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Busy Bee: But the flower is even busier

The pervasive lack of interest in plant biology is evident from minimal coverage in school biology through to government policy decisions. How can it be that biomedical research is VAT-exempt, but plant science research is not? Plants are at the foundation of virtually every ecosystem and agricultural system, making them fundamental to the health and wellbeing of both people and the biosphere. So why don't people give a fig?

There are two main reasons for plant-related apathy. The first is that plants don't move. We are extraordinarily interested in things that move. Lack of movement means lack of activity, and more than that, lack of any kind of engagement with the world. Plants don't move, and so people think they don't do anything. 

From this come expressions like "couch potato", in which lack of movement is linked directly to insensibility and to plants. In contrast, anything that moves under its own steam is afforded all kinds of high-order cognitive abilities, even if it most certainly doesn't have any. When it comes to even the humblest of motile creatures, we are happy to anthropomorphise well beyond reason. These creatures are actively doing things, and what is more, the things they are doing are things that we recognise, and with which we empathise. This is the second reason that plants attract so little of our attention.

Consider a sunny afternoon in your garden. You have a cup of tea and a slice of cake. You are sitting on a bench listening to Radio 3. Your attention is caught by a bee, moving in your herbaceous border. The bee moves from flower to flower, performing impressive acrobatic feats to wriggle its way into each one. It's a busy bee. It's working hard to collect the things it needs. You understand what it wants, and its diligent labours contrast with your own leisurely plans for the afternoon. If you had a particularly work-ethic-damaged upbringing, you might even feel guilty about the disparity in ambition between yourself and the bee. The bee is happy to work harder for its unscrupulous queen, while you lounge about with Mozart. All this from a bee. And all this an entirely biologically inaccurate reflection of the situation — it is the herbaceous boarder that is the main protagonist in the story.

All the energy in the bee-plant interaction comes from the plant. The plant has invested in producing a showy flower attractive to bees. The flower advertises a massive sugar bribe, made available to the bee in exchange for transferring pollen to the next flower. Put bluntly, the plant is paying the bee to assist it in having sex with a neighbouring plant. This is very impressive, but we give the plant no credit for negotiating this transaction, because we have no empathy for it. If we want sex with someone, we generally do not bribe a passer-by to carry our gametes across to our chosen mate. The plant doesn't look as though it's doing anything, and what it is doing is totally alien to us. So we ignore the plant and instead start planning trade union representation for the bee.

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