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How plants will get by without pollinators

They'll adapt, of course:

Pity the birds and the bees: disease [Colony Collapse Disorder], climate change and the human urge to pillage our environment mean they are in decline around the world.

So what about the plants that rely on them to spread their seed? A rare "live" study looking at what happens when you deprive plants of pollinators shows that evolution can step in to help them cope. But don't get the champagne out just yet.

Sarah Bodbyl-Roels at the University of Kansas studies the common monkey flower, Mimulus guttatus, a small yellow flower that grows alongside streams in North America. The transition from pollinated to self-pollinating has been recorded in a number of species, she said at the Evolution 2010 conference in Portland, Oregon, this week. "But we haven't seen it in action."

Bodbyl-Roels planted 1600 monkey flower plants in a field and the same number in a greenhouse where they would be isolated from their normal pollinator, the Bombus bumblebee. She then let the plants grow undisturbed for five generations.

Those that had been forced to self-fertilise looked quite distinct from pollinated plants, with smaller flowers in which the female and male organs were much closer together, Bodbyl-Roels told the conference. She says she has identified regions of DNA that are linked to these physical changes.

Crucially, when she looked at how much seed the plants produced – a measure of their ability to reproduce and therefore survive – she found that although seed production in isolated plants crashed for the first three generations, it then increased again. By the fifth generation it was close to the same level as in pollinated plants.

So the good news is that some flowers appear able to recover when their usual pollinators are wiped out, at least in the short term. The study's findings are likely to apply to a large number of other flowering plant species, says Jeffrey Karron of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and give some hope that the mating systems of flowering plants can evolve to cope with gradual environmental change.

But Bodbyl-Roels warns that in the long term, self-pollination reduces genetic diversity, leading to plants that are less able to cope with environmental stresses.


NOTE Via Some Assembly Required, an aggregator I don't check often enough.

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chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

better, easily. i'm no expert in pollinators. but i have lots of them! and they weren't here when i first started gardening. but they are now.

1. don't use chemical poison in your lawn and gardens. even if you're like me, at the bottom of a hill and your neighbors' poisons run down to your lawn, you can still keep a yard that is minimal in chemicals that kill animals.

2. keep a little standing water somewhere. in mosquito land, this is dangerous, but at the same time, it creates a place for bats, frogs, and other wildlife to get water when they need it, and stay on your property when they don't.

3. grow flowers! it's not hard! there are likely 000s of native flowering pretty species you could seed your space with, and forget about. even that little action makes a huge difference. our native species are dying off because they don't have food and water sources they are evolved to live upon, and we can change that, one yard at a time. just go to your local ag university extension site or a place that sells native wildflower seed, and get a bag of seeds. it's worked so well for me, and i'm serious when i say: no effort. drop seeds, wait a season, enjoy butterflies and hummingbirds and toads. flowers attract insects that pollinate, as well as feed beneficial insect predators.

Submitted by lambert on

and although there are still virtually no honeybees, I have bumblebees galore, and extremely happy squash, tomatoes, and peppers to prove it. And the sunflowers aren't flowered yet.

Lots of marigolds, bee balm*, honeysuckle, lots of clover, sage, chives (OK, so they chives bolted).

NOTE * Says the church lady at the plant sale: We don't sell anything that's not invasive!

Submitted by Lex on

That's remarkably fast adaptation within the normal time line of evolution. Plants are super cool!

I can't imagine not having flowers, though CD's point is a good one and i'm going to think about and work some native species into parts of the back yard.