Thursday, June 29, 2006

Pollinators for Hire?

It might never cross your mind that every piece of fruit you eat got to your mouth because of the role a pollinator played somewhere far away and some weeks before. Pollinators are in fact an indispensable part of our nation's, and the world's, agricultural success and may be seriously under-appreciated.

Insects often get a bad wrap, and being a budding student of entomology, it pains me to say that. However, it's true and you'd be hard pressed to find a large group of people who want to cozy up to ants, flies, wasps, or bees over animals of a fuzzier variety. Insects aren't the only animals that pollinate, however, as small rodents and birds do a fair amount of their own. They usually enjoy more fond feelings than do our six-legged friends though, so I'm going to leave them out for now.

Pollination is the crucial step between a flower with male, female, or male and female parts producing their respective gametes, and a fertilized egg which induces a plant to produce fruit. Fruit refers to the housing of a seed which derives from the carpel of the flower, and encompasses most of the vegetables you eat as well like peppers, cucumbers, and yes, tomatoes are a fruit. Plants often have relationships with specific pollinator species or with groups of pollinator species. The pollinator transfers the male gamete-containing pollen to the female floral organs for fertilization of the egg, usually in exchange for a reward, but sometimes through trickery on the plants part. The reward may be nectar or pollen itself, as it is usually high in protein and carbohydrates and a sought after food source.

When one flower gets pollinated, one fruit is produced. Imagine one pollination event, and sometimes just one pollinator for every piece of produce in the fruit and vegetable aisle of your local supermarket. Now imagine how many produce aisles and farm stands there are in your county, your state, or the nation. Imagine how many there are in the world. Now you may begin to have a sense of the scale of this massive effort by pollinators to bring us our healthy, delicious, vitamin rich produce.

Why am I telling you this? It has a lot to do with finances, a lot to do with agricultural practice, and a little bit to do with global warming. Firstly, a recent scientific article did a cost estimate of what it would take to pollinate all the flowers necessary to maintain our current levels of crop production. The number is in the billions. See, many plants aren't able to be pollinated from pollen in the same flower or from the same plant, they need to be out-crossed or receive pollen from a different plant or flower in order to produce fruit. So the organization of such a project would be huge. Then there's the labor and capital costs depending on which method of artificial production you use. Whew. Let me tell you, vanilla bean, from which natural vanilla extract is produced, arises from hand pollination of individual flowers. Now you see why the natural vanilla costs so much more than the artificial flavoring, it's all that labor cost being transferred to you, the consumer!

Pollinators are mostly insects, as I said above, and this is where the story gets grim. Most of the produce you buy is from massive farming operations, and they doubtlessly spray pesticides on everything you eat. Those pesticides not only kill insects indiscriminately in most cases, but they may actually have a stronger negative effect on the pollinator species! In other words, pollinators are slowly being killed off by the very industry that needs them most.

Then there's the global warming story, which I won't go into too much detail for, but suffice to say, global warming results in fewer species, and pollinators aren't excluded.

So, what can you do to save the pollinators? Buy produce that is grown without pesticides. It's pretty much that simple. Also, the next time you see a bee flying around in your yard, try not to squash it, it may just have given you that plum you're eating. Pollinators are an integral part of our world's agricultural system, give them some credit, because without them, we'd probably starve.


At 8:13 AM, June 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's nice to see a fellow defender of arthropods.

All of the natural resources like pollination that we take for granted would total in the trillions if we tried to replicate the process artificially.


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