Category Archives: Flies

The coltsfoot is flowering! But why is it so different to dandelion?

Yesterday Karin and I took to our bikes and rode south through some very nice, managed beech and oak woodland that runs parallel to the Isefjorden in this part of Odsherred. In was cold but sunny, birds were singing, and we saw the occasional insect on the wing. The kind of day that reminds you that spring is coming fast. On the way back we paused at a small housing development near the former psychiatric hospital at Annebergparken. In an area of disturbed ground I was delighted to see a patch of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) in full flower, the dandelion-like inflorescences a beacon to passing bees and flies.

Although it resembles a small dandelion, and belongs to the same family (Asteraceae), Tussilago is only distantly related to Taraxacum. Coltsfoot is really a type of groundsel (tribe Senecioneae) whereas dandelions are related to chicory (tribe Cichorieae).

Coltsfoot is unusual in that it produces its flowering stems long before the leaves that give it its common name, the plant’s reproduction powered by the energy that it stored up the previous year. Dandelions, like most herbaceous plants, produce their leaves first, then flower. That’s not the only difference to dandelions though.

The Database of Pollinator Interactions (DoPI) lists 9 species of insect that have been recorded as visiting coltsfoot for nectar and/or pollen. In contrast, the entry for Taraxacum officinale lists more than130 species as flower visitors. I thought initially that it might be due simply to under-recording, but this study of coltsfoot in Germany only recorded 16 insect species. So the greater attractiveness of dandelion is likely to be real. Why the big difference in pollinators?

One reason for it could be that dandelions have a very different flowering strategy; they can be in flower 12 months of the year, depending on local weather conditions, with a reproductive peak in May or June. They therefore have the opportunity to interact with many more insects than coltsfoot, which in contrast you generally only see in flower between March and May at the very latest.

Dandelions are also much more abundant than coltsfoot which is no doubt also a big factor in determining how often insects are observed on the flower heads. It’s not unusual to see whole fields full of dandelions in flower but I’ve never seen coltsfoot do that, perhaps because they prefer to grow on rather disturbed ground.

There may be some other factors at play here that I’m not aware of, for example a lower rate of nectar production in coltsfoot. Having said that, the fact that dandelions produce any nectar at all is a real conundrum. All of the literature claims that Taraxacum officinale is “apomictic“, a plant reproductive strategy in which seeds are produced without requiring ovules to be fertilised by pollen. In fact the online Ecological Flora of Britain and Ireland entry for dandelions lists the pollen vector as “none” for that very reason. But I’m sure that the real story is more complicated, otherwise why would these plants invest so much of their energy and resources in attracting and rewarding flower visitors? I’ve not delved deeply into the Taraxacum literature so perhaps one of my readers knows?

Our encounter with coltsfoot reminded me of the work that I did last year with the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve in Northamptonshire, advising on how best to enhance and manage the site (which is primarily a bird reserve) for pollinators. One of my recommendations was that they enlist their volunteers to collect seeds and root or stem cuttings from the small, isolated populations of early-flowering plants such as coltsfoot (pictured on the reserve below) and introduce them around the site in suitable spots. This would both increase the availability of nectar and pollen for the first flower visitors of spring, and also the ecological connectivity between different parts of the site as the pollinators are able to move around more effectively. So I was delighted to see this post on LinkedIn from Liz Williams who works at Stanwick, demonstrating that they have taken my advice on board and begun the hard work of planting for pollinators.

My work with Stanwick was an example of the advisory and consulting services that I offer. If you’d like some advice on how to improve an area for pollinators, or for biodiversity more broadly, please do get in touch via my Contact page.

Listen to an interview with me on the Environmental Professional’s Radio podcast!

text and logo over a background picture of a person posing for the camera

I was recently invited to chat about careers and writing and pollinators and pollination with the folks from National Association of Environmental Professionals for their Environmental Professional’s Radio podcast. You can listen to it here:

https://www.environmentalprofessionalsradio.com/

We covered a lot of ground and it was great fun – thanks for having me!

Ivy binds the landscape and bridges the seasons: a new article just published

If you check out the latest issue of Bees and Other Pollinators Quarterly you’ll see that, as well as having a piece on the forthcoming COP26 climate change meeting and what it means for pollinators, the magazine has also published a short opinion piece by me called “In Praise of….Ivy”. The magazine is currently in the shops or you can subscribe by following this link: https://bq-mag.store/.

Although it can be invasive and an environmental nuisance in parts of the world where it’s introduced, common or European ivy (Hedera helix) is clearly one of the most vital plants across its native range of Europe, southern Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Its clinging stems bind the landscape and provide habitat for a diversity of creatures. By offering nectar at a time when there’s few other plants in flower, and berries at a crucial point in the winter, ivy bridges a food gap for both nectar feeding insect and fruit eating birds and mammals.

Ivy is a very popular subject for student research because it’s in flower at the start of the university academic year. In the past I’ve had several students carry out their final year projects using ivy to test ideas about pollinator effectiveness and plant reproductive success. Because the open, densely-clustered flowers can dust pollen onto any insect that visits, the most effective pollinators will vary depending on which are abundant at any time and place, and include various types of flies and bees, plus those much-misunderstood wasps!

Perhaps we should leave the final word on ivy to the Northamptonshire ‘Peasant Poet’ John Clare who wrote ‘To the Ivy’ in the early 19th century:

Dark creeping Ivy, with thy berries brown,

That fondly twists’ on ruins all thine own,

Old spire-points studding with a leafy crown

Which every minute threatens to dethrone;

With fearful eye I view thy height sublime,

And oft with quicker step retreat from thence

Where thou, in weak defiance, striv’st with Time,

And holdst his weapons in a dread suspense.

But, bloom of ruins, thou art dear to me,

When, far from danger’s way, thy gloomy pride

Wreathes picturesque around some ancient tree

That bows his branches by some fountain-side:

Then sweet it is from summer suns to be,

With thy green darkness overshadowing me.

Further reading

Bradbury, K. (2015) English ivy: berry good for birds. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2015/feb/19/english-ivy-berry-good-for-birds

Bumblebee Conservation Trust (2021) Ivy mining bee: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/ivyminingbee/

Jacobs, J.H., Clark, S.J., Denholm, I., Goulson D., Stoate, C. & Osborne J.L. (2010) Pollinator effectiveness and fruit set in common ivy, Hedera helix (Araliaceae). Arthropod-Plant Interactions 4: 19–28

Ollerton, J. (2021) Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. Pelagic Publishing, Exeter, UK

Ollerton, J., Killick, A., Lamborn, E., Watts, S. & Whiston, M. (2007) Multiple meanings and modes: on the many ways to be a generalist flower. Taxon 56: 717-728

Woodland Trust (2021) Ivy. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants/wild-flowers/ivy/

A milkweed on the shore: tracking down an elusive Danish plant

Since arriving in Odsherred towards the end of August I’ve been looking out for one plant in particular on our bicycle rides and hikes around the region. Vincetoxicum hirundinaria is a widespread asclepiad or milkweed: a member of the family Apocynaceae, subfamily Asclepiadoideae. This is a group of plants on which I’ve published quite a few research papers and which feature heavily in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.

So far the species has proven elusive and a few Danish ecologists that I’d spoken with told me they had never seen it in the wild. The GBIF account of the species shows a few populations in this part of Denmark but I wasn’t sure if they were old records of populations that no longer exist. But as of yesterday I can confirm that at least one of those populations is extant!

We had cycled out to the small town of Klint about 13km west of us, to see the glacial moraine landscape for which the area is famous and which gives Odsherred UNESCO Geopark status. As we approached the small fishing harbour at Klint I let out an excited shout to Karin who was just ahead of me: in amongst the roadside vegetation I’d spotted the distinctive and immediately recognisable yellow of Vincetoxicum hirundinaria in its autumnal hues! In the photos that follow you can see how well that yellow stands out against the colours of the other plants in the community.

At this time of the year the plant has ceased flowering, but the occasional swollen green seed pod was evidence of successful pollination of their morphologically complex flowers.

I was surprised at just how close to the sea the plants were growing; they must get inundated by sea water during stormy tidal surges.

So what is pollinating these flowers on this exposed shoreline? That’s a question that I want to pursue in the coming years. The Pollinators of Apocynaceae Database has remarkably few records of pollinators in this species, given how widespread it is. Flies certainly pollinate it, but there’s also records of wasps and bees as visitors, including bumblebees on flowers of a plant that I had in cultivation in Northampton. There’s a couple of other research groups in Scandinavia and Europe who are looking at the pollination ecology of the species and I’m hoping that we can collaborate on a study of spatial variation in its reproduction. Vincetoxicum is quite a large genus (around 150 species) and only around 10% of the species have been studied in any detail. But these studies are revealing a complex diversity of pollinators, including most recently, cockroaches in the Chinese species Vincetoxicum hainanense. I’m sure this intriguing group of plants has more fascinating stories to tell us about the ecology and evolution of its pollination systems.

FIGURE 4 from Xiong et al. (2020) Specialized cockroach pollination in the rare and
endangered plant Vincetoxicum hainanense in China. American Journal of Botany 107:
1355–1365.

The largest West African flower: Pararistolochia goldieana!

Some years ago, browsing in a second hand bookshop, I happened across a copy of an old magazine from 1950 called Nigeria. Published by the then colonial government, it was a miscellaneous collection of articles about the culture, geography and natural history of that fascinating West African country. Although aspects of the contents are problematical by modern standards, I bought it because of a short article about a wild plant with enormous flowers and a remarkable pollination strategy. In particular, the spectacular photograph of a man holding a flower that’s the length of his forearm grabbed my attention: who couldn’t love a flower like that?!

The plant is Pararistolochia goldieana, a vine found in the forests of this region, as described in the introductory text:

These types of flowers are pollinated by flies, a common strategy in the Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) to which the plant belongs. This strategy of fly pollination in which flies are deceived into visiting the flowers by their stink and colour, and temporarily trapped in the enclosed chamber, is something that I explore in detail in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, particularly in the genus Ceropegia. Those plants show convergent evolution with the pollination systems of Aristolochiaceae, though they are unrelated.

Pararistolochia goldieana has a wide distribution across West Africa, including Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The IUCN Red List categorises it as ‘Vulnerable’ due to habitat loss. The population where these photographs were taken is described on the final page of the article:

The city of Ibadan is one of the largest in Nigeria and has grown enormously, ‘from 40 km2 in the 1950s to 250 km2 in the 1990s‘. I wonder if this forest, and its botanical treasures, still exists?

During field work in Gabon in the 1990s I was fortunate enough to encounter a species of Pararistolochia in the rainforest of Lopé National Park. It was a different species to P. goldieana, with rather smaller but no less spectacular flowers, and it stank to high heaven! We knew it was there long before we saw it. I collected some flies from the flowers and had them identified, though I’ve never published the data: it’s available if anyone is working on a review of pollination in the family.

This 1950 article is anonymous, so I don’t know who to acknowledge for the amazing images. However the botanist R.W.J. Keay was working on a revision of the family for the Flora of West Tropical Africa project at the time, so it may have been written by him.

Global effects of land-use intensity on pollinator biodiversity: a new study just published

Humans affect the land on which they live in many different ways, and this in turn influences local biodiversity. Sometimes this has positive effects on local wildlife: consider the diversity of birds to be found in well-managed suburban gardens, for example. But often the effect is negative, especially when the land is intensively managed or habitats are destroyed, for example via deforestation or urban development.

This is not a new phenomenon – according to a recent study, most of the habitable parts of the planet have been shaped by humans for at least 12,000 years (see Ellis et al. 2021). What is new, however, is the scale and the speed with which land-use is changing, which are far greater than they have been historically. An important question is the extent to which this change in land-use intensity is affecting pollinator diversity in different parts of the world. Over the past 18 months I’ve been collaborating on a project led by Joe Millard (as part of his PhD) and Tim Newbold which uses the Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity In Changing Terrestrial Systems (PREDICTS) database to address that very question.

A paper from that collaboration is published today in the journal Nature Communications; it’s open access and can be downloaded by following this link.

The study was global in scale and used data from 12,170 sites to assess the affect of land-use intensity on 4502 pollinating species. The findings are really fascinating; highlights include:

  • In comparison to natural vegetation, low levels of land-use intensity can have a positive effect on the diversity of pollinators.
  • For most land categories, greater intensity of land-use results in significant reductions in diversity and abundance of pollinators, however. For example, for urban sites there’s a 43% drop in number of species and a drop in 62% pollinator abundance from the least to the most intensive urban sites.
  • On cropland, strong negative responses of pollinators to increasing intensity are only found in tropical areas, although different taxonomic groups vary in their responses.
  • The latter finding is especially concerning given that: (i) most pollinator diversity is found in the tropics; (ii) the majority of tropical crops are insect pollinated; and (3) tropical agriculture is becoming increasingly intensive and land use is likely to rapidly change in the coming decades.

The full reference for the study, with all authors, is:

Millard, J., Outhwaite, C.L., Kinnersley, R., Freeman, R., Gregory, R.D., Adedoja, O., Gavini, S., Kioko, E., Kuhlmann, M., Ollerton, J., Ren, Z.-X. & Newbold, T. (2021) Global effects of land-use intensity on local pollinator biodiversity. Nature Communications 12, 2902. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23228-3

Flowers can be assholes – quite literally!

2003-572 s G Bochum

WARNING: There’s a high yuck factor to this post, it’s not for the squeamish or easily offended!

One of my Twitter contacts, Traci Birge in Finland, has been reading Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, and making some very nice comments about it. I had to laugh at this one in which she describes some plants as “assholes” because of the way in which they deceive pollinators into visiting their flowers but offer no reward in return:

If you follow that thread you can see that Traci was closer to the truth than perhaps she realised: there are some plants with flowers that appear to mimic the anuses of dead mammals, particularly in the families Apocynaceae and Araceae. By their smell, texture, colour and hairiness they are fooling flies into visiting the flowers, because assholes, like any mammalian orifice, provide an entry point for maggots of carrion-feeding flies. Sometimes the deception is so great that the flies lay their eggs on these blooms, though of course the maggots starve.

A great example of an anus-mimicking bloom is the Dead Horse Arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus). Check out the image above: if that doesn’t look like a horse’s ass, I don’t know what does!

Other examples might be found within the stapeliads, especially the genus Huernia which often have a thickened annulus to the centre of the flower. However that could also be interpreted as mimicking an open, inflamed wound on the side of an animal:

As I point out in the book, you might imagine that there would be strong natural selection against flies visiting these flowers if they lose fitness by laying eggs on such an unsuitable substrate. But the flowers are tapping into really deep-seated behaviours and clearly the flies can’t distinguish the flowers from the real thing.

This is flower pollination that is far removed from the deliciously perfumed, cute-and-cuddly, heart-warming world of bees and flowers. Isn’t nature wonderful?

All photos from Wikipedia, as follows:

Helicodiceros muscivorus: Göteborgs botaniska trädgård (photographer: Ingemar Johansson) – http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/pressroom/goteborgs_botaniska_tradgard/image/view/dracunculus-muscivorus-128973, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19265330

Huernia zebrina: Enzo^ – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10963668

Huernia schneideriana: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94705877

Pollinators and pollination in the UK: an introductory workshop – 26th August

Jeff WT workshop 2020

The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire has invited me to run my Introduction to Pollinators and Pollination workshop again this year, but of course it will all be online.  Details for signing up are on the images, or you can follow this link. 

Here’s a description of the workshop:

Pollination of flowers ensures the reproduction of most British wild plants and many of our agricultural crops. This session will provide an introduction to the natural history of pollinators and how they interact with the flowers that they pollinate. The main groups of pollinators will be introduced, with guidance on how to identify them, and their ecology and behaviour will be explored. The session will also consider why conserving these species is so important, followed by a Q and A discussion showing what individuals can do to help ensure their future diversity and abundance.

Get a 30% discount if you pre-order my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

PollinatorsandPollination-frontcover

In the next few months my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society will be published.  As you can imagine, I’m very excited! The book is currently available to pre-order: you can find full details here at the Pelagic Publishing website.  If you do pre-order it you can claim a 30% discount by using the pre-publication offer code POLLINATOR.

As with my blog, the book is aimed at a very broad audience including the interested public, gardeners, conservationists, and scientists working in the various sub-fields of pollinator and pollination research. The chapter titles are as follows:

Preface and Acknowledgements
1. The importance of pollinators and pollination
2. More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators
3. To be a flower
4. Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank
5. The evolution of pollination strategies
6. A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change
7. Agricultural perspectives
8. Urban environments
9. The significance of gardens
10. Shifting fates of pollinators
11. New bees on the block
12. Managing, restoring and connecting habitats
13. The politics of pollination
14. Studying pollinators and pollination
References
Index

 

 

Garden plant-pollinator surveys: progress so far

The network of pollination ecologists and insect specialists who have confirmed that they are surveying plant-pollinator networks in their gardens now stands at 50. As the map above shows, most are in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe, but the Americas are also becoming well represented, we have a couple of people surveying in North Africa, and three in Australia. An x-y plot of the coordinates of the gardens shows the spread a little better:

Some people have started to send me data already, which is great; if you’re surveying and haven’t let me know your latitude and longitude, please do so, preferably decimalised – you can convert degrees/minutes/seconds to decimal here: https://www.latlong.net/degrees-minutes-seconds-to-decimal-degrees

I’ve managed 13 formal 15 minute surveys so far, plus have a few ad hoc observations that I am keeping separate, and I will be continuing my data collection for the foreseeable future. I’ve started playing with the data as you can see below. This is a plot made using the bipartite package in R, with plants to the left and pollinators to the right. The size of the bars is proportional to the number of pollinators/plants a taxon connects to. In the plants you can immediately see the dominance of apple (Malus domestica) and greengage (Prunus domestica), which attract a wide variety of insects to their flowers. Of the pollinators, the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) and dark-edged beefly (Bombylius major) are especially common and generalist in their flower visits. It will be really interesting to see how this changes over the season, and how our fruit and vegetables are connected into the wider network via pollinators that they share with the ornamental and native plants.

If you are experienced at surveying pollinators and want to get involved, follow that first link and check out the protocol and FAQs, and please do email me: jeff.ollerton [at] northampton.ac.uk