Author's note: The following piece is another series of conversations with an elder from The NC Native Ethnobotany Project. Keep reading for some surprises and remember: any mistakes are mine, and any wisdom is the Creator’s blessings!)
By: Linwood Watson, MD
“Be careful now, you soon will have maypops growing out of your TV screen!” I texted the elder. The elder’s hearing was failing even more, but thankfully aged arthritic thumbs could still allow some long distance communication. As I waited for a reply, I smiled at remembering the source of the joke.
You see, about two years ago I humbly gave the elder some maypop/passionflower plants at powwow. They were Passiflora incarnata. While enjoyed by many people for their tropical tasting maypop fruit, the flower is a one of a kind showstopper, an outlandish show of spectacularity, if there is such a word or thing. (Note-see an earlier blog entry on this awesome Native plant.) I had heard the elder mention deep respect for this flower. The elder had repeatedly raised concerns that modern “clean farming”, rampant herbicides, and “people keeping their dad gum yards too tidy” were making even this strong vine less common. While not endangered, the elder sensed the passionflower was having less of a presence in the field edges, fence sides, and open areas, and I had noted in our conversations through the years the elder mentioning the passionflower more and more and more and more. Indeed, the elder was evolving into a passionflower advocate, and so I had hoped the gift would be a miniscule “thank you”.
Now, fast forward to the current joke. To no one’s surprise, the plant flourished with the elder. Not having much money to spare, the elder used a trademark “O.I.T” (that is an “Old Indian Trick” for non-Native readers) to fashion a trellis for the 20 feet plus long vines. The elder had attached the passionflower to the house TV antenna. Obviously, the elder is “old school” so the elder’s television still relies on the air, not cable lines. A few hours ago, the elder had texted me the picture of the tall antenna, totally engulfed by the passionflower vine. The elder said the TV reception had even improved a little. As such, I had just texted the joke about the maypops growing out of the TV screen.
As the elder texted back “Heh”, I cleared my throat, bracing and inhaling for the required loud yelling to enable actual hearing, and I called the elder. I felt I needed more information, and now was the time to take the plunge…
“Can you hear me?” I yelled into my phone.
“I’d hear better if these hearin’ aids weren’t clogging my ears! You ok? We usually talk face to face.”
“I am fine. Thanks for asking. I wanted to ask you…”
“Whoa now, don’t be askin’ me for money!” We both chuckled at the elder’s agile wit.
“Well, I am glad the passionflower is growing so well, but you always seem so worried about it. Is there something special about it?”
Insert the obligatory awkward silence. I silently hoped I had not been too direct, but the elder had been texting me that last six weeks a “play by play” three times a week summary of maypop sprout growth, so the focus had to be there for a reason. I also silently made a note to myself to ask the elder what text and data plan the elder phone used. Thankfully, the elder be burnin’ up some texts.
“The passionflower is special. Real special. I been watchin’ it close since I was little. I see things goin’ on around it that don’t go on with other flowers, or at least not as much as other flowers.”
“What kind of things?” I felt sheepish and innocent saying this, like a botanical kindergartener. You could have heard a pin drop, even with 4G reception.
“I will tell you like I see it. But I have seen it over and over. When the passionflower is out, two pollinators really- and I mean really- go to it. One is the bumblebees, or bombers. I will tell you, those bombers fit just right into that flower. Hand and glove, bombers and passionflowers. It is like the flower be givin’ the bomber’s hairy back a back rub, but instead of oil it be pollen. Lots of pollen. The real magic be when that bomber lands on the next flower, all his loud buzzin’ almost makes of cloud of pollen fly off. I think the flower likes that. It helps it. It is like a wind gust, a bumblebee wind.”
I had raised enough passionflowers to attest to the magical moment the elder was referencing. Many times I had quipped with botanical friends how “nothing is happier than a bumblebee dancing around a passionflower.” However, my simple observation was 2-D, and I knew from the hair standing up on the back of my neck that the elder was giving me a 3-D view. I was immensely thankful and knew from instinct not to say a damn word.
“The other little sucker that comes out, and I mean in droves, is a small ground bee. Like a lot of ground bees it is a loner, no big swarm. It don’t seem to “fit” as well into the passionflower, but it sure does still go to it. It is careful. It lands and stays there awhile. It ain’t got much yellow on it. It is different than what I usually see. And it is really small. First glance, you’d think it was a big fly, it’s bout a quarter inch long.”
“I ain’t never seen it.” The elder could always melt my medical over-education and brink me back to my roots.
“I know you ain’t. That’s ok. That little guy likes the wild passionflowers, ones that don’t produce the maypop fruit all the time like the purplish one you gave me. But make no mistake, if the right passionflower is there, that little black ground bee is there with it.”
I was about to comment when I was cut off by the elder, “Listen now, and be warned, if you go looking for that little sucker, give her her space. That ground bee is ornery. I got too close lookin’ at her a few weeks ago and it felt like she bit and stung my cheek below my eye. Ouch! But it was worth it.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I interjected.
“I’m fine. Hear me, that is what makes the passionflower special. All of them, wild or human raised, lots of maypops or not. Things really depend on that flower. If that flower goes out, the bombers, that ornery little ground bee, and eventually…us…we will all go out. You’ll go first though, cause I am older and tougher and text faster. Hehheh.”
The elder added, “I’m still goin’. It makes me sad, no, it makes me angry, people don’t take a care or interest in the passionflower. I ain’t crazy. Not one bit. I tell you, it is better than any flower you buy at the home supply store. Those dad gum store plants are just made for one thing-to sell. They mean nothin’ to the bombers, that weird little black ground bee, or me. They are dead to me. I plant the passionflower. I know it means something. It’s got connections, and don’t need no receipt. If it’s good enough for all those bombers, it is good enough for me and my rusty antenna.”
Obviously and as usual, there was nothing for me to add. My head was dizzy and spinning, because although I had a modicum of plant knowledge, the elder was bobbing and weaving into insects, pollination and ecosystems. The elder was going too fast for me to see a pattern. I knew I needed the slower pace of a library and books to digest the message.
Sensing my silence, the elder concluded, “Hey, I have three more sprouts from your vine the last few days. You were right, that maypop loves the heat.”
“Glad it is doing well for you,” I replied.
“It is. Don’t forget the bombers and that ground bee.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Way it’s growin’ you gonna have to get me a spare TV and antenna.” The elder’s spunk, as usual, added a nice end to the high volume conversation. I wondered to myself if the digging of cable lines enhanced ground bee habitat, but that is another entry.
Now move forward two weeks. Reaching a greater, and dare I say, academic understanding of the elder’s “passionflower triangle” of passionflowers, bumblebees, and a hard bitin’ “little ground bee” was not exactly a Google search-able term. Then again, Google is a purveyor of information; the elder is a purveyor of wisdom. Eventually in my library two PhDs had some insight however. The excellent collaborative book is “The Bees in Your Backyard” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. The two of them have over thirty years of intense bee study between them, and their manifesto is a veritable treasure trove of knowledge and photos. Lots of beautiful color photos!
With regard to the bumblebees, or as the elder said more scientifically, the Bombus species, it is a pollinating dynamo. If you like blueberries, you are indebted to a Bombus. As the book cites in the 2016 printing on page 243, the bumblebee often “produces bigger fruit, faster fruit set, and larger yields than other pollination methods”. Furthermore, bumblebees have three distinct advantages over the more heralded and human interactive European colony bees:
1. Bumblebees, being larger and more hairy, can actually perform “buzz pollination” which is highly effective. This is the elder’s “bumblebee wind”. Many plants, from tomatoes to peppers to blueberries prefer buzz pollinations.
2. Bumblebees are faster workers than traditional honeybees, visiting up to 2 times as many flowers per minute.
3. Research shows Bombus species bees are not only faster, but do up to 8 times more pollinating work than a honey bee because over a season they remain much more active in colder temperatures (think early Spring or mid Fall). All that buzzing allows the bumblebee’s muscles to generate cold fighting heat and fly in cooler weather.
Next, on to the other mentioned insect, the “little black ground bee”. I struggled with this research, as there are hundreds, if not thousands of ground bees. I gained some knowledge traction though by reversing the inquired item. Namely, I went to the ultra thorough “The Bees in Your Backyard” book and instead of scouring chapters on ground bees, I instead looked in the index for any focal mention of Passiflora species flowers.
Sit down, if you have not already, and read what I read on page 85 of the aforementioned book.
As it turns out, there is a certain “specialist bee” called Anthemurgus passiflorae. As you may deduce from its species name, this unique and little bee is devoted to only one flower, Passiflora lutea, which is more yellow than the “traditional” purplish passionflowers of the incarnata species. True to description, Anthemurgus means “flower worker” in Greek. It resides in North America, from Texas east to North Carolina. It lists the elder’s home region in North Carolina as a “high occurrence area”. Fascinatingly, the book says despite the bee’s focus on this one flower, the bee is not a good pollinator of the plant. Why? Well, the bee painstakingly harvests pollen not with hairy legs and body, but grain by grain with its mandibles. To quote, “She very thoroughly collects all pollen from the passionflower anthers, then coats it with a little regurgitated nectar before passing it to her legs to transport. The nectar coating prevents pollen transfer to receptive passionflower stigmas.”
I quickly recalled the elder on the phone call saying, “It is careful. It lands and stays there awhile.”
Moreover, this is a ground bee, mostly solitary, and is about a quarter inch long, mostly black with only yellow halves of faces. Amazingly, this is the only species of Anthemurgus, and it only visits yellow passionflowers.
Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not an entomologist. I cannot say with 100% certainty that the elder was describing Anthemurgus passiflorae. What I am certain of though, is that the elder knew of a special kinship, that the passionflower had a larger purpose, and something uniquely relied on it. I am willing to bet that the elder realizes that these fragile, solitary relationships of one flower with one bee are very much our planet’s “canary in the coal mine”. These individual “strands” form the larger ecosystem, and if too many stands are frayed, eventually the entire web collapses. The elder knows this. I now know this. Now you know this. So, next time you get a chance in early Spring, go plant a passionflower or at least skip mowing a ditch edge or swath of yard to let Nature take its course. Eschew the big box store flowers. Biodiversity and the elder thank you. Thank you for reading.
1. The Bees in Your Backyard by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. 2016 edition. Make no mistake, you cannot find a better summary book nor one better illustrated than this guide to North American bees. It is worth its weight in honey…and gold!
2. A NC Native Ethnobotany elder advisor. This entry represents about 2 years of texts, talking and correspondence. Bless this project and the elder for sharing. After this lesson I went out to my small orchard and trellised 3 new passionflower vines I had from a wildflower bed. I hope Anthemurgus and the bomber bees see our spirit.