Spore carriers of the floral army

The Natural History of Pollination
February 21, 1997

The very last sentence of this new book sums up its essence: "The wealth of species of potential pollinators and the wealth of variation within the flowering plants have stimulated each other's evolution, leading to the remarkable diversity of flower visitors, and within a basic structure, the seemingly limitless variation and often beautiful adaptation of flowers." But this book is more than an authoritative descriptive account of "state-of-the-art" pollination biology in natural systems. Three eminent professional biologists who are also excellent naturalists and communicators impart not only their knowledge but also their own enjoyment of their research discipline.

The New Naturalist series already includes The Pollination of Flowers by Michael Proctor and Peter Yeo, published in 1973. This was one of the first books on pollination that I purchased, a sound investment, for it became a classic in its field and has been a constant source of information and delight to me over the past quarter of a century.

Now, because of the many advances in pollination biology, ecology, evolution and genetics of recent decades, together with increasing concern about habitat degradation and the need to sustain and conserve native fauna and flora, I welcome its replacement with this fresh synthesis of current knowledge. The Natural History of Pollination is a complete rewrite of the original book, although the layout and the updated contents of some of the chapters are still recognisable.

This is true of chapter two, for example, which provides background information as to how flowers work, covering flower morphology, the structure and function of pollen, the pollination and fertilisation processes and the attraction of pollinators through colour, scent and reward and also of chapters three to five which survey the various groups of insect visitors to flowers, including examination of their morphology, physiology and behaviour relevant to their activities as pollinators.

One major change is that Proctor, a plant ecologist and biosystematist, and Yeo, a plant taxonomist with entomological interests, are joined by a third author, Andrew Lack, a pollination ecologist and population geneticist, who contributes new chapters on breeding systems and the importance of cross-pollination, pollination through geological time, pollination, community and environment and flowers, genes and plant populations.

From these chapters, the clear new message is that the breeding system of most plants has considerable flexibility especially in the balance between self- and cross- pollination.

Although some very specialised relationships do exist, as in figs and their wasp pollinators, yuccas and their moth visitors and the orchids that attract wasps to pseudocopulate with them for pollination, most plants are capable of being pollinated by a range of visitors, even if they are pollinated most efficiently by one or a small related group of visitors.

The scope of the book has also been widened from its primarily British to a worldwide viewpoint to include, for example, pollination by the birds, bees and bats of the tropics and the advances in optimal foraging, pollen flow and pollinator behaviour theory from scientists of North America.

The book is lavishly and beautifully illustrated with eight colour plates and more than 250 excellent drawings and black and white photographs, mostly taken by Proctor. There will be few who, given an interest in natural history, will not be stimulated by all this information. The book will also, of course, be an essential text for all teachers, students and research scientists interested in flower-pollinator relationships.

Ingrid H. Williams is research group leader in insect-plant interactions and pollination ecology, Institute of Arable Crops Research, Rothamsted.

The Natural History of Pollination

Author - Michael Proctor, Peter Yeo and Andrew Lack
ISBN - 000 219905 X and 219906 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £30.00 and £16.99
Pages - 479

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