The Importance of Pollinators | College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (2023)

Plants are the most prolific and important primary producers on Earth. Through photosynthesis, they captureenergy from the sun and convert it into organic molecules such as sugars. These energy rich molecules are the fuel for Life, and plants supply the majority of these compounds for the rest of the living organisms on Earth. Without plants, most other organisms, including us, would not be able to survive.

As with all living things, plants must reproduce. Many plants can reproduce vegetatively. For instance, many aquatic plants can grow shoots that break-off and are carried by currents to new locations where they establish and grow, but this form of reproduction only produces clones that are identical to the mother plant. If environmental conditions change, these clones may not be adapted to survive the new conditions. To ensure survival of their offspring in a world with constantly changing environments, most plants also reproduce sexually to instil diversity into their progeny. Sexual reproduction is the process by which an organism combines its genes with another related organism to form offspring that share traits of both parents. The “shuffling” of genes between the two parent plants, increases diversity among their offspring which increases the likelihood that some will survive even if conditions change.

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The earliest plants, such as algae, mosses, and ferns, relied mainly on water and wind to carry sperm cells from one plant to another. When the gametes (sex cells) combined, they would form a developing embryo that would have to have suitable growing conditions to develop and survive. One group of plants evolved seeds, which are able to survive for long periods of time until proper growing conditions occur. These early seed producing plants are the Gymnosperms and include the conifers, cycads, and Ginkgo. They were the first plants to produce pollen, but, like the ferns and mosses, they still relied on wind to transfer pollen. This left them at the mercy of the climate.

About 140 million years ago, a new group of plants evolved. These plants produce seeds like the The Importance of Pollinators | College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (1)gymnosperms, but the ovary where the seeds develop is protected in a carpel housed in a specialized structure called the flower. Flowers are basically specialized sex organs which help to protect and control the conditions around the developing seeds. The development of the flower drove speciation among the angiosperms, allowing them to diversify and explore other methods of transferring pollen. Some angiosperms developed traits that attracted insects and other animals to visit the flowers, and those plants gained a competitive advantage over the plants that relied on wind and water pollination.

Not long after the evolution of the first flowers, during a period called the Cretaceous, angiosperms started to diversify rapidly, so much so, that they quickly became the most species-rich group of plants on the planet. Today, there are over 300,000 species of flowering plants, which constitute about 90% of the species of plants on Earth. Likewise, insects and other pollinating animals underwent a period of rapid speciation. Coevolution between flowers and pollinators has resulted in the dazzling assortment of flower shapes, colors and smells that we see today and an amazing array of specialized adaptations among the pollinators. Diversification also has occurred among several groups of vertebrates that visit flowers. Mammals, birds, and reptiles that feed on flower nectar also coevolved with plants.

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The selective force driving flower-pollinator diversification is a concept called “pollinator fidelity.” Pollinator fidelity is a measure of how likely a pollinator will visit flowers of the same species of plants. Plants with adaptations that enhance pollinator fidelity are more likely to have their pollen delivered to the correct species of flower than plants that cannot ensure fidelity. Some plants ensure pollinator fidelity by specializing their flowers to serve a small set of pollinator species. Other flowers are more general but use other strategies to ensure pollinator fidelity This leads to the development of “pollination syndromes,” the coupling of certain flower adaptations with particular pollinator behaviors.

POLLINATION SYNDROMES

- Tubular flowers, especially red ones, tend to be pollinated by hummingbirds. Their anthers and pistils are situated to contact the head feathers of the bird which prevents most insects from pollinating them. One dramatic example of hummingbird specialization is displayed by Heliconia tortuosa, a common forest flower in Central America. It is pollinated by only two species of hummingbirds (the Green Hermit and Violet Sabrewing) which have specialized bills. Although other hummingbirds will visit this particular Heliconia, the plant only responds when visited by one of these two hummingbirds because they are the only species with bills that can access the nectaries.

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- Some orchids perform sexual deception to get pollinated. Their flowers deceive male wasps by mimicking the shape, color and smell (pheromones) of female wasps. The male wasp pollinates the flower by trying to mate with it. This type of pollination leads to highly specialized flowers and is one of the many reasons that orchids are the most diverse family of plants.

- Other plants with smaller, more generalized flowers ensure pollinator fidelity by synchronizing their flowering or producing large composite flowers. Increasing the abundance of flowers of a particular species increases the likelihood that pollinators will visit related flowers just by shear statistics. Many of these plants (like Asteraceae and Apiaceae) display their flowers prominently on the tops of the plants to make them highly visible.

- Some plants produce large volumes of nectar to attract pollinators like honeybees and other social insects which are extremely efficient at locating the most productive flowers. Many social bees, especially honeybees and bumblebees are able to communicate the location of these nectar sources to their nest mates.

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- Some flowers limit which pollinators can access the reproductive parts by mechanical means. Nightshades have pollen that is trapped deep in the flower and can only be released by insects that can vibrate the flower vigorously, such as bumblebees, a phenomena called “buzz pollination.” Flowers like the white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) remain closed and can only be accessed by the strongest of insect pollinators such as the carpenter bees.

- Other flowers are extremely fragrant to attract particular insects from long distances. The earliest insect pollinated plants, the ancestors of today’s magnolias and waterlilies produced large sticky-sweet smelling flowers to attract beetles that feed on fermenting and decaying plant matter. Many of the Cactus which are pollinated by bats or moths at night produce very aromatic flowers. Taking smell to the other extreme, corpse flowers emit the odor of rotting flesh to attract flies and beetles that consume dead animals.

Evolution of flowering plants has led to adaptations that exploit a wide range of animal behaviors. In turn, the pollinators have responded by developing specialized relationships with particular groups of plants, and pollinator fidelity has created reproductive isolation that drives speciation.

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Pollinator conservation is absolutely critical to biodiversity on Earth and ecological function in most terrestrial ecosystems. Because most species of plants have a mutually beneficial relationship with their pollinators, survival of one depends on the other. Plants are the primary food sources for most ecosystems. They support insects and wildlife that feed on them and shelter in their cover. They form the organics that support soil microbes and invertebrates that consume the decaying vegetation and build living soil for other plants to use. Plants alter microclimates and affect hydrology. Pollinators are food for an array of predators some of which actually seek particular insects to eat and plants to patrol. Also, many pollinators are predators or parasites of other insects, keeping pest populations in check. The decline of pollinators or their host plants would cause broad reaching changes to ecosystems, degrading conditions and negatively impacting species throughout the system. So, it is critical that humans account for pollinators and their host plants when altering land uses and vegetative cover.

FAQs

What is the importance of pollination in agriculture? ›

Of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, i.e., those that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products, almost 80% require pollination by animals. Visits from bees and other pollinators also result in larger, more flavorful fruits and higher crop yields.

What is the importance of pollinators? ›

Pollinators by Numbers

Three-fourths of the world's flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. That's one out of every three bites of food you eat. More than 3,500 species of native bees help increase crop yields.

Which pollinators are most important to agriculture? ›

Today, the commercial production of more than 90 crops relies on bee pollination. Of the approximately 3,600 bee species that live in the U.S., the European honey bee2 (scientific name Apis mellifera) is the most common pollinator, making it the most important bee to domestic agriculture.

What are the 3 most important pollinators? ›

Top 10 Pollinators in Agriculture
  • Wild honey bees. Native honey bees are the most commonly known pollinator. ...
  • Managed bees. Wild honey bees are not the only pollinating bee species. ...
  • Bumble bees. ...
  • Other bee species. ...
  • Butterflies. ...
  • Moths. ...
  • Wasps. ...
  • Other Insects.
20 Jul 2022

How do pollinators affect agriculture? ›

Pollinators are essential to the production of many of the micro- nutrient rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and oils we eat. In fact, close to 75 percent of the world's crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption depend, at least in part, on pollinators for sustained production, yield and quality.

Why is pollination important to the economy? ›

Economic Importance of Pollinators: Insect pollination is integral to food security in the United States. Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America.

How much do pollinators contribute to agriculture? ›

More than 80 percent of the world's flowering plants need a pollinator to reproduce; and we need pollinators too, since most of our food comes from flowering plants. One out of every three bites of our food, including fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee, nuts, and spices, is created with the help of pollinators.

What are 4 pollinators? ›

For further reading, check out our page about endangered pollinators.
  • Solitary Bees. Honey bees (Apis spp.) ...
  • Bumble Bees. Bumble bees are important pollinators of wild flowering plants and agricultural crops. ...
  • Butterflies & Moths. ...
  • Wasps. ...
  • Flies.

What are pollinators give examples? ›

Insects and other animals such as bats, beetles, and flies visit flowers in search of food, shelter, nest-building materials, and sometimes even mates. Some pollinators, including many bee species, intentionally collect pollen. Others, such as many butterflies, birds and bats move pollen accidentally.

Who is the most important pollinator on earth? ›

Many of the world's crops are pollinated by insects, and bees are often assumed to be the most important pollinators.

How do pollinators affect the environment? ›

Pollinators play a vital role in plant reproduction, making them fundamental to supporting healthy ecosystems. In a symbiotic manner, while pollinators help to spread the pollen of plants and allow them to reproduce, plants reward pollinators with nectar.

What is the economic value of pollinators? ›

Every season, pollination from honey bees, native bees, and flies deliver billions of dollars (U.S.) in economic value. Between $235 and $577 billion (U.S.) worth of annual global food production relies on their contribution.

What is the meaning of pollinators? ›

/ˈpɑː.lə.neɪ.t̬ɚ/ something, such as an insect, that carries pollen from one plant or part of a plant to another: These chemicals are known to be highly toxic to honeybees and other pollinators. Plant reproduction.

What would happen without pollinators? ›

We may lose all the plants that bees pollinate, all of the animals that eat those plants and so on up the food chain. Which means a world without bees could struggle to sustain the global human population of 7 billion. Our supermarkets would have half the amount of fruit and vegetables.

How many types of pollinators are there? ›

There are two types of pollination: Self-Pollination. Cross-Pollination.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of pollination? ›

Pollen grains are being wasted in more significant quantities. Because of the distance barrier, pollination may fail. Cross-pollination has the potential to introduce undesirable traits. It is uneconomical for plants to create huge, scented, nectar-filled flowers to attract insects.

How do pollinators work? ›

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.

How are pollinators important to humanity and the ecosystem? ›

Pollinators are vital to creating and maintaining the habitats and ecosystems that many animals rely on for food and shelter. Worldwide, over half the diet of fats and oils comes from crops pollinated by animals. They facilitate the reproduction in 90% of the world's flowering plants.

What is the importance of pollinators in plant reproduction? ›

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.

How do pollinators benefit human society? ›

More than 80 percent of the world's flowering plants need a pollinator to reproduce; and we need pollinators too, since most of our food comes from flowering plants. One out of every three bites of our food, including fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee, nuts, and spices, is created with the help of pollinators.

Why bees are so important to the environment and human life? ›

The greatest pollinators

Bees are part of the biodiversity on which we all depend for our survival. They provide high-quality food—honey, royal jelly and pollen — and other products such as beeswax, propolis and honey bee venom.

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