To learn more about pollinators, Friends University student Abby Gates interviewed Dr. Patrick Mathews, Professor of Biology and Director of Zoo Science at Friends University.
AG: What is your education or experience with pollinators?
PM: My PhD is in entomology, so insects are my thing. My doctoral research focused on supplementing the nectar diet of adult female parasitic wasps that lay their eggs on a pest called the Southern Pine Beetle. Pollination wasn’t a key consideration, but they get their food from flowers and in doing so act as accidental / occasional pollinators.
AG: Can you please give a kid-friendly description of pollination?
PM: Pollination is the movement of pollen from one flower to another by an animal. Some flowers don’t use animals as pollinators, but rely on the wind to move pollen around. However, that method is less efficient and less effective that using animals. To get animals to do the work, flowers offer a reward in the form of nectar, which is sugar-water. The animal wants the nectar and moves the pollen by accident.
AG: What is a pollinator? And what are some pollinators that we have here in Kansas?
PM: A pollinator is any animal that regularly moves pollen for flowering plants (not a one-time thing, but a regular practice). Common pollinators are mostly insects like honeybees, bumble bees, solitary bees, some wasps, some flies, many butterflies and moths, and some beetles. However, birds and bats may also move pollen regularly – hummingbirds are a great example. In some places, even mice and lizards can be regular pollinators. Here in Kansas we get most of the insect pollinators as well as one species of hummingbird (the ruby-throated hummingbird). We don’t have any bat pollinators.
AG: Why is pollination so important to both plant life and us as humans?
PM: Plants that depend on animals to move their pollen can’t complete regular reproduction without them. Some can self-fertilize and produce seeds that way, but this cuts off the ability to share DNA with other individuals, which is important to long-term survival of any species. For humans, we depend on pollinators to help us produce certain crops such as almonds, oranges, apples, bananas, avocados, and my personal favorite, cacao (gives us chocolate).
AG: What challenges do pollinators face in the world right now?
PM: Pollinators are sometimes insects that people don’t want around – like solitary bees, carpenter bees, some flies and some wasps. So there is a danger in having their populations reduced simply by having so many people on the earth who don’t want these insects around and therefore try to kill them. But worse are the accidental effects of using pesticides and other agricultural chemicals meant to control pests, but that may decrease the populations of both wild and captive honeybees and other bees.
AG: How can we help and support pollinators and pollination?
PM: Planting flowers around homes and businesses is a good start as this provides food for bees and other pollinators. Protecting milkweed plants for monarch butterflies is also helpful. Some people start beekeeping as a hobby, and this can help too. Reducing pesticide use is always a good idea.