Among the many ways rising global temperatures are changing the environment, from shrinking polar ice caps to rising sea levels, research in recent years has shown that climate change also is causing flowering plants and pollinating bugs to fall out of sync.
This summer, Maryville University biologist Kyra Krakos and her students are studying the effects of climate change on flowers and pollinating insects, particularly bumblebees, at the Shaw Nature Reserve about an hour outside St. Louis. Meteorologists have observed more erratic weather patterns over time, such as this year's mild winter, which has caused flowers to bloom at times when they shouldn't.
"So that's going to change the relationship between plants and their pollinators because different plants are blooming at the same time now, so what does a plant do with that?" Krakos said.
Essentially, when bumblebees emerge to look for nectar, they might see a larger variety of flowers at one time than they're used to. The bees might pay more attention to some flowers and neglect others in the process.
"See these yellow sunflower-looking things over there?" Krakos asked as she pointed above the tall prairie grasses. "There's nothing on them right now. The bees are super obsessed with the asclepias. Now, that could very well be a normal pattern, unless those guys aren't supposed to be out right now."
Because about three quarters of all food crops depend on pollinators, the changing relationships between flowers and pollinators could pose challenges for agriculture.
The flowers most affected are the ones that bloom for short periods of time, such as a week in the early spring or the late summer. Krakos worked with Webster University scientist Nicole Miller-Struttman, who noticed a shift in bloom times for flowering plants at the Shaw Nature Reserve, based on notes that botanist Edgar Anderson had taken at the reserve several decades ago.
Krakos' students handle their own projects, answering very specific questions, such as whether the wild quinine flower is able to self-pollinate.
Ultimately, she said, the projects together try to answer the larger question, which is whether the flowers are receiving enough pollen.
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