Monday, June 13, 2011

Magnolias and Beetle Pollination

Magnolias were among the earliest flowering plants, which evolved many million years ago, long before there were any bees. Butterflies and moths were also absent in those days. The only pollinators available were probably beetles and flies, the so-called “dumb pollinators”. This term refers to the fact that the late-comers to the world of pollination, particularly bees, can perform remarkable feats of memory and skillful manipulation of flowers.

When bees entered the scene, perhaps twenty or thirty million years later (give or take a handful of millions), they took to the pollinating job with gusto. They became real pros which adapted to the ever growing variety of flowers and developed skills par with the complexity of these newly evolved plants. The same can be said of many butterflies and moths and also some wasps. That is how they earned the name of "smart pollinators".

Neither magnolias nor beetles are very specialized to pollination by insects. The flowers, though lovely have a very simple structure; for instance, there is no distinction between petals and sepals as in most other flowers. In turn their pollinators, beetles, are very clumsy at their task; sometimes they get carried away and eat parts of the flowers along with the pollen they find there. Their mouth parts are made for chewing, rather than for gathering nectar and pollen, so they can’t be blamed for their sloppiness. The flowers, in turn, are adapted to this rough treatment; that is why magnolia petals tend to be rather leathery; and, most importantly, the seeds are well protected.

You develop a new respect for the pollinating responsibility of beetles when you take a look at the many families of these insects that visit magnolia flowers: sap-feeding beetles, tumbling flower beetles, leaf beetles and weevils, among others (or if you prefer their technical names: Nitidulidae, Mordellidae, Chrysomelidae and Curculionidae).

Bees, bumblebees, flower flies, a few types of stink bugs, leafhoppers and several other types of insects are also found visiting magnolia flowers attracted by their nutritious pollen and nectar.

But most of them arrive at the flowers too late, after the blooms are past their prime and are not receptive for pollination. So it is the beetles that carry the lion's share of the responsibility for perpetuating these plants.

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012

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