Magazine article Science News

Petite Pollinators: Tree Raises Its Own Crop of Couriers. (This Week)

Magazine article Science News

Petite Pollinators: Tree Raises Its Own Crop of Couriers. (This Week)

Article excerpt

A tropical tree creates insect nurseries in its buds for miniscule pollinators, say German scientists. This novel strategy relies on thrips, insects rarely considered pollinators.

Darwin dismissed thrips as annoyances that fouled his pollination experiments, and since then biologists studying pollination haven't paid much attention to this dot of a creature. Yet a 2-millimeter-long Neoheegeria thrips serves as the main pollinator for a widespread Macaranga tree, report Ute Moog of the J.W. Goethe-University of Frankfurt in Germany and her colleagues in the January American Journal of Botany.

"Everybody in Southeast Asia knew Macaranga, but no one knew how they're pollinated," says Moog. She focused on Macaranga hullettii, which often lines roadsides and grows up to 20 meters high.

Male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Moog monitored trees in West Malaysia and found that the most common insect visitors to both sexes were thrips of an as-yet-unnamed species.

The vanilla-scented, greenish blooms sprout in bunches. Shields cover their reproductive organs, so wind pollination is unlikely. Before male flower parts mature, the buds loosen, and thrips slip into the pockets behind the shields. The researchers found eggs and larvae there and propose that thrips breed in the pockets, nourished by nectar from hairs on the flower. When Moog collected eggs and raised them, they matured in about the same time that a tree's buds take to open.

Moog found Macaranga pollen sticking to 13 percent of thrips she caught on female flowers. …

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