Elusive pollinator

Bonatea pulchella in its natural habitat

Bonatea pulchella is a slender terrestrial orchid with a secret. No one knows exactly which hawkmoth pollinates it. That is what brought Professor Steven Johnson from the School of Life Sciences, University of Kwazulu-Natal to Mountainlands Nature Reserve.
Prof. Johnson is known for his research about plant-pollinator interactions and has worked extensively on the genus Bonatea. The floral spurs of B. pulchella is an impressive 6-7cm in length and does not match the common hawkmoths that visit flowers. According to Prof. Johnson, the least is known about the reproductive biology of this orchid, and to be able to identify the pollinator will mean the end of a 25 year long search for him.

Prof Steven Johnson measuring the spurs of the orchids.

During his stay on the reserve he examined the flowers and sampled the floral scent to identify the chemical composition. He also placed motion-activated, close-focusing trap cameras out to record the pollinators. The cameras were set to reveal activity times and the footage could provide information on the behaviour and identity of the pollinator.

The long spur of Bonatea pulchella.

He checked the cameras every morning to see if the pollinator has pitched up, but a cold front thwarted his efforts and there was no video footage by the time he returned to Kwazulu-Natal. Luckily, he left some cameras focused on flowers behind and we are holding thumbs that it will deliver results.

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