Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guest post calls attention to pollinators and National Pollinator Week in C-U

Guest post calls attention to pollinators and National Pollinator Week in C-U

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This week’s column is written by Michelle Duennes, who is a Ph.D. student in Sydney Cameron's Lab in the UI Department of Entomology and coordinator of National Pollinator Week events in Champaign-Urbana. 

In 2007, the United States Senate declared the last week in June as National Pollinator Week in response to numerous studies indicating declines of pollinator populations. Since then, National Pollinator Week has been a worldwide celebration of the bees, birds, flies, bats, butterflies, and moths that are an essential part of nearly every ecosystem.

A pollinator is an animal that carries pollen from the male part of a flower, known as an anther, to the female part, known as a stigma . In doing so, the animal fertilizes the plant so that it can produce seeds. Some flowering plants produce an enticing, fleshy covering around their seeds, which we call fruit. Fruit attracts animals, which eat it and then disperse the seeds. Many plants are incapable of producing fruit without the aid of some sort of pollinator.

[Photo: Pollinator Week nature walk at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, 2011. By Nick Duennes.]

One of the most recognizable pollinators is the honey bee, known for the delectable food it makes, but also the animal that most people think of when they think of pollinators. But there are also many other animals that pollinate the food we eat, some of which form complex and fascinating relationships with the plants they pollinate.

One such relationship exists between the fig and the fig wasp. A fig fruit is a sort of inverted flower that serves as a home for fig wasps. Figs produce flowers that have both male and female parts; theses are called caprifigs. Inside caprifigs, female fig wasps lay their eggs in the female flowers. When the young hatch from those eggs, they mate inside the fig. The new-generation females then leave the caprifig, covered in pollen from the male flowers.

But the caprifigs--where all of this activity takes place--are inedible. Edible figs produce only female flowers that the wasp cannot lay eggs in, and no male flowers. So when a female fig wasp enters the flower of an edible fig, she fertilizes it with the pollen from the caprifig she was born in, but does not lay her eggs in it. These figs turn into the delicious fruit that we eat!

Another food that requires a unique pollinator is chocolate. The cacao plant is pollinated by a tiny fly called a midge. This tiny fly is the only animal capable of navigating the complex cacao flowers in order to pollinate them. This midge lives in the decaying matter on the ground of the humid, shady rainforest, where cacao is native. But cultivated cacao is grown on sunny, dry plantations, making pollination rare. In fact, on plantations only about 3 out of 1000 cacao flowers are pollinated and develop into fruit, making a chocolate shortage a realistic scenario for the future.

Are you interested to know more about pollinators?

From June 18-24, the U of I Department of Entomology, along with the rest of the School of Integrative Biology, will be celebrating pollinators both common and unusual for National Pollinator Week in Champaign-Urbana. A few of the events include a honey and cheese tasting at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, a performance by the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra at the Pollinatarium located on the University of Illinois South Farms, a guided nature walk and an insect photography workshop.

For more details on all the events, visit the Pollinator Week pages at Or check us out on Facebook at NationalPollinatorWeekCU.