Ruby-throated hummingbird by Steve Maslowski
Ruby-throated hummingbird by Steve Maslowski

Imagine the world without natural fibers, fruits, vegetables or flowers. That's what our world would be like without pollinators, insects and other animals that pollinate our plants. Two-thirds of our flowering plants are pollinated by insects, birds or bats, and more than three-fourths of the world's crops rely on insects and other animals for pollination.

Pollination is critical to successful orchards, field crops, forage crops, home gardens, endangered species and ecological restoration. As food producers and consumers, we all need to be aware of the importance of pollinators to plants and to our environment.

Cross-pollination is the rule of thumb in the plant world. This means not only does pollen have to be transported from the male part of the flower (the stamen) to the female part (the pistil) but it also must come from separate flowers.

Some plants rely on the wind to do this. Many others depend on animals. As they gather nectar from flowers, insects like bees, get sticky pollen grains on their bodies. By moving from one flower to another, bees transfer pollen to the pistils.

Other insects, like wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles are important pollinators too. Larger animals, like birds (especially hummingbirds), flying foxes, bats, opossums, rodents and even some reptiles, help move pollen.

Flowers pollinated at night are usually white or pale yellow and very fragrant. This helps announce the flowers' presence. Darker-colored flowers, not as visible at night, are usually pollinated by day flying insects.

 

Monarch butterfly by Randy Loftus, USFWS
Monarch butterfly by Randy Loftus, USFWS

Flowers assist the pollinator in finding where the pollen or nectar is stored. Flowers often have bee lines, dots or color variations that direct the pollinator. Flowers have many shapes: bowl, cup, star or tube. Shapes are specific to pollinators and, in some cases, also keep out unwanted pollen collectors.

Despite their importance to our economy and our lives, many pollinators are in trouble.

Honeybees, raised specifically to pollinate crops, have declined due to parasitic mites, disease and pesticides. Wild pollinators are also disappearing at alarming rates due to habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, diseases and pests.

Homes, businesses and roads are replacing the native fields, wetlands and forests that are home to many pollinators. In addition, many of the wildflowers that pollinators feed on are rapidly disappearing.

Pesticides are also a threat. Many pesticides used on farms and backyard gardens are broad-spectrum types, meaning they can harm nontarget species too. Many insecticides that get rid of plant pests are also toxic to beneficial insects.

Pollinators such as bats, butterflies and hummingbirds may migrate many miles during a year. These travelers need nectar-producing flowers throughout their journeys. But wildflowers and natural habitats are being replaced by development. Less food and habitat is available to pollinators as they migrate.

Here’s what you can do to help pollinators:

  • Reduce the use of pesticides or, if possible, stop using them altogether.
  • Plant gardens filled with nectar-producing flowers that are native to your area. Choose “straight species” as opposed to cultivated varieties (cultivars) for best benefits to pollinators.
  • Provide habitat for birds, bats and other wildlife on your land.
  • If you find a bee nest too close to your home, don’t destroy it. Contact a local beekeeper or your state cooperative extension service for help in removing the nest without harming the bees.
For more information, check out the Fish and Wildlife Service website on pollinators, at www.fws.gov/contaminants/Issues/Pollinators.cfm, or the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) at www.nappc.org. NAPPC is a collaboration of more than 100 private, government, university and non-profit organizations working to encourage the health of resident and migratory pollinating animals in North America. The website includes a list of pollinator friendly practices, ways to reduce the risk to pollinators from pesticides, a list of NAPPC partners, and current plans and projects.