Methods of Pollination

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify several common methods of pollination

Pollination by Insects

 Photo depicts a bee covered in dusty yellow pollen.

Figure 1. Insects, such as bees, are important agents of pollination. (credit: modification of work by Jon Sullivan)

Bees are perhaps the most important pollinator of many garden plants and most commercial fruit trees (Figure 1). The most common species of bees are bumblebees and honeybees. Since bees cannot see the color red, bee-pollinated flowers usually have shades of blue, yellow, or other colors. Bees collect energy-rich pollen or nectar for their survival and energy needs. They visit flowers that are open during the day, are brightly colored, have a strong aroma or scent, and have a tubular shape, typically with the presence of a nectar guide. A nectar guide includes regions on the flower petals that are visible only to bees, and not to humans; it helps to guide bees to the center of the flower, thus making the pollination process more efficient. The pollen sticks to the bees’ fuzzy hair, and when the bee visits another flower, some of the pollen is transferred to the second flower. Recently, there have been many reports about the declining population of honeybees. Many flowers will remain unpollinated and not bear seed if honeybees disappear. The impact on commercial fruit growers could be devastating.

Many flies are attracted to flowers that have a decaying smell or an odor of rotting flesh. These flowers, which produce nectar, usually have dull colors, such as brown or purple. They are found on the corpse flower or voodoo lily (Amorphophallus), dragon arum (Dracunculus), and carrion flower (Stapleia, Rafflesia). The nectar provides energy, whereas the pollen provides protein. Wasps are also important insect pollinators, and pollinate many species of figs.

 Photo depicts a gray moth drinking nectar from a white flower.

Figure 2. A corn earworm sips nectar from a night-blooming Gaura plant. (credit: Juan Lopez, USDA ARS)

Butterflies, such as the monarch, pollinate many garden flowers and wildflowers, which usually occur in clusters. These flowers are brightly colored, have a strong fragrance, are open during the day, and have nectar guides to make access to nectar easier. The pollen is picked up and carried on the butterfly’s limbs. Moths, on the other hand, pollinate flowers during the late afternoon and night. The flowers pollinated by moths are pale or white and are flat, enabling the moths to land. One well-studied example of a moth-pollinated plant is the yucca plant, which is pollinated by the yucca moth. The shape of the flower and moth have adapted in such a way as to allow successful pollination. The moth deposits pollen on the sticky stigma for fertilization to occur later. The female moth also deposits eggs into the ovary. As the eggs develop into larvae, they obtain food from the flower and developing seeds. Thus, both the insect and flower benefit from each other in this symbiotic relationship. The corn earworm moth and Gaura plant have a similar relationship (Figure 2).

Pollination by Bats

In the tropics and deserts, bats are often the pollinators of nocturnal flowers such as agave, guava, and morning glory. The flowers are usually large and white or pale-colored; thus, they can be distinguished from the dark surroundings at night. The flowers have a strong, fruity, or musky fragrance and produce large amounts of nectar. They are naturally large and wide-mouthed to accommodate the head of the bat. As the bats seek the nectar, their faces and heads become covered with pollen, which is then transferred to the next flower.

Pollination by Birds

Photo depicts a hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower.

Figure 3. Hummingbirds have adaptations that allow them to reach the nectar of certain tubular flowers. (credit: Lori Branham)

Many species of small birds, such as the hummingbird (Figure 3) and sun birds, are pollinators for plants such as orchids and other wildflowers. Flowers visited by birds are usually sturdy and are oriented in such a way as to allow the birds to stay near the flower without getting their wings entangled in the nearby flowers. The flower typically has a curved, tubular shape, which allows access for the bird’s beak. Brightly colored, odorless flowers that are open during the day are pollinated by birds. As a bird seeks energy-rich nectar, pollen is deposited on the bird’s head and neck and is then transferred to the next flower it visits. Botanists have been known to determine the range of extinct plants by collecting and identifying pollen from 200-year-old bird specimens from the same site.

Pollination by Wind

Photo shows a person knocking a cloud of pollen from a pine tree.

Figure 4. A person knocks pollen from a pine tree.

Most species of conifers, and many angiosperms, such as grasses, maples and oaks, are pollinated by wind. Pine cones are brown and unscented, while the flowers of wind-pollinated angiosperm species are usually green, small, may have small or no petals, and produce large amounts of pollen. Unlike the typical insect-pollinated flowers, flowers adapted to pollination by wind do not produce nectar or scent. In wind-pollinated species, the microsporangia hang out of the flower, and, as the wind blows, the lightweight pollen is carried with it (Figure 4).

The flowers usually emerge early in the spring, before the leaves, so that the leaves do not block the movement of the wind. The pollen is deposited on the exposed feathery stigma of the flower (Figure 5).

 Photo A shows the long, thin flower male of the white willow, which has long, hair-like appendages jutting out all along its length. Photo B shows the female flower from the same plant. The shape is similar, but the hair-like appendages are missing.

Figure 5. These male (a) and female (b) catkins are from the goat willow tree (Salix caprea). Note how both structures are light and feathery to better disperse and catch the wind-blown pollen.

Pollination by Water

Some weeds, such as Australian sea grass and pond weeds, are pollinated by water. The pollen floats on water, and when it comes into contact with the flower, it is deposited inside the flower.

Pollination by Deception

 Photos depict an orchid with a bright yellow center and white petals.

Figure 6. Certain orchids use food deception or sexual deception to attract pollinators. Shown here is a bee orchid (Ophrys apifera). (credit: David Evans)

Orchids are highly valued flowers, with many rare varieties (Figure 6). They grow in a range of specific habitats, mainly in the tropics of Asia, South America, and Central America. At least 25,000 species of orchids have been identified.

Flowers often attract pollinators with food rewards, in the form of nectar. However, some species of orchid are an exception to this standard: they have evolved different ways to attract the desired pollinators. They use a method known as food deception, in which bright colors and perfumes are offered, but no food. Anacamptis morio, commonly known as the green-winged orchid, bears bright purple flowers and emits a strong scent. The bumblebee, its main pollinator, is attracted to the flower because of the strong scent—which usually indicates food for a bee—and in the process, picks up the pollen to be transported to another flower.

Other orchids use sexual deception. Chiloglottis trapeziformis emits a compound that smells the same as the pheromone emitted by a female wasp to attract male wasps. The male wasp is attracted to the scent, lands on the orchid flower, and in the process, transfers pollen. Some orchids, like the Australian hammer orchid, use scent as well as visual trickery in yet another sexual deception strategy to attract wasps. The flower of this orchid mimics the appearance of a female wasp and emits a pheromone. The male wasp tries to mate with what appears to be a female wasp, and in the process, picks up pollen, which it then transfers to the next counterfeit mate.

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