Early spring is a great time to begin searching for native bees and other pollinators of the Hudson Valley. The first warm sunny days of March awaken the dormant flowers of the pussy willow, red maple and spicebush. These three native woody plants, abuzz with activity, all thrive in or near wetlands and are an oasis of nectar and pollen that usher in a season of plenty.
Pussy willows are one of the first native blooms in our region and these short lived sun-loving shrubs are at home growing along wetlands, lakes and ponds. The gray furry catkin doesn’t fit our ideal vision of a flower or certainly not a flower that would attract a bee but in this season there is little competition. The early spring pollinators such as small mining bees, cuckoo bees and non-native bees, such as honeybees are lured in to the sweet smelling nectar and to the pollen produced by male flowers.
High overhead, the red maple buds swell and burst forth revealing a small red and yellow flower. Early blooming trees that flower before the leaf canopy unfurls tend to be primarily wind pollinated. There is some research to indicate that wind pollinated angiosperms once relied more heavily on insect pollination but in the absence of reliable pollination they evolved to favor the benefits of the wind. In the case of the red maple, they also attract insect pollinators that come to collect the nectar and rich pollen essential to their developing broods. In some ways, the red maple has hedged its bets to ensure pollination one-way or the other.
In winter’s retreat, the spicebush’ tiny yellow blossoms bring a warm cheer to the dreary understory of the
forest. This shade tolerant shrub, often growing under the towering tulip poplar, blooms early to take advantage of the sunlight that penetrates the leafless branches of the looming giants. The spicebush is “Dioecious” meaning there are distinct male and female species that benefit from the tireless work of early pollinators like the small mining bee and various varieties of flies. Of special interest, the spicebush is the host plant of the spicebush swallowtail, a beautiful butterfly and pollinator that frequents summer flowers.
Enjoy, your search for the early spring pollinators and you may discover that they have much to teach us about the natural wonders in our backyards.