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Saturday Science Series: Pollination Through the Eyes of Bees

Lisa Horth

Honeybees, almonds, blueberries and ultraviolet light will be blended into one fascinating presentation for the Saturday Morning Science Series Oct. 22 at Old Dominion University. Lisa Horth, associate professor of biological sciences at ODU, will deliver a lecture titled "Consider the Ultraviolet: What Bees See and Why It Matters."

The presentation will begin at 10:30 a.m. in Room 200 of the Oceanography and Physical Sciences Building. Anyone with an interest in science, regardless of background or age, is invited to attend. The event and parking are free.

When Horth was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, before she joined ODU in 2004, she rode a bicycle to work each day alongside a field of sunflowers. "I saw honeybees pollinating the flowers and wondered if there is natural variation in the way flowers attract the bees and other pollinating insects and birds," she said.

That kernel of curiosity has sprouted recently into a research project that is producing interesting results.

Horth's research is especially relevant now because the honeybee population is steadily dropping - for reasons that scientists and beekeepers don't fully understand - and causing a drag on plant pollination. This pollination, of course, is necessary for the production of fruits and seeds. Almonds and blueberries are prominent varieties of plants that depend upon honeybees to visit their flowers and transfer pollen grains from the male anther to the female stigma.

So, how does ultraviolet light enter into the equation?

Flowers employ a variety of cues to attract pollinators. The bright color of flower petals is an obvious example. But honeybees and other creatures also are attracted by ultraviolet light that some flower petals reflect. This UV light, which humans cannot see, typically acts as a guide - or "airport runway lights," as Horth describes it - directing the pollinating creature to the flower's nectar and to the area where pollination can occur.

Horth's presentation will describe her recent experiments that show there is natural variation in the UV light reflections of flowers, and that the larger the UV reflecting area is, the more likely a bee will arrive to pollinate the flower. Horth and her students have manually augmented or decreased the UV reflecting portions of petals in order to demonstrate the advantage of the high-UV variation.

A potential result of this work would be the genetic engineering of high UV-cue petals in the flowers of food crops. This could assure the pollination of valuable crops even in the presence of decreasing bee populations.

The following lecture in the Saturday Morning Science Series, all of which begin at 10:30 a.m. on the campus, will be Dec. 10, when ODU oceanographer Victoria Hill speaks on "Arctic Science: Burning Questions in the Freezing Cold."

For more information, visit: http://sci.odu.edu/physics/events/sms.html.

This article was posted on: October 12, 2011

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