Vail Daily column: Pollination: Teamwork at its finest
What is pollination? Pollination, essentially, is plant sex. More specifically, it is the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. The goal is to create new offspring for the next generation. One type of plant offspring is produced by creating seeds. Seeds contain the genetic information to produce a new plant and flowers are, most simply, the tools that plants use to create new seeds.
Transportation of Pollen
Flowers must rely on something called vectors to move the pollen for them. Vectors can include wind, water, insects, butterflies, birds, bats and other animals that visit the flower. Animals or insects that transfer pollen from one flower to another are called pollinators. Pollinators unintentionally pollinate flowers. They’re only thinking about eating or collecting pollen, or sipping nectar for protein and their own nutrition. But while on the flower, pollen grains will attach themselves to the animal’s body. When they visit a new flower, those grains will fall off onto the flower’s stigma, which will hopefully lead to successful reproduction of the flower. One of nature’s best pollinators are bees. There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in the United States. The flower seeking pollen magnates purposefully visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar for food for themselves and their young. Colorado native bees include mason, leaf cutter, sweat, squash and bumble bees. Leaf cutter bees are used by farmers to pollinate alfalfa fields. Mason bees are used in orchards for their pollination skills.
Plants and pollinators have co-evolved physical characteristics to make them to interact with each other. They have a mutualistic relationship, where both benefit from the other. The plants benefit by attracting a particular type of pollinator to its flower, ensuring pollen will be spread to other flowers. Pollinators benefit from adapting to a particular flower, which ensures it will be able to find enough nectar and pollen.
Food is usually enough to lure pollinators in but plants will also attract them by using different petal shapes, scents and colors. Pollination syndromes is the term used to describe the attraction of certain types of shapes, colors and fragrances to a range of pollinators.
Some plants use color patterns known as a bull’s eye to make them stand out from the rest. One of the best examples of this is the Black Eyed Susan. It has a black center to help it to stand out to pollinators against a background of green foliage.
Flowers also attract pollinators with unusual bright, showy colors and spurs such as Colorado’s State Flower, the Blue Columbine. Some flowers have colors in the ultraviolet spectrum, which are invisible to humans, but very attractive to pollinators. These nectar guides guide pollinators to the flower like a plane on a runway. Some nectar guides are visible to humans, such as like pink lines on a White Geranium. This attracts animals and insects to the flower.
The diversity of flower shapes also attracts pollinators. Wide, open and symmetrical flowers, such as buttercups and sunflowers, allow easy access to many insects, such as beetles and butterflies. Bilaterally symmetrical flowers such as monkshood are attractive to bees who like to wiggle up inside enclosed petals. Long tubular flowers such as the scarlet gilia are a favorite of hummingbirds whose long tongues are able to reach the nectar hidden inside.
Teamwork in Action
Both plants and pollinators work together to benefit each other. Pollinators adapt to specific flowers to ensure they will have enough pollen for survival, and plants adapt to ensure their pollen will be spread from one flower to another. Without this important relationship, we would not see all the beautiful wildflowers that we are so privileged to see. It’s teamwork at its finest.
Alexa Saxton Bush is a naturalist and sustainability intern at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. Check out our website to learn about all of the programs going on there this summer.