Nothing shouts Summer! like a field of subalpine wildflowers hosting a pollinator convention. Blazes of yellow and orange and splashes of white and pink are punctuated by patches of blue as the flowers race against the short summer season. Neck and neck with this floral extravaganza are the insects that forage on available nectar and pollen, and who are also trying to keep pace with the brief flowering period.
The summer season is short in the high country of the La Sals, Abajos and Henry Mountains of southern Utah. Some flowers poke up through areas barely devoid of snow, while others await their release below the melting snowpack. But once free of winter, these plants burst into action. The race is to produce flowers, set seed and die back before the onset of winter.
Although the lower flanks of the mountains have been in bloom for awhile, the higher subalpine and alpine meadows have just come alive with lupine, daisies, yarrow, delphiniums, columbine, and other flowers. The diversity of form and color in turn attracts various insect and bird pollinators. Butterflies and sphinx moths, beetles and bees, hover flies and hummingbirds are just some of the pollinators attracted to these flowers.
Flower form, nectar or pollen rewards, and color are several factors that attract pollinators. Flat-topped clusters of white and yellow flowers attract a wide variety of insects, while blue tubular flowers entice bees to rewards of pollen or nectar. Of course, the trade off for the rewards is pollination – transferring pollen from one plant to another. Insects that are more specialized, like bees, butterflies or hummingbirds, will seek out specific plants and these pollinators exhibit a greater tendency to visit individuals of the same flower species. People and dogs aren’t the only creatures to exist on a reward system.
You would think that the floral party in the mountains would be enough, but don’t forget to look up every now and then for some of the larger, charismatic fauna that roam the mountains.
Black bears, mule deer, elk, mountain lions and coyotes are just a few species of wildlife one might encounter in the La Sals or Abajos. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has considered a program of introducing Rocky Mountain goats into the high crags, although wild goats haven’t been in the area since the Pleistocene’s Harrington’s mountain goats roamed the landscape.
On a more “microfauna” scale, there are American pika and yellow-bellied marmots that live in the rocky scree. Although the marmots hibernate the winter away, the pikas spend the summer hauling plant material and making “hay piles” in protective locations for winter consumption. Sometimes, one sees some of the lovely summer blossoms being consumed by these non-pollinating herbivores.
Two reminders for exploring up high in the mountains. When traveling in the subalpine and alpine areas, remember to follow established trails where possible. A portion of the La Sals is a designated Research Natural Area (RNA) which highlights the unique and sensitive nature of the alpine community. Also, wildflowers are not the only things that bloom in the mountains; summer thunderheads also blossom over the peaks. These clouds may belt the peaks with rain and blast them with lightning, so beware on your travels and avoid those hair-raising encounters!