Photograph of a bee pollinating a cranesbill

Pollinators

Photograph of a bumblebee on a scabius flower
(c) Rosalyn Wade

It’s easy to think of ways animals need plants. We need them for food and shelter, and they provide us with oxygen to breathe. But plants need animals too, and one way they need animals in for pollination. What is pollination? How does it work? Why is it important? Find out in this week’s Nature Classroom.

These activities support learning in the following areas:

Photograph of a bee pollinating a cranesbill
(c) Rosalyn Wade

Identify that most living things live in habitats to which they are suited and describe how different habitats provide for the basic need of different kinds of animals and plants, and how they depend on each other

Explore the part that flowers play in the life cycle of flowering plants, including pollination, seed formation and seed dispersal

Identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution.

What is pollination?

Photograph of a flower labelled with the petals, stamens and stigma

Have you ever really looked at a flower and seen how many different bits it has? There are lots of different types and shapes of flowers, but usually they have a set of colourful petals, in the middle of which is a set of structures called the stamens that are covered in pollen at the ends, and a central stigma waiting to receive pollen from other flowers. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the anthers of one plant to the stigma of another so it can make seeds.

Some plants, like grasses, are pollinated by the wind – the pollen grains are very small and moved between plants on the breeze. But other plants use animals to move pollen around.

Photograph of a moth feeding

Task: Play our Pollinator Quiz: which of these animals are pollinators?

Image (c) Matt Lowe

Think of a pollinator: what comes to mind? Was it a bee? There are actually lots of animals that pollinate plants. Here are some examples, but one of these animals is not a pollinator. Which is it? Download the quiz sheet for the answers.

Bees Bees Bees

With their taste for nectar and pollen, bees are important pollinators. Did you know there are over 270 species of bee alive in the UK? You may be familiar with the honeybees that live in large colonies with a single queen laying all the eggs, and the fluffy bumblebees with smaller colonies, but what about solitary bees? Join bee expert Dr Lynn Dicks for a live Q&A on Thursday 17 September (and available here afterwards) as she introduces you to the Ivy Bee, a new arrival to the UK that feeds from ivy flowers:

And about those bumblebees – join our Curator of Insects Dr Ed Turner as he introduces you to some early morning bumblebees here:

Have you been inspired by these wonderful creatures? Why not have a go at making a pom pom bumblebee – we have instructions here.

And you can find out about some of the amazing solitary bees you might see on our World Bee Day post.

How do plants attract pollinators?

The flowers produce a sugary liquid called nectar. This is high in energy, and makes an important part of the diet for lots of animals. The pollinators visit the flowers to get the nectar, but as they feed, pollen attaches to them and travels with them to the next flower, where it is transferred to the stigma.

Photograph of mimulus flower in visible light and under ultraviolet light
Photograph of a mimulus flower in visible light (left) and under ultraviolet light (right) as would be seen by bees. A clear marking directing the bees to the nectar can be seen in ultraviolet light. Image credit: Plantsurfer CC BY-SA3.0

We love flowers for their colours and scents, and so do pollinators. These features say to passing bees, butterflies or other pollinators: come and visit me, I have lots of tasty nectar. Some go even further, with markings on the petals making it really clear where the food is. These are called nectar guides. We might not always be able to see the nectar guides ourselves. They are sometimes only visible in ultraviolet light – which can be seen by insects such as bees – as is the case with the mimulus flower above.

Photograph of a white anemone

Task: Design your own flower

Download our Flower Design sheet:

Design a Flower sheet

What colour will you make the petals? What shape will the flower be? How will you make sure the pollen gets transferred to your pollinator? In nature, these features would evolve over many many generations of plants. You can find out more about evolution in our Exploring Evolution through Colour post.

Support the pollinators in your green space

Pollinators are essential for our ecosystems to work. Without them the plants that form the base of so many food chains would not be there. They are also essential for the production of our food. We don’t want just one type of pollinator either. You can see from the activities above that there are flowers that are adapted to particular animals pollinating them, so we want a diversity of pollinators if we want to have a diversity of plants. So what can you do to support your local pollinators?

You could create an insect hotel to provide places for solitary bees and other insects to live and lay their eggs. You can find out how to make an insect hotel in our Warm Welcome to Minibeasts post.

If you have a garden, make sure there are the right plants there for your pollinators. You want some flowers with nectar available all year round. Have flowers that bloom in the daytime for bees and butterflies, and flowers that bloom at night to support moths. And think about the plants that the caterpillars or larvae of these insects might need. We have a whole post on gardening for butterflies with loads of top tips on supporting these beautiful pollinators in your green spaces.

Butterfly feeding on sedum
(c) Rosalyn Wade

And you can help collect data on pollinators so that scientists can work out how well they are doing and develop strategies to help them. The Big Butterfly Count that takes place every summer is a great place to start, or you could set up an iRecord account and add your sightings to this online database – remember to add a photograph so your sightings can be verified by an expert. We have a post about Citizen Science with more ideas on how you can help record wildlife.

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