Understanding the dance to save the dance

Think of the relationship between plants and pollinators as a dance -- one that has been taking place, and evolving, for millennia. The importance of this dance is enormous. Pollination from bees (and birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, and other animals) is necessary for the successful reproduction of a great number of plants, while pollinators gain sustenance to give birth to their next generations. These relationships support our natural ecosystems, as well as our cultivated ones, as an incredible amount of food crops worldwide depend on plant-pollinator interaction success.

The advancement of climate change is threatening the plant-pollinator relationship. There is evidence that a variety of seasonal cues, internal biological timings, and environmental factors currently working in harmony could become unlinked due to shifts in local climate. To explore the impact of climate change on plant-pollinator interactions, Diane Byers (Illinois State University) and Shu-Mei Chang (University of Georgia) organized a symposium at Botany 2016, the annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America, in Savannah, Georgia. Participants exchanged ideas and experiences using diverse methods to better understand current plant-pollinator interactions and to reveal how these interactions might be shifting due to climate change.

The results of that symposium, along with invited papers, are recently published in a special issue of Applications in Plant Sciences: Studying Plant-Pollinator Interactions Facing Climate Change and Changing Environments. The issue focuses on the creative methods being used by researchers to understand the complex changes that are taking place.

Two articles in the issue discuss innovative techniques for measuring and exploring how floral cues and rewards, such as scent and nectar, can vary and why. Arnold and Michaels (2017) describe a new nectar extraction technique, and present how it can be used to boost butterfly restoration strategies in prairies and oak savannas. Burkle and Runyon (2017) demonstrate how the components of a flower's scent can be measured with specialized gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC/MC) sensors in the field to expand our understanding of how changing climates impact a plant's ability to lure different pollinators.

On the pollinator side of the discussion, Pane and Harmon-Threatt (2017) illustrate how optimizing the use of emergence tents can provide insight into factors contributing to successful bee nesting site restoration. Bell et al. (2017) describe a proof-of-concept quantitative pollination network using pollen metabarcoding, sampling pollen from 38 bee species from multiple sites.

Two review articles provide overviews of methods within particular areas: Morton and Rafferty (2017) evaluate the use of spatial and temporal transplant experiments to uncover how plants and their pollinators might respond to changing local climates; and Byers (2017) delves into assessments of altered plant and pollinator phenology (the cyclical and seasonal timing in an organism's life cycle) that can shed light on new climate norms.

Together, these articles illustrate the diversity of tactics being used to deepen our understanding of plant-pollinator interactions, which are beginning to unravel in the face of climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances. As scientists move forward in addressing these changes, their creativity and multi-faceted approaches can help plant-pollinator relationships, as well as humanity, persist.

Credit: 
Botanical Society of America