Have you thought of the bee today? If you haven’t then you really should because bees and other pollinators are responsible for much of the food, we eat.
Did you know 90% of the flowering plant rely to some degree on animal pollinators or that many of our favorite foods need pollinators to produce?
Now the question arises why the plants need the help of animals? Well, I bet you don’t realize but
is simply plant mating (or having sex).
is the movement of pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part of the flower. Only after
, the pollen fertilizes the eggs in the female flower which results in seeds and future plants. But plants have a problem, unlike animals, they are firmly rooted to the ground, so they can’t just get up and find a mate.
The earliest plants like ferns relied on waters to move their pollen from plant to plants. Conifers and grasses make an enormous amount of pollen that they release into the wind and this is called wind pollination. It is sort of like lottery, where you spew out as much pollen as you can into the air hoping that a few will land at the right place. Wind pollination works ok in open areas where there is not that many different plant species putting out their own pollen.
But it really doesn’t work that well and habitats that are closed or diverse like a tropical rainforest or a meadow of flowers. We call flowering plants angiosperms and boy has angiosperms been successful. Their success is undoubtedly due to the ability to recruit the help of animal pollinators to move their pollens.
So, who are these important animal pollinators? Well, a pollinator is an animal that moves pollen successfully from plant to plant.
Question for you: What animals come to mind when you think of a pollinator?
Probably Bees! They are important pollinators but other insects, birds and even mammals like bats are important pollinators too. But the best pollinators are highly mobile and in fact, most of them fly. The more flower that a pollinator can get in a day the more pollination can happen. For example, animals that are loyal to one type of flower are more likely to move the right kind of pollen to the right kind of flower. They are the professional pollinators because they are the only pollinators that are actively collecting pollen from the flowers.
Most of the other pollinators visit flowers for nectar, but these are actively collecting pollen because of a bee, pollen is baby food. Just like you, young bees need protein to develop and grow and for bee’s pollens is the only source of protein they have.
Have you ever noticed how cute these bees are? Well, those fuzzy hairs that make them so cute are designed to pick up pollen. These hairs even gain an electrostatic charge as the bees in a fight. So, when the bee gets close to the pollen that pollen just blobs right onto the hairs. Bees will groom the pollen off their hairs and store them in specialized pollen baskets or comb-like structure called scopa. When these baskets are full, they will head back to their nest and feed their babies. B plants have brightly colored flowers like blue, yellow and orange. The bees can see clearly against a background of green foliage. Not only bees are amazing pollinators they are the most common pollinators of our agriculture and wild plants. So, if we lose bees we lose a lot of our flowering plants too.
But while bees are critically important, they are not the only pollinators. Everybody loves butterflies and you have surely seen them visiting flowers. Yes, those butterflies are pollinating too.
So, what is different about butterflies?
Everybody knows butterflies with big beautiful wings, but they also have long tongues. So, flowers that want to target butterflies hide their nectar deep inside long tubes, where only the butterflies can reach the nectars. Because butterflies don’t hover while feeding like a bird or a moth, butterflies visit flowers that provide a landing pad. Moths are close relatives of butterflies and they pollinate too.
But did you know that Moths are also not active at the same time? And How can a moth pollinated flower attract pollinators in the dark? Moths visited flower are generally white, they also emit a strong sweet odor that moth’s pick up some miles away with their keen sense of smell. Moths have long tongues like butterflies but hover when they feed on nectar, so moth-pollinated flowers tend to be shaped like a trumpet. The deep to hiding nectar from other insects.
Did you know that bats are the major pollinators of bananas, mangoes, cacao, and guava? Like the moth nocturnal bats prefer white flower that is easier to locate in the dark, this flower has a strong odor that helps the bat locate them in the dark but to us humans it’s a bit unappealing. Because bats are mammals they require a lot more energy than insects. Flowers that cater to bats need to produce much more sweet nectar than other flowers.
Many birds around the world are necked Everest and they make great pollinators. Birds have excellent eyesight and primarily use visual cues. They are especially attracted to red flowers that can provide them with enough nectars to fuel their large bodies and energetic flights. Hummingbirds are the ones that we are more familiar with, like the other nectar feeders most of them have very large beaks and tongues to reach the hidden nectars.
Flies can be excellent pollinators too, chocolate is pollinated by tiny flies the size of the mosquitoes. But when you think of what flies like what comes to mind? They like stinky stuff like rotting flesh and dung. So, this information was a bummer wasn’t it?
So now we have a clear idea of why plants need animal pollinators, but how do they get those animals to do their work? The answer is, animals visit flowers because the flower gives them something they want. Essentially flower wants bribes and rewards to those pollinators that do an excellent job of moving the pond around. The most important and common rewards found in flowers are food in the form of sugary rich nectar along with protein-rich pollen. Flower also offers fragrances, animals have come to rely on these rewards as the part of their diet. Now it’s not enough to have the rewards, the flower must advertise the rewards to attracts the pollinators. The immense variety of colors we see in flowers is undoubtedly due to the assorted colors that animals are attracted to. For example, birds and butterflies love the color red, they are very attracted to it. But whereas bees see red as black and rarely visit a red plant. So, flowers that attract nocturnal pollinators like moths and bats are never red. Mostly they are white because that stands out best against the dark night.
Flowers carter the way different animals sense the world. If you were a pollinator would you be likely to look for a single flower or a whole bunch of flowers? And the answer is very logical, you will go for the whole bunch, as you would be more likely to find more flowers with nectars there.
One trick that many plants use, is to keep the older flowers around to help attract pollinators from a distance. But they change colors after they have been pollinated. The change in color is very common in flowers and acts to speed up the process for pollinators.
A combination of floral cues that attracts the specific group of pollinators is called a pollination syndrome. This collection of traits exists because different pollinator is attracted to distinct colors, shapes, and smell. Pollination biologist uses these syndromes to begin to predict what pollinator visit a flower. Pollination is incredibly important for our world and our food supply; many plants need pollinators to reproduce successfully and we need them for healthy fruits and vegetables.