The Manitoba Museum – Mystery of the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid
Christie Borkowsky, Biologist, Critical Wildlife Habitat Program and Dr. Diana Bizecki Robson, Curator of Botany, The Manitoba Museum.
For decades, no one knew which insects pollinated the beautiful Western Prairie Fringed Orchid in Canada. However, this mystery was recently solved by Dr. Richard Westwood and Christie Borkowsky. I’m out at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve near Gardenton, Manitoba where the world’s largest population of endangered Western Prairie Fringed Orchids lives, to talk to Christie about her work here. Christie, why did it take so long to figure out what insects pollinates this plant?
Well, part of it is because these orchids, which bloom so nicely during the daytime, their pollinators are actually active at the night time. So when most people are out looking at these orchids, they’re sort of at the wrong time of the day to actually catch these pollinators in action.
So then how did you actually find out what pollinates them? Were you out here with night vision goggles, or did you use something different?
Well, night vision goggles would have been an interesting twist on field work, however, what we did have instead were ultraviolet, or black light insect traps that we used during the flowering period for these orchids. That was the first step. After we were able to narrow down the type of insects that might be pollinating them, we used a couple of different types of traps called a cone trap or a malaise trap. And these two things are general insect collectors, but we had them placed in the field, in patches of orchids, hoping to capture some of these pollinators after they had visited these orchids.
So how did you know whether the insects you were seeing had actually visited the orchid?
Well, one time when we were emptying out the insect trap, we were looking at some of the moths that were in there. And we found two Sphinx moths that had the orchid pollinia, or the orchid pollen, stuck to their eyes. So it was the nice connection between the pollinator visiting the flowers, and confirming that they were definitely in these flowers when they had the orchid pollen stuck to them.
So that’s how your mystery was solved.
That was it.
Great! Thanks for talking to us, Christie.