Pollination is key to a thriving garden and the survival of all land-based life on this planet. Without this important process, we would have no seeds, fruits, or vegetables.
How Does Pollination Happen?
Pollinators like birds, bees, butterflies, bats, moths, flies, wasps, beetles, ants, and other small animals move pollen around in the process of living their lives. These pollinators may be visiting the flowers searching for food, shelter, or mates. Whatever the reason for their visit, they stir up the pollen from the male anther of the plant and it is moved to the female stigma of the flower. This allows the plant to begin the process of making seeds.
A note on wind pollination: most plants that use this method of pollination are trees, grasses, and cereal crops. Only about 12% of the world’s flowering plants are wind-pollinated. Imagine how bad allergy season would be if more plants were wind-pollinated!
Pollinators in Decline
Global populations of pollinators are in trouble right now, and that directly will affect the world’s food supply. Habitat loss, the takeover of non-native and invasive species, climate change, the use of pesticides (especially neonicotinoids), parasites, and diseases all play a role. Scientists are working hard to research these issues, but there are practical things we can do to help.
Last month, the monarch butterfly was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered. It might be hard to believe, but their population has dropped as much as 90% in recent years. These butterflies have to travel an amazing 3000 miles from Canada to Mexico in their annual migration, and all the stops along the way are important. As their habitat declines, so does their population.
Honey bees pollinate more than 80 agricultural crops, about a third of the food we eat directly. They also indirectly support our food supply by pollinating feed crops. In 2006, beekeepers noticed that their colonies were collapsing because the worker bees were abandoning their queen and the hive. This was named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and a lot of work has been done to understand the problem and reverse the trend. However, today CCD is still a big problem, with beekeepers across the US losing 45.5% of their managed bee colonies from April 2020 to April 2021.
The details may differ, but many other pollinator species are suffering the same types of losses. Bats are severely threatened due to a combination of disease, human hunting, and loss and alteration of habitat. Various species of hummingbirds have declined, particularly those that migrate like monarchs.
How to Support a Healthy Pollinator Population
The outlook might seem bleak, but we hope to inspire you to help, starting at home. One important thing you can do is grow flowers in your garden! Wildflowers and flower species that are native to your area are excellent choices to grow in your garden. The native pollinator populations are adapted to these flowers. For example, it’s important to plant milkweed for monarch butterflies, because it’s the sole source of food for the caterpillars and where the butterflies lay their eggs.
The more diverse your garden can be, the better! A healthy ecosystem has flowers of different colors, sizes, shapes, and blooming seasons. Choose varieties that produce both pollen and nectar to provide food for your local pollinators. The great news is they’ll also stop by your tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables, too. Gardens with flowers planted either intermixed or on a perimeter of the vegetables are extremely attractive to pollinators. Everybody wins!