Monthly Archives: October 2020

Cockroaches as pollinators: a new example just published

When you think of the word “pollinator” what comes to mind? For most people it will be bees, particularly the western honeybee (Apis mellifera). Some might also think of hoverflies, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds…..but cockroaches?! The first published example that I know of which demonstrated that the flowers of a plant are specialised for cockroach pollination is from the mid-1990s. Since then only a handful of well documented cases have come to light, but there are undoubtedly more out there waiting to be discovered, particularly in the wet tropics. Most of the c. 4,600 species of cockroaches are nocturnal, and cockroach-pollinated flowers tend to open at night, which is one reason why they are under documented.

In a new study, published this week in the American Journal of Botany, a team of Chinese, German and British biologists has shown that a species of Apocynaceae from China is the first known example of cockroach pollination in that large family. Here’s the reference with a link to the study; if anyone wants a copy please email me:

Xiong, W., Ollerton, J., Liede-Schumann, S., Zhao, W., Jiang, Q., Sun, H. Liao, W. & You, W. (2020) Specialized cockroach pollination in the rare and endangered plant Vincetoxicum hainanense (Apocynaceae, Asclepiadoideae) in China. American Journal of Botany (in press)

The abstract for the paper follows:

Premise

Species of Apocynaceae are pollinated by a diverse assemblage of animals. Here we report the first record of specialized cockroach pollination in the family, involving an endangered climbing vine species, Vincetoxicum hainanense in China. Experiments were designed to provide direct proof of cockroach pollination and compare the effectiveness of other flower visitors.

Methods

We investigated the reproductive biology, pollination ecology, pollinaria removal, pollinia insertion, and fruit set following single visits by the most common insects. In addition, we reviewed reports of cockroaches as pollinators of other plants and analyzed the known pollination systems in Vincetoxicum in a phylogenetic context.

Results

The small, pale green flowers of V. hainanense opened during the night. The flowers were not autogamous, but were self‐compatible. Flower visitors included beetles, flies, ants and bush crickets, but the most effective pollinator was the cockroach Blattella bisignata, the only visitor that carried pollen between plants. Less frequent and effective pollinators are ants and Carabidae. Plants in this genus are predominantly pollinated by flies, moths and wasps.

Conclusions

Globally, only 11 plant species are known to be cockroach‐pollinated. Because their range of floral features encompass similarities and differences, defining a “cockroach pollination syndrome” is difficult. One commonality is that flowers are often visited by insects other than cockroaches, such as beetles, that vary in their significance as pollinators. Cockroach pollination is undoubtedly more widespread than previously thought and requires further attention.

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Filed under Apocynaceae, Biodiversity, China, Pollination

A change of career and development of this website

Yesterday was my last day of employment at the University of Northampton, I have stepped down from my professorship to work independently. However I will be staying in touch as a Visiting Professor to complete some projects, supervise my remaining postgraduate researchers, and tidy up the last bits of our REF submission.

It’s been quite a journey over the last 25 years from Nene College > University College Northampton > University of Northampton. I’m proud to have played a part in its development and to have taught some great students along the way. I’ve also made some amazing friends and worked with incredible, talented colleagues. I will miss all of that, but it was time to move on.

So, what of the future? From today I am self-employed as a consultant scientist and writer, focusing on the conservation of pollinators and their plants in our rapidly changing world. No amount of pandemics, Brexits, and American elections can hide the fact that we are having a devastating effect on the nature we rely on to put food on our plates and air in our lungs. The rest of my career is going to be focused on working with individuals and organisations to help to reduce our impact and restore nature.

My philosophy for this is to use the science that I have spent more than 30 years researching and developing, and apply it to the conservation of pollinators and their interactions with plants. At the same time I will continue to take a pragmatic and down to earth approach to thinking about the science that I publish from the perspective of the knowledge and understanding that conservation professionals require to do their work. Some of this is detailed in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society (which I hope will be in the shops before Christmas!) but by no means all of it.

Over the next couple of weeks the format of this website will change as I develop it to become more of a shop window for the work I do and the services that I offer. Watch this space!

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Filed under Biodiversity, University of Northampton

Guitarchaeology and hidden black histories

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m an enthusiastic, if not very talented, player of the acoustic guitar. What I love just as much as playing is the history of these instruments and the music that they have made, and in the past I’ve linked this to the main topic of my blog, biodiversity: see this post on restoring an old guitar.

October is Black History Month in the UK so it seems fitting to share this bit of guitarchaeology: Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines in Steele Missouri – A Research Paper by John Seabaugh

In this video essay John pulls together what’s known, and what he has inferred, about a formative period in the lives of two iconic early blues musicians. Give it a read/listen, it’s really interesting.

John kindly sent me a PDF of the paper so I’ve had a chance to study it closely. What especially struck me was the table of Nightclubs in the Bootheel that appears 4 minutes into the video. John lists 28 nightclubs, the names of all but two of which are known from contemporary newspaper reports. The two unnamed clubs both had black owners.

It’s known from occasional written references and oral histories that there were many other music and drinking joints that were owned, and frequented, by the African-American population in this area. But in an era of strict racial segregation the names of these venues were not recorded in any of the white-run media. A big part of black social history is thus undocumented. And given the importance of black music from this time in shaping popular music around the world, the loss of this history is a tragic loss for everyone.  

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Recipe: Jeff’s salt-fermented sloes

It has been an exceptional year for wild fruit of all kinds and British hedgerows are painted crimson by hawthorn berries, with splashes of purple-black where the sloes hang in succulent bunches. Sloes are, of course, the fruit of the blackthorn tree (Prunus spinosa) and are perfectly edible. In fact blackthorn is one of the progenitor species for cultivated plums. In Britain we tend to associate sloes with sloe gin. But, if you follow this link, you’ll see that there are lots of other edible uses for the fruit. However sloes are notoriously astringent so they need to be processed in some way before they are palatable.

The mention of umeboshi plums in that section of the Wikipedia article got me thinking because it chimes with things that I have been reading in the new book Fermentation by Rachel de Thample. As I mentioned in this post on sourdough bread from a couple of years ago, I have a longstanding interest in fermented foods and drink that goes back to my time working in a brewery in my home town of Sunderland.

Fermentation talks a lot about lacto-fermentation in which salt is used to prevent the growth of “bad” fungi and bacteria and promote the growth of Lactobacillus. These “good” bacteria then ferment the sugars in fruit and vegetables, releasing lactic acid and increasing the edibility and digestibility of the foodstuffs. Sauerkraut is a good example of this process in action. As well as salt you have to exclude air to make the process at least partially anaerobic.

After a bit of reading I experimented with a basic recipe to lacto-ferment sloes to turn them into something resembling the flavoursome wonders that are umeboshi plums. And do you know, it worked! Lacto-fermenting the sloes transforms their flavour from mouth-puckeringly astringent to sour-and-salty.

Here’s the procedure:

Pick your sloes before they are frosted, discarding any that are shriveled or have been damaged by insects or fungi. Immediately wash them to get rid of any dust and rescue the spiders and other invertebrates that are bound to be flushed off! Put the sloes to one side.

Wash and rinse a glass jar with a tight fitting lid, which is equal to the capacity of the sloes but no more, i.e. you want the sloes to fill it to the top. Sterilisation shouldn’t be necessary as the conditions inside will not be suitable for growth of anything other than the Lactobacillus. But it’s best to rinse out any detergent.

Weigh the sloes and then weigh enough fine sea or rock salt to equal 8% of the weight of the sloes. In other words, for every 100 grams of sloes, you need 8 grams of salt*. Don’t use standard table salt as it usually contains chemicals of various kinds.

Add about a quarter of the sloes to the jar and then sprinkle in a quarter of the salt, put the lid on and invert it a couple of times to distribute the salt. Add another quarter of sloes and salt and invert again. Repeat until you have filled the jar with sloes and salt.

Put the lid on tightly, write the date on the jar or on a label, and put in a cupboard or shelf away from direct light. It’s best to stand the jar on a plate to catch any of the liquor that may come out of the fruit.

Invert the jar a couple of times once a day to keep the salt distributed over the sloes. After a few days a purple liquid will start to build up. This is the water from the sloes being drawn out by osmosis. After four or five days open the jar and try one or two sloes. If you like the flavour, put the jar in the fridge to stop the fermentation. Otherwise let them ferment until the flavour suits you.

At the moment I am just snacking on these sloes but I am sure they could be used in recipes that require a salty-sour note. The liquor that builds up in the jar could also be used to flavour dishes or as the basis for a salad dressing.

*8% salt was based on something that I read which I can’t now find and might be overkill. I am going to try it with 2% to 4% salt and see if that works.

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