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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Cone Flowers

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

The fog still lingers over the low-lying wetland. It doesn’t take long to feel the moisture laden grasses soaking through my shoes. I do my best to avoid crushing any delicate plants as I search for a much-used game trail that will lead me towards the distant field of colors. It is mid-July and last night’s teasing of moisture is easily overlooked as the sun races higher. Cicadas awaken, their rhythms dancing with the wavering heat against the horizon. Blurred white silhouettes of circling gulls over the slough float against the backdrop of a maple-oak forest. The heat stimulates activity along the water’s edge. A painted turtle clambers onto a partially submerged log. Katydids ring out with loud staccato songs as nectar seeking pollinators cruise over a smorgasbord of color. An array of bees and wasps scamper across lacey umbels and anther studded inflorescences. The black, yellow, and white bands of bees and wasps contrast nicely atop the colorful rays of coneflowers.

Probably the most popular species is the Purple Coneflower or Echinacea purpurea,

with its *purported claims to help boost the immune system and its anti-oxidant properties, among others. These flowers belong to the family of “composites,” more specifically the Asteraceae, the largest family of flowering plants. Their success may be attributed to the fact that they contain two types of flowers. The dazzling disk head is visually the most prominent with its colorful ray flowers arranged on the outer periphery. Those are the ones that you may have plucked one at a time while reciting, “He loves me! He loves me not! He loves…” The smaller disk flowers that the nectar seeking insects’ home in on, makes up the central portion of the aggregate. When looking directly down at the ‘cone’ of these remarkable plants, a tight whorled pattern becomes quite evident. Over a period of several days new flowers open serially within this spiral allowing the ovules to be fertilized by more than one pollen donor. This evolutionary strategy may have been the key to their success. And all this time you thought it was just one big, beautiful flower!

It’s interesting what you can learn by simply observing. Many of you have seen a bee collecting nectar as it dips its specialized tongue into the flower’s corolla tubes. A more interesting behavior I recently discovered involved bumble bees collecting pollen.

Atop the lacey-white umbels of Queen Anne’s Lace I sat perplexed every time a bumble bee zigzagged across the surface of the flowers, never pausing, hastily zipping along with great urgency before taking flight in search of another landing platform to do it all over again!

Not until one bee paused before me to groom itself did I than understand what was going on. As you know bees give us honey, a very high energy source rich in sugars. However, the growing larva need a source of protein and lipids which is where the gathering of pollen becomes vitally important. This is exactly what the bumbles were doing. Bees are covered with body hairs that collect pollen as they visit a flower. The front and middle legs scrape off these hairs and the pollen is then raked into the pollen ‘basket’ on the hind legs. The bee than periodically packs its contents for maximum capacity before heading off to the hive. Now see what you can learn by simply taking the time to look!

[Another added note, Daucus carota is a noxious weed, competing with native plants.

As you can see in this field, it is the most numerous species of flower. It is in the carrot family, Apiaceae, but should not be eaten as it can often be confused with Poison Hemlock.].

A nearby rustling to my right brings me to my knees to glimpse a fleeting harvest mouse among the tangle of vegetation. As the sun climbs higher, I relish the cooler atmosphere to be had at this level. With each disturbance I anxiously investigate and explore my new surroundings.

The trail widens and becomes an ideal spot for a young Common Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) to sun itself.

My footfalls alert it to my presence as it slowly unwinds to seek sanctuary within this thick network of vegetation. A few steps beyond I nearly step on a well camouflaged leopard frog as it catapults straight through the wall of grass and stems. I, too, follow by example as I drop to my knees and plunge in headfirst. The damp, organic layers of mulch are felt beneath my hands – a stark contrast to the manicured, dry hardpan trail I just exited. Filtered light exposes colonies of springtails and an iridescent beetle.

A Crocus Geometer moth (Xanthotype sospeta) remains motionless relying on its

cryptic coloration to avoid detection. "Sorry mate, wrong location!" I’m covered in sweat and relish the cooler climate, however an array of gnats and flies buzz in my ears, around my eyes and begin to cover my arms as they search for mineral rich fluids. Reluctantly I stand back up into the heat and head towards a clearing created by a fallen log that must have rolled down from the adjacent forest. Sitting with my back to the sun I adjust my cap, position my camera, and let nature’s drama unfold before me.

I’m in awe at the combinations of colors and patterns that spread out before me.

A Red-spotted purple butterfly flutters over to a patch of purple bergamot, literally inundating itself among its lilac buffet.

Green metallic bees comb flower heads for pollen.

It’s hard not to notice a battle between a pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies over a claim to

a nearby Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta. As if taking a cue on stage, a ray of light highlights the victor as it alights atop the yellow disk and proudly pumps its wings displaying a complex motif of orange and brown.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail bobs over the field making intermittent stops on beckoning flower heads.

In stark contrast a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) streaks across making screeching halts to feed on the large flower heads of Purple Coneflower.

Anxiously I hope one of these two will come within shooting distance. In the meantime, a vast assortment of bees, flies and wasps coming to gorge on this nectar oasis keep me fully entertained.

Tachinid flies have stout hairy bodies while

Flower flies are sometimes confused with bees.

They have similar black and yellow stripes as in many bees but can be distinguished, while at rest, by the triangular shape to their wings as compared to the folded, straight alignment of a bees. This myriad display of black-and-white or yellow-and-black striped bodies probing into these flower heads of Queen Ann’s Lace is quite a spectacle.

A leaf cutting bee dusted in pollen scampers across a flower head.

Nearby a pair of combative skippers vie over the same chosen nectary.

The Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) does seem to be everywhere.

I have seen it on every type of flower head I encounter. The most fun is when the bees hastily race across the flat umbels of Wild Carrot collecting pollen.

Out of the corner of my eye I detect a flash of yellow. It’s the swallowtail! It lands among a group of purple coneflowers, completely absorbed in search of the plant’s life sustaining bounty. It’s close enough to see the intricate black wing venation, beautifully adorned above in bright yellow scales, black margins with yellow crescents and three large slashing bars across the forewings. Each hind wing has a bright orange sub-marginal spot, a layer of black with a blue crescent above. The underside is similar but of a softer yellow.

Looking at it from the side the distinctive black and yellow stripes along its body earn it its title, along with the family’s characteristic “tail-like” appendage that extends from the hind wings. It seems to maintain a steady pace of opening and closing its wings while feeding, as if expressing its contentment. At times a gust of wind will cause this beauty to flutter its wings to maintain its feeding position. On closer examination the long, tube-like proboscis can be seen probing into every little ray flower for sustenance. A short pause indicates a nice depository that is siphoned quickly.

Out here, the old cliché, “Haste makes waste!” becomes more of a survival creed. There is always a threat of a predator or another annoying pollinator that can care less about proper table manners! The sensory onslaught continues with an explosive debut of a fritillary that sends the swallowtail arcing high into the air over the meadow and beyond.

Where the forest, field and fen converge different species of plants and insects can be found. As the cattails recede with the water line various sedges and grasses take over. Meadow Katydids strike up the chorus.

A Yellowthroat calls from a dead snag jutting up from the dense vegetation.

Higher up in a Bur Oak, Field Sparrows exchange their territorial repertoire. However, nothing seems to squelch the resonating chambers of the cicada. What would the ‘dog days’ of summer be without the incessant whining buzz of these creatures?

A large bare patch along the periphery lies exposed to the sun. With virtually every step I take I am intrigued by the constant flashes of metallic green bursting into the air! It turns out these sun loving critters are tiger beetles.

Thin legged, fleet of foot and flight, these voracious predators scan the area with their large bulging eyes, ready to pounce, whence an unfortunate victim is seized and crushed with long sickle-like jaws.

Blue flags (Iris versicolor), literally, wave to me and beckon for an audience. I wade among the sword-shaped leaves and realize I’m not the first to arrive. It appears the festivities are in high gear. Each flower seems to be stationed with a brightly colored skipper ready to chase off any intruders.

The deep purple-blue sepals make an exquisite landing platform. Flowing towards its center is a variegated color scheme of purple veins melding with yellow and white. This is how the “iris” got its name - it means “rainbow” in the Greek language.

Nearing the end of the loop, I am immersed once again in a field of flowers...

I flush a couple of bluets that calmly fly off to a shaded patch. However, an accommodating

Eastern Amberwing alights just in front of me for a snapshot. Others critters follow suit --

How can I not be attracted to those bulbous red eyes of a Hoverfly...

...or the detailed markings of a White-banded wasp?

The emergence of any inflorescence, let alone an entire pasture as this, will host a myriad of pollinators in pursuit of its bounty. There are the beetles, such as shining leaf chafers, scarabs, and flower longhorns to name a few. The influx of bees, flies, wasps, and hornets. And of course, the sportive flights of butterflies.

From Purple coneflowers to Black-eyed Susan’s and Queen Ann’s lace. With Red-spotted Purples, Pearl Crescents and Tiger Swallowtails to Tiger Beetles. Mix in candy-striped brown, yellow and black wasps and golden bumbles with green metallic bees, then spice up the mixture with some bluets and amberwings and sweeten with soothing songs of avian carolers. And there you have the ingredients for one amazing sensory overload! So, get out and partake in nature’s bounty. Visit a local park, field or forest, fen, or pond, or simply explore your own backyard. If you simply take the time to stop and have a look, you will be amazed with what surrounds you! Enjoy!

Location: Worcester County, Massachusetts

Date: July of 2005

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