What is pollination? And how does it work?

Bumblebee in flower
Bees are excellent pollinators (Photo: WTML)

You’ve probably heard people talking about the importance of insect pollinators, and how we should protect them. But what exactly is pollination?

Basically, a flowering plant has to be fertilised with pollen before it can make seeds and produce another plant. If this didn’t happen, we’d soon run out of plants, and food!

What is pollination?

Flowers have both male and female parts. The stalks with pollen on the ends are called stamens and they are the male part of the flower. Right in the middle, there’s a female part called the stigma (this is quite hard to see). It’s the end of a tube which goes right down into the ovule, which is hidden inside the flower. This contains the ‘eggs’ which will grow into seeds. For this to happen, some pollen has to get into the ovule and fertilise the seeds.

Butterflies pollinating flower
Butterflies, wasps, moths and even flies pollinate plants. (Photo: Libby Owen/WTML)

How does pollination work?

Some plants can ‘self-pollinate’. This means the plant is fertilised when its own pollen finds its way from the stamens into the ovule. As they’re right next to each other, that’s not usually too tricky.

However, most plants are ‘cross-pollinated’. This means they need pollen from another plant of the same type to be fertilised. That’s where insect pollinators come in. Although it’s not just insects; some birds and bats are pollinators too. When a pollinator lands on a flower, some of the pollen rubs off on its body. Then, when it visits the next plant, it transfers some of the pollen so pollination can happen.

Some plants, such as grasses, are pollinated by the wind instead. Some people are allergic to pollen so when there’s a lot in the air, they get hay fever and are really sneezy.

What is pollen?

Take a close look at a flower. In the middle, you’ll see lots of stalks with yellow, powdery stuff on the ends. That’s pollen. It’s most often yellow, but it can come in other colours too.

Why do pollinators visit flowers?

The flowers produce nectar, a sugary liquid that pollinators love to drink. They also eat some of the pollen as it’s full of protein. The bright colours and scent of the flowers tells the pollinators there’s lots of yummy nectar and pollen inside!

Bumblebee covered in pollen
Bees collect pollen and nectar for food. (Photo: WTML)

Did you know?

Most plants produce lovely smells to attract pollinators. But there are some that are very stinky. The dead horse arum lily produces a smell like (you’ve guessed it!) a dead horse so that it can attract lots of flies for pollination. Yuk! And then there’s the stinking root parasite flower that grows in South Africa. That one smells like poo!

In some plants, pollination takes place in the evening so that’s why plants like honeysuckle and jasmine smell gorgeous when it’s getting dark.

Find out more about woods and trees

Find out how to encourage pollinators in your garden, as well as which spring and summer flowers you can spot when you're out and about in the woods.

Still looking for adventure? Why not become a family of Nature Detectives with a family membership? Kids get packs chock-full of seasonal fun and facts, all while supporting our native woods and trees!

Have you spotted any bees or butterflies at flowers?

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