Pollen contains a plant’s DNA; in order to reproduce and create edible components, this pollen needs to be spread quickly and efficiently. Plants and flowers, while incorporating some stunning evolutions over decades, have failed to grow arms and hands of their own. That means they must rely on pollinators - certain kinds of insects and animals - to do the important work of gathering and spreading pollen.
If you’ve ever watched a bee traveling from flower to flower, you’ve watched one of these pollinators at work. In the course of gathering nectar and pollen to create honey and keep their hives healthy and strong, bees spread pollen from flower to flower. This, in turn, helps trees and flowers bear fruit and nuts, and ensures the next generations of that plant can continue to grow.
Why Do We Need Pollinators?
Humans simply can’t match the sheer efficiency of bees for pollination on a large scale, so the survival and continuation of life on earth are directly dependent on these unassuming insects. In short, there is simply too much pollen to move around, and unlike bees, we tend to eat the end result of pollination, not what’s produced mid-process. A human being wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves on nectar, even if they devoted all day to the process. Instead, humans eat the whole plant or its fruit, or else feed it to livestock which is in turn consumed.
Pollinators, on the other hand, get the nutrients they need to live a healthy, well-nourished life and pollinate almost as a side effect. If you were offered a free hamburger or a big salad in return for something brushing against your coat for a moment, you’d take it, wouldn’t you? That’s the unspoken agreement between insect pollinators like bees and butterflies: the pollen attaches to their bodies as they eat and gather food, and they passively spread it to the next flower they visit.
Why Do Pollinators Visit Plants?
The main drive for pollinators to visit a particular plant is undeniably food. In order to keep “regulars” coming back, however, the plant needs to tempt them to visit in the first place. Brightly-colored flowering plants grow to catch the eye of passing pollinators. In some cases, such as hummingbirds’ attraction to the color red, the plant actually develops a particular shade in order to attract a particular pollinator. The brighter and more prolific the color on a flower, the more likely it is to attract pollinating insects over its rivals. The DNA of the showiest, most fragrant, and largest plants is the DNA that gets passed on through pollinators’ work, and the cycle continues elegantly.
This is why removing or damaging a native flowering plant can be devastating to the local ecosystem and the natural habitat of pollinating insects. When invasive species are introduced, they can thrive in the new environment and completely overwhelm the colors and breeds of flowering plant pollinators are used to. If the invasive species lacks the nectar availability of the plants it dominates, hives and colonies are suddenly cut off from their food supply. In order to help pollinators, would-be gardeners should take special care to only cultivate native, local species of plants and flowers and remove invasive plants like kudzu vine or aggressive foreign weeds.
How Can I Help Pollinators?
Pollinators are heavily dependent on access to their food supply, as well as clean, unadulterated flowers. If you’d like to help them work in your own yard, the best way to assist is by planting lots of local flowers and avoiding potentially toxic pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers. Use organic fertilizers and compost whenever possible, and avoid sprays or caustic granules that can injure or even kill delicate pollinators like bees and butterflies.
If you’re able to, gather seeds from the native plants in and around your yard and offer them to friends and neighbors as well. While insect pollinators typically won’t travel very far from meal to meal, having a wide variety of crops and flowers in your neighborhood habitat will let them range. Educating friends and family about the importance of pollinators will also help them avoid harmful behaviors like introducing invasive plant species or using harmful fertilizers in their personal gardens. Check with local wildlife organizations about the kinds of eco-friendly activities needed to support pollinators in your region: pollinator species, ecosystems, and needs can vary widely from area to area.
The next time you eat a juicy, perfectly ripe piece of fruit, bite into a crisp vegetable, enjoy a peanut butter sandwich, or even chow down on a chocolate bar, you have pollinators to thank. Without their hard work, busy schedules, and pollination services, we wouldn’t have the bountiful harvests we rely on to keep our diets plentiful and balanced. While the yellow powder these powerhouses move might be the cause of your seasonal allergies, you can certainly agree: that’s nothing to sneeze at!
- “What are pollinators and why do we need them?” Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences / Department of Entomology (ento.psu.edu), (no publish date),] https://ento.psu.edu/pollinators/resources-and-outreach/what-are-pollinators-and-why-do-we-need-them. Accessed May 30, 2019.
- “Our Future Flies on the Wings of Pollinators.” U.S. Forest Service (www.fs.fed.us), (no publish date), https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/. Accessed May 30, 2019.
- “Unusual Animal Pollinators.” U.S. Forest Service (www.fs.fed.us), (no publish date), https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/unusual.shtml. Accessed May 30, 2019.