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Choosy Flowers

March 11, 2015

Some flowers may be able to reject pollen from non-optimal pollinators.



Matt Betts green hummingbird Heliconia tortuosa

A green hummingbird feeds on a heliconia flower. (Matt Betts)

Flowers that pick their pollinators. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Birds and bees visit any flower they fancy, drinking its nectar and leaving a dusting of pollen picked up from other flowers. Flowers have no choice in what pollen gets delivered. But Oregon State University ecologist Matthew Betts reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that Heliconia plants have blooms optimized for certain hummingbird beaks, and only when the flowers sense a big swig of nectar do they allow the pollen to grow and produce seeds.

MATTHEW BETTS (Oregon State University):

The plant uses nectar extraction as a cue to recognize really specialized pollinators that bring in high quality pollen from pollinators that aren’t so specialized.


He says the little sippers tend to be local pollinators who visited the flower’s close cousins, while the long beaked hummingbirds roam far and wide, carrying distant pollen. Favoring them prevents in-breeding. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.