Cape goggas try with all their mite to hitch a ride for grub
Mites that feed on fungi, pollen and nectar fly by clinging to the beaks and breasts of sugarbirds
Nature didn’t give them wings, but millions of thieving mites have found a way to soar above the fynbos in the Western Cape.
Conservation ecologist Natalie Theron-De Bruin has discovered that mites which feed on proteas’ fungi, pollen and nectar fly between flowers by clinging to the beaks and breasts of Cape sugarbirds.In turn, even smaller mites hitch rides on the backs of their larger cousins as the sugarbirds flit between protea flowers harvesting nectar.Theron-De Bruin, who collected 32,000 mites during her doctoral studies at the University of Stellenbosch, said: “My study was the first to show that Cape sugarbirds carry around a group of protea-associated flower mites which accumulate in their thousands at the top of open flowers where they wait for pollinators to disperse them.”De Bruin’s research aimed to investigate the relationship between mites and fungi and how they move from flower to flower. She collected her samples from flowers, fruits, soils and sugarbirds in areas such as Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Kleinmond and Gansbaai.
Once the larger mites reached a new flower after a sugarbird flight, they climbed off and inoculated the bloom with a fungus which they use as food, she said. Then they waited for another ride.
“As the bird inserts its beak into the flower to reach for nectar, the mites climb onto the beak and breast area of the bird and are dispersed to the next suitable host.”In this way the mites ensured that they and their primary food source were dispersed over a wide area.
“What is quite interesting is that these flower mites are pollen and nectar thieves ... consuming staggering amounts of pollen without contributing to the pollination of the flowers,” she said, adding that their voracious appetite significantly reduced available pollen in proteas.
“We can confirm that this influences the pollen loads available for pollination, but the extent of this influence is still unclear,” she said.
And while it might look as if the mites were nothing more than freeloading stowaways, they helped to break down debris in the soil surrounding protea plants.