A carpenter bee gathers pollen on a thistle flower. Photo by Vince Pinto

Having enjoyed one of our wettest winters in years, the Sky Islands are poised for an unbridled orgy come this April. California poppies, desert bells, golden smoke, desert anemone, blue dicks, tansy mustard, and many others have already burst forth in March. Soon they’ll be joined by the late bloomers such as nama, mariposa lily, desert honeysuckle, pancake cactus, and ocotillo. This year, even May could well witness droves of colorful wildflowers in some locales. 

Our native plants have evolved beautiful blossoms not to serve our admiring gaze, but rather to have sex. Unlike animals, plants are frozen in place, rendering reproduction rather difficult. Enter various Sky Islands fauna – coevolved to serve as sexual conduits for many of our local wildflowers.

Worldwide, pollinators run the gamut from tiny ants and legions of other insects to birds, bats, and even Asian elephants. Given that “selfish” behavior is the norm in individuals of any species – an ongoing quest to maximize one’s energy reserves and reproductive potential – what are the incentives serving to lure otherwise self-serving creatures into the plant sexual arena? Nectar certainly is at the top of the list as the reward proffered by many flowers. Pollen, containing the plant’s sperm, is a huge reward as well. Both these calorie-rich foods greatly benefit any animal species capable of efficiently procuring and digesting them. 

The result? A dazzling array of pollinators populating the natural world. Here in the Sky Islands we are particularly endowed with such sexual go-betweens. Arizona has recorded approximately 326 butterfly species, many of which serve as pollinators. Likewise, we are rich in native bees, hosting about 1,300 species – possibly the most on the planet. Further, our state has documented more hummingbird species than any other ( eighteen). Factor in legions of moths, several species of nectar-feeding bats, a smattering of birds, as well as the sheer number of flowering plants in our region and you can begin to fathom the pollinator paradise we preside over.

April is prime time for observing local pollinators. Stake out a thriving patch of desert honeysuckle with its tubular orange blooms, for example, and you’ll soon be rewarded with numerous hummingbird observations. These frenetic feeders are so co-evolved with various funnel-shaped flowers that they possess tongues that wrap around the tops of their skulls! This, of course, allows them to deeply penetrate the flowers as they imbibe their reward. Butterflies, too, are no slouch in the long appendage category. Their proboscis can be uncoiled to probe various flowers. Bees have more mundane mouth parts, yet serve as the primary pollinators for many species, such as local cacti.

What exactly happens to ensure pollination? First, the animal sexual partner must find the plant or plants that it’s seeking to secure its caloric reward. The colors – seen in the UV spectrum by some animals – as well as scents, and actual location of the plants on the landscape all can serve as aids in attracting the attention of hungry pollinators. Petal colors, for example, are artful flags signaling the presence of a plant brothel. Once at a flower, the pollinator generally wastes no time in plunging into it. Here is where the devil is in the details, as each plant species has its own pollination paradigm. Some flowers have a copious number of stamens – the male parts of the flower – and heavily douse their visitors with pollen. Cacti fall into this “deluge” category. Other flowers, including some leguminous plants, have a few stamens that are “triggered” to touch the pollinator when it’s in the proper spot to receive the pollen. 

Meanwhile, the pollinators are attending to their own affairs, trying to secure as many calories as possible, ultimately aiming to support their own reproduction. Some actively gather pollen, such as native bees. Others hone in on nectar – think butterflies and hummingbirds. Either way, they now are inadvertently carrying pollen which, if fortune smiles upon the plant species in question, may be accidentally deposited on the next flower that they visit. The pollen then touches the female pistil of the second plant, grows a pollen tube down which the sperm swim, ultimately reaching the ovules which are then fertilized. A somewhat familiar story to us humans who not only admire wildflowers and pollinators, but who often employ the former to curry the favor of would-be mates at times.

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit ravensnatureschool.org.