— Janet Parkinson

One unexpected delight this September has been discovering the meadow bottle gentian, or gentiana clausa. Its deep violet flowers don’t open, remaining clusters of plump oval buds (I’ve seen as many as 22 on a single stem). Because the flowers stay closed, only “strong bees” can pollinate them.

In my garden, what that means is that honeybees and small pollinators buzz around the blossoms briefly, realize they’re out of luck, and fly off to better offerings. Carpenter bees wander around each flower’s base, clearly sensing nectar but not knowing how to access it.
Bumblebees are the experts here.

The bumblebee first lands on a blossom, straddling the peak. Using its front two feet, it tries to pry open the bud. Sometimes that works, but not always. If not, the bee shoots out its tongue and stabs between the petals, usually multiple times. Then it shoves its head inside the small opening it’s made, much like my cat trying to shove through a door left ajar, and hauls its head and thorax inside the flower. All that’s left is a black furry bee-butt topping a graceful violet bloom.

Re-emerging seems almost more difficult than getting in, especially if the bee’s hind legs can’t grip anything. When it does struggle out, the bee’s often covered in pollen, and sometimes pauses to give its face a wash before tackling the next blossom. Watching the interaction between native plant and its pollinator has been lovely, and I’ll look forward to it each fall.

editor’s note:  Enjoy a short video of a bumble bee pollinating a bottle gentian, submitted by Karen Asher. Best viewed in full screen mode.