In the lush green fields where our fruits and vegetables are grown, there is a process that perfectly exemplifies the interconnectedness of all beings. It is often forgotten or unseen by the general public, but without it, there would be far less food on our table and medicine in our cabinets.
The process is called pollination, and birds, bees, bats, butterflies, and other animals all play a part.
How does pollination happen & the importance of pollination in agriculture?
Pollination occurs when the pollinator moves the pollen from the male plant to the female. The pollen acts as the plant-equivalent of sperm, fertilizing the female for reproduction as well as fruit and seed production.
Some plants are self-pollinating, meaning that they can fertilize themselves. Many plants, however, are cross-pollinating, meaning that they cannot do this on their own. They need animals capable of flight and movement to bring the process full-cycle, and flowering plants have evolved over the years to attract these pollen-moving creatures.
Pollinators are an essential part of the production cycle for plants, and farmers need them too.
In the absence of pollinators, the whole agricultural sector would collapse, seriously endangering global food security. Pretty much all the seed plants we know need pollination to reproduce. The majority of flowering plants and coniferous trees would not exist without this wonderful process.
Are bees the only pollinators?
Even though honeybees generally get the most credit for distributing pollen of many plant species, a variety of other pollinators do the same job as well. It is estimated that almost every fruit grown in the United States exists because of variety of pollinators like wild bees, flies, beetles, moths, bat, and other small animals.
Let’s have a look together at some important pollinators you maybe didn’t know about.
Hummingbirds are the main pollinators of many native flower species in the Americas. Their pollinating services are especially important in the tropics where the majority of them live.
They have great eyesight and use it to search for flowers that blossom in shades of red or have a trumpet-like shape. Some examples of their favorite flowers are mandevillas, the peacock orchid, the wild bergamont, the native coral honeysuckle, and the cardinal flower.
Hummingbirds feed by reaching their long thin beaks into flowers to get the nectar, and while feeding, pollen gets attached to the feathers around their face.
The presence of butterflies in our parks and gardens makes the place aesthetically beautiful and gives us a feeling of booming with life. And it’s not just a feeling, these colorful insects even facilitate flowers’ reproduction by carrying pollen on their bodies.
Compared with bees, butterflies are not capable of distributing pollen between plants in large amounts, particularly because of their anatomy. Their bodies are very slick, making it difficult for pollen to stick on them, while butterflies’ long legs often do not allow for direct contact between their body and the pollen-bearing anthers.
Butterflies can be found on clusters of flat, large flowers that are a rich source of nectar for them, such as coneflowers or zinnias.
By visiting flowers to feed on energy-giving nectar, ants take the role of pollinators as well. Although, according to some scientists, their actions may even have negative effect. Some ants carry on the surface of their body chemicals which are destructive for pollen.
Besides this problem, unlike their fellow pollinators with wings, they also cause a damage to flowers by crawling into them while trying to reach the nectar. Despite these issues, there are plants that have adapted to ant pollination through the evolution. Perfect examples of such plants are the small stonecrop, the alpine nailwort and the cascade knotweed.
Black and white ruffed lemurs
The critically endangered black and white ruffed lemurs are in charge of the pollination of the traveler’s palm in rain forests of Eastern Madagascar.
Lemurs, the largest pollinators on earth, have to open the flower bracts with their delicate hands to get the nectar. Then, while they feed on this sweet substance, pollen gets on the fur of their face and this way they carry it to the next flower.
It has been suggested by scientists that this tree has evolved specifically to be pollinated by lemurs, as it requires manual dexterity to open its flowers, plus it offers an abundance of nectar to meet their needs.
Honey possums are a cute pollinator species that can be found only in Western Australia. They specialize on feeding off the nectar and pollen of the banksia and eucalyptus flowers. These tiny marsupials display a few evolutionary adaptations to get the nectar from these trees.
Their grasping feet with tail allow them to reach for flowers on thin branches, and their muzzle with a long tongue enables them to lick the nectar, while collecting and transporting pollen on their fur.
Similarly, like in the case of lemurs, they are a perfect example of co-evolution of plant species with their most efficient pollinators. Such strategy is key to the survival of a great variety of species on our planet.
Why are pollinators in trouble?
Unfortunately, one of the world’s most successful pollinating species, a honeybee, is at risk, and there are necessary changes that must occur in order to save honeybee populations.
According to the Pollinator Partnership, many pollinators are federally “listed species,” which means there have been observed decline in populations. The decline of the honeybee populations is especially concerning, with a loss of around half of the managed honeybee colonies in the past ten years.
The Nature Conservancy names this dying species “the greatest pollinating machine when it comes to agriculture,” which highlights the danger involved in losing honeybees.
The loss of pollinators has many causes, from destruction of habitat to the overuse of chemicals and pesticides. As numbers continue to fall, the situation may appear dire, but there are things that anyone can do to help save pollinators and global agriculture.
How can you help pollinators?
One of the easiest ways to start is to plant pollinator-friendly plants in your backyard. Some favorites of the honeybees include zinnias, hyacinths, golden rod, and bee balm.
For bird pollinators like the hummingbird, bright red, nectar producing plants are a good choice. The USDA Forest Service also recommends that these flowers be tubular with a strong support for perching. Some examples include trumpet honeysuckle and manzanita. The best choices are always native plants, or plants that naturally occur in a particular area.
Additionally, limiting the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides will help reduce the impact on bees who visit your garden. Instead of using these chemicals, you can rely on other insects like lady bugs and praying mantises to eliminate the produce-eating pests.
With strong widespread populations of honeybees and other pollinators, agriculture will reap the benefits, providing humanity with successful crop production year round.