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Monday, March 2, 2015

The Earliest Pollinators: Beetles and Flies

Magnolia © Beatriz Moisset
 By the time the first flowering plants appeared on Earth there weren’t any bees or butterflies. Those superb pollinators would take millions of years to evolve from wasps and moths respectively. So, who would be attracted to flowers? Who would carry pollen?

Other insects, although not adapted to sipping nectar and storing pollen in little baskets, liked to visit flowering plants to eat the pollen. Sometimes, they also devoured the flowers themselves. Beetles and flies were among the earliest pollinators. These two groups of insects visit the flowers of magnolia and water lilies to this day. In general, flowers pollinated by beetles are cup-shaped to allow these insects to stay for some time. They are strongly scented by fruity or rotten smell. The petals may be tough and leathery, helping them to put up with the abuse; many of them are greenish or creamy white.

Tumbling flower beetles on magnolia © Beatriz Moisset
The state flower of Louisiana and of Mississippi is the Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) which is an example of some of the oldest flowering plants; it presents all the qualities listed above and it is pollinated by beetles that use the flowers as a singles bar. They stay for hours eating, drinking, mating and making a mess of the place. When they arrive, usually only the female part of the flower is mature enough, so if they carry pollen from other flowers they get cross-pollinated, but by the time the beetles leave, the stamens or male parts have become ripe. The visitors get easily dusted with it and ready to carry it to the next awaiting singles bar. Beetles and flies find a coating of nectar covering the petals that they can slurp as they go along.

Dance fly on Magnolia © Beatriz Moisset

It is worth mentioning here the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) because it is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. The state flowers of Indiana and Tennessee are not native; they are the peony and iris, respectively, so I like to think of the tulip tree blossom as the honorary state flower of these two states. The tulip tree is a relative of magnolias, equally ancient; its flower bears some resemblance to magnolias. It is also pollinated by beetles, although bees and other insects also contribute to its pollination.

Another ancient flower, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), California’s state flower is also pollinated by beetles in some instances. These are more numerous than bees in arid areas. Several species of bees, including honey bees also pollinate these flowers.

California poppy © Audrey. Flickr
State flowers that illustrate the earliest pollinators:
Louisiana: Magnolia
Mississippi: Magnolia
California: California Poppy

Once plants came up with this novel solution to their fertilization process, there was no stopping them. Evolution accelerated and an ever growing variety of flowering plants emerged from the older lineages. In turn, more insects evolved to take advantage of this resource. This is how some carnivorous wasps went vegetarian. They became what we now know as bees. Pollen and nectar supplied all their needs.

Also some moths developed a taste for nectar during their adult life. Unlike most moths, they were diurnal and often sported fancy colors. In other words, they evolved into butterflies. Being frequent flower visitors they became pollinators. This is not to say that wasps and moths, the predecessors of bees and butterflies don’t pollinate. In fact some of them are valuable and are highly specialized ones.

The following posts deal with these pollinators and their flowers.  We will start with the ones who invite a wide assortment of guests. They have mass appeal and several state flowers illustrate this nicely.

Pollinators of Official State Flowers 
Mass Appeal and Pollination

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