Why are pollinators important?

Pollinators play a vital role in supporting the economy, environment and food production. Click on the tabs below to find out more:

A Big Part of Our Economy

Insect pollination is a big part of economic success. The economic value picture of strawberriesof pollination in natural ecosystems is so great that it is difficult to calculate. The natural areas that are supported by pollinators control erosion, clean the air, feed and shelter wildlife, and generate tourism dollars. When considering agriculture, pollinators are credited with supporting over 35% of all crop production. The economic value of pollination is estimated to range from 215 to 529 billion dollars on a global scale (IPBES 2016).  In Canada, insect pollination (including honey bees and all insects) is estimated to directly contribute 3.1 billion dollars to national crop production.

Research has shown that food production is greatly enhanced by pollinators. Farmers are now being encouraged to plant pollinator habitat adjacent to their fields. This invites native pollinators to visit their crops, which results in increased yields. Pollinator habitat next to cropland provides forage to support both wild bees and managed pollinators after the crop has stopped flowering, keeping the pollinator community strong.

The contribution of insect and honey bee pollination to a number of important crops in Canada is shown below:

Table showing the importance of pollination for a variety of crops

Valuable for the Environment

Pollinators are essential for ecosystem health. Plants are an important foundation of ecosystems, and 85% of all flowering plants rely on pollinators to produce seed. Pollinators contribute to plant health by providing cross-pollination services.

Cross-pollination occurs when pollen from one plant is used to produce seed on a different plant of the same picture of moose in a forestspecies. The seeds produced from cross-pollinated plants are genetically diverse, making the plants they grow very hardy and ready to face extremes in weather, disease, damage, and changing climate. Cross-pollination also limits inbreeding, which can occur when plants reproduce by self-fertilization (using their own pollen to produce seed), or when the pollen is from a very closely related plant.

Certain plants rely on self-fertilization to produce seeds, but still require assistance from a pollinator to reproduce. Some self-fertilization mechanisms require a pollinator to trip a floral trigger which releases the reproductive parts. This is the case in flowers with "snap-dragon" type blooms, such as wild vetches or alfalfa. These plants are also capable of cross-pollination and do benefit from the increased diversity achieved from mating with distantly related plants.

The plant communities that pollinators support provide many beneficial ecological services. Plants remove contaminants from our water, produce oxygen, limit soil erosion, produce soil nutrients, and sequester carbon. They also support wildlife, as the fruit and seeds from pollinated plants become food for a variety of animals. 

Pollinators themselves are a source of food for other animals. Spiders, mammals, and other insects may all feed on pollinators. Insect-feeding birds, for example, consume large amounts of insects which have a direct impact on raising chicks and storing fat for migration.

Supporting Local Food Production

It is important to note that in addition to providing valuable support to our food production on a global scale, pollinators are just as important for supporting food production in our home gardens.  

There is a growing interest in producing food at home to help reduce the environmental impacts associated with large-scale agriculture.  The equipment needed to plant, fertilize and harvest crops requires a great deal of fuel. Fertilizers and pesticides that help increase crop production have varying impacts on soil and wildlife. Shipping food products throughout the world comes with an environmental cost in terms of energy and emissions. Locally grown food helps to reduce our carbon footprint, and bees and other pollinators help us produce that food.

picture of pumpkins in a fieldFruits and vegetables grown in Manitoba benefit from a broad range of pollinating insects, such as bumble bees, honey bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles. These include small fruit (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries), oilseeds (canola, sunflower), tree fruit (crab apple, apple, choke cherry), fruit we usually refer to as vegetables (tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, squash, pumpkin), and many others.  Most vegetables, such as carrots and onions, do not benefit from pollination in terms of the size of the root or bulb they produce. However, the seed that we purchase to grow these vegetables does require insect pollination.

Interestingly, some of the plants in our gardens have flowers that are “buzz-pollinated”.  Flowers that are buzz-pollinated (about 9% of species world-wide) release their pollen when bumble bees, or certain solitary bees, physically shake it loose. The bee grasps the flower and vibrates the muscles usually used during flight. This sonication (rapid shaking) allows the anthers (male flower parts) to release their pollen.  While other pollinators can contribute to the pollination of buzz-pollinated crops, they are most effectively pollinated by bumble bees.  Buzz-pollinated flowers include tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, pumpkin, and blueberry.

Genetic diversity and food security are both closely linked to pollinators. When pollen is moved between flowers on different plants (cross-pollination), it increases genetic diversity in the next generation. Genetic diversity helps plants survive in harsh or changing conditions, fight disease, fend off pests, or produce the high quality fruits, seeds, and oils that we enjoy on our dinner plates.