The mystery of the blue flower: nature’s rare colour owes its existence to bee vision



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Adrian Dyer, RMIT University

At a dinner party, or in the schoolyard, the question of favourite colour frequently results in an answer of “blue”. Why is it that humans are so fond of blue? And why does it seem to be so rare in the world of plants and animals?

We studied these questions and concluded blue pigment is rare at least in part because it’s often difficult for plants to produce. They may only have evolved to do so when it brings them a real benefit: specifically, attracting bees or other pollinating insects.

We also discovered that the scarcity of blue flowers is partly due to the limits of our own eyes. From a bee’s perspective, attractive bluish flowers are much more common.

A history of fascination

The gold and blue funerary mask of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The ancient mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun is decorated with lapis lazuli and turquoise.
Roland Unger / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The ancient Egyptians were fascinated with blue flowers such as the blue lotus, and went to great trouble to decorate objects in blue. They used an entrancing synthetic pigment (now known as Egyptian blue) to colour vases and jewellery, and semi-precious blue gemstones such as lapis lazuli and turquoise to decorate important artefacts including the Mask of Tutankhamun.




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Feeling blue? Get acquainted with the history of a colour


Blue dye for fabric is now common, but its roots lie in ancient Peru, where an indigoid dye was used to colour cotton fabric about 6000 years ago. Indigo blue dyes reached Europe from India in the 16th century, and the dyes and the plants that produced them became important commodities. Their influence on human fashion and culture are still felt today, perhaps most obviously in blue jeans and shirts.

Renaissance painters in Europe used ground lapis lazuli to produce dazzling works that captivated audiences.

A painting of a woman in a vivid blue robe and white hood, with bowed head and clasped hands.
The Virgin in Prayer by the Italian painter Sassoferrato, circa 1650, highlights the vivid blue colour made with ground lapis lazuli.

Today many blues are created with modern synthetic pigments or optical effects. The famous blue/gold dress photograph that went viral in 2015 not only shows that blue can still fascinate — it also highlights that colour is just as much a product of our perception as it is of certain wavelengths of light.

Why do humans like blue so much?

Colour preferences in humans are often influenced by important environmental factors in our lives. An ecological explanation for humans’ common preference for blue is that it is the colour of clear sky and bodies of clean water, which are signs of good conditions. Besides the sky and water, blue is relatively rare in nature.

What about blue flowers?

We used a new online plant database to survey the the relative frequencies of blue flowers compared to other colours.

Among flowers which are pollinated without the intervention of bees or other insects (known as abiotic pollination), none were blue.

But when we looked at flowers that need to attract bees and other insects to move their pollen around, we started to see some blue.

This shows blue flowers evolved for enabling efficient pollination. Even then, blue flowers remain relatively rare, which suggests it is difficult for plants to produce such colours and may be a valuable marker of plant-pollinator fitness in an environment.

Global flower colour frequency for human visual perception (A) shows when considering animal pollinated species less than 10% are blue (B), and for wind pollinated flowers almost none are observed to be blue (C).
Dyer et al., Author provided

We perceive colour due to how our eyes and brain work. Our visual system typically has three types of cone photoreceptors that each capture light of different wavelengths (red, green and blue) from the visible spectrum. Our brains then compare information from these receptors to create a perception of colour.

For the flowers pollinated by insects, especially bees, it is interesting to consider that they have different colour vision to humans.




Read more:
Inside the colourful world of animal vision


Bees have photoreceptors that are sensitive to ultraviolet, blue and green wavelengths, and they also show a preference for “bluish” colours. The reason why bees have a preference for bluish flowers remains an open field of research.

Various blue flowers from our study.

Why understanding blue flowers is important

About one-third of our food depends on insect pollination. However, world populations of bees and other insects are in decline, potentially due to climate change, habitat fragmentation, agricultural practices and other human-caused factors.

The capacity of flowering plants to produce blue colours is linked to land use intensity including human-induced factors like artificial fertilisation, grazing, and mowing that reduce the frequency of blue flowers. In contrast, more stressful environments appear to have relatively more blue floral colours to provide resilience.

For example, despite the apparent rarity of blue flower colours in nature, we observed that in harsh conditions such as in the mountains of the Himalaya, blue flowers were more common than expected. This shows that in tough environments plants may have to invest a lot to attract the few available and essential bee pollinators. Blue flowers thus appear to exist to best advertise to bee pollinators when competition for pollination services is high.

Knowing more about blue flowers helps protect bees

Urban environments are also important habitats for pollinating insects including bees. Having bee friendly gardens with flowers, including blue flowers that both we and bees really appreciate, is a convenient, pleasurable and potentially important contribution to enabling a sustainable future. Basically, plant and maintain a good variety of flowers, and the pollinating insects will come.




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Our ‘bee-eye camera’ helps us support bees, grow food and protect the environment


The Conversation


Adrian Dyer, Associate Professor, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tiny treetop flowers foster incredible beetle biodiversity



Hundreds of beetle species seem to be specialists that feed only from small white flowers on trees.
Susan Kirmse, CC BY-ND

Caroline S. Chaboo, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The Research Brief is a short take on interesting academic work.

The big idea

Biologists have long known that rainforest treetops support a huge number of beetle species, but why these canopies are so rich in beetle diversity has remained a mystery. New research by my colleague Susan Kirmse and me shows that flowering trees play a critical role in maintaining this diversity, and that beetles may be among the most diverse pollinators in the animal kingdom.

We carried out a one-year study in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest in Venezuela. We used a specially built crane to collect a total of 6,698 adult beetles representing 859 species. These were gathered from 45 individual trees of 23 different tree species.

We were surprised to discover that the majority of these beetles – 647, or 75.3% of species found – were living on flowering trees. In fact, 527 beetle species in 41 families were associated exclusively with flowers. Interestingly, the majority of these species – almost 60% – were exclusively found on trees that produce lots of small white flowers.

Overall, this discovery shows that flowering trees are likely among the most important drivers for maintaining the high diversity of beetles in rainforests. But this relationship goes both ways. Our study also suggests that beetles may be among the most underappreciated pollinators in tropical forests.

A tall metal structure emerging from the forest canopy in Venezuela.
Using a specialized crane, the team was able to collect beetles from the very top of the forest canopy.
Susan Kirmse, CC BY-ND

Why it matters

Tropical rainforests are the very heart of Earth’s biodiversity. They harbor about 65% to 75% of all terrestrial species, including the most tree species and the most insects.

After finding such a tight relationship between beetles and flowering trees, we wondered: How many beetle species could be involved in pollination in the Amazon? Our study found an average of 26.35 unique beetle species for every species of tree. With an estimated 16,000 Amazonian tree species, this suggests that there might be more species of flower-visiting beetles than any other insects on Earth, potentially surpassing by far the 20,000 species of bees and the 19,000 species of butterflies.

Our study shows that flowering tree species play an important role as diversity hotspots in tropical rainforest canopies. For policymakers and biologists hoping to preserve or restore rainforests, promoting the cultivation of trees and other plants – especially those with lots of small white flowers that beetles love – could help to maintain species-rich communities. Flowers are a very important resource, providing food and shelter for thousands of insects in addition to beetles. Thus, preserving plant diversity or selecting many different indigenous tree species for reforestation can enhance the diversity of insects.

An image of a iridescent green-blue beetle.
Beetles like the Griburius auricapillus are just some of the hundreds of species that can be found in treetops.
Susan Kirmse, CC BY-ND

What still isn’t known

Our research was the first to describe this tight relationship between beetles and rainforest trees, especially with trees that produce thousands of small, simple flowers. But how this association came to be is still unclear.

Many of the beetle species were found only on trees with this particular type of flower. The trees get an obvious benefit: pollination. But what specifically these trees offer to the beetles requires further study. The simpler flowers are easier for beetles to access, but is the appeal food, like petals, pollen or nectar? Or maybe a home to find mates or lay eggs for the young to grow?

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What’s next

To fight the worldwide rapid declines in insect diversity, researchers and conservationists must understand the ecological connections between insects and their food plants. Long-term studies, particularly in research plots like the one we used in Venezuela, allow researchers to collect layers of information that help unravel the complexity of diversity.

Yet such sites rely on political interest and stability. Political instability in Venezuela is preventing our fieldwork from continuing at the Venezuela plot.

While we can’t return to our study site in Venezuela, it is clear that researchers must work together to understand the mysteries of life on Earth. But biologists are racing the clock as large rainforests are destroyed forever.The Conversation

Caroline S. Chaboo, Adjunct Professor in Insect Systematics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Rainforests: More Flowers Brought on by Climate Change


The link below is to an article that reports on a change to rainforests as a consequence of climate change – more flowers.

For more visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2013/0709-climate-rainforest-shifts.html