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Tolmiea pollen: From splendid to spectacular

Shaded woodland can be full of surprises. Tolmiea menziesii, also known as the piggy-back plant, is so attractive to pollinators that it lures them into the dark forest floor where bees are sometimes scarce. But certain bees, especially small native bumbles, go from flower to flower, swiftly collecting sacks of bright red-orange pollen that almost glows.

The orange on the anthers is not nearly as dark as the orange in the pollen baskets.
The orange on the anthers is not nearly as dark as the orange in the pollen baskets. © Rusty Burlew.

Day-Glo orange pollen pellets

If you compare the color of the pollen in the corbiculae to the color of the pollen still in the anthers, you can see a vast difference. This occurs particularly in the corbiculate bees that add nectar to the pollen as they compress it into pellets. Just like the darks spots that appear on fabric when it gets wet, the pollen becomes darker, as least partially, from the nectar alone.

In addition, it appears darker when it is packed tightly. The pollen of corbiculate bees such as honey bees, bumble bees, and orchid bees is often much more vibrant than the dry pollen loads of most other bees.

<em>Tolmiea menziesii</em> grows in moist forests and along stream banks, usually with red alder trees.
Tolmiea menziesii grows in moist forests and along stream banks, usually with red alder trees. It is a member of the Saxifrage family. © Rusty Burlew.

Tolmiea menziesii is known as the piggy-back plant because small buds form at the base of the leaf blades that grow into daughter plants. A little plant arises from the mature plant, a clone of the “mother,” and rides piggy-back as it grows.

The leaves of Tolmiea are roughly heart-shaped with coarse teeth.
The leaves of Tolmiea are roughly heart-shaped with coarse teeth. © Rusty Burlew.

A common houseplant

According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon, Tolmiea is commonly sold as a houseplant because it is very tolerant of the low-humidity environments found inside modern housing. This seems strange since the plant prefers the very wettest parts of the forest floor. The book also explains that the plant was named after Archibald Menzies, one of the first botanists to explore the Pacific Northwest coast.

The brownish-purple leaves make a nice contrast with the orange pollen.
The brownish-purple blossoms make a nice contrast with the orange pollen. © Rusty Burlew.

This plant was the one I was searching for last week when I became distracted by a swarm. I found the swarm in a tall tree, and later found the orange-legged bumbles. But the best part? The next day, that swarm left its roost high in the maple tree and moved into one of my empty hives. Wonders never cease.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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