Today, as I sat in the 95+ degree weather, I noticed a hummingbird sitting on the branch of a large flowering succulent. It’s a rare treat to find a hummingbird sitting still long enough to snap a close up photo. My first thought was that it must be as hot as I was, but then I realized that the tiny bird was probably way hotter than I was!
Hummingbirds beat their wings an average of 50 times per second, which generates a lot of internal heat. Their body temperature hovers around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Flapping its wings so fast actually helps cool them off, according to one study. Hummingbirds need to fly so fast because they must feed nearly constantly to avoid starvation. In other words, they fly fast to feed fast so they can get enough energy to fly fast. It’s complicated.
Scientists have asked where hummingbirds get all that energy. Hummingbirds are highly efficient at metabolizing fructose, which they get from the nectar of flowers–typically tubular-shaped red, orange, and pink ones, but purple and yellow will also do. In return for their daily sugar intake, they pollinate close to 1,000 flowers per day!
What, you might ask, would flowers do without hummingbirds? They likely would have adapted to instead attract one of the many other pollinators: bees, flies, bats, moths, butterflies, wasps, or beetles to name a few of the insect variety. Take, for instance, flowers that produce a foul stench to attract insects that prefer rotting things, such as the corpse plant or pine cones. Some plants rely on wind or other animals for pollination, but insects are some of the most reliable pollinators.
In the school garden where I work, I will kick off Pollinator Week with a “Pollinator Potluck.” Families were invited to bring a dish that highlights the role of pollinators in our food system. Almost any kind of salad fits in this category, as does a dessert with fresh berries or chocolate. To get ideas for a meal you can make at home, see Pollinator Recipes.
Besides spreading the word and sharing a meal, our garden has a dedicated “pollinator row” intended to support pollinator visits to the garden, as well as to provide observation space for students learning about insect pollinators. So many science questions can be answered through systematic observation. For example, do bees prefer yellow or purple flowers? What kind of flower shape do butterflies like? For more ideas related to pollinator lessons, see Planning for Pollinator Study: Best Practices in Lesson (and Garden) Design (April 11, 2017)
There are several actions you can take during Pollinator Week. Visit a nursery and ask what pollinator friendly plants they stock. Plant native milkweed to feed monarchs in migration. Call your local government officials asking for a proclamation for pollinator week. Purchase a pollinator week t-shirt or poster, or simply donate to the Pollinator Partnership, a 501(c)3 dedicated to pollinator preservation. Although you might be hot in this early summer heat wave, be grateful you don’t have to do the work of a pollinator!