Mystery Pollinator Adventure
A Pollination Lesson from the Supermarket and Library
By Stephen Buchmann of The Forgotten Pollinator's Campaign
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Have you read Let's Hear It For The Forgotten Pollinators? Then you're ready to start on your mystery Pollinator Adventure!

1. Choose Two
For the first part of this exercise, select two foods which are either fruits or above-ground vegetables (such as tomatoes or zucchini). Your class might choose to go on a field trip to your local supermarket, or simply discuss some of your favorite fruits and vegetables, or look through a popular household or gardening magazine full of colorful photographs of the foods you choose. Do not select grains or nuts for this exercise. Once you have picked two fruits or vegetables you're ready to begin on your mystery pollinator adventure.

2. Find the Flowers
Here's where your school or public library and the Internet come to the rescue. For both types of foods you picked (let's say it was an apple and a zucchini), you need to find out through some research what those blossoms look like before they turn into the familiar fruits we eat. Of course, you could always visit an apple tree or garden plot and see the flowers firsthand--maybe even seeing what kind of pollinators visit them--but many of the foods you selected may not grow in your area or bear flowers in the springtime when you are doing this pollination activity lesson. But you can always work together to find color photographs or line drawings of your two flowers. Track down what they look like and gather some facts to fill in a chart with the headings below. NOTE: Pollinating animals visit flowers not because they are pretty or smell nice, but because the they are hungry. The flowers offer them rewards like sweet nectar (often it's twice as sweet as Coca-Cola)) and protein-rich pollen grains.

Flower Color Scent Size Shape Rewards
Apple (or other choice)          
Zucchini (or other choice)          

3. Look at Pollinator "Syndromes"
Now that you know something about what shape, size, and color your flowers are, along with information about their floral scents or whether they offer enticements of nectar or pollen as floral rewards to hungry pollinators, we can begin the final step in making the link from flowers on plants to food in your grocery store. Pollinating honey bees, Blue Orchard Bees, Leafcutter bees or bumblebees constantly search for food for themselves and for their ravenous grub-like larvae back at the nest. The flowers are "offering" nutritious foods to attract pollinating insects that will "accidentally" become dusted with bright yellow pollen and transfer the microscopic pollen grains from flower to flower. The pollen grains contain the cells that must be transferred from the male parts of a flower (the anthers) to the top of the pistil (stigma), which is on the female part of a flower. This transfer of pollen from flower to flower (or even within the same flower) is known as pollination. Once there, the pollen grains send down thin pollen tubes carrying the cells needed to unite (fertilize) with the ovules within the swollen ovary at the base of the flower. Once fertilized, these little green ovules rapidly become the seeds within the swollen edible part that we call the fruit, like the white flesh of an apple surround the dark brown seeds within the apple core. Without the bees that carried the pollen grains on their bodies from flower to flower, there would be no apples or many other fruits and vegetables. Without these little go-betweens, our diet would be limited to things like corn, rice, wheat and nuts, which are pollinated by the wind and don't depend upon animals.

From your list of floral attributes (size, shape, color, scent, rewards), you can make a highly educated guess about what types of pollinators visit and pollinate your flowers. You don't even have to see the plant in bloom or the pollinators actually visiting them. How? By using a technique we call "pollinator syndromes" since different kinds of pollinators like certain kinds of flowers and are unable to visit other types. Be thinking about the following questions and discuss them with your teacher and class;

  • What size is your flower? (tiny, small, average, very large)
  • Does the flower open during the daytime or at night? (What kinds of pollinators are active by day or night?)
  • What color(s) is your flower? (Do certain pollinators visit flowers of a certain color?)
  • Does your flower have an unusual shape, such a long narrow tube, which for example a fuzzy fat bumblebee couldn't fit into?
  • Does your suspected pollinator have the right equipment to visit the blossom and extract the nectar or collect the pollen?

Pollinator syndrome helps us make educated guesses about the pollinators that visit and pollinate particular flowers. Think about your answers to the questions above as you read and discuss the pollinator syndromes on this page.

4. Put It All Together
Make the best gues you can on the kind of animals that you think pollinate your flowers in nature. Put all the information on the chalkboarrd and tally p the responses. Take a class vote on the best candidate for the pollinator of that apple, zucchini or whatever fruit or vegetable you happened to picked out from step1 above. Consult your references and see what the experts say about the types of animals that visit your flowers before they turn into the familiar fruits and vegetables you eat every day. How many flowers were pollinated by bees? How many by some other kind of animal?

Try This!
  • Compare your answers with those of other classes in your school who may have done this activity.
  • Do an activity to help protect pollinators. See some ideas here, interview an expert for ideas, or think up your own.