- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
“Flowers feed the world, keep us healthy and make us smile,” says Buchmann, who received his doctorate in entomology in 1978 from UC Davis and is a longtime pollination researcher and adjunct professor in the departments of entomology and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona.
But flowers, especially red roses, the most commonly gifted flower on Valentine's Day, can't hold a candle to what most people never think about—that flowers feed the world, thanks primarily to honey bees, bumble bees, syprhid flies and other pollinators.
“Because pollinated and fertilized blossoms turn into nutritious fruits and seeds, these invaluable foodstuffs keep the world's 7.2 billion people from starvation,” Buchmann points out. “These resulting fruits also feed birds, bears and other wildlife.”
Americans buy about 10 million cut blooms every day, Buchmann estimates, but that figure can “jump to 200 million cut flowers on Valentine's Day. Most of these flowers are grown in Columbia and Ecuador then arrive in the bellies of jumbo jets arriving at the Miami airport.”
And flowers make us a smile. “Give someone flowers, and they flash a genuine Duchenne smile,” Buchmann promises. “Rutgers psychologist Dr. Jeanette Haviland-Jones has infused subliminal amounts of rose and gardenia vs. manmade scents into room air. Subjects use more enjoyment words and were more likely to approach or touch a stranger when the floral scents were present. Flowers may counteract the semiochemicals for fear, anger and anxiety that humans seem to constantly be emitting.
Other reasons for flowers, all detailed in his book, just released Feb. 9 in paperback by Simon & Schuster, include:
- Tasty and Nutritious. “Although the calories from starchy cereals and grain crops feed the world, we enjoy and need the ‘nutraceuticals' and antioxidants inside colorful cranberries, blueberries, oranges and apples,” he says. “They keep us healthy and happy.
- Edible flowers. “Some flowers--that is, roses, some marigolds--are great as edible garnish and foods.” His book relates “which ones can be eaten and what they taste like."
- Humans might never have evolved, or survived. “Early hominids certainly recognized that flowers were the harbingers of tasty fruits. Without flowers, perhaps no people today.”
- As costly as gold. “Saffron is the world's costliest spice and the subject of countless fake imitations,” Buchmann says. “The spice is the dried styles from crocus blooms. Hand-picking and the fact that this represents such a tiny fraction of the entire plant, make it so costly and precious.”
- For inspiration and romance. “Flowers have inspired generations of poets, writers and artists. Their myriad shapes, colors and scents enrich our lives with beauty. Their sexuality and alluring scents bring romance into our lives.”
- Most ancient. The world's earliest known flower is the 8-inch tall fossil Achaefructus that grew in China 130-160 million years ago. “It turns out that these and other early blooms were puny runts,” Buchmann says. “They wouldn't win best of show ribbons in any flower show.”
- Flowers in the service of science. “Without Gregor Mendel's crossing experiments with the humble garden pea, we wouldn't have learned about the laws of inheritance when we did. “
Buchmann has published more than 150 scientific articles and 11 popular nonfiction books, including The Forgotten Pollinators (a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist) with Gary Nabhan. His book, Honey Bees: Letters from the Hive, is a National Science Teachers' Association Outstanding Science Trade Book. He's also written a children's book The Bee Tree (with Diana Cohn), described as the true story of a family of honey hunters in peninsular Malaysia.
Buchmann's major professor at UC Davis was Robbin Thorp, now a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology who continues his research on native bees. Both continue to teach the annual American Museum of Natural History “The Bee Course,” along with several other colleagues.
"Steve has been on the cutting edge of many areas of pollination biology," Thorp said. "He jumps on to new ideas with great enthusiasm and explores them in depth. He has been a leader in areas like buzz pollination, the contribution of electrostatics in pollen harvesting by bees, and adaptations in bees that collect oils from specialized flowers. He raised important issues about the conservation of bees in co-authoring the benchmark book, The Forgotten Pollinators, a decade before colony collapse disorder in honey bees captured the attention of the media and general public. He enjoys new technologies and exploring ways they can be applied to pollination research. At the annual Bee Course in Arizona, he provides a very popular demonstration of life within carpenter bee nests."
Buchmann wears a number of hats. He assists documentary filmmakers as a “bee and flower wrangler,” and served as the chief scientist for the 2013 Disneynature film Wings of Life, narrated by Meryl Streep. He also produced a short film Honey for the Maya, which can be seen on YouTube.
Besides writing and his beloved buzz pollination research (funded by a National Science Foundation Grant), Buchmann enjoys macro and landscape photography, along with making small fine art bronzes in a Tucson foundry.
The former UC Davis doctoral student remembers “walking up and down the stairs to my office in the old insect museum in Briggs Hall; and chatting with botanist/evolutionist Dr. Ledyard Stebbins; studying the pollination of shooting stars (Dodecatheon) near Lake Berryessa, the area that is now the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve; and riding “back and forth to UC Berkeley and the UC Davis libraries on the free library shuttle.”
He did field work for his doctorate in Arizona, California, Wisconsin and Panama (Barro Colorado Island), and recalls the “wonderful mentorship of Dr. Robbin Thorp and the late Grady Webster.”
And flowers? Yes, many memories of flowers. He fondly remembers “roaming the serpentine rock outcrops of Napa Valley and inhaling the wonderful wine-like floral aroma of western spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis) and “opening flowers of Dutchman's pipe festooning trees near Lake Berryessa, “to find their fungus gnat pollinators.”