Venus Flytraps Refuse to Eat Friendly Bugs That Pollinate Them

Wednesday, 07 February 2018 - 8:25PM
Wednesday, 07 February 2018 - 8:25PM
Venus Flytraps Refuse to Eat Friendly Bugs That Pollinate Them
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The Dionaea muscipula, better known as the Venus flytrap, is a fascinating plant.

While most leafy green fauna is slow, docile, and prone to being eaten by herbivore animals, the flytrap has earned a reputation as the plant that bites back. Any bug that's foolish enough to get too close to the Venus flytrap's large, toothy mouth will be chomped down, crushed, and turned into food that the plant uses to fuel further growth.

As if this wasn't cool enough by itself, a new study into this most violent of plants reveals yet another fascinating insight into the mindset of a homicidal shrubbery. Apparently, Venus flytraps are capable of sensing what type of insect has fallen for their sweet-smelling aroma, and won't eat some species of creepy crawlies that the plant considers to be friendly.

This new study, conducted by Elsa Youngsteadt of North Carolina State University, involved using dry ice to extract, pacify, and study the insects that Venus flytraps were eager to gobble up. Looking at the amount of pollen that was present on these insects, it was possible to determine that the flytraps were less likely to get hungry when confronted with bugs that would help spread the plant's pollen to others of the species.

All in all, over 200 different types of creepy crawlies ended up falling into the mouths of these plants, but while the flytraps had no qualms about eating spiders and flies, they showed little interest in bees and some forms of beetles - in other words, they were deliberately avoiding the creatures that would help them reproduce.

Many plants enjoy a symbiotic relationship with bees, as the buzzing bugs collect nectar from flowers in order to produce honey for their hives (or for your breakfast if they're owned by beekeepers). In return, the bees inadvertently carry pollen from flower to flower, allowing the plants to pollinate with a wider variety of genetic information, and ensuring that the plants' offspring will be as healthy as possible.

It's not clear exactly why the flytraps are opposed to consuming bees, but it does seem awfully like the carnivorous plants are somehow inherently aware of the importance of these particular insects to their own survival. This makes a great deal of sense from an evolutionary standpoint - put bluntly, if you attempt to eat anyone who ever gives you the opportunity to reproduce, you're not going to remain in the gene pool for very long.

There are a lot of questions yet to be answered about how the flytrap knows what's in its mouth - whether the plant can somehow sense the pollen on the bee's body, or whether, instead, flytraps have simply evolved to recognize and ignore pollinating insects so that they can continue to reproduce.

Perhaps this study may be useful in the future of bee preservation, an important topic considering the speed with which this vital animal is dying out thanks to the use of pesticides. If flytraps will eat pest insects but won't touch bees, perhaps these hungry plants need to be put to use in farms across the world, keeping crops safe from potential threats while allowing bees to continue their important pollination work unharmed.

If this is undertaken, here's hoping that the scientists involved don't miss an opportunity to name the endeavor Project Audrey 2.

Science News