The Grand Finale of Summer Milkweed Pollination Research

To bring the summer to its natural conclusion, myself and my fellow technician Angelica set out to process all of the data we collected.  With only three weeks to process and analyze a month an a half of data collection, we really had our work cut out for us.  My job was to continue watching the videos we had taken and start scanning the data sheets and inputting the information on a spread sheet.  Angelica was in charge of image analysis, looking at percent leaf damage for the herbivory blocks.

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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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The Effect of Novel Animal Models on the Sexual Reproductive Pathways of Asclepias syriaca

One of the most beloved insect species alive today is the Danaus plexippus, or the monarch butterfly.  Ominously, they have seen concerning population declines which have been strongly linked to a decline in milkweed, specifically Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) populations, the host plant of the Monarch caterpillar.  Between 1999 and 2010, the milkweed and monarch populations decreased by 58% and 81% respectively (Pleasants and Oberhauser 2012), highlighting the need for conservation.  While we know a great deal about monarch and milkweed interactions, we know comparatively less about the milkweed interactions with other specialist insects.  In addition, much of the literature deals with the milkweed’s ability to propagate itself through asexual budding, while the sexual pathways necessary for long term survival remains receive less attention.  By learning more about the milkweed’s sexual pathways, conservation efforts can be more targeted to increasing genetic diversity more efficiently, raising the likelihood that milkweeds can make a comeback.

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