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From the familiar potted plant, to row crops, to rare tropical fauna, every seed-producing botanical species relies on pollination to sustain its existence.
Pollination: the mechanism that lends power to plants
For the unfortunate allergy sufferer, pollen can be an ugly word and an unwelcome nuisance. But these tiny grains of genetic material can be found in many different forms, upholding an important ecological purpose. Over millions of years, vegetation has used different pollination processes and pollinators in order to thrive.
A game of chance and certainty
The process of pollination is one part persuasion and one part luck. As animals, insects and even wind move about a habitat, they carry and transmit pollen in their own distinct ways. When the conditions are right, these tiny capsules are unknowingly transported from one flower to another. “Effective” pollinators generally visit many different flowers within the same species, improving the odds of the plant producing offspring. On the other hand, “Ineffective” pollinators can free the pollen, but don’t necessarily deliver it to the ‘correct’ flower.
Every method of pollination—intended or incidental, effective and ineffective—triggers plants to produce seeds. Over centuries, humanity has enjoyed the literal fruits of this process. Our food is the direct product of many different pollination processes.
Varieties of pollination
In its most fundamental form, pollination is an exchange between a plant's male and female reproductive organs, respectively known as the anther and stigma. This fertilization process is often aided by natural phenomena, manual labor and more than 3,000 species of pollinators.
Pollinators span nearly every level of the animal kingdom
Pollination in the Wild
Honey bees are arguably the world's most famous pollinators—the primary contributors to pollinating our food supply. But other insects, small mammals, and even reptiles help transport pollen, too. Around the world, up to $577 billion worth of annual agricultural production relies on the contributions of various pollinators.
Invisible gusts of air can carry pollen great distances—no insect or animal required. Some of the most widely grown commercial crops are pollinated by wind. Wheat, rice, corn, oats and other plants forgo expending energy on attracting pollinators and simply release and capture pollen as it moves through the air.
For the more independent varieties, fertilization can occur without outside influence. A quality found in peanuts, self-pollination has many advantages. Provided these crops are grown in a suitable environment, they generally consume less energy, produce consistent harvests and avoid dependence on external pollinators.
Pollinating By Hand
For the small greenhouse, manual pollination with a paint brush or a cotton swab is also fruitful. Tomatoes, squash and other cucurbits are often the best candidates for this method, because they benefit from meticulous cross pollination. Such a thoughtful form of human intervention can help grow new, more resilient varieties of produce.
Fruit bats are often considered an unlikely partner in plant fertilization, but guava, mangoes and bananas all benefit from their nightly pursuit of food. Bats’ wings provide a useful vector for the pollen, depositing grains through their air and directly onto the plants as they make the rounds.
Mysterious Primate Pollination
Given that primates live in tropical environments and consume large amounts of fruit, some researchers theorize that apes might also have a significant impact on pollination. Although this research remains in the early stages, primate-flower pollination may uncover an entirely new dimension of this species.
Diversity is key
Like all life forms, plants have an instinct to pass on their genes. To fulfill this drive and avoid the perils of inbreeding, most plants pollinate with a diverse array of flowers. Although uniformity is desired in some cases, crops without genetic diversity can become more vulnerable to disease, pests and environmental pressures. To overcome this challenge, crop scientists are exploring the possibilities of genetics, developing and using software to sequence plant DNA and uncover more about the inner workings of the plant world.
A clever adaptation
Over millennia, plants have continuously evolved to encourage productive pollinator partnerships. Flowers use brightly colored or intricately designed petals to attract flying insects, such as bees. Plants are also known to use alluring, sweet aromas to captivate desired pollinators.
The ecosystem in balance
The pollination process is a testament to the importance of biodiversity—a clear demonstration that every organism, insect and animal plays a role in a harmonious ecosystem. That’s why crop scientists are designing digital tools and technologies that help farmers make the most efficient use of natural resources in order to help minimize and even reverse agriculture’s impact on local habitats. One such development is HabiTally, a mobile app developed by The Climate Corporation and donated fully to Iowa State University, which helps farmers voluntarily identify conservation opportunities in their unique fields. By re-allocating underperforming areas of a farmer’s field to create local habitat, farmers are reducing and even reversing our environmental impact. It’s through this sort of innovative and interdisciplinary thinking that agriculture will continue to pioneer new opportunities for us all to care for and thrive with the Earth.