They buzz toward a blossom, sip nectar, and then head for another blossom. Typical, right?
But there's much more going on than you think.
It's not just the nectar that she's scented.
UC Davis community ecologist Rachel Vannette has just published a paper in New Phytologist journal that shows nectar-living microbes release scents or volatile compounds, too, and can influence a pollinator's foraging preference.
The groundbreaking research shows that nectar-inhabiting species of bacteria and fungi “can influence pollinator preference through differential volatile production,” said Vannette, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
“This extends our understanding of how microbial species can differentially influence plant phenotype and species interactions through a previously overlooked mechanism,” Vannette said. “It's a novel mechanism by which the presence and species composition of the microbiome can influence pollination.”
“Broadly, our results imply that the microbiome can contribute to plant volatile phenotype,” she said. “This has implications for many plant-insect interactions.”
Their paper, titled “Nectar-inhabiting Microorganisms Influence Nectar Volatile Composition and Attractiveness to a Generalist Pollinator,” may explain in part the previous documented extreme variation floral volatiles that Robert Junker of University of Salzburg, Austria, and his team found; New Phytologist published their work in March 2017.
In their study, the Vannette team researchers first examined field flowers for the presence of nectar-inhabiting microbes, and in collaboration with co-authors Caitlin Rering and John Beck of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Gainesville, Fla, characterized the headspace of four common fungi and bacteria in a nectar analog. Next, they used an intricate setup to quantify the antennal and behavior responses of honey bees to the chemical compounds. Finally, when they examined the scent of flowers in the field, they found that flowers which contained high densities of microorganisms also contained volatile compounds likely produced by those microbes, suggesting that microbial scent production can be detected and used by pollinators.
Although microbes commonly inhabit floral nectar, microbial species differ in volatile profiles, they found. “Honey bees detected most of the microbial volatiles or scents that we tested,” Vannette said, “and they distinguished the solutions of yeasts or bacteria based on volatiles only.” This suggests that pollinators could choose among flowers based on the microbes that inhabit those flowers.
The yeast Metschnikowia reukaufii produced the most distinctive compounds (some shared with the fruity flavors in wine) and was the most attractive of all microbes compared. This yeast is commonly found in flower nectar and is thought to hitch a ride on pollinators to travel from one flower to the next. Its scent production may help it attract pollinators, which then help the yeast disperse among flowers.
The Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis, provided the honey bees. More than 20 species of flowers--mostly natives--were used in the survey, including canyon delphinium or canyon larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus), salvia (Lepechinia calycina) and purple Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla). The samplings were done in the spring and early summer, when the natives are at their peak.
Co-authors of the paper are Caitlin Rering, postdoctoral fellow at USDA-ARS, Gainesville, Fla.; John Beck researcher at USDA-ARS; Griffin Hall, junior specialist in the Vannette lab; and Mitch McCartney in UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
The USDA and USDA-ARS funded the research.
About Rachel Vannette: She joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology in September of 2015 from Stanford University where she was a postdoctoral fellow.
A native of Hudsonville, Mich., Vannette received her bachelor of science degree in biology with honors at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and her doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan, in 2011. Her dissertation was entitled “Whose Phenotype Is It Anyway? The Complex Role of Species Interactions and Resource Availability in Determining the Expression of Plant Defense Phenotype and Community Consequences.”
In her PhD research, she examined how variation in nutrient availability and plant associations with mycorrhizal fungi belowground influenced defense chemistry in milkweed plants and the performance of a specialist herbivore (Danaus plexippus). She found that resource-based tradeoffs can in part explain plant allocation to antiherbivore defense and mycorrhizal fungi. This work also describes that plant genotypes vary in their investment in defense and associations with below ground fungi.
As a Stanford University postdoctoral fellow, funded by a life sciences research fellowship, Vannette examined the community ecology of plant-associated microorganisms. Using diverse systems, she studied the assembly of microbial communities, microbial response to anthropogenic changes like habitat fragmentation, and microbial effects on plant-pollinator interactions.
The National Wildlife Research Foundation featured Vannette's research on monarchs and milkweed in its March 11, 2013 piece on “Catering to Butterfly Royalty." The article, by author Doreen Cubie, focused on Vannette's research as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Vannette and advisor Mark Hunter studied five common species of milkweeds, the host plant for monarchs. They found that climate change may disrupt the chemistry of milkweeds, and encouraged gardeners to help the monarchs by planting more of these critical host plants./span>
Take the nectar of the sticky monkeyflower, Mimulus auranticus.
UC Davis community ecologist Rachel Vannette and colleague Tadashi Fukami of Stanford University decided to examine microbial communities inhabiting the nectar of the sticky monkeyflower at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in California's Santa Cruz Mountains.
Their paper, "Dispersal Enchances Beta Diversity in Nectar Microbes," published in Ecology Letters, revealed that contrary to popular assumption, “increased dispersal among habitats can actually increase biodiversity rather than decrease it."
The flower, in the family Phrymacease, is a native shrub common in chaparral and coastal scrub habitats of California and Oregon. It is primarily pollinated by Anna's hummingbird. Other common pollinators include bumble bees, carpenter bees, and thrips.
Dispersal is considered a key driver of beta diversity, which is “the variation in species composition among local communities,” Vannette said.
They are the first to publish work showing that increased dispersal can increase biodiversity.
In their experiment, they reduced natural rates of dispersal by eliminating multiple modes of microbial dispersal. “Specifically we focused in nectar-inhabiting bacteria and yeasts that are dispersed among flowers by wind, insects and birds,” they said. “We imposed dispersal limitation on individual flowers and quantified microbial abundance, species composition and microbial effects on nectar chemistry.”
The scientists “manipulated dispersal of nectar-inhabiting bacteria and yeasts via flower-visiting animals to examine how dispersal influenced microbial beta diversity among flowers. Our analysis suggested that this unexpected pattern might have resulted from stronger priority effects under increased dispersal.”
This work has direct implications for conservation of many organisms in addition to bacteria and yeast, suggesting that preserving routes of dispersal among habitat patches may be important in the maintenance of biodiversity. In contrast to previous work showing that dispersal can homogenize communities or make them more similar, the published work demonstrates that dispersal can in some cases generate communities that are more different from each other. The authors hypothesize that this could be driven by priority effects, where early arriving species change the species that can establish within that habitat.
Why focus on nectar-inhabiting microbes? Previous work by Vannette and others shows that microbial activity in nectar can alter nectar chemistry and influence plant-pollinator interactions by altering nectar chemistry. In the Ecology Letters study, microbes were also found to change nectar chemistry, explaining ~50% of the variation in sugar composition in the field. This suggests that nectar-inhabiting bacteria and yeast can influence the nectar rewards available to pollinators in a natural setting.
More broadly, “Studying the role of microbes in the environment addresses one of the biggest mysteries in science,” Vannette says. In her current work, she and her lab are investigating how microbial communities form, change, and function in their interactions with insects and plants. They are also researching how microorganisms affect plant defense against herbivores and plant attraction to pollinators.
Vannette, a former postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty as an assistant professor in 2015.
Vannette's research was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through the Life Sciences Research Fellowship. Stanford also funded the research through grants from the National Science Foundation, the Terman Fellowship, and the Department of Biology at Stanford University.
How often do you see a honey bee "standing upright" to reach nectar?
"Well, I guess I could just buzz up there and grab some nectar! But why not stay right here where I am and just s-t-r-e-t-c-h like a giraffe to get it?"
This bee, foraging on a Photinia blossom, almost looked like an athlete in training. Was she stretching to "warm up?" Was she stretching to improve performance? Flexibility? Mobility?
Me thinks she was just taking a short cut to the sweet stuff and being a little territorial as other bees buzzed around her.
Our honey bee will return to the hive where workers will process the nectar into honey. Humans will get some of it, too.
If you'd like to sample honey--and mix with entomologists--mark your calendar for Saturday, April 22 and "bee" at Briggs Hall for the annual honey tasting, just one part of the 200 some events at the 103rd annual UC Davis Picnic Day. It's an all-day campuswide open house aimed to educate, inform and entertain.
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
Maybe not at the same time, but they all eat.
We noticed a syrphid fly, aka flower fly/hover fly, heading toward a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) in our pollinator garden. Alas for the fly, it was occupied. Occupied by a honey bee (Apis mellifera).
The honey bee soon buzzed off, and the syrphid claimed it.
The honey bee returned and took a turn.
Then another fly, a drone fly (Eristallis tenax), claimed it.
Interesting that all three are sometimes called "bees," much to the chagrin of entomologists and other scientists. It just goes to prove that not all floral visitors are flies.
- Honey bee: Order, Hymenoptera; Family Apidae
- Syrphid fly: Order, Diptera; Family Syrphidae
- Drone fly: Order, Diptera; Family Syrphidae
But they do have several things in common: (1) they're insects (2) they're pollinators (3) they're hungry and (4) they like nectar just as much as humans like sugar, especially on Halloween. And doesn't orange symbolize Halloween?
The cherry laurel, Prunus caroliniana, a member of the rose family, draws honey bees as if there's no tomorrow. Native to the southeastern United States, it can double as a 15-to-36-feet-tall hedge, screening neighbors from neighbors, as well as providing ample food for birds when the tiny black cherrylike fruit develops.
But the bees...the bees...if you've ever seen bees work the spring blossoms, gathering the cream-colored pollen and the nectar to take back to their colonies, you know how frenetic they can be.
Back at the hive, the nectar turns into cherry-laurel honey....hmmm.
Speaking of honey, the so-called "nectar of the gods," how much honey does an average California colony produce?
California Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen, whose career spanned 38 years, was recently asked that question. When he joined the faculty at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology--that was during the 1976-77 drought--he was told that the average honey production per hive was around 29 to 35 pounds. Today the figure often quoted is 60 pounds.
But that depends.
"Later I learned that the 'average' honey production--years with "normal" rain--is not average across all our beekeepers," Mussen related. "The queen and bulk bee producers in northern California have never made much of any honey, especially after yellow starthistle fell victim to the USDA biocontrol program.
"The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers were more likely to approach the state average. They could obtain some honey from the crops they were pollinating and some from the wildflowers, especially in the hills surrounding the valley. It was the Southern California beekeepers who made up the difference. Production of 100-plus pounds could be common."
What about honey production today, in the throes of the California drought? "For the last few years, we have been having 1976-77-type crops," Mussen said. "The northern beekeepers basically have no honey unless they take their colonies out of state. The San Joaquin Valley beekeepers probably are averaging around 30 pounds or so, and the southern beekeepers would be lucky to be getting around 60."
The few years when California experienced high rain and floods--back in the 1980s and 1990s--beekeepers throughout the state reported an average of 90-plus pounds per colony. "Even the northern beekeepers produced a little," Mussen said. "However, even if we have a horrendous El Niño event, it probably won't make a huge difference in honey production this coming year. The seed bank has been terribly diminished by so many consecutive years of drought."
"While we can never predict exactly who is going to get the honey and how much, this is the way things generally tend to go in California," Mussen noted. "Our bees, and our beekeepers, are really hurting for nectar and honey right now."
There's not much blooming right now. But for those "lucky" honey bees with access to a 30-foot-high hedge of luxuriant cherry laurel, as in our yard, life is good.
That's when life is just a bowl of cherries (cherry laurels).