Sunflowers, the late summer feast

Sunflowers, the late summer feast: Click for a larger view of the sunflower garden. Image courtesy and copyright Jim Cane
Stand of ornamental sunflowers
in Cache Valley
Image courtesy and Copyright Jim Cane

Click for a larger view. Image courtesy and copyright Jim CaneHoney bee foraging at sunflower
Image courtesy and Copyright Jim Cane

Click for a larger view. Image courtesy and copyright Jim CaneMale Melissodes bees and a skipper
butterfly sleeping on a sunflower at dusk
Image Courtesy and Copyright Jim Cane

Now, in late summer, the sunny golden blooms of sunflowers adorn gardens, roadsides and wild places across much of the United States. Utah is home to five sunflower species, four of them annuals. You are most likely to see Helianthus annuus, the aptly named “common sunflower”. Early domestication of common sunflower by Plains Indians led to the major oilseed crop that the world enjoys today.

Humans are not the only species seated at the sunflower dining table, however. The grub of one specialist weevil bores in sunflower stalks; as do larvae of 2 long-horned beetles. Another weevil hollows out the seeds. A third decapitates the flowerhead before ovipositing. One moth’s caterpillar gnaws the roots; several cutworm species topple seedling sunflowers, and several more kinds of butterfly caterpillars skeletonize sunflower leaves. In your garden, though, sunflowers generally escape pestilence. Chickadees and both American and Lesser Goldfinches cling to the ripe seed heads to pluck out the nutritious seeds. Listen for the plaintive call of the Lesser Goldfinch which is very distinctive.

[Lesser Goldfinch, Audio recording courtesy Kevin Colver, Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country]

All those sunflower seeds are the direct result of pollination by bees. In the American West, more than 200 species of native bees visit sunflowers for nectar or pollen, a remarkably large fauna for any flower. None is more charming than the male of the bee genus Melissodes. They are discernible by their extra long antennae. Melissodes males dart among sunflowers all day long, seeking willing mates. Come sunset, the males bed down on the flower heads to snooze. They become drowsy enough to pet with your fingertip, and being males, have no sting. So if you have sunflowers at hand, chances are you have Melissodes bees around too. Look over your sunflowers this evening, and you may be lucky enough to find these dozing bachelor bees with their extra long antennae.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Audio: Courtesy Kevin J. Colver, and On
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Jim Cane
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

LeBuhn, Gretchen, Greenleaf, Sarah, Cohen, David, The Great Sunflower Project, Department of Biology, San Francisco State University,

Charlet, Larry D., Brewer, Gary J., Sunflower Insect Pest Management in North America, Radcliff’s IPM World Textbook, University of Minnesota,

The Native Bees of Utah

Male Melissodes Bees
Sleeping on Sunflower
Courtesy and
Copyright © 2010 Jim Cane

The industry and cooperation of honeybees have inspired many a philosopher and society, including the Mormons who settled along the Wasatch front. The hive, or more specifically a skep, was later chosen as the emblem for the new state of Utah. But the honeybee, like it’s pioneer admirers, is a recent European immigrant, brought over for the wax and honey that colonies produce.

Utah did not lack for pollinators, however, prior to European settlement. More than 1000 species of native bees inhabit Utah, with several hundred species in any given county. A few of these bees — bumblebees and sweat bees — are social. They produce annual colonies headed by a queen. However, the vast majority of our bees are not social. For these, each adult female makes her own nest with no help from her sisters or mate.

Most solitary bee species nest underground; others use old beetle burrows in deadwood. The resident female subdivides her tunnel into bee-sized cavities. Each cavity receives a cache of pollen moistened with nectar and a single egg. There each grub-like larva will feed and develop in solitude. Most solitary bees will spend the winter here in their natal home.

Bombus griseocollis Queen
Foraging on Hedysarum
Courtesy and
Copyright © 2008 Jamie Strange

Native bees pollinate many of Utah’s wildflowers, doing so inadvertently as they busily gather pollen for their progeny. Many solitary bee species are taxonomic specialists, focusing all of their pollen foraging efforts on one or a few related genera of flowering plants. Some common hosts for specialist bees in Utah include squashes, sunflowers, globemallows and penstemons. Sweet honey does not result from the labors of solitary bees, but fruits and seeds do. The industry of Utah’s native bees merits our attention and admiration.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

USDA-ARS Pollinating Insects – Biology, Management and Systematics Laboratory,

Crop domestication facilitated rapid geographical expansion of a specialist pollinator, the squash bee Peponapis pruinosa, Margarita M. López-Uribe, James H. Cane, Robert L. Minckley, Bryan N. Danforth
Proc. R. Soc. B 2016 283 20160443; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0443. Published 22 June 2016

Hager, Rachel, Bees, Bees And More Bees! Researchers Find Over 650 Bee Species In Grand Staircase-Escalante, UPR-Utah Public Radio, Nov 20, 2018,

Bumblebee Watch,
Bumble Bee Watch is a citizen science project through the partnership of The Xerces Society, the University of Ottawa, Wildlife Preservation Canada, BeeSpotter, The Natural History Museum, London, and the Montreal Insectarium.