It is easy to forget that far from being inanimate objects with which animals interact, plants are living, breathing, moving organisms that not only react to their environment, but are themselves actively manipulating the creatures with which they share their space.
A new study, published in the Annals of Botany, has found that plants may be influencing the flight patterns of foraging bees, in an effort to maximize their chances of pollination and thus reproduction. In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Calgary have found that plants may be arranging the position of their flowers to take advantage of how the pollinators search for nectar.
It is already known that plants take advantage of the shape, color, and size of flowers in order to influence who and what pollinates them, and thus how their pollen is spread across the environment. For example, the color of a flower will influence what animals pollinate them, with red flowers tending to be favored by birds, while white flowers are known to be mainly visited by moths and bats. Who pollinates the flower can then influence the life history of a plant, as birds tend to travel greater distances than hoverflies, for example.
This latest research, however, has found evidence to suggest that if plants position all their flowers on one side of the stem, bees are more likely to fly vertically between flowers, while if the stem is surrounded by flowers they will forage on a single plane.
This, argue the researchers, could be influencing whether or not a plant produces flowers that have male and female characteristics, as is found in around half of all plant species. “Plants and their flowers exist in all shapes and sizes,” explains Dr Crispin Jordan, who led the study, “and our finding that the arrangement of flowers can influence how bees forage might go some way to explaining how plants, which rely on others species to spread pollen, can influence their own reproduction.”