Living With Butterfly Pollination

Male Tiger Swallowtail

Male Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar from a cone flower

The coevolution of flowering plants and insect pollinators is well documented. Flowers often have odors and shapes that are attractive to specific pollinators. The spacing of the flower parts are often adapted to transfer pollen in a manner that ensures its transport to another flower. Most often, pollen is carried on the body of the insect.

A group of scientists studied pollination in the Flame Azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum, with flower parts arranged such that only large insects, such as butterflies can contact both the male and female parts when nectaring. They caged flowers and compared the successful fruit set of flowers in cages that excluded large butterflies to flowers in cages that allowed access of all pollinators. Only 2 of 78 flowers with cages that allowed access to small pollinators such as bees but excluded butterflies set fruit. When butterflies were allowed access, the rate of fruit set was 12 times higher. Examination of tiger swallowtails showed that pollen grains from Flame Azalea stuck to the wings and that during nectaring, over 80 percent of the butterflies made contact with both stamens and pistels. The scientists concluded that the unusual structure of the Flame Azalea is an adaptation to pollination by butterfly wings.

Mary Jane Epps, Suzanne E. Allison and Lorne M. Wolfe. 2015. Reproduction in Flame Azalea ( Rhododendron calendulaceum , Ericaceae): A Rare Case of Insect Wing Pollination. The American Naturalist. Vol. 186, no. 2
DOI: 10.1086/682006 ; http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/682006

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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