Two, Four, Six, Eight––
Let’s Go Out and Pollinate!
Everyone knows how busy honey bees are. In the United States, their work adds about 15 billion dollars to the value of fruit, vegetable, and nut crops every year. That's because they carry pollen from one plant to another so the plants can reproduce. That's why they're called "pollinators."
But honey bees aren’t the only pollinators on the job. Bats pollinate mangoes and bananas. Hummingbirds pollinate many different kinds of wildflowers. On Madagascar, which is an island—and a country—off the east coast of Africa, a type of primate called a black and white ruffed lemur pollinates traveler’s palm trees. These lemurs are the world’s largest wild pollinators!
In Ames, Iowa, scientists at the Agricultural Research Service need the help of pollinators to take care of over 49,000 different plant accessions at the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (NCRPIS).
An accession is plant material—maybe a whole plant, or maybe just a seed or stem or leaf—that has been collected and that can be propagated, or grown. The plant material is given a number to maintain its identity in a large plant collection. The collection in Ames has accessions from all over the world.
Collections like these are very important to farmers—and to everyone else. Scientists maintain them to make sure different characteristics that plants inherit are protected even if the plant becomes hard to find in the wild. Characteristics like flower color or height, or the ability to resist attack by bacteria, fungi, viruses, or insect pests are called “traits.”
Part of maintaining a collection like this is making sure the seeds can sprout, even after years in storage. So every now and then the scientists take some of the seeds from the collection and plant them. Then they collect new seeds from the plants.
In order to produce new seeds, the plants need to be pollinated. At NCRPIS, honey bees and other pollinators make sure the job gets done.
For instance, the alfalfa leafcutting bee is already very good at pollinating alfalfa, which is an important fodder crop for livestock. At NCRPIS, the scientists use them to pollinate many different plants, including plants that belong to the cucumber and squash family, plants in the carrot family, and wild sunflowers. These bees aren’t aggressive—but they’ll bite if you squeeze them!
Bumble bees are also put to work because they like to pollinate almost anything.
Two types of bees called mason bees are springtime’s first responders. They can work in cool temperatures, and will keep busy in greenhouses that have temperatures of 50o to 60o F. Entomologists at NCRPIS raise mason bees from the time they are just larvae until the time they begin to help out around the lab with the pollinating chores.
But bees aren’t the only bugs "punching the clock." Even house flies and blue bottle flies are part of the pollination team! The NCRPIS scientists have found that if they use flies and bees to pollinate plants called umbels they have a higher success rates. Umbels are plants that have flowers with lots of short stalks and tiny blossoms, like Queen Anne’s lace. The flies carry pollen from one flower to another as they wander around looking for a good place to rest.
So honey bees have their work cut out for them, but they’ve got some buddies to help out. It’s a good thing, too—because sometimes honey bees just need to take a break and get a bite to eat!
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