“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work”
Pollen is a powdery substance, produced by male plants, and pollination is simply the transfer of pollen from male to female plants, necessary for new seeds to develop. Because flowers are stationary, pollen needs to be moved, and there are several ways by which this can occur. The commonest way is by insects, and bees are the most important insect in this regard. Insects visit flowers to gather nectar for energy and bees and some other insects such as butterflies, hoverflies, moths and flies also collect pollen, a protein source for young insects.
As the insect forages in the flower, some pollen attaches itself to its body, and this pollen travels on the insect to the next flower, where it inadvertently transfers its pollen to the female flower. A seed consequently develops and this is the beginning of the new plant. Crops such as apples, strawberries among other food crops result from insect pollination. It is estimated that a third of the food that we eat, and three quarters of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollination by animals.
Pollination can also occur by the wind. Plants such as wheat, barley and oats, do not have easily identifiable flowers, and in this situation, the pollen is transported by wind. Some trees, such as pines and spruces have cones instead of flowers and these trees are also pollinated by wind. Finally, in a small number of cases, pollination can occur by water, where the pollen floats on the surface until it comes into contact with a flower. An example of this is the water plant Vallusneria
It is important that we support all our pollinators, both for their own sakes and also for the food which they help to provide. Unfortunately, our pollinating insects have also suffered the decline sustained by Irish biodiversity in general. While we do not have data on all our pollinating insects, we know that half of Ireland’s bee species have undergone substantial declines in numbers since 1980, with 30% of bee species threatened with extinction. A fifth of our hoverflies are considered to be under threat, and 18% of our butterflies are threatened with extinction. 30% of our solitary bees and 6 out of our 21 species of bumble bees are also threatened with extinction. In some parts of the world, due to a decline in insect numbers, pollination is now carried out by hand .
It is therefore important that we do what we can to help our pollinators. Firstly, we must conserve their habitats, and leave wild areas in our gardens and fields free for pollinators to live. We can then collect wildflower seeds, and in addition sow native pollinator friendly plants. We must discontinue our use of pesticides, and monitor areas for pollution.
Finally we can keep an eye out for invasive species, which take up valuable habitat. There is much more valuable information on how to help pollinators in the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan website www.pollinators.ie
And finally, a poem to finish:
From air and soil, from bees and sun
From others toil, my bread is won
And when I bite, the air, the soil,
The bees and light are still all there
So I must think, each day afresh,
How food and drink become my flesh
And then I’ll see, the air and sun
The earth, the bee and me all one
Extract from Sacred Gaia’ by Anna Primavesi.
Article by Elizabeth Cullen, Member of Cairde Bhride