Everyone knows that sunflower heads turn to follow the Sun throughout the day, allowing them to get the maximum amount of sunlight. However, researchers have found another feature that helps sunflowers to thrive. Plant biologists at the University of California, Davis, have published a report showing the incredible design of sunflowers for optimum pollination.
The sunflower head has hundreds of tiny florets. The newest florets are at the center of the bloom, and the most mature are at the edges. Their design forms a distinctive spiral pattern from the center to the edge. Each floret blooms over two days. On the first day, the male part of the bloom opens, presenting pollen. The female stigma unfolds to receive the pollen on the second day. In some way, the florets coordinate their opening, beginning at the edge and moving toward the center. This progressive opening leaves a ring of female flowers outside the earlier stage of pollen-bearing males.
Pollinating insects (primarily bees) tend to land on the edges and walk toward the center. In that way, they pick up pollen after they have walked over the female florets. Then they carry the pollen to a different flower head for cross-pollination. This coordinated opening design attracts as many insects as possible and makes pollination as efficient as possible.
Understanding how to develop plant cultivars that can optimize pollination is essential since the bee population has been declining. We have much to learn about God’s design in the plant and insect world. Studies like this can help us meet the food shortages affecting many people on this planet.
The design of plants is so complex and precise that it speaks volumes about the design built into all of life. For example, on November 3, 2021, the San Diego Botanic Gardens in Encinitas had a public showing of the bloom of the Amorphophallus titanum plant, which attracted more than 5,000 people. This strange plant is called the corpse plant.
Amorphophallus titanum is an endangered plant endemic to Sumatra. People call it the corpse plant because the blossom smells like a rotting corpse. The plant requires growth for five to ten years before blooming for the first time. After that, it may bloom once every two to ten years. The bloom lasts for 24 to 48 hours in which it sends out the odor to attract carrion beetles and flesh flies as pollinators.
The flower, or spathe, of the corpse plant does more than just send out a smell to attract pollinators. The inside is a deep red color with furrows that give it the appearance of raw meat. Also, when blooming, it generates heat that brings it to human body temperature. As a result, the carrion beetles and flesh flies, which are programmed to be attracted to meat, find it irresistible.
Many insects and animals have a symbiotic relationship with certain plants. Sometimes a plant attracts an insect or animal for food or shelter, and the insect or animal provides pollination for the plant. Analysis of the powerful odor shows it involves at least seven chemicals that create foul smells we are familiar with, from rotting fish to feces. It is no accident that this plant has all of the right chemicals and physical features to attract the available pollinators in its native habitat.
One of the big problems that humans face is mosquito infestations. Most of us know that mosquitoes can carry serious diseases, with malaria being at the top of the list. It is essential to understand that the presence of mosquitos is not a failure in God’s design of the natural world. What are the solutions to the mosquito problems?
Most mosquito species are pollinating insects. Of the problem species, only the females draw blood, usually from decaying remains of animals. Before humans invaded natural habitats, mosquitos were less of an issue than in modern times. The larvae do not survive well in running water, and mosquitos are such weak fliers that even a slight breeze will keep them at bay.
The human response to mosquitos has been badly misdirected. The most common response has been to spray areas with heavy doses of chemicals that kill mosquitos. The problem is that the spraying kills everything else as well. Pesticides do not discriminate between good insects and bad ones. Animals dependent on insects for food are radically affected by massive spraying. Since 1970, nearly three billion birds have disappeared from North America. The solution to mosquito problems is quite simple–let God’s natural agents control the mosquito population.
Dragonflies and damselflies are voracious mosquito eaters concentrating on mosquito larvae. Hummingbirds eat hundreds of insects every day. American bullfrogs have long sticky tongues designed to catch insects, and mosquitos are at the top of their list. Red-eared slider turtles are mosquito eaters, with one study showing a 99% drop in mosquito numbers in ditches where the turtles were introduced. Woodpeckers, warblers, and wrens all eat mosquitos. They are all solutions to the mosquito problems.
Mass spraying creates imbalances in insect populations and kills birds and animals that feed on mosquito larvae. The spray also has serious implications for humans who react to the chemicals, including some forms of cancer. Humans have contributed to the dilemma that mosquitos bring to all of us, but God has natural solutions to the mosquito problems.
There are many things that God has provided that we take for granted, and yet without them, we would not be able to live on planet Earth. One example is the common bee. The Earthjustice organization has been involved in trying to stop the killing of bees, and they gave some interesting statistics.
Bees fly an average of 55,000 miles (88,000 km) to produce one pound of honey. They can see colors that humans can’t see, and they communicate by dancing. Very importantly, it’s hard to realize that one-third of our food crops are dependent on bees. It takes 60,000 bees to pollinate one acre of an orchard, and without bees, we would have no almonds, apples, apricots, squash, and many other fruits and vegetables. An average hive contains about 30,000 bees.
One problem is that every year farmers apply over 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides to our country’s crops, and that is a factor in the decline of the bee population. The current alarm over the drop in the bee population is an excellent time to remember that God provided bees, not just for honey. They also sustain the food crops we need. That is why we must stop the killing of bees.
We get many interesting responses to our daily articles on this website. Recently, several people responded to our emphasis on the value of insects. Bugs can indeed bother us. Some bite or sting, while others eat our vegetation encroaching on our food supply. Despite those things, we have pointed out that entomologists tell us that insects are beneficial.
Akito Kawahara, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said that most people are unaware of the value of insects. Kawahara points out that insects annually contribute 70 billion dollars to the U.S. economy by their roles in pollination and waste disposal processing. Everyone knows that insects are involved in pollinating flowering plants, but they may not realize that insects are the linchpins, holding together almost all land-based ecosystems. Also, insects provide food sources for birds, bats, freshwater fish, and numerous land animals.
Not realizing the value of insects, humans have done much to eradicate them. We have reduced their habitat, used massive amounts of pesticides, and made them victims of pollution. Sometimes, we have brought in invasive species of animals and plants that harm the ecosystems. We have also done things that accelerate climate change. The National Academy of Sciences suggests initiating a campaign to encourage people to avoid using bug zappers, practice insect conservation, do less mowing, and use insect-friendly soaps and sealants.
God set up a working system that has produced a high standard of living for thousands of years. We are threatening to unbalance the system by our capacity for high tech devices and materials. Sometimes insect populations get out of control and damage human resources, such as the locust invasions of recent years. It is often human interference with the natural controlling agents that have caused the insect infestations. People need to be aware of the value of insects to life on this planet.
The vanilla flavor used in many foods comes from an orchid (Vanilla planifolia) that originally grew in Mexico. Herman Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, discovered the pleasant-tasting substance used by the Aztecs, and he introduced it to Europe in the 1520s. But it took 300 years to solve the vanilla mystery.
When the Europeans tried to produce vanilla in their own countries, they could grow the vines, which produced flowers that bloomed one morning each year. However, within 12 hours, the flowers withered and produced no fruit. For three centuries, the vanilla mystery remained unsolved, and the Europeans depended on Mexico for vanilla flavor.
Then in 1836, a French botanist named Charles Francois Morren traveled to Mexico to study vanilla production. He noticed bees landing on the vanilla flower, working their way under a flap in the flower, and becoming dusted with pollen. Then they transferred the pollen to other flowers. Within hours of pollination, the flowers closed, and soon seed pods began to form.
The vanilla mystery solution was known only to those stingless bees of the genus Melipona which lived only in Mexico.They knew how to pollinate the flowers so that they could produce seed pods. The people who attempted to grow vanilla elsewhere tried without success to bring the bees into their areas. Then in 1841, a twelve-year-old slave boy discovered a way to hand pollinate the flowers using a sliver of bamboo. The vanilla mystery was solved!
Because of hand pollination, Indonesia and Madagascar now exceed Mexico in vanilla production. However, hand pollination is labor-intensive and requires constant monitoring of the plants since the flowers stay open for only a few hours. It took humans 300 years to discover how to pollinate the vanilla flower. Before that, only the Melipona bees knew the secret. No other insects knew how to enter those flowers and pollinate them.
Without the bees, there would have been no vanilla plant for humans to discover and use. More important, without the bees, the vanilla vines could not reproduce. Since the orchid could not survive without the bee, the question is, “Who put that bee there and told it how to pollinate that flower?” The vine and the bee could not have evolved separately. That leaves us with another vanilla mystery. Perhaps the bee and the vanilla vine were created to work together. We see this as another evidence of God’s creative work. Think about that the next time you enjoy some vanilla ice cream.
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.