Let's Hear It For The Forgotten Pollinators!
(Introduction to
Mystery Pollinator Adventure)
By Stephen Buchmann of The Forgotten Pollinator's Campaign
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

At the supermarket where you see colorful row upon row of neatly stacked fruits and vegetables, do you ever wonder how all that fruit got there? As you crunch into a brilliant Red Delicious apple or green Granny Smith for a lunchtime snack, do you wonder what steps were involved in actually producing that fruit on the tree? In this lesson we'll be concerned with the very earliest steps in this process (pollination)--and the little animals (pollinators, usually bees)--that visited those apple blossoms and other flowering crops.

  • Why does a flower become a fruit?
  • Why do plants bother with all those colorful, good-smelling flowers anyway?
  • Who are the pollinators that cause fruits to form from flowers?

You'll begin to discover answers to these questions through the Mystery Pollinator Adventure. First, some background information about pollinators and the important role they play.

Pollinators are Important
Basically, pollinators make sure that plants can successfully reproduce. Since plants can't move, they depend on animals like bees, bats, butterflies, moths, birds, and many others to move their pollen from one plant to another. Pollination happens when a bee or other pollinator moves pollen from one flower to another of the same species. Bees and other pollinators visit a flower looking for nectar, pollen, or other rewards. They get covered with pollen in the process, and then carry that pollen on to the next flower that they visit. When a plant flower is pollinated it has a much better chance of developing into big full-bodied fruit full of fertile seeds, capable of sprouting and producing the next generation of plants.

Some plants can self-pollinate, and others, like grass, corn, wheat, and pine trees, are pollinated by the wind. Many other plants, however, like apples, cherries, alfalfa, pumpkins, nectarines, oranges, blueberries, almonds, and over 220,000 other species of wild flowering plants depend on pollinators to visit their flowers and ensure that the plants can produce healthy fruits and seeds. Basically, four out of every five bites you eat is made possible by a pollinator!

Pollinators in Peril
Unfortunately, many of the pressures that animals and plants are facing all over the world also threaten pollinators. As we develop more land for houses and for growing food, we take habitat away from wild pollinators. Wild pollinators include bats, butterflies, hummingbirds, and many species of bees. Honey bees are just one species of bee -- there are hundreds of bee species. Pollinators are also vulnerable to pesticides, which are often used heavily on the very crops we need pollinated in order to get fruit! Even honey bees, which are kept in hives and moved around to pollinate fields of different crops, are hurt by pesticides. Honeybees are also in trouble due to diseases and the invasion of Africanized honeybees, which take over honeybee colonies.

Thank a Pollinator Today!
Without the birds and the bees, we would have a very boring lunch at school and possibly a nearly empty table at home. Did you know that about every 4 out of 5 bites of food you eat is the direct result of bees and other animals pollinating those fruits and vegetables? About 80% of all the food we eat comes from fruits and vegetables that were insect-pollinated. Only 20% of our diet consists of grains and nuts which are wind-pollinated, and therefore do not require animal pollinators. So, remember that fact and thank a pollinator today. Pollinators are critical to plant success, both in wild lands and also in agriculture. In order to protect our diverse wild lands and aalso to ensure that we have good fruit to eat, we need to protect pollinators as well as the plants that they pollinate!

Try This!
1. Discuss or research:
  • Are honey bee colonies increasing or decreasing in the United States and Canada? If they are decreasing, what are the causes?
  • How do pesticides negatively affect bees and other pollinators?
  • If natural habitats are fragmented into "tiny islands," what effect could it have on native pollinators?

2. What can you or your class do to help protect pollinators or give them a place to live? Try these ideas:

  • Find out how you can drill holes in small wooden blocks or set out soda straws in cans or milk cartons to provide nest sites for leafcutter or Mason bees.
  • Find out what pesticides are safe to use around bees. Ask your parents not to spray fruit trees or other flowering plants when bees are active.
  • Plant a pollinator garden with bright blossoms that can server to attract and feed exciting pollinating animals including hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and moths.