Climate change cause spring flowers to bloom early, confusing bees

Siliguri, India: The fuzzy, buzzy bees suddenly have a lot more options as they leave their hives to perform their historic, almost principal duty of sustaining life, that is flower-hopping and pollinating. 

For bees having too many options might be confusing and then okay, but for some plants that depend solely on these flying angels for pollination -- transporting genetic materials between like species -- it could mean a spell of disaster. 

In case you're wondering how many species of plants depend on insects and animals for sustaining, it is three fourth of all flowering plants and 35 percent of the world's food crops, as per the US Department of Agriculture. 

Some scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths, birds and bats, and beetles and other insects.

But climate change is reportedly causing spring flowers to bloom earlier than usual, disrupting the time-immemorial, biologically-paramount relationship between the plants and the bees. 

“Climate change is altering when plants are blooming, and it’s disrupting the historic relationships between plants and their pollinators,” said Matthew Austin, an ecologist and biodiversity postdoctoral fellow with the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis.

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“But we know remarkably little about what effect that has on how plants interact with one another and the evolutionary consequences of altered plant-plant interactions.”

So if you see a spring flower bloomed in your backyard earlier than it should, note that it is a worry, not a joy.

Researchers are worried, what this -- over-competitive environment where plants are having to unfairly compete with other species for the bee's attention -- will mean in the end. 

The clear picture

As per the research undertaken by the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis, not all species of plants are responding similarly to climate change. 

Some are blooming earlier than they should; some are blooming overlapping the natural successive waves, while some are blooming for longer periods across the season.

This overlapping of blooming means more species of flowers are available to the bees at the same time. 

It also means a more competitive environment for the plants to fetch the bee's attention.

To find out the effect of this bane of climate change, ecologist Austin is working with collaborators Adam Smith at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Kenneth Olsen, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University how these mistimings are affecting 'ecological and evolutionary dynamics of pollination systems.'

“My work is testing whether these altered flowering times are increasing rates of pollen transfer between different species,” Austin said. “And if that’s the case, I predict that high rates of pollen transfer between different species are leading to higher rates of self-fertilization.”

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While to the bees, in the short term, it does not matter where are they carrying the pollens after visiting the flowers to suckle the nectar, for the plants, it is crucial the bees visit the flowers of the same species for successful pollination or reproduction. 

Nature has, in the form of seasons, and season-sensitive species set a masterful schedule for the different species to reproduce, which is in intimate sync with bees and other pollinating insects.

Reproductive dead-end

Violets will bloom all over the place at a time, where there will be no trilliums. This will ensure, violets get their due time to reproduce and sustain the species vi pollinations. When trilliums will bloom, they're supposed to be all over the place.

But if another species blooms at the wrong time that coincides with another species, this could mean pollen transfer to the wrong flower which would be a reproductive dead-end. 

Now that more flowers are blooming at the same time, thanks to climate change, bees are transporting pollen between different species more often, this could ultimately favor those plants that entirely cut out the pollinator middleman -- the bees themselves. 

FOR BEES, THE BLOOMING MISTIMING MIGHT NOT BE BOTHERSOME IN THE SHORT-RUN, BUT FOR PLANTS THAT DEPEND SOLELY ON POLLINATOR INSECTS FOR REPRODUCTION, AN OVER-COMPETITIVE ENVIRONMENT COULD SPELL DISASTER. (IMAGE VIA UNSPLASH)

To scientifically establish if this doomsday has actually begun, Austin and the team will look into the historic data of more than 70 species of plants that have bloomed at Shaw Nature Reserve in the 1930s and the early 40s.

Then he will combine those records with his own field observations at the reserve located near Eureka, Missouri.

Austin will also use new techniques to gather pollen from flower samples gathered in the past and stored in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium collection. 

These methods will allow the researchers to explore how these blooming mistimings across the past century have affected which flowers the bees transport pollen and will also look out for traces of self-fertilization in contemporary plants. 

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“In recent years, there has been a lot of public and scientific interest in pollinator conservation,” Austin said.

“While this interest is typically focused on saving pollinators from population decline, I hope that this research sheds light on another often-overlooked aspect of plant-pollinator conservation: how global change may affect pollinator behavior, with cascading effects on plant reproduction.

“This research will add to our understanding of how climate change affects not just individual species, but ecological communities and the species interactions within them as well.”

The researchers have also condoled the allergy-sufferers this pollen season. 

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