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Honey, what’s that smell?

I’ve always heard that honey bees would collect pollen from skunk cabbage, but I’ve never actually seen them do it until yesterday. Skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanum, is extremely attractive to flies, and the flowers I saw yesterday were loaded with flies as well as bees.

In Honey Plants of North America (1926), John H. Lovell writes that some beekeepers in the eastern United States prized skunk cabbage because it was one of the earliest pollen-producing plants and was responsible for early brood development. He goes on to say that the hood (or spathe) protects bees from the wind so they can collect pollen on days that otherwise might be too cold for foraging.

Lovell was writing about the eastern skunk cabbage which is similar to our western species. According to a Washington State University bulletin, “Western skunk cabbage derives its name from the malodorous, distinctive “skunky” odor that it emits. The brilliant color of the flowers earns it an alternative name of ‘swamp lantern.'” The bulletin also mentions that skunk cabbage is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring. It begins to emerge in February and may continue to bloom throughout March and April.

According to Lovell, skunk cabbage is strictly a pollen plant. If any nectar is secreted at all, the amount is miniscule.

I took the following pictures yesterday afternoon, which was sunny but cold. Both bees and flies flocked to the bright yellow flowers.

Rusty

Lysichiton americanum

Small flies can be seen hiding inside the spathe.
Two honey bees and a fly gather pollen.
Honey bee pollen sac getting full.

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Comments

howardski
Reply

nice shots. yes just because different plants are not appealing to us… i live in thailand. we have durian here. durian is a fruit that smells like garbage. but it is surprisingly good to eat. you have to develop a taste for it i’d have to say. it’s real popular here. even the bees like it.

Rusty
Reply

Interesting! I’m going to look that one up. Thanks for the info.

Rusty
Reply

Zachary,

You’ve got good-looking skunk cabbages out your way! Interesting article.

Thanks for the link.

Bill
Reply

Honey bees (HB) will gather pollen from many sources, even from grasses. However, a few plants aren’t going to be of much value to a large colony of bees. Often, the Skunk Cabbage (SC) or by whatever name you call it, blooms when temperatures are just too cold for the HBs to out. When these odd warm springs happen, the Willows are also blooming, which is a huge pollen source. I just don’t think, my observations, that the SC isn’t much of a value as some proclaim but can’t support.

Rusty, nice photo of the HBs working the Skunk Cabbage! I think it is the first I’ve seen where the bees are actually working the SC. Well, done!

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Thanks. I find all kinds of things foraging on skunk cabbage. Seems odd.

Bill
Reply

Looking at the Skunk Cabbage image… it’s Arum to which the Skunk Cabbage is a member of.

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