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New Research Shows Emissions From Cars and Power Plants Can Hinder Insects’ Search for the Plants They Pollinate

Inside climate News

What happens when a rose doesn’t smell as sweet?

By Moriah McDonald
The level of air pollution in many cities is great enough to shorten the distance from which insects can smell the flowers they need to pollinate, according to recent research.

The study, published last month in Science, found that nitrate radicals, chemical compounds created when nitrogen oxides react with ozone, degrade the scent of the pale evening primrose, hampering hawk moths’ ability to find and pollinate the flower. 

Key components of nighttime atmospheric chemistry, especially in city air, nitrate radicals can result from natural sources as well as human emissions, such as vehicle exhaust. When nitrate radicals encounter monoterpenes—components of floral scent—they oxidize them. The change is enough to alter the ability of other organisms to recognize the aroma.

The degradation of scents emitted by plants can have widespread consequences in ecological systems by inhibiting the pollinator interactions through which plants produce seeds and fruits, potentially affecting their reproduction and diversity.

“When nitrate radicals run into a compound like monoterpenes, which is a component of the floral scent, it basically destroys them,” said Joel Thornton, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington and one of the study’s authors. “It essentially breaks their bonds and turns them into other compounds, somewhat surprisingly, at least to me as a chemist.” 

Nitrate radicals are especially active at night in polluted areas, according to the study.

The team conducted a series of experiments to understand how that pollution affects plant-pollinator interactions. They focused on a specific plant, the pale evening primrose, which is found in semi-arid deserts across the United States, from the Sonoran Desert up to eastern Washington and Canada.

“These flowers only bloom at night. When they bloom, they have this really high intensity scent that smells really great,” says Jeff Riffell, a study co-author who researches neurobiology and ecology at the University of Washington. 

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