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  • Charlie Janson

The amazing story of the Small-Flower Woodland-Star: a specialized pollinator, sex and parasitism.

Hidden in our backyard, a complex story worthy of Hollywood film surrounds this little plain wildflower. Unlike most spring flowers that have a variety of pollinators (even if all of a 'type', such as 'bees'), this plant is pollinated almost exclusively by only one species of very small, day-flying moth. For those who care, the moth is called the Yucca moth (Greya). This kind of one-on-one relationship is really quite rare in nature, and like most one-on-one relationships, it is complicated. Not only does the moth pollinate the flower, but at the same time it deposits eggs into what will become the developing fruit, where the moth's offspring (larvae) eat the flower's offspring (seeds). You might think that the plant would prefer to avoid visits by a baby-killing parasitic insect, but in fact the floral scent of this particular flower is distinctively different from that of its close relatives (that do not depend on this moth) and is highly attractive to the moth. Apparently it is worth losing a few seeds to attract dedicated and effective pollination by the moth. On the other side, the moth cannot 'cheat' on the system and skip pollinating the flower, as otherwise there would be no seeds for the moth's babies to eat. That such a complicated relationship lives in plain sight a few steps from our back door really brings home to me the importance of preserving entire landscapes with their many, often unnoticed, players.

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