What came first: the flower or the bee?
Both of these organisms seem so innocent and meaningless in most of our day to day lives. Yet we are so dependant on their partnership that if we lost one, it would change the course of life as we know it.
Let's first talk about who pollinators are.
Though honey bees play a major role in pollination, there are lots of other species out there spreading the pollen-love. Types of bees like bumble bees and mason bees, as well as other insects like butterflies and moths. Birds also pollinate, like the hummingbird and even some mammals like bats, rodents, and monkeys!
The definition of a pollinator here is anything that helps transfer pollen from one flower to another. Wind and water play a crucial role in helping things along as well. There are even some cases of human pollination, as the livelihood of natural pollination dwindles.
Now, what exactly is pollination?
I have the Merriam-Webster definition here:
Pollination: the transfer of pollen from an anther to the stigma in angiosperms or from the microsporangium to the micropyle in gymnosperms
This basically means pollen being transferred from one flower of a plant to another of the same species in order to create seeds and reproduce. There are two types of pollination. Self-pollination allows a flower to fertilize itself by shedding pollen. The other is cross-pollination, which relies on our pollinator team to reproduce.
In cross-pollination, pollen is being transferred by accident by the pollinator. While they are in close proximity to the flower, pollen sticks to their face or body and when they move along to the next flower, some of that pollen falls off and transfers to the new flower. The new flower then has a chance to reproduce and create seeds without the pollinator even knowing the difference.
Below is a simple diagram of cross-pollination:
Let's remember, we aren't just talking about petunias here.
Flowers are a plants tool to use for reproduction and tons of plants use them. This includes foods we eat like tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, berries, onions, vanilla, coffee, almonds and so much more. The plants create flowers that are bright and fragrant to attract more pollinators to them.
So far this may seem a bit one-sided. The flowers get help creating seeds and reproducing, but what's in it for the pollinators? The answer to that is two things. Nectar - the sweet substance made by flowers - is specifically used for luring pollinators to land on them and eat, taking pollen stuck to them when they go. The other is pollen; a food for many insects and a tasty treat. Pollen is an excellent source of protein and a staple in the diet of the honey bee.
What would life look like without pollinators?
As the downfall of honey bees and other pollinators in nature continues, it starts to illuminate issues directly affecting our everyday lives.
Pollinators are responsible for about 3/4 of our major food crops. Our grocery stores would be barren of flowering fruits, vegetables, nuts... and chocolate!
Education is the first step to helping out these little guys and appreciating the work they do everyday. Aknowledging that there is a issue out there and wanting to do something about it is going to empower many people to take the next steps in conservation and awareness.
So the next time you see a little bee out there hard at work gathering nectar and pollen, think of the art of pollination and the amazing phenomenon that is nature.