What are Pollinators?
Pollinators are animals that transfer pollen to fertilize plants.
Pollen is a powdery substance formed by seed-producing plants. Pollen includes a cell or cells not used in reproduction as well as a cell that becomes two sperm cells (male reproductive cells).
Pollination is the process of transferring male reproductive cells in pollen to a plant’s female reproductive cells. The successful transfer results in a new plant.
Do Pollinators Purposely Pollinate Plants?
No. Pollinators visit flowers because they want the sweet nectar and pollen produced there. They use nectar for food. Some of them combine pollen and nectar to make loaves that their developing young can eat. There are huge amounts of pollen in most flowers. As a pollinator visits a flower, it may touch the structures that hold the pollen or shake them so that pollen falls on the pollinator. The pollen is often caught in the hairs or feathers of the pollinator. When the pollinator moves to the next flower, some of the pollen that was caught may drop off. If it’s the right type of flower, and the pollen falls in the correct place, pollination may occur.
Confused? Maybe this example will help you. Have you ever stuck your hand in a bag of cheese puffs? Some brands have more cheese powder covering each puff than others, but when you bring your hand out, it is covered in cheese powder. The cheese powder in this example is like pollen in flowers. The cheese puff bag represents a flower, and your hand a pollinator.
If you were to take your hand that is covered in cheese powder and stick it into a different bag of cheese puffs (new flower), some of the powder from the first bag will drop off (pollen transfer from another flower), while more cheese powder (pollen from this flower) will attach to your hand. Every time that you add a new cheese puff bag (flower) you keep continuing this cycle. That’s a very simplified description, but maybe you can picture at least this part of pollination a little better now.
What Pollinators Live in Illinois?
Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and some butterflies, moths, bees, flies and beetles are pollinators. People can be pollinators, too.
Why are Pollinators Important?
Pollinators help insure that we have food to eat. It is estimated that one of every three bites of food that we eat is related the actions of pollinators. The plants that pollinators are helping also give us fibers, edible oils, medicines and other products.
Without pollinators, many plants could not reproduce. Without these plants and the food, shelter, oxygen and ecosystem services they provide, many land-based animals, including humans, could not exist.
Pollinator populations are declining worldwide. Habitat loss, pesticide use, mites, competition from nonnative species and diseases are killing pollinators.
As the number of pollinators continues to decrease, the amount of seeds produced by the plants they pollinate will also continue to decline. The result is fewer plants, fewer flowers and less pollen and nectar for pollinators.
What can we do to help pollinators?
Everyone can do something. Here are a few suggestions.
Plant native plants for pollinators.
Become a citizen-scientist to help monitor pollinator populations.
Provide shelter and overwintering sites for pollinators.
Install native bee nesting boxes or logs.
Leave bare soil patches in your yard or other locations for ground-nesting bees to use.
We can make a positive difference and bring our pollinators back!