Chase Shaw: What happens when the birds and bees can’t pollinate?
You’ve heard about the importance of pollinators — birds, bees, butterflies, bats and other small animals that travel from plant to plant carrying pollen on their bodies that help plants reproduce and sustain our ecosystems. With their fuzzy bodies, bees are by far the most effective pollinators.
When it comes to birds, bees, plants and pollination, timing really is everything. Flowers and their pollinators synchronize their life cycles during the very short summers in the mountains. When a queen bumble bee emerges from her subterranean nest in early spring, her tiny body laden with fertilized eggs, she has one thing on her mind: food, which in her case is flower pollen. When the broadtail hummingbirds arrive in our mountain valleys after a harrowing journey of thousands of miles, they too are in search of nectar, found in the glacier lilies, dwarf larkspurs and other opportunistic spring flowers. But what happens when early snowmelt and warming temperatures skew the bloom cycle?
Around the world, the cyclical events associated with changing seasons are skewed. Spring arrives earlier, and autumn — one of the most beautiful times of the year in the mountains — is sticking around a bit longer. While some plants and animals are adjusting, others are confused.
The study of the timing of seasonal biological activities — like pollination — is called phenology. Using phenology to study seasonal biological activities in plants and animals helps scientists detect how changes in the environment influence events that we often take for granted. What they’re finding is that these extreme alterations in temperature and precipitation are having a direct impact on the abundance and distribution of plants, and correspondingly, the decline of pollinators.
For over 40 years, scientists at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte have been documenting how warming temperatures and changing snowfall patterns impact the timing of bird and insect arrival with that of the flower blooms they depend on. Their findings are alarming: Since the 1970s, Rocky Mountain wildflower season has lengthened by an average of 35 days.
While an extra month of bloom time might seem like good news for wildflower enthusiasts, for plants and their pollinators, it’s actually a worst-case scenario. Because most alpine species are perennials, some of whom can live a hundred years or more, a longer seasonal flowering cycle may cut short their life because each plant is investing so much energy into reproduction. Too, just because a plant starts to bloom earlier doesn’t mean it won’t get zapped by frost. And when that happens, early die-off impacts bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other creatures who rely on pollen and nectar for survival.
Betty Ford Alpine Gardens has established a phenology trail along Gore Creek and monitors the life cycle of 10 native plants. If you’re interested in helping monitor plant and animal life cycle changes in sites throughout the United States, you, too, can join the citizen science effort and contribute observations to the U.S. National Phenology Network Nature’s Notebook database, which is used by researchers worldwide to track changes over time that indicate the effects of a changing climate.
May is Pollinator Month at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. On May 19, the gardens will host all third-graders in Eagle County for the annual Butterfly Launch where the children will release hundreds of butterflies that have been growing in their classrooms since early April. For more information on the event or the gardens, please visit BettyFordAlpineGardens.org.
This is the fifth column in a series about Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, globally recognized for its alpine horticulture, education and conservation. Located in Ford Park, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is the highest elevation botanical garden in North America. Sarah Chase Shaw is the author of “On the Roof of the Rocky Mountains: the Botanical Legacy of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.” Find it at Alpine Treasures Gift Shop in Vail Village or BettyFordAlpineGardens.org.