Our world would be an entirely different place without pollinators. Many of the foods we eat, clothes we wear, medicines we need and the incredible diversity of nature we enjoy would not be found if it were not for these insects and other animals.
Pollinators are a fascinating part of the natural world, and are essential for thriving ecosystems as well as our own survival.
Foods such as apples, strawberries, tomatoes and many others all form because they are pollinated by insects. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 150 crops that contribute more than $10 billion to the U.S. economy each year are dependent on pollinators. Some medicines that are derived from plants like foxglove, elderberry and willows would not be produced if it were not for pollinators.
Plants that produce seeds need to be pollinated in order to reproduce. The seeds store complete sets of genes needed to create new plants. In order for seeds to develop, genes from different parts of plant flowers must be exchanged. Pollination describes the process of completing this exchange and pollinators are the insects or other animals that help complete it. Pollen, produced in flowers, contains the genes needed to be exchanged. Insects or other animals pollinate plants by collecting pollen, and then transfer it to other parts of the flower where it becomes fertilized, leading to seed growth.
When pollinators visit flowers, they are often searching for pollen and nectar to use as a food source. Pollinators will visit many flowers in their search. As they move about the flower, they collect pollen grains on their bodies. Sometimes pollinators collect pollen on purpose and sometimes it happens accidentally. Nearly 90 percent of plants are pollinated by insects and other animals such as bees, birds, butterflies, beetles, flies, moths and bats. Other plants, particularly coniferous trees and grasses, are wind pollinated and a few others are water pollinated.
The relationship between plants and pollinators has evolved over time and benefits both organisms. Pollinators provide the key to successful reproduction for plants and plants provide a food source for pollinators. Over time, plants have evolved some remarkable characteristics to make themselves more attractive to pollinators. Some plants have evolved showy colorful flowers, while others are very fragrant or form unique shapes. All of these adaptations developed to attract particular pollinators who have also evolved to use the flowers of plants they pollinate most.
The diversity of pollinators is truly remarkable. More than 4,000 species of bees in the U.S. alone pollinate a myriad of plants. Plants most desired by bees are those that are bright blue or yellow and sweet smelling. Plants pollinated by butterflies tend to have flowers growing in clusters like milkweed that provide large areas to land. Hummingbirds are attracted to shades of red and flowers growing in tubular shapes that makes pollen transfer easier. Flies are often attracted to flowers with putrid odors like skunk cabbage and colors that are dull, dark brown and purple. Beetles are found pollinating flowers with more exposed reproductive parts like goldenrods. Moths typically pollinate plants at night and therefore look for those with flowers that open in the late afternoon throughout the night. Bats are important pollinators of southern and tropical areas—more than 300 species of fruit are pollinated by bats.
Today, pollinators face troubling challenges that have resulted in notable population declines. Things like disease, the misuse of pesticides and habitat loss have contributed to their decline. However, there are things we can do to help the survivability of pollinators. One of the most important ways to help pollinators is to provide plentiful habitat with an abundance of wildflowers that bloom throughout the growing season. At Lake Metroparks, large open meadows like those at Skok Meadow, Hidden Lake, Lake Erie Bluffs and Penitentiary Glen Reservation that are rich in wildflowers support varieties of pollinators and are great places to catch them in action. We can also help pollinators by incorporating native wildflowers into our own home gardens. It is best to plant a variety of plants with different flower shapes, colors and blooming periods. Plants like lanceleaf coreopsis, great blue lobelia, wingstem, common milkweed and New England aster are a few choices to include in a garden that will attract pollinators throughout the growing season.