The marvels of chocolate

Have you ever wondered where chocolate comes from and if it is possible that there will be a chocolate shortage in the future? Have you ever wondered if chocolate has anything to do with entomology? According to the Telegraph newspaper the average person In the UK spends a minimum of £57 on chocolate per year. It is therefore no surprise that the Theobroma cacao tree, from which we get most of our chocolate, is the second most important tropical cash crop, being worth $5 billion, providing employment for approximately 40-50 million farmers in Africa and Asia. (Schawe et al. 2013). Chocolate is processed from cocoa beans which grow on the 5-8 metre tall T. cacao tree (Young, 1982). As well as chocolate the cocoa beans are also processed into many well-known products such as cocoa powder and cosmetics (Schawe et al. 2013). Chocolate is not only delicious, but it has actually played a major role in human society by representing power and celebration and was even historically used as a currency.

The red/ brown egg shaped cocoa pods containing the cocoa beans are only produced if the flower is successfully pollinated by a particular insect. For once we are not talking about bees. Although you probably will not believe me, the pollinator is actually a fly, well, two species of the biting midge. Their Latin names are Forcipomyia quasiingrami and Lasiohela nana and they both belong to the Ceratopogonidae family (Young,1982). Can you believe it! Chocolate production is solely reliant on a biting midge!

The biting midge is 2-3mm long, about the size of a grain of rice (Young, 1982). Considering how important the midge is it lives quite a secretive life, the larvae (maggot) feed on dead organic matter and fungus and the adults require pollen and blood for egg production (Leston, 1970). The midge larvae click and jump so maybe that has made you rethink your opinion of maggots (Frimpong, 2009). Well when you think of flies you may automatically think of their larvae the maggot. I am writing this to show you wonder of chocolate, I certainly don’t want to put you off it. But without the midge larvae there would be no chocolate! Therefore if we destroy this annoying midge we would have no chocolate. Which would be worse?

So when you think of chocolate what do you imagine the flowers would be like? Well actually they are 5 pink sepals, holding 5 pouch like yellow petals. The petals conceal a ring of 5 staminodes, infertile stamens which enclose a central ring of 5 stamens covered in pollen. The flower’s ovaries are in the centre. The midges hover and weave around the aromatic flowers before crawling into the petal. The red nectar lines guide the midge towards the central narrow nectaries, where it feeds on nectar. The pollen from the previous flower visited is transferred to the ovary, fertilising the seed. When the midge crawls out of the flower it consumes some of the stamens pollen, but a large majority of pollen sticks to the midges long caudal hairs (Young, 1985). The midge then flies up to 6m away or is blown 100m-3km away from the flower, to another flower (Frimpong, 2009; Klein et al. 2008; Groneveld, 2010) and so it continues.

So far so good, but what if I was to tell you this midge is becoming rare, then what would you say? And what should we do about this? What if I was also to tell you that these midges also depend on rotting bananas and fungus growth on them for larvae growth (Leston, 1970) would you change your mind about fungus? The main reason for the midges decline appears to be loss of its microhabitat of dead leaves and discarded cocoa pods. The farmers are keeping their plantations too clean, banana peel may be the answer.

There is an additional problem. This particular tree (T. cacao ) is inefficient at producing fruit. Flowers must be pollinated on their first day of bloom. Otherwise, after 2 days, the flowers drop to the ground. As a result less than 5% of the 10% of flowers that are successfully pollinated develop into fruit (Groneveld, 2010). So next time you open a 100g chocolate bar remember it took 1 pod with 30-40 seeds to produce it. In a year alone the cocoa industry uses about 35 trillion cocoa pods. And so perhaps it is no wonder chocolate can be loosely translated to “the food of the gods”. So, next when you hear someone talking about the importance of bees just stop for a minute and consider the midges and how without them there would be no chocolate. And, next time a midge bites you think of their cousins the insect pollinators.

By Ruth Carter


References

Encyclopedia of Life. 2015. Theobroma cacao. [On-line]. Encyclopedia of Life. Available from: http://eol.org/pages/484592/overview [01/11/2015].

Frimponga, E., Gordona, I., Kwaponga, P. and Gemmill-Herrena, B. 2009. Dynamics of cocoa pollination: Tools and applications for surveying and monitoring cocoa pollinators. International Journal of Tropical Insect Science, 29 (2), pp. 62-69.

Groeneveld, J., Tscharntke, T., Moser, G. and Clough, Y. 2010. Experimental evidence for stronger cacao yield limitation by pollination than by plant resources. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 12 pp. 183-191.

Kew. 2015. Theobroma cacao (cocoa tree). [On-line]. Home Science & Conservation, Discover plants and fungi. Available from: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/theobroma-cacao-cocoa-tree[01/11/2015].

Klein, A., Cunningham, S., Bos, M. and , S., I. 2008. Advances in pollination ecology from tropical plantation crops. Ecological Society of America, 89 (4), pp. 935-943.

Schawe, C., Durka, W., Tscharntke, T., Hensen, I. and Kessler, M. 2013. Gene flow and genetic diversity in cultivated and wild cacao (Theobroma cacao) in Bolivia1. American Journal of Botany, 100 (11), pp. 2271-2279.

Young, A. 1985. Studies of cecidomyiid midges (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) as cocoa pollinators (Theobroma cacao L.) in Central America. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 87 (1), pp. 49-79.

Young, A. 1982. Effects of shade cover and availability of midge breeding sites on pollinating midge populations and fruit set in two cocoa farms. Journal of Applied Ecology, 19 (1), pp. 47-63.

Young, A., Severson D. 1994. Comparative analysis of steam distilled floral oils of cacao cultivars (Theobroma cacao L., sterculiaceae) and attraction of flying insects: Implications for a Theobroma pollination syndrome. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 20 (10), pp. 2687-2703.

 

 

 

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What’s the point of wasps?

‘But seriously, what is the point of wasps?’ This is a question I often find myself being asked. Unlike their cute, somewhat fluffy cousins, the bees, it seems people have a much harder time accepting wasps. Indeed, they often find themselves on the wrong end of extreme prejudice with people willing to swat them without hesitation; there is even an ‘anti-wasp’ internet meme! This ‘speciesism’ should hardly be surprising given the emphasis placed on pollination services provided by the Apiformes. Wasps however, also play an important role in the functioning of our ecosystems; the health of which we rely upon for our very survival.

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Perhaps the single most important thing that wasps do for us is the provision of ecosystem services though pest control. Many species of social wasp are veracious generalist predators, with each nest capturing and removing many kilograms of arthropod prey from an ecosystem every year (Harris, 1996). Much of this removed biomass is that of species which would otherwise represent significant pests to our agricultural and forestry systems. Wasps can be so efficient at predating on arthropods that in some ecosystems where they have been introduced they actually represent a conservation concern by out-competing native insectivorous birds (Beggs, 2001).

Given this ability to help maintain the functioning of ecosystems, social wasps have occasionally been deliberately employed or encouraged as pest control agents. The introduction of nests has been used to provide successful biological control in production of cotton, tobacco, cabbage, coffee, fruit and timber (Spradbery, 1973). In fact, it is surprising how under-utilised they are considering their apparent ability to effectively control pests. Due to their generalist nature, in many ways social wasps are more highly suited for bio-control than some of some of the specialist species which are currently more widely used. For example, not only will they help maintain populations of multiple pest species below the levels that might affect yield, they are also able to maintain their own populations by utilising various other food sources. This means that their population is not tied to that of the pest species thus there is no ‘lag time’ between the initial outbreak and the time when there are sufficient numbers of predators to have a controlling effect. Furthermore, the social foraging behaviour of wasps causes them to return to sites with abundant food resources, meaning they will concentrate disproportionately at sites with highest pest densities, unlike other biological control agents which tend to distribute themselves more evenly (Richter, 2000). This will allow for more efficient control as the most damage occurs at the sites of greatest pest densities, which will be targeted first by the wasps.

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Contrary to what some people might believe, it is not just bees which pollinate! In fact, any insect which visits flowers has the potential to act as a pollinator. This includes beetles, butterflies, moths, flies and yes, even wasps. In fact, some plants, such as the Chiloglottis orchids, can only be pollinated by a single specific species of wasp (Peakall, 1990). Wasps normally pollinate during their search for carbohydrate rich nectar, but will occasionally frequent flowers during their search for prey. Sometimes they are even tricked into visiting flowers in reaction to volatiles released by the plant! Some species have evolved the ability to produce chemicals to attract male wasps by mimicking female sex pheromones (Schiestl et al., 2003) or by releasing damage signal volatiles to mimic pest damage to attract hunting wasps (Brodmann et al., 2008).

Wasps also have much to teach us. It was by watching wasps create their nests by mulching wood that Cai Lun, an official of the Chinese court of the Han Dynasty, first developed the idea of paper around 105AD. This now ubiquitous technology underlies much of the functioning of our society and owes its inspiration to the remarkable wasps. Even today we are learning much about social evolution by examining the range of socialities exhibited by wasps along with the underlying genomics.

By examination of the services that an organism provides us, it may become easier to justify why we should respect and safeguard them. This carries with it however, the danger that we should only value an organism by what it contributes to ourselves. This narcissistic view is dangerous as in reality human-kind knows very little about the complex world we inhabit. Surely species have a right to exist that is not solely determined by their detectable utility to one other particular species? Even if wasps did not provide us with all of these fantastic services free of charge, I would argue that they are beautiful creatures in their own way. Each individual organism we see around us represents the culmination of millions of years of evolution. Surely it should be a pleasure to share the planet with these creatures. This, I would argue, is ‘the point of wasps’.

By Liam Crowley.

References:

Ballou, H.A., 1913. Report on the prevalence of some pests and diseases in the West Indies during 1912. Barbados, West Indies, Bull. 13, pp.333-357.

Beggs, J., 2001. The ecological consequences of social wasps (Vespula spp.) invading an ecosystem that has an abundant carbohydrate resource. Biological Conservation, 99(1), pp.17-28.

Brodmann, J., Twele, R., Francke, W., Hölzler, G., Zhang, Q.H. and Ayasse, M., 2008. Orchids mimic green-leaf volatiles to attract prey-hunting wasps for pollination. Current Biology, 18(10), pp.740-744.

Harris, R.J., 1996. Frequency of overwintered Vespula germanica (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) colonies in scrubland‐pasture habitat and their impact on prey. New Zealand journal of zoology, 23(1), pp.11-17.

Peakall, R., 1990. Responses of male Zaspilothynnus trilobatus Turner wasps to females and the sexually deceptive orchid it pollinates. Functional Ecology, pp.159-167.

Richter, M.R., 2000. Social wasp (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) foraging behaviour. Annual review of entomology, 45(1), p.142.

Schiestl, F.P., Peakall, R., Mant, J.G., Ibarra, F., Schulz, C., Franke, S. and Francke, W., 2003. The chemistry of sexual deception in an orchid-wasp pollination system. Science, 302(5644), pp.437-438.

Spradbery, J.P., 1973. Wasps. An account of the biology and natural history of social and solitary wasps, with particular reference to those of the British Isles. London: Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, pp.282-283.