Skunky smells and pollination

For my series on unusual pollinators, in honour of national pollinator week, I’m going to focus on the smellier side of pollination biology.

Like Skunk Cabbages!

So that video shows how cool Skunk Cabbages are, but it doesn’t focus on the unusual pollinators that are attracted to stinky smells and heat.

Honeybee in skunk cabbage, source

In most cases, the pollinators of stinky flowers like Amorphophallus, Rafflesia, Stapelia, and Smilax are carrion flies and beetles, and the aroma of the flower is a kind of floral deception.  In other words, the plant is promising something it doesn’t provide.  In this case, the flesh of a dead animal.

However, skunk cabbage also attracts bees, specifically honeybees (the “goats of the bee world”, as one expert calls them).  The honeybees are out foraging early in the spring, and if nothing else is flowering, they will visit the skunk cabbage for pollen (and potentially warmth) (Kevan 1989).

Fly on Greenbriar, source

Another familiar example is that of Smilax, or greenbriar, which is a globally distributed spiny vine.  The greenbriars also produce stinky compounds and also attract a range of flies and beetles: “flesh flies, blow flies, Muscid flies, Syrphid flies, mosquitoes, and others species”, as well as the Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) (source)The greenbriars are also apparently visited by bees, so there is either some familiar floral component to the aroma, or there is something compelling about rotting flesh smells to bees!

Interestingly, there is a convergent evolution of stinky smells in the Stinkhorn fungi, which also utilize flies as spore dispersers (technically not pollination, but it has a similar effect) (Johnson and Jürgens 2010).

Fly on Stinkhorn fungus, source


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