Why Are Pollinators Important? Like Bees And Butterflies

Pollinators are incredibly important to biodiversity, agriculture, and our global food supply.

Pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and other insects play an essential role in plant reproduction and food production worldwide. But why exactly are they so significant? This article will examine the importance of pollinators, threats to their survival, and why protecting pollinator health needs to be a priority.

What Is Pollination And Who Are The Pollinators?

Pollination occurs when pollen grains are transferred between two flowers of the same species, allowing fertilization and reproduction. This process results in the production of fruits, seeds, and new plants. There are two main types of pollination:

Self-pollination occurs within a single flower, while cross-pollination happens between different flowers of the same plant species. Cross-pollination leads to greater genetic diversity and is dependent on external pollinators.

Pollinators are living organisms that enable cross-pollination. Major pollinator groups include:

  • Bees – Honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees. Bees are the most prolific pollinators globally. There are over 20,000 known species that pollinate flowering plants.
  • Butterflies & Moths – Many butterfly and moth species pollinate plants as they drink nectar. Some pollinate orchids and night-blooming flowers.
  • Birds – Hummingbirds, sunbirds. Hummingbirds specialize in pollinating bright tubular flowers adapted to their long beaks.
  • Bats – Bats pollinate mangoes, bananas, agaves, and hundreds more as they drink nectar and carry pollen.
  • Beetles – Beetles are ancient pollinators of early flowering plants like magnolias and sweetshrubs.
  • Wasps – Wasps contribute to pollination as they consume nectar and pollen. Fig wasps exclusively pollinate figs.
  • Flies – Flies like hoverflies accidentally transport pollen between plants as they drink nectar.

Bees are the most prolific pollinators globally. There are over 20,000 known species of bees that pollinate flowering plants. Beyond the European honeybee, there are thousands of wild native bee species like the bumblebee that contribute enormously to food production.

Why Are Pollinators So Important For Food?

Pollinators have an enormous impact on agriculture and the food we eat. Approximately 35% of global food crop production depends on animal pollination for fruit, vegetable, and seed production. Without pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and other insects, we would lose many of the fruits, nuts, vegetables, and plants that provide nutrients and variety to the human diet.

Pollinators directly enable the production of nutrient-rich foods that we rely on like almonds, blueberries, apples, cacao, coffee, squash, and avocados. Honey bees alone pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the US annually including valuable almond, cherry, apple, and blueberry harvests. On average, bee pollination can increase yields of crops like almonds by 30%, blueberries by 50%, and cherries by 20%. Furthermore, many crops that don’t require biotic pollination, like corn, wheat, and rice, still benefit indirectly from pollinators facilitating genetic diversity. Bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and other tiny pollinators play a vital role in agriculture, food security, and human health.

Which Crops Are The Most Dependent On Pollinators?

Many of our favorite fruits, nuts, and vegetables would disappear without the essential work of pollinators. Crops that are most dependent on insect or animal pollination include delicious and nutritious foods like almonds, blueberries, cherries, apples, avocados, and cacao. Almonds, for example, rely on honey bees to pollinate 80% of blossoms, enabling the multi-billion dollar Californian almond industry. Blueberry yields can be up to 50% lower without adequate bee pollination.

Apples are almost 100% dependent on pollinators – bees improve their quality, size, taste, shelf life, and commercial viability. Avocado crops rely on managed beehives during bloom season or else yield can drop by 80%. And delicate flowers of cacao trees, which produce cocoa beans, require midges, stingless bees, and other small pollinators for viable reproduction. Many key dietary sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants simply wouldn’t exist without the essential reproductive work of bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, and other animal pollinators.

Bees Are The Most Significant Pollinators

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) contributes the most economically to global agriculture as a managed livestock species. Honey bees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops annually in the US, including valuable nut and fruit harvests.

Beyond contributing direct economic value, honey bees improve yields substantially for over 90 different crop species. On average they can increase yields by:

  • Almonds – 30%
  • Blueberries – 57%
  • Cherries – 20%
  • Avocados – 60%

No other single species comes close to honey bees for commercial crop pollination. A healthy honey bee population is vital for sustaining agricultural productivity.

However, honey bees are not impervious. Colony collapse disorder and other threats have led to a 59% decline in US honey bee colonies since the 1940s. Diversifying pollinator populations beyond European honey bees can increase resilience.

Native Pollinators Also Play A Significant Role

There are over 4,000 species of bees native to North America alone that contribute to pollination. Beyond honey bees, here are some other significant native pollinators:

Bumblebees – Large, hairy bees that buzz and pollinate tomatoes and peppers. Common eastern bumblebee populations have declined by over 90% since the 1990s.

Squash & Gourd Bees – Specialist species that coevolved with cucurbits like squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and gourds. Their buzz pollination vibrates pollen from flowers.

Mason Bees – Forage earlier in the year than honey bees, important for fruit trees. One mason bee can pollinate about 100 apple trees.

Butterflies & Moths – Pollinate many wildflowers, orchids, and food crops. Their long proboscis can reach nectar in deep flowers.

Focusing conservation efforts solely on honey bees puts America’s food supply at risk. Protecting habitat for diverse native bee species is also critical.

Pollinators And Biodiversity

The ecological services of pollinators extend far beyond agriculture. Animal pollination is vital for maintaining biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

  • Over 85% of the world’s flowering plant species rely on pollinating animals. Without pollinators, many plant species would go extinct.
  • Approximately 1,000 plant species are pollinated by bats, including critical crops like agave, bananas, and mangoes.
  • Hummingbirds specialize in pollinating vibrant tubed flowers adapted to their long slender beaks and hover-feeding.
  • Beetles are ancient pollinators of early flowering plants like magnolias, sweetshrubs, and wild ginger.
  • Extinction of pollinator species can cause co-extinctions of the specialized plants they fertilize.

As pollinator populations decline, the abundance and diversity of wild plants also diminish. This threatens food and habitat for numerous animals up the food chain. Conserving pollinators is key for environmental health at large.

What Threats Do Pollinators Face Today?

Unfortunately, pollinator populations around the world are under serious threat from multiple factors including pesticides, habitat loss, invasive species, pathogens, and climate change. Widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides has been implicated in harming bee navigation, reproduction, immunity, and increasing mortality. Urban development and monoculture farming have removed the flowering plants and undisturbed nesting sites many pollinators rely on for forage and shelter.

Managed European honey bees also face threats from tracheal and Varroa mites, viruses, and colony collapse disorder, while habitat loss and pesticides ravage native bumblebees and monarch butterflies. Climate change brings extreme weather, heat stress, and disrupted seasonal cycles that jeopardize pollinator-plant synchrony. These combined stressors have already decimated western honey bee hives and endangered native bumblebees and butterflies. Addressing threats through habitat conservation, reducing pesticide usage, improving beekeeping practices, and climate change mitigation is urgently needed to protect pollinators for the future.CopyRetry

Conclusion: Pollinators Must Be Protected

Pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, bats, beetles, and other wild insects provide an invaluable ecosystem service that maintains our food supply and biodiversity. Up to 35% of global food production relies directly on pollinators for nut, fruit, and vegetable reproduction. Bees alone pollinate $15 billion worth of US crops each year, improving yields substantially for almonds, berries, apples, and more.

Yet pesticides, parasites, habitat loss, climate change and other stressors have already decimated managed honey bee colonies and endangered bumblebees, monarch butterflies, and other important native pollinators.

Safeguarding pollinators needs to be made an urgent agricultural and environmental priority worldwide. Their survival and well-being underpin human nutrition and livelihoods. With coordinated efforts to improve habitat, reduce chemical exposures, and address climate change, pollinator health can be restored over time


  • Faris

    I am the author and owner of insectswildlife.com, a website where I share my deep passion and extensive knowledge about the fascinating world of insects. As a dedicated entomologist and naturalist, I bring years of hands-on experience studying and observing a diverse array of species, from butterflies and deer flies to cockroaches and beyond. Through this platform, I aim to educate, inspire, and dispel common misconceptions about the vital roles insects play in ecosystems. In addition to curating informative and engaging content for the website, I actively contribute to entomological research and conservation efforts, driven by my lifelong fascination with the remarkable insects that inhabit our world.

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