Pollinator Pecking Order – Observations From a Rear Window

When a friend gave me three canna lily bulbs, I had no idea what insect-avian-mammal conflicts lay ahead.

I planted them next to my patio. They blossomed in a few months, stood 6 feet tall and had large, tubular, red flowers.

Red canna lily
Photo by Emi More on Pexels.com

The bees came first and worked methodically, moving from one flower to the next. Butterflies visited and pollinated in a haphazard pattern, floating up off a flower and then landing randomly. They seemed to avoid getting too close to the bees.

Then, the hummingbirds came. And so did the drama.

If one hummingbird was here and another one came, the two chased each other in circles and then off into the wooded area behind my apartment.

If a butterfly was on 1 of 20 blooms, the hummingbird hovered an inch behind it until the butterfly left the flower and flew away.

Several times when I was checking on the plants around the patio, I suddenly heard flapping behind my head and a chattering and buzzing sound. A hummingbird was trying to shoo me away. Seeing a nail-shaped beak attached to a body with wings flapping over 50 times per second near my head made me flit inside.

Using my bird field guide, I identified these 3-inch, iridescent green birds as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The females were the ones I saw most often, as they were missing the black throat patch that reflects red in the sun.

But the hummingbirds had no power over the bees. The bees were focused and not distracted or disturbed by other pollinators. Each time a hummingbird was pollinating and noticed a bee had arrived, she turned and watched, hovering from a distance. After a few seconds, the hummingbird left the area. The smallest pollinator had the most control over access to the flowers without even trying to show dominance.

So, with no data or expertise, I concluded that the bees were at the top of the pecking order in being able to pollinate as they please. The hummingbirds were below them and worked hard to monitor all the flowers so they could scare off competitors. The delicate butterflies worked only when allowed.

Orange, Monarch butterfly
Photo by Tinthia Clemant on Pexels.com

Planting my first cannas taught me a lot about hummingbirds. I had only ever seen one as a child, for a few seconds, when my great aunt showed me her flower garden in Rhinebeck, New York in the 1970s. A blur of wings, a long beak in a flower and a straight up and out flight pattern – what was this creature? Now, I’ve learned that they’re observant, territorial, and persistent. And even if they’re not at the top of the pollinator pecking order, they can still easily intimidate butterflies and this particular mammal.

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