Sunflowers: Good for Bees and Birds

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Photo taken by: Jessica Goldstrohm

Sunflowers are an icon of summer, and sometimes a beautiful centerpiece in a fall bouquet.  Our eyes are captivated by their varieties and astonishing heights they can reach in a growing season. We enjoy their seeds at baseball games, and their oil in salad dressing, but there is more to the story of the sunflower that includes the lives of bees, and birds.

The sunflower blooms do not appear until the middle of summer, and will continue to bloom into the fall months.  Each flower is host to as many as 2000 individual flowers called florets.  Sunflowers are adorned with copious amounts of pollen, and deep within each floret is a tasty drink of nectar for any interested visitors.  If you look closely at the photo above, you will see yellow dust all over the bottom petals!

Pollen is half of the reproductive equation in flowers, and is produced on the male part of the flower, the anthers.  The other half is the egg, which lies deep within the female part of the flower, the ovary at the base of the stigma.  Interestingly, the sunflower has evolved to display anthers with pollen on them first, sans the stigma of the flower.  Oh, and let’s not forget that this “one” sunflower contains up to 2000 individual flowers, each containing both male and female parts.  So, each floret stands the chance of becoming an individual seed capable of growing into another sunflower with 2000 more florets!  This is a seed producing machine!

Who is responsible for transferring the pollen to the right place at the right time? Bees!

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Photos taken by: Jessica Goldstrohm

Bees are after a vegan meal consisting of nectar, first and foremost, and then pollen.  As they traverse across the sunflower bees transfer pollen from florets with pollen baring anthers to florets baring open stigmatic structures ready to pick up pollen.  If you look closely at the top photo of the sunflower with a pollen-caked bumblebee snacking the nectar in each floret, you can easily recognize that the bee is very effective at picking up pollen and transferring it to just the right spot.  The bees do not know that their visits to flowers results in the plant’s replication; they are really only there to feed.  The middle photo shows a green sweat bee feeding on the florets of the sunflower, and you can really see where the anthers (yellow dots) are, and where the stigmatic structures are (on the periphery of the yellow dots).  The anthers are the first to appear in this process, while the stigmatic structures show up after, and this order of events prevents self-pollination of the plant, which results in fewer seeds and oil of lesser quality.

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Photo taken by: Jessica Goldstrohm

So, the bees spend their time traversing and reveling in the nectar provisions of the sunflower from mid-summer into the fall, and then something remarkable happens.  The flower goes from this beautiful, bright bloom like the one above, to this…

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And what was once covered in pollen and filled with nectar becomes a seed-filled delight for birds! Each seed is full of protein and fat for birds, and other interested visitors.

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All photos taken by: Jessica Goldstrohm

What started out as a wonderful provision for bees became a delicious meal for birds, because each piece fed the other. The flower fed the bees, the bees transformed the flowers into seeds, and the birds enjoyed their feeds!  What a lesson of interconnectedness this is.

Sunflowers are native to North America and grow well everywhere! Consider adding them to your yard next spring so you can feed both bees and birds, and maybe you’d like a taste of the sunflower seeds too!

Here are some wonderful resources on all things Sunflower:

History of the Sunflower

Following the SUN

Plant Them

Sunflowers

Thank you for joining the movement to save our bees!  What’s good for the bees is also good for the birds!