What is pollination?

What is pollination?

We’ve all heard of it, but what is pollination? Pollination is an exciting part of nature that has captured the imagination of people for generations. As a child, I was fascinated by stories of wind blowing from flower to flower and how bees could transfer pollen between plants. Little did I know then just how vital this process is for ecosystems and humans alike! In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at pollination – its definition, importance, and, more importantly - what all of us can do to help it thrive! The pollination process is crucial to our food supply, and according to the American Beekeeping Federation, “Honey bees contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of the U.S. crop production.”

Bee Pollinating a flower covered in pollen in late spring

The Basics of Pollination

  • Bees, birds, insects, and other winged creatures called “pollinators” feed off the nectar from plant material.
  • As the pollinators travel from plant to plant and feed, pollen grains stick to them.
  • The pollen grains then fall into another flower as the pollinator feeds. Each plant the pollinator visits receives pollen from the previously visited plant.
  • The act of transferring pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigma of the same or another flower is called pollination.
  • This allows the plant to reproduce and maintain genetic diversity within its population.
  • Fun fact: Environmental factors such as wind and water can also pollinate plants

Although some individuals are allergic to pollen and wish it never existed, without it, plant growth and biodiversity would not occur. Pollination is critical for food production and human livelihoods.

World Health Organization

The Process of Pollination

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from a flower’s anthers (male reproduction organs) to the stigma (female) of the same flower or another. A step before fertilization is the fusion of nuclei from the pollen grain with nuclei in the ovule. [1]

Once the pollen tube is complete, the pollen grain will send sperm cells from the grain down to the ovary. When the sperm cells reach the ovary and the egg cells, fertilization will occur, resulting in seed formation. The seeds are released from the parent plant and can grow into a whole plant, thus, continuing the reproductive cycle using the method of pollination.

Fertilization allows the flower to develop seeds.

Though, despite the common misperception that pollen grains are gametes, like the sperm cells of animals, this is not accurate; pollination is a phase in the process of alternation of generations. [2]

Since pollination is the act that helps in creating the future generation of the plant, it is essential! This is where our little friends, the honeybees come into play. Even though some plant species have mastered the art of “Self-Pollination,” genetic diversity is severely limited to those plants. The act of cross-pollination offers a more significant deal of diversity since plants have evolved a wide variety of sexual strategies to attract pollinators and spread pollen from one flower to another of the same species. [3]

What is Cross-Pollination?

During the act of Cross-Pollination, also called allogamy, Anthers open on one flower, and a pollinator (insects, wind, or animals) moves pollen to the stigma of another flower. Pollinators may visit several flowers on one plant or several of the same species on a few different plants. Insects and other animal pollinators obtain food in the form of energy-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers they visit. In return, the flowers receive the services of pollinators carrying pollen from one flower to another. This is how we get honey, but more on that in a different blog.

If flowers are not pollinated efficiently, the flower will die before it has had a chance to pass its genetic information on to future blooms. This also means if the plant produces some fruit, it cannot do so because the pollen has not fused with the ovule. This is why pollinating vectors, such as honey bees, are crucial to our ecosystems. What would April be without the dozens of tulips, daffodils, and Irises everywhere? As well as the fruit that we consume daily? If there are no bees, there are no plants or very few. Pollinators such as bees ensure a future food source for them and others. Such a selfless act. [4]

What seems like such a small action, pollination, helps us in so many ways. Pollinating vectors provide us with not only food and foliage but also clean air. So next time you see a flower, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses. Ensure you’re not interrupting a little hard worker bee on a mission to improve our planet.

Did you know bees are responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat?

Most crops, grown explicitly for their produce, require pollination by insects. Bees are considered the primary insect pollinators.

How do the bees play a part in this?

Bee pollen is the primary source of protein for the hive. Pollen is fine to coarse powder containing microscopic grains surcharged from the male part of a flower known as the male cone. Foraging bees bring the pollen back to the hive, passing it off to other worker bees, who pack the pollen into cells with their heads.

Nectar is a rich, sweet liquid secreted by plants. Nectar is produced by glands called nectaries. Nectaries can be located on any part of a plant, but the most familiar nectaries are those located in flowers. Nectar attracts pollinators, mainly bees, which aid in pollination by transferring the pollen clinging to their bodies from flower to flower. Nectar is the raw material used by the honeybee to produce honey. Honeybees gather nectar mainly from flower blossoms and rarely gather nectars having less than 15% sugar. If you want to help honeybees, Plant a pollinator garden for the bees in your backyard, in a community shared space, or wherever

US Forest Service states, “Of the 1,400 crop plants grown worldwide, 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. In the United States alone, the pollination of crops is valued at 10 billion dollars annually. Globally, pollination services are likely worth more than 3 trillion dollars.[3]

HIves set at the head of berry fields for pollination services. Sky is grey, hives are multicolored, berries are in bloom

Bees are responsible for pollinating 70 percent of the world’s horticulture and crops, meaning without them, we would not have many of our most well-loved and nourishing fruits, vegetables, nuts, or seeds.

Some crops, like blueberries and stone fruits, rely on bees for nearly 90% of their pollination process. Others, like almonds, almost entirely require the pollination services of bees and other insects to produce a crop. Many other food sources, from avocados, oranges, and melons to cranberries and squash, must be pollinated by honeybees to set fruit.

So the next time you complain about pollen allergies, remember what the world would be like without it.

Kara holding a hive frame in doorway of cabin

About the Author

Kara waxes about the bees, creates and tests recipes with her friend Joyce, and does her best to share what she’s learning about the bees, honey, ingredients we use and more. Read more about Kara