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The science behind a flower's sweet scent

Many flowering plants rely on insects to spread their pollen. They attract these helpers with color and other cues such as scent. While researchers know much about color's ability to attract insects very little is known about scent. Now, through a study of flower scents, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Washington has discovered that a species of mountain wildflowers produce a specific set of flower scents that attract bumblebees, while a closely related species with very little scent attracts hummingbirds. 

For the study, the team first identified the genes in monkey flowers (Mimulus) that produce attractive floral scents, and then determined how these scents attract bumblebees, a major pollinator for many flower species. This is the first study to look at how flower scent differences in two closely related wildflower species could lead to an evolutionary shift from bumblebee to hummingbird pollination. Only a few genetic mutations are required to change the flower scent dramatically, resulting in a reduction in bee attraction.

Because one-third of every meal we eat depends on insect pollination, understanding how plants evolve to attract insects can help improve crop yields through increased pollination.  Additionally, understanding these basic principles of evolution has broader applications to medicine, biodiversity and natural resource conservation.

Images (1 of )

  • a bumblebee visits a monkeyflower
  • scent chemicals found in monkeyflowers that bees like
A bumblebee visits a monkeyflower.
Kelsey Byers
Scent chemicals found in monkeyflowers that bees find interesting.
Kelsey Byers

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