Pollinators are essential for humans’ way of life and for the stability of nearly our entire ecosystem. They perform an essential portion of the reproduction cycle of modern flowering plants. While pollen-producing plants have been around for approximately 250 million years, flowering plants and their co-evolved pollinators have only been around for the last 100 million. Beginning with just a few plants species adapting to rouge beetles, there now more than 300,000 known species of pollinator-dependent plants.
Pollinators themselves have also exploded with diversity over the past 100 million years. There are an estimated 16,000 species of bees alone, and each one participates in pollination. There are over 10 times as many butterflies and moths, accounting for almost 10% of all living species. And, a surprising number of ants, wasps, beetles—pretty much every insect group you can think of—participate in the reproduction cycle of flowering plants. Collectively, this insect pollination is known as entomophily.
Some insect species have co-evolved with specific plant species to form advantageous cooperative relationships. In these relationships the plant usually provides shelter for the developing a pollinator’s young, and in return the pollinator spreads the pollen of the plant. Monarch butterflies, for example, lay eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. The plants produce a sticky sap that is toxic to most species preventing it from being consumed by pests. The monarch has adapted to this toxin and consumes the plant in caterpillar stage, therefore becoming poisonous itself.
Moving up in complexity from the invertebrate world we find everything from birds to mammals participating in pollination. Hummingbirds are the buzzy equivalent to their bee brethren, filling a similar niche in the avian world. Though with increased mass comes the increase in energy requirement, so hummingbirds consume roughly half their weight every day. Mammalian pollination in North America is rare, and most mammals rely on the effect of pollination as opposed to the nectar or pollen as a food source.
The shape of flowers plays a strong role in the efficacy of the plant and most are specially adapted to create the largest amount of surface area for the pollinators to gather as much pollen as quickly as possible. Other adaptations of plants include their beautiful colors and strong scents which are strong indicators of the type of pollinators they are trying to attract. Flowers that bloom during the day are strongly preferential to bright colors, both in our visible light spectrum and in ultraviolet—one of the main spectrums bugs see in. Night-blooming species on the other hand are generally nondescript and produce intense aromas around dusk that attract moths.
Pollen producing plants and their pollinating partners are cornerstones of our modern ecosystems and responsible for most of our food production. Roughly three out of four bites of our food rely on pollinators as part its production. Everything from apples to zucchini requires pollinators in order to produce their tasty bits. Pollinators have been a part of the agrarian revolution since its inception. For example the squash bee, one of the main pollinators of the squash plant (not avid practitioners of the indoor racket sport), is not a native of North America but instead followed Native Americans as they brought the plant along.
Our well-being aside, pollinators are key to almost every plant species, and thereby almost a quarter of all living species heavily rely on them. This is either directly through the consumption of pollinators (bats, or birds), or the plant life they support (large creatures like bears). Their importance is so paramount, and fortunately it is relatively easy to support pollinators through home gardens and citizen science projects.
Citizen science in key to understanding how pollinators are changing across smaller regions. The Xerces Society maintains an abundance of citizen science resources. The society provides resources for pollinator counts, supports conservation strategies, and advances local advocacy for the benefit of pollinators everywhere!
The Xerces Society maintains an abundance of citizen science resources
Pollinator gardens are a key way to ensure that these important friends have sufficient nutrition and adequate food sources throughout the year. Large monocrops, be they the perennial concrete or expansive agriculture, often bloom at one point or do not provide a wide enough variety to support pollinators throughout the year. In addition to our article on how to start native plants and what plants to select for that type of garden, below are some pollinator specific tips and tricks:
A garden with a wide array of flower shapes, sizes, and colors will attract more diverse populations of pollinators.
Large clumps or areas of similar plants will be more attractive to the passing pollinator.
Including plants that bloom at different stages of the year provide a more stable food source for even the hungriest of pollinators.
Pesticides should obviously be avoided to not hurt the animals that feed on the nectar.
Water is important for pollinators just as much as the flowers themselves, a birdbath or other shallow dish can be filled with stones to give them adequate perching points.
For inspiration on how to plan your own pollinator friendly garden, plan a visit to any number of public pollinator gardens maintained across our region.