Prairie Pollination – The Sneaky Small White Lady’s-slipper
Most plants produce nectar to attract their pollinators. But, as we’ll soon find out, some plants trick insects into visiting them. I’m here at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Gardenton, Manitoba, to talk to Dr. Anne Worley from the University of Manitoba about her work on one of the sneakiest plants in the prairies. Dr. Worley, what plant species have you been working on, and what makes them so sneaky?
Well, we’re working on the small white lady’s-slipper, which is an endangered species of orchid that’s native to tall grass prairies. The lady’s-slipper is one of these plants that doesn’t produce nectar in its flowers and the slipper is actually a trap, so it temporarily traps the pollinators.
Don’t the bees learn after a while that there’s no nectar in these plants?
Well, eventually they do learn, but there are several factors that slow down the learning for long enough to allow the bees to visit a number of flowers. So first of all, it’s actually not that unusual for even rewarding flowers to be emptied of their nectar. So from a bee’s perspective, it actually wouldn’t be the best strategy to try one flower and then give up. So that’s one thing. Another thing from the perspective of these plants is that the pollen is actually very sticky and very long-lived, so if the bee gives up for the day but maybe tries again the next day or later the same day, then the flowers can still get pollinated. And finally there’s some evidence suggesting that in non-rewarding species, floral scent may be more variable between individual plants than it is in rewarding species so that’s another way that the learning by the bees can be slowed down.
So the plants get pollinated and they don’t produce any nectar. That’s very sneaky! Thanks for telling us about your work, Dr. Worley.
You’re welcome. My pleasure.