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This week, instead of looking at just insects, we are going to take a close look at the flowers of an amazing plant.

red bird of paradise

This plant is commonly called “red bird of paradise” or “Pride of Barbados,” Caesalpinia pulcherrima. The flowers are a burst of vibrant color, almost like flames. As a photographer, I love the bizarre structures and shapes. As a scientist, I tend to start asking questions. While taking a few photographs, I became more and more curious about these remarkable flowers.

red bird of paradise

First I found honey bees and wasps walking over the buds in the upper center of the flower cluster, like they were gathering nectar.

honey bee

Sometimes plants have nectaries, the organs that produce the sweet fluid nectar, on places outside of the flower itself. I couldn’t find any text to support my idea, but I did find a photograph. After you click on this link, check the photograph carefully. Look for the whitish crystals at the bases of the interior buds. Looks to me like sweet nectar that has flowed from nectaries and then dried. By the way, nectaries found outside of the flower are called extrafloral nectaries by botanists.

Bees and wasps were also visiting the flowers, so apparently the flowers provide nectar too. (There are some plants with flowers that provide only pollen).

Next I found small bees and flies that were rubbing on the long, hair-like projections.

flower fly

Those are the male parts of the flower, called the stamens. At the tip of each stamen (the stalk is called the filament) is the anther, which produces the pollen. Look at these flowers. To be pollinated, pollen must get from the anthers to the stigma, or female part of the flower. But first the pollinator must pick up the pollen. Just what kind of pollinator could pick up pollen from the long stalk-like stamens when its head was drinking nectar from the flower interior? The pollinator must be something fairly big by the looks.

Who are some possibilities? While watching I saw honey bees, carpenter bees, wasps, digger bees, flower flies and even a dragonfly lurking nearby. None of these seemed big enough.


The dragonfly was probably catching some of the small flies that were visiting the flowers for nectar.

Doing some research, I found that red bird of paradise flowers are pollinated by two different groups of animals. Scientists have shown that the red bird of paradise is pollinated by large butterflies, at least in some areas. Remember the pipevine swallowtail I showed last week?  Many of the swallowtails flutter their wings while feeding on nectar at flowers. The butterflies get the pollen on their wings while they are feeding by brushing up against the stamens, then pass off the pollen to the female part or stigma at the next flower they visit.

In addition to butterflies, hummingbirds also visit and pollinate this plant.

Next time you are in the tropics or other places where one of these astonishing plants grows, take a look at the incredible complexity of these unbelievable flowers.

One my favorite books about flowers for children is The Reason for a Flower by Ruth Heller. The illustrations are wonderful. The text is extremely detailed, even though it is in rhyme. How does she get all that information packed into so few words? Be aware there are two places where inaccuracies creep in. On one page she shows the male parts as an anther on a stamen as parallel to a the female parts of stigma on a style. Technically the entire male structure is called a stamen, so it probably should be "from an anther on a filament." Towards the end she also calls a mushroom a plant, which is a very outdated classification scheme. Fungi are now in their own separate kingdom. Look past these technical slips and the book is overall still a gem.

What would you do if you found one of these bright red creatures in your yard?

pipevine caterpillarpipevine caterpillar

You should cheer because they are the caterpillars of the beautiful pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor). We found these at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona.

The bright red caterpillars will turn into one of these butterflies.

pipevine butterfly

Check out the gorgeous metallic blue on the lower parts.

I should admit right away that it is extremely difficult to get a good photograph of a pipevine swallowtail butterfly. The butterflies have a behavior known as “flutter feeding” which mean their wings are in almost constant motion. This one was on the floor in a public place, so I suspect it may have been stepped on. Too bad.

The caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail feed on plants called pipevines (Aristolochia species), hence the name. The plant is a small, drab vine and is hard to spot. I am grateful to my friend who pointed out this one. Edit: My friend says this plant is Aristolochia watsonii.

pipevine plant

The plants contain a nasty chemical called aristolochoic acid that deters most animals from feeding on them. The ability to feed on pipevine plants is a unique feature of these caterpillars.

The caterpillars change size and color as they grow. You may also see pipevine caterpillars that look like the ones above, but are black instead of red.  The larger, older caterpillars are often found resting on plants besides their hosts (the ones they feed on). The caterpillar above is not on a pipevine.

On the same day we also saw this little butterfly.

bordered patch butterflybordered patch butterfly

This is the adult of the bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia). In some books it might be called a lacinia checkerspot. This little guy is really quite battered.

The bordered patch species is also quite variable in color, like the caterpillars of the pipevine. The North American Butterfly Association has a page of photographs of members of this species. You will see this dark color version towards the bottom. How did anyone ever figure out they were all the same species?

I was not surprised to learn the bordered patch caterpillars feed on sunflowers (as well as ragweed). Here is the garden that was only a few feet away from where I found the butterfly. If you want to raise butterflies, just plant a few of these.

sunflower garden

Any idea what these are? I'll give you a hint, they are often found under rocks.

ant cocoons

They are ant cocoons. When people see ant cocoons, they often mistake them for ant eggs. The eggs are actually very small, shiny and white or light-colored. The cocoons are made of silk spun by the ant larvae themselves before they pupate. Ant cocoons are oval and a light brown or beige color.

Children are always interested to learn that the black dot at the end of each cocoon is called a meconium. The larval ants can not get rid of their body wastes because their digestive systems do not pass all the way through to the outside. When the larva pupates within the cocoon, it is finally able to pass the wastes, which form that black dot.

Check out this previous post for more questions children have about ants.