April 30, 2014: The World of Pollinators

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

Wasps and bees buzzing around sedum everlastings.  Butterflies lilting from zinnia to milkweed.  Bats feeding on pesky mosquitoes.  Birds entertaining with aerial acrobatics.  Wind swirling in ever graceful undulations.  Pollinators of nature’s design.

Pollinators are essential to the reproduction of crops and flowering plants for the transfer of pollen from the male organ, the stamen, of one plant to the female organ, the pistil, of another plant within the same species.  Unlike animals and insects, plants are embedded in the ground, fixed to a given spot on Mother Earth.  They cannot uproot and traverse the terrain in search of a mate.  Flora is dependent on ambulatory creatures to aid in the propagation of its various species. Thus pollination.

If you have taken a close look at a bee in flight—provided that you have the courage to venture that close—you will have noticed yellowish gobs, sometimes resembling bee boots, on its legs.  No, this is not homey.  It is pollen, a powdery substance encased in a hard outerlayer, that is the male plant equivalent of sperm.  The bee—or bird or bat or moth—transports this male pollen from the stamen of one plant to the pistil of another.  Plant sex.

The male anther, which contains the pollen, is connected to the filament.  This combination constitutes the stamen, the male reproductive organ.  The female counterpart, the pistil, consists of the stigma—designed to receive the pollen—the style, and the ovary.  Pollen dropped by a little bee or butterfly enters the stigma and passes through the style to the ovary.  And voila, conception occurs.This fertilization produces the fruit of the plant.  The ovules then develop into seeds.

Pollen contains the genetic markers for the specific species of plant in which it is found.  Daylily pollen carries daylily markers, zinnias hold zinnia markers, and so forth.  As with human and animal reproduction, pollination passes the gene pool to the next and subsequent generations.  It also ensures that the strongest traits are passed on while allowing for variations in the genetic makeup, thus encouraging evolution of the species.

The quantity of pollen may be able to expose secrets about the environment just as the characteristics and behavior of insects and animals can so do.  A thick coat of winter hair on a horse or the width of a wooly worm’s coat can forecast that the upcoming winter will be severe. It is likewise theorized that the quantity of pollen indicates the quality of environmental conditions. Greater quantity denotes favorable conditions while reduced amounts of pollen indicates that conditions are less favorable, or perhaps harsh.

Pollinators are curious creatures.  There are approximately 20,000 species of animals that fill the pollinator shoes.  Of these, bees, comprising about 4,000 species in North America, are the most effective pollinators.  As they visit flowers, they collect pollen on their hair and their legs while crawling inside to collect the flower’s nectar.  They then carry this pollen from one flower to the next and to the next and to the next.

The ball is not totally in the pollinator’s court.  Plants have evolved tactics that entice butterflies and bees and hummingbirds.  Pink and yellow and azure blooms.  The fragrance of roses and lilacs and marigolds.  The sweet delicacy of sedums and honeysuckles and Joe Pye weed.It’s a mutual survival strategy.  Pollinators need to eat.  Plants need to reproduce.

As an interesting aside, bees cannot see the color red.  Yet it is common knowledge that another pollinator, the hummingbird, is very much attracted to scarlet—and orange.  Yes, hummingbirds do function as pollinators. When one of these teeniest of birds sups nectar from a flower, some of the pollen sticks to the inside of its beak.  When it visits the next flower, a morsel of the pollen falls into the pistil of that plant, thus instigating reproduction.

Butterflies visited my March column.  They and moths are quite effective pollinators.  Moths, many nocturnal, and butterflies—diurnal sun lovers—are less effective pollinators than are bees.  However, they do service the flowers of preference, those with flat or shallow blooms. Butterflies collect pollen on their legs and carry it from one flower to flower.  Likely because they are more visible at night, moths migrate toward pale or white flowers and those with strong scents.

At the risk of conjuring images of vampires, bats likewise aid in plant reproduction. These nocturnal feeders are nectar lovers that are attracted to white flowers with strong scents.  Musky and fruity being their fragrances of choice.  Bats are cross pollinators, carrying pollen great distances and to various locations.  They pollinate a variety of plants including trees, cacti, and more than 300 species of fruit.

Flies and beetles are among the lesser known pollinators.  Fly pollination mimics that of bees.  Like bees, they have hairy, albeit less so, legs and bob from flower to flower pollinating as they go.  Interestingly, some pollinating flies actually look very similar to bees and will intermingle during their pollination ritual.   They are attracted to sweet smelling and odorless flowers that don light colors, some more akin to dull hues.

Beetle pollination might border on the slightly gross.  Beetles like to eat parts of the flower in addition to the pollen.  And you can likely guess the form that the digested pollen takes.  Sure enough.  The beetle poops out the pollen, thus triggering plant procreation.  They are drawn toward flowers by scent, preferring to dine on spicy and fruity scented flowers.  Due to their rather erratic flight pattern, flowers with a wide opening suite beetles best.

Now leaving the land of living pollinators and entering the loop de loop realm of a seed riding the air currents.  Wind joins the cast of pollinators.  Some plants—conifers, ragweed, grasses, and the like—emit their seeds into the air.  A summer breeze then lilts the seeds along its currents to a hopeful recipient and pollination occurs.  This is all too evident in dandelion infestations as their feathery seeds waft throughout our yards and yellow specks dot the land.  Wind, however, is not very efficient.  It uses more of a hit or miss strategy.

Pollinators play such a vital role in the propagation of plant life on God’s green Earth.  Who would relish a world devoid of pines and roses and orchids?  A world devoid of the fragrance and splendor of the myriad of blossoms that grace our earth?  How soothing to the soul is the dance of the pollinator.  How pleasing to the eye is the spectrum of floral color on which they light.  How vital to flora is the lifework of the pollinator.

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Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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