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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.

Oh, I wish I had the time to take some video of one of our plants this morning. Our desert spoon is flowering and it is alive with bees. Honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, digger bees, sweat bees, big bees, tiny bees, billions and billions of bees. Well, probably not that many, but it seemed that way. It was like a swarm.

The desert spoon plant sends up a huge flower stalk covered with blooms. This year there were 5 stalks. You can't see them all here.

desert spoon

Each stalk was covered with hundreds of bees. Each of those specks was a fast-moving insect.

Of course you know that the bees were gathering pollen, the yellowish powder produced by the flower, and nectar, the sweet liquid reward for picking up the pollen. The honey bees pack the pollen into the specially shaped baskets on their hind legs. Check out the load this honey bee has gathered. Honey bees were the most numerous bees this morning.

honey bee

I was able to get very close to these insects without any danger. They were intent on gathering food, and that is it.

The biggest bees I saw were the black carpenter bees, but they seemed intimidated by the other bees and quickly flew away. They may have also been sizing up the stalks as future home sites. Carpenter bees build their nests in agave and desert spoon flower stalks.

The second biggest bees were yellow and black bumble bees. They stay near the top of the stalks, so I couldn’t get a close up.

bumble bee

The smallest bees were some tiny sweat bees. They were numerous, but not as noticeable because of their pencil-lead size.

sweat bee

Mixed in were a few other sweat bees and digger bees. Here are two examples.

green beeStripe bee

Finally, not all the creatures I saw this morning were working hard to gather pollen and nectar. This jumping spider was taking advantage of the bounty of bees to catch breakfast. It was behaving in an odd manner, jumping down and hanging upside down with its legs drawn in. In that position it looked all the world like a flying bee. Very Cool!!


For more information about bees, check out the "Africanized Honey Bees on the Move" website under the blogroll in the sidebar.

Also, try out growing list of children's books about honey bees at Science Books for Kids.



Sometimes adding a new plant to your yard can unexpectedly bring in exciting new animals. When our recently-planted potato bush began to flower, we started to hear a novel sound from its vicinity. The bush seemed to be bizzing. Bizz, bizz, bizz.

digger bees

Upon investigation, the sound turned out to be these striped bees, a species of digger bees. The potato bush has deep purple flowers which produce only powdery pollen, not nectar. The center of the flower is a yellow knob. The bees fly into the center, grasp the knob, press their abdomen against it, and then bizz. The vibration produced causes to knob to release pollen like a salt shaker releases salt. The pollen sticks to the fuzzy body of the bee as the bee flies on to the next flower.

digger bees

What do the bees do with the pollen? They groom it from their bodies, form it into clumps, and mix it with nectar to feed to their larvae. When bees make a noise to release pollen from a flower it is called buzz pollination.

When carpenter bees visit the plant, they make a deeper buzzing tone, as you would expect with their larger bodies.

Tomato flowers are similar in structure to our potato bush. When people grow tomatoes in greenhouses, they may actually bring in bumblebees to perform the task of buzz pollinating their crops. For more information, visit the GEARs website. (link broken)