What is pollination?

We’ve all heard of it, but what is pollination? Although the word pollination is mentioned often, very few people actually know what the pollination process consists of. The process of pollination is crucial to our food supply and according to the American Beekeeping Federation, “Honey bees contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of the of 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 of 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 off, into another flower, as the pollinator continues to feed. 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 the anthers (male reproduction organs) of a flower to the stigma (female) of the same flower or of another flower. It’s a step before fertilization: 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, which will result in the formation of the seed. The seeds are released from the parent plant and are able to grow into a full plant thus, continuing the reproductive cycle using the method of pollination.

Fertilization allows the flower to develop seeds.

Though, in spite of 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 extremely important! 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 greater 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 referred to as 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 may visit several flowers of the same species on a few different plants. Insect and other animal pollinators obtain food in form of energy-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen, from the flowers they visit, and 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 the future blooms. This also means if the plant produces some sort of fruit, it cannot do so because the pollen has not fused with the ovule. This is why pollinating vectors, such as honey bees, are so important to our ecosystems. What would April be without the dozens of tulips, daffodils, and Irises everywhere? As well as the fruit that we consume on a daily basis? If there are no bees, there are no plants or very few of them. Pollinators such as bees ensure that there is 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. Just make sure you’re not interrupting a little hard worker bee on a mission to improve our planet.

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

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

How do the bees play a part in this?

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, where they pass it off to other worker bees, who pack the pollen into cells with their heads. Bee pollen is the primary source of protein for the hive.

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, who aid in the pollination process by transferring the pollen that clings to their bodies from flower to flower. Nectar is the raw material used by the honeybee to produce honey. Honeybees gather nectar mainly from the 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 common space, or wherever

According to US Forest Service, “Of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, 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 agricultural 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 agricultural 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, are reliant on bees for nearly 90% of their pollination process. Others, like almonds, almost entirely require the pollination services of bees and other insects in order to produce a crop. Many other food sources, from avocados, oranges, and melons to cranberries and squash, need to be pollinated by honeybees in order to set fruit.

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

row of hives on chesterhaven beach farm