Humans have been studying the art of seduction and reproduction since the beginning. And with a global population topping 7 billion, we re quite good at it now.
But in spite of having firmly stamped our mark on this ever-shrinking planet-to the detriment of just about everything else that occupies it-we re still rank amateurs when it comes to procreation.
In our gardens right now, things are about to hot up as a wave of seduction, reproduction, sacrifice, maybe even a spot of cannibalism, begins. If we re lucky we ll see some if it taking place up close. And we ll probably spend the next few months intervening, to make parts of it work in our favour.
It all starts with pollen, plant sperm that s carried from flower to flower via bees, birds, insects, animals, wind, rain or a paintbrush. Pollen grains are canny hitchhikers, most notably on bees that transport pollen to a third of all the food plants we grow. They feed it to their larvae, but as they collect it they distribute it too. The product of such efficient delivery is a fertilised flower and the promise of fruit bearing seeds.
As plants grow, they go through a more diverse range of reproductive and seductive techniques. Even now some plants are the scene of epic struggles worthy of a Peter Jackson movie. And as the weather warms, our crops will see some truly gross behaviour.
Parasitic wasps are tiny, but they perform astonishing feats of heroism and predation as they try to go forth and multiply. One resourceful species hitches a ride on the leg of a female butterfly, having first made sure she has mated, before jumping off when the butterfly lays her eggs. At that point the wasp injects each egg with one of its own, which will produce a larva to feed on the contents of the butterfly egg.
Looper caterpillars are a pain in the cabbage to many a gardener, so it s comforting to know that they have their own nemesis in the form of a wasp that injects a single egg into each caterpillar. Brutal enough, but here s the cool part: this egg divides into 2000 embryos, each becoming a wasp larva that waits until the caterpillar host gets fat before eating its way out.
The struggle between plants and other organisms is all about getting to a stage where seed is viable or eggs have hatched and new life can begin.
Cunning behaviour continues when plants such as cranesbill geraniums set seed. Not content with letting their seed drop to the ground, relying on chance and good circumstances to help with germination, these small geraniums have developed seeds that plant themselves.
Researchers are buzzing at the way in which hairlike appendages protruding from these seeds coil up, then straighten out as a result of humidity. This creates a flexing motion that propels the plant s seeds downwards, drilling them into the soil.
It s a stunning feat of natural engineering that some say could help in the design of new types of catheter that would automatically bunch up to unblock obstructed blood vessels.
Makes you wonder what else might be going on in our backyards. Depending on which side of the fence you re on, it can be good or bad. If you re a female praying mantis, you can have your cake and eat it too-the cake being the head of your partner after he s done the deed.
Males also come off a poor second in the world of the honey bee, where a young queen flies out of the hive to mate with drones. The queen picks out 20 to 30 sexual partners and mates with them one by one. As each drone delivers its load, its penis is ripped off and left inside the queen. The next guy has to remove the leftover part before he can take his turn and, unfortunately, meet the same sacrificial fate.
The queen then goes back to the hive and female workers remove the final penis so she can commence her lifelong labour-laying about 1500 eggs a day. Some may think the dead drones get off lightly!
This carnal activity is not without relevance to our own reproduction as the million or so bees born to each queen are indispensable to the food chain that nourishes us.
We re inextricably linked to the diverse communities within our gardens. So think twice before intervening with heavy doses of chemicals come spring. You never know, nature may already have it sorted.