Now There’s Proof: Bees Make Bigger Plants

Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)

There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better.

Of course we all know by now that pollinators are essential to the propagation of plant species.

Bee covered in pollen

But the recent study undertaken by evolutionary biologists from the University of Zurich (UZH) found that plants change in significant ways depending on the pollinator. Specifically, those plants pollinated by bumblebees are larger in size, more fragrant and have brighter color (as evidenced by a greater UV color component.) This has big implications for the plant world.

 

THE EXPERIMENT

For their experiment, UZH professor Florian Schiestl and doctoral student Daniel Gervasi used field mustard (Brassica rapa). A common field weed, field mustard is the origin of many cultivars including canola, turnip and bok choy.

Field mustard

The researchers divided the plants into three groups, allowing the first group of plants to be pollinated by bumblebees, the second by hover flies and the third by hand. They then followed the field mustard for nine generations. Afterwards, they analyzed the pollinators’ effects on the plants.

(A word on hover flies. Hover flies may look like bees or wasps, but they are actually flies with black and orange markings. They’re important pollinators whose larvae love to feed on aphids.)

A hover fly

THE RESULTS

Not to disparage the hover flies, but after just nine generations, they simply couldn’t keep up with the bees when it came to affecting the evolutionary success of the plants. In contrast to the plants pollinated by the bees, those pollinated by the hover flies were smaller and their flowers were less fragrant. The flowers were also forced to self-pollinate more to make up for the flies’ lower efficiency.

Plants pollinated by bumblebees (left) and hover flies (right) Photo: UZH

 

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

It’s a known fact that different pollinators have preferences for different plants, but the dramatic changes in the test plants after just nine generations came as a surprise to the researchers. Most evolutionary changes occur over a much longer period of time.

UZH professor Schiestl drew the following conclusion:

A change in the composition of pollinator insects in natural habitats can trigger a rapid evolutionary transformation in plants.

Before we jump all over the hover fly, let’s remember that all pollinators are good. What this study shows us, however, is that some are better than others (namely, bees). The fact that their species is threatened could have a direct impact on our agriculture, not to mention our garden plants as they make the necessary adaptations.

This is of particular concern given the recent decline in bumblebee populations due to pesticides and other environmental factors. With less bees available, plants such as field mustard might be forced to rely more and more on other, less effective pollinators like hover flies, with the results being weaker flower fragrances and increased self-pollination.

Yet one more reason to get busy saving the bees.

 

Is the Self-Healing House the Garden of the Future?

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Image via Edwin Indira Waskita

There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading

Bee ID: How To Make Sense Of The Buzz In Your Garden

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Aren’t they cute?

One of the many things I love about gardening is working alongside my many fuzzy, buzzing friends. Faithfully arriving on the job each morning, they give way in a single mass to hover just next to my hands as I carefully reach down into the garden. Sometimes, I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to pet one of the downy creatures, and they’ve allowed me to stroke their velvety fur. Feeling the tiny vibrations of all that industrious activity never ceases to amaze me. Continue reading

Ruderal Plants: Challenging Our Notion of Control Over Nature

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“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first plants to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. Self-sowing in abandoned areas, the hardy plants take root, demonstrating what Mother Nature can create when left to her own devices. Continue reading

How NASA Grew the World’s First Flower in Space

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Photo tweeted by Astronaut Scott Kelly 1/16/16

Anyone who has seen The Martian will remember the scene where astronaut Mark Watney succeeds in growing potatoes and the joy he experiences in knowing he has learned to cultivate plants to survive. Well, it turns out that crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been growing plants, too, in an actual ‘space garden’. Now, with its debut of the first-ever flower grown in space, NASA takes a giant leap forward in developing methods that will provide astronauts with a sustainable source of safe food, making the possibility of missions to Mars no longer a dream of the future. Continue reading

National Building Museum Retraces the Works of Oehme, van Sweden

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Slifka Beach House/tlcf.org.

There’s a small but beautiful photographic exhibit currently on view at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum entitled The New American Garden: The Landscape Architecture of Oehme, van Sweden. It’s a fascinating look back at the careers and influence of revolutionary landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme (1930-2011) and James van Sweden (1935-2013), whose collaborative work challenged the American concept of the structured, well-manicured lawn. Continue reading

Imperfect Produce Finds A Home On Savvy Consumers’ Tables

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Over the past few decades, we’ve come to expect perfection from our fruits and vegetables while patronizing grocery stores and markets that sell only the most beautiful of produce. But have you every wondered what happens to perfectly edible fruits and vegetables that are misshapen, blemished or discolored? It turns out these less desirable items are rejected from the very start, plowed under by farmers before they can ever reach the market. Continue reading

Scientists Create Cyborg Rose; the World’s First Electronic Flower

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Image credit: Linköping-University

In a jolt to rose lovers and plant enthusiasts worldwide, scientists have created the first ‘cyborg’ rose. A living flower, it is powered entirely by electronics. This marks the first time a plant’s biological circuitry has been successfully merged with an electrical circuit, opening the door to a future where plants may be improved by electronics instead of by genetic engineering. Continue reading

The Seed Vault That May One Day Save the World

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If our planet ever goes to ruin, it’s good to know there’s a place squirreling away the world’s seeds. Known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, it lies enveloped in a thick coat of permafrost just north of the Arctic Circle. Here in an icy vault just a few hundred miles from the North Pole, duplicates of over 1.5 million of the world’s seeds are being stored in the largest secure seed storage facility of its kind. Continue reading