Big Jobs for Some our World’s Smallest Creatures
Imagine your life without the ability to move. Even plants, or at least plant parts, need a measure of mobility in order to reproduce successfully. Indeed, life as we know it depends on the movement of pollen from one plant to another. Without this process, most of our world’s plants would be unable to produce fertile seeds, stranding them in a reproductive dead end. While some plants can self-pollinate, most rely on wind or animals to spread their pollen to other individuals of the same species. Insects are among the most common pollinators of flowering plants, and their partnerships with plants are vital to ecosystem health and our survival.
Pollinators and plants are partners in the true sense of the word, even if the partnership is sometimes fraught with complexity. Animal pollinators tend to be faithful to certain plant types, as long as they are rewarded with food or some other resource. For this reason, animal-pollinated flowers often use bright colors, strong fragrances and arresting shapes as advertisements to attract their pollen-carrying counterparts. Most people are familiar with those six-legged cupids, the honeybees, but gardens, fields and meadows host a wide variety of pollinators, including solitary bees, bumblebees, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles.
The importance of these often-overlooked animals to our global health becomes more apparent each year. Some researchers estimate that a third of our food (including condiments, spices and beverages) requires animal pollination, and more than half of the world’s diet of fats and oils comes from animal pollinated crops. In fact, animal pollinated products, from fibers to medicine to food, annually contribute 20 billion dollars to the United States economy!
Unfortunately, decades of habitat degradation and rampant pesticide use have taken their toll on the world’s pollinator populations. This could translate into negative effects on our dinner tables and in our wallets. When declines in honeybee populations in Europe and the United States made news last year, many people surmised that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) could act as a wake-up call for the plight of pollinators and their habitats. While scientists have not yet identified a cause or a cure, many suspect newly identified pathogens may play a role in the bees’ plight.
In the meantime, people everywhere can play a role in protecting our plants, pollinators and our world by improving our understanding of these important organisms and by making responsible choices to protect them.
Learn more about plants, pollinators, and their impacts during
June 20-September 1, 2008
at the Butterfly Pavilion
Posted by Amy Yarger
Director of Horticulture, Butterfly Pavilion