Saturday, November 26, 2022

Rowena Plateau, June 2022 (II)

As promised in part I back in August, here are more photos from the Nature Conservancy preserve at Rowena, OR, taken back in June around the tail end of desert wildflower season. These were taken with an old Sony DSLR from Goodwill and a couple of equally old Sony/Minolta lenses, including a 50mm macro lens that I've decided I'm a huge fan of. If there's a trick to taking sorta-ok macro photos, without a tripod, on a windy day in the Gorge, I guess it would be to just take a ton of photos to boost the odds you'll get some decent ones between wind gusts. If I was actually trying to make money off this stuff it would probably help to find a really pretentious way to phrase that, maybe some mumbo-jumbo about the zen of inhabiting the still spaces inside the wind, and offer to teach people how to do that in expensive multi-day workshops. If only I could say all that with a straight face, and I was more of a people person, and also unscrupulous.

In any case, I unfortunately don't have an ID on the beetle in the first couple of photos. You can kind of make out that it has tiny hairs on its thorax that pick up pollen as it wanders around this arrowleaf balsamroot flower, sipping on nectar (or eating pollen, or whatever it's doing.) It seems reasonable to guess that some pollination happens while it goes about its business.

As the saying goes, the plural of "anecdote" is not "data", but a brief search came back with a few other photos on the internet of similar beetles on balsamroot flowers, so at minimum this is not a one-off occurrence: Someone's Flickr photo (taken further east on the Washington side of the Gorge), and stock photos on Getty Images and Alamy The Alamy one shows a pair of pollen-covered beetles mating on the side of a balsamroot flower, so it may not be safe for work if your boss is an especially prudish entomologist.

But I haven't seen anything in writing saying the plant is pollinated by such-and-such beetle. I did run across a 2005 study on the pollination needs of the plant. It notes that essentially no previous studies had been done on pollination for the whole balsamroot genus, but then zooms in on the habits of a couple of native bee species and never mentions beetles at all. The study was motivated by practical concerns, namely an interest in growing balsamroot seed commercially, as the plant seems to be good for habitat restoration, and both livestock and wildlife seem to think it's delicious. There are already other seed crops that rely on native bees, such as Eastern Washington's alfalfa seed industry and its dependence on alkali bees, so maybe it just seemed natural to focus on that and not the care and feeding of some weird desert beetle. And admittedly this beetle didn't seem to be in any great hurry to buzz away to the next flower, which helps if you want photos, not so much if you're an international seed conglomerate and your CEO needs a new yacht.

So we're at a dead end regarding beetles, but a Forest Service info page about the plant has a couple of other unrelated nuggets. First, it describes the flowers as "bigger than a silver dollar but smaller than a CD; about the size of a small floppy disk", which is overly wordy but gives you a strong clue as to the age of the author. Later, toward the end when it describes the plant's culinary and medicinal uses, it says cryptically that "The root could be used as a coffee substitute", without elaborating any further. A page at Eat The Planet repeats the claim, as do a lot of other search results, but nobody on the whole wide internet says whether the resulting beverage is regular or decaf. Which to me is the one key detail about anything described as a coffee substitute. No caffeine and it's just another way to make hot water taste bitter, which is not so interesting. Either way, the public deserves answers.