Bug­man’s guide to com­mon pol­li­na­tors

Kapiti Observer - - WHAT’S ON - RUUD KLEINPASTE

The ba­sic prin­ci­ples of pol­li­na­tion are eas­ily un­der­stood: grab some pollen grains from the male parts of a flower (the an­ther) and some­how de­posit those on the top of the fe­male re­pro­duc­tive cen­tre (the stigma). Once a pollen grain sticks to the stigma it pro­duces a long pollen tube down the length of the style un­til it reaches the fe­male ga­me­to­phytes, where fer­til­i­sa­tion takes place.

You can make the story as com­pli­cated as you like, but the up­shot of this sys­tem is that fer­til­i­sa­tion of flow­ers re­sults in ge­net­i­cally di­verse off­spring, mean­ing there will be vari­abil­i­ties in the plants that emerge from the seeds.

Pol­li­na­tion, then, is the way in which the pollen grains are de­liv­ered to the stigma and style. About 20 per cent of plants rely on wind and water to do that job and some 80 per cent of all plant species sim­ply grab the ser­vices of a pol­li­na­tor from the an­i­mal king­dom. We’re talk­ing birds and lizards, small pri­mates, ro­dents, bats and a whole line-up of bugs. And, as you guessed, it’s the in­ver­te­brates (es­pe­cially in­sects) that re­ally do a stand-out job here.

To at­tract the right kind of pol­li­na­tor, a plant has to have one or more tricks in its ar­se­nal. A colour which in­sects can see is handy. Blue or white (and all the shades in be­tween) are the best, as in­sects’ eyes ap­pear to be pretty poor at de­tect­ing the or­ange and red spec­tral ranges.

A good smell plays right into the an­ten­nae too. Th­ese long feel­ers are very sen­si­tive or­gans that can de­tect a few mol­e­cules of the right chem­i­cal and then ex­cite and guide the owner.

A nicely shaped flower can be at­trac­tive to an in­sect: there are fab­u­lous ex­am­ples of bee orchid flow­ers look­ing like a fe­male bee, which could be mounted by an alert male bee… Sorry mate!

And then there is the re­ward for the pol­li­na­tor – quick sus­te­nance, a de­cent dose of fruc­tose (en­ergy) and a sweet nec­tar that forms a build­ing block for mak­ing honey.

Of course, the pollen is chock­full of pro­tein that is use­ful for grow­ing new in­sect bod­ies. Some pol­li­na­tors are re­ally only in­ter­ested in pollen to stock the nurs­ery for their lar­vae to eat.

The hon­ey­bee ( Apis mel­lif­era) is by far the world’s most im­por­tant pol­li­na­tor of hu­man food crops – about one-third of our food has had some in­put from th­ese in­sects. Their amaz­ing work in­volves not just col­lect­ing and dis­tribut­ing pollen, but also turn­ing nec­tar into nu­tri­tious and medic­i­nal honey.

Why is honey so good for us and how do th­ese clever bees pro- duce this mir­a­cle ma­te­rial? In this case the honours must go to the plants, dear gar­dener. Nec­tar is the ‘‘re­ward’’ plants make for the pol­li­na­tor’s ser­vices. Imag­ine what would hap­pen if a pol­li­na­tor finds its re­ward spoilt, smelling of fun­gal rot and crawl­ing with germy slime? I reckon the bee (and other pol­li­na­tors for that mat­ter) would soon give the in­com­pe­tent plant species a wide berth. This, of course, jeop­ar­dises the plant’s long-term fu­ture on this planet. To pre­vent the nec­tar from spoil­ing, plants cram it full of an­tibac­te­rial, anti-fun­gal and anti-mi­cro­bial sub­stances to keep it in fab­u­lous con­di­tion. All the bee has to do is gather it and turn it into honey. Shows you the im­por­tance of us­ing top-notch in­gre­di­ents!


The Great Kiwi Bee Count is like a dig­i­tal cen­sus for bees, and the trends it re­veals will help us learn more about howthey are do­ing. It’s easy to do, it takes just two min­utes, and you’ll learn a lot about bees and other pol­li­na­tors. Take your smart phone or tablet out­side, find a flow­er­ing plant to ob­serve and go to stuff.co.nz/greatki­wibeecount and fol­lowthe sim­ple in­struc­tions.


Small gar­den bum­ble­bee, Bom­bus hor­to­rum

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