Top 10 Tricks for Pollinators
Flowers often need reproductive help from birds and bees, not to mention bats, moths, lizards and primates.
Gifts of flowers can help humans with the birds and the bees. But flowers often need reproductive help from birds and bees, not to mention bats, moths, lizards and primates.
Honeybees hog the spotlight of pollination fame, but many other species also help flowers find true love, or at least a few grains of pollen. These animals move pollen from one flower to another, fertilizing them, which allows them to form seeds. Here are the most surprising secrets of nature's pollinators.
Tiny hummingbirds maintain their manic lifestyles by feeding on the sugary nectar that flowers produce. The bee hummingbird holds the record as the smallest living bird, at only 5-6 centimeters (2-2.5 inches). The birds burn energy quickly as they beat their wings up to 70 times per second in normal flight.
Plants attract hummingbirds using bright orange-and-red flowers with little odor. Hummingbird-pollinated flowers ooze extremely sugary nectar -- averaging 26 percent sugar, double the amount of a soft drink -- according to the Smithsonian National Zoo. Some flowers evolved to force a hungry hummingbird to brush its head on the pollen-laden stamens, a part of the flower. This turns the bird's head into a pollen postal service as the bird flits from flower to flower.
In 1862, Charles Darwin predicted the existence of one of the most extreme pollinators after he received an orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) with a foot-long tube leading to its nectar depository. Darwin predicted that an insect with an extremely long feeding structure, or proboscis, would eventually be discovered in the orchid's homeland of Madagascar.
In 1903, naturalists found Morgan's sphinx moth (Xanthopan morgani), a Madagascan moth with a proboscis that is just over 30 centimeters (one foot) long. Unfortunately, Darwin didn't survive to see the moth that fit his theory. He died two decades before the moth fluttered into a collector's clutches.
Tequila exists thanks to bat pollination. The nocturnal aviators help fertilize the agave plant, the source of tequila. Bats also pollinate more than 300 species of fruit, including mangoes, bananas and guavas, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Some bats have evolved long tongues, similar to moths' probosci, and the ability to hover, like hummingbirds. Bats outdo the birds and bugs by using their echolocation ability to find certain types of flowers, according to research in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Bat-pollinated flowers tend to be large, pale-colored and have a strong aroma of fermenting fruit.
Not every bird can keep up with the high-powered hovering hummingbird. Some birds like to take it easy and perch while taking a nip of nectar. The South African rat's tail plant (Babiana ringens) evolved to oblige its pollinators with a perch, a vertical stalk that resembles a rodent's butt.
The malachite sunbird (Nectarina famosa) alights on the tall, sturdy spike that shoots up from above the rat tail plant's flowers. A study in Nature found that the presence of the perch doubles pollination rates.
You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but you catch the most with a dead body. That's the strategy of several of the world's stinkiest flowers, including two of the world's largest flowers, Rafflesia arnoldii and Amorphophallus titanum.
These funky flora attract flies that pollinate the plants. Most fly-pollinated flowers use the smell of death to bring in the bugs. The paw paw, a fruit native to the United States, also depends on fly pollination. To improve production of fruit, people will hang bits of rotten meat from the tree to draw in even more flies.
Black-and-white ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata) take the prize for the world's largest-known pollinator. The primates' dexterous fingers pry open the flowers of the traveler's palm (Ravenala madagascariensis). The lemurs push their long snouts into the opened flowers to lap up the nectar. When they do that, the flowers' pollen coats their fur. The lemur then transports the pollen to other flowers and fertilizes them.
A study in the American Journal of Botany suggested that the palm may have evolved specifically to depend on the lemurs. The palms' flowers evolved a strong outer coat that only lemurs can peel open. The flowers are tough enough to withstand the large lemurs' feeding and produce enough nectar to satisfy the animals' hunger. The lemurs, in turn, depend on the nectar at certain times of the year when fruit is scarce.
The honey possum (Tarsipes rostratus) seems to know quite a bit about the birds and bees. It sports the largest testes of any mammal in proportion to its body size. The well-endowed honey possum pollinates banksia wildflowers, eucalyptus trees and other blossoms in the southwest corner of Australia.
The animal's long snout and tongue allow it to delve deep into flowers for nectar. Like the lemur, the honey possum's fur picks up pollen that it carries to other flowers. Despite its name, honey possums aren't closely related to opossums, although they are both marsupials. Honey possums are the only species in the family of mammals known as the Tarsipedidae.
This planet's pollinator pantheon holds few reptiles, and most of them are lizards on tiny oceanic islands. For example, the blue-tailed day gecko (Phelsuma cepediana) laps nectar from the Trochetia flower on the island of Mauritius.
The lizards prefer to eat from flowers that grow in the shelter of the Pandanus shrub, according to a study published in the American Naturalist. The shrubs protect the lizards from birds of prey. As a result, the Trochetia flowers growing near the shrubs have better pollination success.
Bees reign as the champions of pollinators, but some finicky plants demand the attention of bees that know all the right moves. Tomatoes, for example, receive the best pollination from bumblebees. Part of the tomato flower, known as the anther, will only release its pollen if it is vibrated. This process, called buzz pollination, requires bumblebees. Honeybees just don't shake their moneymakers the same way.
Fig trees go beyond tomatoes in finickiness. Every species of fig tree depends on its own specific wasp variety for pollination. Figs have no visible flowers. Instead, the flowers hide inside the fruit, which is technically an enlarged stem.
Female wasps squeeze into the fruit through a tiny hole. Once inside, the wasps feast on the secret flowers' nectar and lay their eggs. As they feed, the wasps also pollinate the flowers. The new generation of female wasps will eventually fly to another fig tree, carrying with her some of the first tree's pollen, which helps the trees' genetic diversity.