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Archive for February, 2011

Many plants produce toxic chemicals to protect themselves against plant-eating animals, and many flowering plants have evolved flower structures that prevent pollinators such as bees from taking too much pollen. Now ecologists have produced experimental evidence that flowering plants might also use chemical defences to protect their pollen from some bees.

The results are published next week in the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology.

In an elegant experiment, Claudio Sedivy and colleagues from ETH Zurich in Switzerland collected pollen from four plant species — buttercup, viper’s bugloss, wild mustard and tansy — using an ingenious method. Instead of themselves collecting pollen from plants, the researchers let bees do the leg work, harvesting pollen from the nests of specialist bees which only feed on one type of plant.

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Scientists have discovered why orchids are one of the most successful groups of flowering plants — it is all down to their relationships with the bees that pollinate them and the fungi that nourish them. The study, published February 1 in the American Naturalist, is the culmination of a ten-year research project in South Africa involving researchers from Imperial College London, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and other international institutions.

The orchid family is one of the largest groups of flowering plants, with over 22,000 species worldwide. New research suggests that there is such a huge range of species because orchids are highly adaptable and individual species can interact with bees, and other pollinators, in different ways.

For example, when orchids Pterygodium pentherianum and Pterygodium schelpei live side by side, Pterygodium pentherianum puts its pollen on the bee’s front legs, whereas Pterygodium schelpei puts it on the bee’s abdomen, as in the photo above. This means that one bee can carry pollen from two distinct species without mixing it.

The study also shows how orchids are able to live harmoniously together, with different species working in partnership with different microscopic fungi in the soil, ensuring they do not compete with each other.

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Research paper citation:

The Effects of Above- and Belowground Mutualisms on Orchid Speciation and Coexistence. Richard J. Waterman, Martin I. Bidartondo, Jaco Stofberg, Julie K. Combs, Gerhard Gebauer, Vincent Savolainen, Timothy G. Barraclough and Anton Pauw. The American Naturalist, Vol. 177, No. 2, 2011.

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