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How mimicking a bee under attack can attract pollinators

Plant sends out honeybee chemical distress signals to recruit freeloading flies

by Matt Davenport
October 17, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 41

Many species rely on a little chemical con artistry for survival, but an international research team has uncovered a particularly crafty sting involving deceitful plants, kleptoparasitic flies, and honeybees. In this ruse, the hustler is the South African parachute plant Ceropegia sandersonii and its mark is Desmometopa—the so-called freeloader fly—the plant’s primary pollinator. To lure in the flies, the plant appears to chemically mimic a staple of the Desmometopa diet: honeybees captured by spiders and other predators (Curr. Biol. 2016, DOI: 10.1016/​j.cub.2016.07.085). As honeybees attempt to fend off their attackers, they secrete a cornucopia of volatile compounds from their stingers and glands, which theflies interpret as an invitation to dinner. Using GC/MS, researchers led by Stefan Dötterl of the University of Salzburg and Annemarie Heiduk of the University of Bayreuth found that 60% of the compounds emitted by distressed honeybees are also emitted by the plant. Furthermore, Desmometopa flies were attracted to a lab-made cocktail containing a select few of these chemicals, notably geraniol, 2-nonanol, 2-heptanone, and (E)-2-octen-1-yl acetate. C. sandersonii and honeybees are the only plant and animals known to emit these four compounds in concert, the team says.

The four chemical signaling molecules are shown between a photo of a C. sandersonii plant and a honeybee under attack.
Credit: Stefan Dötterl (plant)/Gernot Kunz (bee)
C. sandersonii plants (shown) attract flies as helpful pollinators, and honeybees unintentionally draw flies who want to eat them, both using the same chemicals.


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