Who Runs the World? Pollinators

With all the attention given to big, charismatic animals—lions, tigers, elephants, and so on—you might think these creatures are the most important ones in nature. And, of course, they are important. But let’s not forget who is responsible for keeping the entire world running: these creatures, of course, are the pollinators.

These winged insects and animals, from bees and butterflies to birds and bats, spread the pollen and seeds that allow the next generation of plants to grow. Without them, every flowering plant—including many of our crops—would be lost.

Many of today’s plants, like trees and grasses, rely on the wind to carry their seeds. This method is as old as plant life itself. But 135 million years ago, the first flowering plant blossomed with a new adaptation that allowed its genetic material, pollen, to be carried directly to a potential mate by an unwitting insect. Researchers have speculated that the first flowering plant was a kind of magnolia, and the first insect messenger was a beetle of the order Coleoptera.

Flowering plants lure their insect helpers with their beautiful, colorful petals and seductive perfumes. Many insects can see more colors than we humans, with vision extending into the ultraviolet and infrared ranges. To their eyes, these flowers may be even more beautiful than we imagine, providing even more reason to stop in, drop off their pollen loads, and pick up some more.

In this preview from Wings of Life, a bee finds himself trapped by the alluring scent of an orchid:

Nectar-feeding bats are part of a similar system. One of these species lives in the arid Sonoran Desert of northern Mexico, where cactus nectar and fruit offer a rare opportunity for bats to drink and eat. Many butterflies, such as the brilliant orange monarch, also subsist on nectar—specifically, that of the milkweed plant, notorious for its toxicity to other animals. These winged creatures spread the plants’ pollen as they feed, ensuring that the plants will continue to grow and provide food for them in years to come.

The continued blossoming of flowers, and the fruits that come along with them, is completely dependent on pollinators. These creatures work hard to feed themselves, but it’s important to remember that they also feed the rest of us.

Catch the buzz about “Wings of Life” this Sunday, September 13 at 8/7 c, only on NatGeoWILD!