Not All that Glitters is Nectar

There’s incredible beauty in nature; often you just have to get on your hands and knees to see it. While working at Archbold Biological Station, I often took walks that required me to step around a large puddle. It was probably because I was too preoccupied with not getting wet that it took me two months to realize that I had been tiptoeing over my favorite plants in the world: carnivorous plants.


Glancing at dry pond below, you would probably never expect some of the world’s most amazing plants to live there. But one exciting day I finally noticed the dozens of tiny yellow flowers held two inches above the ground on red stems almost as thin as hair.


These are the flowers of Zigzag Bladderworts (Utricularia subulata), death trap of infinite soil organisms. Instead of having roots, bladderworts have a tangle of underground or underwater stems that hundreds of tiny bladders are attached to. These bladders suck in tiny soil organisms as they crawl or swim by, and digest them with a soup of acids and enzymes.


But these lethal gems were not alone. Scattered around them were more tiny treasures. These plants were also covered in sparkling drops, but unlike the bladderwort, these were drops of mucus secreted by the plants. For this reason, they care called sundews. This species is the Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris).


Sundews are carnivorous plants that attract small flies with red and sparkling leaves, but when an insect lands on one, it becomes trapped in a goey mess. Over a period of hours or minutes, the sundew curls its leaves, and sometimes its leaf, around the dying insect and digests it with acids and enzymes.


There’s always more than meets the eye in nature, whether you’re looking at a dried up pond, or even a pretty flower!


In the 1960’s, visiting Archbold researcher Tom Eisner noticed that each night something was eating a sundew he had collected. Curious to find out what, he stayed up late, waiting for the hungry critter. Sure enough, during the night a little caterpillar crawled up out of the sand at the base of the plant, climbed the sundew, and started eating it. Scientists were aware of the adult form of the Plume Moth (Bluckleria parvulus), but had no idea what plant its larvae ate. Because of Tom’s discovery, the moth is now called the Sundew Plume Moth.  You can read the story in Tom’s book, For Love of Insects, and see photos of the beautiful Sundew Plume Moth here.  Before passing away in 2012, Tom studied insects at Archbold for more than forty years and discovered many things.  You can learn more about him here.

Written and photographed by Evan Barrientos, Fall 2014 Environmental Education Intern

Research Note written by Dustin Angell, Education Coordinator

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