The vital and valuable process of pollination

Francis Skalicky, Missouri Department of Conservation
A Monarch Butterfly feeds nectar from swamp milkweed flower during a summer month.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

There’s a major flaw about this Albert Einstein quote and that is that Einstein didn’t say it. It’s thought French poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck did and decades later, these words were incorrectly attributed to the famous physicist. However, it doesn’t matter who said this quote or that mankind’s post-bee survival period would probably be a bit longer than 48 months: The overriding point it makes is spot-on and something humans need to remember – bees and other pollinating insects are important. Consequently, having native plants that are vital parts of the life cycles of pollinating insects is equally important.

It’s hard to discuss the benefits of insects without mentioning pollination, a process that’s essential to the life cycles of plants and the insects that pollinate them. If you want to envision the pollination process, imagine eating barbecued ribs that were so sauce-covered that, after finishing the ribs, your messy fingers transferred bits of sauce to the next things you touched. That’s similar to what happens in pollination. As it pushes into a plant to consume nectar and pollen, a pollinating insect picks up pollen and transports these dust-like particles to other plants. Upon receiving pollen, the plant can complete its reproductive cycle and produce flowers, fruits, nuts and whatever else is part of its annual life cycle.

In case you’re wondering how much benefit can be provided by a small pollinating insects, the answer is a lot. A 2010 Cornell University study showed that the pollinating activities of insects contributed $29 billion to the U.S. agricultural economy. Honeybees, alone, accounted for $12.4 billion worth of directly dependent crops. Human food items that benefit from pollinating insects include apples, almonds, blueberries, cherries and oranges.

In order to enjoy the benefits of pollination, we must have plants that are essential to an insect’s pollinating life cycle. A plant that frequently gets associated with pollination is milkweed. “Milkweed” is actually something of an umbrella term for a number of plants in the Asclepias genus. There are a number of species of milkweed: 16 species are native to Missouri. Many people are familiar butterfly weed (sometimes called butterfly milkweed) and its clusters of small orange flowers. Common milkweed, which has pinkish flowers, is another type familiar to many people.

Milkweed gets a lot of publicity in connection with pollination because it’s extremely beneficial to butterflies – particularly monarch butterflies. However, it also attracts other pollinating insects.

Planting milkweed does more than provide an opportunity to see pretty flowers and interesting insects, though. As humans exert more pressure upon the land, this alters or eliminates the natural vegetation that pollinating insects need to survive. The efforts we make to enhance natural existing habitats or create special habitats – even if it’s just a small front-yard butterfly garden – helps ensure that important pollination activities will continue to take place.

And you don’t have to limit your native plantings to milkweed. Other native plants benefit pollinating insects, too. Planting a variety of native flowering plants provides a buffet for pollinating insects.

And this brings us back to the value of pollination. In addition to the financial importance of pollination that is linked to food crops, there’s another huge benefit that can’t be stated in dollars and cents. The fruit and nut-bearing plants listed above are just a small portion of the vast amount of plants that need insect pollination to survive. If insect pollinators were to disappear, many types of plants would also vanish. Some experts speculate as many as half of the world’s plant species would either completely disappear or decrease greatly in number if pollinating insects ceased to exist. Widespread plant losses would lead to more erosion and a disruption of many insect and wildlife life cycles. It’s impossible to predict the specifics of what would happen to our natural world if pollinators were removed from it, but safe to say, the negative impacts would be many.

So, as we begin to get our winter gardening tools out of hibernation and think about the things we’re going to plant in the weeks ahead, put native plants on your list. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) offers programs and information on its website that helps inform people about native plants. MDC is holding a virtual program on May 5 that will help people learn more about native plants. People can learn more about this program by going to mdc.mo.gov.

Grow Native!, which is a program of the Missouri Prairie Foundation and is supported by the Missouri Department of Conservation and other public and private organizations, is another great source of information about how native plants can fit into your backyard landscaping plans. Information about the program can be found at www.grownative.org, your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office, or at mdc.mo.gov

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.