The who, what & why of pollinators, plus 8 ways to help them
Pollinators are a group of special little creatures who play a massive role in our food systems, environment, and economy! Read along to learn more about who pollinators are, what they do, and why they're struggling. Then discover eight ways we can all help.
Who Are Pollinators?
When most people hear the word pollinators, an image of buzzing black and yellow honey bees immediately comes to mind. While bees are certainly very prominent pollinators, many other types of insects and animals engage in pollination too! This includes butterflies, moths, birds, bats, ants, beetles, other animals, and even the wind. Humans could be dubbed pollinators at times, such as when assisting with hand-pollination, though the term is usually reserved for those that perform it naturally in the wild.
Sometimes nectar- and pollen-producing plants are mistakenly referred to as "pollinators" — such as "Hey, I planted a bunch of pollinators in the garden this weekend!" While that is absolutely excellent and encouraged, the statement itself is inaccurate. They are a food source for bees and butterflies, but the plants themselves are not pollinators.
What Do Pollinators Do?
Well… they pollinate things, right? I suppose it's pretty obvious by their name that pollinators play an active role in plant pollination. That is, pollinators assist with the movement of pollen between or among flowers. The transfer of pollen (the plant equivalent of sperm) from the male plant part (anther) to the female plant structure (stigma) effectively fertilizes the flower. Fertilization leads to the production of robust fruit and viable seeds, which allows the plant to reproduce. Or, to potentially feed others!
Plants and pollinators have a beautiful symbiotic relationship. The plants are fertilized while the pollinators are fed. Some pollinators, such as bees, are seeking both pollen and nectar. Others are only interested in drinking the sweet nectar from flowers, like butterflies and hummingbirds. When they dive deep to get a drink, they inadvertently pick up and transfer pollen around too.
According to the Penn State Department of Entomology1, "sugary nectar provides pollinators with carbohydrates while pollen offers proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and necessary phytochemicals." In that exchange, there is a third beneficiary: we humans.
Why Are Pollinators Important?
Pollinators are so important that they are considered a keystone species group. The National Geographic Society2 describes a keystone species as "a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions." Without keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.
Did you know that pollinators are directly responsible for one-third of all food that humans consume, including everything from fruits and vegetables to coffee and chocolate? That is because approximately 75% to 95% of the world's flowering plants need pollinators to set fruit or seed, including the majority of food crops3. Globally, the action of pollinators in food production has an estimated economic worth of 235 to 577 billion US dollars!4. "Without the actions of pollinators, agricultural economies, our food supply, and surrounding landscapes would collapse."5
Are Pollinators in Trouble?
The short answer is: Yes. Populations of many pollinator species are on the decline. The sharp reduction in the honey bee population is especially worrisome. Research groups such as the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) track commercial honey bee colonies across the United States. The reports of "colony collapse disorder" — a term used when bees suddenly abandon their hive and do not return — has been steadily on the rise over the last 15 years. BIP data showed a 40% reduction in managed honey bee populations between the spring of 2018 to the spring of 2019 alone6.
So why are bees and other pollinators struggling? Unfortunately, pollinators are being hit with a myriad of affronts all at once. The biggest bad-guy finger is pointed at industrial and conventional agriculture operations because of their heavy pesticide use — including substances that kill pollinators.
However, any broad-spectrum pesticide use puts pollinators at risk, including outside of a commercial farm setting! This includes residential use, at parks, on golf courses, on public right-of-ways, and more.
Furthermore, natural habitats and food sources for pollinators are being altered, destroyed, or contaminated by expanding agriculture and "urban sprawl" development. Last but not least, our changing climate and weather patterns are negatively impacting many plants, animals, and ecosystems, including our pollinator friends.
How Can I Help?
First of all, thank you for your interest in helping pollinators. There are many things we can all do to support pollinator populations at home, at work, in a community or school garden, or any size outdoor space. Every action counts!
8 Things You Can do to Help Pollinators
- Plant for the pollinators. Even if you don't have an extensive garden or large outdoor space, plant a few nectar- and pollen-producing flowers to feed pollinators. Many of the plants for pollinators are container-friendly and low-maintenance! (See Resources section for links.)
- Supply diverse and sustained food sources by planting a variety of annual and perennial native plants, including ones that flower at different times of the year.
- Create a wildlife-friendly yard, beyond flowers! Provide habitat and supplemental food sources that support a variety of pollinators and wildlife. For example, add hummingbird feeders, bird houses, bird baths, shallow water baths for bees, solitary bee houses, or even bat boxes to your outdoor space. Allow some areas to grow "wild" and less manicured, which provides safe spots for nesting and shelter.
- Plant milkweed and other butterfly host plants. Milkweed is the sole source of food for monarch butterfly caterpillars, and where the adult monarch butterflies lay their eggs. On the other hand, dill, fennel, carrot greens, and parsley support swallowtail butterfly populations — so plant extra and plan to share!
- Go organic! Avoid the use of chemical pesticides at home. Manage your garden in a natural, organic manner. For example, use biological pest control methods such as releasing native American ladybugs or praying mantis. Beyond your home, support sustainable agriculture and buy organic food products as much as possible.
- Make an impact outside your home. Talk to the folks responsible for landscape management at your workplace or HOA to share information about pollinators and organic gardening. Perhaps they'll be willing to make some beneficial changes too.
- Support your regional beekeepers (and bee populations!) by buying local honey and locally-grown organic produce, such as at Farmers Markets.
- Spread the word! Talk to your friends, neighbors, and co-workers about the importance of pollinators, and encourage them to get involved. Give pollinator and wildlife-friendly gifts for special occasions. Last but not least, share this article and other pro-pollinator messages on social media!
- Top 23 Plants for Pollinators, by Deanna T., Homestead and Chill
- How to Turn Your Yard or Garden into a Certified Wildlife Habitat, by Deanna T., Homestead and Chill
- What are pollinators and why do we need them?, Penn State Dept. of Entomology
- Keystone Species, National Geographic Society
- How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals? Wiley Online Library
- Pollinators vital to our food supply under threat, Food and Agricultre Organization of the United Nations
- Pollinator Partnership
- Loss and Management Survey, Bee Informed Partnersip
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