Insect Pollination: Process, Diagram & Adaptations

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

You probably don't appreciate insects all that much. Let's face it, they are kind of irritating. This lesson will change how you look at insects though, and will shed light on their value as pollinators.

Insect Pollination Defined

Insects. They buzz in your ear, bite you, eat your house, sting you, transmit disease, end up in places you don't want them, and eat your food. You can try to kill them all, but more will come.

A life without insects sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Awwww… but would it be? These pesky creatures are pretty important, and one vital role they play is that of plant pollinator, or an organism that transfers pollen from the male part of the plant to the female part of plant. This process ensures fertilization and the development of a seed.

Around 75% of plant species need the help of a pollinator to get their pollen transferred. Still not convinced that insects are a big deal? Check this out: around one third of the food and drinks you enjoy are produced with the help of a pollinator. And it gets better! Somewhere around $20 billion of products are produced each year in the United States due to the work of pollinators.

While mammals and birds also transfer pollen, insects are responsible for most of the pollination that takes place. Let's explore insect pollination, or where plant pollen is transferred via insect, in a little more detail. And don't worry, some of those plant terms that have been thrown around will get defined, too.

Diagrams and Steps

Some non-flowering plants utilize insects, but for simplicity let's follow the path between an insect pollinator and a flower to show the process of pollination. It all starts with a flower, so let's zoom in on one.

The pollen, which is the tiny, yellow-ish powder that will become sperm and will fertilize the female parts of a plant, sits on a structure called an anther.

Note the location of the pollen on the anther
anther image

Once the insect lands on the flower, it will get pollen all over its body by coming into contact with the anther.

A bee lands on a flower and gets pollen on its body
Bee pollen

Through the commotion of the insect crawling on the flower, pollen will occasionally land on the flower's stigma, which is the female part of the flower. Once the pollen grains land on the stigma, pollination has occurred.

When pollen lands on the stigma, pollination has occured
stigma2

The pollen grain grows a tubule, which will travel to the flower's ovary. This results in the delivery of pollen into the ovule. Once the pollen and ovule come together fertilization occurs and the ovules become seeds.

When this occurs on the same plant it is called self-pollination. When this process occurs between two different plants it is called cross-pollination.

Adaptations

Both plants and insects have evolved adaptations that aid in pollination. For plants the goal (of course) is pollination; for insects the goal is usually food (nectar or pollen) related. Let's check out some of these plant and insect adaptations.

Plant Adaptations

Some plants are colored in such a way to lead the insect into the right areas to optimize pollination. For example, the Painted Daisy has a red and yellow pattern that attracts butterflies, which is a bull's eye for the butterfly, directing it where to go. You'll notice the shape of the flower provides ample area for the butterfly to land.

The Painted Daisy attracts butterflies with the red and yellow pattern
painted daisy

You may look at a flower and not notice anything special, but insects see the world differently than you do. For example, the Black-Eyed Susan is an unremarkable yellow and black flower to humans, but it shows a bee exactly where it needs to land. Many insects can see in the ultraviolet range, and many flowers look completely different under ultraviolet lights.

Plants have adaptations other than color, too. Some flowers emit a wonderful fragrance to convince insects to visit them. Some, like the Voodoo Lilly, rely on flies, so the odor of this flower is more manure-like than perfume-like.

Of course a big adaptation of plants is offering the insect a reward for visiting. Many flowers produce nectar to feed the insects so they will continue to visit, thus spreading pollen around as they do.

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