Pollinators: Who They Are, What They Do, and Why They Matter

what are pollinators

At a Glance

What Are Pollinators?

Pollination is the process of pollen being transferred from the male part of a flower (called the stamen), to the female part (called the stigma), of either the same or a different flower. This process is required for plants to be fertilized and to produce fruits and seeds. Some plants perform this pollination process by themselves, and some utilize the wind or water to perform it for them. However, many plants are pollinated by pollinators.

Pollinators are animals that transfer pollen between plants. The animal that probably most comes to your mind here is the honeybee, the most well-known pollinator, but there are actually a wide range of different species that act as pollinators. In fact, there are over 100,000 different animals that act as pollinators. These include other bee species, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, birds, and bats. Some of these might sound like surprising candidates for pollinators, but they are essential to the pollination process, for example, without the midges that pollinate the cacao tree, there would be no chocolate!

Plants that require the services of pollinators have evolved various ways of attracting them. For example, many pollinators visit flowers to feed on nectar, a sweet sugary substance secreted by the flowers for specifically this purpose. Some plants have flowers that mimic a particular species of pollinating insect, thus luring in male pollinators that are searching for a female to mate with.

When the pollinators visit the flower, they take some pollen away with them. Some pollinators, such as honeybees, intentionally collect the pollen, whilst others take the pollen with them unintentionally as a result of it sticking to them. Then, when the pollinator visits another flower, some of this pollen rubs off and the flower is fertilized.

What Function Do Pollinators Play In Ecosystems?

Pollination is required for plants to reproduce, and many plants are completely reliant on pollinators to carry out pollination, meaning that these pollinators are solely responsible for this job. This means that pollinators are responsible for the continuing existence of these plants.

Some things that we think of as essential and irreplaceable parts of nature, such as colourful and fragrant flowers, exist only because of pollinators. Because some plants require the services of pollinators, they make themselves easy to find by having brightly coloured flowers and producing scents. Whilst we may appreciate these things, they are actually there solely for the pollinators’ benefit.

Pollinators are also essential in crop farming, as many of the world’s crop species require pollinators to produce their crop. Without being able to use the services of pollinators, both wild and introduced, it wouldn’t be possible to grow these crops. However, while pollinators are essential to the smooth running of their native ecosystems, they can sometimes cause problems when they are introduced to new ecosystems, which is a common practice in the agriculture industry. This is because they can compete with native pollinators for resources, and this can sometimes lead to the native pollinators declining or even becoming extinct.

Why Are Pollinators So Important?

Most pollinators are insects, and insects are therefore an incredibly important group when it comes to ensuring harmony in nature. Without insects, all of our ecosystems would cease to function. However, ironically, the importance of insects has generally been ignored, with them often being left out of ecological surveys and conservation schemes. However, pollinators are one instance of insects whose value has been recognised, as worldwide agricultural industries have increasingly realised that pollinators are essential.

Many natural processes can be artificially performed by humans and at a more efficient rate. But not pollination. Whilst it could technically be done by hand and has been done in some cases where crops have been grown in areas they’re not native to and where they don’t have any pollinators, it is incredibly inefficient. However, pollinators just go out and get the job done, in their millions, as part of their regular natural routine.

A huge part of our agriculture depends upon pollinators. An estimated 84% of crops grown in the EU rely on pollination by pollinators. So with all of this in mind, pollinators are hugely important to modern humans especially, as well as to the ecosystems we all depend on. However, it’s not just bees that are important in agriculture (even if they are the public face of it). Farmers also make use of the pollination services of a whole range of different insects, including moths, butterflies, flies, beetles, and flies, both introduced and wild.

Pollinator Decline

Globally, there is a decline in insect populations. Unfortunately, we still don’t really know the full extent of this because of a lack of research, as scientists and policymakers generally prefer to target the larger, more iconic animals which tend to grab our attention more.

What’s Happening?

Generally, we have to guess at what is happening to insect populations in general by looking at the data from the few insect groups which have been studied to the greatest extent – known as indicator groups. Butterflies and bees have generally been studied more than most insect groups, mainly because they have a better public image than most insects.

What the indicator groups are showing us however, is that populations are declining. A lot. This alone is very worrying news. But they are also showing us that insect diversity is declining too, so in any given area, not only is the overall number of insects decreasing but so is the number of different species. This is bad because diversity is very important for the proper functioning of ecosystems. Given the lack of research into other species, we can only infer from the information we have, but we have to assume that the same thing is happening to them too.

Across the whole of Europe, it has estimated (as of the time of writing) that 38% of bee and hoverfly species are declining, and the European Red List for Bees says that almost one out of every 10 species of wild bee are facing extinction. In the UK, half of the bumblebee species are currently in decline, with 3 having already gone extinct. In the US most pollinators are now federally listed species, meaning that there is evidence that they are disappearing in natural areas. Half of the bees, butterflies, and moths that were studied in the 2013 State of Nature Report have declined.

What’s Causing Pollinator Decline?

So, the all-important questions, what’s causing these declines? How do we stop it?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as fixing one problem and everything going back to normal. There are a whole range of different factors which are affecting pollinators, and insects in general, and causing these declines.

The good news is that once we understand the problems, we can begin working on solutions and changes that help make the overall situation better.

One problem is the loss of habitat through land-use change. Landscapes that were once natural land have now been converted, into either urban areas or vast monoculture farms, both of which are bad news for pollinators. You might think that vast areas of farmland would be good for pollinators, however, these crops only provide food for certain species of pollinators, and they only provide it at certain times of year. So for pollinators that require other food sources, or outside of the window when the crops are providing food such as nectar, these areas are pretty much devoid of food. The same thing applies to urban areas, there are gardens full of flowers, and these certainly do help some pollinators, but they often don’t provide something for every pollinator.

Another problem is the loss of suitable nesting sites, due to loss of habitats and also fragmentation of habitats, which is where areas of suitable habitat become separated from each other by areas without suitable habitats, and become increasingly difficult to find and travel between. Many species of pollinators have specific requirements for their nesting sites, or for habitats for their larvae. As these suitable habitats become rarer due to land-use change, it becomes more and more difficult for them to find suitable habitat environments.

Of course as you may have already guessed, climate change is also another problem affecting pollinators. Climate change is altering the geographic ranges of some species of pollinators, meaning that it is increasingly difficult for them to live in some areas that once had the perfect conditions for them. This combines with the loss of suitable habitats to further limit the places that pollinators can live. And of course, this is a problem which is only expected to get worse with time.

Another problem that is having a massive effect on pollinators is the prevalent use of pesticides. As more and more land is converted to farmland and similar agricultural uses, more and more land is being covered with pesticides. Pesticides are basically just chemicals that are designed to poison insects – intended to kill crop pests, but of course, often not distinguishing beneficial insects from ‘pests’ and as a result affecting other insects. Pesticides can have a range of different effects on pollinators. Some pesticides will outright kill them. But even pesticides that don’t do this are still harmful, as they can have other effects, such as affecting their ability to navigate, which can make it more difficult for pollinators to survive. One particular group of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, are thought to be particularly bad for pollinators.

How Does This Impact Wider Ecosystems?

Many wild plants rely on insect pollinators to reproduce, so as pollinators decline, so do these plants. And this of course then has knock-on effects, because other animals rely on these plants so they also start to decline, and then so do animals and plants that rely on them, and so on. Also, pollinators have a place on the natural food chain and are prey for other animal species. These species inevitably suffer from a lack of prey if pollinators begin to decline in large numbers.

And of course, as we’ve already seen, pollinator decline affects all the agriculture that depends on pollinators. This is a huge amount of the crops which humans grow and consume. In the US alone this is estimated to be around $40 billion worth of crops.

What Practices Are Most Harmful to Pollinators and Why?

Many of our modern farming practices are harmful to pollinators. Monoculture is one of them – effectively, the practice of growing only one type of crop in a field. This might make it easier for the farmers to grow the crop, but it is very different from what you would find in nature. In nature there is diversity. In any given area you would find hundreds, if not thousands, of different species of plants and animals. The reason this this is so important is that the amount of ‘opportunities’ an area has – basically the possibilities to find food or a nesting site (or anything else a pollinator needs for that matter) – increases with increasing diversity. So in an area with no diversity – such as a monoculture crop field – there are very few opportunities.

Pesticide use is also a very harmful practice. Many crops are grown with extensive pesticide use, to prevent the crops from being eaten by insects. And this is a method that is being used more and more. This issue actually ties in with that of monoculture, because when crops are grown under a monoculture regime, it causes them to suffer more damage from pests because it is easier for the pests to find the crops when they are all grown together in one place.

What Impact Is Climate Change Having?

Climate change is affecting pollinators just like it is affecting other animals. And the effects of climate change on the geographic ranges of pollinators are only expected to get worse. In time it may cause many pollinators’ ranges to shift entirely to new areas. Of course, not all of these areas will represent suitable habitats, and many pollinator species will experience further declines as a result of this.

Should You Avoid Products That Are Harmful to Pollinators?

In an ideal world, we could just avoid buying any products that have been produced using methods that are harmful to pollinators. Unfortunately, that’s not very easy under the systems we all operate within. Some practices are almost impossible to avoid, such as monoculture and it is incredibly difficult to find any food that hasn’t been grown using monoculture techniques.

Also, avoiding these harmful practices isn’t something that is accessible to everyone. For example, we may immediately think of going organic when it comes to food and cosmetic products, however these options are often more expensive, so not everyone can afford to make changes here. And even when we can opt for this better alternative, organically grown doesn’t necessarily equate to perfect in all cases and some products labeled in this way may still involve some form of pesticide use along the way.

Also, avoiding these harmful practices may just mean that other harmful practices have to be used instead. For example, if pesticide use is stopped entirely, more land might be needed for monoculture farms to make up for the decrease in crop production.

What About Beeswax?

Beeswax is a special wax that is secreted by honeybees and is used in the construction of their hives. It is used in a variety of cosmetic products because it is hydrophobic (which means that it repels water) which is a super useful property for these kinds of products. Harvesting beeswax involves the destruction of some or all of the hive, which obviously has a negative effect on the bees living in that hive. Some beeswax producers claim to be sustainable, by only harvesting part of the hive at a time, rather than completely destroying it. However, this still adds another impact to the long list of other factors affecting the bees and makes the colony less likely to survive.

What’s Being Done To Help Pollinators?

Are There Any Conservation or Legislative Initiatives?

Governments are taking action to curb the use of pesticides, in an attempt to reduce the negative effects experienced by pollinators. They are also encouraging people to plant pollinator-friendly plants in their gardens to provide more habitats for pollinating insects. Beyond this, work is also being done to restore natural habitats for pollinators. However, it’s difficult for governments to take action because there are many different factors causing pollinator declines and at the same time that habitats are being restored, others are being lost.

Are Any Other Solutions Being Researched?

Scientists are researching various other solutions that might help. One such solution may come in the form of trying to breed resistant honeybees. These are honeybees that are resistant to the diseases that typically affect most honeybees. This would enable them to better deal with the problems affecting them, as they wouldn’t be already weakened to these issues. Another solution is trying to breed honeybees that are resistant to varroa mites, a parasite that lives on honeybees. This would have the same effect as breeding disease-resistant honeybees. However, these solutions only focus on honeybees and tend to ignore other pollinators, which are also essential to the ecosystem and agriculture.

What You Can Do To Help Pollinators

There are a number of ways that you as an individual can help to support pollinators. You can help to protect their habitats by developing or promoting a natural environment in your garden and planting flowers and other plants that are beneficial to pollinators. But remember to include plants for all pollinators, not just bees. You can try to discourage the use of pesticides wherever possible, and buying organic whenever possible is a definite step in the right direction here. And of course, you can make sure to never pesticides yourself in your own garden or backyard. You can also help by providing suitable nesting places simply by leaving an area of your garden undisturbed, helping many species of solitary bee which live underground.

You can also help to protect swarming bees. When a group of honeybees leaves their nest to find a new nest site, they form a swarm, which is a huge cluster of bees that settle in one spot for some time, while scout bees go out in search of a suitable nest site. If you come across one of these swarms, ensure that they are left alone, and after a while, they will leave for their new nest site once it’s been found.

When selecting plants for your garden, think about which plants are native to your area. There will be some pollinators that require these native plants, as they are the plants that they have evolved to utilise, so ensure you have plenty of them in your collection. Also, if you have a lawn, you could consider turning some or all of it into a wildflower patch, which would be a haven for pollinators.

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