The amazing co-evolution of plants and pollinators

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When I took that initial foray into beekeeping, I didn’t realize just how amazing the act of pollination really is.  Ten years ago I was bug-phobic like so many others in our modern society, but through my husband’s affinity for insects I began to see them differently.  I was not a fan, but I learned tolerance and appreciation enough to take that leap into beekeeping–in the name of gardening.  And beekeeping changed me and my world forever.

An intimate relationship

bumble bee

Bumble bee on a purple coneflower.  Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Before beekeeping I had no idea how intimate a relationship plants and pollinators have–and I certainly never realized just how many different species of animal pollinators there are, or how fascinating the act of pollination is.  Pollination is truly a marvel of this world.  And once I became consumed with bee-fever I began noticing pollinators everywhere, and they became marvelous to me.  Every species is different, beautiful and unique in it’s own way.

Before flowering plants

130 million years ago the world was a Japanese garden, with wind-pollinated plants like firs and pines, known as the gymnosperms, making up the landscape.  But when early insects like beetles discovered the sticky sweet sap of one of these conifers the world changed forever.  Plants evolved flowers that sequestered the sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen amid the petals to attract insects.  Over time insects developed specialized feeding tools like proboscises, and wings that enabled them to cover more distance in less time, thereby increasing their ability to collect food and spreading the plants’ genetics over a greater distance in the process.

painted lady butterfly

Several native pollinators on this New York aster, including a Painted Lady butterfly.

Sometimes I like to just sit in my gardens–cross-legged on the ground–surrounded by plants, and watch the life that flows through it.  Insects, birds, and the occasional amphibian or reptile.  And when I watch an iridescent green sweat bee pollinating a dandelion, a tiny black fly on a daisy, or a big bumblebee roaming the face of one of my sunflowers, I can’t help but think about how it all began, and the fact that this simple action has been occurring without fail for more than a hundred million years.

There are some 20,000 species of animal pollinators world-wide.  Butterflies, beetles, flies, bats, monkeys, lizards, slugs, and of course bees.  Every single one of them are an integral part of this planet’s ecosystem, and without them our world would be much less colorful, much less bland–since animal pollinators are responsible in part for the rise of the flowering plants–the angiosperms–which provide so much diversity in both natural beauty and edible bounty.  What would we be without them?

Pollinators at risk

And yet pollinators are at risk.  Like the sick honeybees, pollinators across the spectrum are being affected by the actions of mankind.  Development of crucial habitats, disruption to natural ecosystems by introduction of invasive species, agricultural practices, climate change, and even light pollution all are affecting the populations of pollinators.  However pesticides are by far the greatest threat to these keystone species.  Pesticides kill insects both directly and indirectly.  Herbicides destroy plants that pollinators need for nesting and foraging, while insecticides are absorbed through the skin or ingested.  Many pesticides degrade slowly–so the threat to wildlife lingers long after the initial application of the chemical treatment.  In some areas, particular species have already disappeared, some are gone forever.

Co-existing with insects

At Runamuk we hope to offer the public an example of co-existence through bee-friendly farming and conservation efforts geared toward pollinators, but which benefits all local wildlife.  We want to teach the public to appreciate these beneficial insects, encourage families to get outside and enjoy nature, but most of all we want to do our part to protect pollinators.

We’re just beginning our mission, with a long journey ahead of us, but I look forward to the work and to further exploration of the co-evolutionary relationships between plants and animals in the world surrounding us.  Check in with us often to follow our progress!

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