One of the exciting things we see in the natural world is how living things solve problems produced by the environment. An excellent example is the carrion cactus that lives in hot and dry deserts of Africa.
Getting enough water is a challenge for plants that live in places where rainfall is very sparse. Those plants employ ingenious ways of storing water and reducing transpiration losses by having needles instead of leaves. What we might not have thought about is the problem of pollination in the desert environment. There aren’t enough plants to support a bee population, and pollinators are few and far between.
One cactus called the carrion cactus (Stapelia gigantea) has solved the pollination issue in an unusual way. When the cactus flowers are ready to be pollinated, they give off a foul smell that reeks of dead and rotting flesh. The smell of carrion attracts flies. As they scramble over the flowers trying to find the dead organism, they get pollen on their bodies and pollinate the cactus flowers.
God has created creatures that clean up dead and decaying organic matter. We have discussed the design roles of dung beetles, vultures, and worms in cleaning up the environment. In the carrion cactus, we see a plant that fools insects into thinking there is something to clean up as a way to accomplish pollination. This impressive trick allows a plant to thrive in the dry and hostile environment of the desert.
We saw the carrion cactus at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They feature amazing displays of many kinds of plants, including desert plants and carnivorous plants, that show God’s creativity.
Various types of plants are pollinated by bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, or bats. Non-flying mammals pollinate some plants. Rodents accomplish pollination of an African lily (Massonia depressa) that grows in a desert region of South Africa and Namibia.
Massonia depressa forms two huge leaves lying flat on the ground. Its flower in the center is at ground level within reach of the gerbils which pollinate it. Each evening the plant secretes globs of nectar as thick as jelly. The strong yeast-like scent attracts hairy-footed and short-eared gerbils that come at night to eat the nectar. The gerbils get covered with pollen as they spread the flowers open with their front legs and push their faces into the nectar.
Although the nectar is sugar (sucrose) jelly, it is 400 times as thick or viscous as an equivalent sugar solution. Rodents are the pollinators because the nectar is too thick for insects to drink. The gerbils lap it with their tongues. To accommodate the mammal pollinators, the flowers must be more sturdy and produce more pollen than plants pollinated by insects. Unlike the brightly colored flowers that attract flying pollinators in the daytime, these flowers are dull. The Massonia depressa produces seeds that are light enough that the wind scatters them.
We see evidence of design in the pollination of an African lily. This plant depends on a gerbil for reproduction, and the rodent depends on the plant for food. They need each other to survive. The plant is on the ground where the animal can easily reach it. It produces a fragrance and jelly to attract and feed the animal. Insects can’t eat the food or pollinate the plant. The lily and the rodent seem to be made for each other. Some suggest they evolved together by coincidence. We suggest this is another project by the Master Designer.
Thank God for chocolate flies. No, we are not talking about chocolate-covered houseflies. That sounds repulsive to us too. We are talking about the tiny flies that are essential to the production of the chocolate we love.
Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) which is native to the rainforests of South America. When early tribes in the Amazon and Orinoco River area discovered uses for the cacao tree, they started what became a chocolate craze that is still going on today. From there, interest in the trees and the tasty substance they produce spread to more of northern South America, into Central America, and into Mexico. The Aztecs even used cacao beans as money.
However, growing the cacao beans is not easy. The tiny white flowers that produce the beans require a small insect pollinator. The flowers grow out of the trunk of the tree where pollination by a bird or mammal would not be practical. Even bees or butterflies are too large. That’s where the chocolate flies come in. The pollinators that can do the job are tiny flies, or midges, in the family Ceratopogonidae. They are small enough to get into the flowers, and they are on the right work schedule. The cacao flowers open just before dawn—a time when the midges are most active. It seems like a planned arrangement. They are not really chocolate flies, but they are essential helpers for chocolate farmers.
As farmers began to grow cacao on plantations, the pollination process was not working well. Human pollination of the flowers by hand is a difficult job and not as effective as the work of the little flies. The midges were not doing the job because they prefer the shade of the rainforest over the open spaces of cacao plantations. Coincidentally cacao trees grow well in shady areas.
Those of us who live many miles from the ocean may not think about what goes on under the water. Similar to the land, there is an enormous diversity of plants in the sea. Just like land plants, ocean plants have flowers and pollinate and reproduce. Seagrass grows on the floor of the ocean and provides habitat for sea turtles, manatees, and many other marine animals. There are some 60 species of seagrass, and those grasses bloom and release pollen. Like land plants, seagrasses need something like the bees that help pollinate land plants. So are there underwater bees?
Researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico have reported that hundreds of crustaceans and other small insect-like animals visit plants and bring pollen with them. These invertebrates are the “underwater bees.” Along with ocean currents, they allow ocean vegetation to flourish.
As scientists study ways in which carbon can be locked up to avoid high concentrations in our atmosphere, they find that the ocean is a major factor in avoiding runaway greenhouse heating of the earth. Life in the oceans is essential to life on land.
Here is another design feature of this planet which is critical to the long-term existence of life on Earth. In the 1950s, scientists thought that there were maybe five or six factors which would be critical to the existence of life. The famous Drake Equation of how many planets could have life on them only considered five factors in its original format. Now we know there are a huge number of things that have to be “right” to allow life to exist.