Whether they are growing in their native habitat or in some far away garden, Hellebores are some of the earliest plants to bloom in the spring. Hellebore flowers can often be seen blooming long before the snow has melted away. All early blooming plant species are faced with the challenge of attracting pollinators. Though the competition for insect attention is minimal among these early bloomers, only the hardiest insects are out and about on cold, dreary days. It stands to reason then that anything that can entice a potential pollinator would be of great benefit for a plant.
That is why the presence of yeast in the nectar of at least one species of Hellebore has attracted the attention of scientists. The species in question is known scientifically as Helleborus foetidus. The lack of appeal in its binomial is nothing compared to its various common names. One can often find H. foetidus for sale under names like the "stinking hellebore" or worse, "dungwort." All of these have to do with the unpleasant aroma given off by its flowers and bruised foliage. Surprisingly, that is not the topic of this post.
What is more intriguing about the flowers of H. foetidus is that the nectar produced by its smelly green flowers harbors dense colonies of yeast. Yeasts are everywhere on this planet and despite their economic importance, little is known about how they function in nature. For instance, what the heck are these yeast colonies doing in the nectar of this odd Hellebore?
To test this, two researchers from the Spanish National Research Council manipulated yeast colonies within the flowers to see what might be happening. It turns out, yeast in the nectar of H. foetidus actually warms the flowers. As the yeast feed on the sugars within the nectar, their metabolic activity can raise the temperature of the flowers upwards of 2 °C above the ambient. To date, the only other ways in which floral heating has been achieved is either via specific metabolic processes within the floral tissues or by direct heating from the sun.
In heating the flowers, these yeast colonies may be having serious impacts on the reproductive success of H. foetidus. For starters, these plants are most at home under the forest canopies of central and western Europe. What's more, many populations find themselves growing in the dense shade of evergreens. This completely rules out the ability to utilize solar energy to heat blooms. Additionally, floral heat can mean more visits by potential pollinators. Experiments have shown that bees preferentially visit flowers that are slightly warmer than ambient temperatures. Even the flowers themselves can benefit from that heat. Warmer flowers have higher pollination rates and better seed set.
Yeast colonies also have their downsides. The heat generated by the yeast comes from the digestion of sugars. Indeed, nectar housing yeast colonies had drastically reduced sugar loads than nectar without yeast. This has the potential to offset many of the benefits of floral warming in large part because bees are good at discriminating. Bees are visiting these blooms as a food source and by diminishing the sugar loads within the nectar, the yeast may be turning bees off to this potential source. The question then becomes, do bees prefer heat over sugar-rich food? The authors think there might be a trade-off, with bees preferring heated flowers on colder days and sugar-rich flowers on warmer days.
Though the authors found evidence for heating, they did not test for pollinator preference. All we know at this point is that yeast in the nectar significantly warms H. foetidus flowers. Until we know whether bees are making a decision based on yeast colonies, we cannot say whether this is a case of a mutualism or form of parasitism. Such questions will be the subject of future research. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful example of why we need to pay way more attention to the function of yeasts in nature.