Pollination.  What is it?

bee pollinating sedum

Pollinating insects, we know contribute around £220,000,000 per year to the UK economy, but what is pollination and why is it so valuable?

At Q Lawns' Sustainable Landscaping Event on 4th July 2013, speaker Helen Bostock from The RHS gave a detailed talk about the importance of pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.

Survival of the species

All plants need to reproduce in order for their species to survive.  Most of them do so by setting seed.  Seeds come in all sorts of shapes and sizes from a pine cone to an ear of wheat, a nut or a teeny tiny speck that can be carried by the wind.  Seeds can be hidden in fruit, they can have spikes that adhere to animals' fur or they can explode out of pods.  There are a whole host of different ways of dispensing seeds but the one thing they all have in common is that they are a direct result of pollination. 

Plants produce pollen on the male parts of the flower and ovules, in the female parts of the flower.  In order to produce a seed, the two must be brought together and as plants find it difficult to travel, they need an agent to carry the pollen to the stamens (female parts).

Pollinating agents

In some plants, such as grasses, grain crops, rice crops and most trees, the wind acts as a pollinating agent. These plants produce copious amounts of pollen and release it into the air in the hope that it might land on the right part of the right plant.  This is the pollen that makes life so miserable for hay fever sufferers.  Wind pollinated plants tend to have inconspicuous flowers because they don't need to attract insects or birds to do the pollinating for them. 

Of the 250,000 or so species of flowering plants only 10% are wind pollinated

90% of plants rely on insects such as bees, butterflies, hoverflies and moths to carry pollen from one flower to another. Now, tiny as their brains may be, pollinating insects are not stupid.  They don't do something for nothing and so the plant has to offer a tempting prize to get them to collect the pollen.  That prize is sometimes the pollen itself (it is usually high in protein and used to feed bee lavae) but usually it's the high energy drink that we call nectar.

Whilst drinking nectar from the depths of a flower, an insect gets dusted with pollen which it carries on its body and legs to the next flower it visits where the pollen is wiped onto the female parts of the flower. Job done.

Insect pollinated plants bring colour into our lives

hoverfly on oxeye daisy

 

How does a plant advertise that it has nectar available? Why, with colour and sometimes with scent.  That's why blossom is so beautiful, why dog roses smell so amazing and why tomatoes have bright yellow flowers.  It's all about attracting pollinators, giving them what they need to survive (food) and in return, them giving the plants the means to reproduce.  Pollinators need plants and plants need pollinators. 

 

 

Without pollinating insects we would have

a colourless world and a bland diet.

Without pollinating insects we would have a colourless world and a bland diet. So lets do what we can to help them cope with climate change and habitat loss.   One solution is to plant more wildflower meadows.  Big or small, these species rich grasslands have evolved alongside pollinating insects for centuries and provide the perfect habitat.  They're not difficult to manage, you certainly don't need to be green fingered to have a wildflower meadow and you will be surprised at how many fascinating insects will drop by to visit your garden when it's in bloom.

 

Watch our video about choosing and planting the right plants for pollinators