Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nectar: Drink with a Zing?

We saw that floral nectars aren’t just empty calories (Nectar: Breakfast of Champions); they supply pollinators with valuable nourishment. The singular properties of nectar don’t end up there. When chemists continued analyzing the nectar of diverse flowers they found a few surprises.

In some instances caffeine or nicotine are added to the menu. Who would have thought! Then again, if bees love spilled Coca-Cola, it is perhaps for more than the sweetness. Do the clients of floral restaurants seek these stimulants? Do flowers find it important to indulge such demands? One thing is clear: some special ingredients in nectar must be important, both for the pollinator and the flower.

There are cases in which the sugar in nectar ferments into alcohol to the point that it may intoxicate thirsty flower visitors. Bumble bees visiting such flowers behave like drunken sailors, bumping clumsily into flower parts, shaking loose the pollen from the anthers and thus getting an extra dose of pollen dusting. Moreover, they neglect their fastidious grooming and remain rather dusty all over for some time. Perhaps this is beneficial to the flower which may end up getting more pollination under these circumstances. Nobody knows for sure but it is an interesting theory. I wonder whether the little gourmets develop a taste for certain vintages and visit more frequently the restaurants that deliver the desired beverage.

The flowers of a palm tree in Malaysia produce alcohol that can reach a concentration of 3.8%, comparable to some beers. And the tree smells like it! There is a little tree shrew, a fairly unusual pollinator, which visits these flowers assiduously. Up and down the trunk it runs visiting thousands of flowers. It is capable of drinking the equivalent of nine glasses of wine, day after day during the blooming season. Those who have studied this behavior claim that the animals show no sign of loss of coordination or similar consequences of heavy drinking.

Pollinators do a lot of traveling in their quest for nectar and pollen. They carry more than what is intended from flower to flower. Like tiny typhoid-Maries they are likely to pick up and spread pathogens along with their legitimate cargo of pollen. Nectar is the perfect culture broth for many bacteria and fungi. Flowers can become quite sick so they need to protect their precious reproductive organs against infections. It should come as no surprise that they can produce an assortment of antiseptics. There are substances in nectar that produce peroxide, the same disinfectant your mother used to apply to your scraped knees.

Perhaps the most mysterious thing is that some nectars carry bitter tasting substances and even toxins. What would be the purpose of that? Some of the bad tasting ones deter only some flower visitors, while they don’t bother others. Perhaps the plant is being selective, inviting only the most efficient pollinators and keeping others away. It is also possible that some pollinators can only tolerate a small amount of the bitter nectar, thus, abandoning the flower sooner and performing more pollination with less consumption of nectar. Let us remember that nectar production is an expensive investment for the plant.

Most plants produce toxins to protect leaves, stems, etc. against the hordes of herbivores. In other words, plants synthesize organic pesticides. Ordinarily they filter out these toxins from the nectar. But some accomplish this only partially. It seems like an unfortunate side effect, an instance of unintended contamination. Perhaps we are not the first ones to run into such a problem, plants made that blunder millions of years ago.

Nectar chemistry
Nectar, the first soft drink
Tiny treeshrews chug alcoholic nectar without getting drunk
Nectar, breakfast of champions

List of articles

© Beatriz Moisset. 2012

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nectar: Breakfast of Champions

I used to believe that flower nectar was sugary water and not much else. That simple drink should be adequate for many of the insects that visit flowers. Sugar provides the fuel to power their flight, thus taking care of a fundamental need. Many insects have a very short adult life. They have already accumulated, during their larval life, most of the nourishment that they need as adults. In fact there are even some insects, such as the Luna moth, that do not feed at all as adults. Moreover, nectar drinkers often have other foods in their menu. For instance, bees collect pollen, as well as nectar, from flowers; wasps hunt insects. So it wouldn’t be surprising if nectar provided nothing more than sugar as a reward to pollinators.

I was wrong, but I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. Only recently, scientists have been able to study the chemistry of nectar, given the tiny amounts available for study. What they have learned in recent years surprised everybody. Nectar is a true cocktail including an assortment of substances, from nutritious to intoxicating, not to mention scented, colored or with preservatives. Flowers are known for the complexity and diversity of their shapes and colors. Now we know that their nectar can be just as rich in complexity and variety. Nectar drinkers seem to be connoisseurs of the restaurants they visit and flowers must have good reasons for developing such a complex menu to satisfy the demands of their clientele.

First of all the concentrations of sugars vary depending on a number of factors. Perhaps, the most important one is the most frequent visitors of a particular species. Butterflies and moths and some bees have very long tongues which they use like drinking straws. They visit flowers that provide a rather watery drink not likely to clog these very thin pipes. On the other hand, other insects, with shorter tongues, merely lap or slurp fluids and can take advantage of thicker nectar, richer in sugar.

In addition to sugar there are other substances in nectar. Like the power drinks used by athletes some contain ion supplements, such as potassium and sodium. Other common supplements of nectar are aminoacids, the building blocks of proteins. Let us remember that adult butterflies and moths cannot eat any solids. They have no chewing parts, only a long, thin tongue good enough for fluids and maybe the occasional pollen grain. As I mentioned before, most insects are short lived and may do fine without proteins in their diet, but the beloved monarch butterflies live for several months and have to make an arduous journey. They certainly need a well balanced diet; sugar alone would not suffice them.

There are other ingredients in nectar which I will discuss in future posts. I only want to mention here that in addition to nutrition, these substances may add flavor to this food making it more attractive to the pollinators and other flower visitors.

It is rather amazing to realize that we didn’t invent energy drinks; flowers did it millions of years ago. It gives me pause when I prepare to refill the hummingbird feeder. Are we turning our loved birds into soft drink junkies? Would they be better off without our help? I don’t feel too guilty because I know that they also feed on insects so they must be getting a balanced diet despite the empty calories at the hummingbird feeder. But, just in case, I will start growing plants for hummingbirds in my garden and cutting down on the junk food.

I can think of a few (natives only): butterfly weed, lobelia, beebalm, columbines, trumpet honeysuckle, penstemon, zinnia, nicotiana. Any suggestions?

Here is a list of “Top Ten” native hummingbird plants of the Operation Rubythroat web site.

Nectar, a drink with a zing

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pollinator gardens and more

A day doesn’t go by without hearing about a new pollinator garden. It is encouraging to see the growing number of people who realize that it is important to do something for bees and all the other pollinators. We are becoming increasingly aware of their important role in the pollination of crops and wild flowers and in the maintenance of ecosystems. We know that some pollinators have been in decline for a number of years, due in part to the loss of wild flowers.

In its simplest way a pollinator garden is a wild flower garden with some adequate habitat for nesting and, needless to say, free from pesticides. Now, a group in England, called the Cooperative, is taking this a step further by developing a more systematic approach to this matter. They are creating corridors for pollinator wildlife by the name of “bee roads”. Such bee roads would provide interconnected habitats for pollinators. Habitat connectivity is very important because it prevents populations from becoming isolated and thus it help maintain the biodiversity of the gene pools (all the genes present in a population).

They are starting small but plan to expand the project with the cooperation of land owners, by providing incentives for the creation of these roads of wild flowers along cultivated fields.

You can read more here News England and watch the BBC video (if you don’t mind the brief commercial at the beginning)

I hope that this initiative will inspire people in this country to start a similar project.

More on pollinator gardens in North America
U S Fish and Wildlife
Bee-friendly gardens
Penn State
Xerces society

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012