Week 8, Day 5: Bees

A bumble bee visits a thistle flower. Notice the pollen coating the hairs on its legs! (Photo by Craig Martin)

It’s the last day of week eight of Take It Outside! Thanks for joining us to take a closer look at our local insects. We hope you learned something new about some of the smallest critters around us. Join us next week to explore climate.

Today we are learning about some important pollinators: bees!

Upcoming Event:

Tune in to tonight’s live-streamed astronomy talk to learn about light pollution and protecting our state’s dark skies. This talk will begin at 7 PM and is free to watch, but registration is required. Learn more and sign up here.

Blog Post:

Larry Deaven, the mastermind behind the nature center’s amazing penstemon garden, looks at how these flowers have evolved for different types of pollinators. Read his post here.


Flowers and bees have evolved to depend on one another. Explore this incredible relationship by dissecting a flower. 

Take each part of the flower apart and identify where the pollen and nectar are held, as well and where new seeds are made. What tongue structure must a bee have to collect nectar from the flower you dissected? Take a guess, and then learn more about a bee’s tongue in this article.

Find more instructions, as well as printable worksheets and flower anatomy guides, here.


Native plants often have very specific pollinators. This palafoxia flower is being visited by a small fly with a long, sucking proboscis. That allows the fly to probe for nectar deep inside the long tube-shaped disk flowers of the flower head, picking up pollen on the protruding anthers as it does so. (Photo by Craig Martin)

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Find some flowers outdoors in your yard or on the trail, and watch them for a while! What pollinators come to visit? Look closely: are there any small insects on the flowers that you didn’t see at first? Some pollinators you might see:

  • Bees
  • Butterflies
  • Hummingbirds
  • Flies
  • Moths (tip: check open flowers at night!)
  • Ants
  • Beetles
  • Spiders
  • Other insects


Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

When we think about bees, honey bees often come to mind. Honey bees are actually a semi-domesticated, introduced species that was brought to the U.S. by European settlers for honey production. 

Did you know that there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S. and Canada? One quarter of them are estimated to live in New Mexico! Many of these bees are solitary species and nest alone or in small groups, unlike the large colonies of honey bees. Check out this pocket guide to New Mexico’s native bees from the New Mexico State University Extension Office to learn about some of the native bees in our state. You can also learn about a few local bees on PEEC’s Nature Guide.

Then, head outside and look for bees! How many types of bees do you see? Can you find a honey bee? How about some native bees? Fill out the form below and let us know what you find!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

What bugs can you find this week?! Tell us in the form below! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us next week to explore our climate!

Penstemons and Pollinators

A bee drinks nectar from a blue-flowered Penstemon oliganthus. (Photo by Larry Deaven)

By Larry Deaven

Penstemon flowers provide a rich source of moisture and nutrition for a variety of pollinators. This fact is especially important in desert conditions, where both food and moisture are limited. 

A hummingbird feeding on a red-flowered Penstemon cardinalis. (Photo by Larry Deaven)

About 80 percent of all penstemon species have white, blue, or purple flowers. These flowers are usually cup shaped and have relatively large openings. Their shape has evolved to be pollinated by a variety of insects, like bees, moths, and butterflies.

The remaining 20 percent of penstemon species have flowers that are usually red, bright pink, or yellow. These flowers are usually tubular, are relatively long, and have narrow openings. They have evolved to be pollinated by hummingbirds.

If you looked inside a penstemon flower, you would see four stamens (these are the structures in a flower that produce pollen); two of the stamens are on the roof of the flower, and two are on the floor of the flower. This arrangement is designed to maximize the chances of the hairs on an insect’s body picking up some grains of pollen when the insect enters the flower.

We would also see a fifth stamen that does not produce pollen. This structure is called a staminode, and it is often covered with hairs. In some flowers the staminode extends outside of the flower opening where the ball of hairs acts as a landing platform for flying insects. In other flowers, the end of the staminode is inside the flower where the ball of hairs forces an insect to brush against the stamens and pick up some pollen grains as it travels to the back of the flower to find nectar.

A flower of Penstemon triflorus showing strong nectary guides to direct an insect to the nectar at the rear of the flower. The yellow structures are stamens containing pollen. (Photo by Larry Deaven and Terry Foxx)

Another structure inside the flower is the pistil, a rod with a knob on the end of it. The object of this design is to use insects to pick up pollen grains from a stamen and deposit them on the pistil (to pollinate the flower).

A flower of Penstemon barbatus, viewed under the microscope at the nature center. The yellow stamens are well-placed to deposit pollen grains on the feathers of a hummingbird’s forehead. (Photo by Larry Deaven and Terry Foxx)

The most frequent insect visitors to penstemon flowers are honey bees, bumble bees, and native bees. Less frequent, but still common, are several kinds of flies, butterflies, and beetles. Most of these insects visit the flowers to collect nectar, but some of them also collect pollen that is then eaten by them or by their developing young. This collected pollen is a loss for the penstemon, so an abundance is produced. In the flowers of some species, the pollen is produced in a sac with raspy teeth on the opening. These teeth partially block the opening, preventing an insect from taking all of the pollen in a single visit.

The red-flowered, tubular penstemons are difficult for most insects to enter, so they are favored by hummingbirds. These flowers have the same internal structure as the other flowers. When hummingbirds collect the nectar, they pick up pollen grains on their foreheads, which they carry to other flowers. 

Some bumblebees have learned to land on the base of these flowers, make a small hole, and drink the nectar. This is called “nectar-robbing.” Perhaps the next evolution in penstemon flower structure will be some protective element at the base of each flower to prevent nectar theft!

Week 2, Day 4: Pollinators

A honeybee pollinates a salvia flower at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Photo by Bob Walker)

The first pollinators of spring arrive on the heels of the first flowers! Explore the importance of our local pollinators in today’s Take It Outside post.

Blog Post:

Read about the emergence of our earliest pollinators in today’s blog post by Jenna Stanek, a Los Alamos National Laboratory biologist and PEEC volunteer, and Steve Cary, New Mexico Butterfly Guy extraordinaire. Check out their blog post here.


Build a bee hotel! Some solitary bees nest in small cavities, like the dead stalks of plants. You can create habitat for these native bees in your yard by building a simple structure with holes where bees can take up residence. Make it a hotel and spa with the addition of a simple bee bath.

See bee hotel instructions here.

See bee bath instructions here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Even beetles can pollinate flowers. Note the yellow pollen on the biggest beetle. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

Bees and butterflies are our best-known pollinators, but did you know that beetles, ants, and even spiders also help to pollinate flowers? Find a dandelion or other flower, look closely (use a magnifying glass if you have one), and see if you can find any tiny creatures crawling around. If the bugs have picked up any powdery yellow pollen, they could be helping to pollinate the flowers! Let us know what you find.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Where there are flowers in bloom, we have a good chance of seeing pollinators. Find some flowers in your neighborhood or a favorite outdoor place. Can you spot any of the early pollinators mentioned in today’s blog post? You can note any pollinators in your nature journal, on iNaturalist, or here on our webpage!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what signs of spring you notice this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore spring skies!

Pollinators Spring into Action

Spring Azure butterflies will be appearing soon on the Pajarito Plateau. (Photo by Steve Cary)

By Jenna Stanek and Steve Cary

Pollination is a vital stage in the life cycle of all flowering plants. It occurs when pollen is moved within flowers or transferred between flowers by wind, water, or animals. Successful pollination results in the production of healthy fruit and fertile seeds, allowing plants to reproduce.

Pollinators are animals that enable the plant to achieve pollination, helping them make fruit or seeds. Without these animals, many types of plants wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Pollinators are responsible for helping over 90% of the world’s flowering plants reproduce and are therefore critical to our food supply as well as to the health and resilience of ecosystems.

Over 200,000 species of animals act as pollinators, and of those, about 1,000 are hummingbirds, bats, and small mammals. The rest are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths.

Spring is a time of transition. Plants are starting to emerge slowly and some are even getting ready to flower, but all and all there is not much variety for pollinators. Early spring pollinators are starting to fly, but there are not many different species out and about.

Mourning Cloak butterflies are emerging after spending the winter in cryopreservation! (Photo by Steve Cary)

One early-flying moth is the six-spotted Litocala moth (Litocala sexsignata), which often visits willow catkins. Spring butterflies in our area during this time of year include Mourning Cloak and Satyr Comma, both of which overwinter as adults. They spend the winter frozen in cryopreservation in tree cavities, beneath loose tree bark, or in unheated buildings. As temperatures warm up they simply slip out of their hiding places and take to the air. These butterflies are not frequent flower visitors and are instead likely to be seen looking for a mate, in order to lay eggs and complete their life cycle.

The Southwestern Orangetip has striking color contrasts. (Photo by Steve Cary)

Butterflies that you might see visiting early spring flowers include Checkered White, Southwestern Orangetip, and Spring White, that overwinter as pupa. The larvae of all three species eat mustard plants, including tansymustard, and also visit mustard flowers in the spring. Spring Azures are good flower visitors, too. All of the butterflies listed above should be in flight soon in the Los Alamos high country.

Look for Juniper Hairstreaks later in the spring. (Photo by Steve Cary)

Once spring really comes into full swing, you should be able to find Juniper Hairstreak, Mylitta Crescent, Acmon Blue, and Variegated Fritillary. Remember to also keep an eye out for the beautiful Monarch Butterflies and don’t forget to report any sightings you see this year to Journey North or iNaturalist.

You’ll have to wait until it really warms up and many flower species are blooming to see bumble bee pollinators. Some of the species that can be seen in Northern New Mexico include Hunt’s bumble bee, Golden northern bumble bee, and Morrison bumble bee. Use this key to identify bumble bees that you might see in your backyard once summer approaches.

Some scientific research suggests that many pollinator species are in decline. Pollinator declines are attributed to loss of habitat, pesticide exposure, diseases, parasites, and effects of introduced species. With all of their beauty and also their importance for food production, the conservation of all pollinators is vital to maintain healthy and productive ecosystems. 

Things YOU can do in your own yard to help some of our local native pollinators:

  • Plant flowers with a variety that bloom from spring to fall. Include lots of native species!
  • Include plants in your garden, such as milkweed for Monarch Butterflies and extra parsley or dill for Black Swallowtail Butterflies, to feed all stages of pollinators’ life cycles. In other words, don’t forget about the very hungry caterpillars!
  • Provide a source of water, such as a shallow basin of water set on the ground with some stones in it.
  • Leave some leaf litter and plants standing over the winter to provide overwintering habitat.
  • Give bees places to nest such as tree snags and bare patches of sandy soil or dirt.
  • Avoid pesticides.