The Relationship

Plants and Pollinators

For thousands of years plants and pollinators have evolved and formed relationships that are responsible for the vast diversity of plant species on earth.  In early evolutionary history of plants, most species were unable to self pollinate, and developed ways to move pollen from one plant to another. At the beginning they counted on the wind to do the job. This proved to be  very inefficient, and soon plants were enlisting the help of other organisms to help distribute the pollen. We all know there is no such thing as a free lunch, even in the prehistoric world of plants. Many plants developed nectar, bloom colors, scent, flower shapes and sizes to attract insects near the pollen with the hope that that they would transfer some to a neighboring bloom. Many pollinators use the pollen and nectar as a source of food. The pollen provides a source of protein, and the sugary nectar is a source of carbohydrates 

 

Over thousands of years many plant species developed "tricks" to lure potential pollinators into the flowers. Some plants mimic the scent of female pollinators to attract the males of the species into the flower. Others like the Corpse Flower smell like rotting flesh, to attract flies, because the flies help pollinate the flower. Some flowers have developed "nectar guides" , which are markings on the flowers that show the insect the exact location of the nectar in the bloom, which brings the insect in contact with the pollen.... here's the crazy part though .....only insects eyes are built to see the guides, they are invisible to humans and most other species, preserving the nectar for the insect that pollinates the plant.  Over evolutionary time as plants changed, the pollinators changed to meet whatever new traits were developing and vice versa. Some of these interactions are extremely specific and complex, and have taken literally 1000's of years to develop.  Scientists call the type of relationship between pollinators and plants "mutualism" because both the pollinator and the plant benefit from their relationship.  

Nectar guides on a bloom. What you see is on the left. Under UV light we can see what an insect sees (the same flower on the right). The flower shows the insect the exact location of the nectar in the center. Notice in the photo on the left, the location of the pollen in the center. To get to the nectar the insect must come in contact with the pollen.

The Corpse Flower smells like rotting flesh to attract flies for pollination.

The Yucca Moth and the Yucca plant have a mutualistic relationship. The moth is the only species that can pollinate the Yucca. Yucca seeds are the only food the Yucca Moth's larvae can digest. They have survived together for thousands of years.

People and Pollinators

Humanity and pollinators have a long history together. Although the focus of this web site is on bees butterflies and hummingbirds, it is important to mention that these are not the only types of pollinators. Many species of flies, beetles, birds, bats, mammals ,reptiles and even some species of mosquitoes serve as pollinators. Depending on where you live you identify the pollination services they provide quite differently. In many parts of the world, bees do much of the work that benefits humans, and are among the most widely recognized pollinators.  In early human history, our relationship wasn't so much about  pollination. The discovery of honey was significant, not only as a sweetener, but it could be made into alcohol. Ancient humans seemed to like drinking alcohol like we do, but more important to them was that it could be used as an antiseptic, and literally was life saving. In ancient Egypt and the Middle East people learned how to make artificial "hives" to attract and keep bees. In Hebrew, the name "Deborah" means "Bee" as does "Melissa" in Greek.  In more modern times we have also recognized that our survival is tied to pollinators.   

 

70% of all plant species depend on pollinators to assist in reproduction.

30% of all food, fiber and medicine for humans require pollination services.

1500 crop plant species worldwide depend on bees and other insect pollinators .

Managed bees benefit the US economy by contributing nearly 20 billion dollars in value to farm crops each year.

Native pollinators contribute over 3 billion dollars per year in pollination services to the US economy.

 

  

Declines in pollinators have been reported on every continent except Antarctica.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are two of the greatest threats to native pollinators.
Pesticide use is a major threat to native and non- native pollinators.

Ancient Egyptians, and people from the Middle East developed early methods of beekeeping. 

Honey could be made into alcohol, a life saving antiseptic. 

There are over 200,000 known invertebrate pollinator species

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