easily available. They are a species of fruit fly.

Another insect seen on the sunflowers that many people find distasteful were the green June beetles (Cotinis nitida). The larva can damage vegetable and other plant roots, while the adults will feed on ripening fruit, so many gardeners will try to get rid of them.

A cute little syrphid fly, which BugGuide couldn’t identify specifically (a Palpada species), seemed to be alone with no fellow flies nearby.

There were several slender meadow katydids (Conocephalus fasciatus) to admire with their extremely long antennae.

The most interesting fact I discovered about them is that they have a soft song comprising ticks and buzzes that alternate for time periods of 1–20 seconds.

Sunflower fields are beautiful and spending time observing them as interesting wildlife habitats can really be enjoyable. These flowers also constitute a beneficial cash crop for farmers who can sell the seeds for sunflower oil, for human and avian consumption and the stalks for cattle feed.

And as if all those benefits don’t make sunflowers enough of a value-laden plant, scientific studies have also shown that they assist in phytoremediation, a process that helps remove and destroy polluting contaminants in soil, water, and air. Their deep taproots help aerate soil and make it richer for growing other subsequent crops as well.

Some sunflower fields may still be blooming through August and an online search can help you find them if you’d like to enjoy these wonderful flowers and their wildlife beneficiaries. If you have a garden, you might consider adding sunflowers to your vegetation mix if you don’t have them already. You can still plant some now in hopes of late autumn blooms.

This is a good time also to remember that the Ukraine became the world’s leading exporter of sunflower seeds until the currently ongoing invasion of the country brought this trade to a halt. Farmers who were still able to grow the country’s national flower are stuck with supplies and no income. Consider supporting organizations that are working to provide the Ukrainian people with humanitarian aid:

Birds, berries, nuts and seeds – enjoyment of nature’s bounty

So this wasn’t my last blog of 2015 after all. An unexpected hospital admission on 30 December brought about quite a delay in my blogging efforts. But I managed to complete this in instalments over the past days and hope you enjoy the final version, which I am happily able to post on my second day at home in 2016!

During late summer, when various plants have or start developing fruit, the birds begin to enjoy nature’s bounty. Here in North Carolina, they will eat the berries of native plants such as American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), American holly (Ilex opaca), possumhaw (deciduous holly, Ilex decidua), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and wild blackberries (Rubus).

American beautyberry IMG_7637© Maria de Bruyn resWinged sumac IMG_5377©Maria de Bruyn res

American holly I77A3150© Maria de Bruyn resDeciduous holly IMG_4428© Maria de Bruyn res

Flowering dogwood DK7A7731© Maria de Bruyn reswild blackberryIMG_2588©Maria de Bruyn res

 

This year, the juniper berries were a real crowd pleaser. The American robins (Turdus migratorius) went for them first, soon followed by Northern cardinals (cardinalis cardinalis), Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos) and Northern flickers (Colaptes auratus).

American robin IMG_6567© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal IMG_3653© Maria de BruynAmerican robin I77A0801©Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A0913©Maria de Bruyn resNorthern mockingbird 2 IMG_6308© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern flicker IMG_5853© Maria de Bruyn res

The beautiful cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) enjoyed the cedar berries, too.

cedar waxwing I77A4266© Maria de Bruyn res

cedar waxwing I77A4293© Maria de Bruyn res

Birds like thbuckthorn I77A2455© Maria de Bruyn signed rese Northern mockingbird and white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) also enjoy the berries of invasive plants such as privet (Ligustrum), common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica. left), Chinaberry (Melia azedarach) and autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata).

Northern mockingbird I77A2924© Maria de Bruyn res
white-throated sparrow I77A8188© Maria de Bruyn 2 reswhite-throated sparrow I77A4714© Maria de Bruyn signed

Watching our avian friends enjoy snapping up berries from vines can create enjoyment for the birdwatcher, too!

Northern cardinal DK7A8841© Maria de Bruyn signed res

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A5319© Maria de Bruyn reshermit thrush I77A5816© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

 

In some cases, they may also be seeking insects along with the berries, as this yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) and tiny golden-crowned kinglet (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) may have been doing.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A9133© Maria de Bruyngolden-crowned kinglet I77A1918© Maria de Bruyn

American goldfinch DK7A4411© Maria de Bruyn signed

 

It’s not only the fruit that draws them away from the bird feeders in the autumn though. Sunflower seeds (Helianthus) are a big hit with the American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), who also seek out different kinds of seed pods.

 

American goldfinch I77A2510© Maria de Bruyn res American goldfinch IMG_7947© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Pods on trees, like the crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei), and on vines such as the trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) offer attractive meals, too.

goldfinch I77A2097© Maria de Bruyn resNorthern cardinal DK7A1206© Maria de Bruyn signed res

American goldfinch and Northern cardinal both eating crepe myrtle

Trumpet vine DK7A9266© Maria de Bruyn signed restrumpet vine I77A1487© Maria de Bruyn ressycamore IMG_2339©Maria de Bruyn res

Trumpet vine                                         American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

milkweed I77A7144© Maria de Bruyn signed resCarolina wren I77A8006©Maria de Bruyn res

Milkweed (Asclepius) and Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

American goldfinch DK7A1355© Maria de Bruyn SIGNED RESamerican goldfinch DK7A7127© Maria de Bruyn signed res

American goldfinches

Indigo bunting DK7A7525© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Indigo bunting ( Passerina cyanea)

Scarlet tanager IMG_7415© Maria de Bruyn signed

Some trees like maples have samara seed pods, in which a single seed is surrounded by a paper-like tissue that is dispersed by the wind. Ash trees have samaras that grow in clusters. Here a young scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is dining. Below are an American goldfinch, house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and Northern cardinal, all of them males.

 

American goldfinch DK7A5026© Maria de Bruyn signedHouse finch IMG_7718© Maria de Bruyn signed

 

Northern cardinal I77A8006© Maria de Bruyn res

 

cedar waxwing I77A6594© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Cedar waxwing (left) with samara of the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

 

blue jay IMG_7806© Maria de Bruyn signed

 

 

 

 

 

Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata, above) like nuts a great deal and can often be seen flying away with a prize.

red-bellied woodpecker IMG_5780© Maria de Bruyn (2)

 

The red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) and red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) don’t turn away from nuts either.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker I77A7844© Maria de Bruyn signed       red-headed woodpecker I77A5149© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal I77A2153© Maria de Bruyn res

It may feel a bit sad when activity dies down at the feeders for a time, but if you can manage to have nut-, seed- and fruit-bearing vegetation around your home, you can still enjoy watching your avian friends forage – and the natural surroundings can make for lovelier photos, too!