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By Dominique Bayne, Former Senior Horticulturist on Jun 10, 2008
Every morning at this time of year the deep red petals of Papaver orientalis ‘Beauty of Livermere’ unfurl slowly to reveal a mass of purple black pollen coated stamens. I say slowly but they have a slight look of sleepy unpreparedness and I am not the only one drawn to them as they, and I, are still shaking out the creases. Sure, there are usually a few early morning visitors but we are always outnumbered by those whom the poppies are really trying to attract: the bees.
The Birds and Bees Walk was designed to include many plants attractive to pollinators and other forms of wildlife. The poppies however were planted for the bees alone. They do not produce nectar; the sugary payment most flowers produce to induce a range of pollinators to visit and inadvertently transfer pollen from stamens to stigmas. Poppies produce a mass of pollen instead. Bees are one of the few pollinators that actually collect the pollen and they do so with a slightly scary efficiency on these oriental poppies. As soon as the poppy opens the bees mass upon it; I have seen as many as fifteen bees in one single poppy. They strip the pollen from the stamens sticking it to the sides of their legs. If you watch closely you can actually see the pollen building up as they collect, I am amazed they do not become too heavy to fly.
What do the flowers get out of it? I can only guess that there is more than enough pollen to go around and that once the bees have stripped one flower of all its pollen and move to the next some is transferred. Poppy botany is not my strong point, so if someone out there knows more feel free to correct me or share more information. Watching the bees however is addictive; there is something slightly voyeuristic about it. It is a process that intimately links the poppies and the bees; I am privileged enough to be able to observe an interaction that has evolved over timescales greater than I can imagine. By mid-morning when the flowers have finished stretching and yawning themselves awake the pollen is all gone, the buzzing frenzy is finished replaced by the sound of people asking 'where are the bees in the Birds and Bees Walk?'.