Shape and Color Matters in Pollination!

Pollination, in the simplest of terms, is the transfer of the pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part, which results in fertilization and the formation of a seed and sometimes fruit.

There are two forms of pollination, wind and animal. I am focusing on animal assisted pollination, as I am partial to pollinators.

Animals are not easily enticed into helping other species, unless they are fooled into it by reward. Flowers are beautiful and carry a pocket of goodness at the bottom of the bloom, which carries nectar. Nectar, as we all know, is sweet, and not one animal on this planet would reject a sweet drink! In seeking the nectar, the animal is fooled into assisting in plant reproduction.

One trick flowers play to get the help of animals is the depth to which an animal must go to retrieve the nectar. The male (anthers) and female (stigma) parts of the flower are the gatekeepers, which means pollen granules will brush onto the animal as it seeks the sweet treat. And as the animal shifts around on the flower eating as much nectar as possible, a pollen granule will be delivered to the stigma from the body of the animal, and then fertilization occurs leading to seed and/or fruit! This can happen within one flower or from one flower to another.

This is a simple diagram to give you a visual of what I am talking about. The receptacle is where the nectar is found. Many flowers differ from this shape, but the idea is the same. 


A beautiful poppy from my backyard gives you a real life version of the above diagram.

The second trick is the beauty of the beholder, which is demonstrated through color and scent. The colors are very important to pollinators. For simplicity’s sake, I will focus on bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. There are many more pollinators than this very popular trio, but I’d like to keep it simple for all to enjoy!

This trio shares the ability to either see UV or nearly UV ranges. This ability allows them to see the center of a flower more clearly, where the good stuff is. They also have their own specialty color site, which guides them to their favorite dining blooms.

This is probably how pollinators see a flower in the UV range. Notice the center is perfectly mapped! Bull’s eye!

Bees see color five times faster than we can, which assists in spotting food at high speeds of flight! They can see blue, green, orange, yellow and UV, but find it very challenging to see red especially on a green background.

Butterflies are nearsighted and see the colors white, pink, purple, red, orange, yellow and UV, but can also struggle to distinguish red from a green background.

Hummingbirds, on the other hand, can see the ranges we see, plus a little into the UV range! So, red is not challenging for them to see, and often is the color of choice for blooms to feed on. Not much competition for nectar when you are the only one who can clearly see red!

As each pollinator dines on nectar, they will end up with pollen on their bodies.

Bees will collect it on their abdomen, and into their pollen baskets on their hind legs (this isn’t true for every species of bee). The furry bodies of bees collect lots of pollen by electrostatic attraction, and bees will use that pollen as a protein rich meal.

Look under her belly and you'll see why a mason bee is so efficient at pollinating!

Look closely and you’ll see a yellow belly!


There’s no mistaking where the pollen is here!

Butterflies will collect some on their bodies as well, but not as much as bees, and without intent to consume it.

Hummingbirds will collect it on their heads, as they often visit long, tubular flowers, and need to dive in deep to get the nectar.

All three ways of carrying pollen results in fertilization of a flower!

Pollinators also have preferred landing, or hovering space, and flowers are designed accordingly!

Bees like a broad range of shapes and sizes! They grip the flower with their feet, sometimes even upside down, as they feed on the nectar, with their proboscis, and collect the pollen.

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Bumble bees like shapes similar to that preferred by the hummingbirds, tubular, and have no problem extracting pollen from hard to reach places, such as that of the tomato flowers. However, bumblebees do know to feed on other floral structures too; wouldn’t want to miss out on all the nectar choices!

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IMG_1555 A tomato bloom in my garden.

Butterflies like a broad landing surface, such as a sunflower or daisy can provide. They like to perch and dine, through their long proboscis, to their heart’s content.

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Hummingbirds are best in flight and like flowers shaped like trumpets, which is in accordance with the structure of their beaks. They need space to hover under or above the bloom while they drink the sweet taste of nectar. They gravitate toward the bright red blooms, but will feed on other colors too.

I urge you to take advantage of this knowledge and make plans to plant more flowering plants of all varieties, and native to your state. In doing so, you will see your yard come to life, and you might even score some fantastic photos of these fascinating creatures, both floral and animal!