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The Why, What, When, Where, Who, How of Pollination

courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Why is pollination important?

Pollination is important for a strong, healthy ecosystem. One in three bites of food you eat depends on pollinators. Do you know which foods depend on pollination? All of these and MORE! Apples, Almonds, Oranges, Avocados, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Cherries, Alfalfa, Blueberries, Vanilla, Cranberries, Tomatoes, Kiwi, Figs, Coffee, Strawberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Lemons, Limes, Eggplants, Kumquats, Nectarines, Grapes, and Cacao.

What is pollination?

Pollination is an essential part of plant reproduction. Pollen from a flower’s anthers (the male part of the plant) rubs or drops onto a pollinator. The pollinator then take this pollen to another flower, where the pollen sticks to the stigma (the female part). The fertilized flower later yields fruit and seeds.

Do you know why some bees buzz? Some plants like tomatoes and blueberries release their pollen through two tiny pores in each anther. Bees bite the anthers, hold tight, and buzz to shake the pollen out of the flowers.

Bumblebees are living tuning forks, using a middle C tone to propel thousands of pollen grains from a flower in under a second.

When does pollination happen?

Successful pollination requires year-round efforts. Plants evolved with differing flowering times that decrease competition among pollinators. Continuous blooms throughout the growing season provide pollinators with a constant food supply.

Spring: Pollinators need early blooming plants to provide food after hibernation or northern migrations. Bulbs, spring ephemerals and spring blooming fruit trees are visited during this time.

Summer: Our gardens achieve their peak bloom when many pollinators reach peak populations. The long days of summer provide pollinators the maximum time to forage for nectar.

Fall: Late blooming plants provide many pollinators with needed fuel before hibernation or for the southern migrations of pollinators like monarchs and hummingbirds.

Winter: Even when there appears to be little to no activity, pollinators are in the garden. Leave decaying plants alone—they may be sheltering pollinating insects as they overwinter.

Do you know some butterflies travel thousands miles? At the beginning of each spring, monarch butterflies migrate north from Mexico, following the growth of milkweed. They travel up to 30 miles a day, returning to Mexico in the fall.

Where do pollinators live?

Pollinator habitat depends on the pollinator and their life cycle stage. For example, bees can use leaves, mud, sand, plant resins and even abandoned snail shells for their nests, while many butterfly larvae live and feed only on one specific plant.

Pollinators also need foraging habitat with diverse nectar-providing plant species.

Human activities such as farming, housing development, and road construction can fragment a pollinator’s habitat, disconnecting where the pollinator lives from where it forages for food. Pollinator habitats need to be within easy range of food and clean, shallow water.

Do you know how bees find a flower patch? Honey bees communicate through a waggle dance in which scout bees return to the nest and dance to inform other bees about the distance and direction of a newly discovered flower patch.

Who pollinates?

Plants and pollinators evolved side by side over millions of years. Natural selection has resulted in physical adaptations in both plants and pollinators. Plants developed many complex ways of attracting pollinators. Similarly, pollinators evolved with specialized physical traits and behaviors that enhance their pollination efforts. Each participant, plant and pollinator, usually gains a benefit from pollination.

Bees: Flower nectar provides bees with the sugar to fuel their flights. The proteins and amino acids in pollen are vital nutrients needed by young bee larvae back in the next. Bees are not picky and frequently visit a large variety of flowers.

Beetles: Beetles are referred to as “mess and soil” pollinators. Less elegant than other pollinators, beetles blunder their way through delicate blossoms searching for food, a mate, or perhaps the bathroom. Beetles frequently visit magnolias and flowers close to the ground.

Butterflies: Butterflies often visit round flowers with flared petals that lead to narrow throats that conceal nectar. Butterflies land on the wide petals, then delicately probe the flower’s nectary (the gland that produces nectar) with their long proboscis (tongue). Butterflies frequently visit salvias and sunflowers.

Flies: Some flies act just like bees, visiting sweet-smelling flowers. Others have more disgusting tastes. They are attracted to flowers with putrid odors, meat-like colors, or fur-like textures that lure them in by pretending to be the fresh dung of dead animals that flies desire. Flies frequently visit Dutchman’s pipe, pawpaw, and some viburnums.

Hummingbirds: The long, thin bill and tongue of a hummingbird allows it to reach the nectar hidden deeply in tubular flowers. The Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species that breeds on the East Coast each summer, after traveling up from Mexico and Central America. Hummingbirds frequently visit beebalm and honeysuckle.

Moths: Most moths go unnoticed even though they outnumber butterflies 10 to 1. Why? They are often active at night and dull in appearance. Night-blooming flowers have sweet scents and white or cream colored blossoms that reflect the moonlight to attract moths after the sun sets. Moths frequently visit four o’clocks, moonflowers, and tobacco.

Wind: Not all pollination relies on animals. Wind pollinates grains, most nuts, many trees, and the wild grasses that provide forage for livestock. The odds are small that a pollen grain will find its way to a corn silk, but each kernel of corn is a tiny fruit resulting from successful wind pollination.

How can you help pollinators?

Pollinator populations are at risk. Decades of stressors including the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of pollinator habitats; the improper use of pesticides and herbicides; and diseases, predation, and parasites have all hurt pollinators.

You can help pollination by creating a pollinator-friendly habitat without sacrificing aesthetics.

Add diversity to your landscape with a beautiful tapestry of native plants that evolved with local pollinators and thrive under the conditions in your region. Reach out to your local extension office to research the best plants.

Do you know the importance of pollinator health has been noticed? On June 20, 2014 President Barack Obama issued a memorandum to create a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.

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