Follow the Nectar: Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote about plants at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland which would be pollinated by beetles, geckos and lemurs in their natural habitats. There were too many fun facts to fit into one post! Here are a few more plants which deserved a special mention…

Many of the orchids in the palm house were in bloom when my Dad and I visited at the end of February. Each one is perfectly evolved for pollinator-specific relationships. They have landing platforms for bees, pungent odours to attract flies, or they imitate insects like our own native bee orchid.

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A real stinker of an orchid with some Spanish moss.

This is where the National Botanic Gardens boasts another pollination wonder from Madagascar – Angraecum sesquipedale. In 1862, Darwin theorised that this long-nectaried orchid could only be pollinated by a moth with an equally long proboscis, which would have co-evolved with the plant. In 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin passed away, that very moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta) was found in Madagascar.

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Darwin’s orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale.

Finally, we were treated to some real pollination in action. We spotted a queen Bombus terrestris/lucorum fuelling up on the flowers of a Pieris sp.

Can you?

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Spot the bee!

Queen bees emerge early to begin searching for nest sites in places such as the lovely untidy, tussocky bases of hedgerows. Early flowering plants are essential to their survival, so let those dandelions and other “weeds” bloom! Don’t mow, let it grow!

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When the gecko’s away, the ants will play! Nesocodon mauritianus which I mentioned in Follow the Nectar: Part 1

 

 

Follow the Nectar: Part 1

My dad and I were late season visitors to the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland’s Hidden February Blossoms tour at the very end of last month. Despite our tardiness, the tour guide diligently sought out each and every plant species that was still in flower, and had something equally fascinating to say about every non-blooming thing in between.

As someone who gets a kick out of plant-animal interactions, all my favourite facts were about pollination. Did you know that Magnolia is such an ancient plant it predates the evolution of bees, and is pollinated by a wide range of beetle species instead? Pollination researcher  describes the relationship perfectly:

“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…so they can’t be blamed for their sloppiness. The flowers, in turn, are adapted to this rough treatment…”

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Magnolia trees at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, looking suitably wintry.

The excitement on my face following this revelation ensured that the subject matter of our tour veered towards pollination as much as towards the original theme of winter flowers!

Moving along into the curvilinear range, designed by Robert Turner and constructed in a mere quarter of a century, we were introduced to the rare Nesocodon mauritianus. Its blue, bell-shaped flowers drip with nectar as orange as cough-syrup. The pollination of this species remained a mystery until 2006 when researchers discovered that two other plants with coloured nectar on its island home of Mauritius were pollinated by Phelsuma day geckos. Hansen, Beer and Müller (2006) demonstrated that Phelsuma ornata geckos prefer coloured nectar to clear nectar (which most other flowers contain).

“In flowering plants, coloured nectar could additionally function as an honest signal that allows pollinators to assert the presence and judge the size of a reward prior to flower visitation, and to adjust their behaviour accordingly, leading to increased pollinator efficiency.”

In other words, coloured nectar allows the geckos to spot and choose their lunch and tells them where to pay. But not all geckos are such honest nectar customers. Here is a paper featuring stunning shots of a Phelsuma stealing nectar from mangrove flowers in Madagascar, bypassing the pollen entirely! Unlike Nesocodon mauritianus, the mangrove Sonneratia alba has white flowers which bloom at night so it can also attract the more helpful bats and moths.

I can’t mention day geckos without showing you a photo of Phelsuma antanosy, a species I was researching with SEED Madagascar. I have observed them licking clear nectar from small flowers. I wonder how useful they were being in terms of pollen transportation!

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Phelsuma antanosy, a critically endangered day gecko, endemic to Madagascar.

After paying homage to the rhododendrons, azalias, andromedas and witch hazel, all brightening up wintry grey Ireland with their dazzling colours, we entered the palm house. And there stood the plant which takes me back to Madagascar most nostalgically of all. The Traveller’s Palm.

Cue the compulsory discussion about the origin of its common name: Stab it and out flows water to quench your thirst on a long journey. It might be stagnant and full of bugs, but as a last resort it could probably save you from death by dehydration. You can also use its leaves as an umbrella or a parasol, or for covering food on the long journey from the mountains to the market. The leaves grow east to west so you can use them like a compass. Or is it north to south? Or do they actually at all? Because I’ve seen them do both, so maybe I’ve misunderstood something, but I would not like to count on it if I was lost in the bush. This is where the facts always start to become a bit alternative. Can anyone shed light on this mystery?

Our guide then revealed the pollinators of the Traveller’s Palm: lemurs! The plant co-evolved with ruffed lemurs, whose fluffy faces make the perfect pollen brush! How I lived in Madagascar for 16 months without learning this is a mystery. Too busy with my nose in the undergrowth looking for insects and frogs, perhaps!

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Ravenala madagascariensis, the Traveller’s Palm, at Nahampoana near Fort Dauphin.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entomology GO: the next Pokémon?

Entomology GO: the next Pokémon?

As Dublin Inquirer journalist Cónal Thomas recently wrote such a generous article about me, I feel I owe it to him to finish the blog post I told him I was writing when he interviewed me several weeks ago!

Unlike many naturalists, I’m biased towards Pokémon GO. I’m optimistic that it could be a stepping stone for many into the real and valuable world of biological recording, especially with some great wildlife recording apps out there.

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Vince Tan, a talented macro photographer and fellow Facebook Entomology fan!

Although I never became involved in the original Pokémon games, I used to come home from school to watch the cartoons and sketch the characters in my school uniform – the closest I had to an animé costume! I was far less interested in catchin’ ’em all and pitting animals against each other in battle than I was in Brock’s romances with Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny, Bulbasaur’s magical garden, and donuts which looked suspiciously like sushi…

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Extract from a Reddit discussion on the ethics of Pokémon fights

But I can’t help being excited about Pokémon GO, as the benefits are hard to ignore. Articles abound on how it helps people with depression, anxiety and autismyoung burns unit patients, and lonely dogs at animal rescue shelters. Augmented reality, on that screen we were already addicted to anyway, is showing us landmarks we’d never noticed in places we’ve lived for years, providing an icebreaker for meeting new people and bringing out the best in our communities. Sure, bad stuff has happened too, but there’s always one…

Of course, what I’m most interested in are the enormous similarities the game shares with real life entomology, as outlined in this Buzzfeed by Dr Bryan Lessard (aka Bry the Fly Guy), a postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection! Not surprising, when you learn that Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri was obsessed with insects from early childhood. Like Tajiri, I hope that Pokémon GO can be a tool for getting people outdoors and encouraging interest in wildlife, simply by putting people in a better position to notice it. This is sort of how I imagine it:

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An illustration of bug type Pokémon, original artist unknown! Source: bugtypepokemon.weebly.com 

Recently, during an insect survey, I encountered a young man supervising his son as he hunted Pokémon along the Grange Road Cycleway in Dublin. The boy barely glanced up from his game when I showed him a large wasp-mimic hoverfly in a jar, giving me somewhat less confidence in my theory. But my disappointment was shortlived – his father was fascinated!

I showed him several different species of hoverfly – more variations on the wasp theme and one that had tricked me into thinking it was a bee! He marvelled at each one and asked lots of questions. The look on his face as he left expressed that blown away feeling most effectively brought about by nature surprising you. It still surprises me every day.

There are some great apps out there for finding and identifying animals and plants in a Pokémon-esque fashion (if you use your imagination and make the sound effects yourself). Many of them enable you to make an important contribution to our knowledge of the distribution and conservation status of wild species by submitting a record of what you’ve found. Here are a few examples:

  • Identify Irish Butterflies for Android does exactly what it says on the tin, very straight-forwardly, and allows you to submit a record with a photo if you wish.
  • iRecord Ladybirds is a handy identification tool, but use with caution as not all species on it are present in Ireland!
  • Although I haven’t tried it yet, ChirpOMatic UK looks pretty exciting. Like Shazam, you can record a bird singing and it uses automatic recognition to identify it for you! As we share our bird fauna with the UK, this should also work in Ireland.

You don’t need fancy apps to record wildlife! Choose a group with a small number of species to begin with (ladybirds, butterflies or shieldbugs are a great place to start). Get yourself a good Pokédex, I mean, ID chart, field guide or key. Join a friendly facebook group such as the Beetles of Britain and Ireland, who will help to verify the identity of your ladybirds as long as you’re willing to give it a go first. Submit your sightings to a recording scheme such as the All Ireland Ladybird Survey or the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club Shieldbug Survey. Contact me if you would like more guidance, and…

Biological Recording GO!

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Bugsy and Bugs by L-mon on DeviantArt

 

 

An Evening with Hoverflies at the National Botanic Gardens Vegetable Patch

The vegetable garden at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland is bursting with colour. Alongside their now fully organic array of heritage breed fruit and vegetables grows an abundance of flowers.

These blooms are not just pretty faces. They provide nectar and pollen forage for helpful insects such as parasitoid wasps, who will keep your cabbage caterpillar population in check, and some species of hoverfly*:, whose larvae are very effective aphid consumers.

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A happy population of hoverfly larvae can munch their way through 70-80 per cent of a greenfly infestation (Gardening Know How) and, as adults, will help to pollinate your garden plants. I’m getting to know these useful, cleverly disguised creatures at the moment, as I survey some pollinator-friendly sites for South Dublin County Council. Michael Viney, whose column was the only part of the Irish Times I read for my entire youth, is also a fan, and recently wrote an admiring tribute to the Marmalade hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus.

Some flowering plants, such as nasturtiums, marigolds, borage, fennel, rosemary and chives, will also repel insects that you don’t want around your vegetables, such as carrot fly. These secrets of the national veg patch were revealed to me, my dad, and a large enthusiastic crowd of veggie food fans at An Evening with Cornucopia. Part of a series called Feasting from Nature’s Plate, the event featured Swedish chef Eddie Eriksson (surprisingly no Muppets references were made, though after reading this article I want to apologise to Eddie for even mentioning them here) and Organic Gardener Joan Rogers. A fascinating tour of the vegetable garden was followed by mouth watering demonstrations, salads, juices and dessert, and an astonishing amount was learnt!

I was particularly blown away by the tale of the Three Sisters – squash, corn and beans – who grow in community, depending on each other’s beneficial company. Native American farming societies interplant these three crops side by side in the same mound. The corn provides a support for the bean vines. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil and stabilise the corn in a strong wind. The leaves of the squash provide natural mulch to protect the roots and soil moisture. And at the end of the growing season, the left over plant matter can be dug into the soil as compost.

I am fascinated by these interactions and cooperations between species – corn and bean, human and plant, insect and dinner. I recommend planting some of your vegetable garden with some insect-friendly flowers so you can witness it for yourself.

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The National Biodiversity Data Centre’s recently published document Gardens – Actions to Help Pollinators contains advice on which plants best cater to the needs of insects:

  • Single instead of double flowered varieties: double flowered varieties provide almost no nectar and pollen for pollinators
  • Perennials over annuals: perennial plants are generally better sources of pollen and nectar
  • Do you see pollinators visiting it? When choosing plants to buy at a garden centre, you will quickly realise what flowers pollinators visit most. Also keep an eye out for the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Perfect for Pollinators” logo, which is now used by many suppliers of garden plants

Letting an area of your garden grow wild and seeing which wild flowers come up is also a great way to give nature what it needs.

While you wait for them to grow, a couple of events remain in the Botanic Gardens’ Feasting from Nature’s Plate series, and they are well worth attending!

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Another interesting feature of the Botanic Gardens’ vegetable patch: the blight-susceptible famine potato, with more modern potato breeds on either side.

*Edit: An original version of this post made a really clever pun out of the fact that some hoverflies are called drone flies. I’ve since been corrected – only Eristalis tenax can claim this name, and its larvae do not eat aphids. Plenty of others do though, so keep growing those flowers amongst your veg!

 

Madagascar No.3

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Adult lanternfly in Manafiafy, Sainte Luce, Madagascar

When my Dad visited Madagascar, Juveni, one of my ecotourism students, gave us a guided tour of the village where he grew up. I had lived just up the road from Manafiafy for nearly a year, but this tour opened my eyes to a rich history of missionaries and taboos, and some tasty secrets.

I must confess, the tasty secrets are what I remember best. A stroll through some short, coastal vegetation sent a couple of bizarre, colourful creatures whirring into the air. These creatures, Malagasy lantern bugs (most likely Zanna madagascariensis), are Juveni’s favourite snacks. They’re supposed to taste a bit like shrimp!

But beware:

“American naturalist John C. Bannor recalled in 1885 stories of an insect called lantern fly whose bite could instantly kill people, animals and even trees. People at least were saved – according to the myth – if they had sex within 24 hours.” – The Myth Behind the Lantern Bug

Zanna species, or sakandry, eat lima bean plants and their relatives. I’m no botanist, but I wonder if a lima bean growing project in Sainte Luce could provide two sources of protein for local kids (beans and bugs) and help to replenish the poor soil in the area with nitrogen.

I never had the chance to snack on lantern bugs myself, but I think I would prefer the softer-looking nymphs, with their little fluffy bums.

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Nymph of a lantern bug, with waxy fluffy secretions for distracting and tricking predators!

Bees? BEES?!

My favourite genre of joke has for many years been the bee joke. Bees?! Bees. That is to say that I have laughed loudest and longest in my life at these sweet moments in comedy:

  1. When Eddie Izzard was covered in bees
  2. When Manny ate all of Bernard Black’s bees
  3. When Gob Bluth announced his business plan to sell bees as gifts, and Arrested Development flew with it right through to Season 4, like true gentlemen honey farmers.

On the day of her wedding, my dear sister looked at me and her best friend and said, “What was I thinking when I put you two messers together as my bridesmaids?” As we began to proceed gracefully down the aisle, a bumble bee flung itself out of my bouquet and the uncontrollable giggling began…

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Today, while scouring the internet for an excellent joke I once heard about IMDb, I came across a fellow named Tem Blessed, who has a more serious but equally eloquent message for us about these precious insects. Heed his wise and catchy words.