The last full week of July is National Moth Week, and I encourage everyone to take a closer look at the vast diversity of moths that fill our natural world. Butterflies and moths belong to the same insect group, but moths far outnumber butterflies in species diversity. Since many moths have muted colors or fly at night, we’re largely unaware of this bounty. Let’s take a whirlwind appreciation tour of the group to illustrate the amazing, bizarre, and quirky features of this major insect order.
Moth adults come in all shapes and sizes, and like butterflies, wings are their most prominent feature. There are “micro-moths” whose wingspans are less than an inch, and giant “silk moths” up to 6 inches, making them the largest moths in North America. (Our native silk moths are not closely related to true silk moths, but they got the name because people thought they could be farmed for silk.) The wings of some moths look like mere slivers, seemingly insufficient for flight, while others are tucked around their body so they look fairly cylindrical. Some lay so flat at rest with their wings spread that you’d swear they were two-dimensional.
Other than because I think they are pretty, I love looking at plants and their flowers. In fact, one of my pastimes has become figuring where and what is the reward that pollinators get out of their visits to their favorite flowers. You may be now thinking that my pastime is a bit nonsensical, since it is pretty clear that pollinators get pollen and nectar from flowers, so why bother checking? Well, actually, that is only partially true; did you know there’s a myriad of rewards that pollinators can get from their flower visits?
In today’s post I want to tell you a bit about some of those other rewards; the ones that fascinate me so much. Let’s talk about special floral pollination rewards and where you can see them in real life!
We like essential oils, some pollinators like floral oils!
The first time I heard about floral oils my mind was blown in such a way that I became obsessed with them, to the point that now a large part of my research programfocuses on them. Floral oils are a reward that many types of plants offer to their favorite pollinators: oil-bees.
But don’t let me get ahead of myself! Floral oils are a special type of oil – different from essential oils – that are produced and presented to pollinators on different parts of the flowers of some plants. Independently of what exactly they look like, all these plants are visited and pollinated in a very specialized way by oil-bees. Unlike honeybees, these oil-bees are solitary and make their nests in the ground. These oils help these bees line their nests to waterproof (!!) and strengthen them. Along with that, they also mix the oils with pollen and feed that ‘pollen ball’ to their larvae.
Oil flowers are present all around the globe. In our region, they are represented by several species of the yellow loosetrife plant genus Lysimachia. With their floral oil rewards, these loosestrifes sustain the rare oil-bees of the genus Macropis. At the level of the country, most oil-flowers (and their specialized pollinators) are restricted to the Southern USA, where they are visited by the large bee genus Centris. Some of these plants are the wild crapemyrtle, the prairie bur, and the purple pleatleaf.
Hungry? Please, help yourself!
Along with nectar, pollen, and floral oils, food for pollinators can come in many different shapes and forms. In fact, some flowers even offer parts of their flowers to their pollinators. In cases like this, flowers develop special structures – usually around their petals – with the only function of becoming food for pollinators. Flowers providing this type of reward are usually pollinated by beetles, who can use their strong mandibles to chew on and eat the special structures.
One of the coolest examples of the use of this type of reward is our very own sweet shrub, Calycanthus floridus. This spring flowering plant (flowering right now in Maryland!) attracts small beetles that enter the flower and stay there for quite some time. To maintain and support them while they are helping the plant reproduce, the sweet shrub flowers englobes them during parts of their flowering (this is why sometimes these flowers seem to be opening and closing throughout the day) and present small extremely nutritious structures at the base of their petals. It is on these structures that the beetles can feed on to stay strong and healthy while they are on the flowers. If you have one of these flowers in your yard, or happen to see them in one of your walks, take a second to stop and check them; you may get to meet their little beetle friends!
Need a hand taking care of the kids? Here I am!
Some other flowers have established even more intricate relationships with their pollinators, and what they provide is not just food, but also a house! Because in these plants the offered reward is a place for the larvae of these pollinators, these interactions are called ‘nursery pollination’. Here, the pollinator visits the plants, collects pollen, and sometimes even actively places pollen on the flower tip. By doing so, the pollinator makes sure that the plant seeds develop. This is important, because their larvae will need some of them to feed on throughout their development.
Along with this being the reward we see in a plant we love to eat (figs!), one of the most spectacular examples of the use of this reward is found in an iconic plant of the deserts of the US Southwest, the Joshua tree. Indeed, Joshua trees produce flowers that are visited by a group of moths, the Yucca moths. These moths visit the flowers, collect their pollen, and then literally push it into the flower tip to actively pollinate it. Because the moths lay eggs on the flowers, this assures that the flower develops seeds so the larvae have something to feed on. What is fascinating, though, is that these larvae never eat all the seeds, so this really is a win-win relationship between the plant and the moth.