Going with the flow: a new and improved milkweed project, finally getting results

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my three years of research, it’s that its super important to go with the flow. Since my last update my milkweed project has taken on an entirely new shape. After discovering that glyphosate herbicides do not act as a proxy for connectedness, I decided to use a different approach and expand on my project from last summer.

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Losing the Battle to Win the War: Plant massacres and program fails

I’ve taken a fair few Ls in the past few weeks here in Puzey lab, but I know they’ve all been for the best. In my last post, I wrote about the measures we were taking to beat back thrips and spider mites; in this post, I must write that I was unable to control the insects on my plants, and had to make the decision to cut them all back. The spider mite populations were huge, and I was having to wipe down the leaves and stems of my plants every day to kill them. Misting with water and even bleach didn’t help, and on top of that, thrips were still present. I couldn’t use insecticidal soaps on the plants, because we had released so many predatory insects to help. So, I cut every single plant back to its roots. This sounds traumatic for the plants, but milkweed has such extensive root systems that they regrow quickly and healthily. Now I just have to wait for everything to grow—and then I can start executing my experiment!

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The Month of June’s Work for Milkweed Pollination

The month of June has been nothing but frantic.  For the first three weeks of June, I was out in the field for the majority of the day.  While I was there, we had multiple protocols in action at the same time.  Most of the day was spent doing pollinator observations and video recordings.  For each pollinator observation, I started with a fresh, unopened umbel.  I bagged them to prevent premature pollination.  Once the umbels had opened, which usually took about two to three days, we could begin the observation.  I would record information about the milkweed itself (its height, location, and proximity to other milkweed) and the focal umbel (number of flowers, location on the plant, color of flowers).  I would then take off the bag, and distance myself about ten meters away from the plant and started the stopwatch.  I would wait 30 minutes, recording each pollinator’s arrival and departure time.  For the first five visitors to the umbel, I paused the watch and counted all the pollinia that had inserted and removed.  After the thirty minutes was up, I moved onto the next umbel.  The purpose of these pollinator observations is to quantify how efficient pollinators of milkweed are by using pollinia transfer efficiency (PTE), which is the ratio of pollinia inserted to pollinia removed.  Since I had data for the number of pollinia inserted and removed, I will be able to determine PTE for the different pollinators that we have observed.

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Early June Update (A Little Late)

Our experiment on milkweed pollination needed to start quickly.  Since we needed fresh blooms to quantify both longhorned milkweed beetle and general pollination, our research group needed to get to our transects out in Blandy Experimental Farm and Arboretum before any milkweed blooms.  The common milkweed starts to bloom in early June, so everything had to be ready before then.  Along with graduate student Nicki, who is running this project, another undergraduate assistant, Angelica, and I rushed to prepare all the tools and equipment we would need.  We got the lab and the greenhouse cleaned and organized, including a painstaking power-wash of the greenhouse floor.  We collected all the supplies needed, including our flag markers, binoculars, and pollination bags to protect the flowers (made by me over summer break).  When everything was collected, we woke up bright and early to head up to Blandy.

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Repotting, Re-PCRing, and the War for the Greenhouse

Life has been hectic since returning to campus for summer research. I dove back into work with a massive repotting of my milkweed. My project requires two stems of milkweed in every pot—on one stem I will simulate insect herbivory, and I will measure cardenolide levels in both to determine whether chemical defense signals are shared through root systems. Splitting and repotting milkweed is an all-day event, mostly because by the end of it you’ll be too dirty and exhausted to want to do anything else. Milkweed naturally occurs in fields and prairies, where plants send out sprawling root networks that take up water and nutrients and anchor the plants so they can grow as tall as over two meters. Though our plants in the greenhouse never grow that tall, their roots still try, and milkweed pots are crammed with tangled and gnarled knots of them. My labmates pitched in to help me out on repotting day, which I will always be thankful for, considering what a huge and messy task it was! We shook out gallons of loose dirt and chisel away more from the roots, so we could trace roots to see which stems are closely collected and can become a pair in its own pot. We do all this while trying not to snap the delicate stems, which grow to about two to three feet in the ISC. By the end of the day, we were all covered head to toe in potting soil, as were the floors of the greenhouse, which we bleached and scrubbed.

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