Vail Curious Nature: Lights, camera, action!
July 10, 2010
VAIL, Colorado – When watching movies, we tend to give little thought to all the people behind the scenes that work to make the final product just right. We watch the actors perform, often forgetting about the director, cameramen, makeup artists, sound editors and so many more. If even one of those roles was vacant, the movie just wouldn’t be the same. A similar comparison can be made to walking through the mountains and viewing the incredible carpet of wildflowers that embellish our landscape each summer.
Here in the Vail Valley, we are lucky enough to see the final natural product year in and year out. We see the mariposa lilies (Calochortus gunnisonii), the silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) and the heart-leaved arnica (Arnica cordifolia) perform their breathtaking roles for us. And yet, the flowers, just like the actors, get all the fame. But it is the pollinators operating behind the scenes who are the supporting actors that deserve a lot of credit.
Take the bee for example. Often seen as the villain, a bee’s behavior is most like a starlet diva. They need landing pads to perch on as they harvest pollen from flowers. They tend to prefer yellow, blue and purple flowers but are known to stray from these. One of bees’ favorite flowers is the penstemon (Penstemon spp.) because of its large three-toothed base and bright purple color. Pretty picky, huh?
Another prime pollinator is the vivacious and lively hummingbird. Without them, there would be no scarlet gilias (Ipomopsis aggregata), Colorado columbines (Aquilegia coerulea) or scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata). In fact, some scientists believe that the hummingbird and the scarlet paintbrush evolved together. The plant provides ample amounts of nectar and attracts the olfactorily impaired bird with its showy, vivid red bracts. The flowers have long narrow tubes that are resilient and perfectly shaped for a hummingbird’s long, narrow bill to fit in. Find some of these bright red flowers, and there is a good chance you will be graced with the presence of a broad-tailed hummingbird zooming by.
One of the more ostentatious pollinators is the butterfly. Butterflies are not only shining stars because of their beauty, but they are fascinating creatures as well. Butterflies have taste-buds on their tarsi, or feet, that allow them to decide immediately if it is worth their effort to unroll their long proboscis to sip the nectar of a given flower. Butterflies prefer flowers with abundant nectar and a place for them to land such as Colorado thistle (Cirsium coloradense). Butterflies should not be confused with moths, though, which are more active at night and are consequently attracted to pungent, white flowers. Just like Hollywood, pollinating doesn’t stop when the sun goes down.
These true stars of the natural world provide us with more than we realize. The bees, birds and butterflies perform tirelessly asking for no credit. All they seem to want is some sweet nectar to drink and maybe a nice place to sit. I, for one, think they deserve a standing ovation.
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Gabe Scherzer is a graduate fellow at Walking Mountains (formerly Gore Range Natural Science School). If she were an actress, she would star in action movies and documentaries on nature.