Imagine a world without bees. Food production chains would falter and some crops such as almonds, which rely on bee pollination, would fail entirely. It is after all, the birds and the bees that keep things ticking over.
But now researchers have discovered the only known place on the planet to exist without pollinating birds and bees. And it's in Australian territory.
Remote Macquarie Island, halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, has provided scientists with the first glimpse of a world without nectar-seeking birds or bees. And, assuming you're into colourful flowers, it's not pretty.
Rather than vibrant reds, rich purples and bright yellows, Macquarie Island's flowers come in a limited variation of one colour: green.
It's a colour scheme that has evolved not by accident, but by design. On Macquarie Island, flies are the dominant pollinator. And because flies have very different colour vision system and preferences to birds and bees, the flora on the sub-Antarctic island hosts flowers with a distinctive green appearance, unlike any other in the world.
RMIT vision scientist Adrian Dyer said the power of the pollinator – flies – had influenced the colour of the flowering plants' blooms.
"To our eye, they are just a pale green colour," he said. "Although to flies, the flowers are probably more of a yellowish colour, as flies have a different visual system. And yellow is their favourite colour."
Some birds do exist on the island, but they are seabirds and species which don't visit flowering plants in search of nectar, so don't serve as pollinators.
Professor Dyer said the researchers spent almost twenty years looking for an environment without bees, adding that it was always going to be a remote corner of the globe because where humans go, generally bees are introduced as well.
Published in the journal Plant Biology, the findings provide a valuable insight into an ecosystem without the key pollinators.
Professor Dyer said learning about a world without birds and bees as pollinators was important because of the as-yet unsolved, global problem of falling bee numbers which could have implications for the agricultural sector and food production.
"If we don't have birds and bees and we have to rely on flies as pollinators then we may have to think about genetically engineering completely different-looking flowers," Professor Dyer said.
Sitting in an isolated part of the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site which emerged from the seabed approximately 600,000 years ago. The island has never been in contact with other land masses and is one of the most remote places on Earth.
RMIT ecologist and plant scientist Mani Shrestha said despite a limited colour palette, the flowering plants on the island were diverse, hailing from six plant families found in Australia and New Zealand, including orchids.