Pollinators are animals and insects that carry pollen from one plant to another. Pollinators are responsible for much of our food and flowers and are responsible for the reproduction of 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat. In order to understand pollinators, we need to know a little bit about plants.
Just like animals, flowering plants need to mate. But how can an organism spread its genes without being able to meet up with others of its species and this is where pollinators come in. Pollinators are animals of all types that visit flowers and take away their pollen. Pollen is a sex cell of plants and is essential for reproduction. As pollinators move from flower to flower, they deposit the collected pollen, basically allowing the plants to mate.
Many flowers attract insects and animals with the promise of a sugary liquid called nectar. Their smell and bright petals advertise fresh nectar to passing insects and other flying pollinators like hummingbirds. In return for the gift of nectar, the flower deposits pollen on whatever comes to visit. Pollen is like the sperm of plants – and is the way that plants spread their genes and mate with other plants in the same species.
Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes and include species of insects, birds, and mammals.
Of these, the animals that can fly are generally the best at transferring pollen. Flying insects are the most common pollinators. In addition to butterflies, bees and moths, many species of beetles, and flies are important pollinators. More than 100,000 different kinds of animals pollinate over 250,000 different kinds of plants. Pollinators are often adapted to pollinate specific plants and have and rarely visit any other flower. A number of insects are specially adapted for gathering pollen and nectar from plants.
Honeybees: Probably the most well-known pollinator, honey bees are credited with pollinating much of the food we eat. They are considered the most important insect known to humans. Berries, pears, apples, citrus, melons, peas, and beans are just a few of the foods that would not exist without honeybees. While Honeybees are the most well-known, bumblebees join them in pollination of about one-third of the food we eat.
But insects aren’t the only ones that pollinate plants. Animals do, too, and many of them have specialized parts to make this job easier:
On the island of Madagascar, black and white ruffed lemurs are the main pollinators of traveler’s palm. These lemurs use their nimble hands to pull open the tough flower bracts. They stick their long snouts and tongues deep inside a tree’s flower and as a result, they collect pollen on their muzzle and fur, and then transport it to the next flower. The resulting fruits are a major source of food. It appears that no other creature has the strength and nimbleness to pollinate the palm. This gives the black and white ruffed lemur the award of the world’s largest pollinator.
The honey possum of Australia pollinates the flowers of banksia and eucalyptus flowers. This pollinator has several adaptations that make it a successful pollinator including grasping feet and a prehensile tail that allows it to hang from the branches of trees as it searches for flowers, an extremely long tongue to drink nectar, and a pointed snout that is dusted with pollen when it drinks from flowers.
Many tropical bats are pollinators as well as a number of other tropical mammals, including bush babies, sugar gliders and a number of small Australian marsupials.
Lizards, geckos, and skinks can also be pollinators. For example, the Noronha skink found in Brazil drink the nectar found in the flowers of the leguminous mulungu tree. This tree blooms during the dry season, and the flowers secrete nectar throughout the day. The skinks climb inside the flower to drink the nectar. While foraging for nectar, parts of the skink’s body contact the anthers and stigmas and pollen adheres to their scales. As the skink visits other flowers from the same tree and other trees it deposits pollen and becomes a type of pollinator. In New Zealand, there is a gecko that pollinates flax flower in a similar fashion.
Slugs, gnats, and true bugs are also pollinators.
Not every species of plant requires animal assisted pollination, wheat for example is wind-pollinated. However, the majority of crops that we like most to eat and provide most of our nutrition (fruits, vegetables, and nuts) use animal-mediated pollination. Without pollinators, our diets would be severely limited, and it would be more difficult to acquire the variety of vitamins and minerals that we need to stay healthy.
Outside of agricultural systems, approximately 80-95% of the plant species found in natural habitats require animal pollination. The continuation of human food sources is not the only benefit pollinators provide to mankind. These creatures have a prevalent role in maintaining cultural values and ecological sustainability.
Flowering plants produce breathable oxygen by utilizing the carbon dioxide produced by plants and animals as they respire. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been rapidly increasing in the last century, however, due to increased burning of fossil fuels and destruction of vital forests, the “earth’s lungs.” Pollinators are key to reproduction of wild plants in our fragmented global landscape. Without them, existing populations of plants would decline, even if soil, air, nutrients, and other life-sustaining elements were available.
Flowering plants help to purify water and prevent erosion through roots that holds the soil in place, and foliage that buffers the impact of rain as it falls to the earth. The water cycle depends on plants to return moisture to the atmosphere, and plants depend on pollinators to help them reproduce.
Native Peoples traditional culture gives recognition to the importance of pollinators as:
- Cultural symbolism
- Food plants
- Medicinal plants
- Plant-based dyes
This is made apparent through Ethnobotany.
“Ethnobotany” is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. Since their earliest origins, humans have depended on plants for their primary needs and existence. Plants provide food, medicine, shelter, dyes, fibers, oils,resins, gums, soaps, waxes, latex, tannins, and even contribute to the air we breathe. Many native peoples also used plants in ceremonial or spiritual rituals. Examining human life on earth requires understanding the role of plants in historical and current day cultures.
Photos by Jackie Woodcock: Monarch Butterfly, female Ruby throated hummingbird, Honey bee, five lined skink, true bug.