Pollinators are responsible for pollinating flowers. By transferring pollen from a plant’s stamen to another plant’s stigma, plants can produce eggs, which then become seeds.
Most pollinators are attracted to plants because they produce nectar, which releases smells and provides energy to the pollinators.
Bees are pollinators who carry pollen from flower to flower. With bees in decline, it’s important to know how pollinators affect the environment.
Ecosystems rely on pollinators to carry pollen around and fertilize plants. Without pollinators, plants can’t reproduce or reproduce at a slower rate. Pollinators are essential to the environment because without them we’d lose many plants, ecosystems, and the animals that rely on those plants.
Why is pollination important to the environment?
Pollination is an essential part of ecosystems. It’s how plants are fertilized, which allows them to produce more plants, as well as food we depend on.
Almost every plant requires some form of pollination. Exceptions to this include self-pollinating plants like lettuces, pea, beans, and tomatoes. Even farms rely on pollination to produce our food! Around 75% of crop plants require pollinators.
It’s safe to say that pollination is vital for all life on Earth. For millions of years, pollinators like bees have thrived and ensured the production and nutrition of food, maintained biodiversity, and created and sustained ecosystems across the world.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the production of 87 leading food crops worldwide are dependent on pollination. These food crops are up to 5 times more valuable than those that don’t need pollination.
These pollinator-dependent crops include apples, tomatoes, turnips, cocoa, and many more staple foods. Their dependency on pollination varies from complete dependence to little to no improvement, such as plants that rely on wind pollination.
It’s thought that “more than half of the world’s diet of fats and oils come from animal-pollinated plants”, including sunflower and canola oils. The US Forest Service estimates that 80% of the 1400 crop plants grown in the world require pollination by animals in some amount.
Even plants that don’t have complete dependence on pollinators benefit from visits from pollinators. Spreading pollen can result in higher genetic diversity, which can improve the nutrition and yield of crops. It can assist in the breeding of climate-resilient varieties of crops, as well as pest and disease resistance.
Without pollination, the planet would become inhospitable to most forms of life – including humans.
If only bees went extinct, we would lose apples, berries, coffee, cotton, nuts, cows and dairy products, rapeseed oil, broccoli, gourds, carrots, poppies, watermelons, cucumbers, mangos, apricots, cherries, and so much more.
What are pollinators and why are they important?
Pollinators are animals that move pollen from flower to flower. While wind aids pollination and is depended on by some plants (like conifer trees), it isn’t a pollinator itself.
There are two categories of pollinators – insect pollinators and vertebrate pollinators.
Insect pollinators include:
- Bees (especially honey bees and bumblebees)
- Wasps (only ‘pollen wasps’)
- Flies (especially hoverflies, blowflies, and mosquitos)
- Flower beetles
Bees are the most well-known pollinator, but they aren’t present in every habitat and don’t visit all types of plants.
We know that bees move pollen while foraging for nectar and pollen, as they use them for food, but other pollinators, like some species of hunting wasps, spread pollen while using flowers as their territory.
We don’t know as much about pollination underwater, but it’s suspected that some small crustaceans may be marine pollinators.
Vertebrate pollinators include birds and mammals, though bats are the most recognizable example. Other vertebrate pollinators are:
Humans can aid pollination by carrying pollen around on our clothes, but most forms of human pollination are artificial pollination. Vanilla plants and greenhouse-grown plants are commonly pollinated artificially because natural pollinators can’t reach them.
All pollinators are important because they allow plants to reproduce and produce enough seeds. Ecosystems and humans rely on pollinators to ensure that seeds can be spread to propagate in the wild and ecosystems are maintained.
Even though there are many different pollinators throughout the world, losing even one pollinator can drastically affect the environment. Most plants rely on only a few or even just one pollinator.
Even when bees and ants are responsible for pollinating the same ecosystem, they aren’t responsible for the same plants. When bees decline in one area, wild plants and agriculture suffer, even if other pollinators remain in the ecosystem.
How do pollinators affect the ecosystem?
Ecosystems are the geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms work together with weather and landscape to create and sustain life.
They work through cycling nutrients and energy in many different processes. The consumption of plants gives energy to plant-eaters, who are then consumed by meat-eaters, and in death, the top of the food chain recycles their matter and energy into the ground.
The role of a pollinator in ecosystems is important in the breeding of plants. Of wild flowering plants, it’s thought that 90% need pollinators to reproduce.
Pollinators allow plants to breed, which provides both food and habitats for numerous creatures. The energy consumed by plant-eaters then transfers to those that eat them – whether that’s predators or microorganisms. Pollinators use the plants as their energy sources as well, creating a symbiotic relationship between them.
The health of an ecosystem is linked to the number and well-being of its pollinators.
Pressures in the ecosystem – such as lack of food sources, disease, and the use of synthetic pesticides – affect the health, abundance, and diversity of pollinators.
Despite being nearly invisible, the ecosystem service provided by pollinators is essential to local ecosystems and the wider environment.
The decline of pollinators affects all levels of an ecosystem. This can lead to the extinction of larger species as well as other components of an ecosystem, which can have a wider effect on the environment.
Why are pollinators important to agriculture, plants, and the environment as a whole?
Pollinators have a massive impact on agriculture, wild plants, garden plants, and the environment. It’s thought that half of the world’s oils, fibers, and raw materials are affected by pollinators.
The introduction of insect pollinators to cotton plants is known to increase the quantity and quality of cotton lint.
Pollinators are essential and critical to providing food and nutrients to humans, with agriculture relying on pollinators for the production of crops.
Dependence on animal pollinators has risen by 300% over the past half-century as diets change and a variety of food is made available for purchase. This rise has also been affected by the expansion of biofuels like oilseed rape.
The production of cocoa is entirely dependent on pollination by insects, with one important pollinator (a type of biting midge) in decline due to chemical pest control, agricultural management practices, and degrading landscape.
How pollinators affect crop production
Pollinators are essential for orchard, horticultural, and forage production. They enable the production of seeds in many root and fiber crops too.
Pollinators affect the size and shape of apples, oil content of rapeseed, and the shelf life of strawberries.
Healthy, strong plants with great genetic diversity are better for the environment and human consumption.
By improving crop quality and shelf life, pollinators impact the commercial value of food as well as how much nutrition can be derived from it.
It also impacts food waste. Longer shelf life reduces fruit loss by 11%, which could impact how much land is needed to ensure food security for as many people as possible.
A study into canola varieties found that insect pollination increased seed production and quality by modifying characteristics such as flower timing, plant size and shape, seed packaging, and root biomass.
Sub-Saharan communities that are highly dependent on small-scale agriculture benefit from bees pollinating crops to ensure plant reproduction, stable yields, and genetic variability.
The genetic diversity of plants ensures that inbreeding depression is avoided and the crops become more resilient, which is especially important with less fertile land.
Lack of pollinators results in decreased crop yield and production, crop value, and food security.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “pollination-dependent crops are five times more valuable” than other crops. Crops like cocoa and coffee rely on pollinators to produce and their farmers rely on the value of their crops to provide income. This benefits developing countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and more.
How does pollination affect climate change?
Pollination has the biggest impact on how many plants are around to consume carbon and create oxygen.
The more plants reproduce, the more plants can produce oxygen and store or use carbon. Plants use carbon dioxide to create carbohydrates.
Pollinators don’t just help fight climate change by allowing plants to reproduce. The process of plant reproduction also stores carbon.
Many seeds are protected by woody casings, like the wings on sycamore seeds. These are made up of carbon, and most fall into the ground either with or around the seed they protect. This enables the soil to lock in carbon underground.
Around three-quarters of terrestrial carbon is stockpiled in soil. The more woody reproductive litter is, the more carbon can be stored.
Soil erosion causes this carbon to be released, which contributes to climate change, but with a strong ecosystem driven with pollinators, this can stop too. The more plants in the area, the less soil is exposed and more carbon is retained.
How does climate change affect the relationship between pollinators and flowers?
Climate change is just one pressure on pollinators, but its impact is worsening.
With warmer climates, flowers are blooming at different times of the year, which is affecting pollination times. When flowering time and flight time of insects become out of sync, pollination can fail and this can affect both plant and pollinator populations.
Some flowers, like the pasque flower, are sensitive to rising temperatures and this causes them to flower earlier in the year, but their pollinators might not hatch earlier to match this change. This halts seed production, resulting in fewer flowers reproducing, and displaces the food supply for the bees.
It might not be the case for all plants and flowers, but it’s clear that climate change has an adverse effect on ecosystems, especially mountain and arctic ecosystems. Plants in these ecosystems are more at risk of extinction, especially if their pollinators are affected. And plants in the Arctic rely on flies, who are particularly affected by desynchronized flowering and flight times.