The other day I saw someone share a photo of an insect on social media, asking for an identification. Someone gave her the name of the bug, and then she asked if it was a pollinator “because it’s covered in pollen.” She didn’t know it yet, but she had answered her own question already. It made me realize that this might be something other people need to understand too, and so today we’ll clarify some things about pollinators and the process of pollination.
Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred from the male parts of a flower to the female parts, thereby fertilizing the plant so it will reproduce. In some plants (like grasses), pollen is moved by the wind. But today I want to talk primarily about pollination by insects and other animals.
So how do we define a pollinator? Any animal that assists in the transfer of pollen among flowering plants is a pollinator. And here’s the thing I don’t think people understand: All pollination is incidental to the insect’s normal activity to find food or mates. Bees, for example, are the most well-known and effective pollinators, but they’re not doing it on purpose. They don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Well, time to go and pollinate some flowers!” Nope, that’s not how it works.
Bees and other insects visit flowers to drink nectar or gather pollen for their young, or to hunt other insects who are feeding on the plants, or to find mates. The process of crawling around on the flowers results in pollen getting stuck all over their bodies. So when they move from flower to flower, some of the pollen gets dislodged — and VOILÀ — you have pollination. Some bees use their front legs to brush pollen back into their leg pockets, where it accumulates in pellets. This is pollen they intend to take back to their young, and it doesn’t easily dislodge. But pollen that is still on other parts of their bodies can fall off and pollinate flowers as they move around. Take a look at the little orange ball of pollen on the leg of this honey bee.
So now you see how any insect that moves around on plants for any reason is potentially a pollinator. Now clearly, insects with hairy bodies are going to get more pollen stuck to them than non-hairy insects. This is why bees are the most well-known of our pollinators. But take a look at this wasp covered with pollen:
Here’s a goldenrod soldier beetle on lance-leaf coreopsis in my garden. This beetle isn’t as hairy as a bee, but if you look closely at its face and legs, you’ll see that the surfaces are still able to retain pollen. Therefore this beetle is also a pollinator, facilitating the movement of pollen between flowers.
And you could be a pollinator as well, if you take a small paintbrush and go around brushing pollen from one flower to another. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen lots of articles about humans working to pollinate crops in China in areas where there aren’t enough natural pollinator insects any longer — that’s a huge wake up call that we’d better start working harder to preserve native habitats for all of our insects.
This next photo shows a carpenter bee on swamp milkweed flowers in my garden. You’ll see that it’s covered in grains of pollen, but that’s from other flowers nearby, not the milkweed. Plants in the milkweed family have a slightly different structure from which their pollen is trickier to get; it usually happens when an insect’s leg has slipped down into a tiny slit as it drank nectar, and when they eventually tug that leg out, it’s got pollen attached to it. My photo isn’t sharp enough, but I think I can see some of the milkweed’s yellow pollen on one of the feet. Anyway, you can read more about the fascinating process of milkweed pollination here, on Chris Helzer’s post with detailed pictures of the relevant flower structures.
I hope this helps to clarify how many different types of insects help plants reproduce, and therefore how they’re all essential to the food web. It kind of makes you want to be nicer to all the little critters, right?
And lastly, since we’re talking about the importance of pollen, here’s something cool I discovered this summer in a large patch of thistle. There were lots of bees moving among the plants. I noticed the honey bees attacking the larger bumble bees, and as I watched it seemed clear that the goal was to steal pollen from the legs of the bumblebees. Watch this and see if you come to the same conclusion.
I hope you enjoyed this little #NatureforGrownups lesson. Every time I write something for you guys, I learn more too!
If you want to read more about pollinators, here’s an article I referenced while writing this for you.
And lastly, best wishes for a happy and healthy new year!