Coming Plant Apocalypse? A Study on Light Pollution and Flowers Shows We Might Have More to Fear in Light Than Dark

Light pollution is something we’re all familiar with. We most regularly know or think about it by the absence of stars inside large cities. But there are in fact a number of other ways in which an overabundance of artificial light at unnatural hours is wreaking quiet and steady environmental havoc.

Specialised moths pollinate thistle patches by differentiating between the purplish flowers and the bristly green plant matter. The moths use reflectors (kind of like what you see when cats’ eyes shine under light)–except these can be disrupted by street lamps. Moth get drawn away, as to a flame…and the eagerly waiting bats swoop in for a tasty pollen-dipped snack.

Birds strike up a morning rendition earlier than normal, too, thanks to the unnatural light, and all the critters go home early, leaving those poor thistle plants and their flowers unpollinated.

You might ask, what’s the big deal?

Well, a study in the science publication Nature showed that artificial light has been interrupting plant reproduction. When flowers on which light was shone were largely ignored by naturally handy bugs, the flowers had no way of spreading their seeds. Which means no blossoms and none of the fruits that they typically produce.

It’s all a cause for concern. Could something like this affect production of food crops? Would light pollution on such a massive scale, and ongoing, somehow cause a shortage of flower bouquets? As in no more flower arrangements!!

You probably need not rush out to see your local florist. Not immediately, at least (unless it’s someone’s birthday or your anniversary and you want to send your sweetheart a surprise flowers delivery).

Anyway, although there is no immediate danger, it is interesting to consider how plants and flowers are affected by the light. Like the thistle plants with their flowers, sometimes flowers may never have the opportunity for pollination, especially if insects end up confused. But scientists also found that, like animals and humans’ own natural circadian rhythms, plants take direction from light exposure on when and how they should grow.

Anecdotes about soybean crops in America never flowering (the plants couldn’t tell the days were growing shorter because of the unremitting light) are unsettling, no doubt.

Though the more we understand about plants and exposures to different light wavelengths, the more we can do to prevent future damage. And perhaps motivate people–and legislators–to at least dim the lights when it gets late.

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