linda tenneson garden

What is a pollinator? A pollinator is anything that carries pollen from the anther (male equivalent) to the stigma (female equivalent) of flowers of any growing plant. Pollination happens when the pollen is moved by the wind, water, or any kind of wildlife — which includes insects and mammals. Frequently, pollination involves insects such as bees, wasps, ants and butterflies. Some less well-known pollinators include bats, flies, midges, mosquitos, moths and beetles.

Plants known as self-pollinators use the wind to move pollen from a male flower to the female flower which is growing on the same plant. 

Many pollinators visit flowers to drink the nectar each flower contains. Pollen is picked up accidentally in the process and left on other flowers as the pollinator visits them.

The bumblebee visits flowers and its vibrating wings pick up pollen from one flower and then leaves it on the next flower. Ants do not fly, but walk from flower to flower, so they are less efficient in spreading pollen from plant to plant. Mosquitoes pollinate certain orchids and may pollinate other plants while the males drink nectar from flowers. Butterflies are well-known daytime pollinators, but moths (many of which fly at night) also visit a lot of flowers. Hummingbird moths may be seen in the daytime moving from flower to flower just as hummingbirds do.

Hummingbirds and hummingbird moths have long bills designed to reach the nectar in flowers with deep throats that other insects would not be able to access. Beetles do not drink nectar, but they visit many plants simply to eat the flowers and leaves.  Midges are a type of fly which pollinates the cacao trees that produce cocoa beans which are used to make chocolate.

Bats pollinate the tropical flowers when they drink the nectar. Pollen is spread by accident just as it is by other pollinator activity.

Humans are pollinators when they move pollen from plant to plant. Sometimes this is done on purpose to breed a new variety of plant. This purposeful pollination is often done under very controlled conditions so that the genetics of the plant are known. Humans may also be responsible for a small amount of pollinating by accident if we brush against flowers in the process of gardening. 

Pollinators are important because many of our fruits, vegetables and nuts would not grow without their work.  The same foods we eat are also eaten by wildlife. Plants which are pollinated are then able to produce seeds which in turn grow into the next generation of those plants. Pollinator activity is an essential part of plant life and plants are an essential part of life on this planet.

Growing a variety of plants which flower at various times of the year is a good way to encourage the survival of insect pollinators. We may not notice the flowers that trees have each year, but they also benefit from pollinators. Trees in turn provide food, shade, building materials and may modify some of the effects of climate change.

The use of pesticides should be limited and done only according to the package directions because pesticides are often fatal to the insects that do the essential work of pollination.  

Linda G. Tenneson is a University of Minnesota master gardener and tree care advisor.