Clowns’ Underpants

Most days I have breakfast with these flowers. I don’t remember their formal name, but in Chiapas we call them calzones de payaso ..‘clowns’ underpants.’

Pollinators go nuts for clowns’ underpants. I’ve seen at least five different species of birds and bees visiting these bell-shaped beauties. Good entertainment for an early morning, but there’s something strange about the bee-flower dynamic here. Although honey bees visit frequently, they do not appear to enter the flower, instead drawing nectar from the green sepals up top.

This is surprising because, in general, flowers produce nectar to attract pollinators.  Their nectaries are often located deep inside the flower, requiring pollinators to brush past pollen-producing anthers on their way in. The pollen grains cling to the pollinator and hitch a ride to the next flower for fertilization, and this is how flower babies are made. Without nectar, many pollinators have no incentive to visit flowers.

Hummingbird pollinates clowns' underpants

Claw birds: yellow-bellied, shrewd Claw birds: yellow-bellied, shrewd

So why would the clown’s underpants allow access to its nectaries without requiring bees to pay their pollinator dues? It wouldn’t! So what’s going on?

Turns out it’s the birds. No, not the hummingbirds, these guys are faithful* pollinators, poking their whole heads up inside one flower, getting pollen all over their throats, and passing it along to the next flower.

The chiste is the other birds, we will call them claw birds because of their ingenious use of claws. Claw birds have stout little bodies and stubby little beaks, which prevent them from entering the flower from below. Instead, they stand on a branch, they use their claws to grab onto a flower and their beaks to drill holes in its base,  and they perforate the sepal area at the top of the bell.


Like humming birds, honey bees are also capable of entering the clowns’ underpants flower from below. However, it’s a whole lot faster to rob from the ready-made holes at the top. So, with the help of the claw birds, honey bees cheat the system, taking nectar without pollinating the flower. Bumble bees do the same.

Bumblebee robbing nectar from holes in the top of the flower.

Bumblebee robbing nectar from holes in the top of the flower.

Pollination is not a one-dimensional deal. Bees also collect pollen intentionally for their own consumption. Nectar provides carbohydrates, quick energy for the hard workers, but pollen is the protein source, and it is especially necessary for processes like secreting royal jelly and making bee bread (baby food) for the brood.

In future studies, I will try to determine whether pollen-foraging honey bees (distinct from nectar-foragers) collect pollen from clown’s underpants as well.

*turns out even hummingbirds are willing to cheat. Although they are able to collect nectar from the bottom of the flower, they also exploit the holes that claw birds make, presumably because it’s faster.

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