Pollination 101

Pollination 101

Pollination is an essential part of nature, providing us with the fresh produce that we eat, and allowing for flowers and plants of all varieties to grow and evolve. We may swat away those pesky bees if they come too close to us for fear of being stung, but it is important to note how truly indispensable they are to our food system. Protecting our pollinators should be a top priority in both agriculture and home gardening.

Thankfully, there are simple ways to encourage pollinators to visit our gardens like planting native flowers and allowing even a small portion of our garden to go “wild”. In fact, more and more cities are getting on board with encouraging pollinator population growth by introducing bylaws and incentives that help protect them.

What is Pollination?

Simply put, pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male part of a plant (anther) to the female part of the plant (stigma) in order to fertilize and produce viable seeds. Pollination happens most often within the same species of plants and is a pivotal aspect of horticulture and agriculture because it is required for plants to produce fruits or vegetables.

There are two main types of pollination and while they can each be clearly defined, they often work together in the general ecosystem of a farm or garden in order to produce the optimum environment for plants to thrive. The two methods are Abiotic and Biotic.

Abiotic – this method of pollination involves non-living elements to move pollen such as wind, rain or water. Typically the plants that rely on this method of pollination do not have brightly colored flowers with any particular odor or even nectar to attract insects. Some of the major food crops such as wheat, rice, corn and rye are pollinated by this method.

Many flowers that are considered weeds, such a dandelions, are also abiotically pollinated. Remember how much fun you would have as a child blowing all the tiny white puffy seeds off a dandelion head and watching them float away all around you? Imagine your parents’ frustration when 2-3 weeks later, the front lawn and surrounding area was completely covered with new dandelions popping up! Little did you know, you played an important part in helping those dandelions grow.

Biotic – more common than abiotic, this method of pollination involves help from living organisms to carry the pollen from plant to plant. We typically think of bees as the main family of pollinators, but they are only a small portion of the pollinator collective. Other insects like butterflies, beetles, flies, wasps moths and ants (among many more) are big contributors to pollination.

In fact, there are somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 species of animals that act as pollinators of the world’s 250,000 species of flowering plants. (1) Birds, bats and other small rodents also play a big role in this important process.

Many plants have evolved in ways to attract pollinators, either by scent or by vibrant colors – drawing the pollinators to them to help with the process. For example, plants that are typically pollinated by bats or moths have white petals and strong scented flowers that bloom only at night, so that they can draw in these nocturnal creatures.

pollen on lily anthers

Stages of Pollination

Pollen itself is dry and powdery – it has been dehydrated naturally in order for it to be more easily moved either by abiotic or biotic pollination method. Once the pollen is transferred to the stigma of a plant it becomes rehydrated and begins to form a tube down the style of the plant, which carries a male gamete (reproductive cell) down to meet a female gamete in the ovule. As these cells fuse together, fertilization occurs and they form a seed. After the seed is formed, a fruit or flower will grow which will protect the seed.

Pollination is actually a year-round process, and plants have evolved in such a way to flower at different times of the year so that there is always a source of pollen for insects and animals. Pollinators are most active in spring and summer, reaching their peak in the long sunny summer days where their population grows to its highest levels.

In fall, they prepare for a long winter ahead by stocking up on pollen from late-blooming flowers before entering hibernation. Winter may seem quiet and like there is no activity, but the pollinators are hiding and resting among the decomposing plants and flowers in your garden – which is why it is important to leave the garden clean up for the spring, giving them a place to shelter over winter.

Popular Biotic Pollinators

Bees

Did you know that the buzz of a bee is actually a tool they use to help them with pollination? Their signature buzz creates a vibration that helps to release pollen from a flower more easily, so they can store it in their hind legs which have little pockets called corbicula.

Bees can also communicate with one another to direct each other to new flower patches and foraging areas. They do this by way of a “dance” that tells the other bees which direction and how far the patch is.

bee storing pollen in corbicula

Pollen acts as fuel for bees, proving necessary protein and nutrients for them to grow and reproduce. They typically visit a wide variety of flowers and are not specific to any particular species. However, they prefer to stick to one species of flower at a time when they venture out of the hive for a pollinating excursion. This works well for cross-pollination within the same flower species. The bees also collect nectar, which is a mixture of water and sugars provided by the plant to nourish and treat the bees that visit (you can think of it as the plant’s way to thank the bees for their help).

Butterflies

Although not as effective as bees, butterflies still account for a good portion of insect pollination. They tend to visit larger, flat flowers that have a surface area on which they can land, and they do most of their pollen-collecting during the day in flower patches that grow in large colorful clusters.

Butterflies have a long thin tongue called a proboscis – enabling them to reach down the narrow throat of a flared-petal flower and retrieve the nectar. Butterflies can travel incredible distances during their life cycle – sometimes spanning thousands of miles as the climate changes over the seasons, to always stay in an area that is conducive to retrieving the pollen they require.

One crop that depends heavily on butterflies, instead of bees, is cotton. It is estimated that butterflies add about $120 million per year to cotton harvests in Texas alone. (2)

Beetles

Perhaps the oldest group of pollinators on this planet, beetles have been around far longer than both bees and butterflies. Recorded beetle fossils show that they lived among the dinosaurs nearly 200 million years ago and likely played a role in pollinating prehistoric vegetation such as cycads. (3) To this day, they help to pollinate certain types of ancient plant species that still thrive in our modern world, among other more recently evolved plants.

Beetles tend to pollinate strong-scented plants with a cup-shaped flower with sturdy, thick petals and leaves. The plants that rely on them have evolved this way due to the beetle’s nature to leave a bit of a mess wherever they go – indulging on plant leaves and petals in addition to the pollen they need for nourishment. They tend to pollinate flowers that produce a good amount of pollen as there must be some leftover from their feeding to be transported to the next flower.

When beetles are not pollinating flowers, they prefer to be down in the soil – this is where they pupate and shelter from the elements. They can contribute to the soil health of your garden by digging tunnels which create aeration and by producing fertilizer as they feed on organisms in the soil.

Pollinators on the Farm

As mentioned earlier, staple food crops in agriculture are typically self-pollinating or are pollinated by the wind. For many other crops, farmers rely on insects for pollination and must be careful to preserve the ecosystem of their farm to encourage beneficial bug populations to thrive. Unfortunately, pesticide use and monocropping have had a severe detrimental effect on the pollinator population in most regions that rely heavily on these farming methods.

Pollination Management is an important part of agriculture as it has been implemented to protect the pollinators and increase their population and migration. Honeybees and other species are raised and protected specifically for their role in pollination.

Things farmers can do:

  • Raise bees on their land (this allows not only for crop pollination, but harvesting honey can be an added bonus for your own family or as an extra product offering to your customers)
  • Dedicate a section of their farm to native flowers and plants or use an intercropping method among crop rows to attract a wide variety of pollinators.
  • Use organic soil amendments like Humic Land™ to build soil health, as this can contribute to reducing the need for harsher methods of pest and disease control.

Bees in particular are absolutely indispensable to the agriculture industry, as they add about $15 billion in crop value. (4) With the onset of a widespread bacterial disease called American foulbrood, huge populations of bees are unfortunately being destroyed. This disease is caused by bacteria that forms spores that destroy bees at the larval and pupal stages of development and can easily spread across multiple colonies if not controlled early on. While there are solutions being created, such as available antibiotics and pollination conservation agencies, these problems still pose a risk to bee population.

What We Can Do As Individuals

In our own gardens, we can also be mindful of protecting pollinator populations by choosing native flowers and allowing some parts of our garden or property to go “wild”. Some people leave a dedicated patch on their front or back lawns, that they do not maintain or keep trimmed down – encouraging pollinators to visit and thrive, benefitting their vegetable garden as an added bonus.

butterfly pollinating lavender

Keeping vegetable plants and flower in the garden over winter can provide important shelter and nutrients for pollinators. Be sure to only start spring clean-up after the ground has warmed enough for the pollinators to re-emerge, so to avoid destroying their hibernation habitat while they are still laying dormant in it.

As your garden grows, be sure there is water and shelter available for pollinators and avoid using chemical fertilizers or pesticides on your home garden. Using organic soil amendments like Kaytonik encourages healthy soil and leads to better plant growth while reducing the need for chemical additives.

Familiarize yourself with organizations that are educating and bringing awareness to declining pollinator populations, such as BeeCity (Canada and USA). Partnering with North American cities and eco-minded organizations across both nations, this program gives information and incentives that encourage the protection of pollinators in our cities. Supporting them and their sponsors is a great way to contribute to this important initiative and become part of the solution to a widespread problem that affects us all.

Cited Sources

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollination
  2. https://www.science.org/content/article/butterflies-provide-extraordinary-help-pollinating-cotton-fields
  3. http://www.xerces.org/blog/notes-from-other-orders-beetles-as-pollinators
  4. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/helping-agricultures-helpful-honey-bees

Other Sources:

The Why, What, When, Where, Who, How of Pollination (https://gardens.si.edu/gardens/pollinator-garden/why-what-when-where-who-how-pollination/)

Pollination (https://www.canr.msu.edu/nativeplants/pollination/)

Butterfly Pollination (https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/butterflies.shtml)

Helping Agriculture's Helpful Honey Bees (https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/helping-agricultures-helpful-honey-bees)


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