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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

The last tulips in my garden this morning...

The last tulips in my garden this morning…

It is finally flower season! How I love it! However the happiness of the season is constrained somewhat by the gray squirrels, which have systematically beheaded my tulips (despite the fact that I have been simultaneously trying to ward the pests away with foul chemical sprays and appease them with nuts).  Alas, most of my tulips now lie sad and beheaded beneath the cherry blossoms.

My (ineffective) struggles to protect my beloved tulips remind me of the struggles of wild flowers which face a similar arms race.  The tulips I plant are propagated by big nurseries, and the squirrels don’t really want to eat the blossoms: they merely tear them apart to see if there is any food inside (and (probably) because the miserable rodents enjoy my suffering).   Flowers are plant reproductive organs which exist to repopulate the species.  In the case of garden tulips this involves a complicated relationship between myself, Lowes, tulip farms, nurserymen, and squirrels.  In the world of wildflowers, the players are fewer and the stakes are much higher.

Buff-tailed Sicklebill (Eutoxeres condamini) by Ernst Haeckel

Buff-tailed Sicklebill (Eutoxeres condamini) by Ernst Haeckel

Flowers and their pollinators have a mutualistic relationship:  the hummingbird –or bee, or moth, or bat, or whatever–gets a meal while the flower directly shares its gametes (in the form of pollen stuck to the beak or fur) with distant members of the same plant species.  Some blossoms coevolve to provide nectar to specialized pollinators as with the famous sicklebill hummingbird (which feeds on the nectar of specialized Centropogon and Heliconia flowers which fit the bird’s beak and produce colors appealing to the hummingbirds).

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This whole relationship falls apart sometimes though, thanks to a behavior first reported by Charles Darwin. Some animals are nectar robbers.  Lacking the long proboscis or curved beak or special senses necessary to obtain the sweet nectar which the plant offers as a reward for its reproductive interlocutors, some animals simply cut through the blossoms or rip them apart to take the pollen.  Although this can be beneficial (if a robber ends up pollinating a flower anyway, or forces a legitimate pollinating species to travel over a larger area—and thus provide greater genetic diversity), more often it is destructive.

Um, sure I guess...thanks, art department.

Um, sure I guess…thanks, art department.

Interestingly, a recent study determined that bumble bees learn how to cut holes in flowers and steal the nectar directly from other bumble bees (you can read about the particulars of the study here).  Bumble bees are not the only pollen robbers–various lepidopterans, bats, and birds are guilty in various ways–but the bumble bee example is the first case to prove Darwin’s thesis that such robbing behavior was learned by insects.

It all begins to make more sense now...

It all begins to make more sense now…

Flowers, though passive, are not helpless.  Over generations, they coevolve with both the robbers and the pollinators—which is how they obtain so many convoluted and fanciful forms (and why there are so many toxicologically and pharmacologically active compounds therein).  It is worth thinking about when you encounter a spring landscape of beautiful flowers—beneath the surface lies a world of sex, appetite, and larceny.

The horror!

The horror!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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