About Pollinators

Girl Scouts of Western Washington:

Welcome to Native Bee Conservancy!

We are pleased that you want to learn more about the Pollinator Condo project at Girl Scout Camp St. Albans. And once you learn a little about the project, we hope you decide to enter the design contest. But first, a little bit about pollinators.

The goal of the project is to build a habitat structure where native pollinators and other beneficial insects will want to live. By providing plenty of good homes for insects, we can assure that flowering plants at the camp will stay healthy and strong for many years to come.

Dandelion seeds. Flickr photo by Chris Willis.

So what is a pollinator? Simply put, a pollinator is any animal that moves pollen from one flower to another. You’ve heard of DNA, right? Well, DNA is a long chain of chemical instructions found in the cells of nearly every living thing. The DNA tells a cell how to reproduce itself, sort of like a recipe. It’s the reason that cats have kittens and dogs have puppies and not the other way around . . . DNA keeps living things from getting all scrambled up.

Pollen is a tiny package of DNA, but it only has half the amount needed to make a seed. For a plant to make a healthy seed, the pollen from the anther of one flower must be moved to the pistil of another flower of the same species. That process is called pollination. Once the pollen and an ovule come together, they unite to form a seed.

Who are the pollinators?

You may be wondering what kind of creature can do the job of pollination. Well, many kinds. You, for example. Let’s say you walk across a field and brush against a daisy. Some of the pollen may stick to your jeans. Maybe you see it and maybe you don’t because pollen grains are very, very small. Later, you may brush against another daisy. If some of the pollen from the first daisy sticks onto the pistil of the second daisy, you have pollinated that plant. Congratulations! You have started the process of making a seed.

Frog moving pollen. Photo by Deepblue.uk.net.

Lots of animals move pollen. Bees, bats, birds, butterflies, beetles, ants, and even frogs can cause pollination to happen. Non-living things can move pollen too, even though we reserve the word “pollinator” for the animals. Non-animal pollination can be accomplished by wind, rain, or gravity–anything that causes the pollen to move from one flower to another.

Pollination by wind, rain, and gravity are haphazard. The wind moves many types of pollen all at once for long distances. It seems almost impossible that the right type of pollen will land on the proper flower. Nature stacks the odds in her favor by producing millions and millions of pollen grains. If you shake the frond of a fern or the catkins of an alder tree at the right time of year, you will see a cloud of pollen float away on the wind.

Plants that depend on animal pollinators have pollen that is often large and heavy by comparison. Because these plants have animal helpers to deliver the pollen to the right place, they don’t need to make so many grains and they don’t have to make them so small. Instead, they make them sticky! The sticky pollen adheres to the bodies of the animals and gets spread around as they go from flower to flower.

Nectar attracts pollinators

Bumble bee on clover. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

But wait a second! What makes animals prefer one type of flower over another? Why don’t they go elsewhere and avoid all that stickiness? That’s a very good question with a complicated answer. But briefly, the flowers compete for the attention of pollinators by making the sweetest, most plentiful nectar they can. You see, the pollinators don’t care about pollinating the flowers. No, not at all. What they really care about is nectar because nectar is their food. By making yummy nectar, plants can trick the animals into pollinating their flowers.

But that’s just one way of attracting pollinators. Plants also have brightly colored flowers with attractive designs on their petals, and they exude delicious aromas. A sweet-smelling colorful flower with lots of rich nectar is a pollinator magnet. And if the pollinator happens to be a bee, the pollen itself is like icing on the cake. Bees collect pollen and bring it home to feed their young, so they are just as eager to collect pollen as nectar. But don’t worry, there is still plenty left over for the plant. Nature has the whole system worked out.

We depend on pollinators for much of our food

Tiny western Washington native bee. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Pollinators are vital to life as we know it. Without them, many of our favorite foods would disappear. Can you imagine a world without carrots, almonds, kiwis, or cherries? Would you miss those special flavors like chocolate and vanilla? Not even basic fibers like cotton and linen would exist without the pollinators that serve them.

Furthermore, without our native pollinators—those that belong right here in Western Washington—many of our unique Northwest plants would disappear forever. Wow, that’s a lot of responsibility for those little guys, some of which are nearly too small to see!

But unfortunately, pollinators are disappearing because so much of the land is being used for cities, roads, houses, and airports. The insects are being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas, and they often can’t find the right food or a proper nesting place.

Pollinators need a place to live

Newly hatched mason bee. Photo by Rusty Burlew.

Providing habitat is one of the best things we can do to help pollinators. Habitat is the natural environment of a plant or animal, a home where they can be comfortable and healthy and have all the things they need. A good habitat provides safety from predators, a source of food and water, shelter from wind and rain, and a cozy place to build a nest.

Because pollinators are so important, the Girl Scouts of Western Washington and the Native Bee Conservancy are working together to build insect habitat at Camp St. Albans in the summer of 2012. We envision a structure adjacent to the butterfly garden that will provide an assortment of nesting sites and building materials for the local pollinators that work the forest and lakeside environments. No pollinators will be brought in. Instead, the local residents will be presented with a choice of awesome housing. In addition, the structure will provide an excellent opportunity for both campers and visitors to learn something about these tiny creatures on which we are so dependent.

I hope we’ve piqued your curiosity! If you are interested in pollinators and want to know more, please consider entering the design contest. Follow these links for more information:

Contest Rules and Information
Your Design: Tips on Designing a Pollinator Condo
Nesting Materials
Examples of Other Pollinator Habitats
Vocabulary: Helpful Terms to Know
A Word About Honey Bees