A look at the intricate relationship between plants and pollinators

A look at the intricate relationship between plants and pollinators

  • A bumblebee on a heath aster at Snuffy's Prairie in Dundee Township. Studies have shown the frequency of the bee's buzz induces the flower to release pollen.

    A bumblebee on a heath aster at Snuffy's Prairie in Dundee Township. Studies have shown the frequency of the bee's buzz induces the flower to release pollen. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

  • A halictid bee on a cream gentian.

    A halictid bee on a cream gentian. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

  • An andrenid bee on a trout lily at Tekakwitha Woods in St. Charles.

    An andrenid bee on a trout lily at Tekakwitha Woods in St. Charles. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Updated 6/16/2019 10:20 AM

Plants and animals have some crazy lifestyles, particularly when it comes to pollination.

Pollination, as you may recall, is the transfer of pollen from one plant to another. This makes it possible for flowers to produce seeds, which, in turn, will produce more plants.


Insects need food, often in the form of plant sugars from nectar and protein from pollen. Put humans in the equation, and it's a win-win-win situation. The plant gets to make more plants, the animal gets nutrition, and we get stuff we need -- like soybeans, cotton, apples, tomatoes, and Tequila.

Pollination ranges from the straightforward to the intricate and complex. In the latter category is buzz pollination (or, to be fancy, "sonication"). Bumblebees seek nectar and pollen for food for their growing colonies in the summer.

Flowers in the tomato family have tons of nutritious pollen, but they don't give it out for free. The flower won't release its pollen unless it "hears" a certain vibration.

Bumblebees, it turns out, give off good vibes. In fact, just the right vibes.

Grasping onto the flower by the anthers, the bumblebee buzzes with a specific frequency. At this frequency, the flower explodes with pollen, giving the bumblebee its protein and coating it with pollen.

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Thus doused, the bumblebee heads right to another flower, taking the pollen from Flower One to Flower Two, and on to many others.

Scientists have determined that the frequency of buzz pollination is equivalent to a C note on a tuning fork. (Or, the "Hey" in "Hey Jude," for those Paul McCartney fans out there.)

And speaking of music, recent research has revealed an amazing new page in the pollination songbook.

Some flowers produce sweeter nectar when they hear pollinators approaching.

Yep, they "hear" or detect the vibrations of pollinators.

Michelle Z. Donahue reported in the January 2019 issue of National Geographic some exciting studies undertaken by Lilach Hadany of Tel Aviv University.

"Hadany's team looked at evening primroses," wrote Donahue, "and found that within minutes of sensing vibrations from pollinators' wings, the plants temporarily increased the concentration of sugar in their flowers' nectar. In effect, the flowers themselves served as ears, picking up the specific frequencies of bees' wings while tuning out irrelevant sounds like wind."



The Tel Aviv researchers also looked at flower shape and the ability to sense approaching pollinators. Plants with bowl-shaped flowers may be able to detect sound better than others.

"This makes them perfect for receiving and amplifying sound waves," explained Donahue, "much like a satellite dish."

This exciting research has launched a new field of study called phytoacoustics. It all goes to show that sometimes you do need to sing for your supper.

Another amazing plant-pollinator relationship has been recently discovered. Tilo Henning of the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum in Berlin, and Maximilian Weigend of the University of Bonn in Germany have hypothesized that a group of plants native to the Peruvian Andes can move their pollen-bearing structures according to past visits from pollinators.

Henning and Weigend studied the plant Nasa poissoniana and determined that it can remember the schedule of pollinator visits, and repeat their movements accordingly.

"These plants can gymnastically wave around their stamens -- the organs they use for fertilization -- to maximize the distribution of their pollen," according to Cara Giaimo in The New York Times.

"More surprisingly, (Henning and Weigend) suggest that individual plants can adjust the timing of these movements based on their previous experiences with pollinators. In other words, they remember the past and try to repeat it."

Crazy? You bet. You can read details of the research methods and conclusions in the April 2019 issue of Plant Signaling and Behavior.

A close-to-home example of unusual pollination is the skunk cabbage-carrion insect relationship.

Skunk cabbage, as the name implies, is a smelly plant that grows in wet woods. It's one of the first plants to flower each year -- often in February when the snow is still on the ground.

The flower is definitely not bouquet-worthy. It's dark maroon, lacks petals, and is hidden by an overarching structure.

The color, as well as the stench of the flower, mimic dead, rotting things -- hence attracting carrion beetles and flies.

The flower also produces its own heat, and can maintain a comfortable 60 to 70 degrees inside the floral covering. Perfect for those carcass-loving insects.

Other examples of strange pollination abound. With each new discovery, we find that the business of life is fascinating in its complexities.

What happens when one of the partners in the intricate dance of pollination disappears?

We are losing pollinators at an alarming rate, and plant extinction continues apace. Habitat loss and pesticide use are the big culprits.

Not to end on a buzz-kill, let me present some good news to counter the bad. Everyone can chip in to restore, preserve, and protect habitat for the myriad creatures around us.

Volunteer opportunities abound in the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. Visit the volunteer page on our website, www.kaneforest.com, to see where you can help.

You can also learn about native plant landscaping from local organizations such as Northern Kane County Wild Ones, northernkanecounty.wildones.org, and The Conservation Foundation, theconservationfoundation.org.

• Valerie Blaine is the Environmental Education Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You can reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.


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