Flowers, bugs and bees: Stephen Buchmann wanted to study them all when he was a kid.
“I never grew out of my bug-and-dinosaur phase,” he tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “You know, since about the third grade, I decided I wanted to chase insects, especially bees.”
These days, he’s living that dream. As a pollination ecologist, he’s now taking a particular interest in how flowers attract insects. In his new book, The Reason for Flowers, he looks at more than just the biology of flowers — he dives into the ways they’ve laid down roots in human history and culture, too.
To hear their full conversation, click the audio link above.
On the real ‘reason for flowers’
The reason for flowers is actually one word: sex. So, flowers are literally living scented billboards that are advertising for sexual favors, whether those are from bees, flies, beetles, butterflies or us, because quite frankly most of the flowers in the world have gotten us to do their bidding. But that’s only the first stage because flowers, if they’re lucky, turn into fruits, and those fruits and seeds feed the world.
On the raucous secret lives of beetles
One of my favorite memories is roaming the Napa foothills as a UC Davis grad student. And I would go to the wineries, of course, and in between I would find western spice bush, which is this marvelous flower that kind of smells like a blend between a cabernet and rotten fruit.
And when you find those flowers and open them up, you discover literally dozens of beetles in there, mating, defecating, pollinating — having a grand time.
On the modern-day supply chain of flowers
Domestically in the U.S., we probably raise only about 30 percent of our flowers, and those are coming from California and Florida. But, you know, globally there are about 15 billion stems per year, and in the U.S. we buy about 4 billion cut stems a year — maybe 10 million flowers per day. But the vast majority of the flowers that we find in our big box stores or farmers markets are pretty much coming from Colombia and Ecuador, followed by Costa Rica.
And virtually all of those are coming into the Miami International Airport, so you may not realize it when you’re flying in, but below your feet in the cargo hold, there are some perishable flowers as cargo. And they’re also coming in airplanes — jumbo jets that are totally stripped no seats and just crammed with boxed flowers.
They have a huge carbon footprint. Millions and millions of them are inspected, bought and sold, and then get back on a plane to go somewhere else in the world.
On the universal — and ageless — appeal of flowers
The floral beauty has beguiled us, along with the birds and the bees. Flowers come in a myriad of shapes, colors, scents and sizes, but they seem to have almost universal appeal.
Every culture that I researched has a love for flowers. I mean, we use them obviously in decorations and in the decorative and fine arts and prose and poetry. We don’t really have petroglyphs about flowers … but, you know, going back to 13,000 years ago with the Natufian culture in Israel there we find on Mount Carmel in Israel the first seemingly genuine burials where flowers were used extensively when they buried their dead.