These days you probably hear a lot about pollinators, but what does that mean?
Slogans like “Save the bees” are part of a growing effort to get the word out about environmentally harmful practices by humans. They focus on a group of animals who serve a necessary purpose and are in need of help.
There are a variety of different animals that are responsible for pollinating, which is a crucial part of our ecosystem and food chain.
Read on to learn all about pollinators, why they’re important, and what animals pollinate.
What Are Pollinators?
A pollinator is an animal that habitually visits plants, picking up and depositing pollen as it goes from one flower to the next.
This term doesn’t refer to a particular type or species of animal. Instead, it indicates several completely different animals that interact with plants in this specific way.
In general, pollinators pick up pollen somewhere on their bodies when they visit a flower. When they move on to another flower from a different plant, some of that pollen comes off and ends up inside the flower. This continues with each plant they stop at, distributing pollen between many plants.
This process helps to fertilize plants so they can reproduce. In order for many plant seeds to be fertilized, pollen from one flower needs to reach the pistil of another. Some plants can be pollinated by wind or water, but most need animal intervention.
Many animals have evolved with the ability to access certain plants and are solely responsible for that particular plant’s survival. For example, some varieties of orchids rely on a single specie of animal to help them reproduce.
Types of Pollinators
There are many different animals that are considered pollinators. About 200,000 species play this crucial role, from birds and mammals to bugs.
The majority of these species are insects, including bees, wasps, ants, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles.
Birds that pollinate include hummingbirds, sunbirds, and honeyeaters. These are all species that rely on nectar from flowers as their main source of nutrition.
Mammals can be pollinators, too. Squirrels, possums, monkeys, marsupials, and especially bats all help spread pollen. There are even several reptile species that pollinate, such as geckos, lizards, and skinks.
Humans can artificially pollinate plants, and some gardeners have plants that require manual pollination. Some species, like honey bees, stick with a single type of plant at a time, while others visit a wide variety of plants.
Why Pollinators Are Important
Our entire ecosystem is tightly interwoven, and everything has a part to play.
So many of the trees, flowers, and vegetables around us rely on pollinators, both wild and agricultural. About 75% of all plants and 80% of agricultural crops require pollination to reproduce.
Much of the food we eat is a direct result of pollination. Roughly 1 out of every 3 bites on our plates and most of our staple foods are part of this group.
Pollinators also help ensure biodiversity. They often visit many different plant species, passing genetics around.
While artificial pollination is possible, it is incredibly inefficient on a large scale compared to natural pollination. Without the help of animals, we would simply lose so much of the plant life on our planet.
So many things, from coffee and chocolate to apples and sunflowers, couldn’t exist without these animals. Even most of the animal products we consume need pollinators to help feed the animals we raise and eat.
Causes of Pollinator Population Loss
Overall, the numbers of pollinating animals are currently in decline. Many species are currently near extinction or are red-listed.
Well-known endangered pollinators include Monarch butterflies and many species of bees, such as honey bees.
This decrease in the global population is due to several factors.
The main threats to these animals are:
- Climate change and its effect on the environment
- Habitat loss and heavy agricultural use of land that was once home to a variety of plant life
- Pesticide use and overuse, particularly in commercial applications
- Introduction of invasive plant species leading to a lack of available food and shelter provided by native plants
- Diseases and pests that target specific pollinating species, often introduced by invasive plants and animals
These are all complex issues, and they’re often linked to one another. Pollinators in specific areas are likely to have special adaptations to their surroundings. That means any of the above events can easily disrupt their ability to survive and reproduce.
Take Action to Save Pollinators
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways we can support pollinator populations.
The best part is that, for the most part, they aren’t particularly difficult. Just about anyone can participate in at least one way that will make a positive impact.
Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden
If you have a garden at home, you’re in a perfect position to create a little oasis for these animals.
Whether you want to help protect pollinators or let them help your garden grow, it’s always a good thing to have them visit. Not to mention the joy of seeing a hummingbird flit around outside your window or watching fuzzy bees buzz in and out of flowers.
Most of the vegetables and fruit trees that are commonly grown in backyard gardens rely on pollinators. There are a few things you can do to encourage them to stop by.
Plant lots of brightly-colored flowers. A patch of wildflowers is a beautiful way to let them know that your space has a lot of resources available. Flower petals are colorful for exactly this reason, making them easy to spot from a distance.
If you’re ready for a new challenge that will benefit your garden, consider keeping your own bees at home. Honey bees will happily pollinate your plants as well as plants for miles around with the added bonus of producing honey. Beekeeping isn’t easy, but it’s a rewarding endeavor.
Mindful Gardening and Landscaping
Growing a variety of plants in the garden can help attract many different species of pollinators. Brightly-colored blooms are a great visual signal, especially for birds and insects, that there are resources for them.
Most importantly, native plants are the best varieties you can grow. You may even want to consider removing invasive species, as they will often take over and eliminate native plant life.
Reconsider Your Lawn
While lush green lawns are very popular, they aren’t ecologically helpful. Not only does grass require lots of water, but it also doesn’t provide anything pollinators need.
Ultimately, huge grass lawns leave less space for more beneficial plant life.
If you really want a lush, green yard, planting clover instead of grass instead is a low-maintenance way to achieve the same look while providing critical resources.
Opt for Alternatives to Pesticides
Reducing pesticide use as much as possible is a major step in protecting pollinators.
Pesticides’ sole purpose is to eliminate bugs, usually indiscriminately. Since so many of these species are insects, pesticide application is hugely detrimental to those species.
This is especially true on a large, commercial scale, but even at home, it’s best to avoid using pesticides. There are a lot of options available for safer ways to control pests.
Provide Living Spaces
Pollinators also need homes, particularly during the winter or if they don’t build communal structures such as hives to live in. Many of them nest in soil, rotting wood, and fallen leaves.
It may be tempting to diligently rake up any leaves that fall in your yard, but those leaves are actually important. They provide shelter, warmth, and even nutrition through the cold, sparse months. Compulsively removing every bit of debris you find removes so many potential habitats for pollinators and other species.
You can also provide man-made shelters, such as bat houses and spaces for solitary bee species that don’t live within a colony. These can be purchased, or you can make them yourself.
Spread the Word
Finally, and most importantly, you can help educate others on how to support pollinators.
Talk to your friends, family, and neighbors. Encourage them to “leave the leaves”, opt for less or more natural pesticides, and grow native pollinator-friendly plants instead of lawns. People are often open to hearing the facts combined with tangible steps they can take to make a difference.
An Essential Part of the Ecosystem
We don’t think about it nearly often enough, but even the smallest bugs are a major contributor to the food chain that we rely on for so much of our nutrition.
No matter what your diet is like, it’s absolutely certain that pollinators are at the center of it all. Whether you’re a dedicated vegan or love a nice, juicy steak, the food on your plate is a direct result of the animals responsible for pollination.
While many of these species are struggling right now, we can help them survive. There are a lot of simple and easy things you can do that make a huge impact on the health of our ecosystem.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.