Plants need pollination in order to produce fruit, seeds, and new plants. Flowers all contain male and female parts. The male part, called a stamen, is covered in a powdery substance called pollen. Pollen contains the cells needed to reproduce (or make new plants). For pollination, plants need pollen to be transferred from the male part of the flower (stamen) to the female part (pistil).
Pollinators assist plants in pollination. Insects like bees, moths, butterflies, and wasps, as well as some birds and bats are pollinators that help transfer the pollen between stamens and pistils. Most pollinators visit flowers to drink the nectar inside the flower, but bees actually collect the pollen as well. The pollen sticks to the pollinator's bodies and as they move to another flower, they deposit some pollen from the first flowers onto the current flower. This helps pollinate the flower. Pollination allows the plants to reproduce, and create new plants.
Pollination allows plants to produce seeds which the plant releases to create new plants.
Pollination may allow the plant to develop fruit, inside which are seeds. The fruit attracts animals who eat the fruit and then poop the seeds out where they can grow into new plants.
Visits by pollinators helps spread genetic information and can create larger, more flavorful fruit and a higher crop yield.
What kinds of pollinators are there?
Bees: Bees are the most well known pollinators. Bees have fuzzy, electrostatic bodies which help them collect pollen, and most bees can also carry pollen in special structures on their legs. Bees also buzz at the flower which helps shake some pollen loose. Bees gather pollen and nectar as food to carry back to the hive and feed their young. They are attracted to flowers that are yellow, white, blue, and purple. Bees can also see ultraviolet light, and the patterns on the petals made of ultraviolet light create a bullseye leading bees straight to the nectar.
Honeybees pollinate 80% of crops in the U.S., meaning that bee keepers actually bring the bee hives to farms when the flowers are blooming, so that the bees can do their work and ensure that crops will produce food. Without bees, we could lose all the plants that bees pollinate, and all the animals that also eat those plants (including us!). This is why protecting bees, especially from pesticides, helps us all!
Moths: Moths do the night-time pollination work. They are attracted to flowers that have an open cup or tubular shape (that usually emit a strong fragrance). They stick their long tongues inside the flower to collect nectar, and pollen sticks to their furry bodies in the process.
Butterflies: Butterflies are active during the day and pollinate a variety of wildflowers, preferring large flower clusters or flowers with flat surfaces that make a nice landing pad. They can see more colors than humans, and are attracted to brightly colored flowers. They can even see ultraviolet markings on flowers, which helps them find flowers (and the nectar they are after) more easily. Butterflies travel farther, and thus pollinate a larger area, than bees. However, they collect less pollen on their bodies than bees because their long legs keep them further away from the pollen.
Wasps: Wasps visit flowers to collect nectar, and in the process move pollen between them, like other pollinators. Some wasps pollinate specific flowers, and those flowers depend on attracting specific wasps.
Almost 100 species of orchids rely on wasps completely for pollination, and have special tricks to get pollinated. They mimic, or copy, the pheromones (almost like a perfume that attracts an interested male) that a female wasp would emit. Some orchids even look like wasps. This tricks male wasps into trying to mate with the orchids, and in the process he spreads the pollen between them!
Fig trees get pollinated only by fig wasps. If either species were to disappear, so would the other because they are completely dependent on the other for survival. Figs feed over 1,000 birds and mammals in tropical forests, so the loss of fig wasps, and figs, would create big problems in the tropical ecosystem.
Hummingbirds: Hummingbirds are one of many birds that help pollinate flowers. Hummingbirds eat nectar and need to feed often, which means by moving between many flowers they are excellent pollinators. Flowers have specific characteristics that attract hummingbirds: bright red, yellow, purple, and orange flowers seem to attract hummingbirds the most. The flowers have tubular blooms that the hummingbird's long beak and tongue can fit in, and they produce a lot of nectar to attract the hummingbird. Pollen is attached to the bird's head and beak, and then transferred to other flowers to aid in pollination.
Bats: Bats pollinate flowers that bloom at night, typically large pale bell-shaped flowers. Species like banana, mango, guava, and agave (which is used to make tequila) are pollinated by bats. Some flowers have even evolved a shape that causes an echo, which helps bats find them using echolocation more easily. When bats push their faces into the flower to get the nectar, their fur gets covered in pollen, helping with pollination.
Why are pollinators important to us?
30% of the food crops we eat rely on pollinators. Without them, we would have much less food. In addition, 75-95% of flowering plants depend on pollinators. These plants clean our air, stabilize our soil, and support wildlife. This means that pollinators are very important to maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Unfortunately, most of our pollinators are under serious threats, and many of their populations have declined significantly.
Habitat loss is a major one: as native vegetation and flowers are taken out and replaced with houses, roads, and manicured lawns, pollinators are losing food sources. When animals like butterflies migrate (travel long distances), they may not be able to find enough food as they go. Planting flowers, especially flowers native to your area, helps pollinators find enough food. Local pollinators are attracted to flowers that grow naturally in your area; to figure out which flowers are native to your area, visit: https://www.wildflower.org/plants-main
Pesticides are also very harmful to our pollinators. If a bee or butterfly happens to land on a plant that has been sprayed with pesticide, it will be poisoned even if that isn't the pest you were targeting. It effects more than insects though. Hummingbirds, for example, eat insects in addition to nectar, and when they eat insects that have come into contact with insecticide, they too can die from the poison. Pesticides are used widely on farms, on plants that you bring home from the nursery, and some people even use them in their home gardens. By buying organic food, plants that haven't been treated with pesticides, and making all-natural treatments for your garden, you can protect pollinators.
Create your own bird watching space.
Attracting birds: You can add a few things in your backyard to bring more birds to it.
A bird feeder. Seed feeders and hummingbird nectar feeders provide food for birds and will attract more to your yard.
Flowers. Planting plants that bloom flowers will attract nectar feeders like hummingbirds. Make sure you plant an array of native flowers, which will also attract insect pollinators.
A birdbath. Leave a shallow dish out that birds can stand in to drink water and bathe in.
The things to avoid:
Try to keep your cat out of the yard to keep visiting birds safe.
Don't use pesticides which kill bugs that birds eat. Pesticides can also poison birds if they eat an insect that has been contaminated, or if they get pesticide residue on their wings.
Know what birds are visiting your yard:
Get a book to identify your backyard birds like this one:
Download the document below. There are five flowers and 5 pollinators listed. Match each pollinator with the flower it pollinates.
Once you've figured out the correct matches, check your answers with the following document: