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The Power of Pollinators

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on a purple coneflower at Chicago Botanic Garden.
Photo by Gail Kahover.

Enjoy breakfast this morning? Looking forward to lunch or dinner? That piece of fruit, handful of nuts, spoonful of honey, cup of coffee or dairy product are all brought to you thanks to pollinators! 

Pollinators of every size, color and shape are vital to life as we know it—from insects such as butterflies, moths, beetles and bees to birds like the ruby-throated hummingbird and even mammals like bats. While plants need air, water and sunlight to grow, as much as 90 percent of all plants need pollination (and pollinators) to reproduce—and for us that means food! 

Pollination is the act of pollen being transferred from one flower to another. Pollinators are animals and insects that collect pollen while visiting flowers for nectar, pollen or oils, or simply brushing up against plants in their daily routine. As these animals travel from one plant to another, pollen is transferred from the male parts of plants (anthers) to the female parts (stigmas), where fertilization occurs allowing the plant to ultimately reproduce and bear fruits or seeds (i.e., apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, almonds, cashews, coffee, chocolate, alfalfa, etc.). 

Plants employ a variety of tactics to draw in pollinators. Many plants have a sweet smell to lure pollinators, though some attract flies with an odor like rotting meat. Brightly colored flowers act as a signal to hummingbirds and bees that can see in color. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, or symbiosis, where these plants depend on pollinators for reproduction and pollinators depend on plants for food.  

According to the USDA, about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators to reproduce. So, when you sit down for dinner tonight remember that an amazing pollinator helped to make it happen!