The Essential Services of Pollinators

The global coronavirus pandemic has required us to think about, among other things, what constitutes an essential service to society. In Australia it is only ‘essential services’ that can remain open for business while individuals, families and whole communities are asked to physically isolate themselves from other humans; to prevent transmission of virus particles between people.

Ecologists talk about essential services all the time, and pollination is one of those services. Pollination is the process of moving pollen from the male part of a plant (anther) to the female part (stigma) as the first step in reproduction. This process is responsible for the production of fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts, as well as the next generation of plants, edible and otherwise. It can occur via wind, water and self-pollination, but the animals that also facilitate this process do so for one out of every three bites of food we take; without them we would be rather hungry omnivores! The services that pollinators provide look a lot like those on the Australian list of ‘essential services’ for survival – it’s all about food and health!

This nearly invisible ecosystem service requires our attention and support. Habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change are formidable and increasingly destructive forces that reduce the number of pollinators on earth and change the dynamics of food systems. European honeybees get much of the attention as the globally important pollinator, but they are just part of the picture.

Who are the pollinators?
Birds, bats, moths, butterflies, flies, bees, wasps, beetles and small mammals all transfer pollen between flowers. They feed on the nectar from flowers, and inadvertently pick up pollen grains that they take with them on their journey from flower to flower.

Why are they important?
Somewhere between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants on the earth need help with pollination – they need pollinators. Pollinators provide pollination services to over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1200 crops. Because of pollinators, the global addition to the economy is 217 billion dollars. But the true value of pollinators lies in the support they provide for healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.

What can you do to encourage pollinators in your garden?
Planting native flora in your garden is a great place to start to attract pollinators that have evolved with Australian plants. But you can also check with your nursery on which plants are super attractors. Pollinators don’t seem to be phased by urban life, as long as there are patches of flowers they will be visited by hungry insects especially. Community gardens, nature strips and traffic islands can all contribute to the availability of nectar and food in urban areas. If you’re on a farm, simply adding natural habitat areas into farm systems helps produce more crop yield because these areas attract more pollinators.

Bee hotels, or insect hotels, have become a popular way of creating artwork and a nesting habitat for pollinators. They are a great project to do at home right now. Check out this site for some awesome ideas and info on why you might want an insect hotel in your backyard.

But best of all, you can join the WILD POLLINATOR COUNT, a citizen science project run by Dr Manu Saunders at UNE.

Wild pollinator website