1/02/2017 Staff Writer

The Plight of the Pollinators

Summertime flowers that are white or shades of pink are pretty ubiquitous.

And stands of Common Milkweed are a sight that's pretty ... well, common.

But great scientific information can be found even in the most everyday sources.

So, Franklin & Marshall College junior Dillon Alderfer's hours in a field at Millport Conservancy in northern Lancaster County were not spent just soaking up the summer sun. The biology major and Hackman scholar collected field and lab data on the intersection of flower color and pollinator behavior.

His work added another layer to the ongoing research of Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Aaron Howard: how pollinators' behavior is influenced by the plants they visit.

“I am always amazed at the wonders of the biological world and the mysteries that experiments can unearth and often explain,” said Howard, whose research is largely focused on how the movement of pollen by pollinators – i.e. insects – from one plant to another is influenced by flowers.

Alderfer's work uncovered a wrinkle with the professor’s earlier research. At Millport, pollinators preferred pink milkweed flowers, the opposite of his earlier findings, when pollinators gravitated to white flowers, Howard said.

Why study milkweed?

It's abundant, Alderfer said. “There’s an easily quantifiable pollination process with the ability to divide male and female reproduction between the removal of pollen grains from the milkweed and insertion of pollen from one milkweed plant, transported via a pollinator to another milkweed plant.”

Experiments are not linear. Sometimes, they throw researchers for a loop. And the implications of Alderfer's findings go far beyond “white vs. pink.”

"Our data point to a potentially negative influence that is invasive," Howard said. It is the Canada thistle, with pink flowers that bloom before the common milkweed does, and so has an effect on the pollination of common milkweed.

That is important because common milkweed is "an essential resource to many native insects including the declining Monarch butterfly," a pollinator that lays its eggs on the plant, Howard said.

Alderfer said that means the fate of other plants surrounding milkweed, the "floral neighborhood" as it is called, can have a bearing on a pollinator's survival as well.

  • Junior Dillon Alderfer spent hours in rural northern Lancaster County, collecting field and lab data on the intersection of flower color and pollinator behavior. Image Credit: Deb Grove
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