Why are the First Flowers of Spring Often White or Yellow?

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white flowers glow against a dark green background

The first flowers of spring are often white or yellow because of who pollinates them. The majority of early spring pollinators are flies. Flies lack color vision, meaning they can’t see scores of colors the way we do.

White and yellow reflect plenty of light. The white and yellow are reflected as very light “colors” against the green background of leaves of trees, shrubs, grasses, etc. All that green may just look dark and indistinguishable to flies.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis (6)

Flies will visit a range of colors, but they visit white and yellow flowers the most. Flies are the most frequent visitors to flowers and are often misidentified as bees.

Early spring blooming flowers in alpine meadows are often white or yellow. These flowers often have an open-shape. The flower can have a saucer or bowl shape. These open shapes allow a wide range of pollinators to access the plant’s pollen, nectar, resin, and oil.

American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons
American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons

The pollinators with special features such as long tongues, heavyweight, the ability to hover, can visit these flowers just like unspecialized pollinators can. 

And in early spring there are not many pollinating insects or birds around. A flower will take what she can get.

To recount: White or Yellow Spring Flowers

  1. are highly reflective of light and appear bright in the landscape
  2. often have open shapes to be available to any pollinator that might be around in early spring

Further reading on donnallong.com

Pollinator Syndromes

Early Spring Butterflies

Early Spring Blooming Native Plants

Good Books on Pollinators and Pollinator Syndromes (on Amazon.com) 

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants by Heather Holm (excellent book)

Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide, Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies by the Xerces Society

Pollinator Conservation Handbook: A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, and Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects by the Xerces Society

2 comments

  1. Thanks, Donna, for yet another “that’s new to me!” moment. I knew flies were effective pollinators but not why. I do hope folks are reading your helpful posts, and thinking more about the amazing world around us.

    Being from a Toronto family, I was interested to see that Allison Parker, a grad student at the University of Toronto, had, with others, modeled the results, from the flower’s perspective, of flies versus bees as pollinators. Seems, at least in their study, that flies take much less pollen, and therefore make possible more visits by more pollinators than visits by bees. Good to see women, just as yourself, working with insects! Thanks so much!

    Here’s a link to a post on the UOT study.
    http://theseedsofscience.com/2013/06/16/87/
    And a link to one of Alison’s papers on the ‘cost’ of pollination for a spring ephemeral wildflower.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4984495/

    • Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words. I love those, “that’s news to me” moments, too. Here the “news to me” moment you helped me with.
      I went to the seeds of science website and read the article. So, bees may be better pollinators in situations because they don’t take pollen but add pollen to the flower on their visits. Bees collect the pollen and take it back to their nests. The pollen removed can’t be used to fertile other flowers. That is really something to think about as I add plants to my backyard naturalist’s garden. Thanks!

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