Year of Pollination: Pollinator Walk at Earthly Delights Farm

Last week I had the privilege of attending a pollinator walk with a local entomologist at Earthly Delights Farm, a small, urban farm in Boise, Idaho. The entomologist was Dr. Karen Strickler, an adjunct instructor at College of Western Idaho and the owner of Pollinator Paradise. A small group of us spent a couple of hours wandering through the farm looking for pollinators and discussing whatever pollinator or non-pollinator related topic that arose. Earthly Delights Farm, along with growing and selling produce using a subscription-based model, is a seed producing farm (and part of a larger seed growing operation called Snake River Seed Cooperative), so there were several crops flowering on the farm that would typically be removed at other farms before reaching that stage, such as lettuce and carrots. The farm also shares property with Draggin’ Wing High Desert Nursery, a nursery specializing in water efficient plants for the Intermountain West, which has a large demonstration area full of flowering plants. Thus, pollinators were present in abundance.

A series of isolation tents over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties.

A series of isolation tents placed over various crops to help prevent cross pollination between varieties – an important component of seed saving.

While many groups of pollinators were discussed, including leafcutter bees, bumblebees, honeybees, sweat bees, hummingbirds, and beetles, much of our conversation and search was focused on syrphid flies. Flies are an often underappreciated and overlooked group of pollinators. While not all of the 120,000 species of flies in the world are pollinators, many of them are. The book Attracting Native Pollinators by the Xerces Society has this to say about flies: “With their reputation as generalist foragers, no nests to provision, and sometimes sparsely haired bodies, flies don’t get much credit as significant pollinators. Despite this reputation, they are often important pollinators in natural ecosystems for specific plants, and occasionally for human food plants.” They are especially important pollinators in the Arctic and in alpine regions, because unlike bees, they do not maintain nests, which means they use less energy and require less nectar, making them more fit for colder climates.

One food crop that flies are particularly efficient at pollinating is carrots. According the Xerces Society, carrot flowers are “not a favorite of managed honeybees.” Most flies do not have long tubular, sucking mouthparts, so they search for nectar in small, shallow flowers that appear in clusters, such as plants in the mint, carrot, and brassica families. Flower-visiting flies come in search of nectar and sometimes pollen for energy and reproduction. While acquiring these meals they can at times inadvertently collect pollen on their bodies and transfer it to adjacent flowers. They are generally not as efficient at moving pollen as other pollinators are, but they can get the job done.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be important pollinators, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

Blister beetle on carrot flowers (a preferred food source of flies). Beetles can be effective pollinators as well, even despite chewing on the flowers as they proceed.

During the pollinator walk, we were specifically observing flies in the family Syrphidae, which are commonly known as flower flies, hoverflies, or syrphid flies. Many flies in this family mimic the coloring of bees and wasps, and thus are easily confused as such. Appearing as a bee or wasp is a form of protection from predators, who typically steer clear from these insects to avoid being stung. The larvae of syrphid flies often feed on insects, a trait that can be an added benefit for farmers and gardeners, particularly when their prey includes pest insects like aphids. Other families of flies that are important pollinators include Bombyliidae (bee flies), Acroceridae (small-headed flies), Muscidae (house flies), and Tachinidae (tachinid flies).

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) - one species of hundreds in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower visiting flies (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Common banded hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) – one species of thousands in the syrphid fly family, a common and diverse family of flower-visiting flies (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Because many species of flies visit flowers and because those flies commonly mimic the appearance of bees and wasps, it can be difficult to tell these insects apart. Observing the following features will help you determine what you are looking at.

  • Wings – flies have two; bees have four (look closely though because the forewings and hindwings of bees are attached with a series of hooks called hamuli making them appear as one)
  • Hairs – flies are generally less hairy than bees
  • Eyes – the eyes of flies are usually quite large and in the front of their heads; the eyes of bees are more towards the sides of their heads
  • Antennae – flies have shorter, stubbier antennae compared to bees; the antennae of flies also have bristles at the tips
  • Bees, unlike flies, have features on their legs and abdomens designed for collecting pollen; however, some flies have mimics of these features
Bumblebee on Echinacea sp.

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea sp.

Another interesting topic that Dr. Strickler addressed was the growing popularity of insect hotels – structures big and small that are fashioned out of a variety of natural materials and intended to house a variety of insects including pollinators. There is a concern that many insect hotels, while functioning nicely as a piece of garden artwork, often offer little in the way of habitat for beneficial insects and instead house pest insects such as earwigs. Also, insect hotels that are inhabited by bees and other pollinators may actually become breeding grounds for pests and diseases that harm these insects. It is advised that these houses be cleaned or replaced regularly to avoid the build up of such issues. Learn more about the proper construction and maintenance of insect hotels in this article from Pacific Horticulture.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.

A row of onions setting seed at Earthly Delights Farm. Onions are another crop that is commonly pollinated by flies.

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Year of Pollination: Pollination Syndromes and Beyond

A discussion of pollination syndromes should begin with the caveat that they are a largely outdated way to categorize plant-pollinator interactions. Still, they are important to be aware of because they have informed so much of our understanding about pollination biology, and they continue to be an impetus for ongoing research. The concept of pollination syndromes exists in part because we are a pattern seeking species, endeavoring to place things in neat little boxes in order to make sense of them. This is relatively easy to do in a hypothetical or controlled environment where the parameters are selected and closely monitored and efforts are made to eliminate noise. However, the real world is considerably more dynamic than a controlled experiment and does not conform to black and white ways of thinking. Patterns are harder to unveil, and it takes great effort to ensure that observed patterns are genuine and not simply imposed by our pattern seeking brains.

That being said, what are pollination syndromes?  Pollination syndromes are sets of floral traits that are thought to attract specific types of pollinators. The floral traits are considered to have evolved in order to appeal to a particular group of pollinators – or in other words, selective pressures led to adaptations resulting in mutualistic relationships between plants and pollinators. Pollination syndromes are examples of convergent evolution because distantly related plant species have developed similar floral traits, presumably due to similar selection pressures. Pollination syndromes were first described by Italian botanist, Federico Delpino, in the last half of the 19th century. Over several decades his rudimentary ideas were fleshed out by other botanists, resulting in the method of categorization described (albeit briefly) below.

Honey bee on bee's friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

A honey bee getting friendly with bee’s friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

Pollination by bees (melittophily) – Flowers are blue, purple, yellow, or white and usually have nectar guides. Flowers are open and shallow with a landing platform. Some are non-symmetrical and tubular like pea flowers. Nectar is present, and flowers give off a mild (sometimes strong) sweet scent.

Pollination by butterflies (psychophily) – Flowers are pink, purple, red, blue, yellow, or white and often have nectar guides. They are typically large with a wide landing pad. Nectar is inside a long, narrow tube (or spur), and flowers have a sweet scent.

Pollination by hawkmoths and moths (sphingophily and phalaenophily) – Moth pollinated flowers open at night, have no nectar guides, and emit a strong, sweet scent. Flowers pollinated by hawkmoths are often white, cream, or dull violet and are large and tubular with lots of nectar. Those pollinated by other moths are smaller, not as nectar rich, and are white or pale shades of green, yellow, red, purple, or pink.

Pollination by flies (myophily or sapromyophily) – Flowers are shaped like a basin, saucer, or kettle and are brown, brown-red, purple, green, yellow, white, or blue.  Some have patterns of dots and stripes. If nectar is available, it is easily accessible. Their scent is usually putrid. A sapromyophile is an organism that is attracted to carcasses and dung. Flies that fall into this category visit flowers that are very foul smelling, offer no nectar reward, and essentially trick the fly into performing a pollination service.

Pollination by birds (ornithophily) –  Flowers are usually large, tubular, and red, orange, white, blue, or yellow. They are typically without nectar guides and are odorless since birds don’t respond to scent. Nectar is abundant and found at various depths within the flower.

Pollination by bats (chiropterophily) – Flowers are large, tubular or bell shaped, and white or cream colored with no nectar guides. They open at night, have abundant nectar and pollen, and have scents that vary from musty to fruity to foul.

Pollination by beetles (cantharophily) – Flowers are large and bowl shaped and green or white. There are no nectar guides and usually no nectar. The scent is strong and can be fruity, spicy, or putrid. Like flies, some beetles are sapromyophiles.

Locust borer meets rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

A locust borer meets rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

In addition to biotic pollination syndromes, there are two abiotic pollination syndromes:

Pollination by wind (anemophily) – Flowers are miniscule and brown or green. They produce abundant pollen but no nectar or odor. The pollen grains are very small, and the stigmas protrude from the flower in order to capture the windborne pollen.

Pollination by water (hydrophily) –  Most aquatic plants are insect-pollinated, but some have tiny flowers that release their pollen into the water, which is picked up by the stigmas of flowers in a similar manner to plants with windborne pollen.

This is, of course, a quick look at the major pollination syndromes. More complete descriptions can be found elsewhere, and they will differ slightly depending on the source. It’s probably obvious just by reading a brief overview that there is some overlap in the floral traits and that, for example, a flower being visited by a bee could also be visited by a butterfly or a bird. Such an observation explains, in part, why this method of categorizing plant-pollinator interactions has fallen out of favor. Studies have been demonstrating that this is not a reliable method of predicting which species of pollinators will pollinate certain flowers. A close observation of floral visitors also reveals insects that visit flowers to obtain nectar, pollen, and other items, but do not assist in pollination. These are called robbers. On the other hand, a plant species may receive some floral visitors that are considerably more effective and reliable pollinators than others. What is a plant to do?

Pollination syndromes imply specialization, however field observations reveal that specialization is quite rare, and that most flowering plants are generalists, employing all available pollinators in assisting them in their reproduction efforts. This is smart, considering that populations of pollinators fluctuate from year to year, so if a plant species is relying on a particular pollinator (or taxonomic group of pollinators) to aid in its reproduction, it may find itself out of luck. Considering that a flower may receive many types of visitors on even a semi-regular basis suggests that the selective pressures on floral traits may not solely include the most efficient pollinators, but could also include all other pollinating visitors and, yes, even robbers. This is an area where much more research is needed, and questions like this are a reason why pollination biology is a vibrant and robust field of research.

A bumble bee hugs Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla)

A bumble bee hugs the flower of a blue sage (Salvia pachyphylla)

Interactions between plants and pollinators is something that interests me greatly. Questions regarding specialization and generalization are an important part of these interactions. To help satiate my curiosity, I will be reading through a book put out a few years ago by the University of Chicago Press entitled, Plant-Pollinator Interactions: From Specialization to Generalization, edited by Nickolas M. Waser and Jeff Ollerton. You can expect future posts on this subject as I read through the book. To pique your interest, here is a short excerpt from Waser’s introductory chapter:

Much of pollination biology over the past few centuries logically focused on a single plant or pollinator species and its mutualistic partners, whereas a focus at the level of entire communities was uncommon. Recently we see a revival of community studies, encouraged largely by new tools borrowed from the theory of food webs that allow us to characterize and analyze the resulting patterns. For example, pollination networks show asymmetry – most specialist insects visit generalist plants, and most specialist plants are visited by generalist insects. This is a striking departure from the traditional implication of coevolved specialists!

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