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August 2001

World Of Wild Flowers

They may look sweet and innocent, but blooming plants are the floral world's version of a hot 'n' steamy orgy.

What Bees See

To understand how flowers attract pollinators, you need to look at the world through a bumblebee’s eyes. While birds and butterflies see the same colors that humans do, many insects?including bees?see the world in a whole different light. They’re blind to red, green appears gray, and ultraviolet (UV) colors are visible. “We walk through the woods and see a world of green,” says Clebsch, “but to an insect, that’s all gray. That makes every splotch of color stand out like a beacon.”

To further advertise their wares of nectar and pollen, many flowers are adorned with striped petals and contrasting color schemes that lead inquisitive pollinators straight to the good stuff. The pink streaks in the spring beauty’s petals are a classic example; think of them as runway lights for an airplane. The Turk’s-cap lily has lines of spots that invite the pollinator to play connect-the-dots for a pollen payoff.

Wildflowers look wildly different to insects able to see the UV spectrum. The marsh marigold’s petals, for example, are a lustrous, uniform yellow to the human eye. A bee, however, sees UV light reflecting off the petal tips. The contrast forms a bull’s-eye, a distinct white orb with a black center that yells like a billboard, Pollen for free! Cornflowers, gentians, golden cinquefoils, periwinkles, and Jersey orchids all display patterns of UV reflection invisible to hikers, but plain as a neon sign to many insects.

Other flowers perform more brazen acts of trickery. Some European orchids actually look like female insects, tricking males into attempted copulation in order to dust them with pollen. Others, like the infamous carrion flower and skunk cabbage, bloom with the enticing smell of fetid meat. Flies (no surprise) are their primary pollinators.

Now do you see why they call them wild flowers?


Local bookstores offer a selection of wildflower guides for state and regional ecosystems. The following nationally acclaimed field guides

are available through

Peterson Field Guides (Houghton Mifflin, 800-225-3362; $18 to $19 each). Four regional volumes use black-and-white and color drawings to detail wildflowers.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Knopf, 800-726-0600; $19.95 each). Updated eastern and western editions released in spring 2001 use full-color photographs to show wildflowers.

North Carolina contributor Eddie Nickens thinks wildflowers’ behavior is so bawdy that public land managers should apply parental warnings to some wildflower-rich hiking trails.

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