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Wildflowers, Harbingers of Spring

By Jennifer Hopwood on 28 April 2015

Spring wildflowers are an important first food of the season for pollinators

The delicate blossoms of spring wildflowers are often the first splashes of color after a long winter. Some, like pasque flowers (Pulsatilla spp.), even push their blooms up through the snow. Spring wildflowers are a welcome sight for tickle bees and other early-emerging pollinators, coming at a time when nectar and pollen sources can be scarce. Many species would be happy to find them blooming in your garden. Plus, they add a beautiful burst of early-season color to your yard.

These wildflowers are typically adapted for precarious weather conditions. Many grow close to the ground, and some, particularly those that grow in the understory of deciduous forests, have ephemeral life cycles. Appearing before trees and shrubs leaf out, these perennial woodland wildflowers take advantage of the brief period of sunlight that reaches the forest understory. In a matter of weeks, they bloom, produce fruit, and then enter dormancy.

Tickle bees (Andrena spp.) and cellophane bees (Colletes spp.) are common visitors to spring wildflowers. Most have dark bodies with whitish hairs on their thorax and pale stripes on their abdomen. Male bees patrol flower patches, flying in zigzag patterns over the flowers and waiting for the arrival of females in order to mate. Tickle bees and cellophane bees have one generation per growing season. Some are pollen specialists on certain plant species or groups of plants. For example, Andrena erigeniae bees only collect pollen from two species of spring beauty plants in the genus Claytonia, while Andrena ziziae bees have a broader focus, collecting pollen from a number of spring-blooming flowers in the carrot family (Apiaceae), such as heartleaf golden alexanders (Zizia aptera). Other bees that fly in the spring, such as mason bees (Osmia spp.) and some sweat bees (from several genera in the family Halictidae), collect pollen from a wide variety of spring wildflowers and other plants.

 

A plump bumble bee hangs upside down on a flower amidst lush growth.
A bumble bee on dutchmen’s breeches. (Photo: Xerces Society / Jennifer Hopwood)

 

Spring wildflowers are important sources of food for hungry queen bumble bees as they emerge after a long hibernation through the winter. After locating a suitable nest site, a bumble bee queen depends upon spring flowers for pollen and nectar to provision her nest and begin her colony’s growth. Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum spp.), bluebells (Mertensia spp.), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium spp.), columbine (Aquilegia spp.), and wild geranium (Geranium spp.) are all highly attractive to bumble bees.

Bees aren’t the only visitors to spring wildflowers. Flies, solitary wasps, beetles, and butterflies also frequent the flowers to sip nectar. The bright blossoms of phlox (Phlox spp.), with flared petals and a deep corolla, are particularly attractive to butterflies. The vegetation of some spring wildflowers can also be a food source for larval butterflies. Prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) are host plants for a number of fritillary butterflies, including the at-risk regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia).

In garden settings, spring wildflowers are hardy plants that are tolerant of most soils and grow well in dappled sunlight, particularly under deciduous trees. They do not spread aggressively. Bare-root or potted plants are available from nurseries. Why not welcome spring to your garden by incorporating some of these beautiful wildflower varieties?

 

Authors

Jennifer provides resources and training for pollinator and beneficial insect habitat management and restoration in a variety of landscapes. She oversees a team of four USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service partner biologists and works closely with the NRCS. Jennifer has authored a number of publications and articles, and is co-author of several books, including Farming with Native Beneficial Insects, 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, and a roadside revegetation manual. Jennifer has a master's degree in entomology from the University of Kansas.

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