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What Are Pollinators? Types, Importance & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Are Pollinators?
  • 0:33 The Lure of Nectar
  • 1:38 Insect Pollinators
  • 3:59 Other Pollinators
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrienne Brundage
Pollinators are animals and insects that carry pollen from one plant to another. Pollinators are responsible for much of our food and flowers, and biologists believe that humans would die without plenty of pollinators on earth.

What Are Pollinators?

Just like animals, flowering plants need to mate. But how can an organism spread its genes without being able to meet up with others of its species? Enter the pollinators. Pollinators are animals of all types that visit flowers and take away their pollen. Pollen is a sex cell of plants and is essential for reproduction. As pollinators move from flower to flower, they deposit the collected pollen, basically allowing the plants to mate. Talk about a friendship!

The Lure of Nectar

In order to understand pollinators, we need to know a little bit about plants. You have likely enjoyed the scent of a rose, or the sight of a field full of wildflowers. But did you know that the beautiful perfumes and lovely views we associate with spring were actually designed to attract insects and birds from far away?

Many flowers attract insects and animals with the promise of a sugary liquid called nectar. Their smell and bright petals are kind of like a neon sign advertising 'Fresh Nectar!' to any passing bug. In return for the gift of nectar, the flower deposits pollen on whatever comes to visit. Pollen is like the sperm of plants - it's the way that plants spread their genes and mate with other plants in the same species.

The animals that are enticed by the perfume of plants or by its beautiful colors are known as pollinators. They visit flower after flower, sipping on the nectar and picking up or depositing pollen. This mutual relationship benefits both the plants and the pollinators and keeps both of them very happy.

Insect Pollinators

Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes and include species of insects, birds, and mammals. More than 100,000 different kinds of animals pollinate over 250,000 different kinds of plants. Talk about biodiversity! Pollinators are often adapted to pollinate specific plants and have a hard time visiting any other flower. A number of insects are specially adapted for gathering pollen and nectar from plants.

Honeybees: Probably the most well-known pollinator, honey bees are credited with pollinating much of the food we eat. They are considered the most important insect known to humans. Berries, pears, apples, citrus, melons, peas, beans, and tomatoes are just a few of the foods that would not exist without honeybees. In fact, about one-third of the food we eat is pollinated by honey bees.

Hawk moths: Hawk moths are uniquely adapted to the hawk moth orchid, which keeps its nectar reward at the base of a very long flower.

Fig wasps: The fig would not exist without the fig wasp. The wasp pollinates the fig when the female lays her eggs in the developing fruit. She picks up pollen on her ovipositor and then transfers it to a new plant as she lays eggs.

Wild bees: Wild bees in North America are responsible for pollinating both wild and agricultural plants. A field of wildflowers in the spring is usually buzzing with many, many different species of wild bees.

Flies: Various species of fly love drinking nectar, but most flies also love the smell of rotting dead things. The corpse flower exploits this, and instead of giving off the nice perfume of a rose, it gives off the scent of a rotting animal. This attracts flies, and the corpse flower deposits its pollen all over their bodies.

Orchid wasps: Some orchids have a similar dirty trick when it comes to pollination. Instead of offering the sweet reward of nectar, they have a specialized flower that looks and smells like a female wasp. This tricks the male wasps, and they try to mate with the flower. When it doesn't work, the male leaves covered in pollen.

Other Pollinators

But insects aren't the only ones that pollinate plants. Animals do, too, and many of them have specialized parts to make this job easier:

Bats: Many flowers in Africa and the Pacific Islands are exclusively pollinated by bats, but bat pollination is common all over the Earth. Bats will feed on the nectar of night blooming, large, bell-shaped plants.

Rodents: A particular type of flower found in South Africa has adapted to being pollinated by gerbils, mice, and rats. It sits on the ground, is very sturdy, and has a yeasty smell. This attracts rodents at night, which feast on its jelly-like nectar.

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