Pollination is the unseen, unsung hero of pretty much all life on earth. Not only do plants depend on it for reproduction, we depend on their reproduction for ours. All flowering plants use the pollination process to create new seeds and then reproduce, and this process is surprisingly complex. Pollen is not sperm and/or eggs, but rather male gametophytes, small plant-like organisms which find their way into the the lady parts of the plant. There the male and female gametes, now united with a different parent for diversity, produce both the embryo and the endosperm in a process called double fertilization. It sounds complicated, but basically, if pollen doesn’t get moved around, flowering plants die, most animals and insects die, and humans die.
Vector is the term given to anything which moves the pollen, and they can be anything from bugs, to wind, to mammals. Even people can be vectors for pollen. We are going to focus on pollinators, or creatures which do this pollinating. Co-evolution between pollinators and plants has brought about some of the most specialized and interesting adaptations found in nature. From growing perches for birds to rest on while eating, to creating dazzling displays of colour to attract insects, plants and pollinators are in a constant ebb and flow of cooperation and adaptation.
The following are the top pollinators based not only on how much they pollinate, but on how specific and important a niche they fill. We’ve chosen pollinators who help produce the crops we rely on for food either directly, as promoters of biodiversity, or as essential maintainers of the food chain. As mentioned, everything that moves from one plant to another has the potential to pollinate, since the process really is just taking pollen and ‘male’ cells from one plant to another, but the following are the real heavy-hitters of pollination. They’re the beasts of burden, the enablers of floral reproduction. In essence, without these critters moving around playing match-maker, the world would look very, very different, and we’d be a lot hungrier.
7. – Ants
Ants are numerous, everywhere, and love nectar, all ingredients for a great pollinator. While this may seem like a perfect situation, ants are far from ideal candidates for the job. Though they do pollinate accidentally, they have not developed much in the way of pollinating tools. In fact, it has been discovered that some ants and their larvae actually produce an antibiotic secretion which can kill the pollen grains they’re supposed to be (accidentally) moving around. While it’s great that some ants produce antibiotics to protect themselves from harm, and we’re happy they’re healthy, it’s not so neat that they sometimes kill baby flowers. Still, due to their numbers, the fact that not all of them kill pollen, and that their colonies act as giant fertilizers which promote plant growth and biodiversity in money and food crops, they’re vital to the survival and pollination of ecosystems.
6. – Flies (House, Horse, Mosquito, Etc.)
When we think of pollinators (who doesn’t?), we don’t usually think of these annoying, buzzing creatures, but that ought to change. Like ants, flies aren’t exactly evolutionarily predisposed to be pollinators, since they don’t depend exclusively on flowers, fruits, and nectar as food sources; they haven’t developed the same pollinating tricks we’ll see later down the list. That said, given that they reproduce in masses beyond count and fly everywhere from your kitchen to the deepest forests, they make for some excellent pollinators. Accidental pollinators, but no less important.
5. – Butterflies And Moths
Butterflies tend to go after wildflowers, and though these species of plants aren’t directly important to us, the biodiversity they bring is vital to any ecosystem. Extremely active during the day, butterflies seek out energy-rich nectar for their long-haul migratory flights. Aside from their proboscises (Long tongues adapted to probe nectar. Get it?), they don’t have much in the way of specifically designed pollinating structures, and their long legs tend to make it difficult for pollen to attach itself. However, the fact that butterflies can see a huge range of light, including ultraviolet, makes them excellent ‘flower hunters’, so they find plants which otherwise might get passed over. Not only that, but the distance they cover in their migrations, with some species travelling upwards of 5000 km, make them vital for the diversification of ecosystems. Moths, like butterflies, are capable of long flights, and have specialised tongues perfect for gathering nectar. The main difference are that moths work primarily during the night, and so are as vital to the survival of night-blooming flowers as butterflies are to diurnal (daytime) bloomers.
4. – Birds (Hummingbirds)
Now, technically, all birds pollinate to some degree – we don’t talk about the birds and the bees for nothing. That said, no bird species is really as specially designed to pollinate as the hummingbird, so it gets a mention here. Again, most birds pollinate by landing on plants, maybe eating a bug or two, having some nectar, and moving on, but the hummingbird is rather unique in that it seeks out sugary nectar for the energy needed to beat its wings upwards of 80 times a minute. The real reason hummingbirds make the list over other birds is owed to the fact that their long bills are specifically adapted to access and pollinate tubular flowers. It’s a great example of co-evolution, and essential to maintaining biodiversity.
3. – Bats
There are over 1,200 species of bat, making up a full fifth of all mammal species on Earth. These winged creatures are not only vital pollinators of nocturnal flowers in desert and tropical regions, they can be found on every continent except the Antarctic, pollinating a huge variety of plants. Not only are they prolific, but they’re also the exclusive pollinator for a number of fruits, including agaves – in other words, you can thank (or maybe loathe) bats for tequila. Unfortunately, recent years have seen bat populations in North America take drastic dives due to White Nose Syndrome, a deadly, powdery, white fungus which spreads through populations as they huddle together during hibernation.
2. – Bees (And Wasps)
Bees are by far the most conspicuous pollinators on our list: a single bee can visit almost 50,000 flowers in a single year. Not only that, but of any other pollinator, bees are potentially the most evolutionarily adapted to their role. Because of their size, bees tend to get right next to the anthers of a flower, rubbing against it as they collect nectar. This pollen-bearing part of the plant has an easy time offloading thanks to the bee’s fuzzy body, which has a specially designed structure on its hind legs known as a ‘pollen basket’, quite literally a basket… for pollen. Add that the fact that crops pollinated by bees make up one third of our food sources worldwide, and they rank fairly high on the list of things to appreciate. Like bats, bee populations have faced major threat in recent years due to overuse of pesticides meant to promote plant growth.
1. – Beetles
Like ants and flies, beetles aren’t typically thought of as pollinators, let alone bigger pollinators than the birds and the bees. As numerous as flies, beetles actually seek out nectar, and thanks to their colour-vision and tenacity at eating their way into the nectar-rich innards of plants, they’re good at it. As a bonus, unlike ants, they don’t kill the pollen while doing it, either. Knowing all that, it might be a little less surprising (but not really) to learn that 88% of the 240,000 flowering plants across the globe are pollinated by beetles. Granted, they aren’t the exclusive pollinators of these plants, but the fact that they’ve been doing it for at least 200 million years means some ancient plant species around today have co-evolved with the beetle to the point of dependence. Though we might not think of beetles as important to our crops, they pollinate pretty much everything in pretty much every ecosystem, so we couldn’t really do without.
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