The infamous line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm asserting that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” nicely captures an ecological view of pollinators and their relationships with plants. “Pollinators” by definition move pollen between flowers, but not all pollinators are equally good at transferring pollen of any particular plant: some are more effective than others. I’ll illustrate this with examples from the urban garden that Karin and I are developing, which I’ve discussed before.
As you can see from that link, the garden is modest in size, but nonetheless this year it contains a significant biodiversity of edible plants that require pollinators for some or all of the fruit and seed set, including: strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radishes.
“Radishes?!” I hear you ask. “But they are grown for their edible swollen roots which don’t require pollination!” True, usually. But we let our radishes flower because we mainly grow them for their seed pods which, picked young, are delicious in salads and stir fries, like mustardy mange tout. They look like this:
The radish flowers are pollinated by a diversity of insects including butterflies, bees, and small flies:
These insects will vary in their effectiveness as pollinators of radish, depending on the frequency of visits, how often they move between flowers, and the amount of pollen on their bodies. This last factor is largely a function of size and hairiness (bigger, hairier insects carry more pollen as a rule), though cleanliness also plays a part: insects often groom the pollen from their bodies and, in the case of bees, may pack it into their pollen baskets where it’s not available for pollination.
The size and behaviour aspect is best illustrated by some recent photos that I took of visitors to the flowers of passion fruit (Passiflora caerulea var.). We have a large, sprawling plant growing up a fence which is currently being visited by honey bees, hoverflies, solitary bees and bumblebees. In comparison to the size of the flower and the position of the anthers (male, pollen producing parts) and stigmas (female, pollen receiving parts), the hoverflies, honey bees and solitary bees are relatively small. These two images are of honey bees (Apis mellifera):
Here’s an unidentified solitary bee:
These bees were occasionally touching the anthers, mainly with their wings, so some pollen will be moved around. But from what I observed it’s likely to be a relatively small amount in comparison to bumblebees, which are usually much larger and hairier, and don’t groom themselves as often as honey bees. Here’s a Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):
They were actively collecting pollen as well as nectar. Much of this pollen is packed into the pollen baskets on the rear legs and will go back to the nest to feed the developing larvae, but some will be involved in pollination:
So it seems to be the bumblebees we have to mainly thank for the deliciously sweet-sour fruit we will enjoy later in the season. Of course to test this properly we would need to set up an experiment in which we excluded larger bumblebees from the flowers and only allowed smaller bees to forage, with appropriate experimental controls. Would make a great project if any of my students are interested! But it should give you a sense of just how complex the interactions between flowers and their pollinators are: the ecology of pollination is far from simple, despite what some would have us believe.