Antonio Manaytay – Fourth Estate Contributor
Bangalore, India (4E) – A team of researchers has discovered that tiny insects, who belong to a group of pollinators, can identify exactly what kind of flower or plant they wanted by using a combination of cues such as colors, shape, and scent. This discovery could have far-reaching consequences to improve agriculture considering that 75 percent of crops depend on wild pollinators.
The finding, according to the researchers, is significant due to the scarcity of knowledge what attracts wild insect pollinators to flowers and the overall decline of the global population of domestic bee pollinators. Understanding the factors that attract wild pollinators such as hoverflies to flowers, how these preferences differ amid changing environment could help improve the situation.
“This is really important,” V.S. Pragadeesh, a student from Olsson’s lab and was involved in the study, said.
“It means that pollinators have specific preferences in flowers in specific places. Without these cues, hoverflies may not recognize flowers as flowers,” he said.
The study, titled as “In situ modeling of multimodal floral cues attracting wild pollinators across environments” to be published in the journal PNAS, was conducted by the scientists from Uppsala and Flinders University and the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS).
The scientists have found out that what is perceived as flies, which the brain size of a pinhead, have the capacity like humans to identify which flower or plant they want to despite a highly sensory world of sight, touch, sound, and taste blend surrounding them.
The tiny insects with their minuscule brain size have long been fascinated the group of Karin Nordstrom from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the Flinders University in Australia, and Shannon Olsson’s NCBS team in Bangalore, India. They were intrigued how these tiny insects could identify the kind of flowers they wanted.
Now, based on their collaborative work involving hoverflies, the researchers said they have found the answer: a multimodal sensory mechanism does the trick. This after Olsson had contacted Nordstrom asking for help in identifying the hoverfly species.
“I was just amazed,” Nordstrom said.
“This hoverfly specimen collected at an altitude of 4000 meters in the Himalayas, is the same species of hoverfly, Eristalis tenax, that are also found in Sweden, Germany, USA, and Australia,” she explained.
Previous studies on pollination are limited to a specific climate or area making no direct connection if the preferences of pollinators in North America are the same with that in Europe or Asia. Their study, Olsson and Nordstrom said, was trying to make this connection “since we didn’t just examine different environments, but actually different continents.”
The researchers had observed hoverfly behavior in three of their natural habitats – tropical Banglore, alpine Sikki, and hemi-arboreal Uppsala. Out of this varied specimen, called their “statistical soup” of all their findings, the researchers were able to determine the features by which hoverflies find as the most or less attractive. The results of the statistical analyses had informed the modeling of hypothetical flowers, the attractive of which were being tested in Bangalore, Sikkim, and Uppsala.
Using the artificial models, they found out that in a particular place hoverflies prefer some combinations of flower characteristics. Meaning, a flower models with specific scent were highly attractive to hoverflies in Bangalore but not in Sikkim or Uppsala.
“Our models were not flower mimics or lures — they just used combinations of cues determined from our analysis. Some of our artificial flowers were attractive in all environments, despite having no reward or even resembling a real flower,” says Nordström.
The study, according to behavioral ecologist Robert Raguso from Cornell Univesity, is exciting because of the unique and creative approach to “interviewing” the hoverflies.
“I respect the multimodal approach taken in this paper and would like to see it generate similar studies, either with different focal pollinators or with multiple pollinator classes sharing the same floral marketplace,” he said.
The researchers, while hoping to conduct further studies to better the understanding of these insects, said their findings could help inform the development of planting strategies resilient to environmental change.
“We really must begin understanding pollination as a global ecological service,” Olsson said.
She said understanding the many insects in different regions of the world is vital not only for “food security… but for the future of this planet.”
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