Transforming Flowers into Food – Animal Pollinators Populations Essential for Food Production and Much More

By Denice Rackley
Denice Rackley
Denice Rackley
July 1, 2021 Updated: July 1, 2021

Have you ever stopped to think about how much of our food begins as a flower? Most of our fruits, nuts, and vegetables start with a flower. Flowers can’t produce seeds and grow into food without pollination. That means we rely on bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, and bats for much of our food and many other items we use daily. Do you realize that we also depend on pollinators for adding billions of dollars to the global economy?

Hard-working pollinators

According to the Xerces Society, animal pollinators are responsible for assisting more than 85% of the world’s flowering plants, including two-thirds of the world’s crops. Pollinator.org breaks those percentages into numbers stating animal pollinators provide pollination services to over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1200 crops.

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80% of the world’s flowering plant species depend on pollinators, this includes 35% of the worlds crops. (Bill Nino/Unsplash)

Pollinator populations around the world are declining at a concerning pace. The decline will impact natural ecosystems, food security, raw material supplies, and economies. While some plants are pollinated by wind, everything from almonds and apples to pumpkins and watermelon depends on animal pollinators.

Without pollinators, plants wouldn’t produce seeds. Not producing seeds would mean no fruits, vegetables, or nuts since these outside coverings are the plant’s ingenious design to encourage seed distribution. Animals come along, carry, bury or eat the seed pod- fruit, vegetable, nut. The seeds, housed inside the fruit, and vegetable, have hard coverings protecting them and allowing them to pass through the digestive system unharmed. Seeds are dropped in a new location to sprout and thrive. Pollination is also needed for grasses, flowers, and trees to make seeds that will ensure their existence in the future.

Wildlife impacted by pollinators

Without pollinators, wildlife, and livestock would have far less fruit, seeds, and vegetation to eat. Over 25% of all birds and mammals depend on insect pollinators for food. Just think of the wide variety of animals that will suffer if pollinator populations decrease – all the birds and small mammals who eat seeds and insects, all the animals that eat nuts, the thousands of animals who eat fruit from birds and mice to grizzly bears.

Once the animal populations that depend on pollinators for food begin to decline, the impact will be felt through the entire ecosystem. Like throwing a rock into a pond, ripples from that rock are felt and seen across the entire pond, a disturbance in one small part of the ecosystem, impacts every other living thing.

Not only will wildlife suffer with fewer pollinators, we will feel the impact also.

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Bees and butterfly’s are among the chief pollinators in nature. (Denise Rackley)

Our plates and pocketbooks depend on pollinators

Our plates, closets, medicines, and pocketbooks benefit from these hard-working animals. Pollinators contribute to our clothing production, are vital for food production and the economy. About 1/3 of the food we eat is linked to pollinators. The United States grows more than 150 food crops that benefit from or need pollinators. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than half of the world’s diet of fats and oils comes from animal-pollinated plants (canola, sunflower, etc). If we want to talk dollars and cents, each year, pollinators affect $577 billion in global crops, including $235 billion in the United States. Honey bees alone contribute to over 20 billion dollars in agricultural productivity in the United States.

Pollinators directly effect not only crop yields, but quality as well. This is true even with those crops that can be produced without pollinators. Take cotton and flax production, for instance; studies have shown that bees, while not needed for cotton or flax production, increase the quantity and quality of these products. Don’t forget that the natural oils and fats extracted from plants like lavender, peppermint, sunflower, and canola wouldn’t be possible without pollination.

Lumber for building material, the hemp used for ropes, and some medicinal supplies will be in short supply if pollinator populations continue to decline. The natural ingredients in aspirin, painkillers, and other drugs wouldn’t exist without pollinators. Forests of the future need seeds produced from pollination. Just think how many products depend on trees – wood, cardboard, paper…. You thought toilet paper was in short supply with the pandemic? It would be far worse without pollinators.

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Bees dancing around poppies. (Laura Lauch/Unsplash)

Some foods, like almonds, cannot grow without pollinators. California is responsible for almost all of the almond production and honey bees are big business. Almond orchards provide one of the  very first opportunities for honey bees to forage each year.

The USDA states that almond production in California is valued at 7 billion dollars. Pollination of almond orchards requires a massive workforce of 2.4 million honey bee hives. Each healthy hive can have 20,000 to 80,000 bees, says Aaron Lafond of Southpaw Bees and Manufacturing in Lebanon, Oregon, who provides honey bees for almond bloom. Beehives are shipped into the state by the truckload from across the U.S. then are disbursed more widely to pollinate other nut and fruit orchards and thousands of acres of vegetables. All this produce destined for our table wouldn’t arrive without the work of pollinators.

Pollinators contribute to full grocery store shelves

When was the last time you looked around the grocery store recognizing that one third of the shelves would be empty without pollinators? I know what you’re thinking, “No big deal, I could live without a few nuts, fruits, and vegetables.” Hold on. Did you know that coffee and chocolate require pollinators?”

Yep, coffee and cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) have flowers. Once pollinated, these flowers form the bean, which is really a seedpod. The seeds are processed into the products you find on the grocery store shelf.

Without pollinators, there would be NO coffee or chocolate… the horror. Now that I have your attention let me tell you that pollinator populations are in serious trouble. Without our help, many pollinator species will go extinct.

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Coffee, tea, and fruits all depend on pollinators. (Etty Fidele/Unsplash)

Pollinator populations declining

Pollinator populations worldwide have been shrinking for years and now many species are at a critically low level placing agricultural productivity and entire ecosystems at risk. In the U.S. alone, beekeepers are losing 30% of their honey bees each year.

Native pollinators are also in trouble. According to the Xerces Society, at least 28% of North American’s bumble bee species populations are declining. “In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee, which has disappeared from 87% of its historical range, became the first bumble bee listed as an endangered species.”

Bees aren’t the only pollinators in trouble. Butterfly populations are also experiencing significant declines, with 19% of butterfly species at risk for extinction. Monarch butterflies, which were once common across the entire U.S., have experienced a 75% to 85% population decline in population. A 2016 study in Germany showed a more than 75 percent decline in flying insect biomass over a 27 year period.

Factors impacting pollinator populations

Disease, pesticide use, and habitat loss are the major factors contributing to the pollinator populations decline. Bees and butterflies can travel surprisingly long distances for a meal, but these long flights for a meal have negative impacts.

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It’s no secret that the majority of our fruits are pollinated by bees, insects and birds, we have to protect pollinators to ensure the food supply. (Denice Rackley)

Honey bees to forage as far as five, or even seven miles from their hive, but they prefer to stay within two to four miles. Every second honey bees flap their wings 200 times, and they can travel at 15 miles an hour, but the longer flights reduce the amount of food they can bring back to the hive each day. Without the food, bees can’t feed or care for their young. Hives that lack good nutrition are more susceptible to disease.

Butterflies typically sip nectar from a wide variety of flowers. Interestingly, it is the length of a butterfly’s tongue that determines which flowers can provide food. Caterpillars are much more selective, only feeding on specific plants. Monarch caterpillars feed on the leaves from only milkweed plants (Asclepias). Adults lay eggs specifically on these plants so that the caterpillar has their breakfast, lunch, and supper waiting for them.

Adult butterflies only live for days to months. The short life span means it’s imperative for butterflies to mate quickly then lay eggs on an appropriate feed sources that will hatch into a larval stage or caterpillar. After eating 2000 times their weight in food, caterpillars transform in the pupa stage or chrysalis then become an adult. Without the species-specific host plants available butterflies will become extinct.

How can we assist pollinator populations?

Every person can contribute to the health and wellbeing of pollinators. Eliminate or reduce pesticide and herbicide use, incorporate species of native flowering trees, shrubs, and flowers in your landscaping, supply a shallow water source, and plant a pollinator garden to help stabilize and support pollinator populations.

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Entire ecosystems depend on the hard work of animal pollinators to sustain them. The forests, plants, and animals depend on pollination to produce seeds and fruit. We need pollinator populations to thrive to enjoy the wide variety of healthy food, the extensive array of products pollinators provide, and the billions of dollars invested into the global economy they make possible. But the impact of pollinators doesn’t stop with just crops, food, and money.

Let’s not forget we need trees and plants to clean the air we breathe and the water we drink. Without pollinators providing the seeds to grow the forests and plants of tomorrow, all life on the entire planet would be in danger.

If you think about it, we depend on pollinators for each breath. Planting a few flowers and not using insecticides seems like a very small price to pay.
June 21 – 27 is Pollinator Week. There is no better time to add some color to your garden while also providing food for those pollinators who supply so much for us.

Denice Rackley
Denice Rackley