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Enter the dragon! Bumblebees and snapdragons

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) entering a snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

A bumblebee has to open a snapdragon flower (Antirrhinum majus) to get inside. Antirrhinum flowers have five petals arranged into an upper and lower lip that develops a convex shape, called a palate, which effectively blocks the mouth of the flower tube. This type of flower is called ‘personate’, and because the lower lip is tucked in the upper one, it creates an effective barrier – i.e. between the nectar at the base of the flower tube – for any unwanted floral visitors (Vargas et al., 2017). In other words, the flower has evolved a relationship with the pollinator, only letting in those it wants!

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on a snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

The bee lands on the bottom lip of the flower, and its weight causes the flower to open so that the bee can crawl in.

(Bombus terrestris) on lower petals of a snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

The traditional scientific opinion, is that ‘strong bees’, albeit of different sizes, are the principal pollinators of such occluded, personate flowers and most other insects are not heavy or strong enough to open the corolla mouth (Guzman et al., 2015; Vargas et al., 2017). So, honey bees for example, are reportedly not able to open up the mouth of the flower; they are too small, or too weak! I did not see any honey bees trying to get into these snapdragons. They can get in however, if a bumble bee has cut a hole (a nectar robber) in the side of the snapdragon! But this did not happen in these snapdragons.

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) about to open the lower lip of a snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

After the bee has entered the flower, it snaps shut again!

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) partially inside a snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

When the bee is finished extracting the nectar, it backs out!

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) in a snapdragon flower: going in or coming out? Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

Most of the bees I watched did not take very long to get the nectar and re-emerge backwards. They then flew on to another flower. Could they detect if the flower had recently been visited by another bee? I don’t know.

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) moving on to another snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

Some bees however, went inside a flower and stayed there! At first I thought that I had missed them coming out again, but when I opened a flower in which a bee had disappeared into, I found that the bee was still inside! What was it doing? Was it resting? Sleeping? Or just taking a nap! I will now look at snapdragon flowers differently; knowing that there might be a bee, asleep inside one!

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on the palate, about to enter a snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

In snapdragon flowers, the upper and lower lobes are apparently where the floral scents are emitted from. So to reach the nectar, the bees must move into the flower tube (or corolla).

Snap dragon dissection.

When the bee brushes against the lobes of the flower, it picks up the flower’s scent, as well as the pollen it collects when it brushed against the stamens inside the flower (above). Some of the bees had pollen on their wings (below).

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) with pollen dusted wings on a snapdragon flower. Photo by Raymond JC Cannon

It’s probably worth pointing out that all of this activity was going on pretty quickly. I had to use a shutter speed of one 4,000ths of a sec to ‘freeze’ the bees sufficiently well. In some cases, even this was not fast enough. Shot with a 150mm macro lens.


Guzmán, B., Gómez, J. M., & Vargas, P. (2015). Bees and evolution of occluded corollas in snapdragons and relatives (Antirrhineae). Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics17(6), 467-475.

Vargas, P., Liberal, I., Ornosa, C., & Gómez, J. M. (2017). Flower specialisation: the occluded corolla of snapdragons (Antirrhinum) exhibits two pollinator niches of large long‐tongued bees. Plant Biology19(5), 787-797.


rcannon992 View All

I am an entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

3 thoughts on “Enter the dragon! Bumblebees and snapdragons Leave a comment

  1. Nice – you’ve captured bees in a way that presents them as the interesting creatures they are – since they’re universally feared by most. I would dare say they even look cute 🙂

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