A team of scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol have discovered that velcro-like cells on plant petals help bees to keep their grip while collecting pollen and prevent them from being blown away by the wind. The research was published this week by the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology.

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Bees have faced a number of challenges in recent years, leading to speculation that the species is in grave danger. As part of their research into what made flowers attractive to bees, the UK team studied special cells that are found on the surface of petals.

According to lead author, Dr Beverley Glover: “Many of our common garden flowers have beautiful conical cells if you look closely—roses have rounded conical petal cells while petunias have really long cells, giving petunia flowers an almost velvety appearance, particularly visible in the dark-colored varieties.”

Glover’s group discovered that when bees were offered snapdragons with conical cells and a mutant variety without these cells, the bees prefer the former as the conical cells help them grip the flower. “It’s a bit like Velcro, with the bee claws locking into the gaps between the cells,” she explains in a press release. It is easy to see why bees might need some sort of help on flowers like snapdragon, especially in high winds. The flower’s vertical face and heavy lip are all challenges that the bees have to overcome before reaching the pollen.

“Many of our garden flowers like petunias, roses and poppies are very simple saucers with nectar in the bottom, so we wanted to find out why having conical cells to provide grip would be useful for bees landing on these flowers. We hypothesized that maybe the grip helped when the flowers blow in the wind.”

The team also simulated a wind effect for their experiment to duplicate how flowers move in heavy winds. “We used a lab shaking platform that we normally use to mix liquids, and put the flowers on that. As we increased the speed of shaking, mimicking increased wind speed, the bees increased their preference for the conical-celled flowers,” Glover added.

The results now give ecologists a deeper understanding of the subtle interactions between plants and pollinators. “Nobody knew what these cells were for, and now we have a good answer that works for pretty much all flowers,” Glover said. “It’s is too easy to look at flowers from a human perspective, but when you put yourself into the bee’s shoes you find hidden features of flowers can be crucial to foraging success.”

+ University of Cambridge/Functional Ecology

via This Is Somerset

Images: University of Cambridge/Andreas