What is a Pollinator & Why Should I Care?

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
tomato harvest after pollination with Fiskars Microtip snips

Most plants require a little bit of help to reproduce sexually. That’s where pollinators come in.

They are the creatures – or in some cases environmental factors – with which plants have evolved to diversify and spread their genetics. More simply put: pollinators pick up flower pollen, which carries one plant’s genetics, and deposits it on another flower, where it fertilizes that plant’s egg to create a seed. And from that seed will grow a new plant with a whole new set of genes.

It’s true that many plants can reproduce themselves without dropping pollen from one flower onto the ovary of another. This type of asexual reproduction happens when a plant roots off a stem or when we divide and transplant a perennial. While this is a fantastic way to fill up our gardens, it doesn’t usually produce a lot of food for us, and it limits the diversity of the plant kingdom’s gene pool. And, in a limited gene pool, the opportunity for disease and death becomes greater. That’s why plants lure in pollinators to help them reproduce the other way too. 

For a limited number of plants, wind is its pollinator. The plant releases pollen into the air, which transports it – hopefully – to another plant ready to receive the pollen. Possibly because this happenstance method wasn’t quite efficient enough, other plants developed tricky ways to get the animal kingdom to get pollen from one plant to another.

Enter: the fancy flower.

 

honeybees and honeybee hive

 

Flowers come in many shapes, sizes and scents. And each has something special for the pollinator with which it has evolved. Those pollinators may be bats, birds, people, beetles, and, of course, bees.

Colorful flowers wave their tempting petals in the breeze while emitting fragrances that waft into the air – sending visual and scent signals to pollinators that a nectar-rich or pollen-laden flower is ready for a visit. Pollinators smell that perfume and dive into visit. 

A child’s nose may be powdered by pollen from one lily; then, when her nose touches the next flower that pollen is deposited. A lumbering bumblebee may tumble from one tomato flower to the next, scattering bits of pollen from flower to flower setting the stage for our summer harvest. A hummingbird may see red fuchsia blossoms bouncing in the green foliage. She dives in to sip nectar from several flowers, dusting her beak with pollen each time, and depositing it grain-by-grain as she goes. A honeybee may buzz through a raspberry patch, gathering pollen for her hive and accidentally dropping a few grains from and into each flower she goes. And from her work, luscious berries will form.

 

strawberry plant with fruit

 

It is these creatures and others that the majority of plants rely upon to create both seed and fruits. Without their work, not only would plants have difficulty growing and evolving, but our food supplies would also be diminished. For while we may easily expand our strawberry beds by dividing and transplanting the asexually created crowns they grow, we will never savor their fruit if a pollinator doesn’t take the pollen from one flower to another.