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Buzz on This: Pollinators Crucial To Our Food Supply

“Pollinator” is a big buzz word these days. You might hear about pollinators in the news or see a sign in your neighbor’s yard dedicating a garden to the pollinators.

The Forest Preserve has lots of programs and events all about pollinators. But what are they? And why are they important?

What is pollen?

Pollen is a fine powder, kind of like Cheetos dust. It is made by plants that have flowers or cones. In conifers, like pines or cedars, it is found in pollen cones. In flowering plants, pollen is produced in flowers. Can you think of any flowering plants?

Pollen is the stuff that causes plants to form seeds and reproduce new plants. Imagine the world without pollen — most of our plants wouldn’t exist.

Usually pollen is yellow, but not always. Spring beauties — a local small white flower with pink stripes — has pink pollen! It can also be orange or red or purple.

What is a pollinator?

A pollinator is anything that helps carry pollen from the male part of a flower (stamen) to the female part of a flower (pistil). This transfer can happen in the same flower or between two different flowers. Either way, this transfer must happen to fertilize the plant. Once fertilized, it can make fruits, seeds and then new young plants.


Words to know

Erosion: The gradual destruction or wearing away of something.

Fertilize: To cause to develop a new individual by introducing male reproductive material.

Nutrient: A substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and maintenance of life.


Some plants do this work themselves. We call that self-pollination. Wheat and oats are usually self-pollinators.

An illustration of cross-pollination.
An illustration of how cross-pollination occurs. (Illustration via Shutterstock)

Cross-pollination happens when pollen from one plant is carried to another plant of the same species. Some plants rely on wind or water to carry pollen. Wind helps corn, oaks and cattails pollinate. Other flowers are pollinated by animals: insects and small mammals like bats, birds and even sometimes reptiles.

Bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, beetles, flies, hummingbirds, bats and more visit flowers looking for food, water, shelter, building materials or mates.

Some pollinators seek out pollen. It’s food for bees, packed full of protein and other nutrients. It is especially important to help young bees (larvae) grow. Honeybees even have a pollen basket on their thighs to collect it. Mason bees and leafcutter bees collect pollen with the hairs on their abdomens. When they visit new flowers, they leave some of the pollen from the first flower on the new flower. That’s pollination!

Other pollinators move pollen accidentally. Hummingbirds or bats or insects might be looking to slurp down delicious nectar. While there, they pick up pollen on their body and carry it to the next flower.

Remember the Cheetos? Think about when you open a delicious bag, stick your fingers in and grab that bright orange treat to eat. While eating, that dust gets all over your fingers. Then you touch your tablet or a doorknob, transferring Cheetos dust to the new surface. The bag is the flower. The Cheeto is nectar. The Cheetos dust is the pollen. Can you see how pollen gets everywhere?

Why are pollinators important?

The simple truth is that we couldn’t live without pollinators. Almost all flowering plants need pollinators. They service more than 18,000 plants, including more than 1,200 crops.

About one out of every three bites that we eat are a direct result of pollinators. They bring us countless fruits, vegetables and nuts. Do you like watermelons, raspberries, cucumbers or squash? Thank you, pollinators! Plus half the world’s oils (such as canola oil), fibers (including cotton) and other raw materials (like alfalfa to feed livestock) exist because of pollinators.

Turns out they are so important to the environment and the world around us. Because of all the plants they support, pollinators prevent soil erosion. They also keep carbon in the environment instead of releasing it into the air. They provide habitat and ecosystems to countless species.

Celebrate pollinators at Isle a la Cache’s Pollinator Party on June 24. There will be games and activities for the whole family!


Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.


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