What is a pollinator?

 Try to imagine a world without apples and pears, a world without carrots and grapes and a world without coffee and chocolate.

Pollinators are simply “pollen mobiles”, they are responsible for the physical transport of pollen from one point to another. They come in many forms but in Georgia pollinator gardens they are likely to take the form of bees, butterflies, moths, and birds. Pollinators are the first and most important part of the pollination process and subsequently they directly determine fertilization, fruit, and seed set.

Photo Credit: wiki commons Author: Red58bill

Consider this, when you cut an apple down the middle you will find seeds. Seeds that should form a five pointed star shape, with two seeds in each “part” of the star. If you see this, it means that it was completely pollinated by bees. However, If there are not ten seeds, it means that not enough pollen reached the flowers stigma in order for all of the apple seed to develop.

A poorly pollinated apple flower will have fruit that is small, lopsided and generally undesirable. An unpollinated apple flower will not fruit at all.

This story and this apple is an illustration of why pollinators are so important. They are responsible for a process which begins with a small transfer of pollen and ends up producing over 1/3 of the worlds temperate vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

For a detailed explanation on plant processes during pollination and fertilization, please visit our pages under the education menu “What is pollination” and “What is fertilization”.

Photo Credit: Wiki commons, Author: Joao Carvalho

When many people think about biotic (organismal) pollinators, by far the most well-known is the bee. It is commonly associated with pollen, nectar foraging, and honey production. However, pollinators are a very diverse group of animals and each have their important role in pollination. In fact, throughout time pollinators and the flowers they visit have developed specialized partnerships.

Built between pollinator and flower, these associations are based on the physical attributes, motives, and abilities of the pollinator as well as the morphology and needs of the flower.

When in sync, these pollinator partnerships between organism and flower are extremely efficient and offer mutual benefits which ultimately is science and nature at its finest!

Photo credit: wiki commons, Author: Bob Peterson

In fact these pollinator partnerships that are developed are often described in a way that highlights an animal’s preference for distinct flower colors, shapes, or scents. This is called a “pollinator trait” or a “pollinator syndrome”. As a gardener or scientist, these traits help us predict which flowers will attract which pollinators.

Visit here to see which pollinator prefers a strong musty odored flower and which prefers a more milder scented bloom. And can you guess who prefers a shallower flower and who prefers blooms that are large and funnel shaped? Go and see if you can link the pollinator with their syndrome!

Why do pollinators visit flowers?

Pollinators obtain food in the form of the energy-rich nectar and/or protein-rich pollen.  In exchange, the pollinated flowers get a vehicle for pollen dispersal, in order to produce seed.  Although food is the primary benefit pollinators get from flowers, they are usually attracted to the flowers by the color and scent. These floral characteristics are often seen as “advertisements” and the pollen and nectar seen as the “reward”.

Not all pollinators respond to the same stimuli, so what one pollinator may find alluring, another may not. Therefore, different types of “advertising” are used to attract specific types of pollinators. Flower type, shape, scent, and color all influence what types of visitors a flower will get.

When we define a set of floral characteristics within a plant species, we can then anticipate what type of pollinators may visit.  This is important for pollinator conservation, because if you include a variety of species whose flowers display varied pollination syndrome traits, you will ensure that you are attracting a diverse variety of pollinators in your new garden!


Want to know more?

Check out the links below for some great resources on pollinators.

Attracting Native Pollinators and Managing Alternative Pollinators  from the Xerces Society

Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States from Pollinator Partnership and here is a link to further pollinator related books from their bookstore.

Posters for bumblebee identification and classrooms art!

Bee Basics: An Introduction To Our Native Bees from the USDA Forest service