By Kate Moore
It seems as though the warm weather is finally here to stay in Vancouver as we move into the spring season. While attempting to work-from-home, outside in the backyard I noticed so many insects buzzing around the new spring blooms.
I have personally always been fascinated with pollination. It plays such a critical part in our lives, yet we sometimes take it for granted. Most of our food system relies on pollination! This week, as part of our Backyard Species blog series, we will explore the amazing groups of insects that contribute to the vital process of pollination. Be sure to also check out our previous blogs in the series on common birds and trees found in the Lower Mainland.
Before we jump in, what is pollination?
Pollination is when a pollen grain moves from the male part of a flower to the female part of the plant, resulting in fertilization. It is the first step in the process of producing seeds, fruits, and the next generation of plants. Almost 90% of flowering plants need pollinators to reproduce!1
Why is pollination so important?
- Pollinators provide services to over 180,000 different plant species, including 1,200 crops2
- 1 in every 3 bites of food that you eat is thanks to pollinators2
- Pollinators are responsible for ½ of the world’s oils, fibres, and raw materials2
- Pollinators provide many ecosystem services, including increasing biodiversity and carbon sequestration
So, who are the pollinators?
Although birds, bats, and some small mammals also pollinate flowering plants, insect pollinators do the bulk of the pollination that affects our daily lives. Since insects can be incredibly hard to identify, we will not go through each and every species, but rather learn which groups of insects are pollinators.
There are more than 450 species of bees in BC, which makes species identification extremely challenging.1 Some different types of bees include bumble bees, honey bees, mining bees, and sweat bees. Female bees are the most important pollinators to our region, as they collect pollen and nectar to feed their offspring. Many bees, including honey bees, are experiencing rapid decline in population due to environmental stresses like climate change, habitat loss, and pesticide use.
Fun fact: Bees dance! The bee dance is called the “Waggle Dance”. The bees use this dance to tell other bees about the best pollen spots. They indicate direction by moving their body relative to the hive and the sun. They indicate distance from the hive by shortening or lengthening the duration of their dance.
Wasps have gotten a bad reputation for being aggressive, and there is a misconception that they do not contribute to pollination. In fact, wasps play an important role in managing pests on plants, and because they travel between plants, they also have a minor (yet crucial) role in pollination!
Fun Fact: Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed upon by a wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic larvae3
3. Butterflies and Moths
As butterflies and moths probe for nectar from flowering plants for food, they incidentally also carry pollen from one plant to another. Much like bees, many species of butterflies are experiencing declines in population size, including the iconic migratory monarch butterfly.
Fun Fact: A monarch butterfly’s distinctive colours warn predators that it is poisonous. The poison come from their diet, milkweed, which is toxic but monarchs have evolved to tolerate it and store the toxins in their bodies4
Flies are one of the most diverse groups of insects, with over 85,000 species worldwide!5 Although generally considered as pests, many species visit flowers to feed or lay eggs.
Fun Fact: Flies are actually important pollinators to crops like apples, avocadoes, mangoes, and cashews!
Beetles are the most diverse group of organisms in terrestrial ecosystems. They are believed to be some of the first ever insect pollinators from the Jurassic era and still pollinate flowers like magnolias and water lilies.
Fun Fact: It is thought that there are over 12 million species of beetle, with a majority that have yet to be discovered.6
Things you can do (from your home) to help pollinators:
- Where possible, buy organic and local produce to avoid insecticides
- Leave leaf litter, stems, and twigs in your yard to help insect nesting
- Leave puddles and shallow water for insects to drink
- Plant a native pollinator garden in your backyard or in pots on your balcony
- Make a homemade bee hotel
- Join the citizen science project Butterflies in My Backyard (BIMBY) project on iNaturalist