Pollination can take place through several methods. If an insect or other small animal lands on a flower, it may inadvertently collect bits of pollen on its legs. When the same "pollinator" travels to another flower, it spreads the pollen to the second flower's stigma, allowing the male sex cells within the pollen to germinate and eventually form new seeds and possibly fruit. If a plant self-pollinates, it doesn't require any pollinator to transfer its pollen to a second plant. Rather, pollen travels from the anthers to the stigma of a single flower. In other cases, a plant relies on wind to cast its pollen. These plants tend to have very lightweight pollen, hanging flowers and large populations to increase the chances of pollination.
For flowering plants to reproduce sexually, the plants' male and female sex cells must meet, allowing fertilization to occur. Pollination is the means by which the male sex cells, in the form of pollen, meet with the female sex cells. Depending on the species, a flowering plant may produce both sex cells and self-pollinate, or it may rely on wind, water or pollinator animals to carry sex cells from another plant.
About 80 percent of all flowering plants rely on animals for pollination. Pollinator species vary widely, including a range of insects, such as bees, butterflies and beetles, plus some bird species and even some bats. Typically, these animals land on flowers to consume nectar. The relationship between the flowers and the pollinators is a mutually beneficial, or symbiotic, one; the pollinators help the flowers to reproduce, and the flowers provide their pollinators with food.
Pollinator Syndrome Traits
Many flowers' designs attract and accommodate particular species of pollinators. The particular characteristics that attract each pollinator are known as syndromes. For example, bright white, yellow and blue flowers tend to attract bees, as do flowers with fresh, mild scents and shallow shapes. Bees often pollinate the flowers of vine-growing crops, such as muskmelons, cucumber, pumpkins and squash. Dull white and greenish flowers with broad bowl shapes usually attract beetles. Bats and moths respond to flowers that give off strong musty or sweet smells at night. Birds usually pollinate scarlet, red, orange and white flowers with minimal scents and large funnel shapes with sturdy lips. Butterflies go for brightly colored, narrow, tubular flowers with wide landing pads and delicate aromas.
Threats to Pollination
Because so many flowering plants rely on animal pollinators, a drop in the population of any given pollinator can dramatically impact the flowers that rely on it. For example, where bee populations drop due to the human occupation of their natural habitats, the nearby wildflower populations also drop. Likewise, a drop in wildflower populations can result in a decrease in the population of local pollinators.
- U.S. Forest Service; Celebrating Wildflowers: What is Pollination?; October 2010
- U.S. Forest Service; Celebrating Wildflowers: Plant Pollination Strategies; October 2010
- U.S. Forest Service; Celebrating Wildflowers: Pollinator Syndromes; October 2010
- Ohio State University; Pollination
- EurekAlert; Wild Bees and the Flowers they Pollinate are Disappearing Together; July 2006
- Photo Credit pollinating Butterfly image by D.K. from Fotolia.com
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