Promoting pollinator awareness in Pittsburgh

Pollinators are so important for the health of plants and people alike: it’s estimated that as much as 88%1 of the world’s flowering plants depend on animal pollinators, including about one-third of the world’s agricultural crops that we use as food2. This month, I participated in two awesome outreach events to promote pollinator awareness in Pittsburgh.

 June 5th – Bioblitz, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

For those who have never been, Phipps is magical. Not only do they have an amazing diversity of plants on display, but the conservatory does an excellent job of making you feel like you’re passing through different worlds as you move from one exhibit to another –one minute you’re in a tropical rainforest in Hawaii, the next you’re in a beautiful, temperate Japanese courtyard.

On this occasion, however, I was not at Phipps as a lucky visitor, but as a scientist at work. Members of my lab and I were leading an exhibit for their annual BioBlitz and Family Fun Festival to talk to the public about plant-pollinator interactions. For the event, I took some sturdy pieces of cardboard (that otherwise would have been thrown away) and used them to create plant and pollinator-themed boards with holes cut out so people could stick their faces through and take photos. It was a big hit with kids, of course, but adults also had fun seeing their children look adorable as little bees and flowers!

After getting a ‘pollinator selfie’, many visitors also played our plant-pollinator matching game, where they tried to match different plant species with their co-evolved pollinator partner. We gave tips along the way by describing different known ‘pollinator syndromes’ or sets of traits that plants typically have to attract a certain type of pollinator or, for pollinators, to better collect floral rewards (pollen and/or nectar) from a certain type of plant. While people found it relatively easy to match plants with bee or butterfly pollinators, the act of trying to match plants with lesser-known pollinators seemed to pose more of a challenge. For instance, people were often stuck on what pollinates the plant that makes the world’s largest flower (Rafflesia arnoldii), but many were able to get it right once they learned that the flowers have a terrible, rotting smell, which helps attract its fly pollinators.

Overall, we had a blast interacting with the visitors at BioBlitz and sharing our knowledge and research about pollination. Especially now that it’s summertime, it’s common to see all kinds of pollinators hard at work collecting pollen and nectar. We hope that our discussions were able to help the community appreciate these little critters a little more for the key service they provide us and the planet.

June 24th – Everything but the B’S with the University of Pittsburgh Office of Sustainability

Did you know that each year there is a national pollinator week to celebrate and raise awareness about pollinators? For this year’s Pollinator Week, I partnered with the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Sustainability to put on a virtual lunch and learn called ‘Everything but the B’S, where we took the spotlight away from the types of pollinators that people generally know best (bees, butterflies and birds) and shined it on the unsung heroes of the pollinator world: flies, moths, wasps, Chiroptera (bats), ants, and beetles.

As people were obviously joining us during their lunch hour, we focused on pollinating interactions between plants and non-b pollinators that contribute significantly to the making of foods that many people enjoy on a daily basis, such as: pollination of cacao trees by small midges that ultimately gives us chocolate, or that of the Musa plant and bats which leads to wild bananas, or interactions between hoverflies and strawberry plants which new research3 has shown can produce high numbers of commercial-ready fruits. But we also discussed how non-b pollinators are important for supporting the conservation of diverse wildflowers around the world, such as plants that require night-time pollination by moths and bats, the several hundred orchid species that specialize on wasp pollination, and the beautiful magnolia trees that have been pollinated by beetles for millions of years. If you’d like to see the event for yourself, or learn more about sustainability in general, you can check out the Office of Sustainability’s YouTube channel.

How will you celebrate pollinators this year?

References

1 Ollerton, J., Winfree, R. and Tarrant, S. (2011), How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals? Oikos, 120: 321-326. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0706.2010.18644.x

2 Klein, A. M., Vaissière, B. E., Cane, J. H., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Cunningham, S. A., Kremen, C., & Tscharntke, T. (2006). Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274(1608), 303–313. https://doi.org/10.1098/RSPB.2006.3721

3Hodgkiss, D., Brown, M. J. F., & Fountain, M. T. (2018). Syrphine hoverflies are effective pollinators of commercial strawberry. Journal of Pollination Ecology, 22(6), 55–66. https://doi.org/10.26786/1920-7603(2018)FIVE

Northern catalpa

One of the things I love the most about my Pittsburgh apartment building is that it’s situated right next to a huge northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) tree. And as I live on the top floor, the tree’s leaves come right up close to the windows of my sun room, where I do most of my remote graduate work. For this reason, I’ve gotten to spent a lot of time with the tree over the years and seemed to have bonded with it. Many times, the tree has been the only being that was there with me when I would stay up ‘til the wee hours of the morning, intensely typing on my laptop to meet some deadline. Sometimes, I would subject the tree to listening to my ramblings as I practiced giving a seminar presentation, and, bless its heart, the tree never judged me for it. But most of all, I appreciate those times when I’d take a break from my studies to gaze at the tree through the window, and its beauty would somehow relax me and give me strength to keep going.

The northern catalpa tree outside of my apartment building in Pittsburgh.

The northern catalpa tree through the sun room window.

Because of my attachment to the northern catalpa, I pay special attention to its status throughout the year and have gotten to know a decent amount about its biology. Now that it’s finally spring, for instance, I’m delighted that the tree has recently gotten back some of its most beautiful and characteristic traits, such as its large, heart-shaped, bright green leaves and long, bean-like seed pods that hang all around its branches. Because of these ornamental properties, the northern catalpa is widely planted across the United States, where it is native (USDA, NRCS. 2022). Fittingly, the name catalpa actually comes from a Cherokee word meaning ‘bean tree,’ and as a researcher of plants in the bean family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae), the seed pods were of course the first thing that attracted my interest. In reality, however, this tree is not a legume. It belongs to the Bignoniaceae family, along with many other ornate species of large trees and flowering plants you may see planted around cities and gardens such as the blue jacaranda and wax begonia. Later in the spring, I look forward to when the tree will start making flowers. These will be pollinated by bees during the day and moths at night, and then will fall like autumn leaves to sprinkle the path up to my apartment building with little white spots.

Other Bignoniaceae species. Left: Blue Jacaranda (Photo Credit: SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images). Right: Wax Begonia (Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Christopher_PB).
Northern catalpa flowers. Photo credit: David D. Taylor 2013.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until I started studying plant biology in college that I truly started to pay attention to the plants around me. This lack of attention to plants actually has a name, it’s called ‘plant awareness disparity’ (PAD) and it’s pervasive in modern life, despite the fact that plants account for 80% of the world’s total biomass and we depend on them for our essential human needs such as oxygen, food, and medicine (Bar-On et al. 2018, Brownlee et al., 2021; Parsley 2020). A big consequence of PAD is that plant conservation receives less attention and funding (Balding and Williams 2016). By taking some time to notice of the flora around us, however, we can combat PAD and support plant life. The website Plant Love Stories (www.plantlovestories.com) is full of inspiring, everyday stories of human-plant relationships (see LINK COMING SOON for a compilation piece I helped write that features many excellent plant love stories from University of Pittsburgh undergraduate students).

Although I know it can be easy to think of plants as the scenery to the movie that is your life, I am sure everyone could identify a plant that has made some meaningful connection with them as the northern catalpa has done for me. What plant has impacted you?

References

Balding, M., & Williams, K. J. H. (2016). Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation. Conservation Biology, 30(6), 1192–1199. https://doi.org/10.1111/COBI.12738.

Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., & Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(25), 6506–6511. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1711842115/SUPPL_FILE/1711842115.SAPP.PDF.

Brownlee, K., Parsley, K., & Sabel, J. (2021). An Analysis of plant awareness disparity within introductory Biology textbook images. Journal of Biological Education,  https://doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2021.1920301.

Parsley, KM. (2020) Plant awareness disparity: A case for renaming plant blindness. Plants, People, Planet, 2, 598– 601. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10153

USDA, NRCS. 2022. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 05/21/2022).

Polyploid Plants are Hopeful Monsters: Sci-Tech Days Outreach Event

Ever wonder why store-bought strawberries seem massive compared to the ones that you find in the wild? Or how some orchids sold at your local grocery store have flowers that stand out as giants among the rest?

Well, in these cases, what causes some plants to achieve their monstrous sizes is polyploidy or whole genome duplication. You may remember that humans are diploid, meaning they have two sets of chromosomes, one from mom and one from dad (di = two, ploid = sets of chromosomes), and the vast majority of other animal species are diploid as well. Between 30 and 80% of all plant species, on the other hand, can have diploid or polyploid varieties1 with 3, 4, 5 etc. sets of chromosomes. For instance, one genetic variety of the Dancing Crane Cobra Lily (Arisaema heterophyllum)2 has as many as 14 sets of chromosomes, making it a decatettaraploid! Because polyploid cells hold more genetic material than diploid ones, they are often larger, leading to monster-sized organisms. Humans have taken advantage of these size differences for centuries3 to grow larger produce to eat (hence the store-bought strawberries which are actually octoploid) and flowers to ornament our homes (those large-flowered orchids are probably tetraploid4).

Diploid orchid (left), and tetraploid form (right).4

Although humans have long used polyploid plants to grow more attractive crops, there are still many unanswered questions about why plants naturally evolve to be polyploid in the first place. My colleagues in the Ashman lab, Dr. Thomas Anneberg and Dr. Nathalia Streher, are addressing these key questions with their research. Specifically, Thomas is using laboratory and greenhouse studies to understand ecological polyploid establishment in the face of competition, and Nathalia is using herbarium records to uncover how polyploidy has affected pollination over time. Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Thomas and Nathalia for the “Hopeful Monsters: Studying Polyploidy” display at the Carnegie Museum of Science during the “Plants and Botany Sci-Tech Days” event. Although my research is unrelated to polyploidy, Thomas and Nathalia helped me learn about this exciting field of study and pass on knowledge to the museum visitors. Using techniques I shared on my previous blog post (Tabling at Science Engagement Week), we engaged with people who visited our table by using many interactive examples of polyploid plants. These examples helped to teach what polyploidy is and how ubiquitous it is in the plant world and everyday life. We called polyploid plants “hopeful monsters” because of their size, of course, and also because of the uncertainty surrounding whether they will evolve and/or persist in certain natural environments.

One of the greatest aspects of being part of a research lab is being able to interact with and learn from fascinating researchers like Thomas and Nathalia. I had a blast at SciTech days and felt that the experience helped me gain a new appreciation of the influence of polyploidy in biology, just as many of the school kids who visited our table did as well.

So the next time you gawk at a humongous fruit or flower, consider that polyploidy may have played a role in the making of that monster.

Hopeful monsters display at Sci-Tech days! Our table included many familiar polyploid plants that we frequently eat and interact with such as strawberries, bananas, peanuts, seedless watermelons, blackberries, yams, ferns, orchids, and hibiscus. From left to right: myself, Dr. Thomas Anneberg, Dr. Nathalia Streher, Jae Kerstetter, and Trapper Hobble. Kerstetter and Hobble are fellow University of Pittsburgh researchers from the Turcotte lab who also ran a display about their research.

Sources

1Otto, S. P., & Whitton, J. (2003). POLYPLOID INCIDENCE AND EVOLUTION. 34, 401-437. https://doi.org/10.1146/ANNUREV.GENET.34.1.401

2Hayase, Y., Himeno, R., Horii, Y., & Iwatsubo, Y. (2019). Tetradecaploid cytotype of Arisaema heterophyllum (Araceae), newly found in Japan. Journal of Japanese Botany, 94(1), 9–14.

3Grlesbach, R. J. (1985). Polyploidy in Phalaenopsis orchid improvement. The Journal of Heredity, 76, 74–75.

4Salman-Minkov, A., Sabath, N., & Mayrose, I. (2016). Whole-genome duplication as a key factor in crop domestication. Nature Plants 2016 2:8, 2(8), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2016.115

Tabling at Science Engagement Week

When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone?

For me, the act of standing in front of an informational display table and conversing with strangers (‘tabling’) can be intimidating. However, I also realize how meaningful of an experience it can be when a scientist is able to use tabling to connect with people who otherwise would not appreciate the relevance of science in everyday life. Recently, I was fortunate to participate in a tabling workshop and run my own display for the first time. The display was centered around my research and occurred during ‘Science Engagement Week’ at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, PA. Although I was nervous about stepping out of the university bubble where I know my audience well (undergraduate students, professors, research technicians, etc.), this workshop taught me some new techniques that really helped me engage with the more general audience at Phipps. Here are the main takeaways I learned and how I used them at Science Engagement Week.

Tips for Successful Tabling:

  1. Have an opening hook: Much like the opening sentence of your college entrance essay, you want to grab people’s attention with something thought-provoking as soon as they step up to your table. What worked for me was asking people to examine the three clover plants I brought in and think about what could be causing the differences between them. The answer was genetics (the plants were from different genetic lines), but almost everyone gave the really excellent guess that varying environmental conditions (light, nutrients, precipitation, etc.) were causing the differences.
  2. Add interactive elements: Your audience will retain interest at your table for much longer if there are sensory objects present that they can put their hands on and interact with. In my case, the clover plants were also useful here because visitors liked to touch and turn over the leaves, smell the flowers, etc. They also seemed to like picking up and reading the laminated info-cards I scattered around, which also helped prompt questions about the background of my research.
  3. Ask open-ended questions: Conversations are a two-way street. As you’re tabling, provide many opportunities for visitors to share their thoughts and ideas so that you are not dominating the conversation. For example, I found it interesting to ask people about their professions and what activities they enjoyed doing in nature (of course, many responded that they enjoyed having house plants and gardening!). These open-ended questions helped me to not only connect with people more personally but also to find common ground for discussing the importance of doing ecological and environmental research.

By the end of the tabling session, I felt really good about the conversations I had throughout the afternoon. Folks seemed to show genuine interest in my work, and I enjoyed learning about their careers and hobbies too. Importantly, the practice of pulling off a tabling event solo gave me the confidence to tackle this challenge again in the future. In other words, the space outside of my comfort zone got a little bit smaller.