Webs of Life: Spring Ephemerals and Early Pollinators

Webs of Life: Spring Ephemerals and Early Pollinators

Ecosystems are well-balanced, finely tuned wonders of nature.  Defined as ‘the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit,’ an ecosystem depends on all its parts working as they should, and at the correct time.  In fact, timing is one of the most critical factors in determining the overall health of an ecosystem.  If one factor of the ecosystem, such as rainfall or blooming flowers, occurs too late or too early, then cascading effects on the plants and animals that depend on that factor will follow.  These effects could be a lack of food at critical times of the year, missing windows of pollination or mating, or moving into a new life stage during the wrong season.  One of the clearest examples of this critical ecosystem timing is the connection between spring ephemeral flowers and early emerging pollinators.

Spring ephemerals are woodland perennial plants that have a fast emergence and reproductive stage in the spring, produce seed, and quickly die back down to the underground root structures for the remainder of the year.  Where they exist, they are often the first flowering plants to appear in any given year.  If you’ve ever hiked a local woodland here in the Midwest between March and May, you’ve likely glimpsed some of these spring ephemerals yourself.  Virginia bluebells are the small but striking light purple flowers that can emerge in dense stands on the forest floor. Midland Shooting Star has uniquely shaped white flowers that are said to resemble, you guessed it shooting stars.  Bloodroot displays a relatively large, but fragile, white flower that opens when in full sun, but closes again during the evening.  There are many other local spring ephemerals to be seen, just take a walk in your local woodland and see how many you can spot!

Beyond providing a spectacular show in early spring (and whetting our appetite for blooming flowers after winter), spring ephemerals also provide a critical role in the ecosystem, where timing is everything.  As they are the first blooming flowers of the season, they are a critical resource for early emerging pollinators.  These are pollinators that emerge from their winter ‘diapause,’ or suspended development, sometime between March and May.  An example of one of these early insects you can see active in a Midwest woodland are mourning cloak butterflies which spend the winter in their adult stage, unlike most other butterflies that either migrate or overwinter in a different life stage.  Another very early pollinator is the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee, whose queens spend the winter hunkered down in woodlands, waiting for spring to come so they can take their fertilized eggs and start a new colony.  

The rusty patch is causing a ruckus right now at Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford. The Greater Rockford Airport Authority has planned to destroy this thousands of year old ecosystem. Bell Bowl Prairie one of the last remaining prairies in Illinois, supports these federally endangered and hugely import insects. It is not just about destring a few plants and an insect, it is an ecosystem that is hugely intelligent and we do not understand its importance to our planet and humans.  It is quite rare and if you would like ot support saving it, visit  Save Bell Bowl Prairie.

For both these species (mourning cloak butterflies & rusty patched bumble bee), and all the other early-emerging pollinators, it’s important to remember that they have not taken in any energy since the previous fall.  This is where the timing is critical:  these pollinators must have energy resources available immediately, at the same time they become active.  If the pollinators become active earlier than the spring ephemerals, or if the ephemeral flowers bloom even just a few weeks before or after the pollinators become active, then the pollinators may miss a critical resource and will likely perish.  Given that their spring activities like mating and colony establishment are often quite energy-intensive, this immediate access to energy resources becomes even more important.

As a land manager, there are some abiotic parts of the ecological machine such as temperature and rainfall that are harder to have a direct impact on (though we should still try). However, there are some things we can all do to ensure the other components of the ecological machine are working as they should.  One of the most effective is resource availability, by making sure the necessary resources exist in the areas they’re needed.  This can be accomplished by establishing spring ephemerals in your managed woodland, meadow, wetland, and prairie habitats, to be available to these early pollinators as soon as they become active.  You can also ensure year-long resource availability by planting a diversity of other native flowering plants, as these pollinators will require resources throughout the year, not only in early spring.  Contact us and we can work with you to determine the best spring ephemerals for your managed areas, and other nectar plants for the rest of the year.  Working together, we can make sure the ecological machine keeps on ticking!

Andres Ortega

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