I spent last summer in a dusty butternut squash field working on my honors thesis:
Pollinator and herbivore attraction to butternut squash volatiles. The rest of the fall was spent
in the lab trying to identify wet pollinators, not an easy task. If you ever need to dry bees that
have been stored in alcohol, use this protocol from San Francisco State University, it works amazingly well.
Processing bees that have been stored in alcohol so that they look nice and fluffy.
My experiment went so well that I am now working with Lynn Adler and Nina Theis to publish it in The Journal of Chemical Ecology. It will be my first publication.
Hereís the abstract to the paper:
Mutualists and antagonists may place conflicting selection pressures on plant traits. Therefore, studying pairwise interactions between plants and insects in isolation may not give us an adequate understanding of the evolution of floral traits. Striped cucumber beetles (Acalymma vittatum), herbivores that feed on cucurbit crops, have been found to be attracted to three compounds in the scent of butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) blossoms, 1, 2, 4-trimethoxybenzene, indole, and (E)-cinnamaldehyde. However, the effect of these volatiles on pollinator attraction is unknown. The aim of this study was to determine whether pollinators were attracted to the same or different floral volatiles compared to herbivorous cucumber beetles. The three compounds were tested in a fully factorial design with 8 treatments and an extra control. We found that 1, 2, 4-trimethozybenzene was attractive to both pollinators and herbivores, indole was only attractive to herbivores, and (E)-cinnamaldehyde was only attractive to pollinators. There were no synergistic effects between volatiles. Attracting mutualists and not antagonists is a difficult evolutionary problem; increasing volatile production may run the risk of attracting unwanted herbivores. Therefore, these results have important implications for the evolution of scent in butternut squash. Butternut squash requires pollination to set fruit, so an increase in (E)-cinnamaldehyde might help plants to attract pollinating squash bees without incurring costs of cucumber beetle herbivory. Reducing the production of indole could also benefit the plant by making it less attractive to herbivores.
My butternut squash field (provided by Araujo Farms Dighton, MA)
Squash bees (Peponapis pruinosa, my main captured pollinator) inside a butternut squash blossom.
I have always been interested in insects, but I have a special liking for those that cause diseases, especially mosquitoes. Next year, I plan to attend UMass Amherst for one more year and work towards my Masterís in Entomology in Dr. Stephen Richís lab. I will probably be working with Plasmodium, the organism that causes Malaria, which is one of the most serious worldwide public health concerns.