Friday, May 26, 2017

This Cockroach May Pollinate Flowers—Extremely Rare Find

In the scrublands of central Chile, wild roaches are feeding on pollen and may even be helping plants to propagate.

They may be reviled as a scourge of urban living, but most of the world's cockroaches don't scurry anywhere near a city.

A whopping 99 percent of the 4,500 known cockroach species thrive in wild places, playing vital roles in ecosystems ranging from the rain forests of Brazil to the deserts of Saudi Arabia.

Now, a new study reveals that the cockroach Moluchia brevipennis, native to central Chile's scrublands, feeds on flower pollen—and may even pollinate plants.

"People think of them as being in the streets or in the trash, but there are these wild cockroaches hanging out at the tops of tall flowers,"says study co-author Cristian Villagra, an entomologist at the Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación in Santiago, Chile.

Pollinating cockroaches are exceedingly rare: Only two species are known, one in French Guiana, the other on Malaysian Borneo. Then again, studies of wild cockroaches are also scarce, the researchers note in their paper, published recently in the journal Revista Brasileira de Entomologia.

Only 178 scientific papers have focused on this understudied group between 2000 and 2016, compared with tens of thousands of papers about more well-known insects such as ants and bees, according to the study authors. (Read about how cockroaches are also excellent dads.)

For their research, Villagra and colleagues conducted the first-ever survey of M. brevipennis in various sites of Chile’s semi-arid Matorral region.

"Kids are not scared of cockroaches, but as they grow older and become adults, then they get freaked out by them," says Villagra, who is also a National Geographic Explorer. "We want to give people an opportunity to learn about these insects."
Roach Raids

For their research, Villagra and colleagues conducted the first-ever survey of M. brevipennis in various sites of the semi-arid Matorral region.

They team found that these cockroaches emerge at dusk to eat pollen from many native plant species, including evening primrose, and lay their eggs, or ootecae, only on a genus of bromeliad plants called Puya.

The entomologists suspect the cockroaches evolved to depend on native plants for shelter and food because it's a safer bet than non-natives: Endemic flora can best endure the dry, harsh climate, he says.

Insects eat pollen—essentially, plant sperm—because it's a "really energy-packed, nice tasty treat," says University of Arizona entomologist Katy Prudic.

While gorging on pollen, insects get the powdery substance all over their bodies and faces. When they land on the next flower, some pollen can fall onto the female reproductive parts at the flower’s base, fertilizing it.

Actually observing this interaction between insects and plants requires painstaking experiments, but plans are underway to study whether the cockroaches are in fact pollinating the plants, Villagra says.

Prudic thinks it's likely, since the cockroaches' lifestyle is so closely connected to the vegetation.

"What you would think of as a vile organism may be important to help these plants make more babies," says Prudic, who wasn't involved in the study. "It's fun to think of cockroaches as more than something that you want to squish." (Find out why cockroaches are so tough to squish.)

Other lesser known pollinators include midges, dung beetles, horse flies, and even mosquitoes, Prudic adds. (See "9 Ways You Can Help Bees and Other Pollinators At Home.")

No matter whether they are pollinators, cockroaches are crucial to the environment. Many species eat large quantities of decaying organic matter, making them natural recyclers, Villagra says.

He is concerned that growing tourism infrastructure in central Chile could threaten the insects' homes, as well as many native plants, including P. venusta, a bromeliad that's considered vulnerable to extinction.

"Chile has focused its development on having frontier science research funded by its government agencies," Villagra says, "but has forgotten the fact that there still lots of things to be discovered in its natural history."

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Helen Yemm on how to grow spring flowers

This week Helen Yemm advises on making the most of delightful native fritillaries, taking care if you’re pruning a lively pieris, and how to avoid accidentally injuring yourself in the garden...

A reader at an informal “Thorny Problems” session in Dorset recently asked for more advice on growing Smyrnium perfoliatum, a late-spring, glowing lime-green biennial umbel (often mistaken for some kind of euphorbia). She’d had little success in the past – is there a knack?

Not exactly, is the answer, but it is important to understand a thing or two about the way the seeds and seedlings behave in order to establish the permanent ebb-and-flow colony sought by an increasing number of “Smyrnophiles”, it would seem.

First, as is the case with many members of this “cow parsley” plant family, you have to mimic nature and sow seeds promptly, when fresh. Allot them a specific site, rather than just cast them around, so you can monitor their presence. Second, on germination, the double or triple seed leaves bear no relation to the rather coarser adult leaves of the plant and appear to die off completely during their first summer.

This is the point at which you may lose heart and even plant something else in their stead. However, if undisturbed, the tiny dormant plants will put in an appearance the following spring, producing bold, shiny leaves not unlike celery, growing extremely rapidly to around 16in (40cm) and flowering in May/June before setting masses of black seed.

So where do you start? Single, eye-catching plants are often sold at fairs and gardener gatherings in late spring. Pounce on one or two, enjoy the flowers and let them go to seed (to start the process described above). Or carry an old envelope in your glove compartment and beg some seed from a successful Smyrnophile (who’s bound to have plenty to spare), head home and sow straight away.

Snake’s head fritillaries

These little native fritillaries, with their delicately patterned nodding flowers, grow from bulbs that are most often planted in September, along with other spring stars, such as alliums and daffodils, and they flower the following year in early to mid-April. They tolerate some shade, and thrive and multiply most rapidly by self-seeding in soil that is heavy and damp.

Although they make pretty front-of-border plants, they look best growing en masse in grass that doesn’t have to be cut in early spring and can be left un-mowed until at least late July or August. Recognisable seedlings produce two leaves in their first year, and may flower in their second or third.

If you are impatient and/or gardening on a small scale (and little self-seeding patches do look quite enchanting if you can spare a lawn-corner somewhere), you could buy a few pots of flowering bulbs around now, plant them in short turf that does not dry out too drastically in the summer and allow them to just set seed and get on with it, adding more bulbs in September.

Pruning overgrown pieris

You certainly can prune your pieris. Like other spring-flowering woodland evergreens such as camellias and rhododendrons, pieris can be cut back immediately after flowering. Your shrubs will then, in theory, flower on the new growth they make subsequently, but very possibly (depending on the variety and on how radical you were with your pruning saw) not for a couple of years.

You don’t say quite enough about these shrubs. Are they forms of P. formosa (the largest) or the slightly smaller P. japonica? Did you cram them into too small a space when you acquired them (in which case they are probably quite young, and could be moved rather than pruned) or are they ancient whoppers on which the whole garden depends for structure? Or have you one of each?

Either way, I advise you to be cautious: both species are quite slow-growing, and depending on their age and situation, may not recover quickly – and pruning these woodlanders hard is not something you want to be doing very often or they will rarely flower well. But if prune them you must, perhaps cut one back quite hard this year and see how it responds before handing out any stern treatment to the other.

Friday, March 24, 2017

How to buy flowers online for Mother's Day

It's that time of year that it's traditional to spoil your mum with gratitude for all the things she does for you. If you're not going to be seeing your mum in person this Sunday for Mother's Day, you can at least send her a bunch of flowers to show you care. Organising that online couldn't be easier - so now you've no excuse to forget. Also see: How to make personalised cards online.

How to buy flowers online

• Open your web browser and search for 'flowers'. There are loads of choices, from Interflora and Serenata Flowers to eFlorist, Bunches, M&S, Next Flowers and even The latter might be a good choice if you want to send a personalised card at the same time, but you can choose whichever site you fancy.

• We've gone with Serenata Flowers because we've used it before, and because it has some good deals ahead of Mother's Day - especially with the 5% voucher code we found online. (Don't worry, your mum doesn't know that.)

• Choose a website and look at the bouquets on offer. If you don't know anything about choosing flowers, play it safe and go for one of the bestsellers. For example, Serenata Flowers is offering Aztec Sun as a bestseller at £24.99 with £5 off.

• Once you've chosen a bunch of flowers, just click on it to go to the product page. Now select what size bunch you want: Standard, Deluxe or Supersize. You'll have to pay a little more to get a bigger bunch - the Aztec Sun costs £29.98 for Deluxe or £34.98 for Supersize.

• If you want to send a teddy, balloon, box of chocolates, vase or other with your flowers, select an item below your choice of bouquet size.

• Now choose a date for your delivery. Right now Serenata Flowers is offering guaranteed free courier delivery on Sunday 26 March, meaning your flowers will arrive between 8am and 6pm, and you'll be informed of a one-hour delivery slot nearer the time.

• When you're happy with your choices choose Order Now.

• If you didn't choose an extra gift along with the flowers, you'll be prompted to do so now. You can select one of the options if you want to, or to skip just scroll down and choose 'Continue to checkout'.

• On the next screen enter your name, email address and phone number, then click Continue.

• You'll now be asked for your mum's name and address. Start typing the address or postcode into the field to get auto suggestions.

• Specify any special delivery instructions and select Mother's Day as the occasion, then enter a gift message. This can be printed on a free default card, or you can choose something more appropriate for £2.99.

• When you're done, click 'Continue to Payment Details'.

• Before you buy anything online it's a good idea to search for voucher codes online. We found a 5% off voucher for Serenata Flowers using the code EErd435QQ. To enter your voucher code click the voucher code link under your order details on the right side of the screen.

• Serenata Flowers accepts payment by Visa Electron, Switch, Solo, Mastercard and Maestro. Enter your card number, expiry date and security code, then click Pay. You should get an email receipt within a few minutes. And that's it - easy!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Quick tips: Woodland flowers

In today's Quick Tips, we're getting ready for spring, with how to photograph woodland flowers.

Local woodlands will soon be exhibiting signs of spring. One of the first flowers to bloom is the lesser celandine; its star-like blooms creating a vast yellow carpet on the forest floor. Snowdrops will also be present in some locations, their distinctive white heads bobbing in the breeze. Another firm favourite is the wood anemone whose white flower heads often have a pinkish tinge. This beautiful perennial grows in woods, hedgerows and upland meadows from March to May, but its scent is a little off-putting – the leaves give off a musky aroma earning it the alternative name ‘smell fox’.

All of these winter/spring flowers can be found and photographed with ease, but to make the most of the experience you need to consider a few things.

1.If the wind speed rises above 5mph it’s best not to attempt close-up shots of delicate blooms such as snowdrops and wood anemones. These are best captured on calm days, and when the light is bright but overcast.

2.Scissors, tweezers and a paintbrush can all come in handy when shooting plant portraits. Any dust, pollen or debris will stand out on pale petals, so save time with the cloning tool by removing any distractions early on.

3.Many woodland images are shot at ground level, so take a kneeling mat or wear waterproof trousers to keep comfortable and dry. You will also need a tripod with a central column that can be positioned horizontally (or a beanbag).

4.Reflectors and diffusers can be useful for controlling the light that falls on your subject, but it’s also worth experimenting with small portable lights and flash systems designed specifically for close-up work.