Pollination occurs when pollen from the male part of a flower, or stamen, is moved to the female part, or stigma, of the same or another flower, resulting in the fertilization and production of fruits and seeds.
Some flowers rely on the wind to do this, while others need insects or other animals to move their pollen.
Animals visit flowers in search of food and sometimes even mates, shelter and nest-building material. Some animals, including many bees, intentionally collect pollen, while others, such as butterflies and birds, move pollen incidentally because the pollen sticks on their body while they are collecting nectar from the flowers. All of these animals are considered pollinators.
Imagine a world without fruits, vegetables or flowers. That’s what our world would be like without pollinators. About 75 percent of all flowering plants rely on insects, birds or bats to move pollen from the male to female parts of flowers for reproduction.
More than 200,000 animal species act as pollinators. Of those, about 1,000 are hummingbirds, bats and small mammals such as mice. The rest are insects, such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies and moths.
Without the assistance of pollinators, most plants cannot produce the fruits and seeds of flowering plants, an important food source for people and wildlife. Some of the seeds that are not eaten will eventually produce new plants, helping to maintain the plant population.
Foods produced with the help of pollinators include apples, strawberries, blueberries, chocolate, melons, peaches, figs, tomatoes, pumpkins and almonds. In the United States, pollination by honeybees and other insects produces nearly $20 billion worth of products annually!
Worldwide, approximately 1,000 plants that we depend on for food, beverages, fibers, spices and medicines need to be pollinated by animals.
Despite their importance to our economy and lives, many pollinators are in trouble.
Domesticated honeybees (Apis mellifera), non-native bees raised specifically to pollinate crops, are declining. Causes include parasitic mites, disease, pesticide poisoning, the encroachment of Africanized honeybees and the phenomenon, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where worker bees leave the hive in search of nectar and do not return.
Many farmers depend on honeybees, leasing them during specific seasons to pollinate targeted crops. Declines in these managed pollinators can affect the availability, price and quality of the many fruits, vegetables and other products that depend on animal pollination.
The causes of decline in wild pollinators vary by species. Like the honeybee, the bumblebee has been hurt by the introduction of a non-native parasite carried by bumblebees imported from Europe for greenhouse pollination.
A healthy ecosystem provides pollinators with habitat for foraging, nesting, roosting and mating. But housing developments, roads and businesses are replacing the native fields, wetlands and forests that are home to many pollinators. In addition, many of the wildflowers used by pollinators for food, nesting or egg-laying are rapidly disappearing.
Migrating pollinators such as bats, butterflies and hummingbirds face even more problems. These travelers need nectar-producing flowers all along their journeys. The identification and protection of nectar corridors is important for the survival of these pollinators as they migrate.
Pesticides are also a threat. Many pesticides used on farms and backyard gardens are broad-spectrum types, meaning they can harm non-target species, too. Insecticides that get rid of plant pests can also be toxic to bees and other beneficial insects.
How to help pollinators
- Pollinator Week is June 16-22! Go to The Pollinator Partnership at www.pollinator.org for details on events, activities and resources.
- Plant gardens filled with native, nectar-producing flowers. Go to the Pollinator Planting Guide, http://pollinator.org/guides.htm, and enter your zip code to learn about pollinators in your area plus a list of the plants they use. Or, download The Bee Smart™ Pollinator Gardener app, http://pollinator.org/beesmartapp.htm, for the same information on a smart phone.
- Limit the use of pesticides or, even better, stop using them altogether. If you must use an insecticide, choose the one that is the least toxic to non-pest species and does not persist on vegetation.
- Leave tree stumps, dead branches and rotting trees on your property, if possible. They provide nests for some species of bees.
- If a bee nest is too close to your home, don’t destroy it. Contact a local beekeeper or state cooperative extension service for advice about removing the nest without harming the bees.