Monday 23 May 2016

Jeff Ollerton

Scent, colour and form all shape the choices we make about what to plant in our gardens. Gardeners know that flowers produce nectar and scent to attract the birds, bats, insects and other animals they rely on as pollinators, but few realise that organisms too small to see with the naked eye also play a vital role in this process.

Ecologists have discovered that a yeast called Metschnikowia plays a key part in the pollination story and next week, for the first time, visitors to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show will be able to get a sniff of it and see how it looks under the scanning electron microscope.

The yeast forms part of the British Ecological Society‘s Animal Attraction: The garden and beyond display, which focuses on the relationships between plants and their pollinators – relationships that are amazing in their diversity as well as crucial to global food security. The University of Northampton’s Professor of Biodiversity, Jeff Ollerton, has been advising the British Ecological Society on the project.

Metschnikowia is ubiquitous, present in most flowers in most gardens, yet ecologists are only just beginning to uncover its mysterious role in pollination. The yeast is studied in only four laboratories in the world and Dr Manpreet Dhami from Stanford University has donated the yeast for the British Ecological Society’s garden.

Like other yeasts, Metschnikowia may produce volatile chemicals that mimic the scent flowers use to attract pollinators, thus helping the flower to attract more pollinators and therefore set more seed. In return, the yeast becomes attached to birds, insects and other pollinators, which it relies on for dispersal.

Professor Ollerton explained: “It was a pleasure to work with the British Ecological Society on this project as it highlights two important points about the natural world: that pollinators other than bees are just as important to both wild plants and crops, and that the diversity and abundance of many of these groups is declining worldwide.” Professor Ollerton’s recent study, published in Science, found that
23 species of British bees and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct since the 19th century.

According to Jessica Bays of the British Ecological Society: “To tackle this decline, we need to understand its causes, including climate change, habitat loss and pesticide use, and we also need to understand the role played by yeasts such as Metschnikowia, which is why we decided to bring it to Chelsea this year.”

Tickets are still available for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016 – for more information click here.

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